27 February 2010: Rules-light and other RPGs

Furry fantasyIn my previous blog post, I discussed the one-shots and miniseries that I’ve participated in with other Boston-area gamers. As I noted, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D4e) is still the most popular role-playing game (RPG), but recent trends include the digitization of social games, the “retro-clone reaction, and the rules-light movement. Fellow blogger Ken G. has discussed similar phenomena in computer games.

Some hobby observers predict that emerging tools such as laptops, smartphones, micropayments, and modular programs will displace and replace conventional dice, miniatures, and Game Masters. Multiplayer online games (MMOs) have undeniably increased in popularity, but board games and face-to-face RPGs have retained their appeal, and grognards (old-school gamers) have kept up with Web publishing even as they look back to 25-year-old books.

To follow a software analogy, Wizards of the Coast’s D&D4e is like Microsoft’s Windows — ubiquitous, restrictively licensed, and overloaded with features. The “rules-lite” movement is an attempt to create and use rules sets like Linux that take less time to learn and teach (and being fan-written, often free). As with some retro-clones, the hope is to find systems that facilitate collaborative storytelling and evoke a certain mood or style.

Based on my own history with past editions of D&D, I like the retro-clones Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy RPG, and the rules-light MicroLite20, which is a condensation of the D20 Open Game License. Smart game producers often publish “quick-start” guides, such as GURPS 4e Lite, Savage Worlds “Test Drive v6,” and the upcoming D&D4e boxed set.

New and promising games are still being published in book form. Where D&D4e arguably took some terminology and concepts from miniatures skirmish, collectible card, and MMO games, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play Third Edition combines board games and role-playing. Unfortunately, its high initial price tag may discourage people from trying it.

I recently picked up the beautifully produced Shard fantasy game, which features anthropomorphic animals rather than the usual Tolkienesque races — not unlike last year’s award-winning Mouse Guard RPG — and Eclipse Phase, a “transhuman” science fiction game. While I don’t think I’ll be able to get my current gamers to try these rule sets (although Josh C.’s group just expressed interest in having me run Shard), I’m sure they’ll provide much inspiration for my campaigns.

Coming soon: Avatar review and science fiction RPGs!