I first encountered roleplaying games in late 1979, which means that, by year’s end, I’ll have been rolling polyhedral dice and pretending to be an elf for 35 years. The mind boggles when I ponder this, since it attests to the fact that, with a few notable exceptions, like breathing and eating, I’ve spent more time playing RPGs than I have almost any other activity in my earthly existence.
As I make my way through mid-life, I find myself thinking back to my early days of gaming often. One of the things that strikes me is how focused my friends and I were on a handful of games, which we played with incredible gusto. It must be remembered that, even back in those days, there were an incredible number of RPGs available – not as many as today, certainly, but more than even a group of tweens and teens as gung-ho for roleplaying games could play. That’s not to say we didn’t dip our toes into a lot of pools, so to speak; I’d venture to guess that, between 1979 and 1984, the period during which our mania was at its zenith, we tried many dozens of games (you find a fairly complete list of all the RPGs published, by year, between 1974 and the present here – there are a lot of them).
Despite that, we had our favorites, the ones to which we’d return again and again, after the shine had worn off the latest boxed set to appear on the hobby shop’s shelves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these games were all among the earliest ones to which we’d been introduced by the older kids and adults who acted as our “mentors” as we learned the ropes of this strange pastime. But what is surprising, I think – at least to me – is that, for the most part, these same RPGs are the ones that still hold my attention today. Granted, I’m not a neophile; I don’t instinctively seek out new games as soon as they’re released, as many of my fellow gamers do. Even so, I must confess to being a little shocked to discover that, if I look back on the gaming I’ve done over the last decade or so, it was almost entirely devoted to the same three games I’ve enjoyed since I was a kid.
I am sure it goes without saying that the first of the three games to which I’ve remained devoted is Dungeons & Dragons. Like a great many gamers of my vintage – perhaps the majority of them – my first encounter with roleplaying, both as an entertainment and as a concept, was through the medium of D&D. My first D&D set was the original Basic Set, first published in 1977, whose cover (illustrated by the late David C. Sutherland III) depicted a wizard and a knight squaring off against a red dragon atop a hoard of treasure. To this day, that cover image exercises a powerful hold over my imagination, with perhaps only Dave Trampier’s Players Handbook cover being representative in my mind of “what Dungeons & Dragons is.” Likewise, that boxed set remains the single most amazing game I have ever owned.
My original copy of it fell apart long ago; I literally played it to pieces. In the years since, I’ve acquired several replacements for it and I’m pleased to say that they, too, hold the very same magic that my long-lost original did – the magic of possibility. It seems almost silly to write that, but it’s true. As a child, I was, of course, given to roleplaying, even if I wouldn’t have called it such. My friends and I regularly pretended to be characters from books or TV shows or movies or heroes of our own imagination. What we didn’t have, though, were rules or, more importantly, the mindset to see rules as aids to our imaginations. D&D taught us that; it taught us not just how to imagine something fantastical but to consider how fantastical things might relate to one another, including a wider world. That Basic Set was a “gateway to adventure,” as the old TSR advertisements used to boast. Because of it, my imagination considered so many possibilities that it might not otherwise have done and I will forever be grateful to it for that. Little wonder, then, that Dungeons & Dragons continues to be one of my favorites roleplaying games!
My second most-played RPG is undoubtedly Traveller, first published in 1977. It has been, for years, my go-to science fiction game. It was also the game that first got me into professional writing, when I started submitting Traveller articles to Challenge magazine back when I was in college. One of the great things about growing up in the 1970s, in my opinion, is that science fiction was still dominated by books rather than movies. Just as importantly, the books of the previous decades, particularly the 1950s and ’60s, were still readily available, thanks to cheap paperback reprints. For that reason, I grew up reading authors like Asimov and Anderson and Piper and thus, when I stumbled upon Traveller, its brand of sci-fi made perfect sense to me. I don’t think it’s quite as accessible (or compelling) to folks who don’t remember a time before big budget special effects extravaganzas were the norm. For me, though, Traveller‘s somewhat retro emphasis on small scale adventures, often based on scientific mysteries or conundrums, rather than on epic space battles and galaxy-spanning events is where it’s at. My own science fiction RPG, Thousand Suns, is something of a love letter to Traveller and importance it played in the life of my imagination.
Lastly, we come to Call of Cthulhu, whose influence over me cannot be overstated. I was a fan of H.P. Lovecraft before I first encountered Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, but it was playing this game that solidified my love for the Old Gent. Whereas D&D taught me that characters can – and often do – die during the course of their adventures (and Traveller taught me they can die during character generation), Call of Cthulhu hit home that such deaths need not be meaningless. To this day, I can recount several stories of Call of Cthulhu characters who died heroically in attempting to push back the return of the Great Old Ones for just a little while longer. Even those characters who survived did not escape unscathed, as their sanity drained away before the horrible truths that their adventures revealed to them. Again, it seems almost silly to say so, but Call of Cthulhu taught me and my friends a lot about life and courage and sacrifice. It’s a brilliant game that I continue to play to this day.
I’d like to think that I’m not alone in having a handful of standbys to which I turn when I’m looking to roleplay with my friends. What are yours and why?