When I think back over 20-plus years as a gamer, only a few gaming products have ever felt truly magical to me. Two, to be precise.
Oh, there have been LOTS of standouts — awesome products that have given me years of enjoyment and shaped how I game, and, by extension, that have played a role in making some of my best memories with friends.
Which is a pretty fucking high bar for quality, when you think about it. So what’s the difference between that and “magical”? And what does this have to do with GMing?
What Makes a Magical Product?
The two products I would describe as seeming magical to me, and which will always hold a special place in my nerdy heart, are the Time of the Dragon boxed set and the old grey box edition of the Forgotten Realms set, both D&D products (2e and 1e, respectively).
What makes them magical for me is a blend of quality, nostalgia, formative experiences, and luck.
Quality: These are both great products — not just good, but great. They’ve inspired me as a GM more than the vast majority of other gaming products I own. They’re well-written, well-illustrated, and packed to the gills with fun material and plenty of extras like maps.
Nostalgia: After playing some improv-driven games and deciding I was going to get into gaming For Real, my first purchase (made with a princely $100, my Christmas money at age 12) included the Time of the Dragon boxed set. A year or two later, after playing a Realms game with a friend, I bought the FR grey box.
Nostalgia is a powerful force for most geeks, and I’m no exception — it’s no accident that two of the first gaming products I owned are the two that hold some special magic for me. (In 10 or 20 years, I’m going to realize that Burning Wheel , which has given me some of the most amazing gaming moments in my life, seems magical. Right now, it’s too new. Weird!)
Formative experiences: It’s also no accident that my formative experiences as a GM (both products) and a player (FR) involved these two products. They had a disproportionate impact on me as a wee gamer because they weren’t competing with hundreds of other products, experiences, and memories.
I cut my teeth on these two settings, had all my first gaming highs and lows in them, and made memories that have withstood the test of time and become indelible.
Luck: I was lucky enough to be able to afford these products at the right time for my fevered, imaginative brain, lucky enough to have great players for both and a great GM for FR, and lucky enough to have the spare time and brain cells to really get into both settings. Any number of factors could have changed my relationship with these two products.
Why Should GMs Care About Magic?
Two questions bring this into focus as a GMing issue for me:
- What gaming products seem magical to you, the GM?
- What gaming products are magical to your players?
Much like ranking your top 10 campaigns  can be amazingly instructive, so can knowing what products you consider magical and why.
For example, it’s telling that my two are both settings. I love imagined worlds, particularly the ones that I can picture effortlessly in my head and which seem like living, breathing places. Alongside Middle-Earth, Neuromancer’s dystopian future, and a handful of others, Krynn (particularly Taladas) and the Forgotten Realms fit that bill for me.
That tells me quite a bit about myself as a GM, like: I like to make my games to feel believable and real. And: Settings matter to me. Also: I care about details, which gets me into trouble sometimes (when I care too much about them).
It also makes me wonder: How can I rekindle some of what made those products seem magical to me? And how can I do that in a way that informs my current games? I don’t know the answer to either question, but they’ve given me food for thought.
As for the flipside, while I could guess what products seem magical to my players, we’ve never talked about it (as far as I can remember) and I’m ashamed to say I don’t know what would make their lists — but I should!
So how about it: What gaming products seem magical to you, and which ones seem magical to your players? And what does that tell you about your gaming tastes and preferences, and theirs?