Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Short & Sweet Ideal for Roleplaying Games


These days -- given my lack of time, focus, and a regular gaming group -- I prefer short and sweet roleplaying games with basic, intuitive mechanics, an engaging setting, and low page count. In my earlier gaming days, during high school, college, and early in my professional life, I had plenty of time to digest the material in vast rulebooks and numerous setting supplements, pondering adventure possibilities and running games for friends. But I’ve been re-examining what I look for in roleplaying games as I wander through middle age and develop material for publication with such concerns in mind.

For the sake of discussion I’d define a short and sweet roleplaying game as a core rulebook under 32 pages (preferably 16) with intuitive mechanics and an engaging yet concise setting I can introduce to new players within 15 minutes (assuming we use pre-generated characters, which I often use at convention games as I’ve discussed before). Such material includes iconic graphics (artwork and maps) I’d expect in any professionally published game to provide a visual sense of the setting. I certainly own and have enjoyed a host of games with core rulebooks that don’t fit the short and sweet definition above; but lately I just don’t have the appetite or time to sit down with a hefty rulebook, leisurely digest its heady contents page-by-page, and allow the mechanics and setting to sink in to percolate ideas for adventures and campaigns for my non-existent band of regular gamers.

The classic Moldvay-edition of Basic Dungeons & Dragons through which many during the “Golden Age of Roleplaying” (the early 1980s) found their way into the roleplaying game hobby doesn’t fit this mold (it’s 64 pages long), especially when one considers it was boxed with a 32-page adventure module that, arguably, formed an integral part of the beginner game experience. I recall spending an entire weekend doing nothing but reading the materials in that boxed set, trying to wrap my head around the numerous complexities of a full roleplaying game. Granted, that wasn’t necessarily intended as a “kid friendly” game by today’s standards, though it served the role as “beginner friendly” in its own time.

I realize page count remains a poor standard by which to measure a game, given graphic design considerations. For instance, R.Talsorian’s excellent Castle Falkenstein had a hefty page count, but the layout, writing style, and abundance of incredible artwork helped make it easily digestible. Monte Cook’s phenomenally successful Kickstarter game Numenera also seems to buck this trend, promising within its tome of a rulebook to offer amazingly inspirational artwork for the setting (one billion years in the future) along with the usual multitude of gamemaster and player tips from the rock-star game designer.

I’m far from the model of a short and sweet game designer. While Creatures & Caverns 2nd Edition comes in short at 24 pages, it’s not really a deep roleplaying game (more of an introductory “proto” roleplaying game) and reflects more my earliest gaming experience more than anything else. I generally avoid creating game systems, preferring to play D6 System variants or trying other engines that fall within my ideal for short and sweet games; but I’m developing something now that, while it might fall into the category a concise core rulebook, has the potential to expand into something larger. As I move material for that game into the playtest stage and begin flowing text into a preliminary layout, I’m finding some encouragement in how few pages some of the core rules take. I’m still not sure my own efforts at designing a concise game will fall within my own narrow-minded expectations for a short and sweet roleplaying game, but I might come close.

So what do I expect in a short and sweet roleplaying game? I like original mechanics -- particularly with a clean core mechanic on which other rules build -- but nothing overly complicated. I expect quick but meaningful character generation: options, whether rolling/distributing attribute values, selecting spells and equipment, and determining special talents or feats, should all allow players to easily craft a character they’ll enjoy playing. Sometimes character archetypes (or templates, if you prefer) help achieve these character creation goals. I like to get a solid sense of how to do anything with the rules and a good feel for what’s possible within the setting; an introductory adventure usually helps demonstrate both, with a map of the setting with one-sentence descriptions for key locations to provide a rich sandbox environment. Some might find these like something on the level of “quick start” rules with a bit more meat on the bones.

I’m by no means a connoisseur of short games, but several stand out in my recent memory as providing a nice balance of quick reading/reference and considerate mechanics


Old School Hack (26 pages): Kirin Robinson’s Old School Hack approaches perfection in its balance between brevity and innovative rules. Enamored as I am of the old school renaissance movement in roleplaying games, far too many of them -- whether well-designed or hastily compiled -- ramble on with pages of tables, weapons, monsters, spells, and other old-school goodness, which appeals to gamers who enjoy immersing themselves in this degree of detail, but not necessarily to one who still cherishes his Moldvay-edition Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks. Old School Hack offers some innovative mechanics for old-school-style dungeon-delving action with a clear, easy-to-reference layout which essentially devotes a single page to each core game topic. He manages to include character sheets, class summaries, and all the usual bits for retro-clone roleplaying games (combat, armor, healing, monsters, treasure, magic items, experience). Although the game offers no specific setting, it works perfectly in nearly any typical dungeon-delving medieval fantasy campaign.

Risus: The Anything RPG (6 pages): S. John Ross’ classic, long-lived game distills character elements to clich├ęs and provides numerous examples and options for running with the basic yet intuitive rules engine. While it’s written with a wonderfully playful sense of humor -- and might seem best-suited for humorous games -- Risus works in nearly any genre. While the Risus “core rules” consist of six pages, they don’t contain a default setting, instead providing a game engine framework to use in nearly any milieu one might imagine. The game certainly blossoms with possibility when combined with Brent Wolke’s concise 10-page, graphically gorgeous setting packs designed specifically for Risus (accessible from the sidebar on his engine of thwaak blog); everything from fantasy dwarves and ancient Egypt to steampunk and American War of Independence. Risus also receives additional support from a host of fans (all referenced at the Risus website).

Mini Six (36 pages): While valiant efforts exist to carry on the rich heritage of D6 System gaming -- notably Wicked North Games’ sci-fi steampunk Westward -- AntiPaladin Games’ interpretation of the D6 System remains the most concise iteration of the game engine pioneered by West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game (and initially presented in the legendary Ghostbusters roleplaying game). In 36 pages Mini Six not only offers a summary of the system’s core rules but provides optional rules to plug in according to one’s taste in D6, plus a host of campaign setting outlines across the full range of genres. It offers a quick framework upon which I can easily hang any particular setting which catches my attention at the moment, whether original or media-inspired.

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