John Harper's List of Games to Play (6 Years Later)

edited September 2016 in Play Advice
In 2010 John Harper published this on his blog:

Game Theory 101
Want to know all about "game theory"? Have some question about GM-authority or player expectations or something that you're just dying to discuss on Story Games? Cool!

Play these:
My Life with Master
Primetime Adventures
Sorcerer + Dictionary of Mu
Trollbabe
Dogs in the Vineyard
Burning Wheel or Mouse Guard
Poison'd
Inspectres
1001 Nights
Contenders
Dust Devils
Nine Worlds
Capes
The Shadow of Yesterday
Shooting the Moon
In a Wicked Age...
Steal Away Jordan
Swords & Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord, etc.
D&D 4e and/or Warhammer 3e
Savage Worlds
Vampire (any)
Call of Cthulhu
Everway
Over the Edge
Universalis
Grey Ranks
Geiger Counter
Danger Patrol
Polaris
HERO System
Shock: Social Science Fiction
Spirit of the Century
3:16
Montsegur 1244
Until We Sink
Apocalypse World
What games, which have been published since John made his list 6 years ago, are important to play in order to understand RPG design?
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Comments

  • edited September 2016
    Some games I feel is missing:

    Microscope or The Quiet Year - a different way to play

    Archipelago - ritual words

    The Murder of Mr. Crow - playing to creating a scenario together (+active listening and controlled randomness)

    Imagine - loops and arcs, immersion in fiction and fiction alone, designing to make the participants read rules, designing for body language, and active listening. A game without conflict that is still engaging in story.

    Don't Rest Your Head - emergent complexity.

    Svart av kval, vit av lust - intrigue and collaborative storytelling done simple. (fish tank)

    Psychodrame - emotions as "skills". Building conflicts between characters into character generation.

    While the World Ends - competitive collaborative storytelling (that works!).

    Supercrew - silly descriptive challenges (I play games like Danger Patrol and InSpectres in that kind of way.) +game rules in form of a comic. So there should be a "or" between all these three games.

    The Coyotes of Chicago - multiple game masters with intention to do they own thing while collaborating with others.

    Kagematsu - designing goals into the characters and building a structure for scenes around those.

    Any Jeepform scenario - designing to provoke thoughts.

    Unknown Armies or Oktoberlandet - actually having a setting that is usable with how it's supposed to write adventures for those games.
  • I'll add a few more:

    Dog Eat Dog: a very clever design, light in rules but powerful in application. Enforces differential status, including "fiat" as a "trump rule" for the Occupation, in a way which challenges the assumptions of other rules.

    Fiasco: Freeform authority distribution, no direct conflict resolution, the brilliance of playsets (even unused elements affect play indirectly, by priming the players and creating a possible "field" of fictional material), and using common genre assumptions to get all the players on the same page.

    And these two mini-games, I believe, are truly eye-opening:

    The Pool, by James V. West. One of the first games to have only the players roll, players set their own difficulty for actions rolled (!), and explicit granting of narrational authority to players. Lean and effective.

    Otherkind dice, Vincent Baker. Not strictly a complete game (though it was used as such quite successfully!), but the first dice mechanic I'm aware of to deal purely in fictional terms and create combinatory results. It can be seen in slightly modified form in ghost/echo and in highly modified form in Apocalypse World.
  • edited September 2016
    Interesting designs not already mentioned:

    Pendragon
    FreeMarket
    Unknown Armies
    Sign in Stranger

    And, if we're including pitch, inspiration and presentation in "design":

    Vampire: the Masquerade
  • Archipelago - ritual words
    Polaris is listed and is already big into ritual words. Archipelago is great, but he's already got that angle covered.

    And, if we're including pitch, inspiration and presentation in "design":

    Vampire: the Masquerade
    Vampire (any) is already in the list and presumably includes The Masquerade. :)

    I agree that Fiasco is the most "obviously missing" item.

    I would put Circle of Hands in the list as well. And probably John's own Agon.
  • edited September 2016
    And probably John's own Agon.
    I definity agree with Agon, for its competitive structure (although it wasn't designed in the 6 years after John's list). Maybe he was just being humble :)
  • Annalise for the way it summed up everyone's thoughts (at the time) on reincorporation and orthogonal conflicts.

    D&D 5e for bounded accuracy.

    I'm surprised D&D 3e isn't on there. Really, I'd put Pathfinder on the list; it's an amazingly fun game.

    And Traveller (either Classic version or Mongoose version), not for conflict mechanics, but for GM aids for setting and situation development. (Or Stars without Number, for similar reasons.)
  • Adam: ok, I'll bite!

    Why is bounded accuracy do important? I mean, it's a big deal in D&D, sure. But doesn't it exist already in lots of other games (which predate D&D 5e)?

    And what's the important lesson of D&D3E? I can think of a number of possibilities, but I'm curious which you mean. From another point of view, though - again - all those things were already implemented in other games by the time D&D3E came out. (If we're going to talk about universal scales of measurement and clear criteria for modifiers, for instance - allowing you to determine the penalty for trying to life a 50kg box of treasure instead of a 75kg one - then something like Hero or GURPS, it seems to me, had that nailed down decades earlier.)

    Not trying to be combative; just curious!

    Agreed in full on your last paragraph. Very true!
  • edited September 2016
    And what's the important lesson of D&D3E?
    The lack of bounded accuracy? Haha, just kidding :)
  • Re: 3E, I might argue that the core innovation was in AD&D2 supplements, which laid down the structure of complex special cases ripe for exploitation by the most invested players. It seems to me that perhaps 3E just took that basic idea and did a better job with it (via d20 standardization, feats, putting badass build options in the core book rather than just supplements, etc.).
  • Yeah, I'm having a hard time thinking of anything unique or unusual about D&D3. From a game design/GM Authority perspective, it is completely ordinary.

  • I would put Circle of Hands in the list as well. And probably John's own Agon.
    How is Circle of Hands? Is it fun?

  • I would put Circle of Hands in the list as well. And probably John's own Agon.
    How is Circle of Hands? Is it fun?
    I can't speak for the fun factor, since I haven't played it. =/ But it's a very interesting read. I really like a lot of the ideas that went into the design, and Ron does a really good job of explaining WHY he made a lot of the decisions he did, which is something that I'd like to see in more games, but I can't really get into the "mud and blood" fantasy style.

  • I can't speak for the fun factor, since I haven't played it. =/ But it's a very interesting read. I really like a lot of the ideas that went into the design, and Ron does a really good job of explaining WHY he made a lot of the decisions he did, which is something that I'd like to see in more games, but I can't really get into the "mud and blood" fantasy style.
    Sounds cool, Ron's stuff is always interesting. I will definitely check it out. Thanks :)

  • I think any "game design play list" that doesn't include the most popular role-playing games (Pathfinder and D&D 5e) is painfully incomplete. Also, I mean, if you don't want to reinvent the wheel, play those games before writing a fantasy game.

    I'm playing in a Pathfinder game and have played up from 1st to 9th level. It's hella fun, the way character options work together. I think a lot of story games are great for one-shots but fail to deliver the long-game experience the way Pathfinder can.

    Bounded accuracy is a pretty simple idea but powerful in execution, and it did cool things to D&D 5e. I think understanding its effect is pretty important. What other game can you play in seven or more very different editions to see how different changes to rules affect play?
  • edited September 2016
    I think a lot of story games are great for one-shots but fail to deliver the long-game experience the way Pathfinder can.
    I think that Story Game is a very loose and subjective term, all it really means is that narrative considerations are given more weight. So if we are talking in terms of Pathfinder, we could say that Burning Wheel has more narrativist approach than PF. Is BW a story game? Well, it gives a lot more tools to enrich the narrative than traditional games do. As for delivering on the long game, Burning Wheel runs circles around Pathfinder. If you are really in it for the long haul BW is the perfect game and the depth it will generate in the process is something PF can't touch.

    There is no real perfect dividing line between story games and RPGs, and you can create a very deep long-term game with a narrativist approach. Of course there is also the type of story game that feels like an improve game played in a community college acting class :)

  • I think any "game design play list" that doesn't include the most popular role-playing games (Pathfinder and D&D 5e) is painfully incomplete. Also, I mean, if you don't want to reinvent the wheel, play those games before writing a fantasy game.

    I'm playing in a Pathfinder game and have played up from 1st to 9th level. It's hella fun, the way character options work together. I think a lot of story games are great for one-shots but fail to deliver the long-game experience the way Pathfinder can.

    Bounded accuracy is a pretty simple idea but powerful in execution, and it did cool things to D&D 5e. I think understanding its effect is pretty important. What other game can you play in seven or more very different editions to see how different changes to rules affect play?
    I dunno; I feel that all the lessons from 3e can be learned from 4e, along with a lot of other stuff.

    Bounded accuracy is a weird concept that only really has a place in certain very specific games, so I'm not sure it's really super important, overall.

  • I dunno; I feel that all the lessons from 3e can be learned from 4e, along with a lot of other stuff.

    Bounded accuracy is a weird concept that only really has a place in certain very specific
    games, so I'm not sure it's really super important, overall.
    That's more-or-less what I was getting at, too. "Study all the editions of D&D, see how they've changed" -> that's excellent advice.

    But to say the "bounded accuracy" is something you should familiarize yourself with by reading and/or playing D&D5E... that's something I don't understand. Isn't "bounded accuracy" a basic principle of game design (although, of course, it doesn't appear in all games)? Don't a million other games apply it well?

    I'm curious what I'm missing. :)

  • edited September 2016
    @Pual_T
    I'm just curious what I'm missing
    You're not missing anything. All that bounded accuracy means is that you arn't inflating modifiers, to the point that isn't needed, and making the system unstable and easier to break. This was the problem with D&D 3.5; you were getting huge +10 differences when +2 would have done the trick. D&D 5e just corrected this problem. Bounded accuracy is pretty much found in every RPG but D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder.
  • That's how I'm looking at it, too!

    "Brilliant game design" -> "Basic, competent game design"

    Seems to me that "bounded accuracy", is, at root, a description of a game that's working as intended.
  • edited September 2016
    It's not a matter of brokenness. Pathfinder isn't broken. The huge differences are a feature and a play style. 5e shoves it all together and changes the play style. You're trading off the number of advances you get for a less swingy game.

    I don't think bounded accuracy as a labeled and understood concept is new or as brainbreaking as, say, really understanding IIEE, but it's a core idea that should be understood well. What other games on the list demonstrate it?

    And still, if you're a game designer and you haven't played a lot of D&D, old and new, you're likely missing something really important.
  • And still, if you're a game designer and you haven't played a lot of D&D, old and new, you're likely missing something really important.
    Like what? Most games inherit from D&D, so what's in there is in most games anyway.
  • edited September 2016

    I don't think bounded accuracy as a labeled and understood concept is new or as brainbreaking as, say, really understanding IIEE, but it's a core idea that should be understood well. What other games on the list demonstrate it?
    I think The Shadow of Yesterday does it in a beautiful and explicit way (not only in terms of design, but even in terms of it being explained in the text as a design feature), just for one example.

    So does Apocalypse World (which I consider a sort of descendant of TSoY in many ways).

  • edited September 2016
    Yeah, I have to say that most games I play demonstrate bounded accuracy. I mean, for heaven's sake, Vampire The Masquerade demonstrates bounded accuracy, because you can only get so many dice.

    It's only revolutionary for D&D because D&D has historically been all about huge changes in bonuses between level 1 and level whatever max was that time. Most modern games don't even attempt that level of power spread in the first place, so they are inherently bounded.
  • Most modern games don't even attempt that level of power spread in the first place, so they are inherently bounded.
    So maybe the innovation is just that: bounded accuracy in a system of extreme power escalation. Also D&D is valuable to look at for the way successive editions approach and circle, diverge and circle back to what people think of as "D&D," and the evolving understanding of what that is.

  • It's only revolutionary for D&D because D&D has historically been all about huge changes in bonuses
    While the ranges did admittedly vary quite a bit, for the first 2/3 or so if D&D's history, Ability Scores, Saving Throws, and Armor Class (which are basically the three things that made up the majority of "target numbers" in the game) all had a hard cap. Like Dirk said, one of the real values in playing all of D&D's iterations is to look at how much it's changed while trying to keep some core element the same; bounded accuracy may be a big deal in the last 15 years of D&D's history, but a huge part of understanding WHY is to look at what effects 3E's "unbounding" had on the game in the first place.

  • While the ranges did admittedly vary quite a bit, for the first 2/3 or so if D&D's history, Ability Scores, Saving Throws, and Armor Class (which are basically the three things that made up the majority of "target numbers" in the game) all had a hard cap. Like Dirk said, one of the real values in playing all of D&D's iterations is to look at how much it's changed while trying to keep some core element the same; bounded accuracy may be a big deal in the last 15 years of D&D's history, but a huge part of understanding WHY is to look at what effects 3E's "unbounding" had on the game in the first place.
    They did have hard caps, but they were also virtually unobtainable (Except I guess for ability scores), so I'm not really sure this applies.

    The thing is that this is only a useful lesson if you've designed an otherwise "broken" game and need to fix it. And even then, it's arguable, because those quotes around "broken" are there for a reason. It's entirely possible to build a game in which bounded accuracy is neither useful nor welcome. And have that game be good.

    I remain unconvinced, but truthfully, c'mon, people, why are we even arguing about this? Who is designing these games and hasn't played D&D5?
  • Most blatant omissions in the list so far, IMHO:
    Spione or Shahida
    Apocalypse World

    But, really, double-check what the purpose of the list is... It isn't a designers' list of favorite games, it's more like a canon for "History of RPG design 101" class.
  • Rafu,

    Spione or Shahida is a great addition! I also wonder if s/lay w/me should be there, as well.

    Apocalypse World has been there all along, however (see bottom of list).
  • Oh, right!
  • I remain unconvinced, but truthfully, c'mon, people, why are we even arguing about this? Who is designing these games and hasn't played D&D5?
    You'd be surprised!

  • You'd be surprised!
    I haven't been so far. ;P
  • edited September 2016
    #Monsterhearts

    Golden Sky Stories and Tenra Bansho Zero were also fundamental in changing the way I look at RPGs.

  • Golden Sky Stories and Tenra Bansho Zero were also fundamental in changing the way I look at RPGs.
    Likewise, but I think that the ideas they bring to the table are already represented in this list. Except possibly for the nonviolence of GSS.
  • Actually, yeah:

    No one's mentioned Monsterhearts until two posts above? That's definitely one to check out.
  • I also forgot Chocobos Marvelous Wish Granting Engine and Pendragon.
    I think that the ideas they bring to the table are already represented in this list. Except possibly for the nonviolence of GSS.
    By the same token most of the concepts in Monsterhearts are present in Apocalypse World. I think there's a holistic aspect to this analysis that's important.

  • I also think with AW->Monsterhearts as with d&d's march of editions, there is something to learn from how games change over time.

    Like, there are things to learn about game design that no one game can show you on its own. Lessons that only reveal themselves in how games relate to one another.
  • I'm a bit on the fence about Monsterhearts, since it does overlap a lot with AW. But it also has a great deal of really important stuff in it which AW does not touch at all. It has shown people a certain approach to game design which I think many people would not have imagined possible previous to its publication.
  • I'm a bit on the fence about Monsterhearts, since it does overlap a lot with AW. But it also has a great deal of really important stuff in it which AW does not touch at all. It has shown people a certain approach to game design which I think many people would not have imagined possible previous to its publication.
    I haven't read AW thoroughly, but there seemed to me to be a lot of stuff in MH that would have been out of place there...
  • edited September 2016
    I think the overlap has to do more with the overall approach, rather than the specifics of what's in MH compared to what's in AW (although that could be said of most PbtA games). What makes MH stand out, I think, is that it was one of the earlier AW hacks that really demonstrated how one could go about hacking AW. When I was reading through Monsterhearts, it actually feels like it leaves A LOT of stuff out that's included in AW for all it adds. Gangs and harm are simplified, the uses of violence are narrowed, and the removal of "reading a sitch" as a basic move means that characters default to being far less capable. It does give Monsterhearts a much different feel, but I could definitely see how it could seem like a narrower, more focused version of Apocalypse World.

    If not Monsterhearts, though, maybe Simple World, as a companion to AW? It's a pretty interesting piece of design, since it's really a book about hacking the PbtA system presented as a PbtA game. I don't know if anyone's ever actually run it, as it does seem a bit more like a thought piece than an actual game, but it might be worth including if people think that AW, on it's own, doesn't cover what it's hacks have been doing with the system.
  • edited October 2016
    I'd add Hillfolk (DramaSystem) to the list. It surely isn't essential in terms of mechanics. Yet, it nails setting up & playing dramatic scenes pretty well.

    I hesitantly suggest Ryuutama. The barebone game mechanics offer nothing new. At the same time, I've found the overall game feel and focus of this Japanese RPG (a feel-good naturalistic travel exploration) refreshing. Then again, you might argue that there is a certain overlap withGolden Sky Stories in that "heart-warming" aspect.

    From game design perspective, I find D&D 5E interesting nonetheless. It's a pretty impressive lesson in game evolution (with probably the most extensive playtesting to date in rpg development).

    Strictly speaking not a game, I find reading Designers & Dragons essential for RPG design.
  • edited October 2016
    I'd add Hillfolk (DramaSystem) to the list. It surely isn't essential in terms of mechanics. Yet, it nails setting up & playing dramatic scenes pretty well.
    How did HillFolk play for you? I've heard a lot of people say that they've had troubles running it and that it just doesn't work great. Have you found this to be true? I really want to like this game :) I wonder if the Blood on Snow extensions help? Anyway, thanks for any input :)

  • I hesitantly suggest Ryuutama. The barebone game mechanics offer nothing new. At the same time, I've found the overall game feel and focus of this Japanese RPG (a feel-good naturalistic travel exploration) refreshing.
    Potentially starting an encounter down to 1/4 of your hit points because of the rigors of between-encounters travel was new to me!
  • edited October 2016
    How did HillFolk play for you? I've heard a lot of people say that they've had troubles running it and that it just doesn't work great.
    Yes, I've read that a lot and was surprised. I think it is absolutely essential to set up tightly inter-related characters. It's not enough that someone was your high-school crush or your good buddy. It has to be as relevant as brothers as rivals, mother who betrayed you, love of your life wants to kill you etc. Working out really meaningful relationships, dramatic poles and things you want - this is absolutely essential. Weak ties à la Fiasco (i.e. "my boss"/"ex-fiance" etc) are not enough.
    Other than that, you need to like switching between out-of-character brainstorming and in-character roleplaying (as in the recent discussion on immersion).
    I hesitantly suggest Ryuutama.
    Potentially starting an encounter down to 1/4 of your hit points because of the rigors of between-encounters travel was new to me!
    Yes, indeed: "Last night was rainy, you're all half dead".

  • edited October 2016
    @BeePeeGee

    Yes, I've read that a lot and was surprised. I think it is absolutely essential to set up tightly inter-related characters. It's not enough that someone was your high-school crush or your good buddy. It has to be as relevant as brothers as rivals, mother who betrayed you, love of your life wants to kill you etc. Working out really meaningful relationships, dramatic poles and things you want - this is absolutely essential.
    Is this possible to do in play? Over the course of the first 5 sessions or so instead of at setup. I find that it is very important to do in an courtly intrigue game in order for players to really feel invested in the side they want to be on. For example, you really want to build the player's sympathy for certain character's and factions and their distain for others so that they buy in and their choices are meaningful to them. Would this approach be possible with HillFolk? Thanks:)
  • edited October 2016
    @BeePeeGee
    I think it is absolutely essential to set up tightly inter-related characters.
    Is this possible to do in play?
    I think that's exactly where most people who are discouraged by Hillfolk miss the point: you need really dramatic poles and strong desires/relationships right from the beginng when you do the setup.
    I find the Hillfolk One Shot Playbooks (PDF) a good starting point for this.
    You just have to have the guts to make the relationships matter right from the beginning. All the other players need to be the people absolutely most important to you (your closest friends/family, most loathed arch-nemesis, the person you're obsessed with, who has hurt you most, who has something you'd be willing to kill for...).
  • edited August 2017
    A couple more to add:

    Kagematsu

    Fall of Magic
  • Kagematsu had been suggested already I see.
  • I put all the titles so far into a shared spreadsheet:
    Game design 101: collective edition

    At the moment it's really just copy-paste from this thread. If anyone feels like contributing to it, please do! Especially the "What's cool" column.
  • I'd add Ars Magica.

    For troupe style play. Seasonal time progression. And, of course, freeform magic.
  • edited August 2017
    I think that Fate would be a good addition; I'm not necessarily into Fate, but from a design standpoint I think it is very unique and very useful. So I would personally add Fate to the list, even though I don't play it myself and I've only read it.
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