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Suggestion Pot: Game Suggestions

Last month, one of our readers, bonao94 made a suggestion [1]A round-up of awesome and/or innovative indie RPGs from the last few years that people who are trying to broaden their role-playing horizons should try out.  

Being the most System Promiscuous [2] Gnome in the Stew, I thought I would pick a few of my favorite games to share. I am always hesitant about the term “Indie” when it comes to RPG’s, since there is no single definition of what is indie and what is not. So I made some selections that are from smaller game companies, several of which could be considered “indie”.

The games I have selected are personal favorites of mine. I picked each because of their mechanics as well as their impact of how I GM and how I play RPG’s.The brief descriptions of these games will hopefully do them justice, and are totally biased by my own enjoyment of them.

Conspiracy X 1.0

Publisher: Eden Studios

Mechanics: Conspiracy X (version 1.0) has one of the most unforgiving combat systems I have ever played. The rules are simple and it plays fast, but it can rack up the body count for those who are careless. It does bring a realistic gravity to the combat. The real joy of the combat system comes from the unarmed combat rules, which may be one of the most exciting HTH systems I have ever played. It allows for characters to build combos like: block-grab-throw,  punch-grab-choke, or my favorite: punch-punch-punch. Combined with the brutality of the combat system it makes for very exciting and gritty combat.

The other mechanical delight to this game is the psionic system. Rather than rely on die rolls, the system uses Zener Cards [3]. To accomplish a psionic challenge, the GM draws one or more Zenner Cards and the player has to guess the shape on one of the cards. The mechanic is well tied to the setting, and fun to run.

GMing: ConX taught me a lot about pacing, in terms of how to write and run a Conspiracy (see Story Pacing: The Carter Way [4]). It also taught me how to craft a story without relying heavily on combat, since combats were so dangerous and best used for pivotal moments.

Iron Heroes

Publisher: Malhavoc Press and then Fiery Dragon [5]

Mechanics: In the time between D&D 3.5 and 4.0, Mike Mearls and Monte Cook created a low-magic, fantasy game using the OGL: Iron Heroes. In many ways Iron Heroes was a warm-up for what Mearls would do in D&D 4.0 with the martial classes. First, each class has a specific martial style, and a token based power system that encourages playing that fighting style for the class. Second, are the feats and the expanded mastery. These feats allow for a character to develop a specific style based on a weapon or technique by taking more advanced versions of many of the common feats (Cleave), and by taking feats based on specific weapons (Trident Mastery).

In the Mastering Iron Heroes book, Mearls revealed real genius with the creation of Zones, areas on the battlefield which had mechanics tied to them, allowing a GM to create vibrant and interactive battlefields. He also introduced Villain classes, which were wonderful shortcuts for creating complex NPC’s.

GMing: What I learned from Iron Heroes was how to set the stage for combat. Through the use of Zones, I learned to decorate a location with exciting and interactive elements to make the location an integral part of combat. Gone were the plain 30×30 rooms, and in their place were rooms with brazers to be kicked over, tapestries to pull down on opponents, and mystical altars which randomly discharged magical bolts of energy.

As a note, the Villain classes where also my inspiration for my own Wireframes and Skins [6] article.

Burning Wheel

Publisher: Burning Wheel [7]

Mechanics: Burning Wheel is a very mechanic heavy game, with separate sub-systems for various in-game activities that all operate around a central task resolution mechanic. For me, there were several eye-opening features in the game that I had not experienced before. The most profound was the Social Combat rules, which is one of my favorite parts about the game.

Another key, if not central part of the game, are the Beliefs and Instincts rules. Beliefs are created by the player and used by the GM to drive the game into a place where the player’s beliefs are challenged, bringing growth both mechanically and through the character. Instincts are awesome If..Then statements which also help to drive a story along. Armed with the list of a groups Beliefs and Instincts, a GM can create very dramatic plots, with ease.

GMing: One of the best things that I ever lifted from Burning Wheel was the concept of framing success and failure in challenges to create consequences. For instance, a thief picking a lock makes a lockpicking roll. In a mainstream game that roll would be to pick the lock (success) or not (failure). In BW, that very roll can be framed as: pick the lock before the guard rounds the corner (success) or pick the lock after the guard rounds the corner (failure). In the latter example the lock is going to be picked, but the success or failure has other consequences in the story. I have carried that concept into every game I have run since. I speak more about this in my article How to Make Skill Checks Not Suck [8].

Houses of the Blooded/Blood and Honor

Publisher: John Wick Presents [9]

Mechanics: Houses of the Blooded, and its Samurai counterpart Blood and Honor, has a great mechanic for determining the outcome of a Risk (challenge). In a Risk the player is rolling for privilege to narrate the outcome of the challenge. If the player wins the challenge, they then assume narrative control, and based on how successful they were on their roll they can further embellish the scene through Effects. In addition, when the player wins narrative control they can decide if their character succeeded or failed, based on what is more interesting.

The mechanic also allows players to make declarative statements, on the fly, about the game. For example: A body is found on the floor. One player examines the body, wins the Risk challenge and gains privilege. They then state: the person was killed by a blade, from a person who is left handed, and that person jumped out the window to escape. Because they won privilege, that is what happened, and the GM and other players have to roll with it.

GMing: B&H taught me how to adapt a story on the fly, and how to create complications for my players to make a story better. There is a very different kind of prep you do for a session, when your players can declare a statement and take the game into a new direction with every Risk. It becomes more about setting up interesting situations and then hanging on to see where the players will drive it.


Publisher: Bully Pulpit Games [10]

Mechanics: For a full description of Fiasco, I will defer to my own review of Fiasco [11], some actual play [12] and the Fiasco Companion [13]. Fiasco is an incredible game for collaborative storytelling. It’s mechanics are fairly simple, but very smart. The mechanics of the game are there to establish the setting, determine the outcomes of scenes, to shake up the story, and to determine its final conclusion. While that sounds like a lot of control, it turns out that it is very light handed on directing the details of the story. The mechanics are more of a gentile guide that points the direction, but gets out of the way for the group to create the action.

GMing: There is no real GM in Fiasco, but through playing the game I have learned quite a bit about collaborative storytelling: how to create opportunities for other players, how to build off of someone else’s ideas, and how to put my own characters in harms way for the betterment of a story. In many ways this overlaps with Houses of the Blooded, but both games play very differently.

Try ‘Em If You Like

So those are my suggestions. Five games that I have loved and have inspired me through their mechanics and through GMing them. Pieces of each of these games have worked their way into my GMing DNA, and have a large part in what makes me the GM I am today.

How about the rest of you? What games would you suggest to bonao94? What games are critical elements in your GMing DNA?

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Suggestion Pot: Game Suggestions"

#1 Comment By Tsenn On November 18, 2011 @ 6:05 am

Apocalypse World gets my vote. The mechanics emphasise consequences and scarcity of choice. You can do what you want, but you may not like what you get – even on a successful roll. The advice for the MC (GM) is clear to the point of being strict, but it does an excellent job of allowing players to drive the story while retaining the element of tension.

#2 Comment By DNAphil On November 18, 2011 @ 6:10 am

@Tsenn — Great suggestion. I reviewed AP last year: [14] and it is a great game, and has some brillant insights on GMing.

#3 Comment By fogrob On November 18, 2011 @ 7:54 am

I’d like to be the 3rd to suggest AP. Mouseguard is also a good choice if you’d like a taste of Burning Wheel mechanics without all the complexity.

#4 Comment By Norcross On November 18, 2011 @ 8:21 am

Conspiracy X (v1) is my favorite system ever. The skill system was great also – if one character had a higher skill level than another, that character was very much better at the skill.

The best part was the “pulling strings”, though – they made a character feel real. For example, being a policeman didn’t give you higher driving and shooting skills, like in most systems – it let you arrest people, call for backup when you are in trouble, etc. Finally a system where being a research scientist was a viable character option!

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On November 18, 2011 @ 9:01 am

I love Fiasco! (and didn’t expect to do so, at least, not so much with such an “at first sight” factor) but I don’t think it brings anything at all to the GM, at least, not the experienced GM. There is more to be learned in that game for the non-GM player – how not to hog the limelight, how to make good RP opportunities for each other and so forth.

I recently played in a game of Fiasco! with three, then another with four others and observed in a post-mortem that the three player session had zinged whereas the four-player one had dragged. One of my co-players made the interesting observation that the three-player game had involved only GMs whereas the four player one had been a mix, and he made a persuasive case that *that* had been the major factor – the GMs being more improv-agile, more “giving” and less spotlight-phillic than the non-GMs.

Your mileage may vary of course.

#6 Comment By Roxysteve On November 18, 2011 @ 9:09 am

I rather liked the Dresen Files mechanics (based on FATE but quite evolved from it in some ways) for the potential they had, but that comes at a murderously high complexity in the details which require the players actually get to know the rules for themselves if the game it to run as written smoothly, something most RPG players are reluctant to do.

I’ve had people claim this isn’t so, but it has always turned out they are actually running DFRPG-Lite, with large swaths of the rules “turned off” (and therefore that potential as written is lost).

Which isn’t to say you can’t strip-down DFRPG and have a wonderful, enjoyable experience with the results. It is to say that codifying flexibility in a formal way comes at the cost of some perceived rules disorganization.

And no, I have no idea how to do the job “better” than the Evil Hat team did. I regard their game as a really superb effort.

I have, however, found myself wistfully wanting to write “Parked Cars” or “Oil Drums” on a map when playing in other systems such as D20 or Savage Worlds and have it carry the same implications as it would in DFRPG.

#7 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On November 18, 2011 @ 9:19 am

If we’re going “indie,” I’d cast a vote for Primetime Adventures. Unfortunately, Dog Eared Design’s website is down and I don’t know if it’s still available.

#8 Comment By BryanB On November 18, 2011 @ 9:27 am

I’d recommend Spirit of the Century. It was the first FATE 3.0 game that I played and it has been one of the most enjoyable games that I have tried in twenty years. One you grasp Aspects and the FATE point economy, this game really sings during play. It can be a little abstract at times, but this is a game about the action adventures of big bad ass pulp heroes – not a game for focusing on realism and exacting details.

#9 Comment By BryanB On November 18, 2011 @ 9:30 am

[15] – Our group enjoyed Primetime Adventures, although we had some gear grinding at times while getting used to the narrative mechanics. The scene focus, producer budget, and fan mail part of the game is just plain awesome. I think it may be the ideal system for play by post games.

#10 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 18, 2011 @ 11:32 am

I’m not as system promiscuous as most of the Gnomes (young kids will do that to you), but I’m definitely interested in the replies to this.

#11 Comment By metalheadben On November 18, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

Legend of the Five Rings would definitely make the list for me. Some important elements I’ve learned from this game are how to make truly engaging political intrigue, and also how to build in a reason for characters to care about the events of the game (and avoid the problem of characters who are essentially mercenaries with little attachment). L5R, as I’ve always played it, has been about samurai fighting for honor, with a vested interest in protecting their world and family name, and in a world where your friends and reputation mean more than the speed of your sword.

#12 Comment By Roxysteve On November 21, 2011 @ 11:31 am

[16] – Yeah, I had people throwing that “understand the fate point economy” buzzphrase at me when I tried getting help understanding some of the – still – obviously not-right stuff in DFRPG (which I’ll omit for brevity but can give off-board to those interested).

When I asked for a clarification of what individuals meant by that I usually got prevarication, then a blunt statement that it meant handing out fate points when the players run short of them. (Summary for the onlookers: Fate points are the way a player or the GM takes control of the story by dictating details of a scene, and the players get them by behaving in certain ways according to their character build hat are against their interests, usually).

I would then ask for some sort of guide as to how to go about that without impacting the *player’s* side of the fate point economy, to which I never got a satisfactory answer. Telling me I wasn’t giving out enough fate points was missing the point, and the problem I was having.

The fate points are exactly like money in this way. If you issue them to order, they become of less value. If the players can always rely on there being FATE points to spend, they won’t take care to use them judiciously, and will bitch and whine should they run short at a critical point in the story. There will be less tension and tension drives the plot in Fate-style games more than in any other.

I’d like to play in a game run by someone who “gets” fate so I can see how it is supposed to work properly. Sadly, that ain’t gonna happen round here.

#13 Comment By Roxysteve On November 21, 2011 @ 11:35 am

I’m hearing some good things about One Ring’s system, which builds-in the hindrance/negative circumstance aspects in an innovative way that makes it less of a contentious issue with the players and allows for modeling the privation of long, arduous journeys which are the make-or-break factor in real-life epic journeys but (so far) prove impossible to properly present in trad RPGs.

#14 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 21, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

I never got the chance to say taht I think this a great article. Nice job, Phil!

[17] – You need things to be compelled in order to regulate the economy in FATE. Compels require risk though, and that is what I think the FATE rules tend to gloss over. Someone does something in character (the kleptomaniac steals something)? That is nice, but that does not earn a point. Someone does something in character that goes against the character’s best interest (the kleptomaniac stealing the Governor’s pen just because it is a challenge when he is under heavy surveilance)? That earns a point. I hope that helps.

#15 Comment By Roxysteve On November 23, 2011 @ 8:51 am

[18] – Actually, it does.

One of my problems with the DFRPG version of the system is that wounds are a matter of “consequences” – there are no automatic “dinging” penalties *as written*. This introduces a potential problem that requires an on-the-fly fix, something I’m not averse to, but would rather understand what the authors were trying to do in the larger scheme of things by introducing the mechanism in the first place.

The canonical example is that of a Black Court Vampire being flushed from a lair by the use of fire (rulebook canon and TDF canon – one of the game’s strengths is that the rulebook echoes TDF canon at all times where possible). The vampire cannot absorb the huge amount of damage and so takes an 8-point consequence (one that lasts a very long time) EXTRA CRISPY – i.e. badly burned.

Now in order to get any detrimental effects to come into play, *as written* the players must either tag or compel this consequence; all well and good. But suppose they used up all their FATE points just getting this far (a not-that-fanciful supposition I might add)? Mr B.C. Vampire simply caries on as normal according to the letter of the rules.

I’ve had it explained to me that that is perhaps what is supposed to happen, that if the players have no reserves of FATE points the vampire is free to act as “it seems to show no tendency to slow despite its horrible wounds”.

I’ve had it suggested that I should be compelling the vampire to be hurt – this is second nature to an old-style RPGer like me of course – but my point is, where in the system *as written* is my motivation to do that? It is manifestly against “my guy’s” best interests, which I should be protecting else why do *I* have FATE points?

I guess I’m trying to see which of these two directions (or perhaps several directions I haven’t considered) I should be cleaving to in order to follow the design of the DFRPG writers.

I know we don’t see eye-to-eye on many things, Patrick, but I respect your skill and experience and I really wish I could take part in one of your FATE games so I could see how the mechanics work under the control of someone who obviously “gets” the system to a high degree. I know I’m missing the point with this RPG engine somewhere.

#16 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 23, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

[19] – I don’t see eye-to-eye with many people, but if I did I’d be wasting your time. Why talk with someone who agrees with you? You already know what they are going to say. 🙂

I’ll look into running a game online for GS readers again. Trying to clear my schedule for that, but when I do I’ll run FATE and guarantee you a seat.

For now, read Free FATE as it is the most concise yet easily understood version of the FATE rules that I have ever seen.

In regards to the scenario that you just described when a tag is first applied you can compel it for free immediately just one time (most players forget this). After that, I as the GM would have that NPC start compelling negative traits on the PCs. Play for keeps and have that BC vampire go for broke. The players will have chances to absorb some of the damage that the NPC dishes out buy suffering consequences as well. Both PCs and NPCs can only suffer so many consequences though before the damage is done.

Again, I hope that helps!

#17 Comment By Roxysteve On November 25, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

[20] – A little, yes. I’ll check out that link. Thanks, Patrick.

#18 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 25, 2011 @ 6:27 pm

[21] – Where FATE is “broken” with its economy is that for each character the value of a FATE point is measured differently. The lecherous swindler does not earn a FATE point for deciding to get drunk at the wrong time, while the alcoholic curmudgeon does not earn a FATE point for chasing after the opposite sex at the wrong time. When it comes to FATE both the punishment and the reward have to fit the crime.

This makes it very difficult to master as a GM. You have to really think about what each character truly represents as literary devices (not to mention, places, monsters, items, etc.). It also means that while you might use the same rules for everyone at the table, you will not apply them in the same situation for each character. Unfortunately this is an example of how the games greatest strength is also its biggest weakness.