In the early 1980s I was way into tabletop RPGs, and attempting to find my way through the jungle that is the American high school experience. For the first couple of years in that crucible, my friends and I spent many a lunch break in the safe haven of the library. It had two or three small, glass-enclosed rooms that could be reserved for group activities that might be too loud for the common area. Read more
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.
The other day I came across a post in which a tabletop RPG beginner was seriously stressed out about finding the right game. He had obviously read more than a few “this game is broken” comments and didn’t want to accidentally pick a “broken” game when introducing the concept of tabletop roleplaying to some classmates. His concern highlights a problem that pervades online discussion of tabletop RPGs, which is that we tend to confuse our quest for the ever-elusive “perfect” game with how people actually play games in the wild. Read more
The Giant at the Table: Dungeons & Dragons
D&D casts a long shadow in the tabletop roleplaying world. It’s the original RPG, it’s been around for over 40 years, and it’s the most popular. On top of all that, the OGL (Open Game License) introduced in 2000, gave rise to a huge number of games built around the core D&D mechanics, and eventually gave rise to the OSR movement. These underpinnings are usually referred to as d20, because a twenty-sided die (d20) is rolled to determine success or failure, but they also share other features such as character attributes and use of classes and levels.
There are many advantages to sticking with d20 mechanics: You’ll always be able to find players for a d20 game, because so many gamers are familiar with them. Aside from D&D you can delve into 13th Age and Pathfinder, as well as Swords & Wizardry and many other retro clones. Learn one and understanding others is straightforward.
But what if you’re looking for something beyond D&D and its kin? Where do you start? Read more
Glorantha first sprang from the fertile mind of Greg Stafford in 1966. As he discovered the details of this imaginary world, he kept adjusting its cosmology, magic, history, politics, and cultures. Other contributors got involved, and Glorantha became arguably the most thoroughly developed of all fantasy roleplaying settings.