I’m going to diverge a bit from my usual talk of bits and bytes to pay tribute to another one of my favorites: role playing games. 28 years ago, my mother purchased the red box D&D basic set for me. It was pure magic. I was always a fan of fantasy writing, but this was actually about being a part of the fantasy rather than a casual spectator. I didn’t actually start playing until a year or so later when we moved to Heidelberg, Germany. My tight circle of friends were all gamers. Those were the days of the original first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. We would play every weekend, checking every month for the latest edition of Dragon magazine at the Stars and Stripes bookstore on post so we could try something new.
I continued to play throughout my own military career, expanding out into many other games. I usually ended up being the ring leader / gamemaster and had the pleasure of running campaigns for AD&D, Shadowrun, Top Secret, Champions, Call of Cthulhu, Vampire: The Masquerade and various one-offs just for fun. I quit regular play over a decade ago after leaving the military, but I still collect the books.
Tabletop gaming is a bit of an enigma nowadays. In the era of World of Warcraft, everyone is too busy on their computers to actually sit down at the same table together to experience face to face gaming. And it is a loss. There are whole generations who will not know the joy of exploring Expedition to Barrier Peaks or the Keep on the Borderlands. Then there is the palpable terror of taking a group through Missing Blood or The Haunted House for the first time. These were the experiences of my youth that I think every imaginative kid should have have the chance to know and enjoy.
It is sad because in the age of instant gratification on the web, people miss out on actually using their imagination in a social setting. WoW is about the destination, killing monsters to get better gear; RPGs are about the journey — the roads travelled together by friends exploring the depths of their imagination.
The state of gaming is sad today compared to the heydays, but it is still going strong for some. I finally attended a GenCon last year and was awed with the quantity and quality of gaming experiences. I’ve resolved to go every year I can now and plan to take my daughter when she is big enough. Since the collapse of the big names (TSR, FASA, White Wolf), the gaming scene has changed a lot. But there are still some nuggets of awesomeness out there:
Pathfinder – Paizo is now carrying the reigns to the heart of D&D in their own RPG inspired by D&D 3.5. Their books and modules are extremely well written and bring back the excitement of what RPGs are supposed to be about. Where the current 4th edition of D&D feels like a computer game, Pathfinder is role playing gaming at it’s finest.
Delta Green – Pagan Publishing took the Call of Cthulhu mythos and gave it an X-Files spin. I’m a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft, and Delta Green puts a modern conspiracy theory flavor on top of it. There are a couple books of Delta Green fiction which are must-reads, and the gaming books themselves are fascinating.
Goodman Games – These guys write some of the best modules out there for D&D. They actually care about the story telling. I ran in two of their games at GenCon last year and they were a really good time.
Kobold Quarterly – This magazine reminds me of what Dragon magazine used to be like in the early days. Awesome content and a thrill to read. Every gamer should subscribe.
The Oldies – One of my favorite settings is still a combination of first edition AD&D along with some spice from the Arduin Grimoire series. You can easily find all the classics at good prices at any of the used game vendors like Noble Knight, and it will be a more satisfying gaming experience than a lot of the new crap out there.
Unfortunately, for every bright spot, there is a trail of failure — and that trail is littered with the former glory of the big names:
D&D 4th Edition – In an attempt to reboot the game, Hasbro/WOTC has created a tabletop version of World of Warcraft. While fun the first few times, it quickly loses it’s luster and doesn’t have the feel of anything I would want to run a campaign in. And it still has the wallet-sucking book-a-month bloat problem.
Shadowrun – This IP has passed through many hands. From FASA to Whiz Kids to Catalyst Labs, it has lost something along each hop. At the beginning, I was enthralled with the setting and possibilities. It was truly brilliant. But the rules are fundamentally over complicated and imbalanced, and it gets old having every adventure end in a double cross.
Champions – This was the original dream game for min-maxers. Even the early guides took a tongue-in-cheek approach to it. But the early game was concise and had a really fun combat system. The latest versions of Champions / Hero Systems are now encyclopedia-sized monstrosities of rules. I play to have fun, not to study.
White Wolf – The first version of Vampire: The Masquerade was pure brilliance. I actually had a campaign I ran for about a year set in my home town of Olympia, Washington. It was fresh and fun. Then the book bloat hit. Now I’m afraid to even look at the White Wolf bookshelf. And White Wolf literally held a contest at GenCon having people compete to see who could hold up their latest two-inch thick sourcebook the longest.
So I’ve resolved this year to try and be a more active gamer. I’ve already registered for GenCon this year, and look forward to meeting new friends and discovering new games. And anyone out there who was also a gamer should take a look at the current crop of winners and support them.