Saturday, March 14, 2009

RPG Items That Changed My Game

Ken Hite mentions in his LJ that Keith Herber passed away. Herber wrote and edited a lot of Call of Cthulhu products. He was involved with many of the classic scenario and campaign books that, for many of us, were the cornerstones of our experience with Call of Cthulhu. He also had a story in one of my favorite of the Chaosium Lovecraft collections, Return to Goatswood. That volume deals with Ramsey Campbell's contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos, Severn Valley in England and the Old One Y'glonac. Anyway, I was struck and more than a little sadden to see another one of the people responsible for some of my favorite gaming material had passed. I've read a lot of game books-- rules, modules, supplements, splat books-- over the years. Unlike other fiction, a lot of it kind of fades away in my mind. I've been trying to think of those gaming books that changed things for me or that presented new ideas which stuck in my head. Here are a few I remember:

Castle Falkenstein-- this one one of the first rpg books that I ever read cover to cover. I'd always bought and skimmed other system books and supplements. I usually looked over the character creation, genre elements, and general combat stuff in books. If it was a modules, I'd look for the relevant plot points and ideas. But Falkenstein was a massive, full color rpg book, with the first half being a fairly compelling story and the second half a discussion of the system. While I'd seen a few other games touch on Victoriana and Steampunk ideas this was probably the first game I read that really tackled them head on.

And it was well-written-- and I do mean just clear rules-wise. I enjoyed reading the rules which had a distinct voice. Even if I didn't get everything about the game, since it used playing cards instead of dice, I enjoyed it. It had a more playful approach to the game and to drama-- an antidote to the ascension of White Wolf and Cyberpunk as the settings of choice. Two of the supplements for the game were equally appealing. Comme Il Faut is the best treatment of culture, society and manners for a period I've ever seen. If you're doing anything even remotely connected to Victoriana, you ought to be required to read this. The Books of Sigils, which expands the magic system, has mazing ideas in it. The concept of key books and spells for magical societies has stuck with me. More importantly, there's a story running through the book that I absolutely adore. It is a haunting and sad romance. I usually hate fiction in game books, and for the most part I skip over it. This, however, worked. It would be all the more disappointing later when I went to read the first CF novel which was pretty dreadful.

Pavis, City of Rubble and Strangers in Prax-- At some point when I was younger, Avalon Hill tried its hands at various rpgs. I remember picking up Lords of Creation and Powers & Perils. Both were awful-- at least to me at that time. Eventually they licensed Runequest from Chaosium games. I'd seen that system around for years, but had always assumed it was just a DnD knock-off. AH tried to make a go of RQ better never really managed to do much with it. They focused on the classic stuff-- rewriting and revising it. In the last years they had the game they actually published some really amazing material-- signs of what might have eventually come from them if they'd had more time. Or perhaps those books snuck through the editing process because they knew they were going to be shutting down soon.

Strangers in Prax was one of those modules-- and I picked it up and it blew me away. It had three major stories, each more interesting than the last. It presented powerful and bizarre characters, great set piece moments, a sense of the epic unlike anything I'd seen before, and a rich background. It avoided any kind of linear story-- but presented options for how to play with these ideas. I'll admit that I used all of it for my Rolemaster campaign-- it was probably the most successful and rich rpg book I've ever owned. I made me look closer at the other RQ and Glorantha products, especially the old Chaosium boxed set for Pavis-- I'd owned it, but hadn't really read it and considered the implications of it. Glorantha, read closely, is miles away from being any kind of DnD knockoff. It very simply said: if they're are Gods in a fantasy world, they're important and the worship of them would be vital and integral to everyone's lives. Being an atheist in such a place wouldn't be possible, given how absolutely tangled up Gods and the mythic would be in the real lives and continuity of various communities.

James Bond RPG-- I remember buying the TSR game Top Secret when I was in grade school-- the first espionage rpg. I ran some of it, but it never worked as well as I wanted since the people I played with were still in full-on storm the dungeon mode. Eventually I put it aside. They, when I was in high-school, Victory Games got the license to do a James Bond rpg. I won't say it was the greatest thing in the world, but we got a lot of entertainment out of it. It had ideas of wound levels instead of damage numbers, drama points to change rolls, and a focus on investigation and social interaction. They had modules, mostly based on the movies, which worked better than they should have. We had good times with the game, and I really think those sessions stand as the first time we “bought into” genre conventions and became willing to play along with those-- in favor of story over some individual focus.

Elric RPG-- I loved Michael Moorcock fantasy novels-- his stuff was, when I was young, problably the most important sword and sorcery stuff. That's despite it being slightly negative, at times nihilistic, and over the top pulpy. Chaosium managed to get the license for his Elric setting just after they did Call of Cthulhu. That first game was strange and bizarre. You expected the normal fantasy-verse material, and it delivered that for the most part. But the magic system was entirely built around the concept of summoning. In order to use powers you had to summon, bind, and point-out Elementals and Demons of various types. It was the first game that had a completely different approach to magic from the old school spell lists and slots per day. I ran it for a little while and it made me rethink how magic could and should be handled. I'd still mostly fall back into the easy structures, but I knew now alternatives existed. Chaosium would eventually completely rewrite the rules and create the Stormbringer rpg, but the first version was a hundred times better, if messier.

The first time I saw a film by myself was Ghostbusters. I'd hungrily seen commercials for it for weeks. I really, really wanted to go on opening day-- this would have been 1984, so my freshman year of high school. I don't remember exactly why, but I couldn't get anyone to go with me. I rushed through my paper route and somehow convinced my mom that she should take me and drop me off at the Mall. I loved it-- thought it was the pinnacle of film comedy. Of course, I immediately came home and tried to figure out how to adapt it to a tabletop rpg. My first efforts were...well, let us say, lame. I made up extensive skill lists, rules for equipment, and ran a few sessions which ended up more Call of Cthulhu than hilarious fun.

Then, in 1986, West End Games published their take on Ghostbusters. It ended up radically different from anything I thought of. It was the first game I'd read that really went rules-lite-- that focused on the players' ability to change the story instead of mechanics for damage, combat and leveling. Nothing I'd seen before had been quite like this. We played several sessions and I remember Cat and I ran a collaborative scenario for it at one of the local game conventions. We had a tape of the Peter Gunn theme we played whenever certain characters entered the story. Eventually there'd be more of these kinds of light rules, heavy fun games (Teenagers from Outer Space for example) but Ghostbusters showed me how rules can emulate a genre instead of straitjacketing it.


  1. The Ghostbusters rpg is one of the most sought after rpgs around these days. Many people enjoyed it and no one's selling. Were the rules just a version of the WEG d6 material?

  2. Fascinating post. On the surface about childhood thrills, below that about the discovery of new ideas.

    I guess I've had many of the same lessons, but not necessarily from the same games. You were and remain better read, so I came to the lessons late.

    You loaned me a Call of Cthulhu adventures book. I never played the game, but how they wrote the adventures blew my mind. No stats, just a series of events and discoveries. Personalities along the way might have a single skill stat.

    I bought myself a copy of the 007 game, but didn't take much away from it.

    The next big change was the copy of Twilight 2000 you loaned me in high school. I quickly bought my own copy. That fell apart, and I probably ended up with three box sets through the years. The system was very simple, with perhaps a little too much math in the ranged combat rules. Otherwise, elegant. It was the first game where I used CoC style adventures. It worked great. I spent years GMing that game in high school and college. It taught me to GM with minimal prep, just a series of events and revelations. I wouldn't usually write up PCs unless they joined the party.

    Next up were the Fringeworthy/Stalking the Night Fantastic/Bureau 13 games in your garage. I again got my own copies through the years. The better written adventures were similar to CoC and T2K. Rules were very Gygaxian, sometimes too detailed, often half-assed. What made the game great was the wacky mix of genres and moods. Modern horror without the candles, humorous modern fantasy, and bits of military geekdom (often wildly inaccurate).

    B13 had a huge influence on my comics storytelling. I love the way it mixed mundane life with horror. I'm damn sure Stargate was based on Fringeworthy, and The X-Files is based on B13. The writer should be a millionaire. Instead, he lives anonymously in Michigan doing IT.

    I loved the concept behind GURPS Voodoo magic, where everything works by summoning. I'm still annoyed that the rules don't reflect the descriptions. The long casting time and subjective results were pretty cool (eg victim goes through three increasingly dangerous accidents, the last possibly fatal, or for another spell the subject finds some cash, maybe in the couch?). The Elric game actually sounds like what Voodoo tried to do.

  3. I remember Twilight 2000 and Traveler 2300 as rich and interesting ideas, but married to math-heavy systems. T2300 was the first game system that I went-- wtf? Up until that point I'd been willing to accept the rules or just gloss over them. But T2330 had rules decisions that just seemed bizarre to me-- particularly the use of fractional numbers for task resolution.

    GURPs Voodoo is a great set of ideas, unfortunately run through the wringer of a mechanics heavy system. Carella did a lot of interesting things for Unisystem, though. The other problem with G: Voodoo lies in the issue that Gurps deliberately under-powers magic and other abilities of the like for "play balance"-- which in the case of Gurps often looks more like hamstringing anything not based on normal combat.

    One of the things I distinctly remember was your appreciation for the FGU systems: Daredevils, Aftermath, Bushido-- that had some interesting ideas but that I never completely understood. I went back to those particularly on your recommendation.

    I made a list last night of other rpg books I remember-- I think I might do another post about a few other influential ones.

    Vis-a-vis D's question about Ghostbusters-- I'm not sure if it is "d6 System" based. I recall it using d6s and a Wild Ghost Die (IIRC). But I've never actually looked at the mechanics of WEG's d6 system.

  4. Sounds like the house system for the Star Wars books and the later d6 books that have come out over the past few years. I believe Eric recently went public with the rules systems as he planned to stop operating the company.

  5. The chargen for T2K was math heavy and random. After that, it was pretty easy: just roll against one of three difficulties against the right skill.

    The setting taught me that if you create multiple factions who all hate each other and some of whom are neutral to the PCs, you barely need to write adventures. Just destabilize and close the lid. I was always surprised to see whom the PCs befriended and whom they swore undying vengeance against. And the lovely possibility of Yojimbo stories!