I don't often review games - I'm usually too busy playing and find it hard to come up with things to say that aren't just lists of rules that I like or dislike, but I'm going to make an exception now and make a suggestion:
You should buy Index Card RPG.
Not so much a suggestion as an unsubtle instruction I guess. But let me explain why.
Some time ago, no idea how, my YouTube meanderings brought me across a channel about Dungeons and Dragons - The title was as unsubtle as my suggestion - "Drunkens and Dragons - How to play D&D like a big old bad ass." My interest piqued by the approach I watched, despite not believing anyone could tell me anything new about D&D.
Ah the folly of approaching senility.
The channel was run by one Hankerin Ferinale the nom-de-jeux of one Brandish Gilhelm whose real name is as player-character worthy as his assumed name. Hankerin (for so I always think of him) presented a series of episodes about room design, rpg theory, rules essentials... all stuff I've been doing for decades. But he still hooked me, fired me up and got me thinking. Hankerin presented his ideas with an infectious enthusiasm that could not help but be inspiring. His focus was on making the gaming experience more direct and more fun at the table and stripping away everything that got in the way of that. And then he released an RPG that embodied all these principles. I bought it right away.
Now here's a confession, and an awkward one. I've never run ICRPG. I may never run ICRPG. But was it worth the money? Hell yes. Let me tell you why:
If you do decide to run ICRPG you will get a system that allows you to quickly make up distinctive characters in a variety of settings - from the evocative fantasy world of Alfheim to the futuristic space opera of Warp Shell. Or mix and match them. Later iterations of the ruleset include a Weird West campaign background and rules for dealing with horror and suspense stories. All using the same system, all without losing any of the flavour and efficiency of the system.
The rules are as simple as they come but they aren't vague in the way some rules-lite systems are. It's a d20 Roll Over system but with a few tweaks. Characteristics are reduced to the modifiers to that roll. Character type adds more options and bonuses. Loot gathered during the course of play gives bonuses with conditions based on what it is. This same rulebase covers combat and non-combat skills alike. In a move I haven't seen anywhere else before every roll can be handled like combat with a result (success/failure) and an effect: In combat as we're all used to the effect is damage. In other skill use you still make an effect roll based on who you are and what you're using and complex tasks can be accomplished in stages... just like taking down a goblin would be in a fight. Want to pick a lock, a complex lock? Well make a roll to succeed each turn and each time you do another dice roll moves you closer to the lock popping open. Since ICRPG keeps the focus within measured turns and there is always a timer ticking down this adds real suspense to any task.
Timers did you say, Finn? Yes I said Timers.
I Love Timers
Did I mention I haven't run ICRPG yet and can't see myself doing so for the foreseeable future? I have about four or five campaigns on the go at the moment using a mix of homebrew and official systems. I don't want to start something new. But what I am doing is stealing elements from ICRPG to make things more exciting and Timers is one such element.
What Hankerin does is give every scene one or more time pressures - making them known to the players and overt. Usually a roll of a dice sets the starting number which ticks down each turn that the player characters act. When it reaches zero something bad happens - reinforcements, collapsing ceiling, transformation of the floor into angry stoats, something. It always escalates things. And that simple little technique adds so much tension you have to try it to believe it.
I used it recently during a game of Masks. My group of teen supers were raiding a stealth-battleship to rescue some abducted kids and a climactic battle took place in a room where one of the kids was about to be experimented on (Seraphim's kid brother Tomas, master of extortion and seeing things he shouldn't). An early move by one of the player characters badly damaged the big lit-up gizmo in the heart of the room and I decided there and then to employ a Timer.
"You can tell it's going to blow in... three rounds."
Now rounds in Masks are pretty vague but everyone kind of knew what that meant. Suddenly they had to deal not only with the bad guy, the henchman and rescue Tomas from a surgical table where he was strapped but they had to do it all in a handful of actions.
In my favourite moment of the session on the very last round before the Timer ticked to zero, Two-Blade delayed their own escape from the room to slam the bad guy onto the table and lock their arm to one of the restraints. One mad dash later and Two-Blade got out and slammed the door... the bad guy wasn't so lucky (but you know the old rule - if you don't see the villain's body he's halfway to Acapulco).
Without the Timer the urgency would not have been there.
Without the Timer that cool moment would have seemed like arbitrary fluff.
And Timers are just one of the things that make ICRPG so cool.
What's the best bit?
The very best thing of all though is Hankerin's 'voice' which comes through in every part of the game. He clearly loves what he does and he communicates that with every bit of advice, every example of play, every suggestion for how the game can be used. If you feel a bit jaded as a GM I challenge you to read this book and not be hungry to get to the table and revolutionise your games either by using ICRPG as is or, as I'm doing, stealing parts from it and frankensteining them into my own games.
He's rebranded his YouTube channel as Runehammer now which you can find HERE and which I recommend to anyone who plays any roleplaying game. His key mechanics playlist is one of my go to watches when I'm at a loose end and need to get myself thinking about gaming.
ICRPG is about to be released in its second edition, incorporating changes and refinements added since first edition was released, honing it still further. I'll be buying second edition too and reading it cover to cover. Runehammer's page on DriveThruRPG is HERE.
Hankerin's very tuned into Thor, which is cool. I'm more of an asshole Odin guy myself as this over-wordy post probably proves, but let me tell you about Thor. The Norse saw him as a god who brought fertility and plenty, and of course the god of storms and lightning. Stick close to Hankerin and you'll give birth to ideas and wonderful stories, and if there is anything worth kindling in you his lightning will cause it to blaze.