A few weeks ago, while doing a review of the 13th Age Bestiary for Geek Native, I openly pondered the future success of that game system. Prior to D&D's fifth edition, 13th Age's entire pitch to the roleplaying game community was essentially "D&D without the baggage," a chance to play the D&D you've always wanted to play without having to dig up old, out-of-print books or house rule the hell out of the current editions. With D&D's 5th edition turning out to be awesome, I wondered if there would be a place in the world for 13th Age and all its D&D-but-not-D&D contemporaries.
Pelgrane Press, publishers of 13th Age, responded to my review on their website with a brilliant counter-point: that the success of D&D would only make the hobby bigger, and thus create an even larger market for people looking for something different. I did not think of this when I wrote my review. I think it's a great point. And sure enough, as I've been playing in my friend's excellent 5th edition campaign, I've been wondering about all the other fantasy RPGs out there that could be the home of countless epic adventures. I don't think D&D makes any of them obsolete; in fact, to the contrary, I think D&D's success is inspiring me to take a second (or third) look at some of those games, and wondering about what kinds of different fantasy roleplaying experiences they can bring to the table.
The following five RPGs I'm going to mention are all fantastic fantasy games. I'm going to specifically talk about what they do differently (not better; not worse; DIFFERENTLY!) from the current edition of D&D. I'm going to make the assumption that 5th edition D&D is a baseline, all-around-good fantasy roleplaying experience. In other words, play D&D if you want a little of everything. Play these games if you want something else:
1. 13th Age: I've already written a bit about this game, obviously, but to summarize what it does differently:
- It's classes are asymetrically designed, allowing for different play experiences. Barbarians pretty much just roll d20's and scream a lot, while wizards have a lot of tactical resource management to consider;
- It has 13 "Icons," demi-god-like NPCs who carry major influence on the world. Your characters are built with positive, negative, and conflicting relationships with these icons, which can lead to instant allies, enemies, and plot twists at literally a moment's notice;
- There is no "official" campaign world; the "Dragon Empire" is vaguely-designed on purpose, with the intention of gaming groups filling in the specific details of the world;
- Is is not designed for beginning role-playing gamers. That doesn't mean it's a complicated game, but a lot of the "what is a role-playing game?" fluff is not present in 13th Age, making the game ideal for experienced groups who just want to cut to the chase, but unlike many OSR games, it's relying on clever design, and not nostalgia, to fill in those gaps.
2. Warhammer Fantasy role-playing: Long-time readers of my blog (?) will know I carry a not-so-secret WFRP agenda at all times. Here are the reasons why:
- ZERO math. With it's narrative dice system, the game's mechanics are all about rolling fistfuls of crazy-looking dice and adding up crazy-looking symbols. The built-in flavor and ease of use is awesome!
- Ironically, even though there's no math, WFRP is a very complex game, with all kinds of dials to monkey with, from the kinds of injuries your hero can sustain, to the type of approach (careful or wreckless) your hero takes to overcome obstacles, all of which have their own systems and sub-systems;
- The GM has a whole suite of tools to assist in game-running, complete with his own dice and yet more subsystems to abstract dungeon crawls, the passage of time, and even progress through mysteries;
- A dark, gritty, late-Medieval setting where death is common and gothic influences are clear;
- A clever career system where characters purchase new abilities, then move on to other careers.
3. Dungeon World: Quickly becoming the patron saint of indie role-playing, Dungeon World has quite a bit to offer those looking for something different from D&D:
- A truly collaborative game, players are as responsible as the GM in creating the world around them;
- "Player-facing" mechanics: the GM never touches a die, the players do all the rolling while the GM is free to focus on the narrative and the action as it unfolds;
- Flavor and story are baked-in to the mechanics, sometimes resulting in epic stories coming right from the simple act of answering a few questions;
- A "fail forward" approach to XP, where players actually generate experience points through failing rolls. This leads to players being encouraged to be pro-active, and GM's not having to worry so much about pulling punches since failure is rewarded, anyway;
- An extremely rules-light system, allowing everyone to focus on the story over the rules.
4. RuneQuest: An old legend in fantasy RPGs, RuneQuest is powered by the same system that fuels Call of Cthulhu. For fantasy role-playing gamers, that means:
- An intuitive, percentile-based resolution mechanic: if you have a 60 percent chance of hitting a goblin with an arrow, you simply have to roll a 60 or less on percentile dice. No abstractions, no funky sub-systems, just straight, elementary-school level math;
- Skill-based character growth: instead of classes, you level up your character one skill at a time. If you're looking for a game to emulate Skyrim, this is a great place to start;
- Multiple magic systems, each with their own way to cast spells and gain power, leading to shamans who feel very different from wizards, who in turn feel entirely different from clerics;
- A gameworld that emphasizes realism and authenticity, with detailed examinations of family, socities, and governing systems. RuneQuest is an ideal game if you're looking to simulate a historically-accurate depiction of medieval society.
5. Dungeon Crawl Classics: My hands-down favorite "Old School" role-playing game, DCC captures the feel of late 70's/early 80's fantasy role-playing but infuses it with modern design philosophy. The means:
- Brutal, punishing play, especially in the early levels (players create not one but several level 0 characters simultanouesly; whichever one survives the first adventure becomes their "real" character);
- Charts and tables absolutely stuffed with cool, clever twists on critical strikes, random encounters, fumbles, and spell casting;
- Literally hundreds of published adventures that can be purchased for a pittance and run on a moment's notice, as well as older D&D modules that can easily be converted;
- Lavishly-detailed production and art designed to evoke the look and feel of late 70's pulp fantasy fiction.
I would also like to throw out there The Burning Wheel and Torchbearer. I don't know enough about those systems to write intelligently about them, but the buzz surrounding them is very good, and I think anyone looking to further explore the potential of RPG's biggest genre should check them out!