A friend of mine turned me on to the Broken Compass role playing game that was being Kickstarted last year by a small Italian company, Two little Mice. (Man, the Italian RPG scene is hopping!) I’m a bit fan of the classic pulp era for a game setting (as evidenced by the plethora of 1930s stuff Black Campbell Entertainment has done for Fate and Ubiquity), so I dove in. About a month ago, all of the physical books and material came in. We had a week’s downtime from our Lex Arcana (another Italian game company!) to give it a try.

Broken Compass has the same goals that Fate and Ubiquity had — to make play fast and easy, and to get the rules out of the way. Fate does this well through extremely simple core mechnaics, but has a few elements — tagging scenes, for instance — that can be difficult for new players and for those used to the GM doing all the setting work to grab a hold of. Ubiquity does well until combat, where it bogs down into gronyard-like crunch. This system keeps it simple with core mechanics that do not change from managing a task, confronting a danger, or getting into a fight. the base die mechanic has the player roll a number of die equal to an attribute and skill and look not for a specific number, but for matches (kinda like Yahtze.) For basic tasks, you need a pair; for critical ones, three of a kind and so on. You could standard d6s or the company’s snazzy specialty d6s which feature the cardinal points of the compass (N,S, E, W, a broken compass, and a skull).

The character creation is simple and fast: pick two tags, like “action hero” or “femme fatale”, which give you an extra die on two of the six attributes (Action, Guts, Knowledge, Society, Wild, Crime) and on eight of the skills (there are three under each of the attributes. Simple. You’ll have between 3 and 6 dice to roll, not counting bonuses from gear and conditions. You get a two “expertise” tags that give you an extra die when appropriate. you start with 10 luck points — when you get to zero, you have a “luck coin” to help you out of danger. The system is not designed to kill a character (though it can), but give you conditions like, exhausted or scared — negative ones that take a die if you have it, or positives like confident or daring which add a die.

Villains and opponents are handled like a challenge (which don’t cause you to lose luck) or a danger (where you do get hurt.) A bunch of ordinary mooks attacking you might be a basic or critical danger, depending on their skill, or higher if they are a privileged henchmen or big bad. In a brawl, you roll an Action+Fight vs. the difficulty of the challenge, and take out the baddies dependent on how well you did, but if you fail, they do you an appropriate number of luck points (and possibly pick up a condition.) In a firefight, there’s the usual back and forth — first you shoot with Action+Shoot (or Guts+Shoot), then they shoot and you try to avoid with Action+Stunt. The GM rarely, if ever, rolls; it’s all on the players, who are encouraged to narrate their actions.

It plays very quickly and easily, and our first run of the game was as a playtest of an adventure for an upcoming product that usually would have been run in Ubiquity. I have to say, Broken Compass has won me over. It’s more intuitive than the +/0/- dice mechanic of fate, and simpler when it should be than Ubiquity — my go-to pulp action RPG systems to this point. The system is lightweight enough to carry any genre with a bit of tweaking.

The physical product is superb! The core book or Adventure Journal features a classic pocket journal look: faux-leather with a proper stitch binding and heavy gloss paper in 9.5×6″ (the same size as the Fate books). The edges are curved, it’s got a bookmark ribbon, an elastic strap to hold it closed, and elastic pencil holder. It’s a brilliant bit of design. Internal layout is clear and simple, with a minimum of nonsense to distract. The art is good (although these days, with Free League and Wizards’ art design doing stunning work, this is good for most products out there) and the typeface and sizing is clear and easy to read. (The more I publish stuff, the more impressed i am by these things.) Here’s the example from Two Little Mice’s Kickstarter page:

It came with a GM screen that is similarly sized: 9.5×6″/per panel, with a 4-panel spread on heavy cardboard with appropriate artwork on the player side, and most of the basic rules on the GM side. Again, clear, concise, and workable. I didn’t have to access the book more than twice during play. also included in my pledge was their First Season book Golden Age with some tweaks and canned adventures for the 1930s. A Spin Off: Luck Tales book similarly give a few new rules and adventures. There was a world map (circa 1999), a cloth bag of specialty dice, a plastic luck coin, and posters featuring the art from the book, as well as a Rival Passport (a listing of big bads for your game), an Adventurer Passport to record characters, and a selection of period postcards from exotic locales.

Two Little mice is currently running a Kickstarter for the next two “seasons” of the game — a pirate setting and a Victorian fantasy/steampunk setting, and the original books, GM screen, maps and dice with luck coin, and posters can be had with the right pledge.

So is it worth it? Absolutely. The physical materials are top-notch: the books are on good quality gloss paper, have a faux-leather cover, decent art with simple and clear layouts. The existing books can be had in PDF format on DriveThruRPG.com for $30 and $19.