5 Good RPGs that Aren’t D&D

Dungeons & Dragons may be “the granddaddy of role-playing games,” but the kids are alright.

The few times I’ve been able to get my regular gaming group to try new and different role-playing games have been some of the most remarkable and rewarding experiences I’ve had in the hobby. My podcast Making a Monster has only impressed me with the variety and quality of games and experiences living in D&D’s shadow. Here’s a few reasons to try RPGs that aren’t D&D:

  • Don’t just roll for skill, roll to hit, roll for damage. There’s a specific rhythm to D&D: success is defined as a number between 1 and 30 (give or take) and anything that doesn’t meet the difficulty class (DC) is a failure. Rolls that immediately result in this kind of validation or disappointment create a certain rhythm of storytelling that you might not notice until it’s gone, giving you the freedom to do things differently.
  • Go beyond heroic fantasy. Dungeons & Dragons was built for heroic fantasy, and some of those genre expectations are baked into the game. Sure, you can find any number of system hacks to introduce multiple player characters or dark fantasy or science-fiction set pieces, but how much more might you enjoy a game that was built for those things from the ground up?
  • Hear from diverse, independent creators who are bringing a lot of passion and ingenuity to their games, along with stories and cultures that give you a wider view of the world than the traditionally euro-centric fantasy of D&D.
  • Suit your playstyle. D&D’s three pillars of gameplay – social interaction, combat, and discovery – each appear more heavily in other games. If you don’t really enjoy D&D until initiative is rolled, you might enjoy Shadowrun’s heavy emphasis on career-building and mechanics. If you prefer to dig deep into a character’s motivations and development, you might enjoy FATE Core’s streamlined combat and free-form character builds.

If you’re ready to branch out into RPGs that aren’t D&D, here’s a few I can recommend straight from the horse’s mouth – interviews with the independent RPG creators who made them.

Monster of the Week

Monster of the Week uses the “Apocalypse World” engine, a rules-light system that emphasizes mixed success and cinematic gameplay, to tell stories rooted in the TV genre of the same name (including shows like Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Hilda). Play this game if you want to spend less time optimizing your character build and more time investigating mysteries. Run this game if “Dungeon Master” is too tame a title and you’d rather be the “Keeper of Monsters and Mysteries.”

Coyote and Crow

This Kickstarter darling won’t be shipping until late 2021, but it is worth the wait. Coyote and Crow is a science fiction and fantasy tabletop RPG set in a near-future where the Americas were never colonized, created by a team of Natives. It uses a d12 system for player mechanics and a balance of Legends and Icons for its monsters,  breaking many of the troubling tropes baked into euro-centric fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons.

Starship Infernum

No dice will be rolled and the ship will be blowing up. Starship Infernum is a campy, pick-up-and-play RPG that uses blackjack as its chance operator, trading in the dice for a deck of cards. You can make a character in 20 minutes or less on the back of an index card, and play a full game in less than 3 hours. It’s a unique, ultralight TTRPG experience that I found incredibly rewarding and extremely memorable.

Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall

Combining small-box board game design with TTRPG mechanics and Chinese-American culture, Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall lets players grapple with issues of cultural erasure and systemic racism in a way that encourages cooperation and enables understanding. What more could you ask from a TTRPG? How about Halloween spooks and slapstick comedy?

Never Going Home

Some great work is being done in the cosmic horror genre, despite the best efforts of its creator H.P. Lovecraft. The team at Wet Ink Games made the connection between the vast, uncaring universe of Lovecraft’s philosophy and the technological horror of World War I, for an insightful and engaging mood piece for horror lovers everywhere.

Play D&D because it’s probably the first RPG you’ve heard about. Play other games for the stories D&D can’t tell.

For more systems that push the limits of what role-playing games can be, subscribe to the Making a Monster podcast. I cover a non-D&D system about once a month, and the creators I feature will give you everything you need to get started in their unique and compelling worlds.

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