I decided to become a proper Game Master around the time the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was released. At the time, I felt the first real step was to go out and buy the books.
A full set of the core rulebooks included the Dungeon Master's Guide, the Monster Manual and the Player's Handbook. If three books doesn't sound like too heavy an investment, note that they were also all hardcovers! That's not taking into account if you want any of the supplements. By the end of its run, Fourth Edition had a total of two DMGs, three MMs, and three PHs.
Depending on your game group, the fact that you decided to become the Game Master in the first place means that you are the only one who is going to be reading those books. Which makes sense on some levels. Why have a game night at all — a night of escapism, when it comes down to it — if it is going to be more work? But someone has to know the rules.
From the above, you might be getting the impression that getting into RPGs requires a hefty money and time investment. Then again, this would not be a proper internet thinkpiece if I did not propose the counter argument two hundred words in. This is where one-page RPGs come in. As the name implies, all the rules you need to understand and run the game can fit on a single slip of dead tree. While these games may not be for every game group, they are presented as another option.
Bonuses and Penalties
The complaints aimed towards minimalist game systems like the ones I am about to show you are also their greatest strengths.
For some game groups, the lack of a sense of progression (whether this is through a level-up system or lists of attainable loot) makes a game feel like it is better suited to one-shots as opposed to campaigns. However, there will be times when a one-shot is the cowbell to your fever. Maybe your group just finished a long-term campaign, or you did not have time to prepare anything for the one you are already running. And if you did, because you are a great Game Master, maybe a few of your players could not make it that week.
The lack of rules may cause other groups to balk, especially if they prefer a meatier ruleset that details how a player must roll dX + Y to perform Z. This is not a criticism of game groups that love games like this, either. Different strokes. For more freewheeling groups, the barest of rules frees up the Game Master to create house rules as needed. While this means the players might end up in a rules argument at its worst, it can also leave room for improvisation and rules that make sense to a particular group at best.
Some of the six games below are technically more than one page (so I am already breaking the only rule I enacted for this post), but the content that is there will always be necessary, not to mention free. Meaning you will not be tearing your hair out over grappling rules here.
The first one-page RPG I had ever heard of was John Harper's GHOST/ECHO. Harper describes it as an "oracle game," providing only a starting point and a d6-based resolution mechanic. It also offers a list of cyberpunk-reminiscent handles for your crew and other NPCs, a list of undefined locations, and a list of your enemies.
Is #GHOSTECHO a game about Ghostbusters in the Matrix? Are "stones" the setting's term for bullets or the skeletal remains Ghosts leave behind? What are echoes, anyway? It's all up to you and your group.
2) Everyone is John
Everyone is John was written by Michael B. Sullivan back in 2002, but I am glad it is getting the attention it deserves now. Linked above is a hilarious hour-long game from the hosts of Yogscast, meant to give you an idea for how serious the game's tone is.
(Not at all.)
The players in #EveryoneIsJohn take on the role of one of the many Voices in John's fractured mind. Their goal is to make John complete their Obsession as many times as they can without getting the poor guy killed. Voices, which fight over control of John using a simple betting system, can have skills that can be anything from "Good at persuading people" to "Can charge objects with kinetic energy, sort of like Gambit from the X-Men."
3) Lasers & Feelings
By the time we get to the end of this thing, Mr. Harper is going to make up over half of the list. What can I say? The man has a gift. The Star Trek-inspired Lasers & Feelings is unique in that a player's character is only defined by one number between 2 and 5, which covers two stats. The higher the number, the better a character is at LASERS. This means they are better at acting rationally, or dealing with technology. A lower number means a character is better with FEELINGS. That covers dealing with the people-facing side of things, like seduction and diplomacy.
The system is also kind to Game Masters lacking in prep time in the form of an adventure generator. There's a simple table in the #LasersFeelings PDF file that defines a threat, their goal, and the stakes. I rolled one up for you below.
Alien brain worms want to destroy the void crystals which will allow them to enslave the planet.
4) World of Dungeons
John Harper is on the list again with World of Dungeons, which was written to answer the question, "If Dungeon World was the latest version of a classic role-playing game, what would the original look like?" This is the game for you if you want a minimalist D&D, though the magic system will be different than the Vancian system we all grew up on.
#WorldOfDungeons is technically six pages long, but two of those are dedicated to character sheets, and one is a list of names for the implied setting. A game group will only need two d6 and the willingness to houserule. For those who are new to that second requirement, the good folks down at Story Games have done a bunch of work already.
If cyberpunk is more your go-to, Zack Wolf offers a hack called World of Shadows. Don't want to wait until Fallout 5 is released? John Harper sends World of Mutants over. And because Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying does not get enough love, Gremlin Legions offers Streets of Marienburg.
5) Cthulhu Dark
Graham Walmsley's Cthulhu Dark weighs in at four pages, and all you need to play your investigator is a name, an occupation, a description, and an Insanity score. The latter starts at 1, so a quarter of the work has already been done for you.
Name: Stephen Jones
Description: Swarthy. Long haired. 5 o'clock shadow. Probably a cowboy in a previous life.
There. You are ready to play #CthulhuDark.
Why is it so easy to create a character in this system, you ask? Well, a player can roll up to three d6 when attempting to accomplish a task. On one end, 1 means the character barely succeeds. On the other, a 6 means the character completes the task with aplomb. This sounds boring at first. What about the risk of failure? If another player thinks that it would have been more interesting if your character failed, they can challenge your roll.
If your game does not devolve into a spiral of players killing each others' characters after that first challenge, then you're not playing a game of Lovecraftian horror. For a good example, check out one of Role Playing Public Radio's games.
- Crab Truckers - You play giant crabs who are also truckers and you haul for the Crab Goddess. If you have an aversion to a certain four-letter word that starts with the letter 'f,' don't click on this one.
- Time Punks - You play yourself except with a time machine, so naturally you go back in time to take over the world. Competitive and uses time as a mechanic.
- Every entry in David Schirduan's annual 200 Word RPG Challenge - Taking your game backlog from 20 to 200. Look hard enough and you might find my own entries in the challenge.
- A Scoundrel in the Deep - A 5-page game available pay-what-you-want for two players, about a Scoundrel delving into the Deep for the fabled Ruby. Forget dice, forget cards, you play this game with matches.