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Gaming Products that Seem Magical to You

Posted By Martin Ralya On December 20, 2010 @ 1:30 am In GMing Advice | 10 Comments

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:

  1. What gaming products seem magical to you, the GM?
  2. 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?

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




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10 Comments To "Gaming Products that Seem Magical to You"

#1 Comment By Ravenbow On December 20, 2010 @ 9:35 am

You nailed one of mine right away. The original Forgotten Realms Campaign setting took me to wonderful places. In fact my entire list of “Magical” game items are from the Realms.

4)The original campaign box set with an AMAZING (at the time) idea! Map overlay transparencies that made the maps all the better (they are still my favorite maps and I am a map junky)because they didn’t have those hideous hex grids breaking it up.

3)This is actually a few products.
Volo’s Guide to
A)Cormyr
B)Dalelands
C) etc (areas only) not the All things

2)Forgotten Realms Adventures. Loved this book and I still use the treasure tables to this day. Nothing else compares.

1) My all time most magical item? A simple, plain adventure called “The Haunted Halls of Eveningstar”. It will forever hold the most special place in my heart. Months of gaming joy came from this short module that grew into a huge campaign involving an underground invasion of Cormyr from the Stonelands with ties into Myth Drannor and Waterdeep, as well as a very special Moonwell in the ‘Shaes. I could go on and on about this one product (and have) but I will shush.

(honorable mentions – Undermountain box set. The original. Aurora’s Whole Realms Catalogue, and the Magister realms suppliment. Specifically the Shoons Buckler entry. This one entry sparked a campaign on its own and entertained a number of lonely GI’s in Germany in the late 80s)

#2 Comment By shadowacid On December 20, 2010 @ 9:53 am

My first one has to be the Lankhmar: City of Adventure book. It was given to me by a friend in high school who wasn’t interested in it and it was my real first introduction to the S&S genre. The interesting characters, places, and the fact that it was a single city that you could spend your entire adventuring career in really appealed to me. I still have it and take it out for inspiration now and then.

The second one is the Shadowrun 2nd edition book. That was my introduction to SR and the first game I really played besides D&D. The elmore cover, the guns and cyberware, and the magic aspect all really appealed to me and took my brain to places I never new existed. SR is now my go-to game and the one I’m best at GMing.

#3 Comment By drow On December 20, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

planescape. it turned the great wheel of the D&D cosmology from an abstraction to a real place in my mind and campaigns.

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On December 20, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

I have been pondering this one since I read the article this morning, and nothing comes to mind. I’m not someone to become emotionally attached to material items. I develop strong bonds to people, so instead of saying that a particular product is magical for me I would say that particular gaming groups or gamers made a game magical for me. The right combination of games and people really leaves an imprint upon how I run games for any system.

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On December 20, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

I think I need to widen, slightly, your definitions so that experience on both sides of the screen can count.

First up by a long way, as a player and a GM the most wondrous thing I ever set eyes on and virtual feet in was Empire of the Petal Throne. The maps alone conjure a sense of wonder I can still feel today when I look at ‘em, though the original experience was in the summer of ’75. How I wish I could find a GM for it in my area.

Next: The contents of the original White Box D&D and its supplements (especially Greyhawk). Though this was technically available before EPT, it was hard to find in the UK and I experienced EPT first.

Third place would go to “Masks of Nyarlathotep” for Call of Cthulhu, the original boxed set. I never saw anything half as clever before, and the shift from boxes to books has sounded a death knell for the “kid at Christmas” rush I got from Chaosium’s larger products. I still regret not picking up that copy of Ringworld that sat in “Waterloo” right up until the week they moved. That would have probably made the list if I’d been weaker and yielded to temptation. 8o)

Fourth place: The old Traveller campaign, Adventure Book 3 “Twilight’s Reach”. Cheapest of the lot by far and not much to look at at first, the scope of what was between the covers was, after a little thought, breathtaking. How I wish I could fire people’s enthusiasm for Traveller again, so I could run this for them.

Fifth place would go to a technically non-RPG product: Warhammer 40K Rogue Trader. I still think that book is more enjoyable than anything that GW have done since despite two decades of retcons and rethinks. My raggedy hardback has been glued back together more times than I can remember but is still a treasured item.

Most of these are about to be eclipsed, I think, for me by the various Savage Worlds settings I’ve tried and liked. I’m astounded to find I’m in love with Deadlands:Reloaded, and I *still* don’t know why – the cattlepunk genre leaves me cold.

Not only that, the new Space 1889 SW reboot is making my GM juices flow like I was 18 again. In the 12 months I’ve been acquainted with this system (in no small part because of the GS buzz) I’ve become a rabid SW consumer who will sign up for anything run under the system at the LGS in a heartbeat. Not only that, I’m buying game settings with the aim of writing SW ports of them, and I haven’t done that sort of thing in 25 years.

And after three decades away from the genre of High Fantasy gaming, my first taste of D&D 3.5 was such a pleasant one that it gets an honorable mention. I’d forgotten how much fun D&D could be (it had not been so in the few games I played under AD&D).

If I’m allowed one non-RPG magic product from years ago, I’d nominate Ace of Aces. RPGs gave us our first major paradigm shift in gaming. Ace of Aces gave us another. Truly innovative and enjoyable.

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 20, 2010 @ 4:36 pm

AD&D PHB/DMG/MM. The smell, the memory of looking up spells, XP tables, monsters, etc. The endless hours of my formative years that were spent poring over thess tomes… (‘Scuse my Gygaxian.)

Adventure Module U1: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. This module defined the concept of “gaming adventure” for me – Heroes set out for one purpose, but their investigation uncovers something else entirely.

#7 Comment By Zig On December 20, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

I can think of many things…

As an old time DM who long ago as a kid of 10-13 or so ran mainly pre-made TSR products I think the ones that really hit me when I dig them out of the box they are in are S2 and S3. Particularly S3 (I think Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was the first time GMing that I really ran with things. My players went out the scope of the adventure and I had to really wing some stuff, and the tech in non-tech magic familiar characters really had me firing on all cylinders). S2 White Plume Mountains in their own way too. I think they stuck with me for the dual reasons of a barely genericized Stormbringer (not to mention all three powerful weapons had strong egos, and that gave me future ideas) and Nix and Nox the Effereti. That really stuck with me and when I see the module in my collection I get a great surge of nostalgia.

(An aside, two of the people I game with ran twin half-orcs named Nix and Nox the first time we played a fantasy LARP. They were very memorable and a lot of people dug the way they played those characters.)

I have to agree with the first edition rule books as well. When I hold those I remember all those countless hours of GMing and being a player. I still cannot believe the extent to which I memorized all of that content as a youngster. These days I have trouble absorbing the 4th edition rule set.

I agree with what Roxysteve mentioned about boxed sets. Those were cool to open as gifts and to buy. I recall getting the original Top Secret as a gift and that thing rocked to me. The same goes with opening the boxes of Twilight:2000, Call of Cthulhu and Top Secret SI.

As a player just seeing S1 Tomb of Horrors leaves me with the chills. That thing was unimaginable to go through as a player…

A couple years ago my fellow GM decided to run some of us through G1 with the pre-rolled characters from the module. It was a time killer while another player’s fiancee and the GM’s wife were tied up with the bridal shower. That was incredible nostalgia…The adventure and running first edition rules. Made me recall the other G’s, the D’s and Q1…Great memories associated with them.

All of those products were, and still are, to me.

Additionally, I think I will also always feel the same way about Shadowrun 1st edition (which I loved running and had players obsessed with the campaign which ran for years), the main Rifts book (my other GM friend ran that…and I always loved the potential for different concepts even if the rules were kind of crazy in my opinion), as well as Amber and Castle Falkenstein neither of which I ever ran. I only played Amber as a PBEM. But both of those games SO fired my imagination that every time I see them and pick them up my mind fills with the potential of those games. Definitely magical to me.

As an aside, I think that cover from Time of the Dragon was originally a cover for Dragon Magazine. At least I think so. The artwork resonates with me as some of those covers did.

Oh, and that is also something magical to me. All those old Dragon Magazines. I used to be so excited every time the new issue hit my bookstore or game store. For over a decade.

#8 Comment By BryanB On December 20, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

Spirit of the Century: It really flipped my expectations for RPGs on their head and in a good way. Aspects in particular were just an amazing new mechanic that had such a broad range of uses. Plus it was a fun and easy read full of examples. Most of the text is examples. The game kept me in gaming. I was burned out and ready to quit. Spirit rekindled me like no other game system I’ve read or played before. It was magic. :)

#9 Comment By Lee Hanna On December 21, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

Old Top Secret and Twilight:2000, perhaps the Poland modules even more than the original box.

TS was *the* game that got me into RP’ing, AD&D was just what I played to go along with the others. I was more interested in wargames than RPGs, but with the option to get into the real world, I wanted to take up GMing. T2k expanded it, since the military aspects appealed to me more than espionage.

Space:1889 and Birthright are also magical to me, I could go back to those often.

#10 Comment By Martin Ralya On December 23, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

@Ravenbow – I feel the same way about the Current Clack section of the FR boxed set that you do about Haunted Halls — so much great gaming out of just a few pages.

@shadowacid – I feel like I missed the boat on Lankhmar, and from your description (especially the “one city” aspect — which, funnily enough is very like Shadowrun!) confirms that.

@Patrick Benson – That’s an interesting perspective. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive, but knowing you as I do I can definitely see where you’re coming from.

@Roxysteve – What is it about EPT that blows your skirt up? The books were still in my FLGS when I first started gaming, but I never checked them out; now, of course, hard to find.

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Book-sniffers of the world, unite! I can still identify some gaming books by smell. The AD&D 2e (not sure if that’s the edition you had in mind) books smelled great.

@Zig – Amen on boxed sets. I’m glad they’re making a comeback — they’re one of the truly unique things about gaming as a hobby, and they should never have gone away.

@BryanB – I feel the same way about Watchmen, which rekindled my love of comics after being burned out. Since Watchmen, I’ve never looked back.

@Lee Hanna – Birthright is one I wish I’d tried in its heyday. It pops up on my group’s “games to consider” list every couple of years, but never claws its way to the top.


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