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

An excellent list but missing a couple key entries IMHO. Star Wars D6, which evolved from the Ghostbusters RPG also by West End Games, introduced us to the modern dice pool and exploding die concept so prevalent in later games. Mekton, and to a lesser extent other R. Talsorian Games products, gave us the dedicated Lifepath system, a descendant of the Career paths in original Traveller. Traveller should not be overlooked either. One of the first if not the first comprehensive Skill systems while still being relatively simple to use.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
Not so much an RPG as a system-neutral supplement, Task Force Games’ Central Casting products.

Even though Traveller was my second RPG ever, I really didn’t think of character backgrounds in that way for other games until these products hit. Sure, I gave them backstories, but not as intricate. But afterwards? Even if I didn’t use CC to generate them, most of my character backgrounds were more detailed.

And for me, at least, this led to better roleplaying: that added level of detail give me more of a grasp on who all those mechanics described. Knowing a PC’s past helped me think about how they’d act in the present and plan for the future. As such, CC marked the virtual end of my parade of cookie-cutter, stereotyped characters.
 

pemerton

Legend
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.
I agree that RQ should be on a list like this. Also Over the Edge, maybe, for descriptor-based PC build and character-driven play?
 

pemerton

Legend
This is a fundamental misreading of PbtA

<snip>

PbtA does not have a vastly more limited proposition filter than D&D
Correct. I think the person you're arguing with isn't very familiar with the system. He is assuming that every action declaration must be read onto a move, whereas the actual rule is every bit of fiction that maps onto a move must be resolved via the appropriate mechanic.

From AW pp 11-12:

All these rules do is mediate the conversation. They kick in when someone says some particular things, and they impose constraints on what everyone should say after. . . .

When a player says that her character does something listed as a move, that’s when she rolls, and that’s the only time she does. . . .

“Cool, you’re going aggro?” Legit: “oh! No, no, if he’s really blocking the door, whatever, I’ll go the other way.” Not legit:
“well no, I’m just shoving him out of my way, I don’t want to roll for it.”​

DW p 18: "A character can’t take the fictional action that triggers a move without that move occurring." And p 28: "Debilities don’t replace descriptions and using the established fiction. When someone loses an arm that doesn’t mean they’re Weak, it means they have one less arm."

In system terms, the device for adjudicating fiction that doesn't trigger a player-side move is an appropriate GM move.
 

Yaztromo

Villager
I have to say that, in some peculiar way, Ravenloft changed the way many people play, putting more complex or dramatic background stories and general narrative (with a kind of "literary twist") at the centre of the stage.
Before Ravenloft it wasn't really like that.
 

Jonathan Tweet

Explorer
I agree that RQ should be on a list like this. Also Over the Edge, maybe, for descriptor-based PC build and character-driven play?
RQ is actually on the list, but subsumed under Empire of the Petal Throne. The RQ setting was a better fit for an RPG. Maybe Over the Edge belongs on the list of "games that changed the way we design games". It reached a lot to game designers and future game designers.
 

Elfcrusher

Adventurer
I have to say that, in some peculiar way, Ravenloft changed the way many people play, putting more complex or dramatic background stories and general narrative (with a kind of "literary twist") at the centre of the stage.
Before Ravenloft it wasn't really like that.
I didn't think of it until your post, but yeah: I can definitely see the difference between pre-I6 and post-I6.

(I assume you mean the original module; not the later campaign setting.)
 

Koloth

Villager
While not a RPG, Star Fleet Battles sure impacted how I deal with complex rules sets and reading and understanding them. After several hours long rules lawyer arguments, our group developed a system to deal with rule interpretation issues. If we couldn't resolve the issue after a few minutes, we wrote the issue down for later non-group gaming time research and rolled dice to determine which competing rules interpretation we would use for that game. We generated at least two 100+ question lists to send off to ADB for their resolution.

Still use that basic system today when RPG rules issues crop up.
 

Anthro78

Explorer
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.
It's not just about the relationships, but it builds the relationships into the game, which makes for a much richer experience and game for the players and GM alike.
 

dostami

Villager
Well, for me, a game not listed in the original post is Rift. I actually just discovered it not very long ago and love the style of play along with the wonderful story plots that can be created. It has changed the way I think about plots and sub-plots greatly and has enhanced my story creation.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
One of the things RIFTS taught me was that I shouldn’t fear parties with imbalanced power levels in their characters.
 
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Razz0putin

Explorer
Put in my two cents I'd put Torg up there. It had card based initiative and it was like Rifts except it actually held together better. Also it had the infiniverse, which was a way where people playing the game could write in and tell them how their game turned out (who lived, who died, who accomplished what). They used this information to make future supplements. It was way ahead of it's time.
 
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PMárk

Explorer
It's not just about the relationships, but it builds the relationships into the game, which makes for a much richer experience and game for the players and GM alike.
I prefer those things to evolve naturally. Giving rules for these kind of things always felt artificial to me, but hey, I'm the kinda guy, who don't feel the need for elaborate social combat mechanics either. I need rules for combat, physics, magic, etc. I don't need elaborate rules for social stuff. Also, it does shifts the emphasis on who-hates-who-who-loves-who, hence, the soap-opera-ism.

All in all, a Shadowrun, or classicWoD-like "listing" of contacts and such is perfectly enough for me as a basis and the npcs themselves and their relationships with the players will be fleshed out naturally.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying these mechanics are worthless, or bad. I'm just saying, I don't need them and tend not to like games that try to codify the social aspect into rules much.
 

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