31. Favorite RPG of All Time. This is a tough one to answer, because there are many lesser-known RPGs that I admire a great deal. And it’s tempting to cite D&D in all its incarnations, since it was the focus of my day job for a decade and the origin of many of my favorite settings, including those for which I’ve written tie-in novels.
Yet I’m going with Call of Cthulhu for several reasons.
It’s a great example—perhaps the greatest—of a designer’s translating the essential concept of a milieu, in this case cosmic horror, into an elegant game mechanic. While my teenage self found a Sanity stat laughable, I eventually realized its brilliance, especially in the simple balance between sanity and knowing the truth about the Mythos.
It offers gamers a simple paradigm every bit as compelling as fighting monsters and gathering treasure in D&D. Call of Cthulhu entices investigators with clues to a secret world of eldritch horror. Their objective is often simply to survive long enough to give the survivors a chance to prevent worse horrors from devastating the world. The thrill is to ride that razor’s edge between knowledge and sanity.
Especially with the “default” setting of the 1920s, Call of Cthulhu takes advantage of history in ways other games seldom do. Introducing the characters to Ernest Hemingway in or sending them to Weimar Germany or placing them on the Titanic adds dramatic tension at the same time as it appeals to readers of historical fiction.
Finally, the Call of Cthulhu game is a portal into the best parts of H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination without his often disappointing storytelling and prose (but what a delightful vocabulary!), not to mention his racist views. It’s a great tool to separate the good from the bad from a complicated author whose best ideas inspired countless others to expand and improve upon the fruit of his damaged psyche.
30. Rarest RPG Owned. The convention preview edition of Mike Nystul’s Whispering Vault is the rarest (as in smallest print run) RPG I can think of. It’s possible I’ve had even rarer games in the library at one time or another, but this one I actually played and enjoyed several times, one session by the writer himself.
29. Most Memorable Encounter. I twice wrote about the Door Committee on the editorial page of Dragon Magazine. Rather than describe it once more in detail, I’ll provide the TLDR version: As I ran a group of professional game designers and editors through the classic Slave Pits of the Undercity, they paused to discuss which door to open first. It’s a conundrum almost as classic as the module itself. Fortunately for them, they didn’t cause so much noise as to attract the guards. Unfortunately for us all, their arguments and indecision devoured half the session.
So memorable, yeah, just not necessarily for the right reasons.
28. Scariest Game You’ve Played. Castle Ravenloft, specifically one of the sessions I ran more-or-less annually on Halloween for my college gaming group.
Now there are certainly scarier roleplaying games. Ravenloft can easily slip into camp, and the nature of D&D is that powerful heroes can overcome the monsters. By design, it’s a little more Buffy, a little less Night of the Living Dead.
This particular session of Ravenloft was scary in a few different ways. We played by candlelight, as one does. I opened the windows to let in the October breeze. We took a break at a certain point for me to tell the bear story, which has its scary moments. Only this time was different.
While I sat on a couch and almost everyone else piled up on a couple of mattresses we’d pushed against the living-room wall, my “friend” Mike slipped out of the room. It looked as if he was going to the upstairs bathroom. He’d heard the story before, so that didn’t surprise me. But what the skinny little weasel really did was creep back down the stairs and snake his way down the hall to crawl under the couch on which I was sitting.
Just as I was describing the most suspenseful part of the bear story—a couple of the girls were already hugging each other, worried about what I might say next—a pair of hands grabbed my ankles tight. I stood straight up and screamed. Everyone across the room screamed back.
Mike, of course, rolled on the floor, incapacitated with laughter.
Everyone remained nervous for the rest of the evening, making the game that much more effective.
27. Game You’d Like to See a New/Improved Edition Of. Pathfinder.
I love the setting, and it’s my favorite game in large part because of the Adventure Path, which provides a constant stream of quality scenarios, and the wide range of accessories like minis and poster maps. I admire much of the rules expansions, but I’ve long wished for a “Pathfinder Lite,” something more comprehensive than the Beginner’s Box but far simpler than the complete line of core rulebooks and expansions.
The problem is that a “Lite” version of Pathfinder would be valuable only if the Adventure Paths were compatible with both it and the “Advanced” version. After chatting with some Paizonians about the possibility a few years back, I finally accepted the reality that such a design goal was unachievable.
But it doesn’t have to be.
I look forward to the day when Pathfinder gets a second edition, and I hope it includes a “Lite” and “Advanced” version, both compatible with Paizo’s best product, the Adventure Path.
26. Coolest Character Sheet. One of the most common reactions to discovering D&D in the late 70s and 80s was to create your own character sheets. While printed sheets were available, we were kids with small or nonexistent allowances. But I had a typewriter and access to a mimeograph machine. Soon I discovered lots of fellow gamers had the same idea, and we had dozens of options for character sheets.
But my favorite character sheet is one I prepared for a Call of Cthulhu campaign yet still haven’t run on account of moving out of town. I’d planned the game for a group including casual and non-gamers. To make things easier for them, and to mask a lot of the mechanics, I prepared a notebook and an index card.
On the card I provided a short description of the characters’ abilities: “You’re an excellent archeologist with above-average experience as a researcher. You can handle a pistol, but you’re a crack shot with a rifle. You can operate a radio but would have a hard time repairing one.” That sort of thing.
The notebook was blank. I expected the characters to keep notes on their investigations, writing down addresses of NPCs and sketching items they discovered. Each game session also came with a homework assignment. For instance, before the first session, it was, “Find a photograph—perhaps from newspaper archives or other historical sources—that represents your character. Paste it onto page one.” Later it was things like, “Write a letter to a colleague back home,” or “Compose a telegram requesting information from the British Museum.” Maybe “List the steps to clean and load your weapon.” Evolving over the course of the campaign, the notebooks would become the character sheets, while that index card, remaining vague, would contain all the disguised game mechanics.