I’ve seen the “10 RPGs that most influenced you” thing floating around in various gaming spaces on the internet. Here is a stab at it for me. Special thanks to Brandes Stoddard, who encouraged me to flesh out what I learned, rather than just make up a list. You can find his work at Tribality
along with other great contributors, as well as at his own blog, Harbinger of Doom
- Dungeons & Dragons
- Marvel Super Heroes
- Marvel Heroic Roleplaying
- Monster of the Week
- Edge of the Empire
- Mutants and Masterminds
- 7th Sea 2nd Edition
Like any “Top Ten” list, this is my current moment. With time, reflection, and exposure to different games and gamers, I’m sure it won’t take too long for this list to start mutating. This is just a snapshot of me at the end of 2018.
D&D feels like a HUGE cheat, since that, for me, covers B/X, BECMI, AD&D 1st and 2nd Edition, 3rd, 4th, and 5th edition. I also don’t lump Pathfinder in there because despite being a similar rules base, I learned completely different things from how the game was supported. Standard disclaimer–I tried to pick the top ten, but I’ve definitely been influenced by more games than this.
Dungeons and Dragons
Starting with the big one, and the one that I kind of cheated on, let’s look at Dungeons and Dragons. In addition to being the reason there is an RPG industry, it was also my gateway into roleplaying games.
Origin story: My mom and my sisters used to read Arthurian stories to me when I was a sickly young child. One sister got me into reading C.S. Lewis, and the other got me into reading Tolkien.
My brother got me into reading comics, and on grocery trips, I would get 2 or 3 comics at a time. On one of those grocery trips, I couldn’t find any Spider-Man or Batman comics, so the natural thing was to pick up this one comic that had some shirtless dude with a sword on it.
D&D started showing up on TV shows and in places like E.T. My sister found out it had some Tolkien stuff in it, so she wanted it. Then she got busy being a teenager and left her B/X boxed set in a drawer, and I may have stolen it.
That’s a long way of saying that the first thing I learned from D&D was that it was this amalgam of Arthurian legends, Narnia, Middle-earth, and Conan influences. It was a messy amalgam in places, but it spoke to me so hard.
Each edition taught me something. 1e AD&D taught me that I liked weird, obscure things, 2e AD&D taught me that I liked to feel like I was on the ground floor of something that I could grasp from the beginning, even if it was similar to previous versions.
BECMI taught me that you could have a “basic” version of a thing that is actually more logical and better organized than the “advanced” version of something.
Third edition taught me that D&D was something I couldn’t fully leave behind. When it came out, I had been away from gaming for a few years, but the hardcover jumped out at me at the bookstore, and I suddenly realized how much I had missed it.
It also taught me that you can do a lot of rules elements that are logical and make sense in an isolated sense, but trying to use all of those rules elements at the table may not work as well as the isolated mechanic surrounding that one element.
Third edition did a much better job of having mechanics work consistently across subsystems than AD&D 2e did, but that didn’t mean that all of those things working the same way didn’t start to break the original meta-conceits of the game, or that intuitive meant easy to use.
For a long time, knowing the mechanics worked the same way across sub-systems was enough for me to want to engage them all the time, and that kept me from being more critical about if those sub-systems really needed to exist.
Third also taught me that the desire to have a mechanically robust game is not the same as wanting a simulationist game, but games that are mechanically robust often get confused for simulationist, even though hit points in D&D should be your first clue that it isn’t.
Fourth taught me that game systems and marketing sometimes come into conflict. This was true in 3rd as well, but I don’t think I really learned that lesson until 4th. I liked the core rules conceits of 4th and had fun with it. I hated the marketing.
“We’ve made the ultimate version of D&D, and past versions were all dumb!”
“We’ve kept all the proper names you loved in the Forgotten Realms, but killed off all the meaning so it can be all things to all people, with no good reason to use this instead of the Nentir Vale.”
Fourth edition Forgotten Realms marketing taught me that I had been fooling myself about FR since 2nd edition–making FR a generic fantasy playground wasn’t new, and 3rd did a whole lot of it as well, but it was couched in a lot more “this is a natural extension of previous editions” language.
On the mechanical side, I was frustrated that my eladrin paladin was fine at being the party defender one week, and the next week, with a new player joining with a character taking options from Martial Power, my character was terrible–and this was just months after launch.
The core rules conceits were fine, but the power creep seemed less like a natural consequence of years of design and more like a planned feature of the game. “Your free to play character is fine, but they’ll be awesome if you invest in [Insert Power Source] Power.”
This is where this part of the D&D story trails off into what I learned from Pathfinder, which is a story for another day–on to 5th edition!
Fifth edition taught me what fiddly bits from each edition had the most emotional impact on me. It also taught me that I like knowing what the designers are thinking when they design, and that they actually play the game. There was a time in 3rd edition when I heard a lot of people working on D&D saying, “I used to love to play, but I’m too busy designing to game anymore,” and not only did that feel sad to me, it also felt like it was a great way to lose track of what was really fun at the table.
I also learned that I’m okay with the Forgotten Realms being the Forgotten Realms theme park within the larger D&D land, as long as the material isn’t actively insulting to what I loved about the setting. I don’t care about the Obarskyr genealogy being accurately represented. I just want things like Skullport to resemble how it appeared in my head, rather than being completely reimagined.
If anything, I think they retconned a little TOO much rather than rolling with some of the changes, but then I remind myself it’s just a theme park. I also really love how the mechanical options don’t deviate too far off the road. What I mean by this is, most of the play is close to the surface of the core rules. If I don’t want to dive in and see what the rules are for how long a character can hold their breath, I can just give them a DC for a swimming check, and give them a level of exhaustion if they don’t make it, and
most of the things in the game that make them better at swimming have to do with making the check in the first place, not worrying about the fiddly bits.
5e D&D has also taught me that even a really good, strong ruleset can have things that just don’t work, and it doesn’t ruin the overall game. I really want traits and inspiration to matter, and no matter what I try, it just doesn’t really seem to take hold without major changes.
I’ll go in order and tackle Pathfinder next. Pathfinder taught me, in part, that I really like the feeling of finishing a campaign. I “knew” from my earlier experience in RPG that you don’t need to play 1-20 to have a complete game, but I “unlearned” that when I came back for 3e.
By making adventure paths the primary adventure publishing model, Pathfinder reminded me that you don’t need to explore all of the detailed levels in the game to feel as if you have successfully drawn a campaign to a close.
I also learned that I liked supporting 3rd party publishers. I had a few items from the 3e days, but I picked up a lot more 3rd party material under Pathfinder. Most of it never hit the table, but I was fascinated to see what people were doing with the engine of the game.
I also learned what kind of ongoing mechanical support I liked. I was fine with a regional guide that added a spell that kind of did the same thing as another spell but with regional flavor, or a feat that did the same. I didn’t need them to be more powerful to get me to buy.
If you told me that there was a Cheliax fireball spell that did slightly less damage, but gave an opponent a -2 on fear saves until your next turn, I’m not planning on making that mechanically viable for a “build,” I just like the flavor of it given the setting.
There did seem to be, however, a 2nd wave of Pathfinder adopters that wanted the same level of rules mastery over a “new” system that they had with 3e, and they wanted mechanical options that were either objectively better than core, or had the potential for synergy.
I wasn’t a tactically sound GM, so providing tactical depth for players that wanted to be mechanically challenges was increasingly not something I was interested in. This wouldn’t be a problem for a home game, but I was running increasingly more Pathfinder Society as well.
Pathfinder also taught me my opinions on organized play. To me, the three primary goals of organized play should be:
- Introduce new people to the game
- Remind people that your game is a current “thing”
- Provide content for players that may not have a steady home game.
The density of the OP specific rules a few years in and many of the corner case rulings increasingly felt, to me, that organized play was a closed loop that was rewriting the rules primarily to keep the same gamers active in organized play. It also felt as if it was more important to make new content legal as quickly as possible, to help sell the new content, than it was to see if that content worked well for organized play. I’m looking very squarely at you, original version of the summoner.
I was also having a hard time running events at the FLGS while subscribing to the various RPG lines from Paizo. I wanted to buy things at the FLGS, because they were providing space, but the deep discounts and free PDFs made that a hard decision.
Eventually there was just so much content coming out–I didn’t care about the purely mechanical releases, and I was way behind on the AP and setting specific stuff. I wasn’t happy with organized play. So Pathfinder taught me when to say goodbye.
Final Pathfinder Note: Just because I wasn’t having fun doesn’t mean I think everyone should have reached the same conclusion that I did. I’m just giving my context and what I learned. If you are having fun with Pathfinder and not hindering someone else’s fun, have at it.
Marvel Super Heroes
Where was I? Let’s do Marvel Super Heroes now. I was deeply, deeply affected by comic books, so it’s probably not a surprise that the second RPG I picked up was Marvel Super Heroes. At the time I was just expanding from Spider-Man into Fantastic Four and Avengers.
The first thing I learned from Marvel Super Heroes was that you can have different mechanics for different RPGs. Yeah, that seems like a dumb statement, but this was when I first was getting into RPGs.
In the D&D and AD&D material I had read up to that point, the tone was very much “these games are serious stuff, and there is a right way to do this, so pay attention.” Marvel Super Heroes didn’t have that same tone.
Marvel Super Heroes cracked jokes, had some intentionally silly examples, & had various digressions. The bombastic, joking style closely resembled the tone Stan Lee projected in his editorials, and the digressions were similar to the editor’s notes that showed up in the comics.
What all of this taught me was that sometimes the tone of the rules themselves helps to convey the genre that the game wants to emulate. If you want people thinking of Conan or Elric, you don’t crack a smile. If you want them thinking of Spider-Man or the Thing, maybe joke a bit.
MSH also taught me that maybe the final arbitrator shouldn’t be the dice. If the dice had you, maybe you can spend some Karma to help you out. Maybe heroes should have a little bit of a choice about where and when to succeed or fail.
The dice are randomizers to force the story to have unexpected results, but sometimes a hero in the comics manages to succeed at exactly the right time. Spider-Man isn’t on the same level as Firelord, but maybe Pete’s having a bad day and just doesn’t want to lose.
You can’t always succeed, and that wouldn’t be fun. But you can decide that THIS TIME it’s just way too important to perform this particular action. At least as long as nobody kills anybody, because Wolverine and Punisher really screw you over in MSH.
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (Cortex Plus)
Next up on my tour of top 10 influential RPGs (for me): Marvel Heroic Roleplaying!
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is an interesting journey for me, because it’s one of my all-time favorite RPGs, and the first thing it taught me was that I just didn’t get it the first time I read it.
It was interesting, because I had the book, and read it, and thought I understood it, and had classified it as “not for me,” but I kept hearing people running the game on various actual play podcasts, and here and there I would think “that’s now how you are supposed to do that.”
It’s like my brain was flashing back to my read through as I heard other people trying to engage the rules, and it was crystalizing my own understanding of how the game should flow. By the time I had heard three different actual play podcasts tackle the game, I wanted to run.
So, if the first thing Marvel Heroic taught me was that I may need to reexamine my first impressions after new data, the second thing it taught me was what kind of online resources I actually wanted to run a game.
I really, to this day, just want a video conferencing app that can do nameplates, a dice roller, allows some kind of resource tracking (i.e. a counter on screen that displays a number, and maybe a section that lets me display notes on screen for things like aspects.
To this day, I’m kind of happy that I’ve heard multiple people say that they understood the rules better from watching my videos. I liked the game a lot, and I was worried that because it was more narrative, some of what was good about the game was getting lost.
That is another huge thing that I learned from Marvel Heroic Roleplaying–I like games that construct their rules around emulating a genre and working the way stories work in that genre. I never really understood how much I would enjoy that kind of meta-rules structure before.
I would have never looked at Powered by the Apocalypse games, Fate, or games like The Spire if it hadn’t been for MHR telling me “it’s not important how much Hulk can lift, it’s important that he interacts with the scene primarily through the lens of what his strength can do.”
I also really loved the idea that Milestones were unique either to the character or the event. It is exactly the kind of mechanic that reinforces roleplaying to say, “why YOU and only you do this thing, there is a reward, because of the kind of character you are.”
It was also a revelation to me that a character’s stats could be their stats for a particular scene and a particular storyline. They don’t have one set of stats to rule them all. They have stats that are important in context. Everything else tends to be wasted effort.
[I may have learned that last one earlier if I had ever run 4th edition D&D, but I know for a fact I argued against it on the old WOTC forums when Rodney Thompson was floating the idea of contextual stats for Star Wars Saga. I was so wrong, but I needed to learn that over time]
Possibly the final thing I learned from MHR was that I loved writing things through the filter of the game rules. I had done a lot of fan stuff at Candlekeep about the Forgotten Realms, but actually writing rules was never the fun part to me. The lore was.
My blog, however, has a TON of MHR homebrew material on it, because I enjoyed translating what I was seeing in comics to the “language” of the game. When I was reading comics more regularly, I was posting milestones. I was taking a shot at writing up characters.
I just really enjoyed how the language of the game was so functional for describing the actions on the comics page. I jumped off the bandwagon on this one a little early, because I needed to get my ass handed to me online, but now that I’ve done that, one last, but very important bit that I learned from MHR is that I like having some kind of GM currency to spend.
I like the idea of having currency to spend once everything has been established, so that the players know there is a limit to how much things are going to change, and so I feel better about how far from the orignial scene I introduced that I’m pushing.
And, lest I forget it, what may be my favorite thing about Marvel Heroic Roleplaying—the initiative system. It is easy to jump into, and it’s easy to remain in initiative even if your heroes are spread out halfway across the galaxy, so long as they are all doing something at the same time. Decide who logically should go first, hand off to everyone from there.
Let’s tackle WEG’s Ghostbusters RPG.
Side note–Ghostbusters and Star Frontiers were the first RPGs I bought with money from my job at the egg farm.
I dearly love Ghostbusters, although at the age that I bought the RPG, I didn’t even fully realize how much I loved it. All of the mythos oriented humor shot directly over my head. Ghostbusters didn’t get to teach me about genre specific tone in a RPG, because I had already picked that up from Marvel Super Heroes. But wow, did it reinforce the idea that you could have a comedic tone to explain a comedic roleplaying game. What I did learn was that I liked random results beyond the resolution of the die roll. Ghostbusters had a “ghost die,” and if the ghost face came up, even in an action was a success, something complicated happened. That was the first time I ran into something like that.
I also learned that regardless of how “needed” they are, I liked game specific physical artifacts for a game. The ghost die with the Ghostbusters logo, character cards, equipment cards–these were all physical things just for this game.
I also learned that encumbrance can actually be a fun rule, if you don’t force a lot of math into it. In Ghostbusters, you can only care so many pieces of equipment, and you can load a certain amount into the car. There are no weights involved with any of the equipment. If it’s a significant piece of equipment, it takes up an equipment slot. There is no discussion on how the car keys take up the same slot as a proton pack, because, the car gives you more slots and somebody has to drive.
I don’t know that I could have elaborated on it at the time, but it addressed “you can’t take everything you want with you” without assigning how much characters can carry, or how much everything weighs. It just forced you to make decisions based on how much you had with you.
The other thing that I really liked about the assumed setting of the game is that, sure, you may want to play as the original characters, but a little bit of story is built out, explaining that the Ghostbusters are issuing franchise licenses.
It was perfectly in keeping with elements from the movie, but also meant that you could have your crew in Chicago or St. Louis, or wherever, and you were completely the heroes of that story, while still being in the same universe as the movie.
That was a powerfully attractive thing to me, and continued to be. A lot of settings have plenty of room for adventurers that weren’t the stars of the media that launched the property, but sometimes it is very freeing to know where the game expects those places to be.
Monster of the Week
Let’s transition to Monster of the Week, and why it is one of the top 10 RPGs that impact me today.
First off, I wouldn’t understand Powered by the Apocalypse games without Monster of the Week. Partial credit for that also goes to WWWRPG.
I had purchased Dungeon World, but had a hard time “getting” it. Part of my brain kept saying “you have to be missing something.” Part of it, I think, is that a lot of first generation PBTA games used jargon which didn’t have a super deep meaning, but implied deeper meaning.
It was hard to read it and go, “oh, it really is just that simple,” even though a lot of the PBTA structure was to cut away rules for things that didn’t directly influence the narrative. Monster of the Week felt like it still used some of the jargon, but also took that extra step of saying “and what we mean by that is just this.”
Dungeon World had a lot of passages saying “you’re going to do terrible and awesome,
deep and meaningful things.” Monster of the Week said, “you’re going to do some cool shit, but it’s okay, you’ve got this. If you know the tropes, you’re halfway there.” It felt less like it was trying to convince me that what I was doing was transformative, and more time telling me it would be fun.
- Digression #1: It was transformative, but if you tell me that too much up front, I get intimidated. I don’t trust myself to do anything amazing, I’m just hoping for competent
- Digression #2: I have played Dungeon World since then, and I really like it. But for me, where I was at gaming, at that time, the tone intimidated me and convinced me that I was missing something, because I couldn’t be cool enough to run this, and that’s on me
Beyond teaching me how a whole category of dominant games are played, Monster of the Week did a few other things for me as well. For example, I love that it gives the players a resource to spend that counts down to their own downfall.
I love that Luck is this thing that lets you get the result you want, or survive when you shouldn’t, but it’s finite, and at the end, you’re done. That’s definitely a thematic element I understood from media like Supernatural, and I loved how it was expressed.
In broader terms, it really taught me to give my players something really enticing to use, with full disclosure on how bad that thing will be to use, and let them complicate things all on their own.
Monster of the Week also taught me a whole different kind of prep. While I had always watched inspirational material from time to time when running games in different genres. Monster of the Week taught me that doing this on a regular basis, with intentional purpose, was prep.
I started watching shows like Supernatural or Grimm or Sleepy Hollow with a notebook out, taking notes on the broader tropes at play, and stealing individual spooky things or ways that monsters or their weaknesses got revealed. It was fun breaking the shows down & putting them back together in ways that were less recognizable.
If you just threw this monster from Supernatural in, it might be obvious, but if it has this curse from Sleepy Hollow, or is tied to this organization from Grimm, you had something unique. I ended up doing a lot more deliberate “watch the media, take some notes” prep work in future Star Wars and 7th Sea games, and it drove a ton of ideas. More importantly, it gave me a lot of stuff rolling around my head so that when the unexpected happened, I could reach into the trope soup in my brain and pull out an appropriate meatball of improv. Not sure where that particular metaphor came from, but there it is.
Okay, let’s look at Fate.
Some of what I could have learned in Fate I learned in other RPGs before I jumped on the bandwagon.
Additionally, my first engagement with Fate was a little rocky.
I knew that some ideas in Marvel Heroic were similar to elements in Fate, but used a different way. A lot of how a character is built in MHR is based on aspects, but instead of tagging them with a Fate point, you pick a trait from a category to include it’s die rating.
Doing things like shutting down your powers is similar to compelling aspects to gain a Fate point for a complication related to that aspect, except that there is usually a very specific way to “compel” that power based on how the limit is written.
So, with this broad idea of “aspects are building blocks” and “players can shut things down to get currency to spend later,” I went into the Dresden Files RPG. I love the Dresden books, and I was all about having an RPG that let me explore that world.
The first thing Fate taught me was that I have a certain way I like seeing books organized, and messing with that preference makes is really difficult for me to follow. There was a lot of “lore” then “rules bits” then “more lore” and “more rules bits” in the core rulebooks.
It felt like just as I was getting to the point to where I understood how to resolve something in the game, the game switched away from the topic and started hinting at other rules that I hadn’t seen defined yet.
It wasn’t until I got my beta preview copy of Fate Core from my Kickstarter pledge that I started to understand Dresden. While Dresden wasn’t Fate Core, I could follow the concepts and definitions all the way through in Fate Core, and then figure out where the rules deviated.
Dresden Accelerated also introduces a lot of terms and full stat blocks before you ever get to the rules, but once you get to the rules chapters, you can follow the explanation of a rule all the way through to the end.
Fate also taught me that you can explain a game, and explain it well, and there are still really important nuances that you have to learn yourself. I’m sure other people will disagree with what I posit here, but the dice aren’t where the game is in Fate.
The dice help to provide the illusion of tension in any given situation, but given that they are weighted towards 0, the real game is in spending Fate points, and putting yourself in narrative position to use your best skills.
I have heard people complain about a Fate session being about hoarding Fate points until the final encounter, and then spending them on an over the top success to finish the encounter and the session. But that’s kind of the point.
Fate teaches story pacing. Your failures come in the first couple of acts, and then you are forced to dig deep and justify why you should still prevail based on your aspects and how many Fate points you have.
If you haven’t been compelling those aspects to introduce interesting complications, the opening and middle acts are going to be way less interesting, and you will be way less assured of your final act victory over adversity.
The problem is if you look too hard & see the framework, it’s less impressive. If you realize everything is pacing the Fate point economy so you can get a silly high number at the end of the session, it’s like being bothered by CGI in a movie so you can’t enjoy the movie anymore.
What that means is that it is important for the GM and the players to not just tag aspects, but to actually tell a little bit of a story to explain why that aspect makes sense. The game is in the Fate point economy, the story is in the justification for the aspects.
Once all of that fell into place for me, I loved it, but it did take a while for it to all fall into place. I liked Fate as a generic system to hang other genres on, but I didn’t fully “get” Fate until I understood the duality of where the game and the story came from.
This is also why Fate is billed as being about proactive and competent protagonists–the Fate economy isn’t just a mechanic, it reinforces the concept that the protagonists will, eventually, knock it out of the park. You don’t accidentally win or lose in Fate.
You MAY intentionally pay a steep price to win, or decide that a given situation isn’t worth what you need to give up to make it happen. You can probably win if you want (competent), but you can decide if it’s worth it (proactive).
That pacing and the idea that characters should have the ability to deliberately be able to win or lose, based on what it might cost them, really bled over into other games that I started to run. Concessions also play into this, to some degree, but what concessions also taught me is that we often think people would always want their character to survive and live to fight another day, but sometimes people want the story arc to have a dramatic ending.
I’ve been in games where the game rules let people take that dramatic, epic ending away from me, because the assumption and reinforcement in the rules is that “of course you don’t want your character to ever die, no matter what.”
I also can’t emphasize enough how important a concept aspects are, especially aspects tied to a location or the tone of the story. It can be exhausting to fully detail a scene, but it can give everyone a ton of material to play with to come up with an evocative setting aspect.
Scene aspects existed in MHR, so I encountered them there, but I didn’t get the importance or flexibility of them until I started running Fate. I create a clear picture by describing lots of things about a city street.
But if I say “Dirty City Streets, Bathed in Deep Shadows,” that’s a toolbox. You get a bit of a picture in your mind, but when people start filling in details that mesh with that aspect, the scene really becomes alive, and doesn’t just belong to the GM.
One of the things I loved in the Eberron rules that WOTC just introduced was the idea of adding aspects to scenes in D&D, utilizing the advantage/disadvantage mechanics.
Edge of the Empire
We’re up to Edge of the Empire. I’ll get this in here and say, for some reason that I’ve never fully understood about myself or my friends in high school, despite all being huge Star Wars nerds, we never got into the WEG game when it came out. There, I said it.
I was a player in the d20 Star Wars RPGs. I ran a good amount of Star Wars Saga. But I don’t know that I learned anything of lasting use from those that I didn’t learn from general d20 games or 4th edition D&D.
I know I recently talked about how I can get exhausted running the core game for this system. While that’s not ideal, it doesn’t mean I don’t love the game, and honestly, I specifically picked Edge of the Empire of the three Star Wars FFG games for a reason.
Edge of the Empire taught me that it’s not just a money grab to come up with separate, distinct campaign lines for a single setting, if there are legitimate different campaign styles that can be expressed in that setting.
I learned this a little from FFG’s 40K RPGs, but I think sometimes it’s a bit more obvious that “Guardsmen holding an outpost on a forgotten world” is a different story than “Space Marines stop a hive fleet from advancing on civilization.”
But in Star Wars, Han and Lando (Scum and Villainy) are Rebels, and so is Luke (Force and Destiny), so why have three game lines?
One of the reasons I think Edge of the Empire stands a little taller than the other two lines is that it stakes out really clear territory. Depending on your players, some of them may want to know why their X-Wing pilot isn’t flying with Luke or Wedge, but if you are all criminals, just trying to make your way in the galaxy, nobody is going to complain if they don’t have to share their cut of a bounty with Fett.
One thing that Edge of the Empire taught me that perhaps isn’t quite as positive is that sometimes it’s easy to let the size of a book get out of hand. The rules don’t take up that much space, and I’m not sure that most of the information in the rest of the book are “actionable.”
There is a lot of broad, “lightly flavored for scoundrels” Star Wars information in the books, but not enough of “this is why this is here, you could work for these people, or run from these other syndicates.” Saga had way too little lore, but sometimes FFG has way too much.
It also taught me that sometimes standardized formatting isn’t your friend. There are a lot of 96 page books in the line that feel like they could have used more pages to flesh out a good idea, and some adventures that feel rushed in the format, but it’s a hard rule for FFG.
All of that aside, Edge of the Empire has taught me a lot about the ancillary rules that can reinforce a theme of a campaign. The best example of this is Obligation, which is a beautiful way to keep scoundrels pulling jobs and on the move.
It’s my favorite of the three subsystems for the individual Star Wars RPGs, because it does exactly what it should for that kind of game. You owe someone something, or you are on the run from something, and you can never fully get rid of it, just make it hurt a lot less. It is also a great mechanic for tempting PCs and keeping the campaign moving. “You all got busted and are in prison? Well, this fellow in the cell next to yours is about to break out, if you agree to do a little favor in the future for his gang (+5 obligation each).”
In addition to creating a nice “temptation mechanic,” one of the things I really love about Edge of the Empire is the one roll resolution mechanic. In short, instead of getting into a full combat, you can have each player just roll a single check to see what happened to them. You probably don’t want to use it for a critical scene, but it is a means of adding at least some stakes to that barfight that they started, or that side theft that went sideways. You don’t need to completely sidetrack to resolve the situation, just have them roll a skill test.
They might take a few wounds, or lose something valuable, and this might make later scenes more challenging, but it doesn’t take as long to resolve as a full chase or combat scene.
Edge of the Empire also taught me lessons that feel less intentional as well. For example, there is a combat round structure and special actions for starship combat, but as a sidebar, there are rules for running chases. Reading through the chase rules, I realized that almost any starship fight in Star Wars is actually a chase. Except for the Death Star runs, most starfighter combat wasn’t “wipe them out,” it was “hold them off until I can jump to hyperspace.”
I just wish the starship combat rules sections would have led with chases instead of standard combat initiative. I also learned that if you give a ship a speed rating, then create a movement structure that only kind of relates to the speed rating, people will get confused.
I may have said I get worn out by having so many threats, advantages, despairs, and triumphs to adjudicate, but I absolutely love the concept, & with a smaller part they work very well. I love having both success and failure work on multiple axis, and it feels appropriate for very pulp action.
In fact, while I partially learned this with Pathfinder, Edge of the Empire really brings home the point that there is an optimal zone between GM, game system, and number of players managed, where the game performs best. I almost wish more books explicitly addressed this.
Triumphs and Despairs, especially, are elements that I love. It permission to introduce big game-changing moments into the narrative, and if you use them in conjunction with things like Obligation to guide you, they can make a very simple adventure structure into a great session.
Despite my dig at starship stats, I also love the range band structure to movement. Other games do it, but I got the most play out of it in Edge of the Empire. I loved being able to tell people that weren’t in the immediate scene “start at extreme range” if they try to meet up.
Not only did it mean I didn’t have to reference or guess how far apart the two scenes might be happening, but it flows very much the way movies work, where distant allies have to wait a little bit for friends to show up, but not so long that they can’t help out.
I also really like the slot based initiative system. Instead of individual ranking, rolling well means you might hand off to someone else that really needs to be first, and it adds some tactics to an otherwise abstract structure.
Mutants and Masterminds
We’re getting to the end of the tunnel on all of these most influential RPGs and what I learned from them things, so let’s get going on Mutants and Masterminds now. In the vein of D&D, this is kind of a cheat, because I’m kind of crossing both 2nd and 3rd editions of the game.
The first, and probably best takeaway I have for Mutants and Masterminds is that a game that is emulating a genre can create a mythology for that genre that is every bit as compelling as the original works used for inspiration.
You might say that I would have learned this from D&D, but sometimes it’s hard to learn lessons from the frontrunner, especially as it starts to feel more and more like its own genre. Also, what’s good for sword and sorcery fictional settings versus game settings is different.
I honestly feel that superhero universes lend themselves better to having the same traits between the page and the game universe. Why? Possibly because superhero universes usually do have room for a bunch of new protagonists every few years.
Superhero universes also almost always have built in multiverses or alternate timelines, so deviating from the timeline at a given point (when you start the game) feels more natural with supers games than just about any other genre.
The second edition products hit me on two fronts in many cases, as they were great, insightful discussions of an era or genre of comics halfway through, and then introduced the “Freedomverse” examples of those tropes in the other half. There was no early RPG coyness about “here is a thing, figure out from context where it came from and how to use it.” It was a very clear “this is the history, this is our advice for adding it to your game, here are our example characters and events using those tropes.”
In many ways, the “Freedomverse” is just as close to me as DC and Marvel, and the only other “it wasn’t a comic book universe first” property that has come close to it has been the Sentinel Comics characters from the Better Than Games products.
So while I had spent most of my life already thinking way too deeply about comics, the Mutants and Masterminds products continued to push me into thinking about different, even deeper issues, and wrapped those thoughts in table-ready concepts for RPGs.
There were a few other things I learned from M&M that may not be quite as positive. I learned that, in contrast to a game like Fate or Cypher system, where players can pay to refuse a resource offered to alter a scene, just offering the resource without that mechanic fell flat.
When I would offer hero points to everyone so a villain could get away, I’d have a few players say, “we don’t want them, we want to stomp them now.” The rules didn’t say they could veto the hero point, but I didn’t want to come across as an authoritarian GM. The economy of the player spending a point of [currency] to refuse closes the circle & reinforces that the GM has “permission” to introduce the plot element in the first place. Without that, it feels like everything can come to a dead stop if players don’t like the “intrusion.”
M&M also taught me that rules can have discordant notes in them just like story beats. Most of 3rd edition simplified 2e rules. You didn’t need to specify certain effect with certain powers in 3rd, but you might get extra points if you introduced your own limits–except when it comes to areas like adaption to certain environments or super-senses, where all of the sudden it was just like earlier editions, where you had to be super-specific about what those powers did, in ways that may never come up in a game.
M&M also taught me that there are a ton of things I love about how some games operate, that I wish operated better at the table. Rituals, gadgets, and power stunts all allow for very comic book-like moments. But improvisation within a point based system is hard, especially when the effects that you can improvise still need to have a “cap” on them. You can manage this by pre-building some of your improvised elements, but then you might as well make them alternate effects.
Because of that, a great element of the rules didn’t get used at the table nearly as often as it would have, because even when someone was paying attention before their turn comes up, referencing point costs between turns takes some time.
I love the world and how the sourcebooks presented the material very dearly. It was all so brilliant. I just really wish the math were a little more table friendly, and the hero point economy was a little more fleshed out.
7th Sea 2nd edition
And that brings us to the last game to have a profound effect on me, and that is 7th Sea 2nd Edition.
Three big things jump out at me as noteworthy:
- Heroes are assumed to succeed unless someone else “counter succeeds”
- Heroes complete stories to advance
- How analogs for real-world cultures could be presented
I’ll tackle the last one first–I really enjoyed that the line had a more diverse crew of people working on non-European analog cultures. In particular, I really wanted to run games in the Crescent Empire and Ifri after reading them.
7th Sea 2nd Edition did something that I wish D&D would have learned a while ago–you don’t need to portray the same horrible things happening to a culture to portray the culture well, and in a world with magic, why try to enforce a hierarchy of cultures?
In 2nd edition AD&D, the Tuigan & the Mazticans didn’t get the full range of AD&D classes in their cultures. They didn’t have wizards or rangers, or whatever. So the this reinforced that the Eurocentric nations had deeper and broader abilities, giving them an advantage over time.
Which is, by the way, shit worldbuilding. “In a magical world without limits, the only limit is if you were already culturally oppressed, in which case we’ll keep doing that in this fantasy narrative as well.”
Where you did have a revision of history when translated to the fantasy culture, it’s kind of telling that the fantasy Mongols somehow managed to do better against fantasy China, but fantasy Europe had their number.
Anyway, I have drifted! I love that 7th Sea 2nd Edition included great details like some of the best sailors in the world being from Ifri, as well as the multi-national congress that allowed for global political intrigue.
I had already learned that I liked spending narrative currency in some situations to just say a thing had happened. The core concept of 7th Sea was determining not if you had the currency, but how much & tension came not from failing, but from counter-spending by the opposition.
I also learned that I wasn’t as thrilled with that wonderful back and forth of spending narrative currency interacting with a more traditional wound track mechanic for combat. I would have loved something that relied more on conditions than granular wounds.
I also learned that sometimes game designers have quirks, and those quirks are things you may need to work around. “Guns are the most effective weapon ever, and the real key to victory is having a lot of them to shoot, but don’t use the rules the way we designed them.” (Paraphrasing a bit)
For context, you have a certain number of wounds before you take a dramatic wound. If you take four dramatic wounds (barring advances or monstrous traits) you are down. Guns automatically do 1 dramatic wound, and can’t be parried or dodged. But don’t abuse them, use your sword.
What makes this worse is that there are certain advances that make it even better to use guns, to the point to where if someone gets to go first, they can take out someone with one gunshot, and all villains are only going to have four, maybe five, dramatic wounds.
So the broader lesson is, if you want the game to primarily be about swashbuckling swordfights, don’t spend so much design space on making guns superior to other weapons. Design space communicates intent louder than statements later in the book to “not do that.”
The thing I really want to translate to other games is using story steps as advancement. In 7th Sea, you have a story. The number of steps to complete the story determines how many points you get to buy an advancement. So you have to complete arcs to advance.
You don’t write each step ahead of time. You write how you want the story to end, what you want to learn from it (the advancement you are paying for), and you write the first step of the story. Once you complete that first step, you write the next step.
Because of the story steps my PCs were writing, they had a reason to explore the continent, redeem villains, and complete romance story arcs. Stories that were much harder to introduce in other games were easier, because they were mechanized and had a solid reward attached.
It was similar to what I liked about Milestones in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, except that they were more flexible, with varying lengths and steps that could respond to what else happened in the narrative.
The GM also writes story steps for completing arcs, which makes a great meta-motivation to complete goals, as the players might want to complete their side stories one week, but they want to complete the GM story arc as well in order to get that advancement.
That’s it for now. There are a ton of things I’ve learned from these games, and others, that I’m sure I am forgetting. As I said at the beginning, it’s a snapshot of where I am at the end of 2018, and sometimes it’s hard to get a perfect picture when the subject is still moving.