My RPG DNA: Part 2: The Middle Years, GURPS

A few weeks ago, based on Rob Donaghue’s exercise of reminiscing about  gaming history, I too started sharing my story, starting with my initial infatuation with AD&D covering the mid-80’s period where I was between the age of 10 and 14.

Letting an old friend go…

As I grew older, I grew progressively dissatisfied with playing AD&D only.  As new RPGs emulating different genres came out, I wanted to experiment them with my friends. However, we soon observed that having to learn a whole new set of rules whenever we felt like switching genres was a significant barrier to entry.

I also grew progressively dissatisfied with AD&D itself.  By that time, as many geeky teenagers were wont to do and as my rapidly rising grasp on the English language allowed, I was trying to cram as many of the AD&D rules into our games as I could.  This included using the infamous Unearthed Arcana that some of our grumpy luminaries identified as what broke AD&D.

Between the cavalier’s rising ability scores, double weapon specialization and the godawful stat generation alternatives, that book, while initially cool to my munchkin-styled DMing, eventually made me regret using it.  Also, AD&D’s numerous and disparate subsystems, alternate XP leveling chart and sheer “grocery store of Magic Items” that the published adventures combined to make me want to play something different.

Finally, I had a yearning for more of what I now abhor in RPGs: realism!

The Rise of the Crunch Overlord

I wanted to be free of the 1 minute round and wanted to experience the blow-by-blow, break your left knee and explode your opponent’s right eye of Rolemaster, without actually going insane running that game of limitless charts and options (I tried playing Middle Earth RPG and quit during character generation).

Before TSR started announcing  the 2nd edition of AD&D in Dragon magazine, I was curious about this particular game:  Man to Man.  A realistic game of medieval fighters!   I had long been a Steve Jackson Games fan, having bought so many black boxes of Car Wars and destroyed Midville so many times (Heavy-Rockets FTW) that I was eager-curious about anything they published.

It turns out I never purchased Man to Man.  When AD&D 2e came out a few years later, I didn’t feel like re-buying all the core books (sounds familiar, dudn’t it?), so I went to the local game store looking for that fighting game.Instead I found GURPS (then in its second edition) at the store, a whole RPG based on the Man-to-Man engine (and a re-imagining of Jackson’s The Fantasy Trip). Sitting beside the GURPS Box Set was a book called Autoduelling, which offered a setting and rules to roleplay in the world of Car Wars.

No way!

I snatched the box, the book and a copy of Gurps Fantasy.

Early disappointment, homebrewed bliss

Autoduel proved to be clunky and unplayable. In fact, playing with vehicles in Gurps, as much as I loved designing them, proved too complex for my GMing style and we ended up using the more abstract rules. Gurps Fantasy also turned out to be one of the most uninteresting RPG books I had read.  The generic fantasy world seemed lifeless to me (and I don’t really like the “people-from-Earth-whisked-to-a-new-world-so-we-can-skimp-on-neo-sociology” trope).

And don’t get me started on the game’s wimpy excuse of a magic system..

Math: WTF? I need 2 turns to cast a 3d6 fire ball and I can misscast it AND miss with it?

Yan: Hey, My greatsword does that every turn!

Math: Screw that, I’m making a Barbarian with a Wolf Companion.

But boy did I love the game’s engine, especially the character generation rules and combat.  We played Gurps from 1988 to 2000 and some very memorable campaigns (all homegrown) were played.  We played various genres, from Fantasy (our recurring staple), to Supers (another favorite) to post-apocalyptic horror and Cyber/Sci-fi.

I flexed my campaign setting design muscles with Gurps.  The fantasy world I created when I was 14 is the one I finally destroyed when D&D 4e came out. Like Yan told me, GURPS was a toolbox for world builders.

I loved it so much that I eventually re-bought my whole collection that I had sold when I moved 600 miles north of Montreal with my then-girlfriend/now-wife Alex for her first job as a Speech Pathologist in 1997.  At the time, (I was 24), I was struck by the very strange notion that I was “an adult now” and that I should leave RPGs behind.

Silly Chatty…

Anecdotal aside to this anecdotal post: In truth I re-bought it after playing a godawful AD&D 2e game with a no less awful DM in the North.  Turns out I stole all of that DM’s players when they converted to Gurps… and I threw out that DM out of my house when he was too much of an ass when I invited him to play with us.

Let me tell you about my campaign

My all time favourite was the last campaign we played when I came back from working in the Great North in 1999.  (That’s where I reunited with Math and Yan and were later joined by Stef).  It started with the premise of a high-technology Earth having a Shadowrun event, bringing magic to Earth.  At the time, genetically engineered sentient dragons discovered and read Bilbo the Hobbit. They found Tolkien’s concept of how dragons living as kings, sleeping on piles of treasure quite pleasing.

Thus, they built arkships, “hired’ people (read: enslaved), stole human genetic material from Earth and set to colonize a nearby star to recreate this “draconic paradise”.  During the millenia-long STL voyage, the dragons created the Tolkienesque races and used them to seed and terraform the planet they chose to colonize, a planet whose dominant life form were transcendent beings of pure energy that the “lesser races” called magic!

They then removed all traces of technology on the surface and settled as Kings and Queens.

The PCs were the (initially) unwitting descendants of the arkships slaves (and hidden Earth agents). They were all starting adventuring careers in a small kingdom ruled by a family of despotic Red Dragons.

My goal was to eventually unfold the campaign into a Fantasy vs Science Fiction conflict… but it never got to that point due to player revolt. When they found a crashed Spy satellite bearing a US flag, they ignored the plot hook and went to help some dwarves somewhere instead. I let it drop and chalked it up to not being too secretive about your campaign plot. 🙂

The highlights of that campaign:

  • A wight NPC named Barry
  • A halfling trap consultant that built access corridors and backdoors to all Dragon dungeons he built
  • Turning one of my players PCs into a magic wand girl because he kept bugging me about adding more powers to his monk staff
  • Said player had to get up and shout “Moon Heal” to use his “heal group” power =)
  • Best PC to NPC exchange ever…

Chatty: Okay so as you enter the Dracolich’s lair you see it rear its head in your direction, but before he pounces he looks at Math’s PC (called Norim Lostlove, a sword and Shield fighting-man IIRC) he stops for a moment, as if recalling an ancient souvenir and booms, hesitantly. “Commander Lostlove?”

Math (having no idea what the hell that was about but sensing a huge plot reveal finally about to drop): You!

He he he.

Moving on…

After a decade, I eventually tired of Gurps.  The combat system no longer met my needs.  I wanted PCs and monsters to be able to do more per turn.  I also found that having to use the point-buy system to create opponents was becoming more and more of a drag.  While the rising availability of internet ressources helped alleviate that, I’ve always felt that all opponents in Gurps were noting but humans wearing rubber suits.  To my then crunch-obsessed mind, it lacked something mechanical to set PCs and opponents apart.

In hindsight, I realize that’s because I should have used made monsters using Superheroes and Alien rules earlier in my GMing career and focus more on the fluff of it.

Damn, I think Wolfgang Baur has contaminated me!

At that time (early 00’s), I started hacking the engine to fit my needs.  Combat turns became about 6 seconds long and monsters became more like multi-limbed super-villains. But the campaign lost steam and I was starting to look for alternatives.  We tried BESM, which I liked a lot… (and still gauge new generic RPGs against for elegance and simplicity of design)

Then my friend Nicolas bought me a very special birthday gift in January of 2001…

The Dungeons and Dragons 3e Players Handbook

But that’s another story…

Where were you in the 90’s?

So as you can see, I completely dodged the AD&D 2e/White Wolf/”Story” years playing one of the world crunchiest RPGs.

What was your game of choice during that time and what is your best souvenir?


  1. Oh man, the 90’s? For me it was a few years of Palladium’s Heroes Unlimited (I still own it as a Trophy of “Look What I Survived”) in Junior High/High School followed by being introduced to Vampire the Masquerade Live-Action in 1998. As much as you guys rag on LARP folks, there was nothing cooler than a nightclub meeting every weekend with 200+ people playing characters. From what I’ve heard the closer you got to White Wolf homebase, the larger the games were. I still think it was an important stage…when your RPG scene includes a cast of hundreds, you pick up on some trends rather quickly…most notably how people all have a different play style/”what they want” out of a game. Good times, all around.
    But yeah, the 90’s were a young time of me running Superhero games of madness and dressing up as a Vampire. And making fun of all those dorks playing Dungeons & Dragons.
    Oh how far I have fallen.
    “who is still making fun of those dorks, but now he’s one of them too”

    Edit: By the by, when I was 11 (1991 or so) I got a bunch of D&D Monster Manuals as a gift. I never wanted to play the game but those old 2nd Edition Monster Manual booklets sat next to my Charlie Brown Encyclopedia for ages because, well, I liked Monsters. I think that explains a lot about me really. My D&D Passion was just dormant for 17 years.

  2. Sewicked says:

    Let’s see, about 1989 this ‘neat, new’ game came out that was called Shadowrun. Being a poor college student, I couldn’t afford to buy the rulebook, so my ‘kind, generous’ boyfriend offered to pay for half if I agreed to run the game.

    Please note that I had tried, once, to run D&D in high school. It was a horrifying, scarring experience that I vowed to never repeat.

    Silly me, I never thought he’d hold me to that bargain. I co-ran that campaign for years, into the 90’s for certain. It led to some great in-jokes (tasering someone didn’t just involve electricity). I learned to love Shadowrun module series; especially for their plot flowchart.

    None of us were making much money and gaming was a great way to entertain ourselves; $30 would last for months. We also played other games; Wizard’s Realm, for example. A game that to this day, I can’t find anyone outside our group who has ever even heard of it.

    Through our FLGS, we heard about a guy wanting to run a Mage game. That game lasted the rest of the 90’s. We were also in a very short-lived Changeling game and a longer running Legends of the Five Rings game. There was also some Deadlands, modified Chivalry & Sorcery, and a brief stint with Seventh Sea (if you jump up the cliff, that feral boar won’t be able to get you. White meat can’t jump). We tried GURPS. Three times. Hated it all three times. Meh, to each their own; but I’ll admit that the GURPS supplements rock.

    At the end of the 90’s I found Ironclaw at Dragon*con. We coerced a friend into running it (it was his turn to run a game, we insisted). My gaming DNA is all over the board.

    There are more games that I would like to have played and would like to play today. However, there are only so many hours in the day.

  3. Kensan_Oni says:

    Where was I?

    Early 90’s would find me before I was stop playing everything under the sun. Between Marvel Superhero, TORG, Star Wars, Dreampark, 2e D&D (I played at my folks table), and… wow…

    Then my mom died, and that tended to change a lot of the Dynamic of the games I played. I ended up playing a homebrew Superhero game, more D&D, Shadowrun (ick), and ,,, aww, heck… just about everything.

    I’d be best known for running a mish-mash White Wolf WOD game, although I would also try my hand at Trinity and Abberant. Some of my most Memorable characters would be from Legend of the Five Rings, TORG, and Shadowrun (My favorite D&D characters kinda miss this era, although I do miss one character that had been built in that time frame).

    It would also be the time I was introduced to the Ironclaw, which I didn’t actually play, but is noticeable because it still has the best character creation system of any game I’ve ever played. Too bad the dice mechanic just sucks.

  4. The 90s were the years of Hero System. This was the system of choice at Dartmouth in the late 80s, and early 90s (particularly championed by our friend Mike Evans, who then went on to work on this little game called Halo).

    The best game that we ever had with this system was the “Rules Rape” campaign. Make the most abusive character that you could. It had to respect the letter of the rules, but not the spirit. And then we pitted them against each other.

    I was “Pizza Delivery Man”. I could be anywhere in Space or Time within 30 minutes or less.

  5. I was a lover of AD&D in the late 80’s and early 90’s but a friend of mine gave me a copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness and I became a lover of almost all things Palladium ( pretty much anything except for their fantasy genre with the logic that I’d stick to AD&D for that). I also enjoyed Cyberpunk and it’s sequel Cyperbunk 2020. I even gave Cyberpunk Generations a try.

    I wanted to like GURPS and I wanted to like White Wolf’s World of Darkness but while I owned books for both systems, I never really did play either of them. That was more a problem with not having people to play with at the time I picked those up, than either system.

  6. Being a bit younger than Phil M. Chattington, most of the gaming of our group took place during the 90’s. Early on, it was dominated by D&D (2e), though especially following a legendary split in our gaming group, we got more into other games. GURPS was a front-runner, with a fair amount of World of Darkness (mostly Mage or all-game hybrids), BESM, Star Wars d6, and a few others in the mix.

    The biggest non-D&D games was the multi-part “Highway to Nowhere” campaign. In all iterations of the game, you started out playing yourself as a 25 point GURPS character. Then, we started traveling from universe to universe, and as we acquired character points, we could buy advantages/skills/etc. from the worlds we visited. The BBG from the first part was the GM of the game, as his alternate universe cyborg duplicate.

    That would go on to spawn sequels set in Illuminati University (IOU), by far my favorite sourcebook and a huge influence on later campaigns I would run. Highway to Nowhere ended up being run by 3 different GMs over several years, using many different sourcebooks (thanks to the nature of the setting and some awesome software), and a wide variety of adventure types. It definitely defines the era between 2e D&D and the release of 3e for me.

    And I’m with Jared- I used to LARP at most conventions I went to, and I’m proud to say that. I had some awesome moments with it.

  7. @Jared: Montreal had a very active Vampire Larp crowd and even a nightclub 100% decidated to it called “the Vampire Lounge” in the early/mid-90s. I never ‘got’ what it was about… but then again, I ignored huge parts of the hobby to over-obsess about a tiny fraction of it… so who am I to judge what the other freaks did? I was one too.

    I did play some Palladium too. Mostly a few sessions of Robotech and one of Heroes Unlimited IIRC… there was something about the engine that was off… I blame MDC 🙂

    11 in 91? Damn you’re young kid. 🙂

    I must concede that the 2e monster books were probably the best all around.

    @sewicked: I like everything that Shadowrun represented except the game system itself. I never grokked it. I did however read a few short story anthologies 🙂

    The one WoD game I regret not trying is Mage, I keep hearing that it was different and never got around to it…

    @Kensan: Wow, you really were all over the place. Do you have RPG ADD? I know many have that thing where after 2-3 sessions of a game, they feel the urge to change systems. 🙂


    I was “Pizza Delivery Man”. I could be anywhere in Space or Time within 30 minutes or less.

    You just won the super secret bacon prize man. That was so bad it was awesome!

    @Jason: I liked Cyberpunk 2020, it felt “right” if we ignore the more Juvenile aspects like the Penile Implant…

  8. The 90s for me were filled mostly with AD&D, 2nd Edition, but there were a variety of other games as i branched out.

    White Wolf, Shadowrun, GURPS, Aberrant, In Nomine, and Paranoid were all played to some small degree, but while I happily discovered that other options existed (and could be fantastic fun), none really caught my attention …

    … until Amber came along. Amber’s diceless system seriously turned things on their head and provided a different experience. Highly recommended that everybody try it at some point.
    .-= Steve´s last blog ..The world of cufflinks =-.

  9. Men did I like that game. With my delusional, daredevil viscount David Munch a swashbuckler and gentlemen. I remember fondly the moment where the dracolich used me as a club and that moment where that other dragon threw me after I had jump on is back… It was also the time I got my favorite magic item of all time… Boots of jumping! Men did I use them at every occasion notably to jump on that dragon…

    As for the system of the 90s that I played… GURPS as been the one and foremost. I did try rolemaster the middle earth version for a while, AD&D to my complete disgust and some other system as one shot mostly. Nothing gave me the liberty I enjoyed with GURPS. I could not care less for settings I wanted to create my own and the tool box approach of GURPS gave me just that.

  10. Wow… The 90’s…

    I started the 90’s still playing 1E AD&D and staying as far away from 2nd Edition as possible. I was never a fan of that edition and never played it. In May 1992, I got married and drifted away from rpg’s. I was a young newlywed and a new teacher in an area that had been hit hard by Hurricane Hugo a few years earlier and was still reeling, though even in the best of times it was not a robust community. I stayed away until quietly introducing some students to the game in the late 90’s (97-99) and keeping my classroom open until 6pm one night each week so that they could play at one of my tables while I did paperwork in my office. I never actually played with them and probably would have been fired (or threatened with it) just for allowing them a place to play.

    Then, I moved back to the town where I went to high school in July 1999. When Hurricane Floyd left our house without power for a week that fall (and the school I where I was teaching closed for the week too), I spent days at a FLGS. I became a regular there and when 3rd edition D&D was announced, the owner asked me if I would be the store’s DM, which I did until 2003.

  11. I definitely remember AD&D 1e. One campaign of it veered into very crunchy homebrew with attack timings and movement per tick and other stuff that turned out to be horrid.

    We spent quite a bit of time with Rolemaster/Harn as well. I loved the setting, and Columbia Games was run out of my home town, even though I was on the other side of the country then.

    Moving to CA in 91, I jumped right into an old friends Call of Cthulhu campaign. He doctored it a bit so that we would have our characters survive for a while and get through a full campaign arc. My character ended up flying in formation with Migo to attack the evil cult assisted by Nazi’s with a twin engine cargo aircraft fitted with a Migo ray gun. Damn, but that was fun.

    We also played a lot of L5R, another long-running campaign.

  12. Kensan_Oni says:

    Nono! We changed systems like maybe once a year, but we had like 5 game masters. People rotated games a lot. We regularly had 5 different games going on a month, rotating on a Bi-Weekly basis. There was also the side games… and I just happen to collect random RPG’s. 😀 I own(ed) many RPG’s that I’ve never actually played…

  13. I love this series of articles. You’ve inspired me to write my own series starting next week. We have very similar experiences (from “is there anything other than AD&D?” to GURPS head) though I think my decisions were made more because of genre than system. I hope to do the RPG DNA concept justice.

    Great evocative stuff.
    .-= Siskoid´s last blog ..10 and 1 Items About Amy’s Choice =-.

  14. @Stevee: Wujcik’s Amber is one of those often-heard-about, never-played RPGs. The Gamist in me abhors the thought of going diceless and I know that the game requires some self-restraints not to abuse the system…

    Franky has a copy of the game, I should ask for it and give it a read over… although I have yet to read Zelazny’s epic cycle.

    @Yan: Both your PC and Math’s remain freshly in my mind even after more than a decade because we were able to develop the characters quite a lot. I’m happy that I was able to break away from the strict rules of Gurps Fantasy and inject some Supers crazyness in that campaign.

    Man, we’ve been playing for 12 straight years since I came back… that’s insane and cool!

    @Darren: Nice story… if a bit stormy! Thanks for sharing. Did you like 3e at first? How was your reaction going from 1e to 3e (like I mostly did… I played 2e a handful of times, not enough to get into it, just enough to dislike it)

    @Toldain: CoC, another huge hole in my gaming repertoire. Altough the percentile roll system is weird.. it can make for very awkward failed knowledge checks.

    @Kensan: Man, you played a LOT! I envy you! 🙂

    @Siskoid: Thank you so much for the praise. Have fun writing yours! Let me know how it turns out.

  15. The 90’s was a rich period for me. High and lows.

    At the start of the decade I ended the story of my Stormbringer campaign. (1988-1992) (Aka Elric! for those who played in this univers after they changed the system) I started with a small group of 3 players, ended with a table of 8. I was usually running 2 groups (2 different nights) in the same world and timeline, with a few adventures with the whole group together. It was a huge task and I took a long break after that game ended. I was completely drained.

    In 1994, I started playing Vampire of WW. This is the game that defined my DMing style. I like storytelling more then anything. After playing games, in the 80’s, with huge rule system like AD&D, Rolemaster and some others that I don’t remember the names. I welcomed the games who made sure the focus was on the story and less on how to deal with things that should be simplefied.

    Inomine Satanis/Magna Veritas, Vampire, Paranoia, Star Wars West End Games system, DC Heroes.

    Those are the games I played the most in that period.

  16. I started playing RPGs in the early 90’s with AD&D, 2nd ed. We mostly played that, but we also played a lot of Mage/Werewolf/Vampire, and we had a fairly long-running RIFTS game, that eventually died a messy death (as do all RIFTS games.)

    Also, during that time, I got heavily into Warhammer, Warhammer 40K, and pretty much every other game that GW put out. Since then, I’ve cut back to only playing Warhammer, which is still one of my favorite games.

  17. Reading stuff like this I find it hilarious how in 2007 when I went to D&D Game Day because some random folks dared me to, I was worried I’d be the oldest guy there playing Dungeons & Dragons. “A 27 year old playing D&D?” said Jared to himself “The store owner is going to think I’m a creepy child molester or something.”
    Oh how wrong I was. But still, I find it funny how I was actually dreading the embarrassment of trying to play D&D at my age. It’s kind of telling how little us folks on the outside (well, not anymore but I still like to call myself a bit of an Outsider) know about what’s going down.
    Great article and it’s interesting to read what other folks were playing.

    Edit: I’m not sure there’s going to be a part 3 to this series, but I find it amusing that most of my gaming experience is from 2000-onwards. You guys win, hands down.

  18. Roger Alix-Gaudreau says:

    I’m really enjoying this series, and it’s inspired a bit of retrospective consideration of my own.

    For me, the 90’s started with AD&D 2E, but it was mostly my decade of rebellion from my D&D roots. (I had started playing D&D with the red box in 1980 and played AD&D 1E through most of the rest of the decade.) In the 90’s I played Marvel Super Heroes, Gamma World, The Morrow Project, Ringworld and Traveler, all as side games and one-off experiments. I also played various flavors of GURPS in one-shots and various mini-campaigns, but two games dominated my time: Shadowrun and Earthdawn.

    Shadowrun was my first experience with a modern sci-fi game that really gripped my mind and fired up my imagination, and I played in several games run by friends. But, although I’ve enjoyed various modern/sci-fi games over the years (including more recently Alternity and d20 Modern/d20 Future), the fantasy genre has always been my first and true love — so Earthdawn *really* rocked. 🙂 It was a totally new take on a fantasy game for me — rules, setting and core conceits — and I explored that game and that setting for six or seven years through several campaigns. Ironically, it ended up having more of a leveling-up curve than even AD&D 1E and the system eventually became too unwieldy to enjoy, but that game and setting had character and flair like no other I’d ever experienced. I loved it so much, I was fortunate enough to contribute to several books late in the game’s life, before FASA sold the game line.

    Our Earthdawn group eventually drifted apart and I actually didn’t game for a couple of years, which I was okay with at the time due to burnout and various other stresses in my life. (Somewhat ironically, I was living in Atlanta and contributed to several White Wolf books in that time, though I never actually played any White Wolf games.) And then I went to Dragon Con the year that AD&D 3E was published and played in a demo game, and I’ve had a decade of D&D-filled fun ever since.

  19. @D_Luck: I have to read one of those Storytelling books one day so I can know what it really was about. To me it was mostly annoying font changes and endless Fiction pages… I also saw a few games an everytime it felt like the players had to sit there and listen to the GM haming it up and showing how awesome he was at spinning a yarn. I now assume that my sampling was too small to judge appropriately, but that 1st impression killed Vampire for me.

    Glad to have you back old friend.

    @pworthen: Ah yes Rifts. I read it… we made PCs once. We never played it… Pity, the Glitterboys were based in Quebec. 🙂

    @Jared: Har har har. Well as you can see, there’s currently 3 full generations playing these games and you’re in the most numerous age group that visits the blog.

    Given the completely unexpected success of this series, you can bet your german-based ass that we’ll see to the end. There’s still 10 years missing… from 2001 to 2010. Which I know amounts for a huge part of the 20-something crowd…

    @Roger: Hi there! Alix-Gaudreau is that French french, Swiss French or Quebecois?

    Ah yes Earthdawn, how many ads of that game did I see. And the glowing reviews it got. I remember it well… but again, never tried it.

    Its really funny to see that many people’s stories (which are awesome) seem to converge toward the same event-horizon… D&D 3e

    Yeah,that may be the first time that reader response make me really excited to write the next part. Thanks everyone.

    (And thanking everyone usually kills the thread…go figure)

  20. Roger Alix-Gaudreau says:

    @ChattyDM The “Alix” part is my wife’s name and the “Gaudreau” part is mine. It turns out that both families are originally from France, but came to the U.S. via Quebec. We’re each three generations removed from “the old country”. 🙂 Thanks for asking! (Et merci pour les essais tres interessants!)

  21. In the 90’s I was still very much into Traveller. It was right at the end of the MegaTraveller edition and the beginning of the New Era edition. We updated as editions changed until GDW died in 1996. T4 didn’t really thrill us, so we continued to play T:NE with my variants.

    I also played or ran other GDW games like Twilight:2000, Dark Conspiracy, and even a little bit of Cadillacs and Dinosaurs.

    I also ran a lot of Champions then, and occasionally did other Hero System stuff, like Justice Incorporated.

    Of course, as a Star Wars fan, I ran many campaigns of WEG Star Wars.

    I didn’t do much Cyberpunk in the 90’s as I had in the 80’s, but there was some.

    You will probably note a distinct lack of DnD here. I didn’t start playing that until the new millenium, but that’s another story.
    .-= Elderac´s last blog ..New Urkana Epic – Session 2 =-.

  22. When I wasn’t playing AD&D 2nd edition, I played a lot of White Wolf’s games and Palladium’s games (mostly Rifts and TMNT, but some others as well).

    I greatly preferred the character creation in Palladium’s rules over the AD&D character creation rules. While your characters weren’t really any stronger, they were much more customized. The down-side of their rules, IMHO, was that they intended interoperability for their games from the beginning. This may sound like a great benefit. But, if so, I guarantee you’ve never played a mutant piloting a mech while fighting dragons and the 4 hoursemen. Just sayin’.
    .-= Carson F. Ball´s last blog ..Dungeons and Dragons Needs a Pronunciation Guide =-.

  23. Joe Hall-Reppen says:

    Being around the same age of Jared, I was very young in the 90s (age 4-14) and didn’t get a lot of gaming done. In fact, I didn’t get into DnD until a few months prior to the 3e release. Mostly I used my imagination for video games and Lego.

    However, I did have one unique experience around the age of 11 or 12. While at a birthday party, someone pulled out a new board game they had purchased called DragonStrike ( It had heroes, and monsters, and rules, and you used these crazy dice that were completely unlike the 6-sided versions to which I was accustomed. I was fascinated and after playing for only 30 min and killing one orc, I had to have it. Lots of begging and bargaining with the parents followed, and after about 2 weeks I had saved up enough money to get it from the toy store. The rules were fantastic and the book was so thick (30 pages!!!) that I couldn’t believe anyone read the whole thing. Or that someone would paint the plastic miniatures that came with the set. It was very overwhelming.

    Unfortunately the one play experience, rule book, and ridiculous video were as far as I got with DragonStrike. I couldn’t figure how to explain the rules to my family and friends to get them to play. So instead, I continued to make up baseball games and play those by myself with watching the Chicago Cubs. But I still chuckle when I see DragonStrike on my closet shelf and I like to think it was one of the reason I said “yes” when someone asked if I wanted to learn DnD in 2000. And why I have said “yes” to learning every game since then.

  24. My gaming started in about ’82, but stopped until late ’90/early ’91. Then, I got into a group playing a 1e/2e mixed rules game of AD&D. Basically, we used 2e rules, but the guys in the group just had to power game with the Unearthed Arcana book. I would say it would be almost impossible to remember a campaign that didn’t involve someone playing a 1e UA barbarian character. I rarely used UA for any of my characters, preferring to use 2e Complete (class) Handbooks and the various kits they offered.

    From time to time, we would need a break from AD&D. So we often tried out other games. We tried out Fasa’s Star Trek RPG, a Vietnam war era RPG (I think it was called Recon), Shadowrun, Rifts, and the White Wolf games through out the 90s. Most of the time, we were just taking a short break from AD&D, but the Shadowrun/Rifts phase we went through lasted for awhile. We started with Shadowrun and recognized some game mechanics issues in combat encounters. I’m sure we were missing some key points in the combat system that would have clarified/simplified Shadowrun for us (basically, our viewpoint on Shadowrun was that dice pool systems SUCK), but we chose to ‘convert’ our characters over to a Rifts campaign. Rifts was somewhat similar to AD&D, to our viewpoint, so it was a more natural fit for us.

    Towards the end of our gaming days in the 90s, about half the group was swearing off AD&D and focusing on the White Wolf games. I played some, too, but I was always a bit perplexed by the group accepting yet another flawed dice pool system. But as time went by with that experience, I began to see why they were so accepting of it: they had thrown out the written limits on skill caps (thereby having no limit on how high they could run their dice pools) and had done away with opposing rolls, especially in combat. They essentially turned it into yet another power game. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a power game at all. But what usually bothered me about such a gaming style was… I (and some other players) were not informed of such changes. We had to learn about them by close observation and directly questioning it (“Hey, why does he have 10 dice to roll on this check, but I can only roll 5 for the same thing — because the rules say that’s the limit??” “Oh, where have you been, man? We did away with that rule months ago!” “Umm… a few months ago, shooting pool was more important to me, so that’s what I was doing instead of this… and its beginning to feel that way again.”) Anyhow, as stuff like this continued, I reached the point of swearing off dice pool systems and saying to hell with that group. When a player is so consumed with a flawed system that he makes a statement along the lines of gauging the power of his character by how many dice he holds in his hands before a roll, then the game is lost. I’d rather be a ROLEplayer than a ROLLplayer any day of the week.

    My gaming days in the ’90s (and pretty much overall) ended then. We did start up an AD&D gaming group again, about a year or so before 3e was released… but that ended up leading to a horrible gaming experience that I’ve commented on the old site about… in which the DM’s ‘great idea’ for an adventure was a poorly put together ripoff of the LOTR. Gaming has been pretty much dead to me since, but I have a strong desire to get back into it.

  25. @chatty
    I don’t think you’ve quite got the Amber system. You really can’t break it mechanically. There is no super build that can’t be beaten or challenged. The people who “break” Amber don’t use the system, they use their ability to convince, cajole, and bullshit the GM.
    Wujeck repeatedly suggests to gms that if the players want power, to give it to them. If they want to get a lot of power without paying for it, give it to them, but remember that it isn’t under their control.
    As for the elements of the system, it is less what you have and more how you use it.
    .-= Michael Phillips´s last blog ..GM Tips =-.

  26. As for my Games of the 90s,
    November of 1989 I bought the Black Box D&D basic game for myself for my birthday. I ran one adventure and then an older friend started our first campaign. Over the next year I bought MERP and Rune Quest. In both cases, I got through a little bit of character creation (and looking at the hit charts) before saying “to hell with this.”
    The next year, I bought second edition D&D, which didn’t get played for several years. Junior high was solidly Original Edition D&D run by me or the older friend. In high school we switched over to 2nd edition and suddenly we spawned 4 dms who ran personal campaigns (me), Birthright (A), Forgotten Realms (B), and a personal campaign setting (C) By 1998, we had had games of d6 starwars (awful), Amber (Awesome), Bubblegum Crisis (Fuzion-awesome), Big Eyes Small Mouth.

    1998 I went to college and I played some Call of Cthuhllu and an awful awful game of In Nominee.
    I also bought every game that caught my eyes. Mechwarrior, Immortal (the second edition, awesome setting, awful rules), Shadowrun, Gurps Vampire the Masquerade, every D&D 2nd and 3rd edition setting I could find (Dragon Lance, Mystara, Dark Sun, Lankhenmar, Forgotten Realms, Birthright, Ravenloft, Hollow World (sort of mystara), and the South America in the forgotten realms setting) Robotech, Mekton Zeta, , AD&D 1st edition , D&D 3.0, and Iron Claw.
    .-= Michael Phillips´s last blog ..GM Tips =-.

  27. As promised, here is Part I of my RPG DNA. Thanks for the inspiration!
    .-= Siskoid´s last blog ..My RPG DNA, Part I: Early Days =-.

  28. This is a great series and great stories! But am I the only person who obssessed on Rolemaster? I diddled around a bit in the 90s with Shadowrun, Traveller:2300, a little bit of AD&D 2e, Cyberpunk 2020, but then I settled on Rolemaster (RM). I started with Middle Earth but then I did a lot of development of my own world, which is really easy to do with RM. Around about 98 I shifted away from RM to my own system, which was a kind of RM hybrid, and I’ve flicked between it and d20 mostly since then.

    I also read but never played (through lack of opportunity) Ars Magica, and a weird game called Aria that I avoided out of good sense (too many rules, but some nice ideas).

    I think there was a massive diversity of games in the 90s, I don’t know why *certain* people refer to it as a silver age when there was such a huge explosion of ideas and styles. Even isolated in Australia you could tell that there was a huge world of gaming going on, and you could come up with a system for almost any world or genre. To me this is A Very Good Thing.

    I’ve been thinking I should write out the story of some of the campaigns I left behind… they were quite fun.
    .-= faustusnotes´s last blog ..Japanese role-playing game Double Cross: Skill resolution =-.

  29. People, I’m almost done with seminars, hopefully I’ll start blogging at a brisker pace anew.

    @Roger: Y’a pas de quoi. 🙂

    @Elderac: Traveller and Champions/Hero were 2 other systems that always made me curious but never enough for me to invest with them. Having been the GM of a rather tight nit group has limited my exposure to other games that I didn’t seek out myself. I do recall one Hero game I wanted to try called “Danger International” which, IIRC, was a pulpy high adventure genre.

    @Carson F. Ball: Yeah, its not because they all used the same system that you could jumble them as you saw fit without repercussion… just look at Rifts 🙂

    @Joe: Hey man, great story… I can’t wait to get to the 00’s to let the younger players tell their stories. Have you checked if Dragonstrike was worth anything on E-Bay? I sold my whole Supremacy set of games back in 2004 and made many hundreds of dollars with it.

    @Tiorn: Wow, quite a story. What makes me curious though is how you still hang around RPG blogs (I’ve seen your name here and other places) though you stopped playing 10 years ago… You have to make something out of this soon… we’re now in a new era of indie-inspired games, some of which have fixed many of the mechanical issues of the past… plus you can now shop for players who are more inline with your own tastes in gaming.

    @Michael Phillips: Re Amber: How about player vs player power struggles? Regardless, in essence what you’re saying is that what made Amber game collapse on themselves when they did were more likely caused by the players than the system, right. Man, so many games I missed, no time to catch up…

    Re your 90’s parcourt. Quite an impressive list of games. What was the highlight(s) of it all for you? The ones you called awesome? I played a few sessions of what later became the Fuzion system (Mekton FTW) but when I read the generic rules for it, I was turned off, mostly because they didn’t stand up to BESM.

    @faustusnotes: Rolemaster was beloved by many. Monte Cook started his RPG design career there. I myself loved the critical hits tables (I’d spend hours looking at them and smirking/laughing out loud) but the rest of the system was too heavy to handle for me given my still growing English skills.

    Calling the 90’s “silver age” is Jamie Mal’s categorization of D&D itself, not the RPG world in general.

    Thanks everyone! Great turnout!

  30. For Amber, the thing most likely to cause the game to collapse is the players or gm getting tired of the game.
    For PvP, it is true that in any given type of conflict, one player has a distinct advantage over any one other player. But that just means you don’t engage in a conflict that is single dimensional unless you are the best at the given dimension. Frex if you are the second best weapon user in the group, you don’t pick a sword up to challenge the best unless your goal is not to win the fight, but to keep him busy fighting. Or if you are the strongest character you might pick up a sword to get the best fighter to engage you, then close, drop your weapon, take a hit and then pummel him into submission. Or you gang up on him or go after him politically, orconvince him/tricjk him to join your side.
    There is also the time honored “raise a whole load of dangerous power that you don’t actually control, aim it at your opponent, then be somewhere else in hopes of it not splashing on you.
    Given the nature of the characters, it is hard to force one to have a fight he doesn’t want to have.

    As for the highlights of 90s gaming for me:
    The OD&D Mystara material, just because it outlined such a huge setting in incredible detail, a sort of living world with a vast number of people and events going on in the background. The Gazetteers, The Wrath of The Immortals, The Voyage of the Princess Ark, and the first three Poor Wizard’s Almanacs between them built a world of politic and intrigue, a world war and a lost world in the center of the planet, things falling apart and heroes and villains trying desperately to pull them back together and save them. There was a second edition Mystara setting which was also nice, though it didn’t last as long, and it produced Joshuan’s Almanac, which was less crunchy and more player oriented than the first three Poor Wizards’ Almanacs. It was like moving from a subscription to Jane’s to a subscription to Stars and Stripes.

    My favorite system of the 90s though was definately 2nd edition AD&D. I had better games in other systems, but we played so much more D&D that the Amber and BESM and BGC games pale in comparison.
    The low point of my gaming that decade was Either Starwars or Birthright. Starwars d6 is a bad game, and I wasn’t enough in love with the setting to be able to ignore that. Birthright is really hard to run, and the DM who was running it wasn’t very good. (In Nomine was a a one shot. Well, honestly, it wasn’t a one shot, I just quit because of how bad the GM was.)
    Bubble Gum Crisis (Fuzion)) was one of the best games I’ve ever been in, but I suspect that was the GM, not the system. Fuzion is better then BESM if you want a more tactical crunchy game. BESM is better if you want a more free form game. Amusingly, in a game about power armored warriors, we never once actually used power armor. The GM would have let us, but we were too busy being badasses to worry about getting armor.
    Call of Cthullu isn’t the sort of game I generally like, but it had one of the best GMs I’ve ever played with, so the game itself was excellent.

    Then there was a home brew 2nd edition AD&D game where the GM destroyed all magic access for the PCs after a few sessions (but there were still monsters that needed magic to harm)
    I played a series of doomed casters in that game. It is where I honed my approach to combat and conflict in RPGs, where I learned how to change the terms of engagement if they didn’t favor me. It is also the game in which I once flooded the entire setting’s equivalent of the underdark because I was tired of going to the same damned dungeon over and over and over again.

    So highlights: the cool products for OD&D, The excellent game of BGC, A couple of excellent 2nd edition games, including one where the game wasn’t great, but where I learned a whole lot about how to game and how not to gm, Amber Diceless, oh and road trips to gen con when it was up in milwaukee every year.
    .-= Michael Phillips´s last blog ..GM Tips =-.

  31. @Chatty… I certainly agree. I have to get back into the game somehow and sometime soon. No matter what game it is, honestly, although ‘D’ would be the preference (I’m leaning towards 3.5e and eventually migrating to Pathfinder). I was in no way a rules lawyer as a player, but I was usually the first one asked about rules interpretations. I pretty well knew my stuff back then.

    Living in rural southern Ohio, it isn’t too easy to find other gamers. But I could probably piece together a group of 3-4 other players right now and get a little something going. That would more than likely require that I GM, which I’m not really comfortable with. But I must say that mainly reading your blog has opened my eyes to the possibility of GMing with a relative amount of comfort. Far more comfort than I ever had before.

    I love the ideas of using the ‘rule of cool’, ‘just say yes’, shared narrative control, and so on. I really like the concept of ‘success with complications’ versus outright failure. I’ve gleaned so many ideas from your and other blogs over the last year or two alone that I could probably never use everything that I have liked and would like to see in a game I participated in.

  32. Is started gaming in the 90s, but I don’t remember clearly how I got started… not even sure with whom…

    I know it was AD&D 2nd edition. I know it was during high school. I vaguely remember some very immature and entertaining blurbs of adventures.

    I *think* I introduced it to my younger brother (5 years younger than I) and played a bit with his friends as well.

    Gaming got more intense and interesting in college – we had a good group of players, a few of them DMs and we ran a campaign that lasted roughly 2 years – until we graduated.

    We had multiple players, swapped DM often, always running the same story.

    We built our own world, liked the slow grind and magic items were rare treasures. We loved storytelling above all. When the campaign stopped, our character were roughly 9th level. We had followers, a castle, staff (with wages to pay).

    We did visit the world of Sigil a few times through one of our DMs – always within the same campaign.

    During that time, I also dabbed into Vampire : The Masquerade. What’s not to love about vampires?

    I remember a night of LARPing – the game was running in a bar some of the customers were players, other not – everyone knew what was going on. Very good times.

    Then most of us graduated and I stopped playing until I met Steve playing EverQuest. He got us into 3rd edition (10 years ago? what?) and kept playing since.

    On hiatus for a few months. Itching to get back in action.
    .-= Eric Maziade´s last blog ..Vote to help find a good name for GameTable? =-.

  33. I also went looking for ‘realism’ in my fantasy gaming, and ending up trying to play MERP – hey, it’s ‘realistic’ compared to D&D – and attempting to devise house rules that seem, in hindsight, to have been ‘fun sinks’. It did leave me with a real fondness for ‘critical hit’ combat systems though.
    .-= DrBargle´s last blog ..Unstoppable Pincushions – HP in D&D =-.

  34. @DrBargle Is your screen name a Mystara reference or is that just coincidence?
    .-= Michael Phillips´s last blog ..GM Tips =-.

  35. Joe Hall-Reppen says:


    I looked at Dragonstrike to see about selling it, but it would be worth around $30. And that’s with all the pieces intact, which I’m not sure I can say about my set. Also, it would be tough to sell it, if only because it makes me smile every time I see on the games shelf next to Monopoly and LotR Risk.

  36. Michael, it is a Mystara reference. I’m not sure I’d like to have the surname Bargle.

  37. Long time viewer / first time poster. Really enjoy reading the blog, keep up the good work. Will most definitely start posting more oftenin the future.


  1. […] And since I was inspired by Chatty DM’s “Gaming DNA” posts (part one and two), I want to share a history of my dominant gaming […]