Monday, September 19, 2011

My Go-To Game These Days

So yesterday evening, I ran another session of my current Engines & Empires game. And it was fun, as always -- we laughed, we cried, the player characters kicked butt, many jokes were cracked, the dwarf died. You know, a typical D&D session. About as good as it gets.

There's nothing at all wrong with D&D, not really. Especially when the game hits its "sweet spot" (and during this session, the party leveled up from Lv5 to Lv6). It's just that D&D is usually limited to doing certain things better than others. And the things it does really well (map-crawls, hack-and-slash games with light RP, and zero-to-hero stories with steep power curves) aren't the only things I want to do with my games.

I'm still very proud of the work I've done so far for the OSR. I still love Retro Phaze, I still love E&E, and I'm sure that someday I'll get around to writing more material for both. But right now, I'm feeling like something else. And that something else is the micro-lite RPG.

Yesterday's post (which I composed about an hour before yesterday's game session) ended on a cliffhanger, a natural breaking-point in the narrative I'm spinning here. I'd explained that after much angst, I decided to start looking at alternatives to D&D to see if I could find something that fit me better. Savage Worlds didn't make the grade; it's too crunchy, about on par with 3rd edition D&D really. No, I wanted something with minimal rules, without much in the way of mechanical complexity to "gum up the works" and get in the way of the role-playing.

(Which is not to say that I want a game with no rules at all. I still find that "rulings, not rules" meme kind of obnoxious, because it doesn't even usually mean that. "I do not think it means what you think it means," as the cliche goes. Usually, when someone says "rulings, not rules", they mean, "rulings, not rules, except of course for rules in the AD&D 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide, those are cool by virtue of their pedigree.")

So as I was tooling around on the web, I made sure to keep an eye out for rules-lite RPGs. I looked at MicroLite 20 and MicroLite 75 -- being D&D knockoffs, they seemed a natural place to start -- but of course those games keep a lot of crunch, particularly in the spell system; and they also keep D&D's power curve, which is one of the things I'm trying to get away from here. So I kept searching. Another important criterion, of course, was that the game had to use the full spread of traditional polyhedral dice -- not no dice, or just d6s, or just d10s, but all of them. And that was when I stumbled across Altars & Archetypes, a very simple little RPG, very similar to Risus (an acclaimed indie-RPG from which A&A had apparently borrowed heavily). I liked A&A much better than Risus, mainly because (like Savage Worlds, but in a far simpler form), this game actually uses the polyhedral dice themselves as characters' stats. In SW, a character might have, for example, Strength d6 and Agility d8, or training in the Stealth skill up to d10. In Altars & Archetypes, characters are defined by a few role dice, like "warrior d8, mage d10, blacksmith d6". That's simple, quick, elegant, brilliant, and automatically scores cool points just for using the polyhedral dice.

So I took this game and I wrote up my own hack of the rules, to add a little bit more "fantasy RPG" framework. I added a more solid level advancement system, put a bit of flesh on the skeletal magic system, added the option to play out tactical combats on grids, and tacked on a point-based alignment system. Sizing up the end result, I realized that the game I'd just patched together would be best suited for pulp action-adventure, cinematic fantasy, and the kind of episodic soft sci-fi usually encountered on TV. So I wound up calling this newly tweaked RPG Lights, Dice, Action! (This links to a file attachment on a thread at ENWorld; hopefully the download works.)

Once I had the rules, it was time to take them for a test-drive. On a week when one of the regular players in my E&E game was missing, we decided to play a one-shot adventure instead of continuing the campaign without the absent player. Eager to try out this new system, I presented my idea: a pulp adventure game with these micro-lite rules. We wound up playing a session where the player characters (a magical detective, a grim assassin, and a bird-winged knight) had to assault the castle of a mad scientist before he could stitch together an army of frakengoons. The game session was a resounding success, fun as all get-out, and I enjoyed running it far more than I enjoyed running D&D (or any of the cloned derivatives that I normally run). There was just something about that simple "roll a pair of polyhedral dice" mechanic that made me feel like I was opening up a whole new world of spontaneous, cinematic and pulpy gaming. (The session also made good use of the famous "five-room dungeon model" for its plots -- I'm definitely a convert when it comes to that particular little pearl of brilliance.)

So... I guess what I'm saying here is, check out this little game. I printed off a simple booklet (four sheets of paper and one sheet of cardstock for the cover), folded it over and stapled it, and that was that. As I said before, I'll keep running my E&E campaign until it winds down naturally -- usually, I'm bringing a few books to the game table, consisting of the E&E campaign guide, the D&D Rules Cylcopdeia, the Creature Catalog, and the Advanced Edition Companion. Next campaign I start, though, I'll be running things 1970s style, out of a tiny stapled booklet that I ran off on my own printer (with rules so simple that I'll actually have them memorized and never really need to open that booklet during the game). That'll be awesome.


  1. Well, hey ! Finally saw your post over at my blog. Great minds indeed ! That said, I hadn't run into A&A before (and obviously not LCD) so I'm hoping to look thru them tonight.

    That said, I'm glad you enjoyed my review - I wanted to drop you a note about it, but I couldn't find you, and 2. I was too lazy to really try.

    I'm amazed that no-one has commented on the period setting of E&E -but then, maybe pre civil war post Napolionic is a bit obscure...? Nahhhh. Its kids these days ! If they started with Frappe Micro napoleonic miniatures rules rather than WOWarcraft online....well, they'd be fifty, I guess. ;)

    So, this I command ! Write more for E&E, lest I am forced to write a traveller conversion for it (the other great age of cap and sail inspired RPG setting)!

  2. I know a dice that is not square and that makes me curious.