In this new golden age of RPGs, fans are eschewing the complicated, top-heavy systems of recent years for an old school feel. Some blame “Fourth Edition D&D,” which by any account is a cross between a tabletop RPG and MMO. Other systems, even those from the olden days like “Talislanta,” erred on the side of long character creation procedures. “Rolemaster” had obligatory critical hit tables that ran on for yards.
White Wolf games, with its supposed emphasis on “storytelling,” generally tends to be a matter of the game master telling the story that the players must follow, rather than a group effort of creating an exciting tale. Your mileage may vary. In any case, the game seems to top-heavy with flowery prose that the self-indulgent aspect of it is difficult to wade through.
Whatever the individual reason, the rules systems that have come out from around the early 90s until now have often been overly complex. Enter the old school renaissance. These folks have been recreating early editions of “D&D” from the original 1974 game to various versions of “Basic” to “First Edition AD&D.” The intent is to capture the sense of wonder and simplicity that those games embodied.
Some would argue that the first edition of “AD&D” itself was overly complex. A run through the various Gygaxian sections of the DMG will bear this out: there were rules for obtaining parasitic infections, rules for determining the ear and mandible type of the hordes from the Abyss and even a rather lengthy table for determining what kind of prostitute one might encounter!
But while other early versions of “D&D” certainly fit the bill, there are other games from then and now that really allow for a rules lite experience. These “transparent” systems make the rules all but invisible – but still cover most situations that may come up in game.
We will take a look at these systems that encourage ease of play and little need to reference the rules at the game table. Note that we will not consider games that are so light on rules that they cause more frustration than they save.
One of the earliest and still one of the best, Chaosium released the latest version of their system in the “big gold book” of 2008. The system started with RuneQuest and continued with “Call of Cthulhu,” both of which started in the 1970s. Chaosium also released games based on Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, as well as a supers game and some wacky science fantasy titles.
The big gold book is an amalgam of multiple genres spanning the many different settings that Chaosium have covered over the years in separate games. Truly an all-in-one, “BRP” has a generic skills-based rules set that is easy to use and apply to any game. Certain skills might not be appropriate for certain settings, but it’s easy to leave out computer and piloting skills for a fantasy game.
The game has no classes or levels. You improve your individual skills when you successfully use them on an adventure. While all of the standard polyhedral dice are used in the game, all skill resolution is based on d%. A skill of 36 in archery, for example, gives you a 36% chance to hit a target. The difficulty of the specific situation can modify this chance greatly. And if you use the skill successfully at least once on an adventure, you have a chance to increase its rating.
Apart from the generic chapters like character creation, combat and spot rules (rules for specific things like drowning or car chases) the book has five “powers” chapters for anything genre-based that your character can do. There are two magic options called magic and sorcery, and there is a chapter on super powers. You may use mutations, which correspond to physical mutations in TSR’s “Gamma World,” and you may use psychic powers, which correspond to “Gamma World’s” mental mutations or psi powers like using “the force” or a Vulcan mind meld. Each of these chapters can be ignored as your game requires.
The creatures section is pretty good for real-world animals and fantasy types, though it is a little thin on sci-fi. Otherwise, the book is quite good, and once you get the hang of skill resolution and opposed checks, you’re good to go. Since you needn’t wade through all of the nonsense of class-based RPGs, “BRP” makes for a smooth gaming experience.
The only thing that seemed to be missing from this product was a list of advantages and disadvantages, like in “GURPS” or the “Hero System.” The powers chapters can approximate these fairly well, though none of them use the same currency, and only the supers chapter uses any kind of points. Still, if you count on supers “character point” as 10 skill points, and pay special attention to the power “super attribute,” a conversion system works itself out on its own. 9 out of ten stars.
TSR came up with this lovely gem in 1982 and released the (essential) expansion called “Knight Hawks” in 1984. As a companion to the 1982 “Alpha Dawn” rules, “Knight Hawks” introduced actual rules for designing and running spaceships and space travel. “Alpha Dawn” left out any crunchy material for space battles and the like, but had a very workable chargen section with original alien races, as well as a complete equipment section and details for the default setting.
Also a game with no classes and no levels, “SF” uses a fast and loose XP mechanic to allow ability scores, skills and racial abilities to advance at a reasonable rate. The Referee may alter this rate by awarding more or less XP.
The creatures section was a little thin on entries but the chapter gave a very simple and quick system for making your own. As for game mechanics, “SF” used a d% mechanic but used d10s to determine things like weapon damage. The occasional d5 was used as well.
The feel of “SF” was a lot like “Basic RolePlaying” but characters were a little more constrained with essentially three broad profession groups: military, technological and bio-social. A much-maligned expansion, “Zebulon’s Guide to the Galaxy,” offered a different take on professions and task resolution, as well as some new races and equipment. However, much of the charm and simplicity of the original game is gone in “Zebulon’s.”
The game is long out of print. There were some metal ship minis made for it but the cardboard counters that come with both sets do a fine job. The maps are also excellent quality. “Star Frontiers” is almost like a lite sci-fi “BRP” game, and for that it deserves a high rating. The way that sub-skills are broken down for different tasks like changing a robots mission vs. repairing or programming one is nice touch. 8.5 out of 10 stars.
Steve Jackson’s Warren Spektor outdid himself with this one. The D6 engine allows you to play any sort of cartoon character you like, as long as it’s wacky! Note that these are not the serious animated shows like “Gargoyles” or “G.I. Joe.” Instead, they are kin to “Bugs Bunny,” “Woody Woodpecker” and “Heckel and Jeckel.”
You get four stats – Zip, Smarts, Muscle and Chutzpah. And Shticks! Shticks let you do things like fly, change shape, pick up enormous objects or move very fast. You can even have temporary shticks for the length of one adventure. Skills are tied to the four stats and include things like “pick up heavy thing” and “resist fast talk.”
The rules are fast and loose, and the whole point of the game is to have fun. Don’t worry about winning or improving your character! With just a few throws of 2D6, you can recreate the adventures of your favorite old-school “cartoon” cartoons. “Tom and Jerry,” eat your heart out! 10 out of 10 stars.
Not to be confused with other versions of “Basic D&D,” this was the 1981 release. There were only ever the two boxed sets, taking you up to level 14. Old timers will remember “The Keep on the Borderlands” and the “Isle of Dread.”
In this system, you only really had four classes; cleric, fighter, magic-user and thief. Elf, Dwarf and Halfling were also classes as well as races. The Elf was essentially a fighter/magic-user while the Dwarf and Halfling were basically fighters with unique racial abilities.
The rules were very simple compared to any other edition of the game save for other “Basic” sets. For those who grew up on 3rd or 4th edition, it is hard to say just how delightfully simple the “B/X” system really is. Those who cannot get a hold of a copy should try either “Labyrinth Lord” (a faithful rendition) or my personal favorite, “Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS).” Each requires only one or two books and will give you endless fun. For ACKS, you will probably want the “ACKS Player’s Companion.” 9.5 out of 10 stars.
Marvel Super Heroes
TSR took some ideas from Mayfair Games’ “DC Heroes” and simplified them to make a game that is almost criminally easy to play. Don’t look for the rules to simulate reality on any level – but they do a great job of simulating comic book reality. The universal table is used for any sort of task resolution, and character stats are given in terms of superlatives like Good, Excellent, Remarkable, Incredible, etc.
It’s a lot of fun to say that The Thing hits Rhino for Monstrous damage, while Spider-man uses his Amazing agility to dodge a bullet from a thug. Rhino’s Incredible body armor may absorb much of the blow, but The Thing has wrestling talent – and with Spidey having trussed up the thugs with his trusty webbing, it’s now two on one!
The rules are actually explained by the characters themselves. Spidey takes you through most of the Basic Book, while The Thing handles the remainder. When we get to the Campaign Book we find Spider-man once again at the helm with the able assistance of The Watcher, Beast and Mr. Fantastic. Dr. Doom even gets in on the act, telling us all about villains!
The character creation system is fairly easy to use and allows for most concepts. The 1984 release was followed by a 1986 “Advanced Set” that was both great and cumbersome. 1994 saw a new “Basic Set” that took some of the best ideas from both and found a happy medium. Sadly, only the original game, which was simply called “Marvel Superheroes Roleplaying Game,” had the Marvel characters introducing the game to the reader. Still a great system. 9 out of 10 stars.
Lords of Creation
Tom Moldvay’s magnum opus, “Lords of Creation” offers a way for ordinary people to achieve the status of demigods. On the way to becoming Lords of Creation themselves, the characters will encounter some very powerful beings, plus a whole slew of genre mashup friends and foes.
The cover art does a fantastic job of capturing the inter-dimensional feel of the game. It depicts two characters emerging from a fantasy world onto a cratered moon. In the background, seen through the rainbow portal, a dragon chases them. Behind the dragon can be seen a castle in a grassy field under a clear blue sky. In the foreground, robots stand guard in front of a flying saucer.
The rules use a D20 as well as a D6 and a D10. Abilities can be improved well above human norms; you are trying to become a Lord of Creation, after all! And your Luck score serves primarily as a universal saving throw.
The skills and powers system may be somewhat generic and arbitrary, but the tone of the rules makes it almost impossible to get stuck for long on a point. The game encourages fast and loose play and judgement calls on the fly
Perhaps most intriguing is Moldvay’s familiarity with literary and mythical source material. You will find everything from characters in the poetry of William Blake to Cyrano de Bergerac in the “Book of Foes.” Pantheons from almost any culture are there, as are monsters from a surprising variety of sci-fi, fantasy and historical settings. The creature descriptions are fairly simple but inspiring, and it is easy to get lost in the story to the point where you don’t even notice the rules. 9 out of 10 stars.
Many of the games mentioned here have a variety of supplements, but the only ones needed to play are the ones mentioned in the article. Other games surely deserve to be on this list, particularly “The Fantasy Trip.” These are one man’s personal favorites. Check them out and decide on your own!
Basic RolePlaying offers an almost purely skill-based system that uses a simple d% resolution mechanic. The same rules power Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest. The result is a game without classes or levels.
Very much like Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying in that d% skills are used, Star Frontiers contained original aliens and a very solid set of rules. While there were no rules in the first set for making and running spaceships or spaceship combat, Knight Hawks handled those things admirably.
Steve Jackson’s Greg Costikyan outdid himself. What could be simpler or more fun than being a cartoon? Try not to Fall Down too often; it could really mess up your chance to…oh, never mind! Who wants to win anyway?
Basic D&D Moldvay
This is the first of two books in the B/X D&D game. It covered levels 1-3 while the Expert Set covered levels 4-14. The Basic book is by Moldvay while the expert book is by Cook and Marsh.
This is TSR’s first crack at the Marvel Superheroes Role-playing game, and is in many ways still the best. Down and dirty, no frills, get-started-in-no-time rules made it fun. The writing approach made the game instantly accessible to comics fans.
Lords of Creation
Possible Tom Moldvay’s magnum opus, Lords of Creation allowed for a very free form sort of gallivanting across time and space. Characters were on a quest to become demigods called Lords of Creation.