When I read some posts and tweets over the last few weeks where tabletop players listed the games they were influenced by, I was taken aback by how sure the posts were. It’s a question that has made the rounds recently, and so many responses were very certain and straightforward. For me, the answer is a little murkier; there are standouts, but I think the timing of my entry to the hobby makes for a fuzzier picture.
I got into games in the mid-90s, but was introduced to it with a couple crates of hand-me-down games that were mostly old school even then. Around the same time, I had access to the new frontier: the internet, where things were still confusing and new and unpopulated. I was lucky enough to have access to Prodigy in ’95, and then briefly AOL, before transitioning to the normal world wide web in late ’96. I had my eyes opened to a broad world of discussion and news about role-playing games (and many other things, RIP Tekno Comix) that I otherwise never would have heard about in my tiny rural town. I learned about new games and books and house rules nearly as fast as I went through the crates of books I had been given. When I moved home to the big city a few years later, I was armed with plenty of knowledge and some pocket change.
Because of this, my mental image of important RPGs is a little skewed. I didn’t spend the 70s or 80s playing only AD&D and hanging on every word in the pages of Dragon magazine to learn about the occasional new game. I entered the hobby with several games in my collection right off the bat, and a big wide world already full of RPGs – and, thanks to the era, I had the access to learn about them and eventually track them down and play them while I still had unlimited free time. I am, however, old enough (and, more importantly, have been playing long enough) that my only experience with games isn’t just some 5E or Pathfinder games. It becomes harder to untangle all of the influences, especially since I was playing during many of the “cultural shifts” in gaming, from old school to the narrative/metaplot games to the storygames era to today. I think older players had more starkly obvious influences in a less crowded and simpler market, and newer players simply have fewer experiences (generally), meaning their lists are both likely to be more straightforward. I think anyone in my age group with similar experiences will also have a bit of a confusing thread to unravel for this question.
Despite the vague chaos of it all, I’m going to give it my best shot, though.
The games that launched my fascination, and still inform many of my expectations and preferences today. These were given to me in hand-me-down boxes (along with others that I do not think made quite as much of an impact) when I was young, and for several years were all that I played. Indeed, they were all I could play, as they were all I had. This would be the early- and mid-90s for me, though the games predate that as they came from an older friend going away to college.
Dungeons & Dragons Basic/Expert by Tom Moldvay & Dave Cook
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons by Gary Gygax
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition by Dave Cook et al
Traveller by Mark Miller et al
Gamma World 2nd Edition by James Ward et al
Star Wars D6 RPG by Greg Costyikan
The games that expanded my understanding of the hobby and gave me new tools and ideas, during the time when I had endless hours to spend expanding my horizons. Some of it stuck around and is on my list of games to play even today; some of it I have left behind, content with the lessons I learned. This section spans the broadest range of time as these are the games I came to when I was able to acquire new things beyond what had been given to me first. This would be the latter half of the 90s and into the 2000s.
GURPS 3rd Edition by Steve Jackson
GURPS 4th Edition by Steve Jackson et al
Call of Cthulhu 5th Edition by Sandy Peterson et al
All Flesh Must Be Eaten by George Vasilakos
Dogs in the Vineyard by D. Vincent Baker
Vampire the Masquerade (original World of Darkness) by Mark Rein-Hagen et al
Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker
Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Edition by Monte Cook et al
Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition by Rob Heinsoo et al
Rifts by Kevin Siembieda et al
Paranoia by Greg Costyikan et al
Games that have more recently captured my imagination, inspired me with new concepts or mechanics, or reinforced what is really important to me in theme or gameplay. These are games I came to play in the later years of the 2000s and into the 2010s, and some I continue to play even now.
Savage Worlds by Shane Lacy Hensley
Dungeon Crawl Classics by Joseph Goodman et al
Lamentations of the Flame Princess by James Raggi IV
Numenera by Monte Cook et al
Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition by Chris Perkins et al
It’s by no means a perfect list. Undoubtedly I will push the publish button and realize I forgot something I consider critical. I had to omit tons of things I enjoyed, but which I don’t think were sufficiently important to my appreciation or understanding of our hobby to warrant inclusion beside things which have genuinely formed or changed the way I play; an example would be Twilight 2000 in the original batch of games I had as a kid, which I loved as a book to peer through but which I never managed to successfully play at the time. Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020 are other great examples, as I enjoyed these a lot and had copies of both and played them quite a bit for awhile – but I don’t believe I really picked up much lasting influence from either. For the most part, I think this list is pretty accurate.
And while I have the chance, though he’ll never see it and likely never thought twice about it: Thank you, Howard, for your generosity all those years ago. You thought you were giving away milk crates full of nerdy stuff to the rarest of breeds – a fellow reader in a tiny town – so you could move across the country to go to college and have a slim chance to talk to girls by leaving the nerdy stuff behind. You were actually giving so much more. Thanks.
For everyone else out there, what games launched, redirected, or upended your gaming career? What has influenced your style and preferences the most? I was fascinated by this question once I started to really think about it, and I would be very curious to see what the answers are; I wonder how similar a lot of us OSR types are, and how broad or narrow our experiences are on average. Let me know where you stand on this, whether it’s a link to your own blog post or by hitting me up on Twitter @dungeonspossums and breaking the character limit rules.