That's the question posed by Tales of the Rampant Coyote's Jay Barnson, who then proceeds to break down his own picks for the "most significant" independently developed RPGs from the last twenty years or so. Some real treasures are profiled in the article, including two of my favorite BBS downloads of all time: Vampyr: Talisman of Invocation and Dungeons of Kairn.
Vampyr: Talisman of Invocation - This was a 1990 freeware EGA Ultima clone by high school students Brian Weston and Victor Shao. The plot was almost non-existent and I never played it too far, but I was always impressed by what these kids had written (I wasn’t that long out of high school myself at this time). While it wasn’t the first / only RPG out there at the time that might qualify as an indie, it actually achieved pretty decent distribution. I stumbled across it on my college library’s “public domain” collection, and on several bulletin boards. I saw posts and talked to many people who played it. I never heard of anybody ever finishing it (without cheating), however.
Why is it significant? This was an indie, homebrewed game that managed – at least from a technical perspective – not too short of the mark of that of a fairly contemporary title (Ultima IV, in this case). And it obtained fairly widespread distribution – which wasn’t saying much, back then.
Dungeons of Kairn – Mike Lawrence’s 1991 shareware RPG was also very obviously inspired by the earlier classics – the Ultima, Wizardry, and Might & Magic series are likely suspects. Like many earlier party-based games, you had a roster of characters from which you could compose a party. Like the 1980s-era Ultimas, the game featured a top-down overland travel view, and a pseudo-3D dungeon view.
Why is it significant? The game remains one of the few shareware RPGs still remembered and mentioned today from the early 1990s, and included a surprising level of complexity and detail.
He doesn't dabble in the 1980s, so I'll list my two favorite shareware titles from that decade: Moraff's Revenge and Swords of Glass. Great times, great times.