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I want to run a campaign in a fantasy-setting. I want there to be a primary focus on travel, adventure, swordplay and sorcery, with the option of pursuing more diplomatic solutions to problems. I want to have knights and wizards, maybe an elf or two or some other exotic creatures, and I want to have warring kingdoms with the peace of the land hanging in the balance.

In short, I want to be running a D&D campaign – but

I hate bookkeeping. I hate keeping track of long elaborate sheets of character statistics. I hate looking through pages and pages of feats to find the exact one necessary to create the most powerful class possible. I hate obscure prestige class builds and having to throw together monsters for a fight because none of the pre-generated NPCs meet my desired setup. But most of all, I just can’t be bothered to keep track of all the nuances and rules that are inherent in a game like that. Especially when it comes to making sure my players aren’t overpowered compared to one another.

I have played many wonderful games that are light on rules, but few of them have had a medieval fantasy setting like Pathfinder or D&D. While both of these are popular, in my experience such games have been bogged down by excessive rule-checking, number-crunching, and a general focus on the mechanics of the game over the role-playing scenarios within it.

[Thanks to Bradd Szonye and Brian Ballsun-Stanton for their work on the following explanation.]

I’m looking for an RPG with a fantasy medieval setting that is extremely simple, has a unified conflict resolution mechanic (diplomacy is only fighting by another name), doesn’t really worry about bookkeeping and number-crunching, and has most of the thematic trappings of D&D’s high fantasy settings.

Flexible, narrative-friendly rules: I want rules that help me resolve conflicts, but can be ignored and let the group tell the story they want. I want all conflicts to use the same resolution mechanism which can scale by the conflict’s importance, regardless of whether it’s for combat, diplomacy, exploration, crafting, or whatever. I would like to resolve simple, unimportant conflicts with one die roll and move on, but have the option of more complex resolution for important conflicts and competitions between players.

Minimal bookkeeping and number-crunching: I’d like it if the players and GM could jump into play quickly, with minimal prep-work and fuss over characters. I would like the option of different races, backgrounds, and skill sets, but character generation should be simple and streamlined, especially for the GM. Quick, randomized character generation should be possible. Even the most complex character sheets should easily fit on a single sheet of paper, and reference tables should be kept to a minimum too – it’s not the end of the world if we miss a modifier or two. Encounter design should be simple and make fighting or diplomacy equally viable.

Medieval fantasy elements: The game should include a medieval European fantasy setting. I’m specifically interested in playable races such as elves and dwarves, and bird people (tengu in D&D) if not playable then as NPCs. Minimal prep-work is important here – I don’t want to invest a lot in adapting the RPG to fantasy or converting D&D material to the other game. Otherwise, I’d just adapt a game that I already like (e.g., Maid RPG) that satisfies the other requirements.

Regarding the setting support, ideally I would like an RPG with a D&D-like fantasy setting built-in, but would be content with an RPG that makes it really easy to import the setting, and would rather avoid RPGs that require significant conversion or toolkitting to get up to speed.

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locked by SevenSidedDie Jan 15 '17 at 20:47

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    \$\begingroup\$ Meta discussion here: meta.rpg.stackexchange.com/q/5108/8012 – short version, please be more specific about what you want to help narrow things down between things like retroclones, indie clones, older/newer editions of D&D, lightweight toolkit games, etc. \$\endgroup\$ – Bradd Szonye Oct 29 '14 at 0:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've deleted all answers due to the massive change to the question. I'm happy to undelete on a case by case basis as the answers answer the new question. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Oct 31 '14 at 22:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Note very well: Answers which simply espouse favourite systems (fate, DW, 5e, etc...) which do not specifically address all three criteria with good subjective answers will be deleted. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 1 '14 at 7:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Zibbobz, playable elves/dwarves? \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 6 '14 at 6:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BrianBallsun-Stanton Yes. And Tengu if possible, but I won't make that a requirement. I mostly just want at least one NPC who could be a Tengu. \$\endgroup\$ – Zibbobz Nov 6 '14 at 14:05
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Try Dungeon World. It's an adaptation of the Apocalypse World system, and is simple and rules-light. You can create characters quickly by checking off a few boxes. Dungeon World really provides the setting & narrative essence of classic fantasy adventure gaming, without all of the complex rules systems.

I've played it multiple times by sitting down with a group that included players new to the game, making characters and a setting on the fly, and playing through a simple story in a single evening. The game also supports campaign play and character advancement with a minimum of fuss.

Rules for conflict resolution are simple and uniform (you don't need different dice for each weapons, class, etc). You only need to roll for things that have narrative importance (up to the GM to adjudicate this). There is limitless of room for narrative freedom within the system, as most rolls will fit one of a few very broad categories. Failed rolls are sometimes a chance for GM creativity, rather than a halted story progression.

The rules aren't something you want to ignore, but you'll find far less temptation to do so than in a "crunchy" (lots of intricate rules) system like D&D/Pathfinder. You make some very quick rolls, then move on. Most of the table talk tends to stay with role-played dialog and narrated action, even in situations that involves lots of action and character challenges.

There isn't much much math or bookkeeping. Characters do have some resources, spells, and "moves" but it's child's play compared to D&D 3.5.

I don't think there are bird people specifically, but the other typical races and classes (elves, humans, dwarves, fighters, druids, etc) are present. You can probably fashion a bird person race by setting up some house rules for it. Once created, it should play as easily as the built-in races.

There's a tengu monster listed in Dungeon World here: http://codex.dungeon-world.com/monster/84001 but it doesn't sound like a playable bird person.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I came here to answer with Dungeon World. But I want to add a few notes: Do not mistake DW for d&d lite. Do not mistake the rules for suggestions. Do not think you already know how to play. Read the whole book. Follow the rules. Read other questions here for more info on how to grok Dungeon World. Read the guide too. It's a great game. It's just not the game you might think, and that it likes to present itself as. \$\endgroup\$ – gomad Oct 26 '14 at 21:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zibbobz - The only reward for roleplaying I can think you might be talking about is the bonds system - but that's just one way to earn XP at session end. Until you have read it, at least, I don't think it is constructive for us to argue about what you think it's flaws are in relation to your purpose. If you don't think it fits you, that is super ok with me, I'm not here to sell Dungeon World. But I think it's better if you zero in in your issues and post questions about them specifically. \$\endgroup\$ – gomad Oct 26 '14 at 22:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure dungeon world counts as "rules light" as it demands a high level of system mastery. Could you address that experience more? (Not simply with new players, but with very rules light players?) \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Oct 26 '14 at 23:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BrianBallsun-Stanton DW requires mastery of a much smaller set of rules. The system itself is more compact than the systems the Q discusses. And it demands mastery of different subsets for each player and the GM, dividing the labor, so to speak. \$\endgroup\$ – gomad Oct 27 '14 at 0:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ True, but I've normally found "rules light" to translate "Implement some of the rules, some of the time." \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Oct 27 '14 at 0:11
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I’ve successfully used Fate Accelerated Edition in a similar situation. My game group had been on hiatus for a while, I wanted to put together a session with very little time to prepare or teach a new RPG, and my players wanted to use the Shadowrun setting (which is similar in depth and complexity to D&D).

Mechanics: All actions in Fate determine outcome the same way. First, unless there’s something interesting or challenging about the action, you simply succeed. Otherwise, you roll Fate Dice and add a small bonus, which you compare to a fixed difficulty or an opponent’s roll. A single action is sufficient to overcome simple obstacles, and the game is set up so that you don’t get stuck – instead, the roll usually determines whether your victory is stylish or Pyrrhic.

More complex situations feature several actions or rounds of each character acting in turn. Physical, mental, and social situations all use the same mechanics. Instead, the rules differ according to whether the characters cooperate, compete, or directly oppose each other. The game offers guidelines to help you set up challenges, contests, and conflicts so that their complexity matches their importance.

Bookkeeping: Character “sheets” are literally two or three paragraphs and a handful of check boxes. Most non-player characters are even simpler. In play, you keep track of everything with a couple of index cards and a handful of tokens for each player. The game is set up so that all NPCs combined have about the same amount of detail and bookkeeping as a single PC, to keep the GM’s workload manageable.

Fate has no tables of modifiers. Instead, characters and situations have aspects that describe them briefly in pithy phrases. When aspects work in your favor, you get a small bonus (and you pay a token). When they work against you, additional complications arise (and you get a token).

Setting: Fate primarily uses aspects for setting detail, and because aspects are plain English descriptions, it’s easy to use Fate with any setting you like. For example, every character has a “High Concept” aspect that sums up your role in a single phrase or sentence. Want to make a chaotic neutral tengu thief? That’s a perfectly usable High Concept right there, or you can rephrase it to something a little more natural like “tengu thief, a lovable (but rebellious) rogue.” My group easily captured the flavor of Shadowrun without any conversion work necessary.

Caveats: Fate doesn’t lend itself well to random characters. The game works best when aspects have a good mixture of upside, downside, and flavor, which takes a bit of forethought and finesse. The game doesn’t require you to come up with a complicated backstory or anything, but it makes a lot more sense when your characters actually have some depth and character. While this hasn’t caused me any trouble with GM prep-work, it can be a stumbling block for new players. Likewise, the game can be tough to get into for players accustomed to choosing (or rolling) actions from a list of legal moves, as Fate usually only has a couple of relevant “moves” available. Most of the gameplay instead comes from creatively using the situation to your advantage – and creatively describing how you do it.

Extras: If you want a little more weight to your mechanics, you can use Fate Core System instead, which also features many worked examples in a swords & sorcery setting. Fate Worlds expands on that in the Tower of the Serpents mini-setting. The Fate System Toolkit shows how to tweak the game to your liking, including guidelines for more sophisticated magic systems. You could also check out the Dresden Files RPG for more examples of how to use Fate for a (modern) fantasy setting.

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I’m currently running the Tyranny of Dragons campaign for Dungeons & Dragons, 5th Edition. My experience so far has been that this new version of the game provides most of what you’re asking for, and the Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure shows how to do the rest. I’ve played every version of D&D since the late 1970s, and this edition compares favorably to the Moldvay and Cook boxed sets for simplicity and playability.

Mechanics: This is the first version of D&D to use the same dice mechanic for all actions with no tables of modifiers for class, special ability, attack type, skill, or situation. Instead, any time you have a significant advantage, you get a re-roll. You can get advantage tactically or mechanically as in most RPGs, but you can also get it narratively by impressing the other players with role-playing. The game also supports narrative play by encouraging DMs to use setbacks instead of failure when you roll poorly.

D&D also strives to balance the “three pillars of adventure”: exploration, social interaction, and combat. The basic rules set up physical combat as the most structured element of gameplay, but all of the pillars get about equal space in the rules – and their core rules are only a handful of pages each. That said, rulebook page counts aren’t the best way to see how a game plays out in practice. For that, I highly recommend the Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure. Its first episode alone shows three different ways to use physical conflict as a narrative backdrop for social interaction rather than as a structured activity in itself.

My favorite example involves a mission where the players help defend a keep from an attacking dragon, which is essentially impossible to beat in physical combat. Instead of playing out the battle round by round, the scenario instructs you to randomly determine how many defenders are killed outright by the dragon each time it passes. It also tells you the dragon’s motives so the characters can parley instead of fighting. In my game, I substituted Charisma (Persuasion) checks for attack rolls to win the conflict. When the players scored three “hits” via parley, the dragon accepted their request and left.

Bookkeeping: The game presents character creation as a handful of simple choices, most of them with a “quick build” option or a list of suggestions (laid out so that you can choose from them randomly). For example, the personality and background system gives you the option of random personality traits connected to your background – a criminal might “always have a plan for what to do when things go wrong” or might “blow up at the slightest insult.” It also greatly simplifies equipment and spell selection, which are historically two of the fussiest parts of D&D character creation. Characters easily fit on a single sheet of paper.

The game aims to limit how much DMs need to build and keep track of, so that you can focus on the parts that matter to you. I mentioned above how there are no more tables of modifiers and difficulty classes, just general rules and guidelines. Building NPCs is even simpler than PCs, as you just choose an archetype from an ample list and tweak it a bit if necessary. You needn’t fuss over NPC levels or equipment for game balance, as the game is designed to work in broad power tiers rather than ±1 differences and magical bonuses.

Setting: This is D&D, so you get the whole D&D medieval fantasy experience. But what’s especially nice is that because the designers have focused on content rather than mechanics for this edition, you get a lot of D&D here, without needing to wait for expansions and splatbooks. Tengu appear in the Monster Manual (as “kenku”), so they’ll require a little adaptation if you need a PC-playable version.

Caveats: You might be disappointed with the balance between physical combat and other pursuits if you go strictly by the rulebooks published so far, without also considering the published adventures. I know from my experience with Hoard of the Dragon Queen that you can peel the structure from the combat rules to make it more freeform, and that you can add it to social interaction to give it more mechanical depth if you want it. Historically, D&D has long relied on adventures to illustrate how to use the rules in practice, but I realize that many people aren’t comfortable with that approach, and it may be a deal-breaker.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I have to say, I have not played D&D seriously since the blue Expert Set; but I like everything I read about 5e, including the basic rules released so far. Replacing the huge number of modifiers with just (dis)advantage, reducing the vast differences between high and low levels, it all looks like I game I would play again. \$\endgroup\$ – gomad Oct 26 '14 at 22:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @gomad I started with Moldvay and Cook. D&D 5 isn't quite that simple! But I'd say that complexity is less than anything since AD&D 1 and the bookkeeping is better than any previous version of D&D. It might not be as light as Maid RPG, but I can't think of any game lighter than D&D 5 that gives you the full D&D experience. \$\endgroup\$ – Bradd Szonye Oct 26 '14 at 22:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ I still think this fails the unified resolution mechanic, but I'll let the votes determine that. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 6 '14 at 6:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BrianBallsun-Stanton I agree, it’s the weakest part of the answer on paper, but in play it worked out brilliantly, and that’s why I decided to keep the answer. For a GM who is happy with applying the rules when they help and ignoring them when they don’t, I think the Persuasion-as-attacks approach might be just right. (I honestly think the caveat in my FAE answer might be a bigger deal than this one, for that kind of GM.) \$\endgroup\$ – Bradd Szonye Nov 6 '14 at 7:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, this is the first D&D game where the attack rolls and ability checks work on exactly the same scale, with the same range of target numbers, so that you can plausibly substitute one for the other. In any other D&D it wouldn't work, although D&D 4 would come close (and its skill challenges tried). \$\endgroup\$ – Bradd Szonye Nov 6 '14 at 7:10
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Savage Worlds will do the trick. It is trad but rules light, like Maid or Paranoia - not storygame rules, but flexible resolution rules that easily get out of the way to facilitate narrative play. It has a single unified mechanic - you almost never need to do math, stats are measured in different dice, like you might have a d8 Agility, and you just roll vs a target number of 4. The digest-sized Savage Worlds Deluxe Explorer's Edition runs you $9.99 (print!).

While SW is genre-agnostic, there are a variety of fantasy settings for it. There's the sword-and-sorcery Legends of Steel, Hellfrost (Winter Is Coming!), Shaintar (high fantasy), Shattered Skies (sky-ships in a destroyed world), and the SW Fantasy Companion lets you build your own easily. See What fantasy setting for Savage Worlds? for more guidance on which is for you. There's a bunch of other settings and also a lot of player published conversions (including one of D&D directly).

My group has run two Savage Worlds campaigns - one using Legends of Steel and a custom one we called Empire of Ashes built using the Fantasy Companion. You can read some gameplay summaries on those links, also you can see what a character sheet looks like - simple one-pagers.

Heck, if you want you can reflect your character with a real short stat block like this character whose concept is "Sexy Tarzan" (not mine!):

Oka
Agility d8, Smarts d4, Spirit d8, Strength d8, Vigor d8
Climbing d4, Fighting d8, Guts d4, Healing d4, Intimidation d4, Notice d4, Stealth d6, Survival d4, Swimming d4, Throwing d4, Tracking d6
Pace 6, Parry 7 (with spear), Toughness 9, Charisma +2
Attractive, Sexy Armor, Improved Sexy Armor, Beastmaster, Heroic, Illiterate, Poverty
Spear: d8+d6, +1 parry, 1 reach

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This looks like a job for Dungeon World. It has you covered:

Flexible, Narrative Friendly Rules - Dungeon World runs on the "Apocalypse Engine" wherein everything is explicitly DESIGNED to feed into the narrative, and the rules are intentionally broad to allow for flexibility.

Minimal bookkeeping and number-crunching - Absolutely. Everything works on 2d6+stat, with the occasional modifier (it's EXTREMELY rare to even have +2 from outside your stat, so there aren't many numbers to keep track of.). Characters easily fit on a single sheet of paper, since the entire 'possibility set' for a character fits on two sheets, as a rule. GM characters essentially require no bookkeeping at all, as the only stat they ever need to track is HP. Edit: And as mentioned, things like "Adventuring Gear" and "Ammo" are tracked abstractly - you literally has an item called "Adventuring Gear, 5 uses" which has... adventuring stuff. When you decide you need a rope, your adventuring gear has rope in it. You write down rope, and reduce the uses on your adventuring gear. Ammo is only consumed when things go 'poorly', so the amount of tracking there is relatively low as well.

Medieval Fantasy Elements - This is what the game is all about; It's a single book (with additional online support) that also features a pretty good sized fantasy beastiary.

Really, I can't recommend this game enough.

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    \$\begingroup\$ How do you reconcile Dungeon World with ignorable rules? The rules aren't at all flexible. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 4 '14 at 21:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ I disagree; The rules are extremely flexible. And many of them are, essentially, ignorable because they are only invoked when the GM decides they should be. The only rules you can't ignore are the GM rules. \$\endgroup\$ – Airk Nov 4 '14 at 21:34
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I recommend FATE 2.0. It's a great system that meets all of the criterion you required and, better yet, is free. At the time of posting, you can find it here, on the publisher's site. It isn't specifically a medieval fantasy RPG but, as you will see if you read the short, 90 page complete rulebook, that's because the system is designed to work in any campaign setting/genre. It uses two, very similar, conflict resolution systems (for rolling against someone else, where their result is the 'DC' and rolling against the world, where the DM sets the 'DC') in which rolling is the same.

Because of the nature of the system, you will have to either do some adapting-like work (deciding what kingdoms go where and stating your own NPCs, as well as coming up with your own plot) or find an expansion book that specifically addresses the brand of Medieval fantasy you want (you can find several here but, unlike the system, I won't vouch for their quality, having always run my own), but even then you are likely to have to come up with your own dialogue and such. Few systems have stock campaigns quite so... scripted as D&D.

Edited for Clarification:

Flexible, narrative friendly rules

FATE 2.0 is a soft-rules system with one, unified conflict resolution system that scales with the importance of the task at hand in the desired manner. Most tests are single-roll events, but epic conflicts are more drawn out. Read the appropriate sections in the linked rulebook for more information.

Minimal Bookkeeping and Number-Crunching

The longest I've ever had a player's FATE character sheet be was three pages (after about a year long campaign). Most are half a page, including equipment of note and some notes about the character and the world. 7 is an incredibly large number in FATE and all the math involved is addition and subtraction over the integers.

Medieval Fantasy Elements

FATE, as mentioned above, is designed to be setting agnostic. This means if you were to run a medieval fantasy game in it, it would run equally as well as a sci-fi game, steampunk game, political thriller in Ancient Ur, or whatever else. In theory. In practice I have found it works best for settings with a decent amount of travelling, exploration, and weird stuff (e.g. magic). When you play a medieval fantasy game in FATE 2.0 (which I do quite often) you are not adapting or remaking the system, you are using it as intended. Indeed, several of the example characters in the rulebook come from just such a setting and race is a suggested aspect. The sample skill list they walk you through the creation of is also for a medieval fantasy game (albeit an urban one with a political focus) and their example skill system outline in general is definitely tuned to a medieval fantasy game. However, because the game does not have a default setting, you are not provided with maps, interwoven political kingdoms, a monster manual, or anything like that in the core rulebook, and this might be more work than someone accustomed to D&D would be willing to put up with. I recommend strongly that you develop your campaign and characters on your own and stat them out as necessary (which is what the rulebook will also instruct you to do with slightly more structure, when you read the relevant sections), but if you really don't want to do that you can acquire such materials from the listed sources.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This seems to be attracting both a lot of upvotes and a lot of downvotes. If you're doing either it'd be great if you could leave a comment as to why, so I can improve my ability to provide good answers. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Nov 5 '14 at 3:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree; FATE is settings-agnostic enough to handle even downright weird settings: examples include modern-fantasy/reverse-fantasy and other types of "worlds collide" games. You do have to invent much of the setting yourself, but this can be a blessing in disguise, as it allows you to pull together whatever you need to make your game work, whether it be giving a dragon a pilot's license or making spaceship shields serve as collision deflectors! \$\endgroup\$ – Shalvenay Nov 5 '14 at 5:06
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Coming at this late to the party- but I'd recommend Dragon Warriors (Dave Morris). Elegant, fast mechanics and in my opinion the best mythic / medieval fantasy Europe setting ever written (Legend).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi Cormac, welcome to rpg.se. It would be more helpful if you could explain the reasoning behind your suggestion. Answers here are expected to be more than just opinion. \$\endgroup\$ – edgerunner Jan 15 '17 at 18:57
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I would recommand you to have a look to 'The One Ring' which can maybe interest you.

  • It is quite light on rules (not minimalist, but quite easy to grasp). It is based on attributes and skills:

When you make a roll, you roll the Feat die plus a number of Success dice equal to the skill you’re using, add up all the numbers shown and compare it to the Target Number of the action (typically 14).
...
There are a few more twists too, such as carefully preparing for an action beforehand or cooperating with your companions, but perhaps the most evocative thing a player can do is to spend a point of Hope, allowing them to potentially turn a failure into a success.

There are special dices that brings some interesting subtleties but can been seen as a drawback. In the first edition the rules are too much scattered around.

  • Rules are adapted toward travels and narration. There are interesting rules (better than random encounters) to manage journeys, there is a community phase that take place after the adventures. The adventures are themselves not so epic: it is more about the atmosphere, the feelings and the discovery of old ruins.

  • The settings, well it is the Lord of the Ring, but the base book is closer to the Hobbit than the LotR epic.

There is one point this game won't address is the magic system. No fireball, no powerful wizards here: the magic available to the player is near to nothing. It is closer to special abilities than real spells (night vision for dwarves, hides in the shadows for Hobbits, ...).

The good point is that it is removing a lot of bookkeeping !

You should read some reviews it can really be the game you are looking at, except if you can't stand Tolkien's world.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Could you discuss your experiences when playing it, perhaps on your bullets talking about how they helped you with the narrative? \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 4 '14 at 11:52

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