If you’ve been exploring tabletop RPGs long enough, you’ll occasionally stumble across a game that truly changes your idea of what is possible in a roleplaying game. You play it once and are forever transformed. This doesn’t mean you wind up playing the game until the end of time. But the best of these games provide ideas and mechanisms you can draw from and riff off of in other games. More fundamentally, they help you understand what makes you tick as a gamer, and what aspects you want to explore more deeply.
These are three of the games that most powerfully affected the trajectory of my roleplaying journey:
RuneQuest – I’d been playing primarily TSR games (AD&D, Gamma World, Top Secret) for a few years when I came across RuneQuest. Two aspects of its design grabbed me immediately. First, there were no classes. Here was a game in which you could play a badass fighter who also threw powerful spells. Second, the world of Glorantha, though only outlined in the core book, was well-defined in supplement after supplement. It utterly fascinated me. This was the first fantasy world in which magic and the gods didn’t feel bolted on. A character’s cult affected everything from the spells they could use to their relationships with other characters, and magic permeated even mundane activities in a way that felt organic. This is the game that turned me into a setting nerd, and since then I’ve run multiple Glorantha campaigns without coming remotely close to exhausting its potential.
Apocalypse World – This is a game that combines very clear definition of how the game should be run with almost no definition of the game world. It’s a game that gives a GM tightly-defined tools for putting player characters into dangerous and difficult situations without much prep. Many of those tools can easily be used with other games, which is excellent of course. But Apocalypse World also introduced me to the notion of something that lurks between success and failure: success with a cost. Roll a 7-9 on two six-sided dice and you succeed, but something unintended and bad also happens. This simple, elegant mechanic makes every die roll potentially perilous. It also keeps the GM on their toes, because you have to constantly be thinking about what could go wrong. It’s a supremely elegant way of injecting drama into the game. Argue all you want about which Powered by the Apocalypse game is best, but for me it will always be the original. I’ve run one-offs and short campaigns as well as played, and if I ever get the chance to play it again I’ll surely take it.
Burning Wheel – Few tabletop RPGs are as complex and deep as BW. It’s an idiosyncratic wonder – strongly opinionated, filled with ridiculous skills, rigorously detailed without telling you much at all about setting, and daring in some of its design choices. Combat is unpredictable and frightening. Magic can go badly wrong. But most importantly, character advancement is directly tied to character beliefs. How your character engages with their beliefs determines how rapidly they advance. Stay true to your beliefs and you become more capable. Waver from them and you don’t. This mechanism gives gamemasters so much to work with, so many ways to hook characters into adventures and put them into situations that test their beliefs. I’ve only played one BW campaign and haven’t yet run it, but I’d love to build a campaign some time. The way it provokes the kinds of character growth you see in novels, without forcing overarching story, is amazing.