"To be honorable and just is our only defense against men without honor or justice." -Diogenes of Sinope
"Today is the yesterday you won't be able to remember tomorrow" -Pinkwater
This is a semi-review, meaning I've read the rules thoroughly - some sections multiple times - but have not actually played the game. Take my conclusions with whatever level of salt you judge appropriate.
Arcane Heroes (hereafter: AH) is a very short RPG by Michael Wolf that is quite playable with a GM used to running rules-light systems. The complete game is only five pages long (plus a cover) and is available for free at rpgnow.com and possibly elsewhere.
This is a much shorter game than Michael's other free game, Warrior, Rogue & Mage. Oddly, I prefer AH, though its only 15% of the length, not even counting the WR&M supplements. I suppose this is because the longer a game, the more likely it is to add something that will diverge from my tastes. Well, that and AH uses a dice-pool system and WR&M has a flat distribution system, which I rarely enjoy.
So, What Is It?
At any rate, AH is a fantasy (with gunpowder) rules set applicable for GMs who are willing to wing it frequently. You won't find detailed rules for too much in this game. You will find weapon damages, armor protection levels, wound levels and character creation rules, but only hints for anything else. There is no world background given - use one of your liking.
The rules could use an edit, to be honest, but what do you want for free? At one point it says Abilities range from 0-5, and another it says they all start at 1. You have 15 points to spend in Abilities, but do you have to pay for the initial 1 in each Ability, or is the 15 beyond that? That's probably the biggest hole in the rules, though - it's really pretty tight.
As an explanation for the gunpowder weapons, a Designer's Note reads: Since Arcane Heroes takes some inspiration from the video game Fable III, the campaign is set into a country where the industrial revolution started some time ago. Think of Oliver Twist with guns and magic.
A character has nine Abilities and 15 points to distribute among them (possibly beyond a starting level of 1 in each Ability). These are a mixture of traditional Attributes (such as Health) and very broad skill groups (such as Melee, Craft, Lore and Athletics). This is the approach I used in my own game, Sherpa, so I'm quite comfortable with it. There is also one derived Attribute (Wound Capacity: Health+5) and Heroism Points, which can aid you in combat. Each character then starts with a Starting Gear Pack, which is very minimal equipment: clothing and either a melee weapon and some light armor, or a pistol and dagger, or a magic gauntlet.
The game uses a simple dice pool system using d6s: roll a number of dice equal to your Ability level (plus the bonus listed for a given weapon if making an attack). Each result of 5 or 6 is a success. For unopposed actions, you only need one success. This means 33% chance of at least one success with one die, 44% with two dice, 70% with three dice, 80% with four dice, etc. In combat, you roll against the target's Health + Armor bonus (or Athletics Ability to dodge if not wearing armor) - if the attacker rolls more successes, the defender subtracts the difference from his Wound Capacity.
Stats are given for unarmed combat, daggers, 1-hand melee weapons, 2-handed melee weapons, pistols and rifles. Various levels of armor are also covered.
Magic is very simple, and, without the GM making new spells, limited to five types of magic: Fire, Ice, Lightning, Storm and Life. The first four are attack spells; the last one is healing. A magic user must wear a magic gauntlet of the appropriate type to cast magic. A magic user starts with a Fire gauntlet and can acquire others through adventuring. You can only wear up to two gauntlets at a time (of two different types - you can't compound a type), and can combine magic this way. Magic has both a targeted damage and an area effect damage.
There are guidelines for handing out Experience points and how to spend them. You can raise an Ability, raise your Heroism level, or add a Talent. Players don't start with Talents, but eight talents are listed as available to be bought. These would be called Advantages in GURPS, or Gifts in Fudge, and the GM is encourage to add their own to the game.
Finally, there are a few paragraphs of advice the GM on running the game and nine sample creatures/NPCs. None of the creatures are horrific by themselves, but a group of them could be problematic. The GM is encouraged to add other creatures as she sees fit.
I would run this game as is, since I prefer rules-light systems to heavily crunched systems. This is personal taste, of course, and I don't think this game would make you happy if you want rules for lots of situations and ways to differentiate the damage from swords vs. the damage from clubs, a full magic system, etc.
But me, I can wing all that. AH provides a very simple engine which I confess I haven't tried but passes the thought experiment stage with flying colors. It's easy to make creatures and NPCs with the samples given, and although nine Abilities doesn't feel like many, it's 50% more than Sherpa has, so it's enough for me to work with.
The Magic system is the weakest link, but that's very difficult to do well in a rules-light system. I know - I've tried dozens of ways to implement magic in my own rules-light systems. A full Magic System takes either very detailed rules, or a very imaginative, flexible, and cooperative player-GM combination to work well in an RPG. Most RPGs take the former route, as you can't be sure you'll get such a player-GM combo in all games. AH does neither: instead, it simply doesn't try to implement a full magic system. You can do damage and you can heal, and that's all they're allowing for. It's up to the GM to add further magic, rules, conditions, levels of power, etc., if desired. The designer admits the magic is inspired by that found in Computer RPGs, which are also limited in scope.
With those caveats, give it a read. It's short enough to read on your computer, and it's free - so what are you waiting for?
[Note: this is part of my series of semi-reviews of Indie game products, which I've neglected for way too long, sorry ...]
Thanks for the review, Steffan. I am glad you like my little game. When I find the time I might actually expand it a bit by adding more details on the world, more magic options and more monsters.