In at the Deep End
Unlike the enormous and overhelming majority of people in the world, I didn’t start ‘proper’ role-playing with Dungeons & Dragons. I wasn’t even aware that Dungeons & Dragons existed for quite some time. When I went out looking for a proper RPG, in a shop in a shopping area that doesn’t even exist any more, I gravitated immediately to Middle Earth Roleplaying (or MERP) by Iron Crown Enterprises because I loved The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings so much, even at that young age. Anyone who knows anything about MERP knows that it was basically just a ‘lite’ (Ha ha ha…) version of Rolemaster, one of the most baroque, complex and inaccessible RPGs in existence. Unbowed by almost completely not understanding the rules I threw myself into playing it with my customary gusto and it was my roleplaying game of choice for many years.
That might well surprise people, since I seem to be somewhat associated with the ‘New Style’ or ‘rules lite’ system movement, these days somewhat inappropriately called ‘Indie’, but then perhaps grappling with ‘Rulesmaster’ all those years gave me a greater appreciation for the possibilities of stripping back the rules to get at a more ‘pure’ gaming experience. Even so, MERP taught me a huge amount about creating a good game world, about making it consistent, keeping the mood of the material and learning to expand on it an an appropriate way. It also put me completely off using figures and maps to the point where I never really used them again until very recently.
After that things turned into a bit of a blur, game after game, willing to play just about anything, but there’s some particular stand-out games that I think have informed me and helped make me into the gamer and writer I am today.
- Dragon Warriors: A very simple system and spread across several books, Dragon Warriors was important for a couple of reasons, firstly it was sold in paperback format (a shame the new edition wasn’t, though it is great) and secondly it really went for the mythological, British feel to the background, even more so than Fighting Fantasy. The mini-adventures in the backs of the books were also of excellent quality.
- Cyberpunk 2013: If Cyberpunk hadn’t laid the foundation none of the ‘stylish’ games that came along later in the 90s, none of them could have really existed. 2013 also tried for a realistic combat system and while success was mixed, it helped show how system to could guide player behaviour.
- Cyberpunk 2020: A massive improvement in presentation and a progression in system showed that new editions could genuinely improve upon older ones. Cyberpunk 2020 was played for years and years in my group and we still return to the game and the system for near future and transhumanism themed games. It’s just a real shame CP3.0 let the legacy down.
- Blood!: Blood! won me back to system-heavy games through the critical hit tables and in the way it played, showing me that a system heavy game could still come through and create an engaging and immersive game, especially in terms of survival horror. I loved it so much I resurrected the game under license.
- Over the Edge: Going the opposite way to Blood! this was a vaguard of ‘rules lite’ and showed how it could really work well. Characters defined very simply in a setting where you can literally play anything. Challenging as a Games Master and inspirational from a design point of view I still go back to it for inspiration.
- Vampire: The Masquerade: A revelation in its time in terms of presentation, graphic design and the focus of the game upon story and narrative over the game. Arguments can rage back and forth over whether the system married up to the intention and the nWoD is a crushing disappointment compared to the oWoD but Vampire did break the mould and did make roleplaying genuinely cool for a while.
- Mage: The Ascension: Mage was the apex of the Storyteller system and ethos for me, it was downhill after Mage 2nd Edition. A magic system that was inspirational, freeform and could cope with all the different ideas, a sandbox environment and a cosmology that tied together the previously dispirate WoD games. Mage was a work of art and damn near perfect, inspirational for working on systems that ‘build themselves’.
- Feng Shui: Feng Shui is a masterpiece of genre emulation and most of it done with only a couple of rules, one of them being stunts. The freeform play and the stunt system, combined with the mood setting book combined to create a clear vision of play.
- Legend of the Five Rings: L5R is something of a strange game, a fantasy Japan, but that excuses some of the strangeness. The inspirational nature of the setting, its detail and the reasonably loose metaplot allowed me to create my most successful ‘epic’ campaign yet.
- Unknown Armies: After the occult/horror glut of the 90s had seemed to drain that well dry Unknown Armies managed to claim it back a bit and give it a fresher outlook. The horror/sanity system therein was also an inspiration, an improvement on the age old Cthulhu sanity system without rendering it too much more complex. Unknown Armies re-enthused me to the whole genre and showed there were still new spins on the theme yet to be tapped as well as room for more ‘conventional’ design to do the business.
- HeroQuest: When we wrote Neverwhere we kind of got ahead of some of the ideas in HeroQuest, the definition of characters by their description. HeroQuest showed me this could work in a more sructured game and with a more defined rules.
said: I managed to finish Starship Traveller first time. Not sure how, it was a while back.
To which I say: KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!