Sunday, February 6, 2022

The Games That Made Me

February is always an emotionally difficult month for me. It is filled with birthdays (including my own), anniversaries, and other dates of joyful, sad, and bittersweet significance. 

I am making a concentrated effort to put all that aside this year as 2022 is a year of celebration. The focus is on a positive, informative, and entertaining discussion about the hobby I love. 

To that end, I had this idea of looking back on my 45 years with Tabletop Role Playing Games and talking about the games that, for better or worse, define what I do and why. 

Here goes:

Basic Dungeons & Dragons, Holmes Version - TSR (1977)

This is the very first game I played, the one that started me off in this hobby on August 25th, 1977. As much as my sensibilities and tastes have moved away from D&D (and it's relatives), I will forever be grateful to this game for introducing me to the wonderful pastime of TRPGs. 

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st Edition - TSR ((1977-1978-1979)

I have such a love/hate relationship with this game.

I loved it from the late 1970s until the early 1980s; mostly because it was the only game in town so to speak. It was definitely the go-to game for my friends and I from the ages of 9-12 but I always found it a tad counterintuitive. It's fluff didn't seem to match it's crunch and the writing seemed to focus on what you couldn't do rather than what you could.

With each new game I played after AD&D I found myself liking the Fantasy RPG less and less. Eventually I would run and play games that were not only more in my wheelhouse - Science Fiction and Superheroes - but also just made more mechanical 'sense'. More and more I was encountering games that described themselves in terms of what you did to make a character, run a game, create a universe, and less about limits, can'ts, don'ts, and shouldn'ts.

I will always remember my times with Advanced D&D 1st Edition [mostly] fondly but it also my benchmark of what I don't want in a Role Playing Game.

Villains & Vigilantes, 2nd Edition - Fantasy Games Unlimited (1982)

My friend Martin Lederman and I split the cost of the V&V 2nd Edition boxed set, making it (technically) the first RPG I ever bought with my own money. I convinced Martin to go in on it by reading the back cover of the box in my best Ted Knight-Super-Friends-Announcer voice, assuring him that he'd get the chance to play a 'Champion of Truth and Idol of Millions', just like the package said. 

I was a huge Superhero fan by the age of 13, with a considerable comic book collection. I understood Superheroes. Fantasy, especially D&D-style Medieval-ish Fantasy, was always a vague and unclear thing in my mind. I felt more at home running my first session of Villains & Vigilantes than my hundredth session of Dungeons and Dragons.

V&V was one of the first nails to be driven into AD&D's coffin. Not because it was a 'better game' per se but because it did something Dungeons and Dragons didn't made sense to me. Armor didn't make you harder to hit, it made you harder to hurt. Certain attacks worked more effectively or less effectively against certain defenses. Things worked the way they worked in Superhero Comic Books because this was a Superhero Comic Book RPG. Sure, from our viewpoint in the year 2022 it doesn't do these things as well as later games have but it showed me that things don't have to feel like they function arbitrarily. Genre based games could be made so that they operated like their genre operated. The world of RPGs was suddenly wide open.  

Star Trek, The Role Playing Game, 1st Edition - FASA (1982)

The first RPG I purchased wholly on my own, with my own funds, Star Trek, The Role Playing Game was also the first game I got from my inaugural visit to The Compleat Strategist in New York City, my FLGS for the past 40 years. 

If V&V was the first nail, Star Trek was the second, third, and possibly fourth. Why play wizards fighting orcs when I could be the Captain of a Federation Starship? Why travel through a faux-European forest for the next dozen sessions when I could be on a desert world this week, an abandoned space station next week, and make contact with an ocean planet's aquatic civilization the next? What is swinging a glaive (what even is a glaive?) compared to beaming down, scanning with my tricorder, or firing phasers?

This game also confirmed something I was already leaning towards in other games; Killing things and making money is not the purpose or focus. [Honestly, we were approaching D&D that way from the very beginning].

FASA Star Trek allowed me to Role Play in the universe of my favorite television program, playing out my dreams of Space Adventure Sci-Fi, my favorite subject. It also did something even bigger and more meaningful to me - it introduced me to the idea of the Licensed, IP-Based game, something I would become very popular for among my friends. 

I think this is the RPG with which I began to develop my personal GMing style, though I wouldn't realize it or even put any thought to it for some time to come.

Paranoia, 1st Edition - West End Games and Toon, 1st Edition - Steve Jackson Games (1984)

These two games, both of which came out in 1984, were hugely influential on me for being commercially viable Humor RPGs. The idea of a Comedic tabletop campaign wasn't something I hadn't thought of before but I generally assumed only my friends and I would be interested in such a thing. 

Another thing that made these games great was how they were written, particularly Paranoia. The rulebooks have a certain irreverent, sometimes sarcastic approach that says, 'These are guidelines. Change things up if you need to.' Along with the next game I'm going to mention, Paranoia and Toon made it not only OK to tweak the rules as written but it was almost encouraged.

Other games during this period with a similar effect on me that deserve honorable mentions are Ghostbusters, 1st Edition - West End Games (1986) and Teenagers from Outer Space, 1st Edition - R. Talsorian Games (1987).

Star Wars, The Role Playing Game, 1st Edition - West End Games (1987)

What can I say about this game that truly conveys what it means to me.

I love Star Wars D6. In the past I have identified it as my all time favorite game system mechanically and while I still feel it is among the best of the best, I think others that followed its lead but refined things may edge it out slightly these days. Games like ALIEN by Free League for example and my own Ghostbusters kitbash of classic GB, InSpectres, and Alien. 

Still, Star Wars holds a special place in my heart and takes up a permanent residence rent free in my mind when it comes to gaming. Already popular in my gaming circles for running Star Trek, DC Comics, Ghostbusters, and games based on various Anime series, Star Wars tripled my demand as everyone wanted to be in one of Adam's Star Wars games.

It hit at just the right time to, as my real life was going through a particularly tumultuous time. I needed something to be good at, something I didn't feel like a failure at honestly. Gaming has always been that for me. Even when I feel awful I know that at least I'm a great GM. It might sound silly and to some extent it is but it works to keep the anxiety in check. 

WEG Star Wars is also the first time I really got to understand how RPGs were made and who the people were behind them. West End Games - for those who may not know - is named for West End Ave., located on New York City's Upper West Side. The offices of WEG were around the corner from good friends of my Mom's and I was good friends with a few of the employees including the late Martin Wixted. I also knew Peter Corless (through his brother John) and Bill Smith, whom I met at a number of conventions. 

I submitted an entry into the contest that would later form the equipment catalog/supplement Galladinium's Fantastic Technology, winning 20th place with the V5-T Transport Droid. I would later be contacted as a kind of sounding board/consultant for another Droid sourcebook. It's ironic since when the game was first announced I submitted an application to write for West End Games and was turned down for being too young and inexperienced. Rightly so but a few years later and there's my name on the credits page of a product. Do or do not. There is no try, eh?

Champions, 4th Edition (and early ones) - Hero Games and others (1989 and earlier)

Ah Champions, you magnificent bastard of a game. When I first encountered it, probably around 83-84, I had no interest. Villains & Vigilantes worked just fine for my Superhero needs and was complicated enough. This game was on a whole new level of being in league with my arch-nemesis - Math. 

It wasn't until 1986 or so when I started participating in my friend William Corpening's epic Age of Heroes/Age of Chaos campaign that I truly appreciated what this game was all about and what it could do. At a time when I was going for simpler and less crunchy game mechanics, Champions taught me to not fear or despise the mathematics involved in what can be a fantastic gaming experience. 

In addition, it solidified my preference for games wherein you build your characters by either point buy or pick options. None of that messy and often disappointing random rolling for me. I want to choose my skills and abilities as well as my weaknesses and limitations. I want to build the character I want to play. In all honesty, Champions reignited my desire to be a player at all, as I'd been primarily a GM with only the occasional, often disappointing foray into being on the other side of the table. 

I also learned a great deal about running games, creating NPCs, designing scenarios - really NOT designing them - and such from my buddy Will who to this day is the greatest GM I have ever had the pleasure of playing under. Thank you for you wit and wisdom Will. 

MegaTraveller - Game Designers' Workshop (1987)

Another game that deserves mention for similar though also quite different reasons is Traveller by way of its sequel MegaTraveller. Traveller was another game I initially disliked and mentally wrote off until being reintroduced to it through MegaTraveller many years later. With the help of my good friend Jason 'Big J' McAlpin, I learned to understand and appreciate the Traveller universe, how it can and does include the things I felt were missing from the game, and how easy it is to add any and all the elements of Science Fiction that I love (within reason) but aren't there by default. 

Traveller is also a case in which the opposite of Champions' Character Creation, consisting of numerous random dice rolls, can still be really fun. What it does that other games with Random Generation don't do is provide a sort of built in backstory for your character, letting you know that they received such things as Promotions, Special Assignments, and field Commissions during their pre-campaign lifetime. 

Both Champions and Traveller are, for me, exercises in changing ones perspective and being open to forming new opinions with new experiences and more information. 


I'm trying to think of a tenth entry but really things get murky after the games I've already mentioned. The gamer I am today is an amalgamation of 45 years of experiences running and playing a hundred (or more) games. With each game, campaign, and even session I try to hone my approach and technique a little more. 

Some games were not what I wanted and needed modification so I improved my kitbashing and tweaking skills. Some games were so bizarre in concept that I needed to learn how to pitch them to an audience that might not easily grok them. From Japanese TRPGs I learned how a different culture adapted a hobby that originated here in the US to their sensibilities. I learned some really creative ways of adjudicating challenges from games that didn't use dice, even if that isn't my thing personally. 

I like to think I'm always learning, always growing, and perpetually trying to improve. 

Whether I am successful at it is for my fellow gamers to decide. 

Barking Alien

1 comment:

  1. So I have four of those in common with you. I never played MegaTraveller, knew Paranoia only by reputation, and played Toon in college maybe twice and involving perhaps a little too much, um, recreational substances.