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Indie RPGs Going Cheep/Free!

I remember that a few years ago, I used to buy role-playing games and supplements on a regular basis, back when they were generally cheaper and I had more of a disposable income. All of a sudden, I've started getting back into the habit - but instead of going into gaming stores and buying books off shelves, I've been downloading (and, where applicable, paying for) PDF files of role-playing games and supplements by independent authors. I've come across some really funky stuff, and as Heavy Gear has gone into something of a slump until we either get another player or Mandi gets back from Beijing (whichever comes first), I've been thinking of inflicting them on my Heavy Gear group, so that we can still game on a regular basis.

I'd also like to recommend them to you all, especially with the Aussie dollar in such good shape against the U.S. buck right now. Even at U.S.$5 to $10 per head, they're really good value considering the quality you get.

A while ago, I took a look at The Wushu Guide To The Matrix on recommendation of an RPGnet article. I wasn't too impressed at the time; maybe I was hoping for something more along the lines of a sourcebook, and the leaving-out of the Real World as an adventuring option was also unsavoury. However, I took another look after Ross Winn's recent recommendation (again, on RPGnet), and it is really the sort of thing you could use for a night's fun. It's simple, it handles the idea that a Trinity or Neo can learn any skill nigh-instantly thanks to their Operator by discarding "skills" in general, and does a pretty good job of capturing the general mood of an intrusion onto the Matrix without bogging one down in faux-simulation details like muzzle velocities or carrier signal strength. It's a free, 17-page document, featuring a cut-down version of the author's Wushu system (U.S.$5, which translates to about AU$6.70). Although the system looks cool, I'm not in any real hurry to buy it; what's in The Wushu Guide To The Matrix does what it needs to quite capably, I think.

I'm on a bit of a War of the Worlds kick right now, and with any luck, I'll be able to show you why in a few days. In the meantime I'd like to tell you that over the past couple of weeks, I've come across not one, not two, but three RPG supplements based on The War of the Worlds. All have slightly different takes on their source, and all but one are free.

  • The first one I came across is Atomic Rocket Games' PDF supplement for Mekton Zeta, R. Talsorian's anime mecha RPG. It does, of course, require Mekton Zeta to play, and spends most of its length detailing the two major mecha of the novel, the Martian Fighting Machine and the ironclad torpedo ram (i.e. the HMS Thunder Child). It assumes a familiarity with the novel (which, when you consider how many web sites feature the novel's full text, is not an unfair assumption), so setting and other info (especially on the Martians themselves) is sparse, and its tone when discussing the late-Victorian / early-Edwardian era in which The War of the Worlds is set feels rather tongue-in-cheek. Fans of both Mekton Zeta and The War of the Worlds who haven't already statted out the Machines will get the best value from it.
  • The next is a fairly well developed website by a gentleman named Steve Dismukes. Although it's named The War of the Worlds: the RPG, its scope is broadened to a significant portion of Wells' body of work, including The First Men in the Moon and The War in the Air. It uses Call of Cthulhu as its rule set, and as well as the mandatory information on the Martians and their Machines, it features a thorough, day-by-day breakdown of the Martian invasion, an alternate world history based on Wells' other works, details on the Lunar race known as the Selenites, general details on Man's post-War inventions and a complete adventure set during the War, which uses an interesting extrapolation of Wells' theories on Martian communication to allow the players to directly affect the War's outcome. It's also a little sparse in some regards, but quite lovingly detailed in others, especially with regard to the Martians. It was last updated in 1999, and I'd like to see more.
  • Finally, I came across Gold Rush Games' PDF/printed book supplement for their Action! System (also a free PDF) and D20 Modern. As a PDF, it can be downloaded for U.S.$6.95 (AU$8.75) and has perhaps the broadest coverage of all three works, including notes and system interpretations on Edwardian Britain, dual-system write-ups on the major characters, a thorough summary of the Martians (not quite as detailed as Steve Dismukes', but effective for the two pages they receive), extensive game master's notes for adventuring and campaigning during and after the War, battle rules using the Monster Island system and thorough and consistent (if occasionally inaccurate to the source) illustrations. The sourcebook can afford to be general, though, as it actually includes the complete H. G. Wells novel, also illustrated. It takes up over half the supplement's length, but if you don't own the novel, it's a worthwhile investment (perhaps less so for those who buy it as a PDF, unless they can get it affordably printed and bound at a Snap Printing or Kinko's).

And then, of course, there are Jared Sorensen's iSystem games, published by his company, Memento Mori Theatricks, and sold as PDF files via the Forge Bookshelf, both for U.S.$10 (AU$13.30). I've been harping on about these for a little while, and have even run a convention module based on one of them. Jared's iSystem takes an oft-unused approach to dice-rolling and task resolution: rather than the die result telling the player whether he or she succeeded in what he or she was attempting, it determines whether the player or game master get to describe not only the outcome of the player-attempted action, but also what happens next. It's a refreshing change, and while it takes a lot of the load off the game master (and if your play-group is relaxed and freewheeling enough, a GM could possibly be dispensed with altogether), it requires a free-wheeling, improvisational mindset and skill for it to work.

  • InSpectres v2.5 is the closest thing to a ghost-busting game since West End Games released the licensed Ghostbusters RPG. What makes it interesting is that it blends ghost-busting with the realities of a modern-day startup company, and this is supported directly in the mechanics, which exchange character advancement for franchise advancement - the "franchise" being a set of shared dice pools which any player can dip into to supplement any of their rolls (provided there are dice left). It also provides a structure for adventures, based on the theme of completing a client contract; the game starts when the prospective client comes in with a job and progresses through research, gearing up, "field work" (i.e. ghost busting) and mopping up afterwards.
  • octaNe: premium uNleaded is billed as "the psychotronic game of post-apocalyptic, trash-culture America", and is definitely more out there than InSpectres. The setting is best described as the love child of the Mad Max films and the descendent of every American D-movie in existence, making a career as an Elvis impersonator. System-wise, there's no real character advancement and not much character differentiation, but it's perfect for offbeat zaniness.

The InSpectres implementation of the iSystem is better suited to campaigning than octaNe's, but octaNe is better suited for beer-and-pretzels role-playing; in fact, one posting on the Forge boards stated that octaNe passes the "can I play this drunk?" test with flying colours - "Not too drunk, but drunk enough to be loose and regret your behavior the next morning" (so it should suit you fine, Boots).

I'm wondering whether this isn't reflecting a major shift in tastes for RPGs. I used to be into the big, chunky rulebooks like Call of Cthulhu, Star Wars, and big game lines with supplements galore (Heavy Gear), but now I'm on this "smaller is better" thing. Don't get me wrong, I like the idea of mathematical balance in systems in principle - and that's why I think the Hero System is a work of genius - but I've sort of come to the opinion that while mathematical balance is a fine and good thing, it only really works in a mathematically-controlled system. The "game board" of a role-playing game is, by its imaginary, shared nature, hazy and imprecise, and my personal experience is that in RPG fights, when the maths are really meant to be used, players don't want to use them; they just want to be the heroes and/or do cool, action movie-inspired stuff.

Anyway, enough of my rambling; fire up your browser and go check these out for yourself. And if you want to play one of them some Saturday afternoon or evening - well, you know my e-mail address.

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