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(I hope that by being very specific in my criteria that this question will be deemed acceptable to this site. Apologies in advance if I did not meet what I understand to be the requirements for asking questions here.)

I am looking to try playing a little Dungeons & Dragons, or something very much like it, after a very long absence. I have not played in twenty years. However, I am not looking to take this up as a major hobby. I just want to dabble in it, not take it too seriously, and emphasize story telling over strict dice rolling and rules. The key elements I'm looking for are:

  1. No requirement of miniatures or maps. All game play is conducted through verbal description.

  2. Ideally, easy character sheet generation. Something like no more than an hour to create a character.

  3. The dungeon master (or whatever that role is called) has a lot of discretion to make expedient choices in order to keep things moving.

  4. Ideally, support with apps on mobile devices that can reduce the requirement to carry books and other game related paraphernalia.

The game will be conducted probably only about once a month, but hopefully each one session could be a significant amount of time, up to about 6 hours at the longest. The number of players is anticipated to be around 5 people, 1 DM and 4 players, but the number of players could be a couple more.

With those criteria, is there a role playing game in the fantasy (swords & sorcery) genre that is best suited to meet my needs? I have heard that Pathfinder is supposed to be more accessible than current D&D versions (Only what I've heard, I don't really know if that's true), but even Pathfinder seems to demand a steep learning curve before one can even think of beginning a game.

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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

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Welcome to Role-playing Games Stack Exchange! As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to both the FAQ and the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and on our Meta. In particular, all responses should be based on actual experience and contain references and examples whenever possible. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Feb 8 at 10:50
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This is our pro-forma to inform potential answerers that we'll delete things not backed up. For you, as people are almost certain to suggest dungeon world and fate, take a look at the games to see if either informs your requirements from a positive or negative standpoint. I'd also tour the rest of game-recommendations to see if you want to incorporate any of their criteria into your question. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Feb 8 at 12:14
    
@BrianBallsun-Stanton, understood. Thanks for recommending Dungeon World and Fate. I had never heard of them, and will consider both. As I do, if anyone who has experience with either or both could offer advantages or drawbacks to either, that would be so helpful. –  Dave M G Feb 8 at 12:26
    
@BrianBallsun-Stanton - My answer took a while to write and I was interrupted in the middle of writing it, so your comment appeared while I was writing it. So, yes, I did recommend DW, but I think I provided sufficient justification to support my recommendation. I'm a huge fan of Fate, but really feel that DW fits this situation better. –  gomad Feb 8 at 12:51
    
Yep. And it's backed up by experience, so all is good :) –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Feb 8 at 12:56
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7 Answers 7

up vote 23 down vote accepted

I would heartily recommend you try Dungeon World.

Let's take your points in order:

No requirement of miniatures or maps. All game play is conducted through verbal description.

Dungeon World, like all games derived from Apocalypse World, is centered entirely on the fiction. The rules come in the form of moves.

All play begins and ends in the story. When something in the fiction - the conversation at the table that tells the story - meets particular, specific conditions, it triggers the mechanics in the move. Most moves will have the form of: roll 2d6 + some stat modifier. On a result of 10+, something altogether good happens; on 7-9, something good happens along with some price or choice; on 6 or less, something bad will happen. The rules feed back right into the fiction. And the story continues from there.

Ideally, easy character sheet generation. Something like no more than an hour to create a character.

Dungeon World character sheets, like Apocalypse World playbooks, have everything necessary to create, play, and level up each character class. The generic move sheets contain all the player-facing mechanics available to all characters regardless of class.

Making characters boils down to making a few choices and ticking the appropriate boxes. Then there is some collaborative decision making with the group to assure that they are all motivated to interact with each other instead of all just meeting in a tavern. Character creation for a whole group can take less than half an hour if everyone can be kept moving along. The actual time will depend on your group. But there is no optimization required or even really possible. Awesome, interesting decisions are far better than "good" ones.

The dungeon master (or whatever that role is called) has a lot of discretion to make expedient choices in order to keep things moving.

The whole game is built around keeping the fiction going. The choices and consequences of moves build excitement and complications in the fiction. The GM gets to make decisions, but the players are able to contribute, too. In fact, bouncing decisions back to the group takes some pressure off of the GM to come up with everything on his own while simultaneously giving the players a sense of power and agency within the game.

The GM has moves, too, but they are not the same a player moves. In games derived from Apocalypse World, the GM moves are asymmetrical - the GM has rules, but they are not the same rules as the players - because the game is about story generation and not simulation. As GM, you will never roll dice. You never roll to see if your monsters hit. If you advertised a threat - The ogre's huge club is swinging towards you! and the players reacted - I hold my shield fast in both hands to protect the children! and you called for a move roll (I would say Defend in this example) and the result said the player takes damage, then they just take the damage. You say what it is, and they roll it. They knew that club was coming and could judge the consequences of protecting that child.

This asymmetry means that you are free to advance the story and make good on the threats you bring out instead of engaging in simulation and hoping your big bad monster can actually connect.

Ideally, support with apps on mobile devices that can reduce the requirement to carry books and other game related paraphernalia.

All the books are available in PDF. The need for paraphernalia is practically non-existant. Some paper, dice, pencils, and the move, reference, and character sheets are all that is really required.

Dungeon World takes the revolutionary and evolutionary advances of Apocalypse World and transforms them to fit the world of classic fantasy roleplaying. Your group is ideally sized for Dungeon World. I have used it to great success in a similar situation with infrequent play but good-sized chunks of play each time.

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Original D&D might work well for you. Unfortunately it's long out of print and not available from DnDClassics.com. Fortunately Swords & Wizardry Whitebox is fairly faithful clone, and perhaps better because it uses the optional combat rules that became the default.

There is no requirement of miniatures or maps; the rules aren't all that interested in that exact level of tactical positioning.

Character generation should take less than 30 minutes, closer to 5 if you've played before.

The DM has an incredibly amount of discretion, and it's necessary. There simply aren't a lot of rules there, so many actions must be up to the the DM's decision.

The full text of the rules is available online for free, suitable for use on mobile devices. It's a very light game, so there isn't much you actually need.

I found Finch's "Quick Primer for Old School Gaming" helpful for getting a sense for one way OD&D can be played, and indeed I believe it matches how the Old School Renaissance tends to approach D&D.

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RuneQuest (or other BRP derivatives):

Point 1:

No requirement of miniatures or maps. All game play is conducted through verbal description.

That is definitely my experience (although I have used miniatures, at times, they are not needed and the rules are not written with miniatures in mind).

Point 2:

Ideally, easy character sheet generation. Something like no more than an hour to create a character.

Again, it tends to be quick to get a character created from scratch. May take a bit more than 1 hour the very first time, but I am going from old memories here.

Point 3:

The dungeon master (or whatever that role is called) has a lot of discretion to make expedient choices in order to keep things moving.

Yep. BRP derivatives tend to include language along the lines of "please do what is the most fun".

Point 4:

Ideally, support with apps on mobile devices that can reduce the requirement to carry books and other game related paraphernalia.

Ah, now, that is as far as I know a weakness. Back when I played regularly, I could mostly get away with having some sort of monster manual (reference for improvised encounters), character sheets and dice along. The rules are "small enough" that yo ucan, after a while, essentially keep them in your head, something I have never found to be the case with, say, AD&D.

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13th Age may fit the bill.

Point 1:

No requirement of miniatures or maps. All game play is conducted through verbal description.

13th Age corebook:

You can define your character’s geographical location in any natural way, such as “standing behind the paladin” or “slinking along the wall while the rest of the party waits around the corner.” It’s understood that combat is dynamic and fluid, so miniatures can’t really represent where a character “really is.”

Point 2:

Ideally, easy character sheet generation. Something like no more than an hour to create a character.

13th Age is near the high end of this bar, but you get quite a bit for your time--the character creation process tries to integrate character background with mechanics in similar ways to Fate's aspects, so a finished character starts with some built-in story hooks to go along with its statistics.

Point 3:

The dungeon master (or whatever that role is called) has a lot of discretion to make expedient choices in order to keep things moving.

The core rules are reminiscent of a D&D/d20 game, but they're heavily modified in favor of streamlining encounters, character advancement, and loot. 13A's Icons provide game mechanics to GMs and players specifically to help move the story along.

Point 4:

Ideally, support with apps on mobile devices that can reduce the requirement to carry books and other game related paraphernalia.

There's no app, but there are free PDF and Office SRDs that cover the bulk of the rules in stripped-down formats that happen to be mobile friendly.

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You may look into the modern storygames and decide they are for you, or not - Dungeon World, etc., though they skin themsalves as a D&D-type fantasy game, have a brand of putting 'story first' that may differ from what you mean by that given an older D&D-influenced mindset.

If you liked older D&D versions, you are in luck.

  1. WotC is reprinting the core books from AD&D 1e and, probably more appropriately, AD&D 2e. They are also putting PDFs for sale online of lots of stuff including the BECMI (Red Box etc.) Basic D&D. As you know from back in the day, Basic and 2e especially had absolutely no minis requirement and were pretty light on rules. And you can have it all in PDF.

  2. There are a bunch of "retroclones" that basically revise the old D&D versions with slightly updated mechanics. See Overview of D&D retro-clones on this site for a rundown. Were you more of a Basic, or 1e person, or what? They've got it all and the retroclones tend to be slimmed down a bit, Castles & Crusades is a good simpler/thinner version of 1e. Also, all available in PDF.

  3. (Sad Not Quite Fits) Pathfinder is rules-heavy compared to back in the day, but they have a Beginner Box product which mimics the old D&D Basic Red Box. D&D 4e similarly has a new Beginner Box that is actually made to look nearly identical to the old Red Box. They are simplified but unfortunately both have battle mats and strongly endorse use of minis (or cheaper replacements, like Pathfinder's "pawns." The newest D&D version, however, 5e, also called D&D Next is simpler, hearkening back to Basic/2e, and doesn't prescribe use of minis - so you could hit your requirements and be on the cutting edge too! Unfortunately the public playtest docs were taken down in December.

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(Although I heartily, heartily support the suggestion for Dungeon World, I'd feel remiss not mentioning a major category of options you have.)

You haven't played in about 20 years, so... 1994-ish. D&D was in its TSR era, specifically AD&D 2nd edition? I'm with you there: I played a lot in the 2nd edition era, left gaming for a while, and returned (and left and returned, twice again) during the Wizards of the Coast era of D&D. My experience doesn't exactly match yours, but my criteria do, and they have motivated my exploration of my options for D&D-style games that do what I want from D&D. My experience can, hopefully, help yours.

Well I have good news: you could, if you wanted, pick up right back where you left off and keep playing AD&D 2nd edition. The books were recently put back into print by Wizards of the Coast (the company that bought TSR in 1999) and can be found in local game stores and at online sellers like Amazon. And if not there, the original printings are still easily and cheaply found online at places like eBay or the various online second-hand RPG stores.

As well, since you left, the community who had still been playing editions that had gone out of print took it upon themselves to keep the games alive, a community or movement that is called the Old School Renaissance or just "OSR". So today there is an explosion of "retroclones"—games that are effectively the original games but written afresh to make them legal in copyright terms, often using Open Game License material as a basis—which are mostly available free and online in PDF form or print-on-demand. It has never been a better time to be a fan of earlier editions of D&D.

I say this, because your criteria don't match any edition of D&D that has been published since you stopped playing (including Pathfinder, which is effectively the third sub-edition of D&D 3rd edition). The TSR era and the WotC era represent vastly different styles of D&D. Though it's a long digression, let me tell you what D&D has been up to since you left, and how it compares to your criteria. I hope to show you, by contrast, why sticking with a TSR-era design of D&D, whether original or retroclone, is worthwhile given your stated desires.

When WotC bought TSR, they revamped the game according to the pleas of the most vocal fans: more nailed-down and unified rules, more combat choices, more character choices—in general, more complexity to invest in and master. (This is a vast simplification of the motives and timeline behind 3e's changes from 2nd edition AD&D, but it'll do for now.) Though that made the game more engrossing for the already-invested gamer, it makes their learning curve steep and, once you've learned, the gameplay is complex and highly interconnected, making it a delicate balancing act to advance the game while maintaining the web of rules that binds it together. So:

  1. No requirement of miniatures or maps. All game play is conducted through verbal description.

    4e requires miniatures as written (though there are various hacks to eliminate that, they require more in-depth understanding of the miniatures portion of the rules), so that's right out.

    3e (aka 3.0), 3.5e, and Pathfinder (aka "3.75e" sometimes) don't strictly require miniatures, but heavily assume them. You can run combats in a Theatre of the Mind style, but the number of interactions between player-character abilities and monsters is very high and takes a lot of mental work, which miniatures and a grid are meant to relieve. It's doable and I've done it, but I don't play 3.x anymore in large part because other D&Ds work much better for Theatre of the Mind.

  2. Ideally, easy character sheet generation. Something like no more than an hour to create a character.

    All of the 3e and later editions feature heavyweight character creation. There are computer-based tools to make this faster, but the fact they're needed probably tells you as much as you need to know. 3e added a massive degree of customisation on the player side of the table, I mean, a truly incredible number of options. If you keep to just the core books the number of choices is a bare fraction of the whole gamut, but even in just core then there are many more ways to customise a character than you'd be familiar with in AD&D 2nd edition, even if you used the full array of kits from the Complete line of supplements.

  3. The dungeon master (or whatever that role is called) has a lot of discretion to make expedient choices in order to keep things moving.

    The Dungeon Master still has significant discretion, but it's no longer considered the default for the DM to exercise it extensively. The default culture now is that the DM's role is as rules executor rather than rules judge—the job is to keep the game fair and by-the-book, rather than to keep the game moving. The rules are mostly built around this cultural assumption.

    Most sessions feature one or two combats per, because they just take that long to play out. Shortening that can make a player feel like their character's customisation choices are being invalidated because they're not getting to play it out.

  4. Ideally, support with apps on mobile devices that can reduce the requirement to carry books and other game related paraphernalia.

    There is lots of support in apps, because there is so much paraphernalia and books invovled. This is the one criteria that does kinda match.

So I don't think that 3e or later suits your needs. I do think that one of the many, many retroclones would though (or even the actual original games in PDF), as they are fast, have no minis requirements, give the DM lots of discretion and leeway to make rulings and require very little paraphernalia (eliminating the need for digital helpers).

And of course, Dungeon World is wonderful. It's pretty much my favourite "edition" of D&D, and does all of what you're looking for in spades. It's finely-tuned to generate the experience of D&D, except using rules that are tuned to extract maximum "D&D-feeling play" out of what time you have available for it.

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I still play ADnD 2e myself, largely for the reasons you listed. There certainly may be a nostalgia factor at play, I find I strongly prefer it over 3.5e. –  TimothyAWiseman Feb 10 at 17:15
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Early 2e is pretty different from early 3e. But late era 2e (especially the Player's Option series) is the link between the two. As someone who liked late era 2e, I welcomed the cleanup that 3e brought while keeping the late era 2e additions I liked. 3e's text emphasized minis more, but in actual play I found it was comparable to late era 2e. The existence of software doesn't tell us much; TSR shipped the 2e AD&D Core Rules CD-ROM. –  Alan De Smet Feb 10 at 20:55
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@AlanDeSmet Yep. And again, late-era 3.x is pretty different from early-era 3.x. Late-2e to early-3e was a pretty seamless transition, but early- or even mid-2e to late-3e is shockingly different. –  SevenSidedDie Feb 10 at 22:20
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Everway. It is somewhat old, but it fits your description to a T. Extremely rules-light. Character generation: Pick 5 pictures, develop a story, distribute points to 6 stats. Rules, in a nutshell:

  • Rule of karma: What makes sense, happens. Stronger beats weaker.
  • Rule of drama: What makes a good story, happens. Archvillains don't die unless it serves story.
  • Rule of destiny: If other rules don't fit, Tarot-like deck gets interpreted by GM. (The game does not use dice.)

An example that I found hilarious: A guy was showing off to some girls how strong and cool he was. He thought swinging from branch to branch was a great idea for it. He was average-to-good physically, so rule of karma was not really applicable. And I thought it would be better for the story to leave it to the chance, so rule of destiny it was. I flip a card, and...

Lack of Connection

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