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What would be a good "indie" role-playing game to try out something a little more experimental than the mainstream games?

Recently we've been playing D&D3, WFRP 2nd ed, and a FUDGE-game based on the old Sapphire & Steel tv-series. Apart from the D&D, the games tend to be plot-heavy and rely on social aspects on the expense of long combat scenes.

I'm interested in both new mechanics and milieus. And something that could be tried out with an explanation by the GM as opposed to all players having to read through a thickish book is definitely an asset.

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closed as not constructive by C. Ross Mar 6 '12 at 14:26

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Tell us more about what you like right now! There's a really wide range. – Bryant Aug 19 '10 at 20:56
I'd definitely like to hear a little bit more about what you're looking for, or would consider "indie". There are a ton of games out there, awaiting the further response! :) – zacharythefirst Aug 19 '10 at 20:58
That is a difficult question to answer because many "indie" games are tied very strongly to the setting. I could recommend a game but if you do not like the setting you will likely not like the game. – shaneknysh Aug 19 '10 at 21:03
Thank you for the comments and answers. Added details to the woefully inadequate original question. – lavonardo Aug 19 '10 at 21:08
Sapphire & Steel was completely awesome! – Bryant Aug 19 '10 at 21:11

22 Answers 22

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Barring further detail on the question, I'm gonna recommend My Life With Master. It's an early indie game, but it holds up fairly well, and it really does a great job of introducing the idea of story-oriented mechanics. Not all indie games are story-oriented, but lots of 'em are. It also keeps the GM role front and center, which makes it easier for people who're used to mainstream stuff, and the activity in play is very much directed by the GM, which means the players are unlikely to feel lost.

Edit: I'm going to stick with this recommendation. The setting is 18th century Europe, which sounds as though it'll work for your players. It's also a very slim book and easy to learn/teach.

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Thank you for the answer. Took a look at My Life With Master, and it seems like a fascinating concept. Will try it out. – lavonardo Aug 20 '10 at 13:49

The answer really depends on what you like, but here's the top three I'd recommend, and why:

  • Primetime Adventures: The rules are simple and the game does a good job of stealing the format of the serial TV show. You can play in any setting. Possible upside or downside: it's designed for long-term play, 5 or more sessions.

  • The Shab-Al-Hiri Roach: Again, the rules are exceedingly simple. If any of your players like the Cthulhu mythos, they will really dig this game. It's made for one-shot play. I've gotten good replay value out of it with different groups, but you won't be running this for multiple sessions with the same group, most likely.

  • Diaspora: This is the most complex of the three games I mentioned, but the rules drip with crunchy fun. The genre is hard sci-fi, which may or may not be your bag. Diaspora's full of mini-games, including four separate types of combat depending on whether you're fighting a space battle, leading marines, or arguing your case at a court-martial. You can play this for a long campaign.

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Hard SF is definitely something I've been looking into. Diaspora looks like a system that does justice to the likes of Reynolds and Brin, and definitely gets a look. – lavonardo Aug 20 '10 at 20:14
+1 for Diaspora. I've introduced many indie games to my generally traditional group, and Diaspora clicked instantly. Its just an excellent game. – CodexArcanum Oct 20 '10 at 16:08
Don't forget Shadow of Yesterday/Solar system/World of Near. this is a great system to take your first baby steps into the pool and get a new experience from it as well! – dindenver Jan 26 '11 at 23:22

Echoing some earlier answers (which I upvoted), I'd suggest:

  • Universalis (really open ended, and will teach you mechanics and social interaction)
  • Sorcerer (blow your mind)
  • Dogs in the Vineyard (blow your mind again as you watch people make tough decision in a easy system)
  • Burning Wheel (crunchy tolkien goodness)
  • PTA / Primetime adventures (Play any TV show (of your own devising))

To start as easily as possible from the above, I'd go with Universalis. Dogs is pretty easy as well, Burning Wheel should be started at its stripped-down version (which is normal learning curve for that system: it really starts self-reinforcing when all the rules are in play).

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I would recommend getting InSpectres. It is a very simple game to get into, and easy to explain, yet each session of it is amazingly fun!

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InSpectres looks very interesting. And might be a good way of rekindling the interest in paranormal/conspiracy games that we've run a lot. – lavonardo Aug 20 '10 at 20:11
Inspectres requires a low amount of commitment from the players. almost no prep time from the GM and you really can't run it as a traditional RPG, without breaking the rules. On top of that, you always have fun with it. – dindenver Jan 26 '11 at 23:23

If you've already had experience with FUDGE, I would try FATE. It's a free generic ruleset, or you can check out games like Diaspora (science fiction), Dresden Files (urban fantasy), or Spirit of the Century (pulp), Starblazer Adventures (space opera), and Legends of Anglerre (fantasy), all of which are based on the FATE engine. The Aspects fate uses are excellent for introducing descriptive bits to a game, and working on increased shared narrative while keeping a traditional game feel is a perk.

If you're looking for something slightly more traditional and want to do this in baby steps, Rogue Games has several RPGs that might fit the bill. Their use of Hooks both helps define characters and push story in play.

From these sorts of examples, you might be able to see how far you want to go in terms of alternate game design, which will help in deciding whether or not to pick up some of the more extreme designs out there.

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I edited your answer to expand the list of FATE derivatives and to make it clearer that they're actually based on FATE. – Adam Dray Sep 3 '10 at 16:12

Right now there are some truly awesome new indie games in the pile you might want to try:

  • Annalise: A fantastic light-mechanics indie game which focuses on the conflict between some very flawed protagonists and a "vampire." Framed in an almost traditional vampire-Gothic setup, it can easily go well beyond that. The meat of the mechanics are about calling on your flaws and having them hook you into your relationships with others, and how it falls out along the way. I've been seriously tempted to run a game reminiscent of Aliens in it, as its the only system I've ever found where characters like Burke and Ashe could be extremely powerfully driven propagandists and still fit the flow of the other characters' narrative.

  • Remember Tomorrow: Remember when the cyberpunk genre was cool, Gibson was exploring literary cyberspace and there was a chance Gravity might Fall? RT is seriously bringing the cyberpunk genre back in as a platform for exploration. GM-less, you start the game by creating a mechanics-light character and an organization or person that opposes their goals, then go around the table essentially running other peoples' oppositions, making deals, and having a good old noir-inspired time. Like a lot of the GM-less designs, it does have a pretty high requirement for creativity, but its absolutely aces at delivering.

  • Blowback: Do you like Burn Notice? How about Leverage? Stories about spies stuck out in the cold, doing what they have to do to get back in, and trying to keep up their human relationships along the way? That's Blowback. I don't really need to go on at more length because by this point, you're either in or out and you know it, but its worth noting that this game does the caper film style better than any other I've seen, explicitly defining a planning and execution phases -- and then you deal with the fallout. Fabulous.

There's three brand new games you can check out and probably should. Glad to help.

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Thank you for the answer. All three games seem very interesting. And being a Burn Notice fan, I'm pretty sure Blowback will end up in my collection sooner or later. – lavonardo Aug 20 '10 at 20:13

Mouse Guard is a good introduction to the Burning Wheel / Burning Empire family. In my experience, it offers enough crunchy bits to ease the transition from D&D but also offers plot devices like Beliefs, Instincts, Goals and Traits. Character generation is also based on a list of questions, leading players to think more about their character as opposed to just the numbers.

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soon, the Dark Crystal RPG should be joining said family... – aramis Feb 2 '12 at 1:15

A game using the FATE system is often a good game to dip your toes into the narrative control/player empowerment waters before getting into the really non-mainstream games.

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Could not agree more! – Wilmanric Aug 19 '10 at 21:02
Thank you for the answer. Will give FATE a chance (after we've tried My Life With Master). – lavonardo Aug 20 '10 at 13:49

I recommend Risus, the "anything RPG". It's completely free, and there's a ton of material that people have made for it available. Check out the Ring of Thieves solo adventure, which gives you a good feel for the possibilities of the game.

Another good free one to check out is Lady Blackbird, which is a steampunk game, setting, and adventure all in one. I haven't gotten a chance to play it yet, so I don't know how well it runs, but it's worth checking out just for inspiration.

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While I love Risus, I don't think it serves as a "gateway drug" into the style of gaming often associated with the word "indie". – Sean McMillan Sep 20 '11 at 12:37

Besides anything FATE based, Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies is also a great choice!

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There are a lot of great suggestions so far, like Dogs in the Vineyard, Prime Time Adventures, and so on. But these don't address one of the principle problems for first time indie gamers: ease of adoption. There was a kind of a paradigm that happened a few years ago when the indie scene took off. It was basically the idea that no-one had to do any preparation and that the story would emerge during the game, not before it. It was the idea that characters and stories were aimed at one another, that, in lots of cases, the story was built collaboratively, and that the game acted as a tool to help in that process. It was all this stuff, and more, and it was really, really hard for me to get my head around it at first.

When I started playing indie games, I had real difficulty understanding that paradigm mainly because the games I tried seemed to incorporate it as a silently acknowledged facet. That is, it felt to me that there was something that the authors all understood, but that they weren't explaining in their text. It was only after playing with other people who'd played it before, and after reading and listening to podcasts of APs, that I started to understand what was going on. In other words, I had to do a lot of homework before I 'got' the paradigm...if indeed I ever got it.

So, for that reason, I would suggest looking at games that deliver the instructions without any indie baggage or assumed knowledge:

A Taste For Murder by Graham Walmsley (simple rules, breaks the mold in a satisfying and digestible way, offers great gaming advice)

Hell 4 Leather by Joe Prince (highly structured, easy to follow, delivers a spectacle of hellish drama using tarot cards)

Contenders by Joe Prince (again, highly structured, builds intense drama, a real eye opener)

InSpectres by Jared Sorensen (loose and fast, quite funny, and a great tool to introduce players to the idea of narrative control)

Hell for Leather by me (highly structured, simplifies narrative jurisdiction, uses a tower of dice like jenga)

I've tried most of these on non-gamers or 'trad' gamers (except for A Taste for Murder). Without exception, they've all produced a "wow!" moment once the players understand that they are collaborating to build a story. Plus, they're all easy to read, interpret, and play.

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Fiasco by Jason Morningstar is another suggestion for a starting indie RPG.

The rules are very light, the text is quite accessible with plenty of examples and requires only one person to have read it, and the play is quite structured so there's something to hold on to as you're playing the game.

Many of the playsets are contemporary, so there's no need to buy into elves and dragons and dwarves - you're just playing ordinary folks who see a chance to make it big and jump in feet first - with usually darkly comic and disasterous results. It's fun.

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I facilitated this almost-cold (i.e., I had read the book a month ago) for four people, two of which had never roleplayed before. It was excellent for that. The new gamers got very quickly what was expected of them by the system, and it was easy to make the game go just by stepping through the book during play. – SevenSidedDie Oct 20 '10 at 16:26

I'd like to recommend Ars Magica. It has a pretty expansive magic system, and has different levels of narrative control over the party via "tiers" of party-members. Written into the game is rotating GM control, even, so it's a good way to get everybody used to GMing, especially if they've never done it before. Plus, the game itself is a good time.

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Apart from the rotating GM hat, there's nothing very "indie" about Ars Magica either in terms of rules paradigm or in authorship. The rotating GMship is cool, but it's not going to be a useful introduction to the more esoteric indie mechanics out there. – SevenSidedDie Aug 27 '10 at 15:31
This is why indie is a horribly subjective tag (see meta) – anon186 Aug 27 '10 at 19:40
@Jeremiah Regardless of it being a massively subjective and slippery term, there's still no definition of "indie" I've ever heard of or could imagine that would include Ars Magica in any edition. (Not that the game isn't awesome.) – SevenSidedDie Oct 20 '10 at 16:35

We run a biweekly meeting where people get to introduce the others to new systems. Of the various things we tried, the following have been the most popular:

  • My Life With Master
  • Dogs in the Vinyard
  • The Mountain Witch
  • Western City
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My preferred 'indie' systems are PDQ and EABA. Both have really excellent sourcebooks, and the core rules of PDQ are free.

PDQ, or Prose Descriptive Qualities, is a simple system utilizing text-descriptions of Qualities similar to FUDGE, but the 'damage ranks' you take during conflicts are taken against your Qualities. It's an interesting conflict resolution system for a game which favors strong storytelling to crunchy bits.

EABA is more crunchy, and I usually describe the system as the bastard child of GURPS and the WEG d6 system. Skills are counted as a certain number of dice, and the core rules contain helpful information for running a variety of times. Plus, there are several settings which provide even more stuff to crib from, including a pretty awesome 'Sanity' system in Code: Black.

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PDQ has the advantage in this question's context of being a "traditionally shaped" system but with non-traditional resolution mechanics. The original asker would be able to play those familiar plot-heavy games with it, while avoiding the long combats (either having short or no combats). – SevenSidedDie Oct 20 '10 at 16:24
When I pointed out to Greg Porter the similarities in dice pool sizes on EABA and WEG d6 Star Wars, he pointed out that he disliked d6 Star Wars the one time he'd played it... – aramis Feb 2 '11 at 11:43

In a Wicked Age

This is the "most indie" game that my largely traditional group plays somewhat regularly. It just has a lot to recommend it, especially for a group that is normally playing a lot of D&D or something similar.

The setting is low/pulp fantasy, a lot like early D&D, and easily lends itself to stories about demons, monsters, swords, and sorcery. Fantasy gamers would have no problems getting right into the swing of things.

The system is a little weird, but once you get it, flows nicely and gets out of the way. Its very light and easy to teach, but like I said, confusing at first.

The game itself is short and easy to use in every sense. The rules are minuscule, and characters fit on a card. I keep an index card box with me full of IAWA 3x5 cards I printed using my own designs. That box basically contains every game we've played: characters, NPCS, magic powers, story points, etc. Since character and world creation are wrapped into each session, and each session is a single story, we can pull it out anytime we're at a loss for the evening and play a quick game.

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I bought Universalis and played it a couple times. Both times were fun. It's definitely not mainstream. There is no GM, just players, and it's all about the story. Very little dice.

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I feel that with Universalis, you should not tell players that it is an indie RPG. You should tell them, that it's a game about telling stories together. That way, you won't crush their expectations which might result in plain refusal to play. I had this once … – PiHalbe Sep 9 '11 at 12:15

I'd recommend any of the modern FATE-based games (Spirit Of The Century, Diaspora, Dresden Files, Starblazer Adventures, Legends of Anglerre) with perhaps a slight lean towards Diaspora. Although the implied setting is a bit "dryer" perhaps than the others (hard SF), its implementation of the next generation of FATE mechanics seems to me to be one of the most accessible, clearly-explained, and modular.

I'd also strongly recommend In a Wicked Age: an indie-style fantasy RPG that's focussed strongly on narrative, and is a brief and powerful engine for fun (36 pages of rulebook with lots of white space); the focus of IaWA is a humanist, "Sword & Sorcery" or "1001 Nights" style of fantasy. It uses a set of "story seed tables" to randomly provide the kernels for starting to play, called "The Oracle" (as in "consult the oracle to get the key phrases that will inform the next adventure"). The neatness about his is that the fundamental engine behind IaWA can get used for genres other than the one provided by the game: you just use an Oracle that's got story seed phrases for a different kind of story. And lots of additional Oracles (sets of tables) exist online.

Finally, I'd recommend Robin Laws' re-write/second edition of HeroQuest's core rules. As with IaWA, the game was initially designed for a fantasy world (Glorantha) that's vast, complex, and has lots of places to start with; also, as with IaWA, Robin's re-write of the rules were specifically done with an eye to making the HQ engine adaptable for any genre, focussing on the kind of story-telling structure that's used in modern film and television narratives. It's very easy to learn, and very fluid in play.

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At the 2010 PaizoCon, I ran a Don't Rest Your Head game presented as a sequel to the events of H P Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror. You can separate the dream-like horror system from the setting fairly easily. While the three colors of dice system is a little different from others, its a fairly simple rule set to learn.

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The d12 series of games by Rogue Games they include Colonial Gothic, Thousand Suns, and Shadows, Swords, & Spells.

Plus while not exactly indies there is a series of retro-clones based on older editions of dungeons & dragons. A lot of is similar to older TSR dungeons but many do interesting things with the D&D rule system.

I have a webpage that collects some of the more popular links.

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I'd recommend Gigacrawler. If only for the artist, Zak Smith, who's already in a few museums. And if you start playing now, your ideas could end up making it into the 'final' version of the game.

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Honestly. I would use dogs in the Vineyard. The important thing to do is run it as the A-Team if the whole A-Team were paladins with pistols. Even reading the book (more so if you read all the internet hype), you get the idea that it is a lot deeper than that. And it can be if you really want it to be. But, I suggest taking it slowly, get the players comfortable with the mechanics. The idea that when you play your two dice, you are GM for a moment. Make sure that, as GM, that you don't fall into old GM traps. When it says, "Say yes, or roll the dice" they are serious. In other words, empower the players to dictate at least some of the elements of the story being told at the table. Dogs is good for this and it can be framed in a more traditional mission-style game if you want to keep people in their comfort zone.

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