Games That Changed How We Play

There are a lot of role-playing games out there, and almost all of them have something none of the others have. But a few stand out for offering such a new idea that it can change the way we play, or inspire other designers with new ideas. This list is really a fraction of ‘games that changed the industry’. You can probably add plenty more. But as a place to start in looking at some of the most innovative games on the market, this will do for now. If you happen to be unfamiliar with any of the following, I hope you take some time to check them out.



I should add that I obviously haven’t played everything out there (I’ve tried though!). So what I list here is simply where I encountered a particular mechanic or style of play. If you know of an earlier example please comment so it can get the credit it deserves! I’m sure there are plenty I’ve missed.

Empire of the Petal Throne/Runequest - Setting Matters


While Dungeons and Dragons is the granddaddy of all games, it still shows its roots as a wargame with role-playing. The setting was always ‘kind like Lord of the Rings and stuff’. However, the games that followed it realized that we needed more than just rule, we needed worlds to adventure in. Empire of the Petal Throne and Runequest were among the first to offer a new setting as well as new rules set, and this may be one of the secrets of their long lasting appeal.

Call of Cthulhu - Player characters are not special


By the time Call of Cthulhu appeared, gaming had moved out of dungeons and spread to city role-playing. But Call of Cthulhu gave us a lot more than just scary gaming. The player characters are pretty ordinary people, nothing really special or supernatural about them. They are not heroes, often just people in the wrong place at the right time, or those with just too much curiosity. Also, fighting the monsters is not the way to ‘win’ at Call of Cthulhu, in fact, it is often the best way to lose. With no treasure to gain but keeping hold of your sanity, Cthulhu changed the nature of pretty much everything we were used to.

James Bond - Hero Points


Beanies, hero points, brownie points, karma, they are everywhere - the points you get to manipulate a dice roll because you are the player characters. This mechanic may not seem particularly special, but it marks the start of players being able to influence dice rolls with more than just their character’s skills. They give players some of the Gamemaster’s power to decide which dice rolls are going to be special and in this way influence the narrative.

Pendragon - Generational Gaming


I could write an entire article about why Pendragon is one of the most perfect systems ever devised, but let’s focus here on what most people noticed: the generational aspect. In Pendragon you play through the years of the game pretty quickly, aging your character until they are too old to go adventuring anymore. Then you play their eldest child and carry on, inheriting both their land and reputation. Each character builds on the last, creating a dynasty as you play through the age of King Arthur. You have to be prepared to retire your character just as they are getting really good, but the constant cycle refreshes the game in a natural way.

Ars Magica - Troupe Style Play


Ars Magica was originally designed as a game where you play magicians as powerful as the likes of Gandalf or Merlin. For that it is already interesting, starting player characters off as extremely powerful, paving the way for Leverage and Firefly where your characters are already at the top of their game. As John Wick said in his espionage game ‘Wilderness of Mirrors’, “James Bond was never first level.”

However, Ars Magica is most noted for the idea of troupe play, where you might run several different groups of player characters to experience different levels of the campaign setting. You might all be warriors, switch to everyone playing castle servants, then to a council of mages, with each player having a character for each level of the game. It is a great way to experience more of the campaign world and play different levels of power and responsibility.

Amber - No system


Amber blew my mind when I first read it. Marketed as ‘diceless role-playing’ it is better described as ‘systemless role-playing’. When you create a character you determine not exactly what their abilities are, but who they are better than. If you get into a conflict with someone better than you, then you need to think of a way to cheat or even the playing field through story. It is a lot of get used to, and a huge gear change as it is essential for the players to join the narration as much as the Gamemaster. If you can’t find a copy of Amber the same system is used in ‘Lords of Gossamer and Shadow’ with variations in ‘Nobilis’ and ‘Itras By’.

7th Sea - You Can’t Die


Is death the only real threat? In 7th Sea characters cannot die from simple loss of hit points or the like. So each character death is only ever part of the story, a grand end to a climactic narrative and (more importantly) often the player’s choice. Rather than making a game boring, the lack of terminal consequences makes player characters bold, fearless and adventurous. They leap onto carriages, swing from chandeliers and throw themselves into danger. Free from the tyranny of a bad dice roll, they become heroes.

Houses of the Blooded - Narration is for players too


I’m cheating a little here as I think this idea came first from Inspectres and/or FATE, but I first saw it in House of the Blooded. In this game a roll of the dice is not to see who succeeds or fails, but who narrates the outcome. If the dice roll well the player decides, if badly the Gamemaster. Now the GM may be a lot harsher, but the player need not always narrate success. In this way the game becomes about telling the story together rather than following the plot from the Gamemaster.

Smallville - Relationships Matter


I’ll finish with what I believe is the most underrated game of the last few years. Smallville is a work on genius but few people seem to know it very well. It masters the age old superhero game problem of how you balance playing Superman with playing Lois Lane. The answer here is to make the game about relationships rather than skills. Player characters are built in terms of their relationships to each other and their general goals in life such as Glory or Love. If Superman tries to save Lois Lane he doesn’t make a flying roll, he rolls his relationship to Lois to see if she matters enough to him to make the right effort. It also matters why he is saving her, is it because he loves her or just wants another photo opportunity?

That’s all I have time for at the moment, but there are plenty more industry changing games out there. I’d be curious to hear what I’ve missed!

This article was contributed by Andrew Peregrine (Corone) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
 
Andrew Peregrine

Comments

Traveler -- a mini-game (with death!) in character creation.

You can still see its influence in things like character starting careers and backgrounds.
 

Paul McNeil

Villager
Played James Bond when it was first released. A friend who was a HUGE Ian Fleming ran it for me and it is one of my most fond memories as a player!
 

SMHWorlds

Explorer
A great collection of influential games. Folks do not often talk about Ars Magica, but there is no denying it has a hella influence on design.

I think Burning Wheel and Sorcerer also could have made it on the list. But then so could a ton of games that came out of the Indie movement of the late 90s, early 00s.
 

Laurefindel

Explorer
Paranioa: the roleplaying game

Is to RPGs what satirical comedy is to cinema and goes directly against many core concepts of cooperative roleplay. In this game, you can expect your character to die of a meaningless death. Probably at the hand of another player. Many times over.

That's why you have "back-up" clones.
 
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rknop

Explorer
Which was the first game to switch from a class/level system to a point-buy type system? That was a pretty big change.
 

aco175

Adventurer
Wow, in 35 years of gaming I only played one of those. I guess I never wandered too far from D&D.
 

Ralif Redhammer

Adventurer
I'd add Vampire: The Masquerade to the list. Say what you want about it's current sorry state, but for my group, it really changed how we thought about our characters and brought them to life.

Empire of the Petal Throne's vivid and strange setting is still noteworthy. But back then, comparing the white box with it, the details and differences are positively monumental.
 

acpitz 1

Villager
Didn't see Hillfolk mentioned. It's take on player interactions is quite interesting. The drama system is quite rewarding when there is a good group.

Also have to mention Aftermath! by Paul Hume and Bob Charette for it being first truly post-apocalypse game. Their Bushido was also swell. Both are hard as granite to get around at first since they are not arranged the most easy way to get through. But once you pop, you cannot stop!
 

Celebrim

Legend
While these are a list of games I admire to some degree, I would also argue that this is a list of games that didn't change the way we played. Mostly that got admired and then we moved on and kept playing the way we always had.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
The two that quickly stand out to me:

1. Paranoia. Mentioned above. So very very perfect. Obviously, you can't do a campaign, but if I knew I could only play one more game, ever, it would be a final game of Paranoia. Much fun. This taught me to stop worrying, and embrace Friend Computer.

2. Amber, the Diceless RPG. To quote the OP- "Amber blew my mind when I first read it." Me too. I was a MASSIVE Zelazny fan growing up (I even had a D&D campaign strongly influenced by Lord of Light), and, of course, Amber was as good as it gets. So when I found out that there was an RPG ... I was first in line. And I remember reading it, and reading it again, and reading it again, and trying to twist my head around it- What? Where are the dice? How do you ... how do you do? How do you even? What? I had played so many TTRPGs for so long by the time this had come out, but this was the first one that just completely floored me. It went against everything I understood about what a TTRPG is?

But I kept at it, and ... yeah, it is pretty awesome. :)
 
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Gradine

Archivist
It's definitely not the first system to do what it does, or maybe not even the best at it, but I ran a bunch of one-shots for work last summer using different Powered by the Apocalypse (and adjacent) games (specifically, Masks, Blades in the Dark, and The Veil) and it's radically shifted how I approach rulings and the narrative fiction of a tabletop setting. D&D has spent a long time conditioning me and my players that their characters can only do what's on the character sheet, and that experience helped us shift our perspective and how we play the game.
 

Celebrim

Legend
D&D has spent a long time conditioning me and my players that their characters can only do what's on the character sheet, and that experience helped us shift our perspective and how we play the game.
Now that's interesting, because one of the things I like about D&D is that you are definitely not required to do only what is on your character sheet because D&D doesn't have a proposition filter specified as part of the game, while isn't PbtA the system were all propositions must ultimately be mapped to some move that is associated with your character's moveset as specified by their character sheet and as governed by their class?
 

Gradine

Archivist
Now that's interesting, because one of the things I like about D&D is that you are definitely not required to do only what is on your character sheet because D&D doesn't have a proposition filter specified as part of the game, while isn't PbtA the system were all propositions must ultimately be mapped to some move that is associated with your character's moveset as specified by their character sheet and as governed by their class?
That's not really my experience with PbtA, but I can see how it can be seen that way. Yes, there are universal moves and playbook-based moves, and every action taken should conform to a specific move, but the moves themselves are pretty open-ended and, well... universal. There's usually also a catch-all, something like act under pressure.

Meanwhile, while I grew up with AD&D, it was mostly a solo, computed-based experience with me (starting with Eye of the Beholder and moving on to Baldur's Gate), while the bulk of my experience at the tabletop was with 3.5, a system that tried its hardest to have a rule for every edge case. So while PbtA could have one move that encompasses any aspect of combat (such as kick some ass), D&D has a rule for attacking in melee, versus ranged, versus improvised weaponry, versus being weaponless, versus grappling, etc. etc. In D&D 3.5 the skills are defined and codified in what actions they encompass. In PbtA there's a back and forth between MC and Player on what move makes the most sense given the fictional action. PbtA games with magic usually have a move that is just: use magic. Some playbooks have some more specialized magical moves, but that's really all it takes.

Don't get me wrong, I love D&D, and especially 5e. But it took a summer of PbtA one-shots to break us out of our bad habits.
 

Celebrim

Legend
That's not really my experience with PbtA, but I can see how it can be seen that way. Yes, there are universal moves and playbook-based moves, and every action taken should conform to a specific move, but the moves themselves are pretty open-ended and, well... universal. There's usually also a catch-all, something like act under pressure.
Meanwhile, while I grew up with AD&D, it was mostly a solo, computed-based experience with me (starting with Eye of the Beholder and moving on to Baldur's Gate)...
Let's be clear. That's not AD&D. That's a video game. It's codified because it doesn't have a Dungeon Master. Might be a fun video game, but it's not D&D.

...while the bulk of my experience at the tabletop was with 3.5, a system that tried its hardest to have a rule for every edge case. So while PbtA could have one move that encompasses any aspect of combat (such as kick some ass), D&D has a rule for attacking in melee, versus ranged, versus improvised weaponry, versus being weaponless, versus grappling, etc. etc. In D&D 3.5 the skills are defined and codified in what actions they encompass. In PbtA there's a back and forth between MC and Player on what move makes the most sense given the fictional action. PbtA games with magic usually have a move that is just: use magic. Some playbooks have some more specialized magical moves, but that's really all it takes.
Yeah, I know how it works at least on paper, though I've never played it, but I'm struck by the huge disconnect we are having here.

The thing I like about AD&D is that you can make any proposition you want, and then some mechanical resolution specific to your proposition occurs. So what you say and play literally matter, because they resolve in different ways that simulate the specific thing that you proposed to do. If the rules don't cover it, then the DM is strongly encouraged to make something up on the spot.

In PbtA games by contrast, the rules and not the propostions have primacy. You can say whatever you want, but what you say really doesn't matter, because regardless of what you say it is going to be mapped to some generic rules action. You literally cannot do anything that isn't on your character sheet. It's not just that you can't succeed at something because you suck at it, but if you don't have the move, you can't even try it because all propositions are just requests to perform specific moves. In fact, in the rule books I've read, they make it really clear that the move and not the proposition take primacy. If the GM is unclear about what move you are trying to perform, they should attempt to clarify what move you were trying to perform before attempting to resolve the action - as you put it "there is a back and forth between the MC and player on what move makes the most sense".

Don't get me wrong, I love D&D, and especially 5e. But it took a summer of PbtA one-shots to break us out of our bad habits.
Yes, that's the thing that blows my mind. I have heard, though not encountered it, that there are DMs out there who, when encountering a proposition for which they don't have a clear rules understanding, simply say, "No, you can't do that." So I understand that there are some players out there that think that all you can do in D&D is what the rules provide for, that is, whatever the rules are silent on is forbidden rather than what the rules are silent on is permitted. But it never would have occurred to me to think that these players could be broken out of their mindset with regard to play by encountering a game with a vastly more limited proposition filter than D&D, namely something like PbtA.

I mean sure, there is no proposition that PbtA can't really handle. It has a mechanical resolution for everything. But conversely, it's really just the same set of resolutions for everything, and achieves that universalism only by ignoring details of the proposition and even to a large extent the fictional positioning. Your position in the game is literally just color for picking a move that is on your character sheet. Everything in PbtA is defined and codified by the actions that you can perform.
 

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