We are all the sum of our parts. And each game we run draws from our experiences of reading, playing and running games before it. No campaign is born in a void purely out of divine inspiration, and the same holds for systems. With New Horizons now underway and the system more or less fleshed out (still tweaking it daily), I’ve been thinking what RPGs have been most helpful for me lately, design-wise (more or less – the games I’ve stolen most stuff from)
And while the actual list would be long and complicated, these are five systems that are making my mind tingle right now.
Leverage is one of those favorites that gets on my reading desk time and again. I am a huge fan of both the show and the role playing game. The later is a pinnacle of what they’ve managed to do with Cortex Plus so far (sorry, all MHR fans). As with other Cortex Plus games, the system is geared to re-creating the structure of the show it’s emulating. While the system is fairly simple and it looks fairly open-ended, it is surprising how effortlessly you end up following the structure of the show with it. And if you add to that the wonderful randomization tool for adventure seeds, a very different experience mechanic and a solid take on character classes (based on the 5 archetypes from the show), it’s something I would recommend for any GM who is uninspired.
I have taken a lot of inspiration from this game to the way New Horizons’ team dynamics work. The five-role split and the ways that the character have overlap from other roles is something that is very much inspired by Leverage RPG’s character creation.
If you don’t take anything else from it, you should read the “What is my responsibility as player/GM?” section.
2. Lamentations of the Flame Princess
LotFP is an OSR weird fantasy RPG. For me, it’s more a window to the OSR mindset of design than a specific system. There is something beautiful about the asymmetry in the design. The character classes don’t work like each other. Monsters are not like the player characters and don’t have “you need to build a monster like this” rules. Magic is strange and unpredictable. And the game is set up as a game. If your characters are getting treasures, you are ahead in the game. If not, you’re losing.
While I haven’t taken anything per se from OSR games, I’m pretty much convinced that any GM should play a game of some OSR system or another, preferably run by a DM who knows what they’re serving. Done well, it’s a palette cleanser.
Jason Morningstar‘s Durance is “first colony of Australia, in SPAAACE!”, which by itself is enough to make the game interesting. But from a system design point of view, the game does wonderful things in its set-up phase. When you collectively decide what this particular game is, it is all about hard choices. Every thing you choose makes you lose access to another. Where the OSR games are all about lack of symmetry, Durance is a beautiful balance act. The sides of the conflict are mirrors of each others and good things are given a shine by the nastiness. It’s Space-Australia, everything is probably out to space-murder you.
I’ve taken Durance’s hard choices from planet creation and combined them with Love Letters from Apocalypse World, to create questionnaires for the players who have missed a play session. “Ok, you missed a session, so now it’s your responsibility to define something about the world or the mission at hand. Four options. Pick two. The ones you don’t pick will be polar opposites of what they could have been.”
4. Ashen Stars
Ashen Stars is a game I bought through Bundle of Holding (which is a great way to get introduced to new games at a very reasonable price while being charitable) and whilst I haven’t actually gotten to the meat of the GUMSHOE system, the first thing that I noticed was the way it formalized character plots into the rules. The game is structured as a planet/mystery of the week game, but the missions tie in with the characters’ personal issues and drives, something that make the missions more meaningful. And how this is done is written in the rules.
While I haven’t yet used this, I am in the middle of converting the personal story arc system for New Horizons.
5. Things Powered By Apocalypse
And of course, all things Apocalypse World. Because with New Horizons, I have sort of read all that stuff and it’s hard to step away from it even if the main design part is over. Apocalypse World and the hacks are designed to be thought-provoking and to create dialog among designers. I keep bringing the game up in pretty much every post, but that’s for a good reason.
Currently the big names in the hacks for me are Tremulus, which is the Lovecraftian hack, now in book form. For me, it’s the game that brought the idea of playbooks to the mix. Monsterhearts, the first big game that took the ideas of Apocalypse World and twisted them to something else entirely in tone and function. Sagas of the Icelanders, which I just love because I came back from a vacation in Iceland a couple of weeks ago. Then there’s also stuff that hasn’t been published-published, like The Regiment.