So far in my exploration of microlite gaming, I have stuck with games that have taken a single particular approach — taking an existing game and attempting to condense the rules while still maintaining a similar format. Microlite20 (and its spinoffs, such as Microlite20 Modern and Dragoons20) and Mini Six are still recognizably d20- and d6 -based, which is one of the selling points.
This is not, however, the only way to condense a game into a microlite, as proven by Nicolas Dessaux and Sean Wills. Dessaux has written what may be the lightest possible microlite condensation of Dungeons and Dragons that still maintains compatibility with published materials: Searchers of the Unknown. Searchers dispenses with anything but the barest premise of D&D, that of armed parties delving into “dungeons”, but the true marvel is that it bases its entire character creation and resolution processes on pre-d20 monster presentation methods. To quote Dessaux, in the lead-in “Concept” paragraph of Searchers:
“A typical old-school D&D module stats list for a monster looks like this: (AC6, MV9’, HD 1, hp 4, #AT1, D1-10 by halberd). The idea is that, if it’s enough for monsters, it should be enough for PCs too. This light-rule system enables to play these modules in that way.”
There are no mages, clerics, thieves, paladins, barbarians, rangers or other character types in Searchers of the Unknown. We are told casters wisely stay home, using their talents to indirectly aid adventurers. Characters are warriors, and within these limited confines, the game works brilliantly.
Chararacter creation in Searchers is a simple process of choosing armor to determine your AC and MV (heavier armor protects you more, but you’re slower), rolling your HP on 1d8 per level, choosing three weapons (or two and a shield) to determine the damage you inflict, recording your level-based number of attacks and adding fluff like name and description. That’s it. Thirty seconds or less, and you can have a complete character. Things like race, homeland and other profession have absolutely no mechanical effect.
Being derived from D&D, Searchers uses all the polyhedral dice, including d20 for saves and combat, d10 for initiative and d4, d6 and d8 for weapon damages and HP. Searchers of the Unknown includes simple rules for combat (including, interestingly enough, multiple rolls for initiative if a character has multiple attacks), healing, adventuring and advancement. The entire game fits on one side of one page, something not even Microlite20 did. Magic is mentioned, and can be found on scrolls or applied by NPCs, but the game makes no attempt to list what types of magic could be used, freeing the GM completely.
I cannot see any way to further condense Dungeons & Dragons and still maintain compatibility with published material. Dessaux’s creation is a work of art — but that isn’t everything. This is a doubleshot review, and for the second shot we turn to Swashbucklers of Mars by Sean Wills. Swashbucklers is based on Searchers of the unknown, relying on the same one-page presentation format. The premise is simple: to play stories in the vein of the John Carter of Mars books by Edgar Rice Borroughs. Mars is the location, and such things as the Radium Pistol, the races presented and features in the text make it clear that this is ultralite action on Barsoom.
Character creation follows the same track as in Searchers. A PC’s armor class and move are based on armor chosen. Characters all get 1d8 hit points per level. Characters receive two weapon choices; ranged weapons consciously do less damage than melee weapons to present tactical choice… except the fabulous Radium Pistol, which does a whopping 2d6 during the day or 1d8 at night, but is expressly called out as being dishonorable to use against opponents in melee. Number of attacks is again based on level. Race, however, actually has a mechanical effect. Each race receives a bonus modifier. Race is rolled randomly on 1d4, and includes stranded Earthlings and Red, Black and Yellow Martians, all of whom will be familiar to those experienced with the adventures of John Carter.
Combat resolves the same as in Searchers, and Swashbucklers includes the same rules for healing, adventuring and experience. The document ends with two sample Martian creatures, including Green Martians (who, being so powerful, are not presented as PCs), and a “generic Martian monster” which can be adapted to a great many things. There is also a link to an Original D&D discussion forum where more material can be found for the game.
In one stroke, Wills has opened up the vastness of Barsoom and presented an almost-unbelievably light alternative to the (absolutely brilliant, in my opinion) MARS RPG. Both of these games can be picked up and played in mere minutes. Wills’s innovation of the simple racial mechanics could be easily back-ported into Searchers of the Unknown; in fact, the two could be played together with minimal effort, in the style of many classic (A)D&D adventures.
As a bonus, Swashbucklers of Mars has a vehicle supplement entitled Sailing the Skies of Mars, which is compatible with both Swashbucklers and Searchers.
Both Searchers of the Unknown and Swashbucklers of Mars are freely available at the links provided above. Both games have likewise been reviewed already in multiple places, so if you’re interested in more information and different takes, you can easily find them. Check them out!