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I've been considering starting up tabletop RPGing again after a 13-year pause. During the time I did RPGing before, I mainly used Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (second edition). In retrospect I think the AD&D system was far too clunky, with completely unnecessary rules and tables for all kinds of situations. I think it was a massive hindrance to storytelling, at least for me.

So this time round I'm looking for an RPG that is:

1) Story-focused. The adventurers should never be confined to a certain subset of allowed actions. They should be able to do whatever they wish and the rules need to be flexible enough to deal with that. The focus should be on a compelling story, not tactical combat, dungeon-crawling or levelling. However neither do I want a system that is pure storytelling - i.e. where absolutely everything is at the gamesmaster's discretion. I don't want to decide the outcome of every fight.

2) Suited to high fantasy. I'm planning on creating my own high fantasy setting, so it needs to be able to work with that (whether because it's completely flexible or because it's specifically focused on high fantasy). Guidance on how to deal with magic is a bonus.

3) Has rules which can be understood within an hour of reading the rulebook. I don't want to ever be scrambling through the rulebook to see what happens in such-and-such a situation, or trying to remember what special bonuses apply in a particular dice roll.

4) Isn't class-based. I want a system with complete flexibility about how the adventurers develop. Any system that requires they choose a class (e.g. mage, warrior, thief) is a no-no.

5) Ideally Free. Not because I'm in poverty, but because I think commercial systems have an inbuilt bias towards unnecessary rules, because it makes it easier to sell things (through expansions and new editions). This is the one criteria that isn't essential.

UPDATE: I'm going to go with FU, as it's got some gushing reviews, is ultra-lite and all the rules directly encourage narrative creativity and excitement. But keep the recommendations coming in as, if my first session goes well, I will investigate all other promising alternatives and consider how they might improve on the experience. Most of the systems recommended here are on my to-do list.

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closed as not constructive by Pat Ludwig Dec 22 '11 at 7:04

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I would like to remind answerers of the quality guidelines for game-rec questions explained here: meta.rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/1070/… –  mxyzplk Sep 29 '11 at 13:46

11 Answers 11

One game that I have played recently and really liked was Rêve de Dragon. The original is french. There is one core mechanic to resolve most actions. There's a bunch of attributes and a bunch of skills, no classes. The whole setting is very much geared towards narrative episodic-style playing. I really enjoyed the one session that I played and admit I've been looking to a similar perhaps more recent, english-based game like that.

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+1 Wow, I am not the only one to have heard of that awesome game... –  Sardathrion Oct 12 '11 at 12:29
    
i don't know about the English version, but the French one is not famous for having lightweight rules... –  Guillaume Jun 11 '12 at 12:55

You might want to check out XD 20. Very light on rules, very simple character generation. Not class based. not really even very experience based, as characters dont really level up. I think there were all of 5 numbers total to write down on the character sheet. This causes things to get very centered on story and role playing. Basically, you roll a d20. gm adds modifiers to the roll based on difficulty and how often you do that sort of thing. You want to roll higher than the stat involved on your character sheet (lower scores are better). And then you roll a d20 again to determine how well you succeeded (or how badly you failed). That's pretty much the entire system.

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I've also gotten disgruntled with the huge rules content of many games nowadays, so have some recommendations for you.

The Microlite family of games can be a good bet, because they are free, super-stripped-down versions of games you may already know. Microlite20 was the first, providing a 2 page super slimmed down of the D&D-derived d20 ruleset, but a lot of other folks caught the bug and resulted in a lot of different more or less complex d20 variants (Microlite Purest Essence is 17 pages but contains about everything d20 does in slimmed down form), Microlite74 a 0e clone, Microlite Storyteller, Microlite Star Trek... Combines familiarity (and maybe using other stuff you might own with it) with ripping out all the cruft. I really like Microlite20 for "let's play D&D and not have to argue about rules ever," without some of the old "removed for a good reason" game artifacts the retroclones like to reinsert. But if you have a favorite trad system, there may be a Microlite version that'll let you do it with less rules and more story.

Bare bones games - Risus is an oldie but goodie. The Window was another attempt. There were a lot of ones like this; if you want to browse some of the major free RPG collections like John Kim's old but comprehensive one, or the Free RPG Blog which promotes various free RPGs, often written as part of online contests. I played Risus back in the day on car trips and occasionally experiment with one of the 1KM1MT games, but I'll be honest, they never hold my attention for more than a one-shot.

For a more story oriented short game, there is stuff like PDQ Sharp, which I've played as the system for a Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies game. At 26 pages that's starting to get on the edge of "one hour" (and stuff like FATE may be over that line, at more than 200 pages) but these systems try to have enough story-focused rules content to sustain some interestingness without needing rules lookups in play. PDQ Sharp is fun but suffers, ironically, from some of the gamism that lets people try to stack their aspects/descriptors/tags/whatever the game system calls them in every action.

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Dresden Files

Dresden files RPG is a very good example of the, FATE system in a high fantasy setting. In my opinion, it has the best approach to magic/supernatural powers among all the games I've seen, and the two books are good source of inspiration.

Although DF isn't free, FATE is.

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Thanks for the info. I'm interested in how introduce a decent magic system at some point, so I will look into Dresden Files based on your recommendation. –  lumpkin Oct 1 '11 at 19:30
    
Hmmm ... from the looks of it, this doesn't match the definition of high fantasy in my book. –  Martin Jun 30 '12 at 12:37

Dungeon World

Dungeon World is a conversion of one of the best, most exciting new RPGs to appear in the last few years, from a designer who constantly pushes the form forward. It's the fantasy version of Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World.

Let's take your finalized criteria one at a time:

1) Story-focused:

Apocalypse World (and thus, Dungeon World), like Baker's other games (Dogs in the Vineyard, Poison'd, etc.,) is a monumentally story-focused game. The game is built around "moves" - mechanics with defined triggers and results. This may sound limiting, but because these are story-condition triggers and story-results, they're not. It's not as if a move says, "When within 5 feet of a secret door, you may roll to detect it" or something that focused. Let me give you an example from AW (because that's the one I have at hand. I played Dungeon World at GenCon, but they were sold out by the time I knew I deeply needed that game.)

Going aggro means using violence or the threat of violence to control somebody else’s behavior, without (or before) fighting.

So whenever somebody uses threats or physical means to force someone to do (or not do) something, that's going aggro. See how that's a story-condition trigger? Similarly, the rewards for success are defined as story-results like, "they have to give you what you want or escalate the situation". These moves are instructions for constructing stories! They're story-legos that all snap together to build awesome stuff!

...I don't want to decide the outcome of every fight

The Apocalypse World system has an awesome and deadly combat system with plenty of room for storytelling and drama. In Dungeon World, even character death comes with collaborative storytelling. It can be a powerful moment, not just something that ticks off a player.

2) Suited to high fantasy

Dungeon World is designed for high fantasy. But it's not particularly setting-bound. It's meant, like AW, to be your story in your vision of that genre. There is already awesome, dangerous magic in the world. I wasn't a mage when I played, so I didn't get to see exactly how it worked, but it was cool.

3)...can be understood within an hour of reading the rulebook

There is a small collection of basic moves that everyone has, and each character sheet has the player's particular moves printed right on it. Your reference-space is very small.

4) Isn't class-based.

OK. So...Dungeon World fails here. But if you dislike classes because of D&D, at least go check Dungeon World out before you say no. Playbooks in Dungeon World aren't really about shunting character development into a few, well-defined channels. They're about enabling players to have well-defined roles in the story, and to be differentiated in how they are awesome. Freedom of progression is part of Apocalypse World - you can get moves from other playbooks as you develop. But I'm not sure of DW because I only played a 1-shot. Seriously. Don't eliminate DW over this issue without checking it out.

5) Ideally Free...commercial systems have an inbuilt bias towards unnecessary rules...to sell things

This is an absolutely unfounded fear in this case. Part of the genius of Apocalypse World is how it stripped RPGs down to the bone, with a brilliant take on what was necessary. Dungeon World follows in this vein. Additionally, Dungeon World began as a free supplement to Apocalypse World, which fully supports hacking the system, including hosting hacks on the forum site. So weighing you down with rules so they can sell you clarifications is not what this game and it's ecosystem are about.

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Just a word on the setting. In DW you ad the DM should be ready to let the other player define the setting as much as you. "Hey Master, are there Goblins in this vale?" "I don't know. Are they there?" is a common mechanism of this game. Don't define the world too much, leave space for surprises coming from your fellow players. –  Zachiel Nov 22 '12 at 12:54

I would suggest fate as it is story focuses, rules-lite, and has no classes per se as every thing is skill based. Adapting it to a fantasy setting should not take much time. And it is free as a bonus.

Personally, I think that it is one of the simplest system there is even if the SRD is more than 200 pages long. That just gives you lots of examples and clarifications.

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FATE is, in no way, one of the simplest systems there is. The SotC SRD is 200+ pages long. –  mxyzplk Sep 30 '11 at 3:44
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I concur. I recently finished a relatively long DFRPG campaign and FATE is a great system. But I wouldn't classify it as light. I would say that it offers a great balance of crunch and story-driven mechanics. I love it. There's another FATE Fantasy Legends of Anglerre you might check if you decide to go with FATE. I won't make it an answer as I haven't played it and don't own it. –  gomad Sep 30 '11 at 21:28
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While the SotC SRD is 200+ pages long the entire game without examples and advice can fit on a book mark. I can say this with confidence as I was given a book mark that did just that. docs.google.com/… –  shaneknysh Oct 4 '11 at 2:52

Barbarians of Lemuria

Links: The Free Version and The pretty pay version

This rules light system is focused on sword-and-sorcery. It's a traditional approach, simple to play, and well respected.

It's very straightforward. It's also inexpensive and very well regarded.

John Wick's Houses of the Blooded and Blood and Honor

While recommending a 436 page tome may seem contraindicated, I'm going to recommend Houses of the Blooded, (and its much smaller sibling, Blood and Honor; only 186 pp.)

Both games have a very straightforward, story oriented set of mechanics. Both are very flexible, very streamlined. And very different from AD&D.

Both can support both social and dungeon adventuring.

The task mechanics can be summed up in a single large type page. You can find my cheat sheet for B&H at my website.

Oh, and the PDF is only $5 for either one...

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I looked into Barbarians of Lemuria but decided against it in the end, since the setting it specifically caters for won't appeal to my intended first player. –  lumpkin Oct 1 '11 at 19:40

I would highly suggest Mouse Guard. Though it is designed to allow people to play out characters in the Mouse Guard world, it can easily be used in any setting. It is super simple, quite elegant and shares the responsibility of storytelling across the players and the narrator.

You can find it here on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Mouse-Guard-Roleplaying-Game-Crane/dp/1932386882/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1317272728&sr=8-4

Something to add: I know this game isn't free, but it just has the one book. The book is beautiful too. I noted your main problem was book proliferation. Mouse Guard doesn't do that.

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One word of caution on MG - it is very precisely worded. Run it straight for a while before modding; some of the interactions are inobvious. It's an excellent game, tho'. The only reason I didn't include it in my answer is that it's complexity is hidden. Oh, and don't think of it as BW lite - it's more different than it would first appear. –  aramis Sep 29 '11 at 5:36
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If MG is anything like BW, then the whole "lite" thing is out the window. –  gomad Sep 30 '11 at 20:31
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@gomad By comparison to FATE (SOTC, Diaspora, Legends of Anglierre, Starblazer, Dresden Files), BW, BE, and even all versions of D&D, MG plays as a light game, despite 300 pages in the rulebook. And while it is based upon the same core test mechanic as BW, and the same skill ranges, it's truly a MUCH simpler game to learn and to run. Print's larger, too. –  aramis Oct 2 '11 at 9:57
    
@aramis - huh. I thought MG was supposed to be just as hard as BW. You may have just sold a MG boxed set... –  gomad Oct 2 '11 at 21:13
    
There's also a LotR hack for MG too. –  Pureferret Dec 20 '11 at 1:04

There is Awesome Adventures which I already recommended. It's semi-classic and rather simple with nice character-to-story integration.

Since you did not specify that much, there are two very generic games you might want to look at:

  • The Pool, which is free, super-fast, super-flexible and uses story-motives as ways to resolve situations and determine characters. It also gives the players a great deal of control. You might want to check out the variations of The Pool which move the game in different directions.
  • Risus, which is the "Bier & Brezel" relative of The Pool, using rather satirical tropes to describe a character and have him do stuff.
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Minimus

The best minimialistic game I know of is minimus. It's simple, elegant, and free; offering full rules and gm advice in 4 whole pages. I've run it a number of times and have been generally happy with the results.

It requires that GMs construct their own setting and genre elements, of course, but it offers an excellent framework for player driven narrative through its "relationships, goals, and secrets" system. Players can as "clairifing questions" as part of their skill use, introducing elements of interest, use, and narrative causality into a scene to support the tropes of their character.

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Savage Worlds

If you're looking to get into a rules-light RPG, I would recommend you at least take a look at Savage Worlds. I used it to run a Firefly game after I got tired of the cracks and sharp edges in the official game, and I think it worked out well.

It is well supported, even on this site, fast, and flexible. It used to be cheap - the Explorer's Edition was $10. I'm not sure the state of that anymore, with the new Deluxe Edition coming out so soon.

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Be wary of the step-die system. While Savage Worlds does mollify some of the complaints of a step die system (by open ending all the dice, and reading best of 2 for PCs), step die systems tend to be "Love it!" or "HATE IT!!!"... –  aramis Oct 2 '11 at 9:59
    
@aramis - Yup! And all of those systems could be smoothed out by electronic RNGs, or a collection of Zocchi dice to extend to d14, d16, etc.. But that's why I said, "take a look at" because it's got a lot of good features for the questioner's needs. –  gomad Oct 2 '11 at 21:12

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