So, a recent tweet circulating TTRPG twitter encouraged people to share five games that have had a large impact on them. As hard as it was to think of five games (not five times playing games, not five campaigns, not five designers…), I scrambled together this list:
D&D (first one I ever played)
Fiasco (first GM-less ttrpg I ever played)
Ten Candles (introduced me to new forms)
Time Travel Thaw (showed me what can be done in 200 words)
Font (showed me a way of exploring/capturing change that really resonated with me)
But one tweet doesn’t really feel enough to properly wax lyrical about some of these games, so I want to share in a bit more detail why they had such an impact on me.
Click on the titles of the games below to head to their websites (I haven’t done this for D&D – they’re pretty easy to find…).
Dungeons & Dragons
I’ll try and keep this short, because D&D’s a behemoth and there’s plenty of people giving you their takes of varying temperatures, if that’s what you’re looking for. But D&D was my official route into playing tabletop role-playing games, so of course its impact is massive. Also, as the first, it subconsciously defined what TTRPGs are to me – something I am *still* unlearning. Each new game I discover shows me a new way in which D&D’s mechanics are a choice, not something intrinsic to TTRPGs. There’s no way of avoiding this, as one game will always be your first, but it’s proving to be a hefty ongoing process.
I’ve actually only played Fiasco once – possibly because a lot of people I play with prefer the form of GM’d games, and Fiasco is GM-less. It was the first GM-less game I ever played, and I quickly saw how much closer it felt to the improv performance that I’m used to from my theatrical background. Rolling dice to build up the world piece by piece, from objects to locations to relationships, was a fascinating way of constructing things (and something I still enjoy in games like Kids on Bikes where – despite being a GM’d game, the world is steadily established by the right kind of questions being answered by the players, collaboratively drawing in the detail).
Perhaps my favourite element of Fiasco, however, and something I still find myself at times chasing in games I’m making or playing, is the final montage. By that point, all players have a combination of dice – some good, some bad (normally demarcated by colour). In turns, you describe a scene featuring your character which reflects one of your dice – positive scenes for good dice, negative scenes for bad dice. It’s so damn neat, and means characters get satisfying comeuppances or comforting happy endings, or blurry versions of both. I really like that as a way of ending, because it’s a clear finish to you telling the story, but doesn’t feel like an ending for the characters.
Ten Candles is one of the most theatrical tabletop role-playing games I’ve ever played – by which I mean there’s a use of lighting, of props, of theatrical design almost that’s so beautifully used by the game. The title isn’t some evocative abstract – you use ten candles to time the game, to mark scenes ending, to represent the light in the world going out, to suggest your characters’ dwindling chances.
Every time I think of Ten Candles, it takes me a while to remember there are dice rolls in it. I always go to the candles, and the character building (focused on players writing things such as virtues and vices for other players, again building things collaboratively) – that’s what’s core to the game to me, that’s what’s so fantastic about the experience it creates. It’s such an effective horror-tragedy game.
[And Christ, the image of a player gently singing ‘Part of Your World’ to calm an imagined child on a frozen lake, and then bringing the song back in, hollow-voiced when they’d been subsumed into a shadow horror? Burned into my mind forever.]
This, along with perhaps Font, is what I’m expecting to be the game the fewest people have heard of – I only discovered it through idle wandering through the 200 Word RPG Competition archives. Much like Ten Candles, the use of physical, theatrically-flavoured items is what first caught my eye. Time Travel Thaw focuses around a napkin with powers written on it, and in ice cube in the middle; you play superheroes travelling through time. As the ice melts, the napkin becomes wet, and the moment the ink in which your power is written starts bleeding, you lose your abilities.
Jesus. That’s so good.
Every time I think of the game, I’m envious and furious and astonished at how brilliant that conceit is. The uncontrollable, inevitable passage of time (represented by something variable and not entirely predictable, much like Ten Candles), the physical representation of your powers disappearing, how neatly form and story fit together. I want to make games like that. And the fact the entire game is 200 words is fantastic (and pushes back against the sometimes persistent idea – especially with the unlearning of subconscious D&D lessons – that there’s something more legit about longer word counts).
Font is one of the most beautifully written games I own – both in economy of text and expression, the sewing together of mechanics and concepts and simply in the language used to describe the choices and actions that are part of your character’s journey. It’s a GM-less, zero-prep game whose entire rules fit onto 1/2 of a sheet of paper.
One of the reasons Font impacted me so much was I crossed its path at precisely the right time, when I was thinking about its themes, trying to express things in game mechanics that it was doing so seamlessly. Font is, generally, about a group who leave a dying world to make a dangerous journey to the Font, which ‘will change everything’.
Change – or the painful lack of it – is at Font’s core. The choices are sometimes stark – reveal a secret, or bury it forever. Not just reveal it, or don’t reveal it. Reveal it or permanently sacrifice the option of ever revealing it. I’d not seen options shown quite so starkly in other games. There’s also a fascinating balance of what is changed – because something always is, but whether it’s you, or the world (for instance), is still open.
It puts me in mind of the film Annhilation (shocker, it’s listed as an inspiration on the itch.io page) – the sense of journeys and unknown places and the focus on people themselves as changeable things. It’s a really quietly beautiful game and, again (whilst I have no one single kind of game I want to make) one of the things I’m often reaching for.