My Ten Influential RPGs

There’s a meme floating around the social networks asking people to name the ten role-playing games that had the most influence on them. To me, this isn’t the same as asking for their ten favorite ones. The meme is interesting in that it presents the opportunity to examine what certain games taught us—for better or for worse.

I spent some time today thinking about my now (sheesh) soon-to-be thirty-nine years of RPG hobby involvement and almost a decade working on the professional side of things and what games have had the biggest impact on me both professionally and as a gamer. In order of least importance but still impactful to highest importance, here’s my list and why.

10) Gamma World: The first edition of Gamma World was the second RPG I ever owned. While the rules were similar to D&D and the post-apocalyptic setting was a little too different from what you thought the world after a nuclear apocalypse was supposed to look like if you were a kid in the early 1980s, Gamma World taught me there were other RPGs beyond D&D and other settings besides fantasy. I was a fan of Gamma World for many years, but I have to admit it has slipped from my list of favorites these days. Maybe the appeal of a dying world isn’t quite as fun when your world is actually on the ropes?

9) Top Secret: I’ve never been a huge spy fan outside of the James Bond movies, but Top Secret was the game that taught me RPGs could use game mechanics to adjudicate success besides a simple “X in 6” chance or comparing a die roll to a “to hit” table. While percentile-based thieves skills have (almost) always been a part of D&D, Top Secret was the first game that made broad use of a percentile skills not directly tied to a class-based advancement system. To this day, I still prefer it when a game allows you to customize your areas of expertise and advance them free of class progression restrictions.

8) GURPS: I’ve never actually played GURPS. Much like Champions, I’ve made up a GURPS character or two, but they never made it into actual play. Yet GURPS remains influential because it demonstrated to me what a setting splatbook should be. I own GURPS books and mined them heavily for ideas and inspiration for countless campaigns using everything but GURPS. They remain some of the few RPG books I can read for sheer reading enjoyment rather than practical use.

7) Shadowrun: Shadowrun taught me how a single image could capture the imagination and build up anticipation for a game you knew nothing about. Larry Elmore’s cover illustration, used as a teaser in the pages of Dragon magazine, blew the minds of myself and my friends. “Is that an elf with a computer? Are those orcs with guns? A magic-user in Daisy Dukes?!!!” We knew nothing about the game when we saw that art except for the fact we we’re going to play the HELL OUT OF IT when it came out. And we did.

6) Star Wars (West End Games): I played a lot of Star Wars in high school and in college and it never bothered me that I wasn’t playing the heroes of the movies. The Star Wars universe was so huge that there was plenty of room to tell other stories with heroes just as capable and daring as Leia, Luke, and Han. While seemingly a no-brainer when it comes to game design, The Adventures of Indiana Jones would stumble over this very issue. When we sat down to design DCC Lankhmar, a world with its own large-than-life heroes, I made it clear from the beginning that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were intended to be either not present or second bananas to the player’s PCs.

5) The One Ring: Say what you like about Tolkien’s work and whether you like it or not, but The One Ring is an exceptional example of using game mechanics to convey the feel of an existing work rather than modifying an existing work to convey the feel of a setting. MERPs is an example of what can go wrong when you’re dealing with the second case. In comparison, The One Ring was built from the ground up to invoke Middle-earth and succeeds admirably. TOR has become a favorite among my regular gaming group and its mixture of old school dice mechanics and new school narrative story aspects is scratching all the right itches. It might even be higher on my list one day should I ever get around to experimenting with adapting its rule system to similar non-Tolkien genres like historical Dark Ages Europe or other analogous campaign premises.

4) Vampire: the Masquerade: The Storytelling system introduced me to both the concept of “succeeding at a game mechanic without the need to roll dice” and taught me how to look at adventure design as story design. While that’s anathema to some old school RPGers, who prefer emergent storytelling, as I get older, I appreciate the need for creating concise campaigns with a beginning, middle, and an end. Doing that keys heavily into the same skill set as writing a story or designing a story-arc adventure. V:tM also kept me in the hobby for nearly ten years when I was ready to drop out of role-playing for good.

3) Mind’s Eye Theatre: I went back and forth on whether this belongs under the rubric of V:tM, but ultimately decided the lessons learned and the influence it had were monumental enough to be its own entry. Despite a brief dalliance with the SCA in my freshman year of college, I never had much desire for Live Action Role-Playing, which back then was largely hitting each other with sticks. Then The Masquerade, the first MET title came along and I was certain I’d seen the future of role-playing games. The rock-paper-scissors mechanic was brilliant and the fact that it was socially driven meant that you could get dressed up in cool clothes and engage in scintillating conversation with other people—especially those of your preferred gender for romantic liaisons. While it’s been a long, long time since I did any LARP gaming, I’m still known to get people standing up and away from the table when playing out a scene. The lessons I learned in designing MET games has also served me well in tabletop gaming. Intrigue at the Court of Chaos, for example, wouldn’t have been possible without my experience in putting characters at cross-purposes and how effective introducing a secret agendas can be.

2) Call of Cthulhu: I was a relative latecomer to CoC, picking up the 4th edition as my first version and not actually playing the game for many years afterward. Despite a late start, CoC remains one of my top five RPGs. Until recently, the game saw minimum changes, demonstrating exactly how solid a game design Sandy Peterson created in 1981. As I mentioned above, any game with a percentile-based skill system is going to have me rooting for it and CoC’s skills and progression mechanic was miles beyond Top Secret. Call of Cthulhu also features “average people” as the heroes and it’s far more satisfying to beat the bad guys (or at least stave off the end of the world for another week) when you’re the underdog.

1) Dungeons & Dragons: Without D&D, there would be no RPGs—at least on the level of exposure the world knows them today. And while the rules have changed and design goals vary from edition to edition, to me they’re all manifestations of that thing which is Dungeons & Dragons. Every edition from 0 to 5—and all those retro clones in between—has taught me something about not only our hobby, but myself and those who share my enthusiasm for it. It might not necessarily be my go to game these days, but it will never be surpassed for the influence it’s had on me.

I find it curious that out of these ten titles, I only currently play three of them. The rest have fallen to the wayside and the reason in every case is my growing older. I couldn’t imagine trying to play, let alone run, a game with mechanics like Shadowrun’s dice pools or Top Secret’s baroque array of modifiers to base skill chances. I might play Star Wars again one day, but frankly the Galaxy Far, Far Away is feeling a little oversaturated ever since Disney acquired it. I’m burned out on Star Wars, but may change my mind once my nephews get a little older. Vampire will always be an old love, but one I’m not likely to shack up with again unless the conditions were perfect.

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