Let the orgy of free games commence! If you’re anything like me, you got into role-playing games through the exploits of high fantasy. Fighting dragons, delving deep into dungeons dark, and spewing goblin blood like the contents of a chamberpot along the floor. All in the name of leveling up and gaining new spells and magic weapons. Somewhere along the way, these dangerous journeys became bogged down in piles of character options, endless collections of supplements, and more monsters than a single campaign could ever use. (Truthfully speaking, there are so many monsters in some of the big worlds that it’s near impossible for any civilized society to function, let alone exist, but that’s the beauty of fantasy. Logic only exists if you open the door for it.)
Designers: Scott Malthouse
Artists: Creative Commons artwork
System: Unbelievably Simple Roleplaying
Content: 37 pages, including a basic write-up of the setting, character creation, and complete rules
Overview (3 out of 5): A simple and very effective mechanic is the main highlight of this game, but the setting itself is quite lacking. If you’re looking for a quick and simple RPG for your next game, Halberd is your best choice, but you’ll have to fill in many gaps yourself.
Enter Halberd, a quick-and-dirty fantasy RPG using the quick-and-dirty Unbelievably Simple Role-playing system from Scott Malthouse (also known for the Trollish Delver blog). While a separate PDF of the USR does exist, Halberd gives you everything you need to play the game right out of the… file.
Inspired by the works of Sir Terry Pratchet, Halberd starts off with a basic setting in the city of Highbridge. And when I say basic, I mean basic. Normally, I’d find such details a bit lacking, even in a free RPG, but when the mechanics are known as the Unbelievably Simple Role-playing System, basic is par for the course. Highbridge runs only 4 pages long with enough hints and ideas for any number of unique adventures and origins, leaving GMs plenty of room to adapt and adjust as they see fit. The irony of it all is that this kind of setting is probably best for experienced role-players, despite the incredible ease of the mechanics.
Character creation is… well, simple. There are four attributes: Action, Wits, Ego, and Hits. The first three are assigned one of three dice: a d10, a d8, and a d6. So if you want to very physical character, drop that d10 on Action, or give it to Wits should you want a very intelligent and perceptive character. From there, you can choose archetypes to focus your talents using specialisms to gain a +2 bonus when it applies (such as the Thief’s Move Silently providing a +2 bonus whenever they try and creep past the underpaid guards outside of The Red Court). There are races providing specialisms of their own, along with generalized weapons and armor divided into types rather than concrete lists, and rules for casting open-ended magick rather than learning specific spells at every level. Characters are kept to the tight minimum that you can keep track of everything on a single index card.
Dice rolls are… you know it. Simple. Physical attempts use Action, using your brain or senses requires Wits, and social interaction needs Ego. Hits are your hit points and they rise and fall as you engage in combat and use magick successfully. Whenever your character attempts something against another character, it’s an opposed roll. When it isn’t, there’s a target number for that. In a fight, the damage to an enemy’s Hits is determined by the difference between the attack and the defence roll and you’re dead or unconscious at 0 Hits.
Everything about Halberd is open-ended and interpretive, allowing room for the story and the characters to take centre stage without need for complex rules and memorization. There are still some charts to consult, but if you play it often enough, those numbers will become engrained in your noggin before you know it. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek, especially in its descriptions of the major sites and groups within the city of Highbridge, and there’s just enough to get your own game up and going, including a sample play chapter. It all fits for a system like USR and those familiar with fantasy roleplaying can easily get their fix with Halberd.
In all truth, there’s really nothing extraordinary and unique about the world of Halberd to make it stand out against anything else, free or not. The setting is a glossed over idea if you happen to have nothing in mind, but the amount of detail you’d have to fill in likely means you’ll be creating your own setting regardless. While it does fit with the idea of a simple role-playing system, I think Halberd could have benefited from a little more depth into the setting so that it was more than just a free ruleset of a nice, clean, and effective RPG. I know this viewpoint seems hypocritical when you’re talking about a free RPG (why complain about something when it’s free?), but the free community has ramped up its efforts in the past couple of years and produced some outstanding and expansive work. For me, there is room for such an expectation, but this is a minor issue compared to the big picture.
Overall, Halberd is a great place to start if you’re looking for something allowing you to stretch your creativity and not get bogged down with character options and rules. While I personally would have loved to see more of the setting, you can’t go wrong with what’s provided and where this game can take you. Onward and upward, adventures!