So when gamers get together, aside from war stories getting told and retold, another topic that often comes up are the games that really had an impact on you, the sytems and settings that changed the way you viewed the hobby. I’m not always talking about your favorite games or even the best games, though they can certainly be those too – I’m just talking about the game-changers, the ones that made you sit up and take notice, fall in love with a style of gaming you hadn’t tried before or even re-examine the way you already played.
These are mine, in a very rough semblance of order – feel free to share yours, with or without the commentary!
#7 - Arkham Horror
It was tough to pick a single game line from Fantasy Flight, but when in doubt, always side with Cthulu. Simply put, I’ve never been a huge board game fan, and even when I enjoy a well-designed game like Settlers or some of the Risk variants, my interest level is generally low at best. Then I tried Arkham Horror, and realized that board games had grown the hell up while I was away. I call it “rpg-lite” for the level of character, detail and atmosphere they put into the game, but that’s really doing it a disservice, implying that it’s trying to be an rpg when in fact it’s not trying to be anything but a stellar board game. You can play it seriously, you can play it casually, you can play it dozens of times and not have two games closely resemble each other – truly a masterpiece of design. I quickly went from saying no thanks to board games to stacking my shelves with Arkham, Descent, Game of Thrones, Battlestar (whose loyalty mechanic deserves its own special mention for adding a wicked layer of trust and doubt to board gaming), The Adventurers and more. Board games grew up while I was away, and I’m glad that I finally caught on.
#6 - Pathfinder
In truth, this should be a split decision with the crew that did the original D&D 3.0 reboot, because without them there would be no Pathfinder to praise. So let me give them their props, then go on to say that the Pathfinder team has taken the revolution they started and given it some new fins, fresh chrome, a nitrous tank, and a jet engine. Because man, this system roars. Like many people my age – though not nearly so many as now, or even as started gaming 10 years ago – I began my journey in roleplaying games with Dungeons & Dragons, AD&D in fact. Over the years, though, I discovered other games with different, simpler systems, games that stressed story and setting as much or more than rules and mechanics. D&D fell out of fashion, and while 3.0 did rekindle interest briefly, it soon fell back into the trap that AD&D had, churning out tons of books until you were drowning in paper. (This may yet happen to Pathfinder, but shh, I’m enjoying the honeymoon.) So when I first heard about Pathfinder, I admit, I scoffed a bit. I’ve played dozens of systems, done LARP, done indie games all about story – I didn’t think “plain old D&D” would ever catch my eye again. But let me tell you, for someone who started out with D&D, reading Pathfinder is like coming home years later and finding out that your high school crush is still hot. And single. And wants to go out for a beer before doing freaky sex things that are illegal in five states. What’s not to love? Now hand me my d12, my inish just came up and daddy’s got some rabid baboons to kill.
#5 – Mystic Realms
I’ll admit it, there was a time in high school when – already a devoted White Wolf LARPer, mind you – my friends and I were driving through the Pine Barrens on our way to the shore. One of my friends casually mentioned that some people actually played “like, live D&D or something” at camps out in the woods, and the car erupted in laughter. What did they do, we snickered, yell “Fireball!” while hitting each other with He-Man swords from Toys ‘R Us? And what kind of loser dresses up as a goblin and fights nerds in the wood, anyway? I mean, we were gamers, but there was a limit, you know? Well, as a lot of this list proves, I do enjoy a tasty dish of cooked crow, and I certainly enjoyed a heaping portion years later when I tried Mystic Realms, my first-ever boffer LARP in what would become a long and nearly unbroken line of such games. My brother and I drove down to an unfamiliar camp and played a whole weekend, surrounded mostly by strangers (as the friends that invited us happened to be running that weekend), running around in the woods battling all manner of things, getting killed a half-dozen times each, and loving every second of it. While this game has changed considerably since then, at the time the rules were everything you’d want – but only rarely see – in live combat, simple and quick and evocative. Roleplaying was incorporated into them, rather than added on, and the whole system was designed to eliminate narration and keep the action moving. I was hooked. Not only did I drag most of my friends in with me over the next year or two, but it gave me a whole different perspective on a lot of tabletop games as well – suddenly the idea of my D&D character effortlessly fighting six enemies at once became laughable, and the idea that a torch could light a large easily dismissed. Not to mention the excitement of really being put to the test, weapon to weapon, staying silent and hidden to sneak around, you name it. It’s a rush, and I’ve never really shaken the addiction.
#4 – Mage: The Ascension
When I first read Mage, I had never played anything but AD&D and West End Games’ glorious old Star Wars tabletop system, and let me tell you, I was unprepared for the awesome. My brother had started playing Vampire, so I’d heard a little bit about White Wolf, and I thought the World of Darkness sounded pretty cool. Mage had just been released, so while we were on vacation I picked it up with precious summer money and started reading it. I soon put it down, though, angry and confused. Where were the lists of spells? Why didn’t they have components? What the hell were “Spheres” and what did they mean, everyone’s magic worked the way they thought it should, because they thought it should? Much as I hate to admit it, I was totally lost. It was magic, but so far out of the cut-and-dried paradigm I’d experienced in the past that I had no frame of reference for it. I might have walked away entirely, except that it was the only book I had with me that vacation, and so I grudgingly picked it back up. Fortunately, this time the magic system “clicked” – everything made sense, and suddenly I got very excited. I realized the freedom they were offering, as well the price to be paid for that freedom, and how great the stories would be that you could tell about those choices. I was hooked, and spell lists have never held quite the same appeal since.
#3 – Dogs In the Vineyard
If I put up much more good stuff about this game, this blog is going to look like a Dogs fan site, but really, reading it for the first time was that much of a fundamental shift. Dogs was my first real exposure to indie games, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. A junior version of one of the big games, perhaps, or someone’s half-baked setting with a dose of barely edited house rules. (I know, I know, what can I say, I was young and foolish!) Instead, I got handed a thermal detonator – compact, polished, and cooly designed to blow you away. White Wolf had introduced me to gaming that aspired to be Art from time to time, but Dogs actually got into the nuts and bolts of how to make it happen in a big way. For example, I’ve always enjoyed creating characters as a group project, adding bits and pieces to each others’ stories as we go, but a game that actively requires it? (And set a trend for other indie games to do likewise, I might add.) One where the type of family you were raised in wasn’t just fluff, but helped determine who you were in mechanics as well? A setting that’s a masterpiece of minimalism, enough to get you started and get you thinking but never gets in the way? Genius. Add in a conflict mechanic so cool it got its own post a while back, as well as loads of potential moral and ethical conflicts, and you’ve got one hell of a game-changer.
#2 – The Masquerade
I almost don’t know where to begin talking about how this game changed my perspective on gaming. Spending points during creation to add disadvantages to your character? (And making you want to do it?) Earning “Drama Dice” for doing cool stunts or sharing witty one-liners? Dismissing most opponents with simple die rolls, while saving complex rules for the fights that matter? A stat openly named “Panache”? I was blown away. And I haven’t even touched on the world, the easiest non-licensed setting to explain to anyone ever – close enough to our own history to make quick, easy parallels (“Ok, so Montaigne is basically France immediately before the Revolution…”) while still containing enough difference to feel fresh and unique instead of dusty and dated (“… but there’s sorcery and monsters and ancient ruins of a lost civilization.”) 7th Sea was one of the first games where I bought and devoured every supplement, not for new rules or game mechanics (though new Swordsman Schools were always a plus), but just to read the setting material, to see what was happening as the timeline moved forward. I saw complex world design executed with a light, almost airy touch, inspiring players with an endless array of hooks and suggestions but rarely nailing them down to facts set in stone. In short, it was big and bright and brilliant and beautiful, and I still love it to this day.
Extremely Honorable Mentions
Houses of the Blooded - Really, I could probably do a whole John Wick list, and this is a truly great game, but I went with the original game of his that sparked my imagination in the end.
InSpectres – Jared Sorenson is a mad wizard of game design, whose books I wait for like some people follow favorite bands or film directors. I read this about the same time I read Dogs, and they both had a huge impact.
Star Wars (West End Games) - One of the first games I ever played, this is a wonderful example of a system well suited to its setting. It’s a fast, simple mechanic well-suited to the breezy Star Wars universe, and I still love it.
I was talking to some folks about cheating and game design not too long ago, and it was such a fun conversation I figured I’d share some of the conclusions. Basically, it boils down to recognizing three types of people.
1) A small number of people will basically never cheat, even if an easy opportunity presents itself.
2) A large number of people will cheat, but only if it is relatively easy and seems to carry low risk of getting caught.
3) A small number of people will almost always cheat, even if it’s very difficult, time-consuming and/or risky.
You don’t really have to worry about group #1 or group #3 – well, you do have to worry about #3, but only so far as catching them. You won’t be able to deter them, though; no matter how hard you make it for them to cheat, they will try it anyway. (There are many reasons why they are so persistent, but that’s another discussion for another day.) The trick is setting up the rules to make cheating just difficult and/or risky enough to deter group #2, the people who are normally honest but don’t mind taking shortcuts, especially when they see others doing it. Or to put it another way, you need to balance putting in so many safeguards the test becomes impossibly long and complex against having so few that the honest people find themselves wondering why they didn’t just take a few shortcuts. It’s what security experts call the “deadbolt effect” – you don’t need a deadbolt to keep out honest people, and it won’t stop determined criminals either. But it will deter casual snooping, amateur criminals and other crimes of opportunity.
One of the things that undermines a lot of good game design is the designers feel they have to go beyond deadbolts and install a full-on laser grid. They work endlessly to plug loopholes, scale back rules and abilities to avoid abuse, and otherwise make their games as airtight as possible. The problem is that, after a certain point, avoiding abuse starts diminishing the game itself. This is particularly true when it comes to combat, where a lot of games spend so much time trying to close possible cheating problems that they forget the purpose of gaming is fun, not making sure no one can ever possibly abuse it. They underestimate the power of the table, namely, that game groups can and should police their own.
That very notion, in fact, is one of my favorite trends that has emerged in tabletop gaming, especially in the indie field – the idea that rather than design a game to foil cheaters and power gamers, folks should simply design games the way they want them to be, and let groups worry about sending losers and creeps packing. Houses of the Blooded has my personal favorite mechanic for this: Bad Form. Whenever a player tries to manipulate the rules to do things they oughtn’t, the Narrator simply says “Bad Form” and that’s it. No need to argue rules for hours – if it violates the spirit of having fun, just say “Bad Form” and move on. Elegant simplicity.
Don’t get me wrong – I think deterring cheating is still an important element of game design, whether it means trying to plug a loophole or simply calling attention to it so that groups know it might come up during play. But the more people learn the value of the deadbolt effect, the more time we can spend creating awesome games, and the less time we have to devote in trying to discourage jerks from breaking in an rifling our stuff.
One of the greatest pieces of relationship advice – argument advice, really – I’d ever gotten came from, of all things, a role-playing game. I know, what are the odds, right? That’s what your surprised face looks like, I’m sure.
Anyway, it comes from a wonderful mechanic in D. Vincent Baker‘s equally wonderful game Dogs In the Vineyard. Many gamers already know it; if you don’t, look it up, it’s one of those great little games that changes the way you look at games afterward. For those that aren’t gamers, or haven’t read it yet, I’ll skip the setting and get right to the good part: Conflict Escalation. You see, when you get into a conflict in Dogs, you gather up some dice based on what type of conflict it is – social, mental, physical – and roll them. You compare them to your opponent’s dice, and if your dice come out ahead, great! If things go against you, however, and you start losing the conflict, you have two choices:
1. Give up
Giving up is easy – your character loses, admits they’re wrong, gets their butt kicked, or otherwise gets the short end of whatever’s going on. Rough, and hard to accept sometimes, but usually not as bad as what might happen if you stayed in and made things worse. Because if you’re losing and you want to stay in the conflict, you have to escalate it – you have to make the conflict about something more than it was originally. A debate becomes an argument, an argument becomes a fistfight, a fistfight becomes a gunfight, and so on. I thought this was a beautiful game mechanic, because it really makes you consider what’s worth fighting for and what’s worth letting go. Sure, escalating might give you the edge, but it might also make you a bully, and it’s important to remember that the more you throw into a conflict, the more you have to lose.
That’s awesome enough in a game, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this was really an interesting point in general. I realized that this tendency is more common than people think, though usually more subtle. Listen to your co-workers if you don’t believe it – keep track of how often a person on the losing side of a debate adds a topic, expands the scope of the discussion or even gets personal in order to stay in the proverbial fight. Pretty much everyone hates being wrong, no question, but it’s surprising how often people try to avoid it by using escalation. If two people are talking who’s the best quarterback in football, for example, and one person presents convincing stats that show their candidate is better, suddenly it’s not about stats, it’s about teams as a whole, or it’s about a particular game, or the other person just sucks and is dumb. Escalating is a great way to save face – by making the argument about something else, you conveniently avoid the need to admit you were wrong about the original subject.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not immune. Sometimes when my wife and I are arguing, and she makes a point I don’t have an answer for, or that inconveniently reminds me that I’m being an idiot, I realize one of the first instincts I have is to escalate by bringing up some other matter, usually totally unrelated, where she was wrong (or at least I looked better). I try to stomp on this instinct whenever I can, but sometimes it’s really tempting to do it, because part of me knows it would get a reaction, and when you’re ticked that’s all you want. Since reading Dogs In the Vineyard, it’s been easier to keep track of this behavior, because whenever I’m tempted to escalate, I remind myself that it’s usually just a way of avoiding the fact that I was wrong in the first place.
Gaming that helps with relationships. Who knew?