As kids we have more time to fully absorb something as involved and complex as a roleplaying game with its original mechanics and setting. I remember when I got my first Dungeons & Dragons boxed set, oddly enough as an Easter present from my parents, who noticed I was already creating my own basic kind of roleplaying game. I was in junior high school. I spent nearly every hour of an entire weekend reading, absorbing, and wrapping my head around the rules and concepts of D&D. I couldn’t get enough. That entire summer I immersed myself in the Basic and then Expert sets, creating characters, charting new dungeons, and running adventures for friends. Ah, to have that kind of time again….
As we get older and pile on the commitments and responsibilities, we no longer have time to dedicate to that degree of immersion; we’re lucky if we find time to actually play a game, let alone get lost in its game mechanics and setting. I’m finding my personal preferences for roleplaying games head in two directions: the first toward using some iteration of the D6 System, with which I’m familiar both as a fan and in working with it with West End Games; the second toward short-and-sweet game materials where I can quickly get a practical sense of the mechanics and setting, at least enough to run a decent gaming session.
I won’t discuss the first direction beyond saying that everyone has their preferred game system, and some folks continue using it in both its original settings and ones they port to the game engine. Though I’ve played my fair share of other games, the D6 System remains for me intuitive second nature (as evidenced by one of my recommendations below); it also benefits from being one of the easiest game engines to teach others, especially new players interested less in game mechanics and more in an engaging setting.
(Another option -- one I won’t explore here -- moves players interested in a game or setting to rely on a gamemaster with more time who can shepherd them through the system and weave exciting storylines in scenarios. Admittedly this option assumes you know enough people unlike yourself who actually have time on their hands to do this.)
Short-and-sweet games provide a basic framework of mechanics and setting to give readers enough working sense of the game that they can run a scenario. Those materials should have the potential to inspire gamemasters’ imaginations to further develop the setting and campaign if they choose. They don’t require much time to learn the system or become familiar with the setting -- at least for experienced roleplaying gamers -- and provide some basic campaign or scenario notes to both guide and encourage gamemasters in creating adventures with the right atmosphere. Additional resources for sale and free online and in the Friendly Local Gaming Store help improve the overall gaming experience, but shouldn’t be required elements for a successful game.
Here are some of my recommendations for short-and-sweet roleplaying games; most assume some working knowledge of roleplaying games, and some setting-neutral systems require additional development for the specific genre. They also all share another common denominator beyond being short and sweet…they’re all available as free PDFs online:
Old School Hack replicates a game experience reminiscent of Dungeons & Dragons during the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”). Its layout aids quick reference to a rules set that focuses on different bonuses to a core combat mechanic; but its basic game engine also allows for skill rolls, individual talents, and varied monsters, weapons, and treasures. It’s best for gamers more interested in gaming with the classic stereotypes of fantasy roleplaying games (“the Fighter,” “the Thief,” etc.) rather than those focused more on storytelling. Although it offers few setting details beyond those inherent in character classes and combat mechanics, anyone familiar with medieval fantasy roleplaying tropes can run with it (also, check out “One-Page Dungeons” below). Old School Hack is available as a free PDF download.
Mini Six from AntiPaladin Games provides a streamlined version of the venerable D6 System, with plenty of options to customize it to the players’ particular flavor of D6. While it presents a system appropriate for cinematic action in nearly any genre (and easy to port to most settings), Mini Six also presents a host of original campaign environments, each a handful of pages yet complete with sample stats for adversaries and heroes, suggested skills to use, unique perks and complications, scenario hooks, and other game notes to help gamemasters. Mini Six is available as a free PDF download or an $8 printed game book (for those of us who still cherish books).
Risus: The Anything RPG offers a wide-open, freeform system with a clever core mechanic and the ability to adapt to any genre. Character stats take the form of broad-ranging clichés used for task resolution and opposed rolls. While the game’s presentation lends itself to light-hearted, humorous genres, the core mechanics work with nearly any setting. Given its basic nature, Risus requires gamemasters to create their own setting, allowing them to take a general game concept and dive in relying on clichés common to the genre. In fact, the cliché’s help define the setting as much as a broadly described setting can influence the clichés. Risus is available as a free PDF download; an active online community offers plenty of additional material, if you desire, customizing the system to different genres. A $10 PDF Risus Companion elaborates on many concepts with bits on an amusing array of game topics.
One-Page Dungeons offer concise, entertaining, and often well-illustrated dungeons to go with any medieval fantasy roleplaying game, whether one’s favorite incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons or some of the other setting-neutral offerings I’ve mentioned above. The dungeons aren’t released by a game publishing company, but the result of an annual contest where designers of all ability levels submit their dungeons; some focus on amazing graphics, others clever dungeon premises, and still others on traditionally non-dungeon-oriented genres. The website publishes free PDF compilations both of all the winners (across a broad range of categories) and all the entries for readers to judge themselves. Aside from providing some ready-made adventure material, these one-page scenarios can also inspire gamers to quickly create their own.
Lady Blackbird provides simple rules and a basic setting framework with the invitation to further develop and explore the game universe. A rather freeform roleplaying game, Lady Blackbird’s nine pages provide some basic premises of the heroes’ opening situation, the setting (part steampunk, part science fiction space adventure), the characters (with all relevant rules right on the sheet), and one page with guidance on running the game. Like other offerings above, Lady Blackbird assumes participants know how to run a roleplaying game. Its minimalist approach offers an innovative, basic game system self-contained on each character sheet, with enough guidance on improving characters to use the setting as a launch point for further adventures. It has inspired a host of similar games (many modifications or “hacks” of the basic game engine concepts into new yet quite specific genres), including ones employing themes of pirates, westerns, zombies, espionage, and post-apocalypitc; The Mighty Atom blog maintains links to several such hacks.