RPG DNA Analysis
I recently posted my #RPGDNA (since that’s a trending thing right now in RPG circles), but I figured it might be interesting to look a bit deeper into my choices. The meme format is either 4 or 6 titles, but because it’s my blog and I do whatever I want, I’ll go to 8 titles – otherwise, like I said in the original post, I keep flip-flopping between the ones I want to include or exclude.
Let’s go in rough chronological order… you’ll probably notice that I’m decidedly a product of the 90s. 😋
The Dark Eye
This was my first role-playing game! We played it one-on-one with my neighbour (who owned the boxed sets), and I had no idea that the French cover’s tagline, “A game of role-playing and adventure”, was not just a marketing thing but was actually pointing to a whole genre of similar games. I only discovered that a bit later.
I don’t remember much about the ruleset, frankly. What I remember the most was the magic of having a whole imaginary world that you can play in, all contained within the pages of a few booklets. I was particularly fascinated by the vinyl map of Havena (the starter city), and the book describing its neighbourhoods, their inhabitants and their agendas, and the various secrets to be found. I have a much more positive memory of our adventures in Havena than of the few dungeon crawls we did, which I found fairly uninteresting and non-sensical.
So that was my take-away of role-playing games at first: cool maps and “street-level” world-building! To some degree, that is still what I’m looking for in an RPG…
As far as I remember, this was the first RPG book that I bought. It didn’t have very notable maps, but it did have excellent “street-level” world-building. The most memorable thing about the world of Night City was the diagetic aspect of many sourcebooks, from advertisements for in-world products, to the Solo of Fortune supplement which was cleverly presented as a guns review magazine for mercenaries, complete with actual reviews of rifles and handguns. This kind of gimmick is something that still works on me very well to this day, and something we’ll mention again here.
On the system side, this was the game that imprinted the “stat + skill” mechanic on me – even though I still prefer to link that base mechanic to a “roll under” or “count successes” resolution, rather than Cyberpunk’s “roll over target number” system.
Vampire the Masquerade
Since I was already a big fan of elaborate world-building and secret dealings in dark rainy streets, it was a given that I was going to fall into the World of Darkness trend pretty early. It also didn’t help that half my gaming club was playing it when I joined.
As far as I remember, Vampire was the first truly long campaign I played, featuring lots of Camarilla politics and Malkavian antics. I think this is what showed me the “long-form” potential of RPGs… in addition to how cool it feels to roll a dice pool.
I’m not a big reader in general (the downside of having too many hobbies is that you don’t have enough free time left), but when a friend passed me “Nine Princes in Amber”, I got hooked. I had no idea what the story was about, so discovering the whole premise along with its amnesic main character was a pretty cool experience. I binge read the 10 books as fast as I could (which is arguably not very fast).
This same friend, who I played some RPGs with, then offered to try the Amber Diceless RPG. I was excited to play in the world of Amber, but couldn’t see how these super-powered characters could work in practice. And, of course, I couldn’t wrap my head around this “diceless” thing… how can it be an RPG without any dice?
I was in for quite a wild ride, because there were several things in Amber that shattered my conception of what an RPG can be. From character creation to contest resolution to narrative play, this was an entirely new and formative experience. We only played a short campaign, but it had a pretty big effect on me.
Call of Cthulhu
Call of Cthulhu was, for me, the source of a few more key revelations about RPGs. This is probably the most important game I’ve played, ever. Let’s see what it taught me:
- That mechanics are not just about simulating an aspect of the game world, but also about enabling genre tropes and feel. The SAN mechanic does this.
- That RPGs are not just about power fantasies, and that it can be as fun to have characters that get worse with time.
- That one key element of good GMing is good dramatic pacing.
- That keeping things mysterious is fun, and that GM doesn’t need to have all the answers.
- That the GM should come up with the NPCs first, their factions and motivations, and what they’re going to do soon, how, and where. The story happens when the players get involved in the middle of it (arguably lots of people learned this with big dungeons, but I think it’s even more effective with an investigative sandbox game).
- Many other things!
Really, I think Call of Cthulhu (or any other investigative horror game) should be in first handful games anybody plays. And judging from the stats on Roll20, it may very well be the second game most people play after D&D, which is very heartwarming (and a testament of the stellar job the 7th edition authors have been doing).
Well, that was really it. Once I started playing Call of Cthulhu, I didn’t look back for a long while… I just kept digging into more horror stuff.
Delta Green in the late 90s was basically pitched as “Call of Cthulhu meets X-Files”, and that was enough to get me interested. And remember my sweet spot for diegetic world-building? Well, the opening pages of the Delta Green sourcebook spoke to it directly, with Major General Fairfield’s madness-filled report to the U.S. military about the existence of the Mythos. What followed was a compelling reinvention of the Call of Cthulhu lore that wrapped its claws around my brain and dragged me into a decade of gloriously dark gaming.
Delta Green showed me that it’s OK to be a brutal GM sometimes. It showed me that you can always find a new “take” on an old premise and make it fresh and scary and mysterious again. It showed me that I could take take the concept of the “investigative sandbox” to new heights – I understood the concept at an instinctive level after many Call of Cthulhu games, but it was the much more clever folks at Pagan Publishing who formalized it and gave it shape for me. And, of course, Delta Green solved a whole bunch of practical gameplay issues with the more classic Call of Cthulhu approach.
It takes little time to go from Delta Green to Unknown Armies. Once you go down the rabbit hole, you inevitably end up in the place where magick users hoard books, scar their body, or engage in pornographic behaviour. Lovely.
Unknown Armies showed me how one-shots can have crazy premises and near-theatre-improv qualities. For me it blurred the line between RPGs, performance art, and Grant Morrison-esque “entertainment as ritual magic”. It’s weird, it’s bullshit, it’s genius, it’s problematic, and I love it.
And now for something completely different… Steve Jackon’s Generic Universal Role-Playing System was something I fell into near the end of its 3rd edition, back when it had already amassed a decade or so of problems and fixes in the form of two rulebook-sized “Compendium” sourcebooks. Still, I loved it. Where some people see only unending crunch and lists of skills or traits, I saw freedom and customizability to a degree I wouldn’t find again until much later with FATE and HeroQuest (now QuestWorld). In fact, it’s not uncommon for GURPS players to also be FATE players, as a kind of “high crunch/low crunch” combination.
Besides the freedom to meaningfully play many diverse characters, settings, and genres, GURPS also showed me the value of a well designed system. There’s some elegance in how simple GURPS’ core is, and how you can just as well grok it and run it with the 2-pages long GURPS Ultra Lite – every ruling you would come up with on-the-fly would actually fall very close to what you would find in the dozens of sourcebooks you can also buy for extra rules, traits, equipment, and so on. It’s a system that holds itself naturally well for me. It can be reduced to first principles for minimal memory footprint and mental bandwidth. I have only found very few systems since that have these qualities (the Year Zero Engine immediately comes to mind). The fact that they’re all “stat + skill” systems with either “roll under” or “count successes” resolution mechanisms may send you back to my early encounter with Cyberpunk 2020.
Of course, just because I can run GURPS games with a minimum of material doesn’t mean I didn’t buy a shitload of sourcebooks… I’m a compulsive RPG collector after all! And these sourcebooks are so well done too. GURPS supplements were famously bought more often than not by non-GURPS players who would discard the system-related bits, and keep all the facts, information, ideas, and system-agnostic goodness found therein. Of course, with the democratization of the Internet in the early 2000s, this appeal largely disappeared and GURPS supplements had to adapt.
I still occasionally play GURPS (not as much as I’d like), with the 4th edition being better designed than ever. And the (now shorter, mostly digital) supplements are still super useful, even for use with other systems.
Well, that was longer than I thought, but it was actually interesting to take a detailed look at my RPG journey through the years. I still won’t be able to consistently pick only 4 or 6 titles out of these 8, however…