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TOP 5 RPGs: RON EDWARDS
I am writing about those games, which determined, at various points of my life, whether I would even remain a role-player at all. My experience with the hobby until about seven years ago is much like a bad relationship: recriminations, humiliating and frustrating experiences, stretches of genuine enjoyment, betrayals, lies, and breakups. The following games, at different points, redefined how I understood and enjoyed the act itself, such that each led to years of enjoyable play afterwards.
Therefore, this article is intended as a window to a small part of the experience of being me. It is autobiography, not game analysis, review, or industry commentary.
THE FANTASY TRIP
It was 1978 and I was 14, on the California coast. I'd owned D&D; for a little while and had not enjoyed my forays into its play. The problem was that I already had delved deeply into fantasy literature and mythology before I'd ever heard of the hobby. Arguably, I was born into the last generation that could say so. That meant that nearly every person who I found to play with (which wasn't easy for a fourteen-year-old who didn't aspire to the military or to making model airplanes) was on a completely different wavelength, that of the killer-dungeon tournament scene.
I bought TFT: Wizard in the hobby store for $3.95, and a friend sold me his copy of Melee; these then were revised and published as The Fantasy Trip. I was enchanted - you could pick what your character was like, all by yourself, including cool stuff he could do. You distributed points one-for-one to three attributes, and the totals were your target numbers for rolling (much later, I would call this effect 'unlayered'). I could make up a competent, interesting character, customizing to taste, especially neat wizards along the lines of Earthsea or Night's Master. The notion of the game as a vehicle for creativity, rather than simply being forced to accept that 'this' is a dragon, seemed more in line with what I had envisioned the hobby to be.
CHAMPIONS 3RD EDITION
It was 1985 and I was about to turn 21, in my second year of college in Chicago. Alas, actual play of TFT was limited and turned out to have some bugs of its own. More importantly, anyone who wanted to role-play fantasy (that I could find) was already a D&D; man, and very little could be accomplished to change the approach. I'd tried RuneQuest, Stormbringer, Tunnels & Trolls, and whatever else, and nothing helped.
What brought me back to role-playing was comics, another old love. I'd returned to them right in the middle of John Byrne's run on the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and Frank Miller's run on Daredevil. On a whim, I bought a copy of Champions 3rd edition in a hobby store, and read it during a cross-country trip on a Greyhound bus. I returned from that trip with a ream of notes and start to play, with one fellow disgruntled role-player and two aspirant comics artists who'd never role-played. Years of fun followed: tons of art, oh-so-intrigued girls, deliberate rejection of geek status ('Yeah? I role-play, what's it to you?'), and a community of people all around the country to talk to. Oddly, gaming, for us at the time, was a lot like really being in a band.
Champions, although its roots are clearly set in The Fantasy Trip, is the all-time progenitor of the developed customized-character paradigm, but what we really liked were the metagame elements like DNPCs and psychological disadvantages, which we used for story effect rather than simply behavior-limitations. It helped that I was perfectly able to call the point-crunchers at their own game and set house standards for the abuses. It also helped that in my later play (1990-1992) some bright person came up with a program to manage combat more quickly, which probably kept me playing longer than I otherwise would have.
This section is a bit unfair to Cyberpunk (1988), which for a while looked to be a similar combination of readership + gaming + creativity, but in many ways my experience of Cyberpunk was a retread of the Champions one, just compressed into a shorter time.
OVER THE EDGE
It was 1994 and I was 30, and grunting through graduate studies in Gainesville, Florida. Champions had finally run its course for me, due in part to its changes in 4th edition, but especially the fundamental disconnect between player and GM, which had become totally entrenched by the games of the late 1980s and most especially by Vampire. I'd tried every solution to that disconnect imaginable; to use some Forge jargon, I was a master illusionist. However, it was no longer good enough to maneuver players into my stories, or to retrofit their actions into protagonist-level significance completely on my own. Id written fiction by this point and grasped how it was done, and gaming seemed completely wrong-headed for that purpose.
Furthermore, the source material, superhero comics themselves, had faltered badly in the late 1980s and have never recovered, and it was hard to generate enthusiasm based on more and more retro-late-60s and retro-early-80s.
Role-playing was broken. I was convinced. A fine hobby, I decided, but really suited for those who either wanted to play very slow video games or to generate pastiche. I sadly shelved some notes, including one batch for sword-and-sorcery and demon-summoning role-playing that I now knew could never be written, and several versions of game designs that all looked like TFT ripoffs.
But I bought a couple, still, and no game was ever better titled than Over the Edge. It blew my mind, in the classic Kool-Aid Acid Test manner. It was full of beatnik snottiness, the real stuff, not the faux-decadent, bourgeois crap of White Wolf. The author had done the same drugs as me, read the same stuff as me, and had apparently been able to bring it all together through play. Hot damn.
The system was everything that I'd thought impossible. There was no layering, no abusing, and no lawyering. (This was a little idealistic of me, but it's what I thought upon reading.) It really did make outrageous events possible with only three or four dice, rolled the same way each time, handled in game terms the same way each time. The very notion of 'low handling time' took root in my mind. I looked back on all that GURPS and Champions and said: 'What the hell was I thinking?'
OTE also got me buying and comparing games in earnest, and I found some old notes of mine comparing character-creation systems and their underlying power-structure, which I would later call Currency. My first notions of how one might think about system issues, as a set of principles, began to flicker.
This section is a bit unfair to Prince Valiant (1989), which was the first game to use the design features that impressed me so, but I didn't know about the game until after I'd found OTE.
THE WHISPERING VAULT
I never did play Over the Edge, actually. Magic: the Gathering had appeared even as I'd come to the above realizations, and what I'd thought would be a fun little sideline to eventual role-playing turned into a - well, you know. I played a lot of cards and eventually sold my pile, including all those raggedy-ass Alphas, in time to break even or a little better. In the meantime, I and some friends I'd made in the card biz decided it was time to role-play again. It was 1996 and I was 32.
We stank. We really, really stank. All sorts of bad habits had showed up and hampered our ability to play, and we decided that major therapy was in order. We set up a 'game recovery group', intended to be a series of role-playing different games, played for fun and real enjoyment every time, with no commitment toward playing that one game forever. The first was The Babylon Project, as we were all B5-heads, and several others followed, including my nascent Sorcerer
The group shifted and changed personnel, as all creative groups will. We eventually settled into an extremely lean and mean bunch, and the story of my entirely successful role-playing began. The key game, the one that turned the corner not only for me, but also for the group, was The Whispering Vault.
Never let anyone tell you that this game is suited only for one-shots. It's about player authorship, all the way, generating moral statements through character action. It produces imaginative intensity at every step, integrated with dice rolls rather than substituted or traded off with them. Every Hunt builds on the moral decisions and consequences of the last hunt, in a kind of revisit-with-a-twist way, forcing the characters to grow and make powerful choices about their very existence as Stalkers.
With a nod to Zero and to Castle Falkenstein as well, at this point, and with this game, not only I but our whole group realized that role-playing could really, really work for those aesthetic purposes I'd dreamed of two decades before.
So, between 1996 and 1999 I'd played over 25 different role-playing games, nearly all of them to great and enjoyable effect. I moved twice, to Georgia and then (back) to Chicago, and each time set up at least one new group. I had discovered that role-playing was not broken, and that good role-players were not hard to find - the problem lay in habits of play, especially those that directly opposed what the participants actually wanted. A little attention to these, and the actual play turned into pure joy.
The internet was in full flower and at this point I decided that Sorcerer was worth putting out for others. I also threw myself into a hunt for grass-roots games - I was convinced that they would follow a music model, rather than a fan-fiction model, and therefore the real gems could be found, that would crack open assumptions, rather than endless pastiche. My sense of mission appeared: the idea of drawing the lid off underground RPG design, and helping to turn it into a scene.
It is unfair to many games to single out The Pool as the prize gem. Ghost Light especially, fits the bill, as well as InSpectres, Wyrd, and Soap. Hero Wars deserves special mention as the one game that got me back into long-term play. However, although the other innovative games impressed me, I 'got' them, or rather, recognized what they did as a modification or version of stuff I understood. The Pool blindsided me utterly in terms of how dice, players, GMs, and game events were related. It was the single most powerful confirmation of the underground, grass-roots potential for role-playing innovation.
A minor point first: I've left out quite a lot, in terms of the range of games and specific experiences of play. During the Champions phase, for instance, I also played a ton of GURPS, Rolemaster, Cyberpunk, Heroes Unlimited, Warhammer, and others. Each of the phases is similarly packed.
More importantly, the only insight of general interest is that role-playing is not a subculture or a community, but an act. Whether that act has merit does not depend on a game's popularity in stores, the money it makes for various members of the distribution chain, or its coolness in some kind of cliquey way. The merit arises only from one's enjoyment, specifically shared enjoyment with others, which strengthens the ties among the group members. The games I'e listed are those which helped to generate such role-playing for me.