Thursday, January 17, 2019

RPGs That Influenced Me

Dungeons and Possums made a post  recently called “RPGs That Influenced Me.”  It’s a good read, and Possum asked for others to make their own posts about the games that influenced them. That’s what this is.

This whole thing rambles on a bit longer than I intended, but I’ve wanted to write a post for a while now that details my journey through the RPG hobby. This was pretty much an excuse to write that. I skipped over a bunch of stuff that I could write several pages about (WBS, Rolands’ Cavern, etc.). You’ll have to hit me up about that later.  In person, at a con, with booze is your best bet.

Anyway, here’s my journey…

Hello, old friends.

The Beginning
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness
  • Batman: the Roleplaying Game
  • Hero System: 4th Edition

I’m kind of an outlier among gamers, because I didn’t start with D&D, nor did I have anyone introduce me to the game. As a kid in the 80s, I was only marginally familiar with D&D as some kind of fantasy property, but I was a total sci-fi nerd (Doctor Who, Star Wars, and Star Trek) and didn’t care for anything without robots and spaceships. As I got older, I was vaguely aware that D&D was a game my uncle played, and there were ads for it the superhero comics I read, but that was it.

Any excuse to repost these guys. 
I got into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness  when I saw an ad for it in the back of one of the Archie TMNT comics. A game where I got to play as one of the Turtles sounded really cool, so I filled out the order form and sent some of my paper-boy money to the address and waited. A while later the book arrived in the mail, filled to bursting with awesome gritty Eastman & Laird art and the intricate Palladium game system. I taught myself how to be a GM from that book, and ran many weird and nonsensical adventures with my junior high friends. I remember the Armidillos of Action were my first PC group—a quartet of mutant armadillos with a penchant for doing crazy A-Team mods on whatever vehicles they acquired. We were isolated gamers with no one to ask for advice. Any rules we didn’t grok we had to adjust or make-up on our own.

I ran TMNT all thru junior high. It was the only game I had. The only place to find other RPGs was 20 miles away at the Waldenbooks in Sandusky. That means if I wanted to run superheroes or cartoon kung-fu insects, I had to kitbash my own rules with TMNT as a base. Seems like I’ve been homebrewing systems since the very beginning!

When I got to high school, I became more mobile, as I suddenly had older friends with cars. I could finally peruse that RPG section at Waldenbooks!  At the time, I still wasn’t interested in D&D (although by this time, I had met people who played it). Instead I wanted superheroes. In 1989, Mayfair put out a stripped down version of the DC Heroes game called Batman: the Roleplaying Game, to coincide with the release of the Tim Burton Batman movie. I played that for a little while until I discovered the Hero System:  4th Edition. Because it was a generic system, I had to come up with my own settings by default. I played a variety of campaigns with Hero System for a few years—supers, sci-fi, and finally... fantasy. All of them with campaign worlds I created on my own (Navistar!). I’ve always loved world-building.

At Last, Dungeon & Dragons
  • Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Editon

My friends enjoyed my other games, but eventually, one of them asked “Look, if we buy you the books, will you just run D&D for us?” Well of course I couldn’t turn them down. A few weeks later I had a shiny new copy of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook. I read through it and was hooked. It’s probably not coincidental that this also about the same time I got heavy into Fritz Lieber and Michael Moorcock, along with all the Dragonlance novels. I ran 2nd Edition AD&D all through High School. I still have a pretty good collection of brown and blue "Complete Whatever" handbooks.   Like before, I used my own homebrew world (Questor!). This was well past the golden age of modules, so I never got to play with Keep on the Borderlands or the Isle of Dread. Instead I ran a lot of stuff out of Dungeon magazine in all its 90s boxed text and purple prose. Also Ravenloft, one of the few prefab game worlds I would ever use in 30+ years. I ran AD&D all through high school and into college.

The Respectable Young Man Turns Splatterpunk
  • NightLife

Despite my appreciation for Ravenloft, I never cared much for horror movies. That changed after highschool. When I was about 19, I got heavy into horror movies, especially the weird, super-violent Italian stuff and the cheap splatter-fests on the shelves of the dusty and sketch video rental places that popped up all over Sandusky, Ohio. By this time, I could drive myself and had a lot of downtime between classes at ye olde community college. I spent that time off-campus poking around video stores and Hobby shops. I found NightLife by Stellar Games on a wire rack in A&B Cycles.

NightLife, I has it! (Also ACE Agents)
NightLife came out about a year before Vampire: the Masquerade and was totally overshadowed by that angsty juggernaut. But NightLife was different. You played as punk-rock monsters who never resented their inhuman natures. The game took place in a not-quite-yet-apocalypic New York City as envisioned by a bunch of Ohio guys who had never actually been to New York.  Brad McDevitt’s mohawk'd daemons and sexy zombie ladies struck a cord. Like D&D before it, I found this game at the right time. At this point in my life I was getting heavy into black metal, industrial, and mid-90s darkwave. While playing NightLife, my friends and I listened to the Crow, Demon Knight, and Mortal Kombat soundtracks on continual loops. A couple of us even started using some of the slang used by PCs in the game when we went to metal concerts at Peabody’s in the Cleveland Flats. Vampire was for mopey losers, NightLife for was the hardcore crowd. We sure thought we were sexy dangerous badasses.

We Become Sexy Dangerous Badasses
  • Mind's Eye Theatre
  • Changeling the Dreaming
  • Demon the Fallen
  • Vampire the Masquerade
  • Werewolf the Apocalypse

For one reason or another, my gaming died for a few years. Part of that was due to moving to a new town. Part of it was due bad romantic relationships. But eventually I got back into gaming thanks (?) to LARPing, the World of Darkness, and the late 90s Bowling Green goth scene. I moved to Bowling Green, Ohio in 1998. By the weirdest of coincidences I wound up living three apartments down from Brad McDevitt, creator of the aforementioned NightLife. It’s a crazy story that I won’t go into here. Brad and I are still friends, and he's been super suportive over the years.

I pretty quickly became part of the burgeoning goth scene in Bowling Green. I hadn’t gamed much in the past three years, and had only LARPed once before in Cleveland. But there was a new World of Darkness LARP starting up in the back of the bar where the Wednesday night goth night was held. This was my introduction to the World of Darkness. The game was terrible, and it consumed our lives. I mean, no one got lost in the steam tunnels or anything, but LARPing was all we talked about and was the primary social outlet for a bunch of us. A lot of in-character rivalries became real-life animosities. Like I said it wasn’t great and ran too long. But that’s not important. What’s important is that the LARP was where I met the woman that would become my wife.

Look at these two edgy fucks.
Ivy and I were in the same Sabbat pack in the third failed goth-night LARP. She was a much bigger World of Darkness fan than I was, but she got me into it more and more as our relationship established itself (Pokemon too, but that’s not important). The nice thing about dating a gamer is that the two of you already have half a game group put together. Ivy and I ran a number of different World of Darkness games over the next few years—mostly Changeling, Werewolf, and Demon. For all their faults, running Demon and Changeling taught me how to build complex relationship maps between NPCs and PCs. Ivy is excellent at running urban sandbox games, where the players have free reign to wander through her world, interact with her fully developed NPCs, and get into whatever trouble they can. I learned a lot from her in that regard.

Goth night on Wednesday. World of Darkness on Sundays. Lots of booze, eyeliner, dancing, concerts, and clove cigarettes in between. That was my 20s.

The One-Two punch of QAGS and Story Games
  • QAGS Second Edition
  • Dogs in the Vineyard
  • Prime Time Adventures

We got older. Goth night died, and I got tired of dressing like a vampire (Ivy, not so much). D&D 3rd Edition came out, we played it, and got thoroughly sick of it well before 4th Edition made me decide I never wanted to play D&D again.

I don’t have the space here to go into great detail about how I found QAGS and weaseled my way into becoming part of Hex Games. I did it, and those Hex guys are some of the best friends I’ve ever had. QAGS got me to love rule-light systems. With only six stats and one die, you can put an entire character on an index card. It worked really well for the free-form online roleplaying I was doing at the time, too. Because the Gimmicks and Weaknesses were so broadly defined, they were almost free-form as it was. This is also about the time I discovered "story games." At the time, I was working at the college, and I had a lot of time to listen to these new things called podcasts. These podcasts introduced me to story games—a movement, it seemed, started by people who were also sick of D&D.

I never got heavy into GNS theory, and I think I can count on my fingers the number of posts I made on The Forge, but I liked story games a lot. I still like story games! The basic philosophy of story games seemed to be, “you write systems that promote the kind of gameplay you want.” If you want players to get into difficult personal complications, then you reward them for doing that. If you want players to try and steal treasure without engaging monsters, you reward them for that. 

The two games that really influenced me were Prime Time Adventures and Dogs in the VineyardPTA  taught me a lot about scene economy and pacing. It taught me how to set things up so every character eventually gets their own spotlight. Most importantly to me, as a guy playing a lot of free-form online chat games, it taught me how to establish interesting scenes. At the end of every scene, you should have learned something new about the character or something should have changed in the world. If not, then you’re wasting time and playing house. I still generally hold by this rule.

Dogs in the Vineyard blew my mind, man. Vincent Baker’s writing style was unlike anything else I had encountered, and it changed how I write and present games. He wrote DitV and presented the rules as though he was sitting across the table from you, all in second person. “Okay, you do this, then you roll these dice. Now I roll these dice and do this.” It was amazing. DitV also pounded the lesson into me that, when preparing for an RPG session, you shouldn’t come up with plots or stories, you should come up with situations. “Here’s the town as it stands now. Here’s what happened to get it to this point. Here’s the NPCs and what they want. Here’s what will happen if nothing happens.” After the railroady plots, pages of boxed text, and convoluted meta-plot of 90s AD&D and World of Darkness, this was revelatory. It totally revamped how I run games.

The OSR and the return of D&D
  • Labyrinth Lord
  • Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics

Aside from a bunch of convention games I ran for QAGS with the Hex crew, I ran story games almost exclusively for several years. Dogs in the Vineyard, Apocalypse World, Fiasco, Monsterhearts, Spirit of the Century (not actually that story gamey, I think), Smallville (ditto). I don’t think my players ever liked them as much as I did (although Ivy really loved Dogs in the Vineyard and the Fate Accelerated game she ran based on Fables). But story games were what I wanted to run, so that’s what we played.

At this point, though, you should realize how my taste in games always change. Eventually, story games started to lose their appeal. I got tired of feeling like all my games had to “mean” something. I missed the simple joy of going underground someplace where I shouldn't be, taking stuff that didn’t belong to me, and maybe killing a monster along the way. Thankfully, I was still listening to gaming podcasts, and about this time there was this sudden surge in “retro-clone” games like Labyrinth Lord and OSRIC. It wasn’t called the OSR yet, but a lot of people were rediscovering the simple joy of B/X D&D and its old-stlye brethren. I eventually convinced my game group to let me run some old-school elf games. I especially enjoyed Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures. The fairytale vibe appealed to me, and the playbooks had a lot of what I liked with Apocalypse World. Real-world interpersonal problems within my game group would be the death-knell of those games, sadly. I did manage to run a few Labyrinth Lord games online, however, thanks to the advent of G+ and Roll20.

Eventually D&D 5th Edition came out, and much to my surprise I loved it. It reminded me that yes, I actually did like mainstream D&D. My kid was 16 when Fifth Edition came out, and was ready to join our game table. So that was a major bonus, too (they played a frighteningly effective Assassin).

I have a whole separate blog post about Dungeon Crawl Classics and why I love it. You should go read that. None of my praise has changed. The best thing I discovered about DCC, though, is the wonderfully supportive and creative fanbase that sprung up around it. Zines, websites, and third-party publishers, all with the awesome support of the Goodman Games crew. It’s great, maybe my favorite fandom for just about anything.

And that’s it! That’s where I am today, a 40-something petite bourgious ex-goth gamer dude. I skipped over a whole bunch of stuff. I barely got into all the (embarrassing) online chat-based roleplaying I did through my 20s and 30s. I didn’t talk at all about my podcasting adventures with Monkeys Took My Jetpack, Porcelain Llama Theater, Of Steam Steel & Murder, and others. I didn’t mention Deadlands (pre-Savage Worlds), Zorcer of Zo, Dragonstar, Houes of the Blooded, Fiasco, or Stars Without Number. Those are all stories for another time, I guess. Hit me up anywhere if you want the gory details.


1 comment:

  1. This is the post I wish I'd written! Great job. I can't agree more about DitV and Baker. When I picked up that book the first time I read it cover to cover in a single sitting and was absolutely awestruck by a game for the first time in ages. I haven't played it now in a number of years, but I played it heavy for awhile and "revelatory" certainly covers how I felt about it.