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A little background info might be helpful: I've roleplayed in online games and have some experience with single-player computer games based off of pen & paper game systems (The Dark Eye), and I'm thinking about trying to start a pen & paper game with my boyfriend. He's an experienced pen & paper roleplayer (World of Darkness, The Dark Eye, and I'm sure at least one other system I'm not remembering at the moment).
At the moment there isn't a group set up. While I'm looking at asking around our circle of friends, they would most likely be complete beginners when it comes to roleplaying games.

What I'm looking for in a system

  • I'm a bit lazy, so I'd like a system that a) doesn't take a lot of time to learn the rules to, and b) in which you don't spend a whole lot of time calculating things or looking up rules.
  • I'd like a system that lends itself to a fantasy, urban fantasy, or possibly sci-fi setting.
  • I'd also like for the system to be easily portable to different settings, so that if we wanted to run a game in, say, the Harry Potter universe, and then switch to Middle Earth depending on player preference and familiarity, we could do that with minimal changes and few house rules.
  • I'm heavily into roleplaying, not roll-hack-and-slash for gear, and I'm looking for a system that supports that with a plethora of non-combat skills and a focus on interactions, so I can create more "normal people" characters and not "Me strong adventurer! Me bash everything!"-like characters without being at any serious disadvantage.
  • The system should lend itself well to both one-shots, campaigns, and one-on-one play. If we're starting with people in the group new to RPGs, a few one-shots would probably be best for them to get a "feel" for roleplaying, but I prefer more in-depth campaigns, and I wouldn't want to force a system switch on them for that.
  • Since I'm not sure how much time any potential group members would be able to commit I'd like a system that would lend itself to a bit more flexibility as far as player attendance goes.
    For instance, one person would be interested, but she lives in another city and keeps busy, so her attendance would most likely be spotty and it wouldn't be much fun for her if her character ended up vastly under-powered because she couldn't make several sessions. In general our groups of friends consists of young adults with busy lives who most likely wouldn't be able to make every session--not just this one person. (Maybe this is a playstyle and campaign issue, I'm not sure.)
  • Ideally I'm looking for a system without the need for a GM (to support a "not everyone has to be there all the time" group dynamic).

Is there a particular system you would recommend that meets what I'm looking for?

If there's any other information I can add to help you mentally narrow down what I'm looking for, please let me know what.

(The original question also included questions on how to handle the group dynamics of one-on-one with possibly adding in more players. I edited it to conform to Stack Exchange standards of clarity and single-topic focus, but I appreciate the answers that have already been posted!)

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Hi, welcome to RPG.stackexchange! Your may want to refine your question a bit so it's easier to answer. Right now you're asking two different questions: a game recommendation and how to set up a game group. You might want to split your game group question off (or have a look and see if it's already been answered on the site) and focus on the game-recommendation question here. –  Grubermensch Jun 23 at 17:14
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Thanks for the input; I'll split this into two questions and repost them. The issue is that I'm not sure if any specific set of people would always be able to be there at any one session anyways (most of the people we know are young adults with pretty busy lives), so I'm also looking for ways to keep the group dynamic flexible and a system/playstyle that supports that. –  Rinari7 Jun 23 at 17:29
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These requirements narrow it down considerably, to the point I'm having a hard time thinking of both GMless and flexible-attendance games that can be ongoing or one-shots, so I think it's definitely not too broad anymore! –  SevenSidedDie Jun 23 at 18:54
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Kudos for improving your question as much as you did. Most don't do that, and it's a wonderful sight to see. –  Emrakul Jun 25 at 9:01

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Both Mystic Empyrean and Capes fulfill these requirements to some degree. Its also worth noting that many rules-light games fit your needs and can be made GM-less simply by rotating who has narrative control. The D&D 4e DMG (or maybe it's DMG2) has suggestions on how to effectively turn it into a board game, for that matter.

Mystic Empyrean

  • There are very few numerics to the game and the gameplay is highly narrative so there's not much need to look things up mid-scene.
  • The default setting of Mystic Empyrean is all of these things and none of them. The game is highly dependent on the players exploring "realms" each of which have its own universal laws. Think Myst, especially if you've ever played some of the later games.
  • The mechanics are based on elemental influences (fire is aggressive, light is discovery, etc) and personalities (a hothead might literally have their head constantly on fire), meaning that you are free to create and act in just about any way you choose.
  • I have had great fun creating new realms and exploring them in one-on-one games. The game is designed largely as a sandbox which makes it perfect for campaign style play but the game can handle one-shots fine, though like most such things it requires a bit of preparation to direct the story.
  • Flexibility is largely an issue of play style. Avoid cliff-hangers and this shouldn't be an issue. Or if you do end on a cliff-hanger, start another adventure and come back to that one later. The system won't really suffer from that sort of behavior.
  • GM-less: Player actions rotate clockwise, GM-ship rotates counter-clockwise though there are rules about "element ownership" to ensure continuity.

Capes

  • Mechanically the game is all about resource management. Your characters typically fit on an index card and you check off abilities as you use them. There are also Debt (per character) and Story Tokens and Inspirations (per player) to keep track of. It's a very simple system, the flip-side of which is that the system is not terribly detail oriented.
  • Capes is written as a supers game, but the system itself is so light that it can be ported to any genre. The only catch is the way "super powers" work but this can easily be re-skinned as Heroic Abilities, Supernatural Powers, and Super Science for fantasy, urban fantasy, and sci-fi respectively.
  • Again, the mechanics are very light. In the Supers version of the game, characters are a combination of abilities and personalities and you can do a lot of things with those two halves but the system is incredibly easy to hack.
  • The game works for one-on-one but has some mechanical issues since there all goals have two sides, which means with two players the game isn't terribly interesting until people get some resources to their name.
  • Players (are expected but not required to) change characters constantly and may even play multiple characters in a scene (though this costs resources). All you miss out on when missing a session is whatever new setting details might be 'discovered'.
  • GM-less: The game is broken up into scenes and pages with initiation of each rotating among the players. Players can introduce goals as well as take actions for or against, stake debt on, and make claims to goals. The system itself is all about narrative control. You make the other person spend resources on the scenes/goals they're invested in while trying to save yours for the ones that matter to you.
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Seconding Mystic Empyrean, can't believe it didn't occur to me. It's both flexible for changing group composition, works with any number of players, is GMless, works equally well for one-shots and indefinitely long campaigns, and heavily encourages roleplaying (as your peers' "votes" on what personality you showed most is how the PC advances). The book does take some time to read, but the system is simple to teach. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 23 at 23:49
    
I've looked at both and Mystic Empyrean looks very interesting. Thanks you for both recommendations. –  Rinari7 Jun 28 at 10:40

Microscope

I'm going to suggest Microscope, because I've had a lot of success with it in the regards you've requested.

Microscope is a game in which players determine individual "periods," "events," and "scenes." Periods are long spans of time, events are smaller, well, events within a period, and scenes are subsets of the event that are actually played out. When a player creates a new scene, other players take on characters in that scene, so you can really take the game in whatever direction you want.

I'm a bit lazy, so I'd like a system that a) doesn't take a lot of time to learn the rules to, and b) in which you don't spend a whole lot of time calculating things or looking up rules.

The rule book is... puny. Really, it's one of the smallest physical rulebooks I've read. I read the rulebook about four months ago, and could still set up a game without needing to read it again. There's only one weird rule in the entire game, and it's for retconning (retroactive continuity) an old action people weren't fond of.

Microscope uses no dice and therefore has no calculation.

Also, there's a single-page rule sheet in the back of the book which summarizes literally every rule in the book. If you are confused or want to look, it's very easy to find something.

I'd like a system that lends itself to a fantasy, urban fantasy, or possibly sci-fi setting.

Microscope is about as generic as it gets. Players, at the beginning of the game, get to define what it is they want to be playing, suggest things they do and do not want to see, and create a setting. Periods allow you to specify what time you're working in, and everyone can pitch in.

In fact, their own list of suggestion spans from "A race of machines unearth their organic origins" to "Colonists tame a new world but are cut off from the old." It's flexible.

I'd also like for the system to be easily portable to different settings...

See above. You can select whatever environment and setting you want. Or, see page 58 in the book for suggestions.

I'm heavily into roleplaying, not roll-hack-and-slash for gear, and I'm looking for a system that supports that with a plethora of non-combat skills and a focus on interactions, so I can create more "normal people" characters and not "Me strong adventurer! Me bash everything!"-like characters without being at any serious disadvantage.

Microscope focuses almost entirely on character interaction and character goals, as well as the goals of the story. If that happens to devolve into violence, it's fine, since the violence serves a purpose to the story as a whole. If it doesn't serve the story as a whole, there's a simple mechanism for bringing the scene back on track.

Characters don't have explicit skills, but they do have skills implied by the role they take in the story. This doesn't mean players can do whatever they want, but it does mean the characters aren't skill-centric or point-centric.

The system should lend itself well to both one-shots, campaigns, and one-on-one play...Since I'm not sure how much time any potential group members would be able to commit I'd like a system that would lend itself to a bit more flexibility as far as player attendance goes.

Microscope definitely lends itself to however many sessions you'd like. I've run both one-shots, and campaigns long and short with it. You can pick up exactly where you left off without any issue.

It is relatively versatile in the number of people it supports. It works well within the bounds of 2-4, and at 5, it might put itself under a little stress. If you're running with 5, make sure your players are comfortable with each other and are very respectful of the game. I definitely wouldn't go to 6, though.

For instance, one person would be interested, but she lives in another city and keeps busy, so her attendance would most likely be spotty and it wouldn't be much fun for her if her character ended up vastly under-powered because she couldn't make several sessions. In general our groups of friends consists of young adults with busy lives who most likely wouldn't be able to make every session--not just this one person. (Maybe this is a playstyle and campaign issue, I'm not sure.)

Microscope doesn't typically have fixed characters - people can play pretty much whoever they want (if the character is relevant to a scene). If an important person has left, it's pretty easy to avoid scenes which revolve around that character and fill the player in later.

That being said, if you want to run extended campaigns, this is probably the weak point. Since players tend to keep records mostly in their heads, and the little details are relevant, informing someone afterward probably won't work well. You also can't go too long between sessions, since some players' recollections will fade.

Your best bet here is to stick to one-shots, since players can keep the history for a single session. Microscope one-shots are wonderful anyway, though.

If you do want to try dropping characters in and out, mechanically, it won't be an issue. Characters in Microscope have no rigid "power" as written.

Ideally I'm looking for a system without the need for a GM (to support a "not everyone has to be there all the time" group dynamic).

Microscope has no GM. Only the players and a stack of index cards.


This being said, Microscope isn't for everyone. There's not only a certain level of maturity required to play an effective game (not saying you aren't, but it's a consideration), but it also takes a particular mindset.

It also might take several play sessions to get used to. Most players improve over time, particularly with regard to making more coherent stories.

I do love it, and would definitely recommend trying it out.

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Thank you for suggesting Microscope - I was wracking my brain trying to remember this game. Kept coming up with Universalis, but I knew that wasn't it! –  gomad Jun 25 at 8:54
    
Microscope is awesome. However, with fluctuating group attendance, it is mostly suited to one-shots. Ongoing games of Microscope require all the same players each time because the history is kept in people's heads more than in the cards. But! there's nothing stopping a group with changing attendance from having multiple ongoing Microscope games and pulling out whichever one matches that night's player roster. Maybe address this in the answer? In my experience, it's not an issue that can be glossed over. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 25 at 16:02
    
Entirely separately: on the subject of maturity, we have a question about that you might want to reference. It's not that it requires maturity, so much as it takes a few games for some players to get the sillies out when they're not used to having so much power with so little creative constraint. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 25 at 16:05
    
Thanks for the pointers, @Seven! I've edited. In retrospect, I did sort of gloss over how game history affects dropouts. –  Emrakul Jun 25 at 16:54
    
This looks like a game that would interest me personally a good deal, and I will definitely keep it in mind. However, I'm not sure if it would be suited for a more flexible group with people who aren't constantly present, and it seems to deviate a bit more from the usual "your one character" structure than I'd like for a beginner group. Thanks for the recommendation, though. –  Rinari7 Jun 28 at 10:42

I used to roleplay with my brother, so I have some experience with the one on one. I'm talking about having a GM and a Storyteller. Some people think it's lame or boring, but it has a few advantages:

  • As you are only two people, you only have two calendars, and you can meet more easily for a game.
  • PC has all the attention. You can play everything you like: conversations, courting, negotiation, job hunting, and any sort of individual scenes without having other players getting bored. That means deeper PC and deeper story.
  • The story can be more centred around the PC, it can be something happening inside his family, friend groups, jobs. All gravitate around him, so it's a lot more personal.
  • Players don't need to find (sometimes artificial) reasons to cooperate.

I still prefer bigger groups (not much bigger), but being only two has its advantages. I had two friends that used to play that style and had a campaign that consisted on the character starting from zero, and getting money, family, and building a small empire, to later lose it all again, time after time.

Combat and dungeons are less interesting on one on one (if the player is controlling only a PC, which I recommend), so I would make them more scarce. Investigation and social roleplaying works great on the other hand, so I would use them more (of course, it also depends on the player actions).

There's one thing I did on one-on-one I don't do on bigger groups: the GM character. Players usually hate GM characters, but in one-on-one it doesn't hurt much, as long as they are secondary, they help the player, and don't override his decisions.

Introducing more characters to that individual campaign can be tricky. First, the original PC can be much powerful than the new ones, and at the same time, he has more knowledge and control on the setting. Second, he is already the protagonist and must step back to leave space to the others. Third, if the story has become complicated (and mine always do), it can be hard to other players to enter, and sometimes they can find the story artificial or even illogical. Sometimes it would be better to turn the old PC into a NPC, and that the PC creates a new character (I said sometimes, not always nor most times!).

About GM-less games, I have never played them too long, but I know there are some out there. The one I know the name is Mythic.

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You definitely have to be careful when adding new players to any kind of game for exactly these reasons. The new player personalities can also prove disruptive to the things you enjoyed about the game, so be careful when doing this. One game that happens to be well suited to one-on-one play is Beast Hunters; berengad.com/bh –  Wesley Obenshain Jun 24 at 0:21
    
Thank you for the information on one-on-one and small group dynamics, which were definitely valuable. –  Rinari7 Jun 28 at 18:12

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