It’s a rainy, dismal night outside my window, and the best I can say about it is that it encompasses everything I remember about Halloween from my childhood. It’s cold, it’s wet, and the only real reason to be outside at the moment is to scrounge for candy on the backstreets. Since I’m not eight years old, however, I’m not particularly interested in venturing outside. The idea of costuming would be interesting, if I had enough other people around to encourage me, but without a dedicated group of people to dress up with, it seems like a lot of unnecessary work. And if I wanted any amount of candy, I’d just go off and buy myself a bag.
These days, it would hearken to a proper horror game night, were there anyone within reach. I could see pulling out Touch of Evil or Last Night on Earth, but the best I could do right now is gather perhaps one other person. And that doesn’t really justify the trouble.
My usual fallback would be to run a Cthulhu adventure.
I’d mentioned back in August that I had cultivated a habit of running one adventure on a repeated basis. This adventure would be “The Haunting,” a little haunted house scenario that tends to be included in the Call of Cthulhu mainbooks and has become something of a favorite over the years. It’s a relatively simple little module, dealing with the characters being asked to investigate the strange happenings at a little house in the Boston suburbs. Most of the action is divided between researching the history of the place and actually looking around the house itself. It was put together to serve as an introduction to the game, and it is singularly effective on that basis.
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time on this module. I’ve played in it, I’ve run it directly from the book, and I’ve adapted it into other systems for the sake of the players I had sitting at my table. I’ve even toured a local house that now serves as my inspiration for Walter Corbitt’s house. (In all seriousness, it had an identical floor plan, even down to the basement that seemed to only go under half of the house. It was a little unsettling.) I’ve grown to love it, and whenever I find myself settling into a new gaming group, this is one of the first that I bust out.
The simplicity of the adventure (the house itself has three bedrooms upstairs, a modest living room-dining room-kitchen layout on the main floor, and a rather small basement) allows any amount of modification, depending on how the GM wants to portray things. I’ve seen it set in rural locales, on the outskirts of a Jazz Age negro resort town, and brought up to the modern day. Characters have gone in as guileless dilettantes, hardened mercenaries and paranoid conspiracy theorists, based on how the players want to approach it.
And none of it matters.
Part of the appeal of the adventure to a GM is that it is unapologetically deadly. I’ve never misled players on this point. If they are sitting down for a Cthulhu game in general, it is generally understood that their survivability hinges directly on their choices, and the game itself is an unforgiving system. I’ve never run this game as anything other than a one-shot, and for what it may be worth, I’ve never figured out how a character could reliably survive. I’m sure that there are ways to survive, but it hasn’t happened in any of the sessions I’ve run. That said, I’ve seen GM’s who try to help their player characters live through the scenario. For my money, they’re merely running the module wrong, which robs their players of the full experience.
The adventure starts with the characters being hired by a mutual acquaintance, whose rental property is gaining something of a reputation. The most recent residents have met with a series of dire misfortunes, and if this isn’t cleared up, he may not be able to rent the house again. The characters are given a vague sketch of some of the problems, a key to open the front door, and a promise of a modest reward for dealing with the situation. From there, they are free to start investigating.
This is where the adventure really shines, encapsulating the particular nuances that Call of Cthulhu brings to the hobby. Investigation is largely unknown in most RPG’s, which prefer a more visceral approach to problem solving. Lovecraft’s writings tend to be more cerebral, and the structure of the game rewards players who try to emulate this. In the module, there are some nine listed locations, only one of which is the house itself. Of these, six are locations for research purposes, ranging from the local library to the Boston Globe newspaper archives. (Of the remaining two, one is the generic “house where the investigators meet,” and the other is something of a red herring.) It is expected that the characters would do their homework, figure out some aspects of the mystery that they are confronted with and prepare themselves accordingly. In some Cthulhu adventures, this tends to be the phase of the adventure where the characters come across some sort of weakness that they can exploit or an insight into the kind of foe that they are facing. In this case, however, the best that the characters come away with is a gnawing sense of dread. There are no particular weak points that they can use against Walter, and all the research tends to do is highlight the fact that their foes is possibly immortal.
Once they’ve done their due diligence in regards to the events leading up to the recent unpleasantness, the only remaining course of action is to physically enter the house itself. And as I have said, the layout of the place is extremely simple. There isn’t actually much to the adventure, in terms of the house itself, with most of the rooms serving as foreshadowing to the actual points of conflict. The main level of the house has nothing particularly interesting to be found, other than the remnants of the former residents’ daily lives. There is a weird notation of a sealed cabinet where the lost Diaries of Walter Corbitt have apparently been sealed up for over fifty years, but this has no particular bearing on the adventure.
Upstairs, however, things start to get weird.
Two of the three bedrooms were lived in by the former residents and have little of pressing interest. The third bedroom, however, originally served as Walter’s room, and it manifests certain weird effects as a result. For my money, this was where the adventure truly started. Up to this point, the characters have been doing the scut work of the session, looking through archives and trying to piece together the information into a working theory of what’s been going on. Only now, when they enter the sealed up second floor bedroom, do things actually start to hint at how bad things are going to get.
The room is treated as sort of poltergeist encounter, with furniture being thrown about and blood seeping from the walls. Compared to the relative normalcy of the rest of the house, this tends to catch the players completely off-guard, setting the tone for the final act of the adventure. (For my own purposes, I tend to expand the area of Walter’s influence to the upstairs bathroom, which is one room away. This takes the form of filling the bathtub with blood and having Walter appear in the medicine cabinet mirror, seemingly over a character’s shoulder. These are harmless little tricks, comparatively, but they have the effect of throwing things off well enough. In one session, this even led to a character shooting a fellow party member in reaction.) In the bedroom, Walter attempts to lure a character close enough to the window to batter them through the glass with the bedframe, a heavy wooden thing propelled by telekinetic force. Depending on how the dice fall, this has the immediate potential to take at least one character out of the adventure on the spot.
From there, the only remaining part of the house is the basement, found by a door leading off the kitchen. Hilariously, the dire encounter that awaits is foreshadowed by the plethora of locks on this door, clearly intended to keep something from coming up into the rest of the house. It’s an understated element that isn’t pointed out to the GM of the scenario, but I’ve found that it tends to be wholly obvious to the players.
The basement is largely unremarkable to a casual observer. The stairs are rickety, the light bulb doesn’t apparently work, and there’s a scattering of miscellaneous junk on the floor. (The reality is that the light bulb is just fine, but Walter has telekinetically pulled the fuse. If the player characters are resourceful enough, they can restore light to the basement with a quick trip to the fuse box; only to have Walter pull the fuse on them later when it suits him. This is one of those elements that underscores just how bad it’s going to get.) Getting into the basement itself can prove vaguely harrowing, depending, but it’s only when they’re assembled in the small underground room that things go completely off the rails.
There’s an interesting note that just occurred to me in the current re-reading of the text. If the GM wanted to utterly put the screws to the players, it wouldn’t be out of character to have Walter lock them into the basement with him. He has the power, and with the note about the fuse box, there’s really nothing stopping him. The text of the adventure limits his power to the basement and the upstairs bedroom, but having the ability to mess with the fuse box allows him a couple other interesting tricks as well.
Once the characters have made it to the basement, they have a little time to sniff around before Walter decides to fuck with them further. Initially, this takes the form of his ritual knife, a blood encrusted relic that is simply lying on the floor in the various debris. Using telekinesis, he levitates the knife and has it stab whomever is readily available. The characters invariably panic and try to deal with the knife, but by the time they have it under some sort of control, it’s usually done some serious damage to at least one of the characters. And to this point, there’s been no indication of what the hell is going on. Savvy characters who have done their research know that Walter was a particularly creepy figure in life and is buried somewhere under the house, but the reality is that there’s no obvious bit that reveals him as being a powerful undead sorcerer. (Most players will outright assume it at this point, though.)
Finally, there’s the possession thing.
Up until now, Walter’s been using telekinesis of one sort or another. (Well, and the whole “bleeding walls” thing. I added in the ability to appear in the mirror as a sop to the accounts of the former residents. It isn’t in his listed abilities, but it did add a nice flavor to things.) In his write-up, he has a form of Dominate that allows him to make telepathic commands to a victim. This is an opposed roll against a player character, but Walter is well and powerful enough to manage it. For my purposes, this allows him to direct one of the player characters to open fire on another, which is usually enough to spell the end of the scenario. Once a character has been attacked by another, things rapidly go downhill. Even if they fail, the other characters are just paranoid enough to start killing each other, and any survivor can usually be dealt with using the ritual knife or the rat swarm that lurks in the walls.
Very rarely does Walter himself have to appear. There are stats for him, and he has the ability to rise from his grave, his skin hardened against most forms of attack. Even if any of the characters are able to survive the perils up to this point, Walter is well and capable of dealing with whomever is left to oppose him.
All in all, it’s a nifty little adventure, with enough lead-up to make the final act properly dreadful. I’ve run it time and again, invariably ending with a total party kill, as I feel Cthulhu adventures should conclude. There is a slim possibility of survival, but it hinges directly on trying to run Walter out of Magic Points before he can eliminate everyone in the party. Even so, I doubt that this would be possible without at least a half-dozen characters in tow. This is literally the only way that I can actually envision anyone coming out of the adventure intact. (And even then, they would have a fair amount of damage to their Sanity.)
This is one of the few Halloweens that I haven’t managed to run this scenario, but all that really means is that I’ll be that much more prepared for the next time.
So, anyone who’s paying particularly close attention (I know who you are, all … three (?) of you) will have noted that I am slamming through these #RPGaDay2015 entries in fairly fast succession. The day’s not over yet, and here I am, working on the third entry.
It’s not a huge mystery. I really hate being late about this, and what with Gen Con and not really paying attention, I’m nigh on a week behind. I mean, it might be fine with Ironbombs to be a couple of days late, but here in the Library … something. Either that, or I’m so sick of Ironbombs snagging all of the good games away from me that I’m not going to play catch-up any longer. (The truth being, with this blog close to a year behind on keeping a real schedule, I’m just glad to have some measure of inspiration at all. And this is enough to keep me in front of the keyboard for a couple of minutes, all things being equal.)
This one is a weird one, for me at least. I tend to buy so many games that there isn’t a lot of new stuff that goes into the Library. More often than not, I tend to buy games to patch holes in my collection, which doesn’t really feel new so much as it feels like an addition to what has previously been established. That said, I think I can make a good claim.
Favorite New Game (within the last 12 months)
My current favorite game happens to be one that I don’t yet own, technically. And it’s only been released about a week back.
This honor goes to Fantasy Flight Games’ Force and Destiny RPG, which I have been playing since the Beta ruleset was released a year ago at Gen Con. Right or wrong, I find Fantasy Flight’s strategy of putting out a hard copy of semi-finished rules to be a fascinating idea. Paizo does similar with their playtest versions of upcoming character classes (most recently, the Occult Adventures collection, their own version of Psionics), but there’s an attendant murmur within the fan community of whether or not these actually serve as a bed for playtesting Beta rules or not. FFG does put out incremental updates to specific rules and sich in their Beta versions, so I think there is a fair amount of feedback within the forums. For whatever that is worth.
For my own part, I enjoy the early access to the material for my own sake. I haven’t been active on the forums to see what the moods within the community are, nor have I spent much time trying to suss out what changes are needed to make this game into something other than what I familiarized myself with after the last Gen Con. Really, all I did was get a handle on the specifics that were introduced for the broader Jedi campaign and ran with it. If there was something that seemed out of place or egregiously overpowered, I checked against the forums as needed or did my own edits as I went along. I know Star Wars well enough that I didn’t need to reference too much beyond Wookieepedia, and these rules are pretty conducive to kit-bashing as the need arises.
There are a couple of serious contenders to being my new favorite game, and they deserve some mention herein.
First up against the wall would be Anima: Beyond Fantasy, but this doesn’t really rate as being new, so much as it’s new to me. I picked the entire line up during an online fire sale, where everything was marked down to a mere fraction of what it originally retailed for. I get the idea that Fantasy Flight is burning all of their extraneous merch lines, of which this one would have been more expensive than its profit margins would have allowed for. And I can’t blame them for this, since it’s a weird niche product anyway — an English translation of a Spanish game that tries its best to emulate Japanese fantasy. And it’s pretty crunchy, as well, with an ostensibly percentile based system that goes off the rails almost as soon as complexity and variant power levels are given text. I’m a huge, huge fan of the detail that I’ve seen in the game, but it’s going to require some serious devotion to crack the code enough to play the damned game. And let’s not think of how much work it’s going to take to allow me to run it for a new group, let alone explain the rules quickly and simply.
Next, there’s the Cthulhu assortment. Again, I managed to find an internet fire sale, reducing all of these titles to an much more manageable price point. I bought all of these on the same shipment, which means that I’ve only skimmed some occasioned bits of text of each, but it gives me some fascinating insight as to which ones I’m more likely to run at a given point.
Working roughly backwards, we start with The Laundry, based on the book series by Charles Stross. I have yet to read through these, but they come highly recommended by one of my regular gaming group. The plot concerns an underfunded section of British Intelligence that deals with Mythos threats. On the surface, this puts it as being a version of Delta Green, with parts of Necroscope and Night Watch, only with more bureaucracy and a slightly tongue-in-cheek outlook on things. It’s a neat game, from what I’ve looked through thus far, but it suffers from being a standalone game, rather than a Call of Cthulhu supplement. As such, there are rules from the Cthulhu main book included to allow the game to run without referencing anything else.
Then comes Achtung! Cthulhu, which casts the Cthulhu Mythos against a more or less Pulp version of World War II. Easily the prettiest game line of the three within my Cthulhu assortment, this game suffers not from being a standalone, but from trying to dual-stat the damned things. I hated it when games in the Deadlands line did this, and it’s not any better here. A good portion of my discontent hinges on the fact that I rabidly dislike Savage Worlds, so having to share space on the page with that game means that there’s wasted space in the book for my purposes.
And finally, there’s Cubicle 7’s take on the same material as Achtung! Cthulhu, in the form of World War Cthulhu. This is good, good stuff, but where Achtung! would have you mix and match whatever interesting pulp ideas come to mind, this is treated a lot more drily.
The big difference between these two games comes in how the war itself is given treatment beside the in-universe truth of the Mythos. For Achtung!, there’s no problem coming up with some convoluted plot involving the Thule Gesellschaft and Nyarlathotep. If it sounds entertaining, throw that shit in! In comparison, World War Cthulhu goes to great lengths to note that it was actual, human evil that bombed London and set up Auschwitz and Dachau, so involving the Cthulhu Mythos cheapens what they consider the true horror of the setting. If Himmler was corrupted by whispers from Azathoth, that offers him a ready excuse for his actions. Instead, the game goes in the direction of setting the two horrors beside each other, forcing a balancing act between a pair of different (yet no less abhorrent) evils.
I can’t say which of these games ranks higher in my estimation, but I have the feeling I would be more likely to run Achtung! on a regular basis. I’d certainly use elements of WWC, but it comes across as being much more grim and scarring.
So, yeah. Those are my runners-up for Favorite New Game. I’m sure, had I read through them and run them after I’d gotten them, they may have displaced Star Wars, but right now, my priorities lie with the bird in the hand.
We’ve all heard it. Keep your understanding of the scenario as a player separate from what your character is going to act upon. Metagaming is one of the weirder sins of role-playing, since it works on such a strange depth of immersion. You have to drop into the mask of your character to such an extent that you make a conscious effort to forget that you’re sitting around a table, contemplating a sheet of paper and a handful of dice, and narrating a fictional persona. You have to become the fictional persona on some level, following the established motivations without overthinking the rational consequence.
It’s hard to do. And it’s a great moment when you have a group with such synergy that everyone at the table can get to that point collectively, narrating this fictional world and undertaking fictional conversations with the same ease that we navigate the real world outside of our gaming tables.
But that’s not what I’m talking about here.
What I’m talking about is the inverse. To be sure, there is more than enough to talk about with metaknowledge and all that entails, of how there’s no way that your character would know things that you picked up from long years of playing the game and perusing its rulebooks. But what happens when your character is confronted with something that they would be generally used to as a matter of inhabiting their world, yet it’s something that you have utterly no connection to?
Consider: I’m playing a young priestess of Desna in the Rise of the Runelords game we’ve been slowly working our way through over the past couple of years. She’s a 17 year old girl from a small town on the outskirts of the greater world. She’s fought goblins and undead and demons. She’s even died once. All in all, a pretty basic character for a D&D game. Other than rules revisions, she could be anyone’s character from the past 40 years.
I have literally no way to make sense of the things that this character has gone through. I can imagine it, sure. That is the basis of my role-playing for her. But if I, personally, were confronted with even a single encounter that she’s been through, I’d probably die on the spot. If I had to fight wave after wave of zombies, it would be a horror movie rather than a lighthearted fantasy scenario. For her, that’s not even enough to break a sweat or be concerned about. It’s a mundane part of her daily routine.
So, when I’m stuck in a situation with no immediately logical way out, my first instinct is to see if my character has a better handle on it than I do. I will admit to being stumped by the way things happen in games from time to time. It could be that it’s an off day for me, there’s some sort of miscommunication between the GM and me as a player, or it could be any of a myriad of other things going on. These are the points when I want the GM to throw me a bone and tell me something that my character would know about the scenario that I, as a player, would not.
Because there have been plenty of situations where not knowing something that my character would innately be aware of would have gotten my character killed. This can come in the form of having the character blunder into a situation that the GM expects the player to recognize, or it can come through an imperfect understanding of the rules, which works to the player’s disadvantage.
I’ve played and read through enough of the classic adventures to understand just how brutal they were inclined to be. You only need to be confronted with a couple of ‘Save or Die’ scenarios to get a feel of the way things were in the early days of the hobby. This is why games like D6 Star Wars were so groundbreaking at the time. Cinematic games allowed your character to have a death that actually meant something, where AD&D and Call of Cthulhu enshrined the meaningless and unmourned death by random happenstance. Characters didn’t have to die from a simple bad throw of the dice. Part of this came from the advent of ‘character points’ and the like from games like D6 Star Wars, but part of it also came as part of the understood conventions of the genre.
Lately, there’s been a movement that’s been trying to romanticize the ‘Save or Die’ era of gaming in the OSR axis of the hobby. One guide I skimmed talked about the purity and flexibility of these rules and the mindset that went with them, contorting itself through justification after justification. The best example of the idiocy of this particular writer was the description of a room within a scenario, where the players had to describe every action that their characters were going to take to search the place. And if it didn’t occur to a player to move the moose head in just the right manner, the treasure of the scenario was never going to be found. It was a case of trying to replicate the old ‘hunt the pixel’ video games in a pen and paper setting.
Narratively, it makes far more sense for a player to simply roll the dice and have the GM describe what happens in the case of a success or failure. As a player, I’m not exactly well-versed in larceny (although, if I were, my collection would likely be that much greater), and I’m not able to read the GM’s mind to decipher what exactly is expected. As such, I can only fumble about the room haphazardly. My character, on the other hand, is a lot more used to doing shit like this, especially if the skill ranks reflect that amount of practice.
This is not to mention that having a group of players rub every square inch of the room is a lot less interesting than things like role-playing or combat. Personally, I’d much rather get a description of the area, investigate the parts that seem to be important, and move on. If I need to throw some dice to get that done, here’s hoping I don’t end up critically failing in the effort.
It also brings to mind an example that I remember from an old Star Frontiers module. (Whuf. There’s a game that no one has any interest in reviving. We’ve had seven editions of Gamma World, but Star Frontiers? Let it stay dead, it seems.) At one point in the adventure, the characters get trapped in a hallway full of junk and the air quality starts to degrade rapidly. I can’t remember if the air was being rapidly sucked out, or if it was a case of simply running out of breathable oxygen over the course of a day or so. (And I’m far too lazy to dig the module out to reference the event in question.) Anyway, the text of the module explains that there are a couple of solutions for the characters to live through the encounter, including using a battery to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen.
This was a module that I was reading some time in middle school. At the time, none of the implied solutions would have been terribly obvious to me, so it looked like some sort of awful, awful death trap that killed the module on the spot, full stop. And thinking about it now, my character would have been able to come up with one of the escapes with a couple of minutes of consideration and investigation. But the way the module was designed, it didn’t matter that my character would have been able puzzle it out; he was going to get punished for what I, as a player in middle school, didn’t know to do.
Obviously, there has to be some give and take when applying this sort of logic. The one end of the spectrum, where the OSR dipshits want to dwell, the character is only able to know things that the player himself knows or undertake the actions that the player specifically outlines. The extreme other end of the spectrum has the player refusing to narrate any of his actions, assuming that a simple roll of the dice removes him from having to actually think about things in the game or play his character.
But at the end of the day, gaming has grown past the ‘Save or Die’ mentality of 1970’s D&D. It should also be able to leave the ‘I lovingly caress the moosehead both clockwise and counterclockwise’ sort of actions with it.
I have an odd perspective on things. It is a known quantity for most people that have encountered me, either online or in real life. Perhaps it stems from weird brain chemistry, perhaps it’s a result of my upbringing, or maybe there’s a bit of mercury poisoning along the way. Short of dissection, I doubt there’s much way for any of this to be answered. And while I’d love to know why I think the way I do, I’ll hold off on the vivisection for the time being.
So when Dave comments about how different it is to create NPC’s for a level-based game like Saga Edition Star Wars, compared to WEG’s D6 edition, it’s something I’ve honestly not considered. I’ve spent so long working with various, unrelated systems that it doesn’t occur to me that one is harder or easier to deal with. It’s just a different procedure to get from point A to point B. I’ve played both sorts of games so much that most of the rules nonsense is internalized, and the creation of NPC’s is just another step. This is my experience, and as any social theories class will tell you, my experience is not universal.
A lot of what makes WEG’s D6 Star Wars so quick and simple for NPC generation (and really, that’s key to the whole discussion; creating adventures is the easy part) is that, at the end of it all, you only need to detail a couple of basic stats for an adversary, and everything else can sort of be glossed over. Sure, that Stormtrooper might have a rather advanced understanding of sociolinguistics or botany, but at the end of the day, it only really matters if he can hit your heroes or if he can avoid being hit himself. Those extra dice in ancillary skills are interesting, but they’re only going to come up in extremely rare occasions.
At different points, I’ve been accused of abusing skills-based games out of laziness. I’ll go out of my way to prep the details of an adventure down to the careful details, but more often than not, I’ll half-ass my way through the stats of an adversary. Most often this show up in the encounters when an opponent goes to attack one of the PC’s, and I thoughtfully pick up a couple of dice for their attribute, a couple of dice for the skill in question, and give them a brief moment of consideration before rolling. In the case of D6 Star Wars, it’s an internal discussion of how high the base attribute is (on a scale of two to four, where does this guy rate?) and where his skill rating goes from there (on a scale of one to five, where is this guy’s level of training?). If I’m running a White Wolf game instead, it’s the same sort of internal monologue, with only the numbers shifting a little bit.
Level based games, like the bulk of D20 products, don’t offer the same leeway. There are a whole host of different calculations and factors to keep in mind, especially for D&D and Pathfinder. First off, there’s ECL, which is factored against and encounter’s intended CR. Then you have to build out the NPC’s, taking into account level adjustment from the monster type, especially if the monster has been advanced through class levels or monster levels. Once this is taken care of, there needs to be skill and feat selection, hit point adjustment, factoring of magic items based on general CR, and so on. Logically, a game with a heavy base of magic gets pretty arcane in its rules. If you needed an NPC that had 12 Ranks in Diplomacy, you had to justify how he got those points. If you needed a character in a game like D6 Star Wars that had an equivalent amount of skill, you just gave them that skill and moved on.
A lot of it comes down to the basic history of role-playing games. D20 comes from AD&D, which in turn comes from the older Chainmail miniatures rules. (And so on, back to H. G. Wells.) D&D broke ground on the industry, giving us rules for the baseline of RPG’s, and we’ve grown accustomed to that level of rules arcana. Since it is such a mainstay in the industry, everyone has played it here or there, and for a lot of the older players, it’s the standard.
That’s not to say that skills-based rules are anything new or surprising. Off the top of my head, the first example of a skills-based RPG that went anywhere is Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, which debuted in 1981. It used a lot of the same mechanics that D&D had codified (namely hit points, base attributes, and a scale of weapon damage), but all of the relevant mechanics centered on a percentile system for task resolution. (And yeah, RuneQuest pre-dated C of C by three years, but I’d argue that it never managed to get much beyond niche status. Love Glorantha as I do, it’s not a game that casual gamers are terribly familiar with.)
Chaosium gave us a template to work from. The character generation rules were still pretty heavy, requiring you to factor your pool of skills from your Intelligence and Education. From there, you’d apply them to basic assumptions of skill levels, with certain guidelines, etc. Yeah, it was a huge step forward, but just like D&D, it thrived on its deep rules minutiae. It wasn’t until the late 80’s or early 90’s that game systems started to simplify.
Oddly, the two games that carried the industry forward, Ars Magica and Star Wars, were published around the same year, 1987. And oddly, they’re both games that refuse to die. Star Wars has gone through three separate publishers, with West End Games, Wizards of the Coast, and now Fantasy Flight. And Ars Magica started life out with Lion Rampant, which became White Wolf, got sold to Wizards of the Coast, and eventually ended up with Atlas Games (who had been instrumental in its early years). The difference being that while Star Wars has gone through three (arguably four) different sets of rules over the years, Ars Magica is still largely the same.
Both of these games shifted the industry forward by working with a dice pool (it can be argued that Ghostbusters, published shortly before Star Wars and using very similar rules, was what did it, but given the almost footnote status of the game, it only really exists in very comprehensive collections these days) that was based on the individual character’s skill ratings. In their own way, they set the stage for the way games would develop throughout the next ten years. The Ars Magica system would become the Storyteller System, which formed the basis of White Wolf’s World of Darkness games. It would later be modified for New World of Darkness, Exalted, Aeon/Trinity and Scion, all of which use very similar mechanics.
Star Wars, in the mean time, directly influenced such games ass WEG’s Torg/Masterbook system (which, despite being a far heavier maths-based system, still uses a similar scale of difficulty) and Pinnacle’s classic Deadlands system, which took the dice pool mechanic and broke it out of being a single type of dice. It’s no coincidence that Shane Hensley, the designer of Deadlands, was a WEG alumnus.
These days, skill-based RPG’s are a lot more common than their level-based predecessors, even though 4e D&D and Pathfinder are still industry mainstays. They’re a lot easier to use for the more casual gamer, they don’t require the same suspension of disbelief that level-based RPG’s necessitate (characters improve incrementally, rather than just suddenly learning something new), and they’re friendlier to GM’s who have to prep for their weekly sessions. (Of course, with enough practice in a system, prep becomes second nature, even with extremely complex systems.)