Today there were some good concepts available, but none called my attention like Lineage. There are a couple of versions of this article I could’ve written but, in the end, I decided to go with one about how tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) deal with their relationships with one another.
In TTRPGs, editions are often not really revisions and adjustments, but whole new designs or at least new presentations of previous rules.
D&D is the most emblematic example of this. Although 1st and 2nd Edition shared a lot of their DNA, still 2nd Edition was considered a major departure from the original rules of the game, as presented by their original designers.
This wave of change would be even more dramatic with the introduction of D&D 3rd Edition. The change in publisher was accompanied by a major change in both designers and rules, something that happened again with its 4th and now its 5th Edition, even though the publisher has remained more or less the same.
(By the way: my prediction is that there won’t be a 6th Edition of the game. You can quote me on that).
Throughout these editions, there are some things in common, it’s true, but there’s no clear lineage, so to speak, and the books have often forgotten or decided not to include any metatextual discussion about this. Furthermore, from 3rd Edition forward the books don’t even include what edition they are in the title, preferring to keep the name as only “Dungeons & Dragons”.
Call of Cthulhu Editions
On the other end of the spectrum we have Call of Cthulhu (CoC), which has a clear lineage from 1st to 7th Edition because they are, for lack of a better term, real editions. There’s one static design that has remained more or less the same throughout all editions, so much so that, apart from some minor alterations, all books are mostly backwards and forwards compatible.
This creates a sense of unified experience, and this is evident when people talk about the games. With D&D, usually the first question is, “What edition are you playing?”. With CoC, it’s not. People may ask about it if they are more in the know but, for the most part, your experience with CoC remains the same throughout editions.
One of my favorite things about Trail of Cthulhu (ToC) is its introduction. When I read it, I was surprised by how honest and direct the writing was. One of the first things this introduction discusses is why the game exists, in comparison with CoC. And this is something I wasn’t accustomed to in TTRPGs.
Once I started reading and playing more indie TTRPGs, this became the norm rather than the exception. Often it wasn’t as elaborate as the one in ToC, of course, but most TTRPG designers have the good habit of at least mentioning which other games inspired them, sometimes even going as far as to specify which sections were inspired by which parts of their predecessors.
Why This Is Important
As a TTRPG player and GM I deeply appreciate this type of metatextual conversation, as they help me to understand the larger context into which a specific TTRPG situates itself.
Especially in the case of games that tackle a theme that is commonplace, such as “medieval fantasy” or “Lovecraft & co. horror”, knowing how a new game relates to their predecessors helps me to decide whether to read it and run it or not.
As a designer, the presence of a TTRPG lineage tells me a lot about how the designer considers other games in their design, what they consider themself to be their greatest influences, and how they address the problems of previous games in their theme or genre.
A lack of this kind of text raises a red flag for me, as it tells me that either they don’t care to talk about that or, even worse, tried to design their own game “in the void”, so to speak.
As with many other things, in my opinion you shouldn’t reinvent the wheel; better to use the wheel to design great modes of transportation.
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