The Gassy Gnoll: Free RPG Day 2011 and Ruminations on Rules-Light Roleplaying

Did everybody have a chance to participate in Free RPG Day at their local game retailer? I managed to tear myself away from my daughter’s softball double-header to briefly drop by Petrie’s Family Games, my closest game store. Though I wasn’t able to participate in any of the events, they had a full calendar throughout the day and had a pretty good turnout as these pictures attest… Lots of smiles around those tables!

I was happy to be able to stop by and pick up some of the materials available from participating publishers. My haul of loot included:

  • A Day Late, a Shilling Short from Games Workshop for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
  • A Nightmare at Hill Manor from White Wolf for the World of Darkness
  • Arcanis: The World of Shattered Empires – Fast Play from Paradigm Concepts
  • Aspect: Here There Be Dragons from Stone Tablet Games
  • Black Crusade: Broken Chains from Fantasy Flight Games and Games Workshop for Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay
  • Castles & Crusades: 2011 Quick Start Rules from Troll Lord Games
  • d12 Unique Elven Dice from
  • Deathwatch: Final Sanction from Fantasy Flight Games and Games Workshop for Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay
  • Domain of Dread: Histaven from Wizards of the Coast for Dungeons & Dragons
  • Dragon Age: Quickstart Guide from BioWare, EA, and Green Ronin
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG: Adventure Starter from Goodman Games
  • Hollow Earth Expedition: Free RPG Day Adventure 2011, which doesn’t tell me anything about the company that produces the game
  • Legacy of Disaster from AEG for Legend of the Five Rings
  • Pathfinder Module: We Be Goblins! from Paizo for the Pathfinder RPG
  • The Waking Dead from Eden Studios for All Flesh Must Be Eaten

So first, I have to give a shout out to Cameron at Petrie’s Family Games and all of the publishers who participated. Like most gamers, I love free stuff especially when it’s cool. And this gives me a great opportunity to dive into some games that I wouldn’t normally. I will eventually post mini-articles on some of these freebies to point out some of the insights they give me into how the games work and how the publishers operate.

(BTW, if you didn’t have a chance to grab these at your local store, it seems you can download most of them as PDFs – check out the excellent list at Kaijuville for links!)

The Castles & Crusades logo

Image via Wikipedia

Second, let’s get to the rules-light ruminations part of the equation…

I love gaming in all its myriad forms. One way or another I’ve been playing card games, board games, computer games, or roleplaying games for probably 90% of my lifetime. Pretty much ever since I was able to read and count, I’ve been playing something or another.

That said, though I cut my RPG teeth on 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons as a lad, I tend to have better luck with games that offer simple rules that gain depth with additional understanding. D&D, love it or hate it, opened an interesting Pandora’s Box of rules complexity – the ripples of which I think I’m only starting to understand now. The entire OSG movement seems to lend itself to this sort of approach – from Castles & Crusades to Hackmaster – it really gets back to the number crunching, crowded character sheets of those heady days.

But these days I tend to gravitate more towards rules light games… Games like Zombie Cinema from Arkenstone, which combines RPG elements with board game elements… Games like BADASS and Warrior, Rogue and Mage from Stargazer Games, which reduce character creation and task/combat resolution to simple easy to learn mechanics… Games like Cthulhu Dark, which reduces the rules down to the front and back of a single 8 1/2 x 11″ piece of paper for Lovecraftian adventures…

Is it because I’m getting older and simply don’t have time to dive into more complex games? Or is it that I’m gravitating towards more streamlined mechanics so I can focus more on roleplaying than roll-playing? I’d like to think it’s the latter, but suspect it’s a bit of both. Occasionally a three hour battle in a D&D 3.5e campaign is great. And I recall playing for 12 hours straight in a Ninjas & Superspies campaign where I swear we had a 4 hour car chase scene… But these days I’m more about telling stories than combat, which lends itself to a smaller toolbox than I’d need for something like D&D.

What brings all of this up?

Well, perusing all the cool goodies from Free RPG Day made me realize that some of the systems, such as Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay are a bit more complex than I’m looking for, but that I found myself strangely attracted to the World of Darkness system from White Wolf and the Dragon Age system from Green Ronin. Does this mean that I won’t enjoy diving into those other books? Heck no. It just means that when I look at something as potentially playable, I’m looking at it from a slightly different angle than I would have 10 or 20 years ago.

So riddle me this… As gamers new to the hobby or gamers who have been around for a while, what do you look for in a system? Or does the system not really matter? This Gassy Gnoll would really like to know!

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16 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: Free RPG Day 2011 and Ruminations on Rules-Light Roleplaying

  • I’m sticking with the system doesn’t matter to newbies. If they want to join, two things will happen: they will make the effort to learn and the GM will make the effort to make it easy for them to learn, either by phasing in elements over the course of play or doing a lot of the legwork on their behalf.

    There are also the players who never, ever learn the system in question, but even to them, the system doesn’t matter, so it all works out.

    • Fitz

      @Tyler – Good points about the system not really mattering for newbies. Hadn’t quite thought about it from that perspective. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for sharing that point!

  • richard

    i look for a system and/or setting i feel comfortable with.
    like you, i’m an old-school gamer and started out in the mid 70’s with D&D, and have just run the gauntlet since. i stumble upon a few systems that look interesting, and i give them a try. though i’m not fond of “heavy” rules systems, like easy or “Role,” not “Roll,” driven systems (not wild about those systems that feel more like a min’s game than an RPG). one system i DM right now i joke that i can teach any member of congress how to play in about 20 minutes, and i like that. i run on a limited coin, so i have to be careful what i pick up. so far i cannot complain.

    with many of the systems
    from FRPGD, it’s a hit or miss. take the fast-play rules and try them all out, you never know what you’ll like. if you find something that sparks your interst, look to see if there are older fast-play’s out there (just to double check) or find their online Forum and ask about.

    good luck in your hunt.

    and FYI; Hollow Earth Expeditions is produced by Exile Game Studios ( small company, slow to produce books, but they are usually good quality.
    Pathfinder is basically D&D3.65 edition. good job, well written. i prefer it over 4E. and the Goblins adventure is just toooo fun!

    • Fitz

      @richard – Thanks. And I think you’re right on the money. 20 minutes is a good limit for teaching a new system. I’ll have to keep that in mind when I try and teach my kids how to roleplay. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks for the info on Exile Game Studios btw!

      • richard

        most of my kids are grown and living their own lives now, but i started teaching them around 12-13 (with “basic D&D”). give ’em a feel for RPG’s. my current addiction is Hollow Earth, and the back joke behind that 20 minute/congress line (it was actually the 2008 FRPGD module that got me interested in it). but i think there are a LOT of good systems that have a real simple basic understanding, and then a smooth learning curve. just find a setting that inspires you first, then go from there. that’s what i do. good hunting ๐Ÿ™‚

        • Fitz

          @richard – Thanks for the encouragement. Both my girls love reading and telling stories, so I think they’re ready to start some minor roleplaying. I want to check out RPGKids as a simple system to start with and we’ll see where we go from there. Best of luck with Hollow Earth – I may have to check that out! ๐Ÿ™‚

          • richard

            true story. my oldest son (who is now on deployment in afghanistan) had an expressive/communicative problem, diagnosed Pre-K. all through school 1/2 mainstream/half special ed. reading was his big problem (comprehension he was great at). when we started on RPG’s, i would help him read the rules. finally i got irritated with him constantly coming to me and asking “what does this say” and i said “read it yourself! you have a book, use it.” it worked, his interest in RPG’s sparked him to read more, and by the time he graduated high school, he was mainstreamed completely. my wife, who is a teacher, credits RPG’s with helping spark his drive to overcome his problems.

            as for your girls, GOOD LUCK! i still have a young daughter in the house and she is every bit the handful BOTH her brothers were! and she’s already asking when she can start playing in “daddy’s games” (at 7). she knows that reading is the key, so she practices constantly. (my daughter) loves superheroes, so i may introduce her to BASH!, which is a rules-lite superhero RPG. find a good combination of interst and rules-lite for your youngsters and they will run over you in time. have fun and good luck.

  • Maybe I read it wrong but it seems like you deemed Castles & Crusades as a more rules heavy, crowded character sheet type game? Castles & Crusades was the spearhead of the OSR movement and is one of the most rules light games out there : o

    Anyways, to answer your question, I look for a balance. A game with streamlined mechanics that can be as complex or shallow as I would like it to. Most editions of D&D do this for me, other than 4th which i just too awkward a version of D&D for me to enjoy anymore.

    • Fitz

      @Ozreth – I don’t mean to offend anybody, but I see Castles & Crusades more like D&D 2e, which was a bit rules heavy to my way of thinking. That doesn’t mean that it’s not a great game, just that that’s my perception of the game having not played it. I have the Castle Keeper’s Guide here to dive into, but it doesn’t dissuade me at nearly 300 pages from thinking that it’s a bit heavier than most.

      I definitely agree with you about D&D 4e, which seems to want to replicate playing a form of World of Warcraft in a tabletop RPG. And balance is something to strive for – something easy to learn, fun to play, and hard to master. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • richard

        RE: 4E D&D.
        i think the system is good, and it works well for many of the young gamers but it just feels like a video game more than a “role” game to me, and that’s a shame. when people ask my opinion on it, i do give it a positive review, but i usually include the caveat that i’m an old school gamer, been playing since the mid 70’s and i own every version of D&D EVER produced (purchased by me, new off the shelf), but i do not own any of the 4E materials (beyond demo/FRPGD materials). it’s just not my gig. i usually turn and point them toward PATHFINDER, which is a nice continuation of the D&D line…

  • I like cinematic role playing and I prefer game systems that don’t get in their own way of themselves and the story. I recommend Primetime Adventures and Dread but lately my friends and I can’t get enough of Zombie Cinema and Fiasco. Both are GMless, one shots, require no preparation and it’s a very different scenario and characters each time it’s played. Great pickup games or introductions to newbies. Fiasco has a ton of playsets and each time I’ve played it (3x), the story and scenes just fell together effortlessly. There was no wondering what should happen next, and some how scenes even frequently fore shadowed future events. We’d all sit in amazement after each game, remarking on how everything fit together so well.

    • Fitz

      @Shannon – That’s awesome. I was just trying to explain story games to a friend of mine on another board… The idea that it encourages cooperative roleplaying and storytelling is awesome! Thanks for bringing them up!

  • Although we loved playing rules-heavy systems when we first started, I think the majority of our group are trending into more rules-light,
    narrative-based systems these days. It’s still fun to roll a fistful of dice, though.

    As much as I love 40K I’m not sure I want to play in a whole campaign using the 40K roleplay rules as they are. Like you, I’m really digging Dragon Age, and I’m grateful for the opportunity these publishers have given us to test drive the rules and kick the tires.

    Thanks for the shout-out!

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