Jan 26, 2012

Microlite Iron Heartbreakers v. 1.52

I once had someone say "It sounds like a romance game for chicks". In reality Microlite Iron Heartbreakers (link is to a 156KB pdf) is a fantasy heartbreaker that combines some of the concepts from Iron Heroes with Microlite20 to allow you to do low magic fantasy adventuring. It's meant for use with the M20 Monster List, and has rules for conversion from that list. Or you can just use this super cool M20 monster generator and convert stuff over.

MIH is one of a handful of games I've ever written from scratch, and of them, it is the most recent (2009) and the most complete (about 3000 words). It's also a failure. I've never managed to convince anyone to play a session of it, not even my buddy Rob the amateur boardgame designer who loves playtesting stuff. In fact, it was the failure of MIH to capture anyone's interest - after almost everyone I knew was complaining about D&D 3.5's complexity and practically demanding a switch to something similar but simpler - that made me re-evaluate my philosophy of how rules should work in a game.

The two most common complaints I got about it were that nobody knew what the title meant, and that there wasn't enough "game" in it. At the time, my philosophy was that a few, simple rules that left a lot of leeway for personal creativity were the best. I'm not talking about Forge minigame things, but the kind of attitude that led to Microlite20 in the first place. Take the universal resolution mechanics of the d20 system, throw out the edge cases, exceptions, and variations and let people use the same resolution mechanic to handle a wide variety situations. In this case, the mechanic was opposed attack rolls in combat, which handled everything from tripping and disarming to... well, that was the problem. Nobody who read the game other than me seemed to know, even if they had played systems with complex rulesets that provided a variety of options (for example, Iron Heroes).

At the time, my attitude was "Use your imagination, losers!" until I played FATE 2.0 and Mongoose Traveller with the same group in the course of a year (2009 as well). Both games were fairly short due to scheduling problems, but the juxtaposition clarified something for me. The group was composed of new players, people who were familiar with computer games, board games, etc. but had never roleplayed before.

The first game we tried was FATE 2.0. FATE 2.0 was a system with a similar problem to Microlite Iron Heartbreakers. It's a schematic, really, on which you are supposed to build whatever game you want without a lot of guidance from the rules. While the expectation is that a few broad rules will free players, in my experience just the opposite happened. Without clear and explicit guidance about what they could and could not do, players were lost. There was no frame around their expectations for how the world should work, and no specific points (in the form of skills, abilities, etc.) that clarified what kinds of things one could do and what kinds of things were not possible.

By contrast, Traveller, which is filled with rules for things, went over smashingly with the same group. Character generation doesn't involve a ton of choice, and the amount it does provide is just right for new players. You pick what career you want to try to get into, you have information about what that career needs and will give you, and you mainly just roll things up. At the end of it, you have a detailed history, a bunch of abilities, some cool stuff, some connections to the other PCs, and a frame around yourself and the other PCs that defines what you are trying to do - get rich, get powerful, have fun, retire in comfort.

One player came up with a detailed spreadsheet that autocalculated the value of everything on the ship, and they had a great time sailing the stars until they misjumped into a system where an aggressively evangelical transhumanist cybercult attempted to convert them, and they violently resisted.

This experience taught me that at the very least, if you're going to have broad rules or abilities that are at least partially up to the people at the table to define, you've got to provide concrete examples and ideas about how to use that ability. They don't need to be exhaustive or exclusive, but you can see this philosophy at work in my attempt to make Culture (Own) useful by providing a series of specific, potentially recurring questions it can answer for PCs in the Dawnlands.

If I were to ever release another Microlite Iron Heartbreakers version (1.52 means it's based off the 1st edition, 5th update to the rules set, 3rd wording change), there would be a few changes.

1) I would include a list of possible tactics, probably 5-8, that could be specifically attempted or resolved using the mechanics. These wouldn't be edge cases, they would literally just be statements going "You can try to do this using this already existing mechanics". I would do the same for the skills, by providing 4-6 uses of each skill.

2) I would spend more time at the beginning providing a frame for PCs just to reassure them that yes they will be fantasy adventurers roaming around killing things for glory and profit.

3) I would rename the game, I think. The word "heartbreaker" is too jargonistic, and seems to confuse people. "Thrill Killers of the Outer Wastes" might be a touch more evocative.