Whether you love fantasy role-playing games, post-apocalyptic survival, horror, science-fiction, investigation or a combination of these, Free League has you covered. This article is a guide to inspire you and help you consider whether one or more of these games are for you and your table.
The Swedish publisher and game developer has built an impressive suite of role-playing games. Each of the games are explicit in their themes and moods and the individual games try to emulate and reinforce them using the ruleset. They also share similarities in design beyond simple dice mechanics, which makes moving from one to the other easy.
Most of the games use some variation of the Year-Zero game engine and most of them are multi-award winning and outstanding in their presentation and design.
All of them are less complex than Dungeons & Dragons, primarily because the characters you can play have fewer unique capabilities and there aren’t 200+ spells you need to consider (as a player or GM) – though a few of their games are fairly “crunchy”. On the other hand, the rules governing exploration or social interaction aren’t usually as vague as in D&D (and many other older RPGs).
I own, and have read, most of Free League’s games, and I have played many of them. In the following text, I will briefly go over what unites them and add a few lines about each game. The aim is to help you pick your next game experience.
They are all beautiful and well produced games, and naturally there are some that I personally prefer over the others. But you might prefer different ones for different reasons. Therefore, the games aren’t ranked.
For each game I will however rate its complexity on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the most mechanically complex. This scale is an internal curve for the suite of Free League RPGs. It is not a comparison with other games like D&D, Blades in the Dark or Rolemaster.
NOTE: I don’t have any financial relation to Free League and I’ve paid for everything myself.
What unites the Free League games?
Beyond sharing mechanics (see below) there are some design choices which you can find in many, if not most, of the company’s games.
Free League favor designs where drama and narrative emerge from exploration and a certain level of randomness plus the resulting player choice, rather than as pre-planned campaigns and designed narrative arcs (The Last Cyclade campaign and the Alien Cinematic Adventures being notable exceptions).
Mechanical abstraction of time and resources
The time inside the game is often divided into ‘shifts’ of six hours. The timeframe is used for travel, resting, crafting and in Bladerunner, for example, one character can follow up on one clue per shift, which encourages splitting the group. Resources like torches, rations or oxygen are often abstracted into a dice mechanic.
Exploration and hex-crawl
There are coherent rules for travel and exploring, tied in with the games’ use of skills, time and resources.
Many of the games come with big hex-maps, where the PCs are expected to venture forth and find fame or fortune, or simply need to explore in order to survive.
Deadly combat & crits
Fighting in Free League’s games is usually very dangerous for the characters. Losing all your health doesn’t mean a character is dead, instead the character is ‘broken’ and a critical hit is applied. These crits can be instantly fatal, and frequently result in lost extremities or lingering penalties that need time to heal.
Mental damage on top of physical damage
Characters can become ‘broken’ not only from being injured, but also by stress or mental damage. Often there are also critical injuries tied to the mental damage. The exact mechanic differs from game to game.
Downtime and base-building
Downtime is normally treated as an integral part of the game. Activities during downtime are often related to base-building, recovering from injuries, gathering resources or preparing for the next adventure (training, gathering information and so forth).
Constructing a head quarter or upgrading your starship is cool, and most of the games have base building integrated into the games’ down time mechanics. In both Vaesen and Mutant Year Zero, it is also a core part of the gameplay.
Personal ties & social mechanics
The games have mechanized social ties and interactions, often combined with the experience system.
Commonly, players designate another character as their ‘buddy’ and another as their ‘rival’, and these ties are often reinforced with mechanical effects and experience points for eg: xp for putting your life at risk for your buddy.
The rules around social conflict are more rigorous than in Dungeons & Dragons and many other older RPGs. If you want something from an NPC and you win the roll, they must do it, or attack. Some games also feature a Command ability, where characters can even force other characters to do as they command (or suffer mental damage if they refuse) – or get them back up if they are mentally ‘broken’.
Some games also have personality traits or backgrounds that players can ‘activate’ to get a bonus.
The Year Zero-Engine
All of the games use the YZ mechanics, except Mörk Borg, the One Ring, Symbaroum and a couple of others, which are published by Free League, but are designed by other indie game designers.
The system is a dice pool system, where you must roll at least one ‘6’ to succeed in a task. Typically, you add your attribute and your skill together in addition to tools or weapons you employ, which determines how many dice you roll. Most of the games use D6, but a few also use D8, D10 and D12 (still with the aim to roll 6+).
All the games feature a “push” mechanic, where players can reroll a test, but with significant consequences if the attempt still fails, and sometimes with the ‘push’ causing physical or mental damage.
There are normally four attributes: usually called Strength, Agility, Wits and Empathy, which are determined at character creation and can’t be improved during gameplay.
The games feature 12-16 skills, with 3-4 skills associated with each attribute. The skills are kept at a high abstraction level. For example, ‘Manipulation’ typically covers all social rolls and Piloting will cover everything from motorcycles to starships (sometimes with options of more granularity).
In addition, characters have Talents – like Feats in D&D. These are special abilities that often come in two categories: a group which is tied to your archetype (class, if you will) and general talents, which everyone can buy with experience, like bonus to skill rolls in particular situations or with specific weapons, cyberware, the ability to reroll critical hits etc.
A few of the games also feature powers or magic of some kind.
The Games (Year Zero Games first, then non YZ games)
In this retro-science-fiction horror game you play colonists, space truckers or colonial marines who must face a cold, capitalistic, uncaring and horrific universe.
On top of the fearsome and deadly xenomorphs (and other nightmares), the characters can become embroiled in corporate plots and experiments, espionage and the conflict and warfare between the major political factions in the Alien universe. Or try to avoid them, while making their payments on their ship.
The rules are quite simple and use a stress and panic mechanic to underscore the key themes of the game.
Initially, the game may seem narrow, but it can work very well for a range of playstyles, including scary military science fiction, survival horror, corporate espionage and gritty, free trader, planet hopping adventures.
The explicitly ‘cinematic adventures’ published for the game are excellent for 3-5+ session dramas, where each character has hidden agendas that they need to achieve, often not aligned with all the other characters. Not many will survive through to the end of Act 3…
Because of the simple mechanics and well-known lore and visual style, it is a great game for first time role-players.
Play this game if you love gritty science fiction and horror.
This investigation heavy neon-noir game is the latest Free League game and based on the Bladerunner universe. You take the role as Bladerunners – elite police officers with a license to kill. Either as humans or replicants. It is designed for small groups (1-4 players), and takes place in 2037, about a decade before the second film of the franchise.
Characters (a variety of cops, like City Speaker, Doxie, Inspector and Skimmer) struggle not only with solving their case, but also with the morality of their actions and what it means to be human.
An interesting feature is that solving the case gets you promotion points, which you can use to get more talents. Whereas going against the rules, like letting replicants go, will earn you humanity points, which you need to upgrade skills.
The game is heavy on mood and lore and is great for character focused and RP-heavy games.
The starter set comes with an excellent adventure and some of the best props and handouts I’ve ever seen.
Play this game if you love character driven, role-playing heavy investigation games.
Coriolis – the Third Horizon
This far future occult space opera game has a distinct ‘Arabian nights’ atmosphere with planets teeming with life and the growing threat of the djinni said to come from ‘the dark between the stars’.
The game is set in a region of space that contains about two dozen systems connected by jump gates. You should expect to play explorers, pilots, zealots, mercenaries, spies and diplomats, normally with your own spacecraft. The Horizon has a significant spiritual aspect to the world in the form of Icons – saints that influence the world.
There are several supplements for the game and a big three-volume Mercy of the Icons campaign.
If you are familiar with older space opera RPGs, Coriolis is somewhere between Traveller and Fading Suns. Less spiritual than Fading Suns, but more than eg Traveller.
If you want a taste, I can recommend the actual play of the Mercy of the Icons campaign by Garblag Games.
Play Coriolis if you enjoy high adventure space opera games spiced with spirituality and the occult.
The sword & sorcery-style fantasy RPG is designed with the Old School Renaissance mindset. It is a hex-crawl, open world focused game, where the characters frequently are rogues and sell-swords, more focused on personal gain than heroic deeds.
Survival and exploration are at the core of the system. Your equipment is key to your survival and will break (including arms and armor). Combat is swift and deadly, but ill-suited to encounter after encounter dungeon crawls.
As well as the regular humans, elves, dwarves etc., you can also play orcs, goblins and wolf-men. There are unique talents for each profession (class) which makes the various roles (eg Fighter, Minstrel, Rider, Druid, Peddler) distinct.
Unlike many older fantasy games, people and monsters don’t use the same mechanics. Each monster has fewer stats and a list of six “special attacks”, which makes fighting them feel unique and surprising, whether facing a harpy or a death knight.
Forbidden Lands can easily be used for a homebrew world. The system is simple enough that you can easily modify the spells and monsters.
The game is well-supported with two full campaigns and settings, two excellent adventure anthologies and an upcoming monster book and additional setting book.
Play Forbidden Lands if you love fantasy RPGs, but want something faster and grittier than D&D with a more rigorous exploration, base-building and resource mechanic.
Mutant Year Zero
This is the first game that employs the Year Zero engine (hence the name). It takes place in a post-apocalyptic future of an alternate timeline with robots, mutants and energy weapons. It is a cousin to games like Gamma World and Fallout.
It differs from the other games in that it has four books that can stand alone as their own games or work as supplements to the original game. Each of them is a complete standalone game with all the rules required, a setting and a campaign.
Play Mutant Year Zero if you enjoy a more ‘gonzo’ apocalyptic future full of weird mutants, crazed raiders, killer robots and fanatic cults.
You are one of the mutants in “the Ark”. The Elder has forbidden you from exploring the ruins beyond the Ark, but food is running low and no one is able to bear children. To survive and prosper you must venture into the unknown and brave mutant creatures, the Rot and crumbling ruins to find grub, water and artefacts from the bygone age and develop the Ark while at the same time outsmarting and outfighting the rival gangs inside the Ark.
You play a mutant animal, one of the genetic experiments of Test Area B35 “Paradise Valley”. The valley is fenced and guarded by the mysterious Watchers. Can you finally realize the dream of escaping your prison?
Players must explore the valley as mutant badgers, rats, bears, monkeys et al, protect their habitats and build the Resistance to the Watchers.
Before the war that devastated the world, the three Titan Powers created sanctuaries to survive. You are one of their descendants living in Elysium. Players are all of one of the four noble families and Adjudicators, police and judges rolled into one. They are tasked with keeping the peace and go on missions to solve problems – secretly instigated by their own houses.
Uniquely, the game has a ‘strategic level’ where the players control each of the houses in their quest for dominance. All the missions were caused by the players through the strategic level. And during the actual gameplay, one player will be a traitor, who is trying to sabotage a successful outcome. However, when the team votes on who the traitor is at the end of the mission, whoever gets a unanimous vote, is judged as the spy!
This game feels like a mix of Judge Dredd and Paranoia.
Players are robots developing free will at the Production Facility Mechatron-7, who, now that they are detached from the hive mind, can go on their own missions.
The book is out of print, and I don’t own it, but the PDF version is available.
Tales from the Loop
In this ode to nostalgia, you play as kids in the 1980s, but in an alternate timeline, where humanity has discovered anti-gravity and sentient robots.
You play kids (10-15), who live near a big research facility, where odd things happen (including loose dinosaurs…).
The book contains two settings: a small town in Sweden and one in Arizona and a full campaign outline.
Characters fit one of the classic stereotypes (eg the jock, the computer geek, the hick and the trouble maker). The kids must struggle with home lives and school relations, as well as the strange going ons in the area. Adults are absent, adversaries or in a few cases allies.
The dramas can be very personal (eg violent step parent, alcoholic mother) as well as external.
The game handles “damage” differently than most games, as the characters can’t die, but they can get various detrimental conditions like “injured” or “upset“ or “scared”.
In its follow-up game, Tales from the Flood, you play teenagers, who can die.
Play Tales from the Loop if you want be a kid investigating weird science problems with your friends, while managing your personal problems and relations.
Twilight: 2000 (4th edition)
Twilight: 2000 is bleak dystopic post-apocalyptic survival RPG set in an alternate history, where NATO and Russia clashed in World War III at the end of the 2nd millennium. It features intensely human dramas and has a detailed survival and combat system.
It is designed as a player-driven hex-crawl game, where random events, rumours on the radio and the fortunes of war will help determine the course of the game.
The characters are soldiers of crumbled units and potentially a civlian or two, who must band together to survive. Players set their own goals for what ‘success’ looks like: fleeing west, creating a base and carving out a safe space for soldiers and civilians or roam around as mercenaries to get supplies until luck runs out?
Particularly with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this game hits very close to home, and it not for everyone, but it is an excellent design and can easily be converted for a “realistic” modern game, for example a ‘Walking Dead style’ zombie survival game (which is in fact also an upcoming Free League licensed RPG title).
The game has a solo-mode, which I’ve tried with much success.
Play Twilight: 2000 if you want an intense – and likely bloody – survival game, where each choice comes at a cost in fuel, ammunition or humanity.
In Vaesen, you play a group of humans gifted with ‘the sight’, who are part of a secret society, the purpose of which is to track down and combat Vaesen. Væsen means “creature” in Danish and Swedish, and these strange ‘vaesen’ are out of classic folk lore, like trolls, the Neck or Nisser.
The default game is set in a mythical 19th century Europe, and in the core game you are the inheritors of the crumbling castle Gyllencreutz, which works as your base, which you can explore and upgrade as the game progress.
Characters are typically hunters, doctors, priest, professors, soldiers and the like. The play-style is akin to Call of Cthulhu, but with a stronger ‘motor’ for campaign play.
The core book has Scandinavia as a core setting, but there is also a British isles sourcebook and there is help for customization for any region of the world.
Play Väsen, if you want to solve mythic mysteries in a world that is changing – where the old is being swept away by industrialisation – and protect humanity from the supernatural.
Non-Year Zero Games
The indie smash hit is a rules lite old school renaissance heavy metal fantasy RPG. You play weirdos, religious fanatics, murderers and scoundrels in a world that is ending. How will you go out?
It is intentionally very dark, funny and crazy, and the core book can be consumed in an hour.
As an example of the style, at the start of a campaign, the game master decides how often you roll for whether one of the portents of Nechrubel might happen, and at some point, you will roll the final sign, and the world ends. At which point you are advised to burn the book.
The rules are entirely player-facing, intentionally imbalanced and random, unforgiving and lethal.
The community around Mörk Borg is vibrant, with many independently publish supplements, as well as the new Cy_Borg core book, which use the same lite rules for a disturbing cyber punk game.
Play Mörk Borg if you want dreadful, plague ridden, decrepit, black metal adventures, where your chance of survival is neglible
In this epic dark fantasy game, you explore the great Davokar forest, scheme for and against the many factions, and search for wealth, treasure and ancient secrets.
The rules use a D20 as the main resolution dice, but the rules are entirely player facing, so for example when a monster attacks a character, the player rolls to defend herself with a modifier depending on the stats of the monster. The mechanics have depth and versatility, but not the amount of spells and monsters that D&D has.
The setting and lore is excellent and very detailed. The core rules describe the war against the Dark Lords that drove the victorius Alberetor out of there ruined lands to the Ambria and the vast forest of Davokar, which is full of human and elven tribes, who don’t want the invaders poking into the darkness.
Characters are knights, theurges, sorcerers, treasure hunters and witch hunters. Most people are human, but also changelings, ogres or goblin. However, the player is free to build her character with the abilities and powers available. The archetypes are simply guidelines, not a “class” you adhere to.
The game is extremely well supported with several sourcebooks and a very long campaign. It also recently got a Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition version.
Play Symbaroum if you want a well-supported epic dark fantasy game with plenty of monsters and magical treasures.
The One Ring RPG (2nd edition)
If you love Tolkien, or want a low-magic epic fantasy game, the One Ring is perfect. This game is a beautiful and faithful adaptation of Tolkien’s world into a role-playing game.
As a game, the One Ring is at the other end of the fantasy-spectrum from Mörk Borg. Characters are heroes opposing ‘the Shadow’ in the time-span between The Hobbit and the events of the Lord of the Rings.
You can create evocative characters that seem to walk right out of the source material (dour rangers, merry hobbits and stout Men of Bree).
Typically, the group will work with a patron – like Gandalf, Bilbo, Cerdain or (Aragorn’s mother) – and combat the growing shadow, recover ancient artefacts from lost ruins and reunite the free peoples against the threat.
The system employs a D12 as the main resolution dice, but with a number of D6 depending on how skilled your character is.
The game has a narrative focused travel mechanic, the threat of ‘shadow points’ if characters do unheroic things and rules governing “councils”.
In the starter set, you get a full source book on the Shire, and a chance to play Bilbo’s friends and relatives and help him explore one of his theories over a series of adventures (expect both much tea and lunches, as well as dangers, nosy Bounders and inn visits).
See my review for a full break-down of the game.
The game also have a D&D 5e version, called Adventures in Middle-Earth, which I played extensively in its first incarnation.
There are a couple of Free League Games, that I’ve had zero interaction with, which are Into the Odd and Death In Space. Both are “rules light” indie games, with very specific design focuses. Both look cool. But there are only so many hours in my life… 🙂
I hope one of these description inspired you to find a group or pick up the game to run it for your friends. I could play anyone of these games for months or years and I recommend all of them.
If you have questions or comments, don’t hesitate to comment or DM me here or on one of the social channels.