Jump Into Pen-and-Paper Roleplaying With These Free and Simple Systems

I’m gonna come out and say it: Nerds are hot. I’m a nerd. I’m hot. If you’re a nerd and you’re reading this, I think you’re hot. So it follows that we sexy, sexy nerds should try an archetypically nerdy activity: pen-and-paper roleplaying games (RPGs). I love them. I get to use my imagination, make friends, and do it all in a way that is ultra-budget friendly. The communities are usually queer-friendly, and I’ve made long-running friendships through these games.

I also know RPGs can be a little daunting if you’re not already ‘in.’ It’s committing to a whole new form of entertainment. It takes socializing, imagination and, worst of all, basic arithmetic. I totally get it. So if you’re at all interested in this awesome hobby and have those worries, I’m here to help.

Here’s a bunch of easy-to-learn roleplaying systems that are still packed with love and detail. They’re also better than cheap. They’re free. Which is more than I can say for board games nowadays.


Offworlders

Offworlders is about scoundrels and outcasts finding their way through the universe. You’ll need someone to be the Game Master (GM) and facilitate, and at least two other players up for sci-fi adventure. The game has really straightforward character creation and core mechanics, but leaves the world open-ended for the players to develop.

As my group’s forever GM, I adore Offworlders because it’s a tightly written ruleset that’s super easy to modify. I’m currently running it for my girlfriend and our bestie. I was able to rewrite the whole book for a unique setting and run it without fear. Offworlders is also very friendly to inexperienced GMs. The latter third of the 26-page book contains crisp guidance for GMs, and the whole game is wrapped in a single book. All you need are a few six-sided dice.

Offworlders is free, but you’re politely encouraged to send a few dollars to the creators if you like it. Get it from the official site, or DriveThruRPG.

Cairn

Cairn is a dark fantasy game about adventurers trying to make a living. If they’re really good at surviving the world, they might even make a difference. This is one of the best lightweight alternatives to Dungeons and Dragons out there. It captures the feel of fantasy adventure without a $60+ ticket price or piles of reading to catch up on. To play Cairn, you’ll need a GM (known as the Warden), player(s), and 20-sided dice. As always, the Warden should be up for running the adventures and adjudicating.

Just like Offworlders, Cairn shines because it’s easy to get into and not tied to an established universe. As long as everyone is cool with dark fantasy, the game can be whatever you make it. The game’s framework is easy to pick up but has all the structure you’d want to run investigation, horror, or epic adventures for a small group.

You can get Cairn from DriveThruRPG or the official site. The official site also has loads of extra resources and pre-packed adventures to jump into.

Her Odyssey

Her Odyssey is a solo journalling game about overcoming adversity and finding home. While all of the other entries need at least one other player, Her Odyssey is played by one. It’s part of a new generation of solo journalling games where one person crafts a story through journal entries. The game mechanics are resolved using a four-sided die and a standard deck of cards. Since the game’s medium is journaling, you’ll also want a way to record the wanderer’s story. A paper journal is traditional, nobody begrudges a digital option.

In Her Odyssey, you craft a character who is on a journey to find home. Each day, you draw a card from the deck to determine the challenge they’ll face. They’ll try to overcome the challenge using a set of simple attributes and a die roll. The outcome is written in the journal and the story continues. By the end of your solo adventure, you’ll be looking at an in-character account of the road home, or the path to damnation.

Solo journalling games like Her Odyssey are ideal for people who want to craft a story on their own. They can be a literary routine that turns into a compelling story, or a relaxing commuter pastime. Her Odyssey is free (or pay-what-you-want) on itch.io. The developers have even compiled a vibey playlist for inspiration when playing.

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Summer Tao

Summer Tao is a South Africa based writer. She has a fondness for queer relationships, sexuality and news. Her love for plush cats, and video games is only exceeded by the joy of being her bright, transgender self

Summer has written 40 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. Oo I hadn’t heard of of these , thank you!

    I’m fond of one page two stat RPGS like Honey Heist (where the two stats are “Bear” and “Criminal” – great if you enjoy planning backwards / doing flashback scenes to make your heist as cool as possible), and Lasers and Feelings (star trekky sci fi where the two stats are indeed “lasers” and “feelings” and it’s named after an album by queer nerd musical duo The Doubleclicks). Both are pay-what-you-want.

  2. 👀 thank you for this. If you’re ever up to writing a guide to GMing for (neurodivergent) folks-who-worry-they-have-poor-imagination-and-improv-skills… please do lol. If ultimately the answer is “practice” though I *will* grumble and be grumpy about it… and start with one of these 😛 I’ve tried running Monsterhearts a couple times, but with players similarly imbued with improvisational imposter feelings, my brain felt reaaaally stretched fleshing out scenes 😅

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