Plumbing the Depths
When it comes to actually playing games, many of us who work in the RPG industry have two modes – playing like mad or almost never. I know, I know, there is no such thing as playing too much. Very true. However, we can fall into the dual traps of playing one game too much, continuing long after we have wrung everything of value from a system, or too shallowly, only catching glimpses of the unique delights a game has to offer. While recently perusing my far-too-small game collection (I doubt I have even 1000 games), I noted more than a few with which I wish I had spent more time. Thankfully, and I do mean full of thanks, I also encountered a few whose impact on my own designs come from many happy hours of throwing dice at them.
The following is a brief list of those games that influenced Fading Suns, Vampire, the World of Darkness, or the other titles on which I worked because I played sooo much of them, and a few I feel would have influenced me had I played them more. I look forward to hearing what games have influenced you in this way, or which you wish had influenced you. I have excluded games that I worked on, but you don’t have to. After all, no one can play those enough
Dove in Deep
Tunnels and Trolls. I like to call this the first storyteller game. The more I played T&T, the more I realized that the rules were so cumbersome I had no option but to focus on making up stories. While the setting was standard fantasy and its classes limited, its mix of odd magic and weapons gave players plenty of room for creative characters. There were more than a few sessions where we avoided getting into combat just to avoid having to deal with the rules. Elementary school boys gaming with no combat? Only T&T.
Spacequest. The inestimable Paul Hume is the only designer with products on both the “played-too-much” and the “didn’t-play-enough” lists, and was the first gaming “celebrity” whose career I tried to follow (well, we can all be celebrities in our own minds). I learned algebra in fourth grade just to play SQ – it was necessary for handling space flight. Yes, SQ taught me the educational potential of games (stealth education has been a key part of my work on every game with which I have been involved), but it also showed me the value of a fascinating setting that gave players the chance to make it even better. SQ had killer robots, void sharks and other wandering space monsters (one of my favorite lines to use for Fading Suns is, “There are things in the depths of space to devour your soul!”). It also had a detailed system that encouraged GMs to create elaborate universes of black holes, space hazards and inhabited planets of truly bizarre aliens. It gave the outline of an adventure-filled setting and gave players the tools to bring it to life. This is part of the reason I never want to create a setting that provides all the answers. Making up your own is more fun than reading someone else’s.
Runequest. This is another of the reasons I don’t want to provide all a game’s answers. Some answers find their truest expression in the form of myth, and Runequest truly added the mythic to gaming. While mythology shaped the form of D&D, it was the heart of Runequest. It was not mythic because minotaurs lived in labyrinths. It was mythic because its stories dealt with the essence of the human condition – life, death, love, hate, community, power and more. Myths shaped the people, people shaped the myths. No game offered the sense that characters were part of something greater than Runequest did.
Champions. I had almost as much fun designing characters for Champs as I had playing the game, but the allure of a good point-buy system (and the ability to quickly add up dice) was not my main lesson. While games like T&T, SQ and RQ made it fun to play with a group, the ability for characters to fill different roles (tin can, anyone?), to augment each others’ effectiveness, and to play off each others’ strengths, weaknesses, and personal foibles made Champions team play stand out. You could do these in other games, but building up one’s own character was almost always more satisfying. In Champions, however, the more I played the more I realized that the more characters in the game, the more fun it became. Sure combat might slow to a crawl, but it always got more interesting.
Call of Cthulhu. Call of Cthulhu added a whole ‘nother dimension to RPGs (and a non-Euclidian one at that). In all the previous systems, players took the role of adventurer, hero, champion. The first few times I played CoC, I tried the same tack. Those adventurers don’t survive. Create a CoC character who rushes into combat and she won’t last five sessions. Create one like a friend of mine did, a housewife looking for her missing husband while armed only with a rolling pin, and you have a real character. The purpose of the game is not found in defeating the great threats to humanity, but in the little victories that can make both games and life so satisfying (as well as the chance to go mad or die with flair). While Runequest made the Hero’s Journey a real part of the game, CoC made the hero’s journey of the everyday person real. The mundane may not always make for great gaming, but sometimes just surviving to try again is all we can ask for.
Need to Dive in More Deeply
Shadowrun. I am always surprised that some other folk in the industry do not see Shadowrun as groundbreaking. The characters’ roles in society, the fun mix of technology and fantasy, and its ability to treat environments almost as independent characters lead us to overlook its main contribution – making splitting the party a game mechanic! No, wait, that’s not it. This game has so many aspects to it – magic v. technology, trying to make a difference in a world gone mad, layers upon layers of power and conspiracy, plots within plots, a living campaign setting, etc. etc. etc, that I am very sorry none of the campaigns in which I played lasted long enough to really wring it dry. Reading the source material was really a pleasure, but I regret not playing it enough to get to its inner goodness. As a side note, I always found it interesting how similar the magic system in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (the books, not the game) was to that in Shadowrun. Paul Hume did an excellent job with the SR magic system. I am sorry I never got to plumb its depths either.
Ars Magica. While I played a fair amount of ArM, I could never entice people to really get into what seemed the heart of the game for me – troupe-style play and the growth of a covenant. That requires a commitment beyond what a casual gamer wants to make, but they always struck me as exciting additions to a campaign. While games like Champions certainly had ways for players to build assets like a team headquarters, I always found the ArM covenant much more interesting (though the system was never the best). Troupe-style play seems the best way to really dig into the personalities of characters and a setting. We did a little of that with Champions, but the ArM system really seemed like a way to harness the wisdom of crowds – or at least the wisdom of gamers.