The Five Games that Influenced the Way I Play

When checking my blog feed after posting today, I discovered that a very similar idea had been proposed for discussion already. I caught wind of it from Dice Monkey’s post, which in turn sent me to Character Generation, and trawling through the comments of each. The similarities and curious differences in the lists presented are an interesting cross-section of gamers, aren’t they? I had hoped to start something off today when I sat down to post today, but find myself trailing along behind in a long wake of others. So be it. I like lemonade just fine~

My list is pretty simple, actually: Palladium Fantasy, Call of Cthulhu, Ars Magica, Wraith: The Oblivion, All for One: Regime Diabolique. I’ll explain why below~


Palladium Fantasy

After seven years of D&D and AD&D, I could no longer deny that I was having a lot less fun than I had been. Entering college a few years before had allowed me to meet more gamers, find a real hobby store, and play more regularly with a more stable crew than ever before. At first, this was pure joy, but soon the incipient frustrations began to return and my fellow players were feeling the same thing. On the bright side, these new friendships and expanded awareness of games and sources for games allowed me to expose myself to different ways to do things. To be fair, looking back now, I can see that a lot of the issues I had with D&D were sourced in how we had come to play it, living as we did in pretty extreme isolation from anything remotely resembling a hub of gaming culture. That said, everyone I met in those early days chose or came to play the game the same way soooo…  you know. We were kids playing a game which was much more adult than we knew. Regardless, frustrated with D&D I was, and determined to find something else I checked out Palladium Fantasy. After reading the rules and getting my players to generate characters, I made up my mind. No more D&D.  I closed out my existing campaigns, and we launched a Palladium Fantasy campaign that we still talk about fondly. It had a core of 6 players and increased to 9 over its two-year run. I never returned to D&D. How is that for influential?

With its fast play, dynamic combat set-up, design decisions at least as arcane as those supported by TSR, a truly killer setting, and a solid focus on character types that embraced options and fun, Palladium Fantasy was a much needed breath of fresh air. True or not, the framing of the system let us focus on building characters we enjoyed instead of talking about a random assortment of rules and limitations every time we wanted to do something. Good times. Tips and tricks I had learned as a DM were greatly expanded and refined by the fresh palette that this game allowed us. I felt that my scenarios were more successful and enjoyable, the rules supported us rather than limited us, and I finally felt free enough to experiment with things like mysteries, and truly open quest structures spanning vast areas of open territory.

The game changed my method of running and playing games in very simple ways. It taught me to say ‘no’ to players when setting up campaigns, and recognize the fine line between guidance and control. Learning to guide character design choices as well as setting clear ground rules for the start of a campaign was invaluable over the years as I explored the idea of sandbox play, and player-driven stories. It also snapped my focus back toward fun and enthusiasm and away from the deadly escalation of challenge and combat which my DMing had become.

Call of Cthulhu

The same summer that I bought Palladium Fantasy, I also bought Call of Cthulhu. It would take me more than a year to get the group interested in playing it, but once we did, this game more than any other on my list changed me as a GM. The characteristic traits of my GMing which were failings in the other games we were trying (Top Secret SI, Star Wars D6, Paranoia, TMNT&OS) were strengths in CoC, and with practice in developing them rather than frustrated attempts to circumvent them I would finally come to run games that really, really worked.

Call of Cthulhu allowed me to explore the use of detail, both in explicit description and suggestive vagueness, it gave me a platform to run whole scenarios devoid of combat, and it reinforced the joy of running fully realized characters despite the real chance they would not survive the investigation. If my appreciation for immersive play has a definitive source, it is in this game.

Ars Magica

Tipped to this amazing game by my local game store during the early days of interest in Vampire: the Masquerade, I immediately snatched up all the supplements I could, and began laying my plans to run it. The game never got out of its planning stages, and to date I have never managed to run more than one-shots and limited run stories with it. Many of its innovations, such as troupe style play, were already starting to appear in my CoC games as regular elements, but I cannot say that I was overtly conscious of them as the useful and supportive tools that they really are. I certainly had no name for them.

The big influence that this game had on me was to give me a solid template for building good player character troupes, and to involved the characters much more in the design and development of their resources. Prior to my exposure to the game, I would encourage players to contribute ideas to the process of developing their resources, but afterward, it became more of a requirement. I would carve out sections of the game world fundamentally relevant to the PC and have the player define it in detail. Over the years since I have developed less intrusive methods of doing this, but the genesis of the change was with Ars Magica. Involvement in the game is not enough, investment is what is required, and that means doing more than just filling in spots on a character sheet, and not spilling pizza grease on the floor.

Wraith: The Oblivion

Something of an extension of the influence of Ars Magica, Wraith is also one of those games for which I have never been able to launch a full-on campaign. While a huge feature of my line-spanning WoD Chronicles, none of my players ever wanted to start the game dead, or be hoodwinked into a transition from one setting to this one. Wraith’s use of the troupe method to allow the players to honestly deal with their dark side opened my eyes to much of the emptiness of ‘game night’ and how challenges beyond the purely intellectual or tactical could be woven into stories and the stakes would be the very perception of who the characters are and why they do what they do. Heady stuff. Like player investment, these ideas became integrated into all of my other gaming ventures, and further contributed to what I think of as my style behind the screen. Choices and motivations count.

All for One: Regime Diabolique

When this game was released, it had the same sort of galvanic effect that finding Palladium Fantasy had on me 20 years earlier. Although there are lots of systems which try to do the same thing, D6 and Savage Worlds among them, All for One introduced me to my new great love in gaming: Ubiquity. Until finding Ubiquity, I was more or less content to sample the wide number of new games that would grab my attention, and make up for in variety what we were lacking in depth. One of the final arguments to drop that approach in favour of once again exploring a system fully and deeply was the misleading simplicity and speed of Ubiquity.

Ubiquity, and the ultra-cool setting of All for One, reminded me how much fun gaming can be if you keep your attention fully on serving that enjoyment and the needs of the emergent story with rules that resolve situations, not define every aspect of reality. Teaching this system to new players and to the latest crop of D&D players has taught me a lot about how gaming has changed, and how some very fundamental truths have been utterly lost in the mad press of games and game designs which are fortunate enough to be able to access. It reminded me of the importance of confidently making rulings rather than being tied to the apron strings of the rules. More than that, though, it instilled a deeper drive to pursue the secrets of running different genres confidently and well. Pushing on to develop new skills of pacing, or tone, or what-have-you in order to capture the moods of high fantasy, heroic pulp, cosmic horror, or slapstick comedy. It is not enough to just be good enough.

And so, Gentle Reader…

I have played more games than I can remember and run most of them, but these five stand out the most as having had an impact on the directions my gaming has taken after discovering them. If there is a runner-up, I would have to say it is the original Star Wars (WEG D6), but in the end, chosing just 5 influential games, it didn’t quite make the grade as much as I love it. I hope to read more of these posts “out there” as the week goes on, and hope that you have found my contribution of some interest~




6 Responses to “The Five Games that Influenced the Way I Play”
  1. khymeria says:

    Call of Cthulhu is a great game and I had so much fun going crazy. As I read over several of the posts in this theme around the net I notice a lot of White Wolf and Star Wars D6. Funny that when we look backwards we all see a lot of the same thing but when we look forward it is all a blur. Here is my response on my blog. Keep up the good work.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I suppose there must be a lot more mystery veiling the future for those that have hitched their hobby to the WoTC D&D fun wagon than for those who have settled down with a more stable game or games.

      Looking backward we have to peer through the bias and nostalgia, but I guess none of use should be surprised that the games that drowned out everything else ‘back then’ are making a lot of noise on these Top 5 posts.

  2. I was more surprised by how much mine differed from the general responses: no Call of Chthulu, no d6 Star Wars (though I did play the hell out of it in the early ’90s), no Pathfinder.

    • Runeslinger says:

      You are a gaming browncoat, it would seem. My list is a little unusual as well. One thing that stuck out for me was the difference in lists for those of us who had to struggle to cut the list down to 5 distinct choices, and those who had to reach to find 5. The games of choice seem to pool around that axis.

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