Anyway bigger more well-known games get plenty of coverage so it's easy for the lesser-known variety to get overshadowed so I thought it'd great to have a thread to discuss all the great, smaller RPGs that are out there.
Hopefully this thread can be a place to discuss such games and introduce players to new games.
I'll start with some of my current favorite games.
1. Burning Wheel
It's got an awesome mechanic called Duel of Wits which is the only well-done social conflict mechanic I've come across.
There are some cool mechanics for player authorization. There are Wises which allow players to state facts of the world and Circles which allow players to create NPCs on the fly.
Burning Wheel also taught me that failure should NEVER be a roadblock. There should be a twist or complication so that the game doesn't stop flat and, instead, heads off in a new, interesting direction.
The #1 driving force behind Burning Wheel are "BITs": Beliefs, Instincts Traits. Beliefs have a few different sides. They are an actual belief, but they're also a goal, and a flag for the GM. For example: "My brother is a traitor to the family name. I'll stop at nothing to reveal his crimes." Aside from what's obviously stated, you're also telling the GM you want to be challenged here. An obvious way to challenge it might be that the character needs something that only the brother can provide. Even better if you tie it in to other Beliefs the character has.
Instincts are sort of macros that your character always performs and can never be denied you. They might give you an opportunity for a test when you otherwise wouldn't have one or allow you to accomplish an action before other people. A basic Instinct might be "Always draw my sword at the first sign of trouble." Bam, it happens. The fun part comes in getting into trouble because of the instinct. Say you're in a situation where it would be very inappropriate to draw the sword. As the player you can choose to ignore your instinct (boring) or choose to follow it (exciting!); doing so earns you rewards.
Lastly are Traits which are 1) descriptions of the character in someway that sometimes have 2) mechanical effects on the game. A Trait could be something like maimed, alert, or cold-blooded killer.
All wrapped together BITs create very interested, dynamic, and conflicted characters.
Also the online community for BW is awesome. Luke Crane (the designer) is very active on the boards as well as loads of other people with lots of experience. There's a ton of great advice to be gleaned there.
Okay, I'll stop there. I could go on a lot longer about the game (I'm a bit of a BW fan boy).
2. Misspent Youth
Anyhow it works great as a short-term game. Maybe 4-6 sessions, which includes one session for character/world creation. In the game the players play teenage protagonists that are fighting against some Authority. The specific Authority is decided by the group. It could be some huge evil corporation, a corrupt government, a powerful cult, or even just a single individual.
The game focuses on the relationships between the characters (called Youthful Offenders, or YOs) as well as their struggle against the Authority.
As the game progresses, to win, the YOs will eventually have to start becoming more Authority-like if they want any hope of victory. In the game, this is called selling out. So for instance there's a trait called 'tough'. If it sells out in the course of play it becomes vicious. One of my favorite parts of selling out is that, as GM, when someone sells out something, I physically take their character sheet and redact the trait that sold out. It doesn't seem like much, but it's actually a pretty visceral feeling watching someone take a sharpie to your character sheet (or in the case of a guy at GenCon, he actually cut a small square of the character sheet.
Anyhow, by the end of the game things turn dark as the YOs sell out more and more of their traits. In the game I just finished someone had sold-out Intimidation to become Terrorism, which ended up getting used to blow up an orphanage and framing it on the authority. Hot stuff!
The game was really a lot of fun and it's a great exercise for story telling. There's a scene structure that I had a little trouble with at first but that I think does work it just took me some time to get my head around it.
If anyone's interested in reading some actual play reports and other commentary I did write-ups on all our sessions over at story games: http://www.story-games.com/forums/comme ... onID=10405
3. Mouse Guard
One thing that's great is that MG is even more explicit than Burning Wheel about failure results not being roadblocks. It explicitly states there are only two possible results of failure: 1) Condition or 2) A twist.
So, for example, say you're making a test to blaze a new trail between settlements. The question isn't whether the trail will be blazed, but whether you'll come away unscathed. So, on a failed roll a condition might mean that you've blazed the new trail, but you become Tired from all the travel. A twist might mean that while blazing a trail you happen upon a hungry badger's nest; and once the badger is dealt with one way or another you continue on.
It's also a pretty good game for kids. I've seen a number of people report on playing it with their children with a fair bit of success. Older ones grasp most of the concepts and parents of younger kids just gloss over some things and focus on what interests them: mice with swords!
4. Burning Empires
I've only played in a demo of this at GenCon and I'm currently reading the rulebook, but my group is about to start it soon.
Pretty much all of what I said about Burning Wheel plus some new things. The game centers on the conflict between the Iron Empires and an alien race, the Naiven. There's an over-arching mechanic called Infection that tracks how well the humans are keeping them at bay or how well the Naiven are subverting a planet.
There's also really cool rules for creating your own technology on the fly. Most technology is just color until a conflict arises. So, yeah, being a Lord Pilot means you have your own ship (fleet of ships, probably), so making use of that is no problem. But if you need to scan something, then you can come up with sensors for your ship on the fly so they can be tested. This goes for just about any kind of technology, whether it's vehicles/spacecraft, weapons, enhancements to those, or something else.
There's also a really tense physical conflict mechanic called Firefight that scales really well whether it's a small conflict between two characters or a big conflict between armies on the ground or ships in space. It's chaotic and brutal.
There's probably a few more I could post about, but I'll leave it there and see how much interest the thread gets before continuing.