All the cool kids are doing a list of ten influential games. Let’s try this instead: I’ll talk about each of the games that influenced me. I dunno if we’ll get to ten. I may or may not do them all in one post. Let’s find out.
dungeons & dragons
Well, since this was the first role-playing game I played it would be pretty hard to say it wasn’t influential. But it was first only by accident — a game that happened to be around because someone got it for a gift and it had a compelling cover. So, influential because it was first. Influential because it hinted at other possibilities. But that’s about it — it only influences current design insofar as it influenced my influences. The whole model of roll to hit, roll for damage, the centricity of combat, the level and class architecture, and the presence of an advancement mechanism as a motivator are all things I’ve left behind. Even quasi-medieval fantasy is a lot more in my past than my present. It likely influences in ways I don’t recognize, but at the top level, the cognizant level, the level of my brain where I serialize ideas in language, it has no impact except sometimes as a list of things to avoid. It was first and that’s it.
Lists of monsters. Nope.
Lists of equipment. Nope.
Experience points? Nope.
Character classes? Levels? Maybe…nope.
Spell lists! Nope.
Alignment? Surely alignment! Nope.
Rolling for initiative at least?! Nope.
Stats and modifiers? Nuh uh.
Random encounters? Nope.
Races? Hmm, sort of. Sometimes. But warily.
The game is mostly a list of things I would gradually shed.
Now this game was influential. I’m very glad I discovered it so early because it immediately called into question all the things D&D was trying to entrench. No advancement (I know there are sort of advancement rules but seriously, not in the same ballpark at all). No magic. I was never a reader of fantasy anyway — I was a Clarke and Asimov nerd as a kid. We played OLD PEOPLE — sometimes as ancient as 40! Doddering! I found that weirdly exciting. I was going to play an adult and so presumably doing adult things.
That’s a big deal as an influence: doing grown up things in a world that feels real. Sometimes mundane things. Paying the bills. But adult. That’s a major sea change from D&D.
Replacing classes with life paths was also a big deal: it taught me early that not only were there a lot of ways to make a character but I only knew two and they were totally different! This implied that there were even more and even more divergent possibilities.
It also had complex construction rules for spacecraft and that suggested all kinds of things you could construct using this basic model: here’s some space, fill it with doo-dads that have different cost metrics (mass, credits, program space) and calculate stats from this list. Mind blown!
And then of course the rich random setting generation was obviously influential — we’d use it in our first game, Diaspora, and most afterwards.
It was still strangely combat centric and that combat was still roll-to-hit-then-roll-for-damage so I wasn’t yet exposed to alternatives there, but the rest of the game was so very different that it seemed like everything was questionable.
Traveller was revelatory.
There were lots of games played after Traveller but precious few I would consider influential. And then…
dungeons & dragons 3e
Yeah I don’t think there was anything really influential between Traveller in, what, 1979 or so and then this. Lots of games, but nothing I’d point to and say that shaped my tastes today and certainly not my design ideas.
But at some point in the late 80s I stopped playing role-playing games altogether and that lasted at least ten years. And then 3e came along.
When I saw it, it was the perfect time. I had some friends who were likely players. I was feeling a wave of nostalgia. I had a big table.
I prepped and ran long campaigns with new friends and old friends. I connected with my would-be co-authors. We had great times.
But as with D&D Basic, I don’t think it had an influence other than reinforcing the seminal: this was role-playing and I wanted to keep playing. And now maybe start writing. So an influence because it influenced me to get back into this stupid hobby.
The place where I bought my D&D stuff had some indie titles and one that I saw early on was this Burning Wheel thing. It hybridized fantasy with life path character generation. It had some compelling technology for rewarding certain kinds of behaviour. And it installed the idea that the traditional GM might be something you want some mechanical defense against — the idea that the role could be abused and that rules could help.
Sure, dice pools, and so on, yeah those were novel to me but not influential.
The influential thing here was first that this was put together by someone that wanted to, on personal budget. Printed in relatively small numbers. This represented something I could do. It wasn’t something that came from the glossy world of Publishing. It came from the world of gamers.
So the critical influence of Burning Wheel was the invitation to start designing my own games. The idea that my creativity might productively extend beyond just playing the game. And it made me think about the social roles of the people playing and about games as influencers of behaviour. Games as mind control, if you will.
Okay more next time. That’s good for today.