Rules Lite Games

I’ve been giving some thought lately to rules lite games after a friend of mine sent me the RPG he’d been working on. Anyone who’s tried to get friends interested in a game of Arkham Horror or calmly explained the family trees of Game of Thrones to their parents: these people know that it’s better to start small with some folks and then work your way up. If you’re in this position at your gaming table, here are a few products I’d heartily recommend.

Rules Lite vs. Children vs. Watered-Down

First, let’s establish what we’re talking about here. When I say “rules lite” I don’t mean a game for children. There are a number of awesome out there that are perfect for including little ones in the hobby (No Thank You, Evil!Little Heroes, Monsters and Other Childish Things, and Mermaid Adventures high among them) but I think those are best when they are designed from the start for a young audience.

After all, you could take something good and start ripping out parts or you can start from scratch and build something else good that’s also different. And this is where we run into some games that have disappointed me in the past. Whether or not you like D&D 4e, when Wizards of the Coast announced D&D Essentials you probably took some notice. I was excited to see it in action and, while I appreciate the sentiment, it really didn’t add anything to the hobby except blurred versions of what there already was. Sure it’s cool to have a complicated fighter with all sorts of combos next to a straightforward Essentials thief and I can see tables where that’s a plus but if you think you could have a rogue and a thief in the same party and that they would play different, you’d be wrong. A thief plays like a rogue with fewer options (and less decision paralysis).

As such, I’m not talking about either of these things. I’m talking here about games that are designed for complicated stories and adult audiences, but that you can explain in ten minutes to complete novices. I’m talking about games that play fast without removing large parts of another game and painting over the hole. These games can be a lifeline if you’re introducing someone to the hobby but they can also be a fun amuse-bouche between campaigns or when someone doesn’t show. A number of well-known games (FATE Accelerated comes to mind) have pared down wonderfully. Below, however, are three rules-lite games you might not know about, games that show a lot of skill in their design and also have a simplicity that encourages rather than waters-down.

Dragon Slayers

Dragon Slayers RPG Cover
Cover Image © Beast Box Publishing

This is my friend’s game, so bear that in mind, but there are two great things going for Dragon Slayers right off the bat. First of all, it’s available on DriveThruRPG for three bucks so it’s not like you’re going far out on a limb. Secondly, it’s rooted in Dungeons & Dragons both thematically and mechanically. This means that you can reuse some D&D plots and staples for the game (the Bestiary that comes with it includes some D&D monsters with the numbers filed off and they can show you how easy conversion is). At the same time, the game is flexible enough to be incorporated into many other genres, as the author’s space opera conversion and variant rules (both included in the purchase) showcases.

At the same time, the game has some interesting ideas to offer. While the structure of the game is clearly influenced by D&D (specifically the warrior/rogue/mage type) it uses the growing/shrinking dice of Savage Worlds (or Cortex if you’re more familiar). Rather than deal with shifting modifiers from varying sources, you just roll the die for your skill (and there are only seven of those) against a DC. When your skill improves, you just step the dice up the track from d4 to d20 (that last one really just for tarrasques). The differently sized dice are a much harder concept to get used to than adding and subtracting, and this focus continues throughout Dragon Slayers, including having dice explode when you roll the max. It’s a great rules lite game for a fast-paced campaign but also makes for a great stepping-stone into heavier rulesets.

Are there downsides to Dragon Slayers? Sure, there always are. It’s clearly made by a motivated fan rather than a publishing house, although it’s still well laid out and (again) it’s priced accordingly. You might also wish for some different options too right out of the box (“where are my tieflings and dragonborn?”) but that also leaves room for you to expand it. So, in the end I think that all the downsides are only downsides for some people and they are likely to be few and far between.

Cthulhu Dark

Cthulhu Dark Cover
Cover Image © Graham Walmsley

The Cthulhu Dark rules-lite system is your option if you want a fast ruleset but also unrelenting horror. Basically, as we call it at my house, “Tuesday.” Graham Walmsley has got a lot of attention for his awesome product and he recently Kickstarted a new edition that I happily backed. It’s not available now but the preview version was sent out to backers (that’s what the cover image to the right is) and it’s even better.

Graham’s whole concept is to fit all the rules you need on the front and back of a standard sheet of printer paper, and this still works in the new edition (although there are many, many more pages of suggestions and settings). Your character consists of a name and an occupation. If you want to do something (and it’s humanly possible) you roll a d6. If it’s something that has to do with your occupation, you add another d6. If you’re willing to damage your psyche you can add a (differently colored) Insight d6. Roll your die/dice and check the highest result: a 1 means you scrape by, a 2 or 3 means you fail, a 4 means you regular succeed, a 5 means you really succeed, and a 6 means you succeed and then some (maybe gaining something cool or understanding the mythos). If your Insight die was the highest and it is higher than your current Insight score (starts at 1) then you get more Insight but also closer to insanity.

And… well that’s kinda it. It’s short and sweet and infinitely adaptable. I love that it’s simple to learn and play but that it captures the creeping horror of games like Call of Cthulhu (obviously an inspiration) or Little Fears. It also has an advantage over the (also great) game Dread which relies on pulling blocks from a Jenga tower. Cthulhu Dark actually relies on the characters’ skills which I really prefer. Graham also has a ton of different settings and great GMing advice (for other systems) which makes this product even more impressive. The only real complaint I have about the game is that the combat is abstracted and the focus is definitely on investigating mysteries; there’s more about fighting people in the newer edition but still this is not a game for punching folks.

Pip System

Pip System Corebook Cover
Image © Third Eye Games

I actually snuck a mention of this in before since Third Eye Games uses the Pip System for Mermaid Adventures but the system is for more than just kid’s games. (Also being a pretty mermaid and having fun with your bestest friends shouldn’t be strictly for kids, but that’s a separate conversation). The system is also interesting in addition to being fairly simple to use, relying on pools of d6s but using them more like Fiasco than, say, Shadowrun.

When you make a check, you gather “white” d6s equal to your skill (they don’t really have to be white, just all the same color) and also a number of “black” d6s equal to the Challenge Rating of the task (ranging 1-5). You roll both and then count up the number of d6s that come up 4, 5, or 6 which count as successes. If you have more white successes than black successes then you do the thing, otherwise you fail. If white is ahead by three or more it’s an epic success, if black is ahead by three or more it’s an epic fail, and if its tied then you succeed at a cost. Done.

This probably starts to stretch rules lite with the remainder of the rulebook with Armor Ratings that add to an attack’s black dice, specialties for skills, and combat status effects, but the truth is you kind of don’t need these. My ideal use of this for complete newbies to the hobby would be to use what I listed above as the whole game and then add in more stuff step by step. It’s a perfectly usable game without the extras and the add pretty independently. In fact, I wish they made this explicit but maybe that’s the authors’ intention and I’ve just missed it.

Conclusion

So there are three games that I think take the learning curves out of the experience of learning RPGs. Each of these, in their own way, is an accessible and fun way to get people interested in the hobby. If you know others, I’d love to hear more but I’ll finish up by saying that I think games like FiascoFATE, and the recent Misspent Youth (NSFW) are also great games with simple rules. These are narrative-heavy games, though, and I think they’ll scare off newcomers who freeze in the spotlight.

Regardless, do you also like the games I listed? Have any more I should consider? Let me know in the comments!

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