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

Anthro78

Explorer
The Smallville RPG is indeed underrated. The relationship/plot map creation aspect of character creation should be stolen and used by every role-playing game. It is truly genius.
 

Gradine

Archivist
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.
Oh, I'm aware. I'm just giving some context; I know that prior to WotC getting its mitts on D&D "rulings not rules" was a much more common practice; I just had much less experience those editions at the actual tabletop.

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.
This is something TSR D&D did quite well, and something 5e tries, but doesn't succeed quite as well at.

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".
This is a fundamental misreading of PbtA, unless there are some specific off-shoots I'm not thinking about that handle things a little differently (to be fair, this does include Blades in the Dark, but then BitD doesn't have moves so it can't be what you're talking about). Every PbtA rule-set I've read (including the ones I've mentioned, as well as Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts, and Monster of the Week) all clarify from the start that nothing takes primacy over the fiction. Yes, it all ties back to a small set of universal moves (which are akin to basic actions) and playbook moves (which are more akin to class abilities); but these moves are much broader and encompassing than anything found in 3.0+ D&D. Once again, most actions are probably covered by one of the basic moves, and those that aren't are usually handled by a catch-all move (again, this is usually act under pressure.) In general, if an action isn't covered by a move, not even the standard "catch-all", it isn't because your character just can't do it, but it's because the action doesn't need a roll to determine its success.

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.
This is because PbtA does not have a vastly more limited proposition filter than D&D, at least not modern D&D. To be clear, I've never told a player "they can't do that" because of what is and is not on their character sheet, but prior to our experience with PbtA my players struggled to be more creative with how they played their characters, and I struggled in how to encourage that creativity.[/QUOTE]
 

Sword of Spirit

Adventurer
One thing that Ars Magica did that was game changing for me (although I actually first encountered it in its superior incarnation in Mage: The Ascension) is structured spontaneous free form magic. Having a set of magical areas you are skilled in and being able to put them together on the spot to produce your desired effect has had such an influence on me that I really consider every game that doesn’t do that (ie, the vast majority of them) to be doing magic wrong. I give D&D a pass because I think D&D is best experienced on its own terms rather than turning it into something it isn’t, but with everything else I’m like, “Dude, why are you limiting your magic system so it’s more like superheroes than actual magical magicing?”
 
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Celebrim

Legend
This is a fundamental misreading of PbtA, unless there are some specific off-shoots I'm not thinking about that handle things a little differently (to be fair, this does include Blades in the Dark, but then BitD doesn't have moves so it can't be what you're talking about). Every PbtA rule-set I've read (including the ones I've mentioned, as well as Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts, and Monster of the Week) all clarify from the start that nothing takes primacy over the fiction. Yes, it all ties back to a small set of universal moves (which are akin to basic actions) and playbook moves (which are more akin to class abilities); but these moves are much broader and encompassing than anything found in 3.0+ D&D. Once again, most actions are probably covered by one of the basic moves, and those that aren't are usually handled by a catch-all move (again, this is usually act under pressure.) In general, if an action isn't covered by a move, not even the standard "catch-all", it isn't because your character just can't do it, but it's because the action doesn't need a roll to determine its success.
I see what you are saying, but I don't think it overturns my impression. However, I do realize now that this is something I don't actually know enough about to argue on, because as I set out to outline why this doesn't address my concern, I realized that there were properties of the PbtA engine that I didn't really understand and I need to go do some research before I speak on them.

This is because PbtA does not have a vastly more limited proposition filter than D&D...
Ok, you are correct here: I misspoke. Obviously, if PbtA accepts basically all propositions (something I also asserted), then it can't have a highly limited proposition filter. However, there is I think a much more highly constrained proposition mapping than D&D or traditional RPGs, and whether or not that has the effect I've always assumed it had, is something that I need to now go and carefully check and think about it. I still think it might, but I can see a possible way around it that you aren't covering.

Nonetheless, whether I'm right or wrong about how the engine works, there is conceptual correspondence between the PbtA engine and your experience with the AD&D based video games that there isn't between AD&D and its video games, in the sense that at some level, every proposition in PbtA corresponds to pushing a button tied to the character and each character has a finite number of buttons. Whereas, for AD&D I would have said a character has an infinite number of buttons to push, the vast majority of which don't exist on the character sheet.

But now I need to read some PbtA rules to see if they escape the button pushing problem completely or whether it is there to the degree that I first assumed when I read through the rules.
 

M.L. Martin

Adventurer
Champions definitely merits a nod for the move from 'take what the dice give you' to 'build the type of character you want to play.'
 

hawkeyefan

Explorer
I think that Vampire The Masquerade belongs on a list like this. I was never even really a big fan, but that game certainly impacted the hobby.

I also think that Apocalypse World has to be on the list. The PbtA system has had a huge impact on gaming. I’ve played a handful of PbtA games, mostly Blades in the Dark. That game alone has greatly affected my approach to gaming. Can’t recommend it enough. [MENTION=4937]Celebrim[/MENTION] Seriously try to play this game at some point because I think you’ve misinterpreted some of the elements of a PbtA game. Blades deviates from PbtA, but still has the same core. It’s an outstanding game.

And one that probably doesn’t belong on this list, but which was big for me and my friends, was the TSR Marvel Super Heroes game. So many cool things about that game that were different from D&D. And the chart! All you really needed was the chart on the back of the book and you could play.
 

Legatus_Legionis

< BLAH HA Ha ha >
It was not until HeroQuest and Advanced HeroQuest came out that we seriously looked at using mini-figures and attacks-of-opportunity in our games.

So for us, this did change how we played our RPGs.
 

Jonathan Tweet

Explorer
That’s quite a list. Call of Cthulhu gets top honors, I believe. Setting a game in the real world has big advantages (as Ken Hite always says). Ghostbusters, also by Chaosium, was something else. Daringly free-form. RuneQuest’s cults were a big influence (Ars Magica’s houses, Vampire’s clans, Planescape’s factions, etc). RQ was also by Chaosium. For recent game, I'd mention Apocalypse World, maybe Sorcerer or Dogs in the Vineyard.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
The Fantasy Trip/In the Labyrinth, one of the earliest and lightest of rules light RPGs: 5 minutes for character building AND adventures that could be run with solo adventuring. As in, no DM needed. TPK? Your group might be back to delving by the end of a commercial break.
 

Shiroiken

Adventurer
I will say that of these, the only one I played was 7th Sea. Although I was always interested in Cthulhu and Pendragon, I could never get a group fo Cthulhu (it already had it's deadly reputation) and I could never find the books for Pendragon.

I have to say that the "immortality" of 7th Sea is vastly overrated. Maybe it's because I'm an old school gamer, but without death as a possibility, it really made everything seem somewhat pointless. Yes you could fail horribly trying something, maybe suffer some embarrassment, but in the end it didn't really matter unless it was against a boss fight. Because we were in college, and fairly immature, once we got tired of the game we started trying to find hilarious ways to die... making the DM jump through hoops to find an excuse for us to miraculously survive. Sadly, this became far more entertaining than the game itself was.
 

steenan

Adventurer
The games that changed the way I play were, in chronological order:
  • Call of Cthulhu - First RPG I played and ran that made building an appropriate mood the focus of play. It wasn't about playing to win, it was about playing stories like Lovecraft's. Characters dying or going insane was as entertaining as characters defeating the monstrosities from Mythos.
  • D&D 3e - The first RPG I played that made creating characters its own minigame and taught me the joys of optimization. It was really fun to build combos and see how they click together in play. Unfortunately, it was also a game of extensive prep and it burned me as a GM after I ran a two-year campaign.
  • Dogs in the Vineyard - Got me back into RPGs. Narrow focus, clearly defined themes and rules that truly support them. I love how the game throws players into messed up situations and keeps asking hard moral questions. I also love how it explicitly ignores things that are not part of the theme (no rolls for travel or interacting with environment, no rolls for information gathering etc.). That's also the first RPG that really told me how to run it, instead of speaking in generalities, throwing a random set of tools at me and assuming I'll figure it out somehow.
  • Nobilis - On one hand, system without randomization; it's all about choices and resource management. On the other, the focus of play very different from traditional games. Playing with words and philosophical concepts, because that's what most miraculous conflicts are about. Enemies of existence who may be right after all. Death that is just an inconvenience, so you need to seek better methods of defeating someone. And so on.
  • Fate Core - Very simple, but able to capture nearly everything I need in an RPG. I love making facts about characters and situations explicit with aspects and formalizing how they work mechanically. Stress and consequences are the best "damage" system I have seen. Compels and concessions as tools for making failures fun instead of something to be avoided. And the fact that dice never kill characters, freeing players to take risks and the GM to push hard where it fits without risking a TPK. Fate is currently my go-to system for most purposes.
  • Urban Shadows - It managed to do what Vampire couldn't. Debts are a perfect mechanical tool for making politics engaging. Corruption tempts with power and takes away humanity. Intimacy spotlights the moments when you risk trusting somebody and opening up to them. US is the first PbtA game I really got into and it shows the best aspects of this engine. It's not the only PbtA I currently play, but it's the one that changed me.
  • Capes - While not as high on the list of "my best RPGs" as the previous two, it brought as big if not bigger playstyle change. It's fully GM-less, with defined structure, based on setting up scenes, defining stakes by asking questions and then resolving them. Very far from traditional RPGs, it features competitive story creation, no character ownership (characters can switch hands between scenes) and no PC-NPC distinction. It requires no prep and works fine with players coming and going between scenes, so it can be used in many circumstances where a traditional RPG can't.
 
My list of game changers is completely different...
- D&D: Created the hobby
- Traveller: Skill-based systems
- Vampire: The Masquerade: Social connections quantified
- Everway: Card-based resolution mechanics that are narrative and not quantitative
- D&D 3rd Edition: feats (talents, stunts, edges etc) added besides attributes & skills to describe a player character
- The indie games inspired by the Forge community: Narration is for players too (unfortunately, took some time to generate playable versions; here I would vote for Fate as the breakthrough game - not the the terribly executed Houses of the Blooded that mostly took ideas from Fate)
- D&D 4th Edition: Player characters and game master characters can be described differently and still work as a system

While indeed each of the games listed above adds new ideas, most of them never really caught on in other games. The games I am listing seem at least to me have brought something new to the table that was later adapted by other games.

Edit: Though, the James Bond RPG may indeed be the source for Hero Points/Bennies/Fate points etc. Which I just didn't know about.
 
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Tonguez

Adventurer
Toons - can’t believe this isn’t on the list, suspending reality fr narrative fun
Fate - compels and a descriptive ladder for stats
Travellers - backgrounds system, skills
Gurps - so many options
Rifts - throw everything in, ppe ISp sdc
 
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Jonathan Tweet

Explorer
- Everway: Card-based resolution mechanics that are narrative and not quantitative
- D&D 3rd Edition: feats (talents, stunts, edges etc) added besides attributes & skills to describe a player character
Thanks. Everway is getting a digital relaunch this year and probably a new edition next year.

3E is really different from Everway, so it's fun to see both of those games on your list.
 

Jonathan Tweet

Explorer
One thing that Ars Magicka did that was game changing for me (although I actually first encountered it in its superior incarnation in Mage: The Ascension) is structured spontaneous free form magic.
Yeah, I'm pretty proud of that part of the game. It's the game "that does wizards right".
 

Jonathan Tweet

Explorer
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.
The "dramatic pole" is an exciting addition to character conception. It appears (sort of) in the new Over the Edge as a characters "question mark". That's a character trait that is destined to come into question as part of the story. If your character's question mark is "Honorable-?", then acting honorably and failing to act honorably are both "in character".
 

PMárk

Explorer
The Smallville RPG is indeed underrated. The relationship/plot map creation aspect of character creation should be stolen and used by every role-playing game. It is truly genius.
Dunno, I don't want every game to turn inot a sopa-opera-stlye story, when everything is just about the characters and their relationships. Sometimes, I wnat the characters to be a part of a bigger world, not being the sole axis of it.
 

PMárk

Explorer
Anyway, it's funny, but I never played, or read more than half of these games some I didn't even hear of. I guess this list is largely a "how the indie-narrative design style came to be" trip.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I really enjoyed this post and am enjoying the thread. So many games to look into. Have a soft spot for MAR Barker, America's Tolkien and other Twin Cities gaming luminary. But I've never gotten into the EotPT or the fiction. But as much as I like to read Tolkien, I also never got into any of the TTRPG settings for LotR. Earlier in my gaming days, I just like to build my own world. Now, I still do, but I also like detailed campaign worlds, but I prefer settings that do not have books and literature associated with them. I won't my PCs to be the protagonists.

I feel Paranoia needs to be on the list for the reasons others have mentioned above. I really like InSPECREs, I'll have to check out Houses of the Blooded.

There is one game I would like to give a shout out to which gives a powerfully different gaming experience that I've not seen replicated in other systems:

Dialect by Thorny Games (https://thornygames.com/pages/dialect)

The game involves telling the story of an isolated community by building a language. It isn't going to be for everyone, no game is, but with the right group it can be a powerful experience. If you like language and games that are narrative and roleplay heavy, check out Dialect.
 

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