The Freedom of Simplicity – The ICRPG: Core Review

What is ICRPG?

Index Card RPG: Core is a self contained roleplay system written and designed by Hankerin Ferinale of Drunkens and Dragons fame. The system pulls together much of what Hank has espoused on his YouTube channel for the last couple of years, from his thoughts on room design and encounter construction, to his love of clean mechanics and player agency.

It is worth noting, before we continue, that this product is not the first to carry the ICRPG moniker. Volumes 1 was released in December last year, with Volume 2 following close on its heels. These two PDFs are completely system agnostic, and are designed to be used as tools for the DM, either for story construction, or as visual aides during the game. They’re well worth the $6 they each cost, and play a role within Core, but are not what we’re talking about today.

What do you get?

ICRPG is available in both physical and digital formats, with the two bundled together at a discount. I don’t have a physical copy (though I do hope to grab one at some point), so I won’t be reviewing that here.

The digital copy consists of :

  • The Core rulebook. This includes the rules of the game, the stat blocks of monsters, a section on game mastery, d100 loot tables, and primers for a sci fi and a fantasy campaign setting.
  • Print and Play minis. This includes a huge number of player characters for both the sci fi and fantasy settings, as well as the monsters within the rulebook.
  • The Character sheet as a separate PDF.
  • An online play kit.
  • A Tabletop Simulator Mod.

It should be pointed out that the last two were not available at launch. Hank has done a great job of updating, correcting and adding to Core, and is constantly talking to the community about what is coming, and responding to feedback from the community. The one element I do feel is missing here is a change log file which would quickly and easily draw attention to any major revisions of rules, additions, etc. That said, this whole project is overseen by one man who only has so much time to work on these things, so I’ll let it slide.

Bookcraft

Good stuff

The core rulebook is stands at 121 pages and is, in the most part, very well laid out. The colour scheme of black and white with red highlights is bold and eye catching, without becoming wearying to read. The chapters make sense, and can be printed as separate books to create the more traditional D&D, three-book format. The language and descriptions are well written, concise and easy to understand. The artwork is truly wonderful; simple and evocative, and reinforcing the concepts described in the text in a way that makes learning the rules incredibly simple.

The not-So-good stuff

There are two issues with this book, one of which has been corrected in PDF v1.1, but is still worth mentioning as it will be a part of the current print release (note, this is the reason they are currently reduced – 7/5/17).

The first is typos. There are, by Hankerin’s own admission (and grovelling apology), a number of typos in v1.0. These have since been corrected, but will still exist within the first edition print copies. Unfortunately I can’t detail these errors, as I only have v1.1 available to me at the moment.

The glaring issue in v1.1 is that of confusing text. The worst example of this is in character creation. In the starting equipment section it states that you may choose three items from the list, one of which is a common weapon. The common weapon text states that you may take up to three of these weapons. The confusion I, and many others, had was this – does each weapon count towards one of your three starting item slots, or do all three count as one slot? This has since been answered by Hank on the Google+ forum (turns out all three weapons count as one slot), but it’s not the only example.

In my first read through I found there was a strange splitting of the rules in the book. The first section detailed how to play the game, but missed out topics which are detailed later in the book, such as initiative order, hard and easy rolls, and ‘dynamic dice’. I came to understand what I think is the principle behind this; that these concepts are for the Dungeon Master, not necessarily the player, and are therefore kept in the Game Mastery section. However, I feel that this puts those things into the hands of the DM, where they should be the responsibility of the player to keep track of. Let’s take an example.

You walk into a wide, open space, with a narrow, but deep, gorge. You know you need to leap the gorge, but are worried about the room DC, which is 14. You have no Dex bonus, so the idea of rolling a natural 14 is terrifying. You pull the grappling hook from your bag and throw it at the tree branches above you. You miss, but on your next turn you try again. Because you failed to complete this action last turn, the roll is now considered ‘easy’, so you get a -3 bonus to the target DC.

In my opinion, in a circumstance like this, it is the job of the player to remember that they are entitled to the easy roll. As a DM I want to offload everything I can, and that is appropriate, to the players so that I can just get on with running a dramatic game. I feel like including these sections within the players’ handbook (so-to-speak) section of the book would greatly benefit this. There is also the matter of these sections’ placement within the Game Mastery section. They sit between sections on DM theory, such as adventure construction, how to use hearts to denote levels of challenge, and using ICRPG as a plug-in for other games systems. This feels weird, and I don’t feel helps the flow of the DM’s section of this book. In my opinion, the rules should be together, with more story-centric concepts given their space in the GM section.

The rules

The bit you all wanna hear about. First things first, it’s important to note that ICRPG, at it’s core (no pun intended…wait, who am I kidding?), is the offspring of WotC’s 5e OGL. While they might be hidden behind different terms, many of the ideas and mechanics D&D 5e is known for reside here too; AC is now called armour, the classic, six attributes are there, the system is d20 based, and, as far as I can tell, most of the maths is roughly the same.

To call this a D&D variant, though, feels reductive, and ignores much of what makes ICRPG appealing. The system feels more a love letter to the game, taking the best from it, while adding something new, and unique to the game. Rather than give a page-by-page account of the rules, I want to focus in on what I think are the most important, or innovative ideas in the book.

Lastly, to paraphrase the game’s own designer, ICRPG is less a game system, and instead more of a philosophy on how to run an RPG. I’d agree. But I’ll talk more about that soon.

Effort

This is the big one that people have been talking about, and is probably one of the two biggest influences on how this game actually plays. In ICRPG there are two fundamental types of rolls – checks and attempts. A check is the same as it is in 5e; your character tries to do something, and you roll a d20 to see if they succeed. A stealth check, for example. An attempt, however, works differently. If you want to do something that does not have a binary result (such as picking a chest, lifting a heavy rock, etc), you roll a check to see if you can do it. If you succeed, you roll the appropriate effort die, and that ‘Effort’ is added to the amount required to complete the action. This means that several people can lift a heavy rock, and it may take multiple turns to finally meet the amount of Effort required.

Effort is also tied in with another key mechanic of the game; Hearts. Hearts are central to encounter building in the game as they denote the amount of effort required to complete a challenge. They also denote the hit points of monsters and of players. A heart is, simply, ten effort. So, a two heart encounter will require a total of twenty effort, be it in the form of weapon damage against an enemy, or of Basic Work opening a chest.

Time and Initiative

When I read the rules for the first time, Time was the one thing I thought I’d ditch almost immediately. I relish the free form nature of 5e, and the way that people can jump in and out, in a very real way.

Having played ICRPG, I can promise you I will not be dropping this mechanic (though, it is worth saying, I will not be incorporating it into my 5e game). In ICRPG, there is never a moment when you are out of initiative. From start to finish, the game runs in initiative. On top of that, initiative is never rolled. Turns are taken, in seating order, clockwise from the DM (although astute and cheeky players are welcome to swap seats in order to change initiative, in order to do thing in specific order, or to gain advantages during a fight. If you’re sceptical, let me explain why it works in ICRPG.

  1. Quick turns. The turn sequence in ICRPG is incredibly quick, and simple to understand. You can move ‘Far’ (read: Dash), you can move ‘Near’ (read: normal movement) and take an action, or you can stand still (I go a little further and say you can take a couple of steps) and take two actions. Since characters have almost no special rules (something I’ll come back to), turns tend to fly by. In a group of 7 people, no one ever really had time to get bored, which is unheard of in D&D.
  2. Player Agency. Can I be real here? I’m ‘One Of Those Players’. The long time DM who knows the rules, and can jump into character at the drop of a hat, having needed to do so with NPCs forever. It also makes it very easy for me, in a traditional RPG setting, to become the de facto leader, often at the expense of other people’s agency. People wait to see what I do, because they’re not as experienced, and don’t feel able to jump in over the ones who are usually louder and more self assured. This isn’t a good thing. If a character is easy to push around, and follows the will of those stronger than them, that’s fine, but only if it is a narrative choice made exclusively by the player.

    This is not a problem when initiative order is enforced, because every player is, every turn, specifically asked what they would like to do. They don’t need to assert themselves; the DM asks them what they want. I love this. I really do.

  3. It’s really not that different anyway. Let’s face it, it’s just not. Especially when you factor in the ability to swap seats and the like, it doesn’t change anything. You still get to do all the cool stuff you did before, just now the DM can control time better. Which, speaking of controlling time, brings us too…
  4. Controlling time. Controlling time is a huge thing for DMs. It allows you to ramp up suspense simply by rolling a d4 and saying “something bad happens in 3 turns”. Initiative makes this less arbitrary, and gives the players a very clear idea of how long they have. Physical timers are great, but I feel they have a less terrifying effect. They also have the problem of being completely arbitrary. 3 turns, for example, is around 18-25 seconds, depending on how you break up time. A three minute timer, however, is enough time for the players to either pick a lock and argue, or batter the door down, search the room, kill the skeleton they find, and still manage to escape. That could be anywhere between eight seconds and ten minutes. Control time, throw those d4s, and make your players scared.

Player Characters.

PCs are easy and quick to build, easy to learn to play, and easy to inhabit.

Oh, you wanted more detail?

Building

You have six points to spend, each one representing a +1 modifier. You can add these to any of the stats on your character sheet, be it an ability score, armour, or effort. No derivative maths, no calculations, you just put +1, +2, +3, etc after a few stats. Yes, different bio-forms (Hank, I prefer Xenos, or Species to Bio-Form, but it’s the same difference; you took race out of RPGs. Good lad.) have additional bonuses, but the six point system is the core.

Once you’ve sorted your stats you choose a class. Classes, unlike in 5e, don’t have specific bonuses or abilities. Instead they only come with recommended gear, and an additional piece of starter gear. This means it’s entirely possible to build a kickass fighter who can cast healing spells right from the get-go. It’s hugely flexible, and deliberately so. Each class comes with, however, Milestone Rewards. These are what replaces the levelling feature of most other RPG systems. When the DM feels you’ve done enough to warrant it they will either choose a reward for you, or ask you to choose your own milestone from the list. It’s elegant, simple, and saves players leafing through three to six bits of paper trying to work out what they can do.

Playing

As I said above, playing is simple. You have almost nothing to memorise, which means you can get to the business of being creative and having fun. Even damage dice are simplified to d6 for common weapons and d8 for magical ones. It’s wonderfully easy to play, and makes roleplaying so much easier.

Inhabiting

With such simplicity, you no longer have to find mechanical reasons to do narrative things. That makes the whole business of inhabiting the character so much easier. Just think what they would do, and talk to your DM about it, rather than searching for the mechanic that will help you be your character, only to discover it doesn’t exist.

Universal DC

I cannot believe that I like this, but I do. The idea is that every room has a ‘Target’, and every check that is made, every monster that is attacked, you need to roll above the Target to do so. The thing I love about this? If something considered ‘easy’, the target is reduced by 3 for that roll. If it’s ‘hard’, increase the target by 3. No more arbitrary DCs off the top of your head. Just decide how difficult it is, and either add three, subtract 3, or leave the target as it is.

So, how does it play?

There’s plenty more I could say about the rules, but I feel the most important thing is how it feels at the table. I’ve already covered this a little bit from the player perspective, so I’ll focus more on the DM side here.

Firstly, the game will, at times, almost run itself. During a large encounter you can boil things right down to simple mechanics, and get out the way. My players, for example, jumped into a submarine to get away from an alien Kraken. The Kraken attacked every 1d4 rounds, with 1d4 tentacles, in random sections of the sub, each dealing 1d12 damage. Each tentacle had 1 heart and dealt an additional 1d4 every turn it was on the sub. Honestly, I could have left the table, and the players could have finished that fight themselves. It ran itself, which allowed me to focus on story, description, and helping the players. I loved it.

The hard/easy mechanic also takes a load of stress off the DM. I hate having to make up DCs for things I’ve never thought of; but assuming 12 as a base DC, should the party go to a town I hadn’t planned, or what-have-you, you can set DCs ahead of time for specific areas, then  add or subtract three. Even better, the players should be able to see the DC, meaning that you aren’t even having to tell them if they’ve succeeded! The players are responsible for so much more!

All in all, I feel this game works really well for fast-paced, mechanical games. Turns are fast, the system is low stress for everyone involved, and is incredibly social on the whole. I love it, and see myself playing it for a very long time. With that said, it lacks much of the complexity that I love in 5e; I love cracking out that specific ability with my Paladin, that little thing that gives me a slight edge. But saying a system is not as good as another because it lacks complexity is ridiculous. 5e is a great game, ICRPG is a great game. They both cater to different styles of game, and both have much to learn and take influence from one another.

So, in closing, I can’t recommend this book enough. At the very least there are swathes of the rules (not the mention the amazing Game Mastery section that I simply haven’t had the space to properly talk about here) that you can farm out for your other systems. The world settings are incredible (shout out to my Warp Shell homies), and I hope to write more about them in the coming days. And the whole system is set to get better with time. Expansion 1 was released a couple of days ago (at time of writing), and introduces new loot tables, tables for random characters, and a Warp Shell adventure, including new player races and paper minis. It’s a living system that is being updated constantly at no extra cost. Also, to get the full experience, get involved in the ICRPG Google+ group; the Torton race began life as a homebrew for one DM’s friend, and is now a canonical part of the Warp Shell mythos. The people there are scarily talented.

Anyway, thank you if you got this far. If you have any questions, hit me up at sundaynightdm@gmail.com, @Chris_Hately on Instagram, @SundayNightDM on Twitter, or Sunday Night DM on YouTube – there is also a Warp Shell game (the adventure from Expansion 1) I livestreamed here.

As always, if you enjoy my content and want to help support it, feel free to check out my Patreon. I’m planning to get in there and start updating my goals and reward tiers, so make sure to check back regularly, and contact me if you’re worried about specific rewards changing after you pay for them. I don’t want anybody feeling hard done by!

Cheers guys!