Walk into your average gaming store and you’ll probably find a fair number of tabletop roleplaying game books for sale, ranging from the relatively slim like Fate Accelerated to mighty tomes that a bard could use as a last-resort weapon such as Numenera. What you probably won’t find, unless someone is hosting a game, are RPGs whose page count is in the single digits, often even only 1 or 2 pages long. While they probably existed beforehand these games are now mostly children of the internet, born on websites and blogs and in competitions and tweets. Sometimes they’re called ‘one page RPGs’, or ‘one page dungeons’. Sometimes they’re referred to as ‘nano games’. I know them mostly as ‘micro games’, and just because they’re short doesn’t mean they aren’t sweet.
Micro games are a strange little facet of the roleplaying game cosmos, often with few mechanics and the barest of bones when it comes to things like characters or scenario building. In terms of stats, if you even have any, you’ll probably only have one or maybe two, and it’s equally rare to see more than maybe two or three dice being rolled. Some also dip into the GM-less style of play. As a result, micro games are pretty much built for the one-shot format of roleplaying games; while I’m sure there are some exceptions, and that they’d be very interesting to check out, I haven’t seen any that by design extend into the multiple-session or campaign territory. This tends to result in games that are either pretty darn zany, or have a very specific kind of story/idea/lesson they want to let the players explore. So, let’s check out a few examples of the micro games you can find out there.
Honey Heist – by Grant Howitt
It’s Honeycon 2017. You are going to undertake the greatest heist the world has ever seen. Two Things – One: You have a complex plan that requires precise timing. Two: You are a GODDAMN BEAR.
You roll a d6 each to determine a descriptor (i.e. Rookie), bear type/skill (i.e polar/swim), and role (i.e. Driver). If you want to wear an awesome hat, you can roll a d8 to determine what kind of awesome hat you’re wearing (i.e. fez). You’ve got two stats, BEAR and CRIMINAL. You use BEAR to do bear things. You use CRIMINAL to do anything that doesn’t have to do with being a bear. Each starts with 3 points. Whenever you do something, you roll a d6 for the relevant stat; roll equal to or under the stat and you succeed. If what you’re doing is related to your Bear Skill or Role, you get to roll 2d6 and pick the lowest.
Of course it’s not that simple. You are a BEAR CRIMINAL, after all. Or a CRIMINAL BEAR, I guess. When things go awry you move a point from CRIMINAL to BEAR as you get frustrated, but when things go well you move a point from BEAR to CRIMINAL as greed seeps into your bear heart. If either stat reaches 6, you’re in big trouble. Or the team is. Or the innocent bystanders. Because if CRIMINAL reaches 6 you betray the party, and if BEAR reaches 6 you ‘flip out bear style’, and here comes animal control.
There’s another page for the GM which basically consists of some more 1d6 random tables to determine things like who’s organizing the convention, where it is, an unfortunate surprise for the bears to run into (such as a rival team of bears), and some security features. Honey Heist is pretty popular and well-known at this point (a recent Critical Role one-shot episode featured the game), and it’s easy to tell why: aside from being easy to run and play there’s definitely an appeal in seeing bears in awesome hats (not bear people, BEARS) try to pull off an Ocean’s 11-style heist that would bring a smile to Winnie the Pooh’s gluttonous face.
Lasers and Feelings – by John Harper
You are the crew of the interstellar scout ship Raptor. Your mission is to explore uncharted regions of space, deal with aliens both friendly and deadly, and defend the Consortium worlds against space dangers. Captain Darcy has been overcome by the strange psychic entity known as Something Else, leaving you to fend for yourselves while he recovers in a medical pod.
This one outright says that the player’s goal is to get their character “involved in crazy space adventures and try to make the best of them.” Characters consist of a style (i.e. Dangerous or Savvy), a role (i.e. Engineer or Pilot), a cool space name, and a number from 2-5 chosen by the player. A high number means the character is better at LASERS, which translates to things like science, logic, and well-planned action. A low number means the character is better with FEELINGS, which translates to things like diplomacy, intuition, and passionate action.
Whenever you’re doing something, you’re rolling 1d6. If you’re prepared you get an extra die, and if you’re an expert in whatever you’re doing you get another one (the GM tells you how many dice you’re rolling). If you’re using LASERS you want to roll under your number, and if you want to roll FEELINGS you want to roll over them. You only need one die to land the way you want them to in order to succeed, but if you succeed with multiple dice than you can get some bonuses. If your dice lands exactly on your number, you’ve got LASER FEELINGS, and you get some special insight into the situation.
The GM’s section on the upper right corner of the page consists of some tables to roll on to determine what sort of space danger the crew of the Raptor is dealing with this time. For instance, it could be that Zorgon the Conqueror is trying to bond with the Void Crystals, which will Reverse Time. Lasers and Feelings feels like a rule-lite Star Trek RPG, although Trek certainly isn’t the only flavor of space shenanigans that you can engage in. Even within just the Star Trek realm, I could see the game ranging from decently serious to decidedly wacky, giving it a broader appeal. It’s a fun one and, although someone really ought to get Captain Darcy out of that pod, it’s one of the few micro-games I could see having more than one session with the same characters to its name.
Also, bit of trivia, Harper named the game after a song by The Doubleclicks!
All Outta Bubblegum – by Michael Sullivan and Jeffrey Grant
“When you lose your last stick of bubblegum, you are officially all outta bubblegum. You may no longer attempt any kind of non-asskicking activity. Simple devices like, say, the handles of doors confound you (eerily enough, you have no problem field-stripping a .50 caliber machinegun to clear a jam in 15 seconds flat). However, you automatically succeed in any asskicking-related activity. You are a nearly unstoppable ball of bubblegum-less fury.”
You’ve got one stat, Bubblegum, which starts at 8. You are here, as the saying goes, to kick ass and chew bubblegum. Whenever you want to do something, you roll a d10. If the thing you want to do involves kicking ass, you need to roll higher than your Bubblegum score. If the thing you want to do does not involve kicking ass in any way, you need to roll equal to or below your Bubblegum score. If you fail a non-combat roll, you lose a stick of Bubblegum, and you can also sacrifice one to automatically succeed. You also lose a stick of Bubblegum if you’re on the wrong end of an ass-kicking roll. The game encourages the GM to hand out actual sticks of bubblegum instead of writing down numbers.
See the introductory paragraph for what happens when you’re All Outta Bubblegum.
Now, the only time I’ve played All Outta Bubblegum it was Aaron running the game, except it was All Outta Honey Badger, because it was our yearly gathering and our friend Mike makes his own mead. Named Honey Badger. Which was put into eight plastic shot glasses in front of each of us, in lieu of pieces of bubblegum.
This was a TERRIBLE IDEA (even factoring in that the game admits that this is probably a game played while drinking) that I spent most of the next morning regretting by lying in bed and longing for the sweet embrace of Death, and the madness was not at all helped by the fact that we’d been playing as rival archaeologist ninja cats thanks to a random premise generator. That being said, it was fun (the session ended with, if I’m remembering correctly, a three-way cross-counter punch that I’m pretty sure blew up the planet), and the lesson learned (aside from don’t ever play this game as a drinking game using something called Honey Badger) is that a random premise generator can be pretty useful for really bare-bone games like this one, micro or otherwise.
Amidst Endless Quiet – by Ben Lehman
I don’t want to linger on this one too much, as good as it is, because we’ve actually already covered it. Go read that and then come back here. AEQ does deserve another mention, though, because it’s an example of both the GM-less and ‘focused story’ models (it being a diceless storytelling game certainly helps with that). Only one character is going to get to survive the destruction of the Elios; the only thing to do is for the passenger PCs to convince the Elios PC which one of them gets launched in the escape pod before everything blows up. There’s no excess to a game like this, which really helps it get the feeling across.
And the Endless Horde of Other Options
There are a lot of other micro games out there. Our Twitter follower @DavidSGoodwin pointed us towards Ghost Lines, another Harper game that clocks in at four pages, is about haunted lightning railroads and the people who clear them, and is actually Powered by the Apocalypse. I found a number of different lists and collections while looking around for examples.
While most micro games are available online and are either free or Pay What You Want, there’s also room for them in print, at least when it comes to anthologies. #feminism, for example, was put into print by Pelgrane Press this year, and has a whopping 34 micro games covering a wide variety of feminist topics/scenarios and a mood range from outright silly to dead serious. I got to read through the anthology at PAX Unplugged, and was pretty impressed; the collection was a great example of how micro games can find their way into print and how many different games can be covered with this format (as well as how games in general can be used to address serious issues, but that’s another topic altogether).
There’s always more being made as well, sometimes in surprising numbers. As an example, among the lists above is the 200 Word RPG Challenge, managed by David Schirduan and Marshall Miller, an annual challenge with three years under its belt. It’s pretty self-explanatory: create a roleplaying game using 200 words or less. The entries are judged by a panel, and three are chosen every year as the winners. 2017 saw almost 700 entries! That’s a big collection of little games.
Basically? If there’s a type of micro game you want to play, hit the net and you’ll probably find it. So, the next time you have a couple hours set aside for gaming but only want a page or two of ‘rules’, give the micro game market a try!
Or write your own. We could always use more good ones!