Tabletop fans can argue endlessly about what constitutes a perfect roleplaying game, but one thing every gamer I know agrees on lately: Scheduling games is hard. People are busy, last-minute dropouts are common, and too many campaigns die because it just wasn’t possible to play regularly. That’s one of the many reasons I’m a big fan of no-prep RPGs: It’s easy to grab one and jump right into a story if one of your regular game crew unexpectedly can’t make it to a scheduled session.
But there are a lot of other reasons to have a handful of pick-up-and-play RPGs on hand. Maybe your regular group wants to take a break and try something new, but you don’t want to invest a lot of time or money on a new game you aren’t sure they’ll love. Maybe you want to meet gamers: Organizing an easy-in one-shot to run at a convention or a game café open-table day is a great way to audition new players for your home game. Maybe you’ve tried some of the most popular pick-up-and-play games, like For The Queen, Fiasco, or The Quiet Year, and you’re ready to keep expanding your horizons.
Or maybe you’re just looking for the perfect gift for the tabletop gamer in your life, and you want to start at a reasonable cost point. Either way, here are some low-to-no-prep indie RPGs I personally love, all under $20 and ready to put a new spin on your game nights.
Nick Wedig’s melancholy card-based storytelling game is one of my favorites for pickup play at conventions. The premise instantly grabs every group I’ve ever shown it to, and the game’s structure really brings out players’ creativity and taste for drama.
This one doesn’t need a game master: Every player takes a deck themed around a single word (the base set is Sacrifice, Reflection, Moonlight, and Mists), and you all play as rusalka — the ghosts of drowned women, according to Russian myth. The game operates in rounds, with players taking turns as petitioners, coming to the rusalkas’ hidden pool to beg them for favors, justice, or even just power. The cards determine what a petitioner can ask for and how the rusalka can respond, with threats or negotiation, sympathy or fury. Then you play out the bargains that follow — which also include prompts to help you retroactively build your own character’s story, as your rusalka begins to remember her own life, and how and why she became a vengeful ghost.
It’s an elegantly designed horror game — the card prompts suggest that rusalka are frequently monstrous and rarely kind. But players have a lot of room to define their own characters and tell many different kinds of stories. The base set plays up to four, but I heartily recommend the two expansions, which add more themed decks (Tides and Sorrow, Ghosts and Mysteries), and let you bring in more players.
To Serve Her Wintry Hunger
Designer Stephen Dewey is best known for the excellent, innovative, and extremely grim game Ten Candles (also highly recommended, and available as a $10 PDF), but I personally get more of a kick out of his game To Serve Her Wintry Hunger, a vicious little story about competitive winter spirits fighting to please their dark mistress while hunting down a lost human who wandered into their woods. This one does require a facilitator, and it’s best if they read the rules beforehand in order to understand the game’s innovative structure. But the four player characters — Flame, Cold, Fear, and Hunger — are pre-set, and all prep is done at the table once roles are chosen.
I’m usually not a fan of GMs reading blocks of text from the game book to their players instead of putting things into their own words. To Serve Her Wintry Hunger is my biggest exception to that rule, because the setup is so poetically written and evocative, with a crisp, courtly fairy-tale tone. Everything about this game is formal and artful in the best way.
This one plays best if your group is comfortable with edgy banter and a spirit of competition: Being caustic, snide, and superior to each other as you vie for the love of the winter yokai Yuki Onna is a core part of the game, and the mechanics include offering other players “pity” — and sometimes spurning the pity offered to you. This is also the only RPG I’ve ever played where cutting out a paper snowflake — and sometimes lightly defacing other players’ snowflakes — is an integral part of the game mechanic.
The King Is Dead
When some friends told me there was a no-prep GM-less RPG that would let us create and play out a Game of Thrones-style “war for the kingdom” intrigue scenario within a four-hour convention slot, I assumed they were exaggerating — or at least that the intrigue would be pretty simplistic. I was so freakin’ wrong. Meguey and Vincent Baker’s The King Is Dead gives every player an individual booklet detailing a faction with its own history and agendas, and there’s plenty there to spark competition, conflict, and tentative alliances.
Then the game walks you through building a scenario where your royal house vies against others for control of the kingdom. No advance prep, no endless worldbuilding: You just make some starting decisions, and boom, you’re ready to seduce the scion of your hated rival or send your famed band of assassins after them as you seek the throne.
What grabbed me most about The King Is Dead is the way it operates on both granular and broad levels. You can focus on playing a prince or princess of your house and really leaning into character-building and their individual importance. Or you can lean into the broader movement of armies and assets. Randomization mechanics bring about different events, but you get to choose the scale of your response. Our game had it all: passionate Romeo and Juliet-style forbidden trysts on the personal level, battalions rolling up to lay siege to key strongholds on the kingdom-wide level.
Tricksters Save the World
Trickster figures like Coyote, Anansi, Sly Peter, or Sang Kancil make for fun, lively folklore, but they also tend to serve an important purpose in myth, as the heralds of creation or change who upend stagnant systems and solve big problems. Granted, sometimes they’re solving big problems they caused. Eric Simon’s cleverly structured, easy-to-learn narrative game Tricksters Save the World weaponizes that double troublemaker-and-troubleshooter energy by giving trickster figures a more specific purpose: Pushing back against The Grey, the force of banality that’s leeching magic out of the world.
Tricksters Save the World is openly designed as a political and progressive game about addressing real historical situations, righting wrongs, and helping victims of oppression find strength and hope. Anyone who’s used the phrase “social justice warrior” unironically and with authentic contempt, this is not your game.
The game’s startup scenario suggestions are historically specific and narratively rich, but the game includes clear guidelines for generating your own as well. Then it’s up to you to play through the story, with players taking turns leading scenes and providing opposition, as you figure out how Loki’s shapeshifting, Anansi’s storytelling, Maui’s might, or Eris’ craft might be useful in pushing back the forces of greed or indifference. This is another GMless pick-up-and-play game that’s endlessly customizable: You can use the provided mythic tricksters or stat out your own with a simple system, and play the results as a one-shot or a City of Mist-style campaign.
Trouble For Hire
Sometimes it’s hard to get games going because no one wants to be the GM. But what if everyone wants to GM? In that case, Trouble For Hire is your game. Nathan D. Paoletta’s cheeky genre subversion is set up so in any given scene, there’s one player, and everyone else runs the game. It’s a surprisingly satisfying way to play!
The central character: Ruben Carlos Ruiz, a smuggler, mercenary, and troubleshooter hired to solve knotty problems, usually with vehicular skills and violence. Everybody else plays aspects of the world around him that might aid or interfere in his latest job: the villains, the physical environment, the supernatural, the rival troubleshooter who might be a love interest or Ruben’s deadliest enemy. The game comes with prefab scenarios and plenty of NPCs for quick-launch games. In every scene, players switch up roles, so everyone potentially gets a chance to be the hero, or the villains, or whatever role most appeals.
Trouble For Hire is a hoot. Because the central concept so inherently subverts the usual RPG structure, and the characters and adventures are so archetype-driven and iconic, the game naturally lends itself to straight-faced but hilarious play. Think of movies like Machete, Desperado, or Drive Angry, and you’ll have the intended tone down. But you can play it as straight-faced or goofy as you want it, so long as your play group agrees. If you’ve ever thought it would be fun to take on the world as Leonard Smalls, the evil biker from Raising Arizona — or as any similarly big, broad, badass action-movie character — this is the game that’ll alternately let you do that, and let you facilitate that for other people.