"You’re all a bunch of perverted little Attilas" - Greg Costikyan, Violence (1999)
I should probably title this Friday Five “I was a geeky teenager in the 90s, let me tell you about my character.” But let’s pretend this isn’t just about me -
And maybe it isn’t; after all, it’s hard to imagine Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson telling D&D players in the 1970s that they were genocidal maniacs, like Greg Costikyan did with Violence; or telling them they looked good in eye-liner, like Mark Rein-Hagen did with Vampire. The 70s may have invented roleplaying, but in the 90s, roleplaying got weird.
Weird and awesome. While TSR’s behemoth tarrasque AD&D fought with Wizards of the Coast’s card-game/money-printing-scheme Magic: The Gathering over fantasy gaming, the rest of the RPG world was inventing some great non-fantasy games.
Here are five of the best.
No longer were roleplayers pale because we didn’t play sports - after Vampire: The Masquerade, we were pale on purpose. Vampire did more than bring emo-Goth kids to roleplaying and a Spelling-produced vampire show to prime-time TV; most importantly, it taught us new SAT words like “celerity” and “obfuscate.”
Vampire also changed some basic assumptions we had about roleplaying, emphasizing the “role” beyond the somewhat abstract notions of alignment or sanity. Instead, the Humanity mechanic not only allowed us to angst out over our beastly natures, but it also captured the central metaphor of the game perfectly - of belonging and being excluded. Which, now that I put it that way, sounds like the Platonic form of nerd-bait.
Counter-argument: Maybe Vampire took itself a wee bit too seriously at times.
Runner-up: Aberrant, 1991: Same basic concept, but for superheroes: with great power, comes great distance from baseline humans.