Diving Into Indie RPGs

So, for a while now, I’ve been making more of an effort to seek out and play more indie RPGs, ones that aren’t the big names and aren’t put out by the big publishers. Games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder and Savage Worlds are great, but sometimes you want to take a step back and look at how much great content is being put out by people who don’t have the audiences or reach of those powerhouses. Forewarning: it’s a lot. So much great content.

A few years ago now, I backed a Kickstarter (one of my first) for a game called Golden Sky Stories, a game that was created in Japan and now was getting an English translation. For quite a while, I couldn’t find anyone to play it with, so I shelved my PDFs and set it aside for the time being. Around that time, I saw the Tabletop episodes featuring a game called Fiasco, which was heavily storytelling-oriented with such minimal mechanics compared to D&D that I couldn’t believe they could both fall under the class of “roleplaying game”. I eventually ended up writing my own playset for that (check the Games tab). My college gaming group loved Fiasco and we had some really extraordinary sessions over the course of that year.

But that was about it for my indie RPG explorations for quite a while. I picked up some other rulebooks – Microscope, Monsters and Other Childish Things, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – but I put in next to no effort to get out there and play them with people. I was content with my weekly D&D group, and eventually, my weekly Savage Worlds group as well. When Green Ronin announced their Fantasy AGE system, which had been the backbone for Wil Wheaton’s Titansgrave campaign, I was determined to actually make it happen. And I did – I ran it two months later at a local convention, and then another, and then I actually ran it for Green Ronin at Gen Con last year.

I think what kind of opened the door for me is this, which is terrible – I kind of liked that I was the only one running it. I liked being the local expert. To this day, I don’t know many others in the Buffalo area that run Fantasy AGE. I liked that I could teach a whole new group of beginners and kind of be learning alongside them. It made the same-old gaming experience a lot fresher and newer. What’s more, seeing a new take on a similar theme (Fantasy AGE and D&D can very much run the same games and the same stories) gives you an added appreciation for the uniqueness of both.

Now, Fantasy AGE isn’t strictly speaking an indie RPG; it’s from a mid-size company. I’d categorize it in the same range as like, Call of Cthulhu and Shadowrun and FATE – good-sized names within the gaming community, but they’re seldom what someone outside the community thinks of. But from there, it’s easy to start getting into the more indie stuff, especially if you start following individual creators on social media, which I always recommend. If you find a game you really like, follow the designers on twitter or tumblr or facebook – not only will you always know what they’re doing next, they’ll typically tune you in to what they’re following too.

So, that’s how twice recently I have run a game called Costume Fairy Adventures for my regular game groups when we couldn’t run our usual game for whatever reason. Costume Fairy Adventures is the creation of David J Prokopetz, and it is… exactly what it says on the tin. You’re playing fairies who put on costumes (because to a fairy, looking like something is kind of close to almost the same thing as being something) and go on adventures. It is charming and delightful, I’ve had a blast both times I’ve run the one released scenario so far (The Big Pie Caper), and it is now my go-to game when regular game night has to cancel for some reason. I… might be still kind of sad about not being selected after applying to write content for them when they had an open call a few months ago, buuuut I’ve never let that stop me, so I’m currently in the process of writing my own scenario for the game, which will be available here on the blog when it’s done.

The other one that I’ve run for my group recently (as in… two days ago) is Conspiracist: the Game THEY Don’t Want You to Play, which was just released a month or two back, as I recall. It’s pay-what-you-want on DriveThruRPG, the rules are extremely simple, and the conceit is excellent: you’re playing as low-level Illuminati henchmen who have to first interpret what the mission you’re being assigned IS, and then figure out how to execute it. The game went all kinds of places I wasn’t expecting and it was so easy to run and easy to buy into for the players. The premise sucks you in right away. It’s extremely low-prep for the GM, or Controller, which I appreciated a great deal.

The next ones I want to run are both one-page RPGs from Grant Howitt’s Patreon. His one-page RPG concept is wonderful – the entire set of rules and everything you need to play is contained on one standard letter-sized page. It seems like a great creative exercise, and the results so far are really solid. The first up is Honey Heist – you are bears trying to steal honey. Your two stats are “bear” and “criminal”. The other is Big Gay Orcs, Or: A Thousand Orchid Blossoms, in which you are, well, big gay orcs, and you have to both defend the fortress against your enemies and also confess your true feelings to other orcs.

One of the things I’m really enjoying about getting more into these indie games is how specialized they are. I mean, reading the descriptions above, these games clearly don’t lend themselves to just anything (no game system really does, but many of them are quite broad). I’m appreciating knowing exactly what I’m going to get when I buy the game and when I play it. It’s nice to be able to introduce the game clearly and concisely to my players, set expectations easily, and deliver. Saying, “hey guys, let’s play some Savage Worlds” could mean… almost anything. Every genre, every setting, every plotline, every gaming style can be accommodated by Savage Worlds, which is an excellent thing about it. But sometimes you want to say “hey guys, let’s play Costume Fairy Adventures” and know exactly what you’re in for.

And the size of the indie RPG industry has just exploded over just the past two years, and I’m certain it’s due to two things: Kickstarter and Patreon, two distinct forms of internet crowdfunding. Just from my above examples, Conspiracist and Grant Howitt’s one-page RPGs are both Patreon-enabled, while I’ve had to seriously curb my Kickstarter backing habits after seeing games like Scion, in which you’re the descendents of the gods in an urban fantasy setting; Bluebeard’s Bride, in which you play out the famed fairy tale each taking on aspects of the bride’s personality; and Dusk City Outlaws, which is a heist-themed fantasy game (Ocean’s 11 in Waterdeep, if you will). I’ve loved everything about the idea of crowdfunding from the start, and I’m certainly loving the results we’re getting out of it now.

So, my next convention is the Queen City Conquest here in Buffalo this September. …I’m going to be running seven games, in seven different game systems, because I’m a madwoman. I will be running, in this approximate order: Fiasco, Golden Sky Stories, Microscope, Fantasy AGE, Conspiracist, Costume Fairy Adventures, and finally, one of my own D&D games from the DM’s Guild. As I keep finding more indie and small-press RPGs, I want to bring more of these to conventions (as so many of these games are optimized for convention play), and I want to go to more conventions. I don’t love the idea of being the one-hundredth D&D AL DM at a convention, but I love the idea of being the first Blue Rose or Monsterhearts GM. Call me conceited, but I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. I want to bring people a new experience when they come to my table at a convention.

2 comments for “Diving Into Indie RPGs

  1. June 26, 2017 at 7:08 am

    Your post has inspired me to be more open to other RPG’s! I usually run with D&D but have a hard time sometimes trying to run a story without everyone just wanting to do the ‘gamey bits’ like….killing stuff.

    I see that you mentioned that you are running games at in NY but are you going further afield to say….Indianapolis….Gencon…this year?

    If you were running a game their I’d try and book myself in.

    • Jennifer Kathleen
      June 26, 2017 at 7:35 am

      Unfortunately I couldn’t quite make Gen Con work for me this year, but I’d love to make it back in the future! Next year I’ll be doing a lot more cons; I’m just not sure what they are yet. 🙂

Leave a Reply