Last month, one of our readers, bonao94 made a suggestion: 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 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. 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). 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

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 article.

Burning Wheel

Publisher: Burning Wheel

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.

Houses of the Blooded/Blood and Honor

Publisher: John Wick Presents

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

Mechanics: For a full description of Fiasco, I will defer to my own review of Fiasco, some actual play and the Fiasco Companion. 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?