A while back I dropped a list of my five favorite RPG settings. This is going to be like that, but with the purely mechanical side of RPGs. Without further ado, and in no particular order ...
... oh and please note that these are my favorite, but they may not all be the best ...
Yup. No big shock to those who know how, why, and where this blog started. Of course I have written about cypher before, but there's more to it than just the asymmetrical dice system. The simplicity of the system is a huge asset. Its quick to resolve any action, and easy to teach to people. It encourages improv on the part of the GM as much as the players, especially with how easy it is to quickly stat a one-off creature or NPC. The single use cyphers also hit the sweet spot for giving your players some real powerful abilities without tossing the game right out the window into munchkinland. It's my go-to system right now because I feel like I can best be the GM I want to be with Cypher, more so than with any other system.
Another choice that may seem obvious. Funny thing is that I have only ever played 13th Age one time, at GenCon 2014. But that's the thing of it; I like the system for all of the bits that I can steal so easily for other games. The brilliant One Unique Thing, the Escalation Die that can really help speed up combat, the Icons system that helps make your characters central to the machinations of the game world. At this point the fact that I have only ever played four hours of 13th Age is only a minor footnote to me. The reasons I like the system have nothing to do with how well it plays, but how well it makes other things play. I can't think of a better compliment than to say that a game I don't play is in my top five purely for the innovations I have stolen from it.
OK, some might argue that Fiasco isn't an RPG, but I say screw 'em. It's role playing in a purer form in some ways than any other game. There aren't stats, you can't default to tossing dice to resolve who wins, instead it forces you to play a role and really get into it. It makes you play the game as a story first, and a game second. A lot of more traditional RPGs do their best to try, but they still have mechanics for resolving all the actions and bits and bobs. Fiasco simply asks what is going to make the best, most screwed up, clusterf--- of a story.
Mutants and Masterminds
This one is an odd one, because its a d20 game, so maybe I like the d20 system, but I don't really. I've also played a lot of both the 2nd and 3rd editions and they both have strong selling points and annoying weaknesses. When it comes down to it though what makes me love M&M so much, and why it gets on this list across two editions is the power creation mechanics. M&M was my first exposure to a purely effect driven system. The only difference between a blast of fire and a blast of ice is the descriptor (ice or fire) attached to the base effect. Other effects can be used to counter according to their own attached effect. So an ice blast can counter a fire blast, but so too could another fire blast, or water. By paring down a super powers RPG to its basest effects and then allowing players to build their characters up from a common and level starting point it created a supers game where it felt like a super smart mastermind could really hold his own against a paragon like Superman. I don't know if it's the best supers game, but it's the best one I have played.
AGE (The Adventure Game Engine)
AGE isn't perfect. I'd be lying if I tried to say it was. In its current form it has too much baggage trying to ape a CRPG (computer/electronic RPG) to be a truly good pen & paper RPG, but for all its warts it has one of the most fun combat systems I have played in a long time. I wrote about the AGE system's Stunt Mechanics a while back, and I stand by my comments there. I think that it is an innovative and exciting system that allows for spectacular results. That it does all of this on an approximate 42% of rolls simply makes it better. Of course if you throw 13th Age's Escalation Die into the mix you get an even more dramatic effect.
Are these the best 5 game systems out there? Probably not, but at least a couple of them are very good, and a couple more have great parts to them, and all of them have touches of greatness that make them my 5 favorite. Got a favorite of your own that's not on my list? Tell me about it in the comments, maybe I'll kick myself for forgetting it, or maybe I'll have a new reason to check it out.