Saint-Sebastian #5

The Test of Time

I have recently finished reading a book published by the Waterstones bookseller chain called Test of Time. It is the latest in a line of cheap paperbacks that deal with issues related to writing and publishing and are usually subsidised by the Arts Council.

The Test of Time deals with the issue of classic books. What constitutes the classic novel? What modern novels seem likely to be regarded as classics in this new century? What books labelled as classics do not deserve the label?

So for the sake of some easily produced formulaic entertainment let's ask the same question of RPGs.

Classic Roleplaying Games

What is your definition of a classic roleplaying game?

A classic RPG can be regarded as a classic either because of its rules system or because of its background and the way its rules integrate with its background. A classic RPG must either offer something unique and compelling in its background or otherwise contain rules and ideas for roleplaying that are clearly reproduced and refined in later games.

For example Earthdawn in my opinion has a dreadful rules system but an interesting background. It is notable for stealing and refining ideas from other games only to have the original game steal the refined idea back. An obvious example is the Runequest idea of all people having magic, Earthdawn refined that into the Disciple Magic system where everyone has magic that they unconsciously call on to perform their daily duties. This magic system seems the ultimate in humanism magic with the gods being dumped entirely from the background as they had become irrelevant in their role as miracle dispensers and magic providers.

Hero Wars has re-appropriated this idea but loses the humanist element and grounds the all things are magical firmly in a mythic, theist environment. Despite the refinement of ideas that occurred in Earthdawn I feel it is more a well-executed cul-de-sac that a classic. It has never seemed to acquire a large body of players and lacks a truly active fanbase who can act a well-spring of ideas churning up and refining the game.

In defining a classic I think we should be wary of confusing the virtues of a game with its economic or historical importance. Some people might regard AD&D or Vampire as de-facto classics simply because the former started the whole roleplaying oeuvre while the later provided a badly needed renewal and renaissance twenty years later.

I do not think either is truly a classic RPG, both when considered in isolation as games are muddled, poorly describe what they are about and are often confusing. The best aspects of both games are for me crystallised into later versions or revisions of the game.

At this point I think I run the risk of running aground on people's prejudices against the idea of "academic" critical study rather than the populist "let the market decide". It is true that the game buying public does perform an admirable aggressive sifting of the wheat from the chaff but basing the idea of classic games purely upon sales charts seems a fallacy.

For a start there are countless industry jazz mags that provide countless sales lists and Top Tens of various kinds. The judgements of the market are widely available elsewhere. Secondly the argument that only a few people play game X is not necessarily a dismissal if those people are the right people. If only a hundred people buy a game it might be deemed a failure or a flop but if of those people fifty go and design new games based on that ideas in that game then it has an influence totally disproportionate to its sales.

Empire of the Petal Throne is very much an example of this, how many people have an original copy stashed away? Yet it has never really gone away, veering in and out of fashion but offering a distinct influence on what came after it.

For these reasons perhaps the academy has something to add.

Ten classic games for the next century

Roleplayers remind me a great deal of butterfly or stamp collectors. They love to sift, sort, compare and analyse. There are endless discussions about "realism" and simulation, accuracy versus fantasy. The following are personal choices and reflect entirely my personal prejudices.

1. Basic D&D (Red Box)

Dungeons and Dragons is the mothership of all roleplaying and it is imprinted for good or evil on the minds of all roleplayers. Ever since it was printed there has not been a game that has significantly deviated from its template. I have chosen the set I started playing with although I regard the 3rd Edition to be greatly superior and to have just as much imagination without making the game complex or inaccessible.

2. Traveller

The only thing wrong about Traveller is Dungeons and Dragons. This definitive science-fiction game presented enjoyable, rarely rivalled hard sci-fi fun. Its terrible careers system and complicated combat system all seem to stem from the baleful influence of its predecessor. Its skill system, in terms of mechanics, was far in advance of any system that followed for many years. If only the same clarity of thought had applied to combat for example.

3. Bushido

Bushido is not here for its mechanics but for its distinction of "getting there first". Like Traveller and D&D it enjoys preminence for laying down the template for a lot of games that followed. However in terms of rules it simply mashed the D&D system with a complex skirmish wargame to form something that is largely inaccessible and is very dirty. What it does deserve credit for though is bring out a sense of place and for bringing the setting into the rules that than trying to unsuccessfully divorce them.

4. Pendragon

Pendragon deserves credit for taking the focus off the heroic individual, the Conan style adventurer and taking a wider look at the game culture. While frankly never much more than a distinctive niche game its mechanical ideas have been re-used widely and the epic sweep of Arthurian legend has a richness that is much emulated but hard to trump.

5. Call of Cthulhu

A slightly controversial choice perhaps, why CoC and not Runequest? Like a lot of games I feel that Runequest, while being good, lacked a lot of refinement, it had made a lot of improvements to the ideas of D&D but equally had a lot of idiosynchrotes of its own. CoC further refined the Runequest system and pared it down to a finer edge. It also added in an excellent and coherent background that turned all the conventions of heroic roleplaying on its head.

It also offered a monumental achievement in making roleplaying deliberately scary with a vision of the horror genre that has never really been matched. There are other horror games of course but up until the Wraith 2nd Edition all of them seemed to be in the slasher gutter while CoC remained a titanic Hitchcock trading in the fear of the unknown and the unseen rather than the obscene.

6. Twilight 2000

I realise that I might have to hand in my Hobby Elite membership card for even mentioning this game but its reputation is unfair as I think it stands the test of time as the best military RPG written. There have been others but Twilight 2000 is the game I keep coming back to when I think of contemporary warfare orientated games.

7. Dark Sun

Perhaps more a setting than a game but it does alter the standard AD&D rules to fit the laws of its world so I think I am safe ground. What makes Dark Sun a classic? Well first of all it said that the rules of the game must reflect the setting and be integrated into the setting. For me it is the first product to really come out and say that. Previously most writers were concerned with fitting the details of the background into the game. Remember those awkward AD&D classifications of fictional characters such as Elric? Runequest made a great deal of progress towards creating a system that reflected its reality but the failings of its spell list system (for example) meant that ultimately the game world took on the properties of the rules system.

Dark Sun also makes it onto my list for two other reasons, firstly its influence in turning conventions upside down. It rejects the conventional standbys of good and evil, right and wrong in conflict. It also rejects the Tolkien archetype of a world struggling to achieve re-birth or the creation of a new golden age. It returns the focus of morality and choice to the characters, on a doomed planet there is no wider story to be told, the game is about what people do in the face of apocalypse.

Dark Sun also possesses the additional trait of having a strong vision of its world and the ability to convey it in a stimulating way. I think a common thread amongst my key choices is that they have all produced a profound reaction or resonance in my imagination. All of them have come "alive" for me.

8. Mage

In my mind Mage is a colossus of game that strides across the face of gaming like a behemoth. It is unfortunately that as of the latest (Revised 3rd Edition) edition the behemoth is being guided by unimaginative pygmies. Wearing blindfolds.

Two things make Mage stand head and shoulders above its peers. Firstly in terms of its mechanics its magic system it absolutely corking, it is as expressive as its predecessor in Ars Magica but simplifies the system and takes the focus off the rules and on the imagination. Like CoC Mage wasn't the first there but it took existing ideas and honed them to a brutal edge.

Secondly the philosophical concerns of Mage are second to none. It is the only game that successfully engages modern life and modern concerns within the roleplaying format. For this reason if no other Mage is the king of RPGs.

9. Wraith

If any game approaches the status of art then it is Wraith. It makes as its subject the great Western taboo of human mortality. It engages the human condition unflinchingly and ultimately it says something about us, about humanity. It is a unique achievement (sadly) and its sad failure to find a market means that currently it stands as a lone sentinel indicating what RPGs can achieve.

Wraith also stands as one of the most horrific RPG's ever written. With its nihilistic vision of a Purgatory warped in both time and space and its themes of loss, misery and psychological collapse it presents the real demons inside us rather than the childish gore of most horror games.

10. Indiana Jones

I thought for my tenth choice that I should really try and pick one very recent game that looks set for greatness. In that context then I think the only real contenders currently are Forgotten Futures (more for its background that its rules) and Hero Wars. Instead though I have plumped for one of "forgotten favourites". The Indiana Jones RPG from TSR was one of the first games I ever owned so I am extremely susceptible to charges of nostalgia.

I do not think they would be warranted the game itself is battered from use and I still flick through it for inspiration. I have even run a quick game a while ago and therefore I can say that it remains one of the most satisfying renditions of the pulp genre ever committed to paper. Like Twilight 2000 Indiana Jones may have entered the backwaters but it a classic in that few games have recreated its dash and feeling for adventurous pulp.

Which RPG's (if any) should never have been called classics?

Really this question is nothing more than an invitation to let your prejudices run wild. As I have already said I think AD&D and Vampire are not really worthy of the status of classic games but I would re-iterate that they are important games.

I have never understood those that have tried to play Rolemaster and GURPS straight and I am not sure that either of them have ever been described as classics but if they have than they are most definitely not!

Also Paranoia is not a classic game, it is a one trick pony like so many comedy RPGs. I wish someone would write the comedy RPG that was funnier each time you played it but I do not think that anyone has achieved it as yet.


I haven't left myself a lot of space for dealing with the theme of this issue, partly because I do not have much to say about it. The party is one of those terrible and artificial constructs of RPG. In the ideal world we could do without it, after not every group of protagonists were like the "Fellowship of the Ring" after all.

I think the most important thing about parties I have failed to truly take onboard as a GM is that the party is a fixed group of players not characters. Most of the difficulties caused by "the party" results from the stifling atmosphere of, to reword a phrase "being married to four people you never even wanted to date".

Occasionally all the players generate characters that can all get on well and co-operate. More often than not though if they create a character that they find interesting and want to play, the resulting melange often consists of overlapping skills and abilities and conflicting personalities and interests.

I often find it interesting to compare a party of characters with their players. The players are usually a rich, untidy, varied lot. They have a lot in common, sometimes several players have the same name (something you never find in the "perfect" party), they also tend to lack having any real commonality except for the game their playing. In a few rare instances individuals within the group may dislike one another so much that never see one another outside "game evenings". Despite this they all manage to turn up regularly for game sessions.

The standard party is made up of people who usually have clearly defined roles and talents. Sometimes they even identify themselves by their job rather than their name, "the technician", "the driver". The members of the party socialise exclusively with other members of the party and have no regular outside interests. They disagree, committee style, ultimately creating a democratic consensus.

I like to have parties that are more like the gaming group than some kind of elite scenario-cracking crew.

There are two important kinds of party pressure. Firstly there is the innate social pressure of being in a group in (usually) a stressful situation. This complex tidal peer pressure is a good thing as it brings a reality to social interactions.

The second is the game pressure, the idea that the party's purpose is to take on the GM's scenario and triumph. This pressure is really no different from min-maxing. Only in the most specific circumstances would you be able to select a team of well-balanced experts. Take an example for a game that another pitched to me the other day, a Star Wars game that starts with the characters as prisoners on an Imperial slave world. It is natural for the group of players to form, they are after all prisoners of conscience, have co-inciding political views, a common enemy and a collective desire to escape the gulag.

It is likely however that the group would not consist of a droid, a space pilot, a soldier, a loveable rogue, etc. It is far more likely that all the characters would be pilots or soldiers having been captured in some failed offensive.

Regardless, it is likely the group will coalesce to escape. Now what happens next? In roleplaying terms the group go on to have mad adventures across the galaxy foiling the Imperials. Isn't more likely though that upon escaping the immediate danger the group would actually be more likely to split up as their agendas differed? Some might want to return to their units or homeworlds, some might want to immediately return to attack the Imperials. A part of the group may go on to have RPG-typical adventures, not all.

If a group stays together simply because they are the party then the game can start to unravel. If conflict between the characters is ignored because they are characters then the situation becomes stale and artificial.

This leads me to think that having a focus of a group of characters might be reasonable but that the urge to stick to the same characters game in, game out is unhealthy. In a long running campaign it should be possible to split the original group into its separate factions and then play out the stories of the different groups with players generating different characters for the different "branches" of the main story.

If the GM is determined to have the same characters in every session then they are going to have to come up with some damn good glue. In many Mage games I have played in the glue is the cabal that has an existence beyond the characters. If you are a member of a notable cabal then like a former rock star you kind find that your past associations can follow you around. It is also difficult to leave a cabal because of the quasi-legal obligations you have to it. In one notable campaign the player characters formed a cabal in the first flush of success. Having committed to its creation in writing a few of the founders started to realise that not only did they not have a great deal in common with their new cabal members but in fact in some cases they extremely disliked one another.

Disbanding the cabal was impossible was impossible without everyone concerned losing a great deal of face. Even losing one of the founding members would be socially embarrassing for all concerned. One character almost managed to "disembark" before his untimely demise but he could not officially leave but instead had to take a "sabbatical" and the cabal would continue to have free access to the resources he had initially contributed. The deal was punitive but the strength of feeling was such that after complaining the character took it as the only possible solution.

This example illustrates to me that "good" pressure is applied in-character along the setting's social lines. "Bad" pressure has nothing to do with the game and is applied outside the game between the players.