Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Other Games I Have Known

Brian Murphy over at The Silver Key asked me the other day if I might share my experiences playing games other than RPGs. I thought that was a very good idea, so here's a brief overview of the games I've played and enjoyed over the years. Not all of them qualify as "old school" by any reasonable definition, but I figure someone might find it fascinating to know the games with which I spent my time. For this post, I'm keeping details of my experiences short. I might expand on them later if there's interest.

  • Gamma World: I think this was my second game after D&D and I played a great deal of it during my youth. I dissent from grognard orthodoxy in preferring the second edition over the first, despite its Jeff Easley cover and Larry Elmore interior art. I confess that, in retrospect, I find something vastly more "moody" and weird about the first edition. In any case, I had great fun with this game, which I always treated as much more science fantasy than science fiction. Come to think of it, that may explain why my D&D tastes tend less toward the outré than many other old schoolers: Gamma World nicely sated my hunger for gonzo weirdness. Dan Proctor's Mutant Future perfectly recreates the mood and feel of those old days and I'm itching to give it a whirl sometime soon.
  • Traveller: After D&D, I've probably played more Traveller than anything. It's the game that inspired me to become a writer and my earliest publishing credits are for it. I ran many, many campaigns using these rules and probably remember more about my old Traveller campaigns than I do my old D&D ones. That's because I only once -- and briefly -- went through an anti-Traveller phase, whereas I had many long-ish periods where I dropped playing D&D and even openly disdained it. For whatever reason, Traveller has always been my SF RPG of choice and the qualities it evinces -- soberness and seriousness, chief among them -- are those I most seek in the genre.
  • Call of Cthulhu: CoC is important for me not just because of the game itself, of which I played a great deal, but because it helped spur on my love of pulp literature. I already knew of Howard and Smith, of course, but reading Call of Cthulhu reinforced my love of them, as well as many (to me) lesser-known writers of the same era. CoC also taught me a thing or two about good refereeing as well, not to mention a fine appreciation of the dramatic value of player character death.
  • Pendragon: I simply love this game and consider it one of the most perfect gaming evocations of its inspirations ever written. I've run three lengthy Pendragon campaigns over the last 20 years and several shorter ones and I've enjoyed them. As games go, it's an acquired taste and I can't fault anyone who simply doesn't have the taste for it. At the same time, I have to pity anyone who can't enjoy chivalric romance as a gaming genre. Many of my fondest gaming memories comes from playing this game.
  • Star Trek: The FASA version of this licensed RPG is the only one I ever played much of and I loved it to death. Looking back, it's hard to remember why exactly, as the game system was mostly workmanlike but otherwise unremarkable (except for character generation and the starship combat system, both of which were stellar). I suspect it's because the game came out early in the "movie era" of Star Trek, when canon had not ossified to the point where it was no longer possible to have fun adventures without tripping over thousands of hours of accumulated facts and trivia. Back then, Star Trek still retained something of a "philosophical" character, being a kind of slightly retro, almost pulpy adventure sci-fi that drew heavily on Westerns as inspiration. I like that kind of SF (even if it's not my preferred idiom -- see Traveller above) and FASA's game delivered those goods. I fear Star Trek can never again occupy that same mental space in my life again.
  • Fading Suns: Take D&D, Call of Cthulhu, and bits of Traveller and throw them in a blender and you get Fading Suns. I had many fun times playing this game, especially once I cottoned on to the fact that it wasn't intended to be played "straight," which is to say, deadly serious. No, Fading Suns is unabashed pulp SF after the fashion of Jack Vance's "Planet of Adventure" series or C.L. Moore's "Northwest Smith" stories. Bear that in mind and it all makes much more sense, what with the strange mix of science and sorcery, religion and the occult. The game eventually succumbed to "splat book syndrome" and canon-itis, but the core concept remains terrific and I played a lot of it once upon a time.
Those are the games other than D&D that I love. What are yours?


  1. 1.TMNT&Other Strangeness. It was the 2nd rpg I played (after D&D) and the first I owned myself. Played a ton of it in both contemporary and the various after the bomb settings for years as both GM and player. After purging almost all of my collection, I still have all my TMNT books. It's partly nostalgia, but mainly because it's a really fun game.

    2.Earthdawn. Ran this for several years and was the GM all the time. Mechanics were great. At first all the supplements were great fun to read (the supplements are 95% fluff 5% crunch) but as time went by, they just seemed to make it harder for my imagination to make up cool stuff on my own for the setting. Combat ran very longish if you had a decent number of bad guys too. Still, this game was awesome- T'skrang, Trolls, Obsidimen! The only non-D&D fantasy rpg that I've played for any extended period of time.

    3. Hollow Earth Expedition. My current hot game. Picked the book up shortly after it came out a few years ago, but just recently got the chance to play. The game really rocks. The rules are simple and support everything from investigation to action very well. As GM I can put my prep time into adventure ideas rather than statting up NPCs.

  2. 1. James Bond: The RPG: The first game I fell in love with, and for my money, the best example of tailoring game rules to a genre. All of the mechanics reinforce the setting and teach you how to get into character. The modules also managed to adapt the movies and books without aping every last plot twist. The one big flaw: Like the books and movies, the game is really about a solitary hero. Groups just don't work well.

    2. Top Secret: Not as slick as Bond, but still a sweetheart of a game--perfect for the gun fetishist hiding in every 12-year-old kid. Our GM filled notebooks with homebrewed weapons and ran storylines straight out of Mack Bolan books. Not exactly edifying, but it kept us off the streets.

    3. Over the Edge: There are probably better rules-light, descriptive-stat systems out there, but this is the one we found first, and we played the hell out of it. Lots of freedom, lots of laughs.

    4. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: A great slice of pulp sci-fi. Enormously easy and fun to play and referee. Plus, the sourcebooks just look fantastic: vintage comic strips alongside wonderful contemporary work.

  3. Gamma World: Possibly my favorite game, even over and above D&D. Certainly my most successful sessions were taking my buddies through Legion of Gold. Got chased around the room and put in a headlock by a short-tempered friend when his PC bullied a yexil who set off a negation bomb in defense, rendering their hard-won arsenal of powered weapons useless. Good times.

    Palladium: I had a lot of fun with this one back in the day. Still really love the spirit of it. It's unbalanced and unwieldy and overloaded with fiddly rules -- kind of ADHD AD&D -- but it has a sense of joy that continues to charm the hell out of me.

    Shadowrun: I guess some folks think this setting is sort of corny? We talked about playing this one more than we actually ever got around to it, but I always dug the blend of near feature pseudo-tech and bog-standard fantasy. Plus (as with Palladium FRP) you could play ogres and trolls. Maybe that's a thing with me?

  4. I really haven't played a lot of RPG's other than A/D&D. A little Call of Cthulhu, a little Vampire: The Masquerade, more than a little Marvel Superheroes (a vastly underrated game, IMHO). I share your love for the FASA Star Trek RPG, although I spent way more time simply playing the Starship Combat system as a stand-alone wargame. Those minis they had were absolutely gorgeous, and the game system itself was eminently more playable than Starfleet Battles.

  5. Great list of games, James! My favorite non-D&D RPGs include, in no particular order:

    - Call of Cthulhu (Pagan Publishing's materials in particular, though Masks of Nyarlathotep remains my favorite published adventure of all time, for all games)

    - Ars Magica (I love the setting and magic system, the mythic premise, and the game's troupe-style role-playing)

    - Paranoia (my favorite beer and pretzels rpg!; Paranoia's one of those great gems of gaming, and The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues remains another of my favorite adventures of all time)

    - Amber Diceless (another great setting and super-flexible system)

    - Blue Planet (another wonderful game setting, the system's only so-so, though; writing for 1e BP remains one of the highlights of my games publishing career :D )

    - Fading Suns (like Blue Planet, FS has a great , and when it appeared, it was the best SF game published since SW by WEG; like ArsM, FS also takes a non-epic/heroic approach to RPGs, as its genre is ostensible a passion play, even though that concept was never really capitalized on in the game as much as it could have been; still, you can't go wrong with a Dune/Hyperion hybrid)

    - Vampire and Mage (I never really played the other WoD games, but I loved the mythology of 1e Vampire and rigid, class-based style of gaming)

    - Kult (the World of Darkness done right!---a great setting, and a decent game system too; wonderful to intermix with WoD or CoC)

    I have a feeling that I'd really enjoy 2e RuneQuest, but I've never had a chance to play it.

    One of the common threads I notice in my post is that the game setting really pulls me into a new system, generally moreso than the system itself.


  6. D'oh! How could I forget GURPS? I have a lot of love for the way GURPS lets you cross genres, or perhaps more accurately in my case, broaden genres (I had a vast scifi campaign that tied in ultra-tech, space, time travel, and a bunch of other books). Yes, I am that famed person who actually played GURPS rather than just collecting the books...

    Plus, now that I wrack my memory, we did play some Palladium in the Air Force. Not exactly my cup of tea, but not horrible.

  7. Call of Cthulhu for sheer joy of playing and more good bad times than any other game.

    Ars Magica because it seems serious and frivolous at once: a nicely European fantasy world with strong enough hooks that it can support a lot of different game styles.

    Vampire 1e but it's more of a love/hate relationship (which I think might mean I've just played into the designers' hands): the games I've played have been very sandboxy, but the vampires' world almost always ends up soap-opera like in its claustrophobia.

    James Bond and Doctor Who for their quirky, pitch-perfect mechanics, rather than their settings. I've especially enjoyed Bond/Cthulhu, which worked out being neither Delta Green nor MIB, nor X-files, but something altogether stranger.

    Star Wars 1e for simple, streamlined fun: I cannot think of another system or setting where you can so easily begin a new adventure just by shouting "seize them!" and seeing where the players take it from there.

    ...unless it's GURPS Goblins: far and away the best, most flavorful, most playable GURPS supplement I've ever seen, and the very definition of serious frivolity.

  8. Greyhawk Grognard:"Plus, now that I wrack my memory, we did play some Palladium in the Air Force. Not exactly my cup of tea, but not horrible."

    Alas poor Kevin S. damned with such faint praise...;)

    Speaking of things not everyone's cup of tea, I'd should add the game that I'd like to be playing above all others: Encounter Critical. There's a robust design underneath all of the wacky bells and whistles, even if many of the finer details of running the game are either obscure or undefined.

  9. Feng Shui - Really played to my desire to do off-the-cuff, high-action gaming with a Hong Kong action-movie feel.

    TORG - Pulpy crunchy anything-goes gaming that embraced genre conventions and turned them into setting.

    Pendragon - Perfectly captures a very specific kind of literary source and converts it into a unique and absorbing gaming experience.

    Lace & Steel - Swashbuckling adventure where the personality of the characters has as much to do with their success and failures as their skills.

    Boot Hill - Minimalist approach to everything but the act of shooting someone with a FDR6 or brawling with them in the street. Had a ton of fun with this game.

    Top Secret - Complex in some places, simplistic in others... had a long running game following the adventures of an off-the-books assassin for the IRS and the FBI agent trying to arrest him.

  10. So was the PC the IRS assasin or the FBI agent? Or both? Either way it sounds fun!

  11. I might add to this one game that I would really love to play but haven't had the opportunity; Aces & Eights by Kenzer. Everything I've heard about this game rocks, and if I could find a game around here I would definitely avail myself of it.

  12. Now that I think about it, I did in fact play a lot of Top Secret back in the day. I have a longstanding love affair with espionage and TS was my first introduction to it in RPG form. Can't believe I forgot that one.

  13. Aces & Eights is a game I own but have not yet played. I really like the look of it and admire many aspects of its design. My main beef with it is that I wish it hadn't gone the alt-history route and had stuck with the real history of the West instead.

  14. I tend to concur; I was thinking of doing a sort of "Wild Wild West" type campaign with it.

    But the alternate history thing could be worse. There could be an undead Abraham Lincoln wandering around...

  15. Next to D&D, the game I had the most fun playing was Runequest. We started with second edition and switched to the Avalon Hill boxed set third edition when that came out.

    Runequest at the time was a very cutting-edge game. Completely percentile and skill-based, it eschewed levels and escalating hit points for fixed HP and hit locations. Combat was very deadly but also a lot of fun, with beheadings and limb-severing galore. Although magic is actually more plentiful in RQ than D&D (anyone can cast spells), it scratched my "realism" itch quite well.

    I also had fun during a limited exposure to Call of Cthulhu (a few one shots), and we also had good times with Star Frontiers, particularly with the Knight Hawks supplemental box set. Great ship-to-ship combat system.

    Also, does Car Wars count? Not much roleplaying there, but we had a blast designing cars and fighting it on the postapocalyptic streets.

  16. But the alternate history thing could be worse. There could be an undead Abraham Lincoln wandering around...

    You raise a very good point.

  17. Also, does Car Wars count?

    Of course it does. Car Wars, along with Ogre, are important shared experiences of old schoolers. I played a fair bit of both over the years, although I can't say they've had much influence over my game play or my imagination since then. They were great fun at the time, though.

  18. Great Blog, thanks for the insights.

    However I think Fading Suns IS a deadly serious game. Actually it could easily be re-published with a name like

    I believe it tries to blend classic space opera with a medieval-gothic feel. the core premise was probably something like this "Hey, what if we took European history circa 5th to 10th centuries and applied it to an inter-galactic setting"

    Bottomline: I believe FD is "The Name of the Rose" meets "Star Trek" with some additional aromas like Alien, Event Horizon etc.