There’s some definite misunderstandings around rules-lite RPGs, the main one being that they’re only good for one-shots or short campaigns. This is untrue and has been since 1974. Yes, there’s absolutely games that are built around being one-shots; and many of those are definitely rules-lite. But OD&D was very rules-lite and there are still people playing long-term campaigns based on it, so what are some modern options? This is my in no particular order top three rules-lite indie RPG list!
Created by Jason Tocci, 2400 isn’t just one game, it’s an engine for multiple games in a mostly shared universe and universal set of mechanics that range from one-shot to long-term play in scope. It also has a thriving community that uses its 24XX SRD to create their own games (full disclosure: I’m in that community) and there’s over 100 of them to date. This game was originally made for what the author describes as “lo-fi sci-fi”, but it’s been stretched to horror, fantasy, and more since then. To play 2400 or its spin-offs, you need paper, pencil, and the following dice: d6, d8, d10, and d12. The game is minimalist, flexible, and focused on the theme of the module itself. 2400 and its attendant games trend towards “real” in the sense that characters are comparatively squishy, so it’s not a game for people looking for that power rush.
- Character creation is fast.
- Game play is quick.
- Module focus varies and offers one-shot, short-term, and long-term options.
- Plurality of genres to play.
- Level of abstraction/minimalism may be too much for some.
- “Harm” and “death” aren’t well defined.
- Doesn’t do epic, drag out, full session battles (this one is YMMV).
This is a game that you can bust out, start playing, and still be playing months later because the thing runs so smoothly. It doesn’t use big stat blocks because it doesn’t need to. Your character can fit on a bookmark. The trick to it, to me, is to remember it’s a gritty level game. It’s simple and gritty. Keep that in mind and you’re set to go. Play this game.
This cool d4 based game is the brainchild of Lex Bobrow, better known as Titanomachy, and it’s a full game creation engine. Featured in Dicebreaker as one of its top nine hackable games, this is a rules-lite system for a creative gamemaster looking for a non-complex (not simple, just not complex) system to base their work on. Caltrop Core is deceptively straightforward and offers several ways to use its rules to make your game work, so you can range from a super basic approach to more nuanced ones with ease. The community content for this game borders on being out of control, with over 100 games created in multiple genres at the time of writing, and a second game jam currently has 140 participants (which I may join). The baseline of the game is a simple d4 based degrees of success system, and from there you can add as much or as little as you want, and the document provides plenty of guidance to get you started. To play this game, you need paper, pencils, and at least one d4 dice.
Caltrop Core Pros
- This game makes playing easy in every way, from learning to creating.
- Lots of games using this system.
- Low threshold of entry.
Caltrop Core Cons
- In its base form, it’s a literal toolbox, so all the creation is on the gamemaster.
Caltrop Core Overall
If you’re looking for a rules-lite baseline system to build your dream game with, it’s hard to go far wrong with this game. I can’t even list off the number of genres people are creating games for it in. And its only real downside is that it’s initially a heavy lift for the gamemaster. But after that? Smooth sailing. Strongly recommend for both first time and experienced creators.
Lumen is the core system created by Spencer Campbell, used in his successful and amazing Light, Eclipse, Nova, and Slayers games. This is power fantasy territory, and it’s amazing. And at least for the core games, they’re available not just as pdf downloads, but also in physical form. The community content for Lumen extends from creating games in that system to creating third party content for the games Spencer has created as well. It’s wild and I love it! As a game, to me at least, it favours the science fiction and science-fantasy genres best, but that doesn’t mean it can’t go in other directions as well! Now, to be clear, Lumen is an SRD document that serves as the bedrock that Light, Eclipse, Nova, and Slayers rest on. It’s not a full game in of itself, it’s a toolbox to create your own Illuminated by Lumen game. Light, Eclipse, Nova, and Slayers? Those are complete games. The community content ranges from complete games to supplements. To play Lumen games, you need pencils, paper, and a fist full of d6’s!
- Easy to learn power fantasy fun.
- Fast and easy character creation.
- Physical copies available.
- Well explained components walk you through everything from designing to gameplay in 21 A5 sized pages.
- It’s unapologetically power gaming, and that’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
- Some heavy lifting by the gamemaster, especially if they make their own game.
Lumen is a game system that knows what it wants to be and wants to provide the best experience of that to you. It’s a system that wants you to feel powerful and awesome when you’re playing and to be honest? It nails it. And I can’t stress how nice the physical copy option is (it’s high quality print stock!). If you’re looking for a simple but deep system that will make your players feel powerful and still let you as a gamemaster have a tonne of fun? This is it.
Rules-lite games and systems have a lot more potential than many people assume they do; mostly because, in my opinion, we’re conditioned to expect big books to provide us with big experiences. But this isn’t the case. Whether you’re using a pre-made game in a rules-lite system or building your own up from the bones of a rules-lite SRD, they’re a viable and affordable option to try. 2400, Caltrop Core, and Lumen are my top games in the genre, and they’re all made by amazing indie creators. So please, check them out, have a go, and support these creators!
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