ENnies Wonk: Best Free Game 2018

Surprise, it’s not the normal Level One Wonk this time, though I am gladly ripping off his format. At the start of the month, nominations for the ENnie awards were released. The nominations present a wonderful resource for GMs and gamers, and similarly for game reviewers. It had turned out that a number of nominations were games that we had written about in the past, but there were plenty more for us to study as well. In particular, there was one category that interested me: Best Free Game. Occasionally, players and GMs run on tight finances but still require their gaming fix. SRDs are plenty helpful, but sometimes you want to try something a bit different. A number of these games are more demos or skins for games that stop early than full, completely ready out of the box systems, but it is enough to get started, and to see if you enjoy the product enough to buy the full version . . . or creative players and GMs might be able to push it beyond expectations. These are only cursory reviews, and if something interests you, I fully recommend checking them out. They are, after all, free.

Esper Genesis Basic Rules may seem like just the basics, but it is surprisingly complete and well fleshed out. The rule engine is heavily based upon 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, but the authors spent a good amount of time world-building in a way to make the setting their own. The game is Science Fantasy more than a sci-fi game, with the inclusions of artifacts by the name of Crucibles, with their version of Unobtainium (Sorium) that empowers beings to be Espers. Classes are mostly sci-fi skins of 5E classes, with magic being replaced by psychic powers, but the authors did take time to try to make the classes and their specializations work. They also go on to make their own version of space travel and space combat rules, so they do provide something new to the genre, even if I suspect it has been grafted over from another setting rather than being created from whole cloth. The book art is beautiful and just fun to look at. The basic rules only run up to level 10, but you definitely feel as if there is a completed game here, and players can go quite a way with just that level cap.

In comparison Modos 2, or at least the demo version they’ve released, feels a lot more incomplete. From as best I can tell, the game appears to want to be as generalized a roleplaying system as possible, and after some reflection, the closest comparison I can draw is that the authors wanted to remake Savage Worlds with an eye to GURPS. Characters are encouraged to be anything, and in their play examples, they definitely drive that home: they are a combination of High Fantasy, Supers, and Cyperpunk. Character building is done with a point buy system, and you can give yourselves talents and other customization features. I don’t hate the idea, and I personally don’t see anything wrong with pushing together characters from wildly different genres into a game together. My issue is that the support level for that end is rather light in this book. GURPS and Savage Worlds, for all their faults, at least have abundant sourcebooks or ports to provide some sort of reference point. To me, it seems that they went so general in order to allow anything the players could come up with that they failed to provide structure to do it. In addition, the rules aren’t as clearly spelled out, and overall the book feels disorganized.

For me, a better take on a “make whatever universe you want” game is in the Forthright Creative Commons. While it keeps a d20 base, it has picked up a few influences along the way. The mechanics show some similarities to Powered by the Apocalypse, in that they have ranges that break out results based on varying degrees of success from failure, to success with a negative (Exchange), success, or success with an extra benefit (Boon). The game begins by having players and the GM get together to world build, settle on the theme and feel of the game, and work out any house rules in advance. I am also reminded a bit of Fate, in that the game has power level settings to help determine a range between gritty and superheroic, and they provide a number of suggested skills to help start players off. Also like Fate, they leave open plenty of room for players to create their own skills and Boosts (positive advantages). It feels as if the authors wanted to create a game that functions very close to Fate in terms of narrative function, but without the (unjustified) reputation about Fate mechanics.

Saga of the Goblin Horde might be the most complete of the free games, largely because it was built using Savage Worlds. With most of the mechanics in place, the authors were free to write out a different narrative, and use the mechanical framework to flesh out the storytelling. Saga of the Goblin Horde flips the script and has players step into the shoes of one of the many different goblinoid races, who defend their horde against the groups who attack them: Nomadic bands of Beastfolk, Orgrekind clans who clash over territory, and worst of all Humans, the creatures who raid and slaughter Goblins for “entertainment”. While the perspective flip is not unprecedented (see the excellent webcomic Goblins), it does give room to try out a different society than the standard human adventurer one, and I think there is plenty of room to tell an interesting story. The game isn’t the most innovative, but it should run smoothly and have interesting stories to tell.

Finally, we come to High Plains Samurai: Legends. It is easily the most out-there of the premises, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The conceit is that the players (the “Writers”) and the GM (“the Director”) are trying to create a new TV show/anime/Netflix original series/movie franchise, and what is happening in the game is their brainstorming process. They’ve cooked up a doozy:  a post-Apocalyptic samurai steampunk western (so, basically a conglomeration of a bunch of AMC original programming). The game is more storytelling with some rules than most tabletop games, relying on players (and the GM) introducing details to the story and trying to create greater effects by invoking things in the scenes, along with rolling a “complication die” to dictate where the story goes rather than successes and failures. Obviously, this will not appeal to some people. It might be a powergamer’s worst nightmare, but it may very well appeal to people who game for the roleplaying experience above all else, or are looking to do creative brainstorming of their own. The game is considered a demo, with a full version set to release in the fall of 2018, so this could be considered a late beta, and I am sure there will be changes made.

That is all of the nominees for Best Free Game in the 2018 ENnies! We will be keeping an eye out on how the awards go, and we can’t wait to see who wins. If there are any other free games that you would recommend that we check out, let us know and tell us why you think they deserved to be on this list! Contact us in the comments or on Twitter @HungryHalfling or @WHalfling.

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