Burst of Insight—Pandemic Memes: Influential RPGs, Part 1

During the pandemic I’ve seen more and more memes of lists some with commentary and some without. Recently, one of my friends posted 10 RPGs that had influenced them. I nearly posted my list on social media then stopped myself as my inner Ryan Costello reminded me, “That’s content!” So here is the first five, *cough* sorry four, of my 10 most influential RPGs.

D&D (multiple editions): Let’s go ahead and get this one out of the way. The summer of ‘83 I joined a board game club at the neighborhood park where I made several new friends. One of those friends invited me and a few others to try out a game his dad had picked up but they hadn’t played more than once. I accepted but had no idea what to expect. The game came in what seemed to be an unimpressively sized box and had longer instruction manuals than I had ever seen in a game…and yet I fell in love. The Elmore and Easley artwork captured the imagination. Over that summer we played every day.

Eventually, we progressed to AD&D and then Second Edition. I played D&D off and on for decades until we finally switched to Pathfinder. Even D&D 5e which I’ve really only dabbled in has given me a tremendous amount of inspiration. I love the Advantage / Disadvantage mechanics and despite not playing the game I’ve been reading the Monster’s Know what They’re Doing by Keith Ammann and I’m finding much of his advice to be invaluable for other games.

Thanks to D&D, I’ve wandered across a dozen or more published worlds and made life-long friends doing it. (For example, the guy who introduced me to D&D in the summer of 83? We were in each other’s weddings and still talk about once a week or more.)

Pathfinder: And with D&D out of the way I figure we’ll hit the other really obvious influence: First Edition Pathfinder. From playtest to final release Pathfinder became my game of choice for most of its run and is still even with other awesome options it still holds up as a game I love to play.

When the playtest came out all of my years of tinkering with rules felt vindicated. And I expanded my own efforts in rules redesign. Over the years we’ve played several d20 one offs with hybrid and variant rules. I don’t often throw major house rules into major campaigns because I want my players to be able to reference the rulebooks and know what the rule will be six months to a year into the campaign. I did toy with a heavily house ruled campaign and made pretty serious headway into creating a character specific set of variant rulebook documents we could print and play with but life happened and that campaign idea didn’t progress very far. (I talked about that campaign concept here before see the Maze articles.)

Speaking of campaigns I would be remiss if I didn’t address the Adventure Path line and model. AP’s have greatly improved how I run published adventures and even my homebrew campaigns have improved since I’ve had the opportunity to play and run several of Paizo’s tightly plotted adventure paths.

Finally, Pathfinder is the ruleset I was immersed in when I finally broke into professional game design. I entered RPG Superstar because it was fun and there was a community around the event I was fond of. I didn’t expect to break into game design . . . sure I hoped I would, but self-doubt is a thing and until I received an email from an industry professional after reaching the top 16 the first time, I didn’t dare do more than hope. Now I consider that industry professional and his wife to be among my closest friends.

E6: As this isn’t a full game it feels a little like a cheat to put this on this list but E6 calls itself something like the “game within the game” so I’m running with it. E6 was one of those lightning bolt moments of, “Why didn’t I think of that?” The idea of running a game from x level on we’d done for years. I even retired campaigns at certain levels because they weren’t fun any more . . . but setting those limits at the start of the campaign never occurred to me. Also the way it could handle advancement beyond 6th level by just adding feats was genius. I’m still sold 100% on this concept and will likely explore it in the future.

Gamma World: During the eighties I probably picked up most of my gaming books at the mall. Waldenbooks was a favorite hangout place for me. On one trip, a friend of mine and I were drawn to a new game on the strength of the cover art by Keith Parkinson. A robot or power armor garbed warrior astride a giant cyborg wolverine dominated the image. We NEEDED this game! Suddenly the line between fantasy and science was blurred for entire campaigns. We could dungeon crawl through the ruins of Pittsburg while playing cyborgs, mutants, or humans.

I have a huge soft spot for the weird post apocalypse genre because of this game and have been super excited to see Owen K. C. Stephens posting Gamma Finder conversions for the Starfinder rules.

These are just a few of the games that have had strong influences on me and my time gaming. In two weeks I’ll be back with a few less obvious choices. What games have inspired you? Shout out in the comments.

Burst of Insight





Andrew Marlowe

placed in the Top 16 of RPG Superstar in 2012 and 2014, one of the few contestants to get that far in the competition twice. Since then, he has contributed to many Paizo and third party Pathfinder products, including one of the network’s favourite releases in the Pathfinder Player Companion line, the Dirty Tactics Toolbox. Every other Tuesday, he will be sharing his Burst of Insight, with design tips for would-be game designers from a decorated freelancer.