This is an idea that caught my eye while on Zite. Dice Monkey had a posting on it that linked to Character Generation. Turns out Runeslinger saw the same thing and decided to write on it as well, so why not — I’ll hop on the bandwagon; I even brought my triangle.

Ding!

1. Dungeons & Dragons — whatever box edition. This was the old green (I think it was green) box set that Hess’ Department Store had in 1978 or ’79. I bought it, liked the concept, and when I was finally able to find others who were playing it, loved gaming. I haven’t stopped in 33 years, minus a few periods where I had trouble finding gamers. It’s the ultimate influence, as it got me into the hobby.

I haven’t played D&D since about 1983, after a monumental campaign that ended with the characters becoming — for intents and purposes — the new gods of that game world. Where do you go after apotheosis? Answer…

2. James Bond: 007. We were all of us spy-fi geeks in my original group, so it was only reasonable to expect that with the other games we were trying at the time, Top SecretGamma World, Traveler, etc. that we would run across JB:007. The system led you build your character to concept, rather than relie on random rolls. It was skills based. The system accounted for quality of action. The guns and cars were statted out as more than just generic stuff. It replaced Top Secret after one session and I’ve been using it ever since for modern settings. It’s a bit tired now, more because it doesn’t emulate the new action movie look/feel, and after having had combat training, the system is a bit slow (in this I mean the characters “speed” or number of actions) to reflect reality. (This is why I’m working on an update.)

Running JB:007 was a completely different experience from the D&D games. No dungeon crawls, no minis — I were forced to block out the action scenes in my mind, and to emulate the Bond movies, I quickly learned the 3 or 4 act story framework, how to set a scene, how to create tension and drama, and how to focus on character, rather than roll-playing. It’s where my cinematic style got its start and it honed my desire to tell a good, fast story. It also created in me a love of research: to get the facts as right as I could (I’m a big one for verisimilitude) I learned as much as I could about the intelligence communities, read the news.

Ultimately, outside of gaming, it made me a good and fast researcher. After all, when you’ve only got a few hours ’til the next session, you’d better have something quick.

Side During the late ’80s, my group at the time did a lot of comic book RPG playing. We tried the math-heavy Champions and Mutants & Masterminds, but I found character creation took far too much time and I didn’t have access to a Cray supercomputer for the point buys. We tried TSR’s Marvel Superheroes, which I remember kind of liking, but found the lack of consistency to the scale didn’t fint my mind. (Today, it would be a completely different story.) We settled on Mayfair’s excellent, exponential DC Heroes and played the hell out of it. The campaign reinforced ideas from JB:007 that you didn’t need to min-max your characters for efficiency, as in D&D…you needed to build and play them to their weaknesses. That’s what make characters interesting. I also learned to co-opt GM duties with my roommate/friend of the time. As much as we played DC Heroes (a lot!), it never quite stuck with me. Once I was out of the game, I also dropped (for the most part) out of comics.

Number three is what pulled me out of the comic book games: Space: 1889. Released in 1989, GDW gave us an absolutely terrible system…but a setting so good I overlooked it ’til something better came along. The idea of going retro and using old speculative fiction to create your universe wasn’t new to me, but it coincided with the release of Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine. I was off and running. Since Space: 1889 I’ve usually run a Victorian or historically-based campaign (now it’s usually ’30s pulp, but I’m starting to turn back to my Victorian/Old West preference…maybe a side campaign to my friend’s upcoming Marvel Heroic campaign; supers in the Old West!)

The level of research and knowledge needed to realistically portray the period also spurred me to return to college and get my history degree, so, like JB:007 — which created skill sets I still use today (and led me into the intelligence community for a while), S:1889 actually affected my life outside of game, as well. Eventually, I would dump the S:1889 mechanics, but use the setting for several Castle Falkenstein games (but even that system needed serious tweaking to make combat work.)

4. The Babylon Project. A lot of people would be surprised that the Chameleon Eclectic system worked for me. The dice mechanic can be confusing (one a plus, one a minus — add/subtract the total to your skill…) and the stun/wound system was clumsy as hell ’til you learned it, but it did surprisingly well mirror how people get hurt in actual fights — sometimes you’re hurting (stun) and it slows you as badly as an actual injury (wound) — sometime you can be torn all to hell, but adrenaline and the situation mean you barely feel it. The space combat was based on another space wargame and worked beautifully, the system’s great saving grace.

The system, as with S:1889, was secondary. We were really into B5 and I wanted to run it. Through this game I learned how to well craft story arcs, really dial in on character and the idea of consequence — the main theme in Greek tragedies and B5. Even since, when I’m playing in licensed properties — Star TrekBattlestar GalacticaSerenity — I use the TV serial format for crafting adventures, but also setting up story arcs (seasonal or series wide), and I use all the skills honed during the first B5 campaign to do so.

Which brings me to 5: Cortex. This is my current favorite system. It can do whatever you want with a bit of tweaking, but it is directed at storytelling — role playing over roll-playing — and character. Character creation is swift, easy, and you can pretty much get whatever you can envision. The mechanics are simple roll the die you have in an attribute, onein the relevant skill, maybe an asset die — does the pool beat the target number? Damage is based on the amount of success, plus a die for the weapon.

Simple, elegant. I use a hybrid of the Serenity and BSG rules sets. The one thing I’ve kept from Serenity is the advancement system, cost to improve is based on the die you want to go to, which I find better than a straight point cost. The better you are, the harder it is to get better.

I’m not a fan of most of the Cortex Plus stuff — just call it FATE, already — with the exception of the Marvel Heroic RPG, which has some real potential. (Hoping to play it Thursday.) The initiative and action mechanics are simple and match the idea of the comic panel. It’s a dice pool, which I like to a point, but once you’re rolling a bucket of dice, it’s too much…shades of Shadowrun or WEG’s d6 (still a good system, but 150+ dice to use your rebel cruiser!?!) Character generation, however? Build the concept, period. No points. No min-maxing. Build the character and drive on.

It was interesting to me, looking at the other posts and their comments what isn’t on my list. No GURPS, and it didn’t appear on anyone else’s list. GURPS has its adherents, but the modularity of the rules makes it a nightmare to learn, and again, the amount of mods and math slow play. Another missing entry was the powerhouse of the 1990s and the LARP community: World of Darkness. The White Wolf stuff was everywhere in the ’90s; you couldn’t swing a dead cat in a game store without hitting a wannabe Anne Rice heroine. I presuming they all went LARP and left the tabletop behind.

I saw a lot of Call of Chthulu, a game I despite most likely more because of the first, terrible, horrific (and not in the way intended) experience with it — easily the most boring, pointless excursion in gaming I’ve had. (OK — here’s a mystery, oops! you’ve gone crazy, now watch us play for two more hours.) I saw Savage Worlds, which has a lot of similarities to Hollow Earth Expedition and Cortex, but the quirky card-based initiative and the skill or attribute mechanic felt a bit off. Oh, and I hate the exploding die mechanic.

Pathfinder turns up a lot, but I have not played that, since I’m not a huge fantasy buff, prefering sci-fi or modernish historical settings. Star Wars d6, as well, had a popular following and I played the hell out of it for a couple of years in the early ’90s. I thought it was simple and fast paced; character creation the same — it was a near perfect rules-lite game engine…save for the dice pools. Oh, the d6 dice pools…we have a collection of small d6s from that period of play. I could build a small guest addition with them. I remember an exchange in a big battle that took half the evening because of the counting 200+ dice for a stardestroyer ripping up a rebel cruiser. Were it not for the dice pool, d6 might have been the engine for my first B5 campaign.

So there it is — my top five games, how they influenced my gaming and life, and the stuff that didn’t quite make the cut. I now open the floor to the readers…

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