Seven role-playing games that changed my life pt.1

Recently, I saw that someone (Per Fischer, I think) had posted a list of the seven games he had played the most. I contemplated doing the same, but quickly gave it up. First of all, it would be very difficult to properly assess how much I played which games in my younger days. Secondly, it would not be a very interesting list, necessarily. I played a lot of certain games while I was relatively young, but they didn’t have that much of an impact on me. The list would probably include, in some order: Vampire: the Masquerade, Vampire: the Requiem, AD&D, D&D 3rd ed, Warhammer FRP 2nd ed, Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun. But that would leave out some of the game that I haven’t played a lot, but which has meant a lot to my perception of what role-playing is, and even to the course of my life! And so, here is a list of seven role-playing games that changed my life, organized in (more or less) reverse chronology. I may well try the same with scenarios and/or board games. For some of them, I may mention some games that might almost have taken its place – but I wanted to only include seven, so I had to cut them out.

Spirit of the Century

In my world, Spirit of the Century is close to being the perfect golden mean between sleek, streamlined, mass produced, “traditional” big game company produced role-playing games and the auteurish, experimental, diamond-in-the-rough “indie” games inspired by the Forge. It is a blast to create a character in this game, and allows you to tailor the evening’s session to whoever is going to be present. It is the perfect tool to help you capture the feeling of a pulp hero story. It achieves this in three ways:

1) The book perfectly evokes the genre all the way through, so that by the time I’m through, I can’t wait to jump into adventures with two-fisted heroes like Jet Black and his friends, defeating nefarious foes like Gorilla Kahn and Doctor Methuselah.

2) The system gently, but surely, nudges me towards the kind of game it is designed for. Fate points reward players for enriching the story and providing interesting complications. Henchmen and npc rules make it easy to have the heroes fight off appropriate swarms of nefarious goons, and make the actual villain provide interesting obstacles to the heroes. The character creation rules mean that you could have Tarzan, Zorro, Allan Quartermain and Biggles in the same team – and it wouldn’t feel awkward! In fact, having one hero be a rich heir who’s a science prodigy, while another is a former war-pilot and the third is a big game hunter would make a lot of sense. Not least because…

3) The game master’s guide gives the would-be game master of a game of SotC some very simple tools to make a great game, based on the characters that are going to be in that particular session. It really has one of the best guides on how to be a GM that I have ever seen, and I would advice any new GM to read that guide, even if you have no interest in playing the actual game. It provides three very easy ways to design a story that is going to feel pulpy, based on the participating characters, and has a host of great advice. One great piece of advice that I took from the home-page, and which is good for almost any game is to make a spreadsheet showing which skills each character has, and at which level. If everybody has a skill, they want to test it. If someone has a high rank in a skill, they want to ace it. If only one person has a skill, even at a relatively low level, you can throw spotlight on them by challenging that skill. And if nobody took a skill – well, if your players aren’t interested in a particular kind of challenges, why punish them by testing it. That’s the kind of simple, useful, player-oriented advice this book is chock full off.

All in all, this game has consistently provided me with enjoyable gaming experiences. It doesn’t provide the gritty, visceral stories that might result from games like Apocalypse World, Dogs in the Vineyard or In a Wicked Age – all games that do some of what SotC also does – but the sheer ease and enjoyment of this game just puts it way ahead of them in my mind. Yes, indeed, this might actually be my favoritest role-playing game.

Mountain Witch

I still remember my first game of Mountain Witch (not that I have played it THAT much). It was at Fastaval, and I had joined an indie game introduction. I had never played an indie game before.

We were set upon by two tengu (raven spirits), when I used my “knowledge of the ancestors” (or something similar). I wanted to know how I might defeat the tengu. I looked expectantly up at the GM for an answer – and saw him looking back, equally expectant. That’s when it struck me: the answer was mine to give.

I didn’t give a very good answer. But the incident (which struck the GM – and I think it was Per Fischer, again – enough for him to recount it on The Forge) showed me the power of Story Now. I quickly acquired Mountain Witch, Dogs in the Vineyard and With Great Power…, three games I have read a lot, but unfortunately not played a lot. All three taught me a lot, though. With Great Power… was the one I most wanted to play, but unfortunately, its great ideas have not been honed enough to make a truly brilliant game. As such, I don’t think I’ve ever played a whole game of it. Dogs in the Vineyard packs a lot of punch for its short size, but the bidding mechanic of the game is difficult to do well, and can feel a little mechanic. Mountain Witch is difficult for me to properly prepare for, but is probably the best of the three.

But no matter its relative flaws and merits, Mountain Witch will forever stand as my first ever indie RPG. And those two hours alone earn it a place on this list.

Alternity

Alternity is a very peculiar game, and one that holds a special place in my heart. It was TSR’s attempt to make a game that might do for Space Opera what AD&D had done for Fantasy: provide one system that could work with a host of different worlds. While the game never gained much of a following, I think it succeeded in this mission far more than D&D ever did.

The game borrows a lot from its older brother: The d20, the six stats, the classes. But the whole feeling of the game is completely different. The game is skill based, and while levelling up makes you better at things, you don’t get that much better at resisting damage. This underlines that this is not a fighting game. But what is it?

Well, it can be many things. It is a universal science fiction game, and it is geared towards providing more or less realistic visions of a future among the stars. A number of settings came out for the game, including Star*Drive, the “main” setting of the game, and Dark Matter, an X-files inspired setting of paranormal investigation with extraterrestrials and extradimensionals and ghosts and what have we.

So why is this game on this list? Well, Alternity is a game that I never saw much outside of my own bookshelf, even though I thought it was so great. It is also one of a number of games which taught me something that I’m almost embarrassed to tell you that I needed to be taught: that it is interesting to play ordinary people, that it can be fun to be weak and vulnerable…. vincible? It also taught me that Science Fiction doesn’t have to be Star Trek, Star Wars, Terminator or Judge Dredd – it can also be Alien or Blade Runner, all about regular, vulnerable people in toned down surroundings.

A couple of games vied for this place: Warhammer FRP taught me the same thing about fantasy, and showed me why Dark Fantasy was great, and why it can be cool to play a rat catcher. And Call of Cthulhu taught me something similar about a more realistic setting – and it taught me that tragedy can be a blast. You can have your cake and be eaten too.

Till next time

And that’s it for now. I’ve been gushing far more than I thought I would. I’ll post the remaining four at a later time, and I’ll try to gush a bit less. Until then, please tell me what you think of these games – and do tell me which games changed your world.

 

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks, Elias. I think the Mountain Witch GM on Fastaval must have been Peter Dyring-Olsen.

    Reply

  2. Yup, it was Peter Dying-Olsen, and your fellow players were Julie Streit and me.

    Reply

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