Sunday, December 23, 2012

7 RPGs: A Theme in Three Parts

  • Small-Box Dungeons & Dragons: My sister taught me how to play back in ’76. I still remember my hobbit characters (I was a little kid, all I ran were hobbits) killing a Giant Rat. My sister asked me if I wanted to cut open the body to look for treasure. Of course I did, and I found a gem. THAT WAS THE MOST AWESOME THING EVER. That’s my “primal moment” of D&D love.
  • Call of Cthulhu: Another game my sister generously allowed me to sit in on a couple of times. She showed me how to run non-combat games, how to deal with problem players, and how to keep going in the face of player side-tracking.
  • Villains & Vigilantes:  Champions, V&V, and DC Heroes all vied for my superhero rpg dollars. Playing V&V with Gene Ha showed me just how crazy you could be at the table. How you could have a complete conception in your mind and just reveal pieces. It showed be that tension between GM creativity and what actually goes on at the table- a lesson I’ve been trying to perfect ever since.
  • Rolemaster: The game which blew up my sense of the coherency and necessity of dense rules. It was overtly a grab-bag of high-powered stupid and fun stuff. We had sessions where we abused the experience point system (1 exp for each mile traveled and we found a grav tube system?) and the magic system (so since the spell effects have different names we can crank that up to 64 actions per round) balanced against the cruel heartless nature of the critical system (“66…and the rabbit bites you in the eye, killing you). Life was cheap and characters took hours to make up.
  • Star Trek: I’d played the old FASA Star Trek and enjoyed that in a hard sci-fi way. Years later Jim McClain ran a ST:NG game without rules or character sheets. Purely narrative, purely story-telling, purely about playing out characters and figuring out solutions to problems. I’d been moving to lighter, less crunchy systems, but this game honestly changed the way I thought about play. It would take years for the lessons to fully sink in, but the campaigns he ran made me braver about running new and experimental forms.
  • Delta Green: I run a lot of games, so I often take playing for granted. We probably bs more in f2f games simply because we play so much (I average two f2f sessions a week, sometimes three). However when Ken went to run, it was all business. We got small talk out of the way and dove in. he took it seriously and kept the action focused. We weren’t railroaded, but I always felt forward momentum. That’s difficult in a game of horror, conspiracy, and uncertainty. I learned the importance of focus and pacing from that campaign.
  • Werewolf: I don’t care for old WoD Werewolf, or rather it never grabbed me. But a number of people in my gaming circle really dug it. Derek managed to give me a new appreciation for the setting. As importantly he showed me how a tightly planned story arc for a short run game could be engaging and satisfying. His was the first “mini-series” game I played that felt open-world, even as we moved to the inevitable conclusion.

  • Top Secret: We played all of the original TSR stuff (D&D, Boot Hill, Gamma World), but I really dug the idea of modern adventure. So I ran it for my peer group who essentially shat all over everything I did. Running that made me realize I wanted to play games with people who dug them, rather than people just screwing around.
  • James Bond 007: The first game where something clicked for me. I’d run stuff games but swung wildly between chaos and linear plots. I actually managed to create some fun at the table and came up with some original bits. Even when I ran the modules for the system, I felt pretty good about the sessions. Part of that came from the simplicity of the rules- how they managed to get out of the way when the players wanted to do something.
  • Champions: I ran and played Champions & HERO System quite a bit over many, many years and many, many campaigns. I liked the idea of balance and the reducibility of mechanics. Everything could be represented as an equation. The problem came when I tried to run more story and interaction heavy games- conflict suddenly brought things to a halt. Even knowing the system well a fight could take a huge amount of time at the table. Beyond that my mastery of the mechanics never matched that of many of the highly skilled goobers at the table. I couldn’t compete in the making up bad guys department. When I gave them challenges above their point value, the PCs would win and then bitch about the bad guys being overpowered. I enjoyed it for years, but eventually my tastes changed.
  • GURPS: The big three I ran for years were GURPS, Rolemaster, and Champions. My senior year in high school I started to finally have some idea about the kind of fantasy game I wanted to run. I chose GURPS for flexibility. The characters were at risk, with death and serious injury being a constant threat. For many years GURPS offered an easy, go-to system which everyone knew fairly well. That knowledge didn’t translate into a serious advantage as it did with HERO System. Instead it made the game and fights go more quickly. I ran about ten campaigns using it, with an average length of just under two years. In the late period, I realized that I had stripped out many elements of the game to get to the rules engine I wanted. Magic never worked as I wanted it to. When 4e came out, pretty much the entire group of people who’d played it (close to a dozen) gave up on it.
  • D&D 3.5: Late in the D&D life-cycle I decided to try running a game. Most of the group had played it and I wanted to figure out what the attraction was. That campaign cemented and clarified just how much my tastes in games had shifted. I fought and struggle with the rules, their volume and complexity. I ran a solid and fun 12+ session Planescape/Black Company planar mercs campaign, but only just barely. I‘m glad I did that as an experiment, but I’m never running any game that complicated and sourcebook-ballooned again.
  • Microscope: Completely changed my approach to player-GM collaboration. Offering players ownership at the start has created richer worlds and stronger buy-in. I love it.
  • Action Cards: Our house rules which have been changing and developing over the last decade+. Originally I simply wanted something to allow more narrative on the players’ part, but with actual resolution mechanics. I liked it and over time tried it with different things (Swashbuckling, Star Wars, Modern Urban Fantasy). When I suggested moving on to other systems, many in the group asked to keep playing it. I’ve really come to enjoy it. I expect it might not translate well to other play groups, but it has become a staple for us.

  • Gamma World: The GM ought to point out and encourage the party to murder a newly introduced PC so they can get his stuff. Ideally this should be done in the first ten minutes of play.
  • Champions: If you have a mystery, you can never have too many red herrings and far-out coincidences. It’s a superhero world, so players really should be surprised by EVERYTHING.
  • Cyberpunk: You know what players love, mind control. Especially mind control which ends up killing them.
  • Hero System: Players really enjoy having their character concept completely changed by another player’s actions- it’s the best form of passive-aggressive inter-party fighting.
  • Rolemaster: If a player seems to be trying to roleplay, the best thing to do is point at them, laugh, and tell them to stop.
  • Cybergeneration: Players don’t really like long term campaigns, so ideally a GM will drop a game after 2-3 sessions.
  • True20: If you’re not sure what you want for your campaign, get player input. Have them build characters for you to center the campaign around. Then make sure you don’t use any of that and do what you want. As a bonus, tell the players they’ll have to assume completely different identities and personalities for the campaign, though they’ll still get to play “their characters.” As an extra bonus, make sure to tie the players into plot threads which completely reverse and violate their original concept. 


  1. Whoa -- what's all that "what not to do" stuff?

    1. Delightful bits I hope never happen to me again at the gaming table...