Annoyed by changes in Dungeons and Dragons corporate policy and the Open Gaming License? Need ideas for alternative systems? This is a post for you.
Inspired by Neckbeardia’s James going on an impassioned and dare I say moving plea (go to the 36 minute mark here) for the relevancy of the tabletop roleplaying hobby in an increasingly socially alienating and extremist era, plus the seemingly contradictory need to gatekeep hobbies to prevent them from going the same way as DnD currently is, I am going to continue my now three year annual trend of writing about roleplaying games in January. Specifically, I wish to lay out the opportunities for alternative (non-DnD) systems to soak up defecting players from the increasingly corporatized and monocultural direction of the largest and oldest of the hobbies. I have never liked DnD as much as some other games-especially since the rise of Wizards of the Coast and the modern 3, 4, and 5 editions- and the near monopoly that the game holds on the hobby is not a good thing. Especially when it seems media organizations are parroting the narrative of these companies that anyone who defects might be some kind of reactionary or racist for preferring a different mechanical system. This is an attempt to weaponize trendy (amongst the professional managerial class) politics in order to quash creative diversity. It will fail, but it is part of a trend where tabletop roleplaying is blamed on societal ills which it actually combats. In the 1980s the shoe was on the other cultural foot and it was a Satanic Panic. These days the language has changed but not the invasive and media driven hysteria. This type of culture is directly related to the corporatization of the most popular franchise in the hobby-and it is used to make itself look cutting edge and cast doubt on the legitimacy of its competitors while assimilating itself to the world view of a human resources department. Following in the footsteps of Marvel, Disney, etc, an awkward attempt is made by a franchise to look superficially diverse without changing any of the suburb-safe Anglo-Protestantism that fuels increasingly stale intellectual properties. The true purpose of this turn to progressive marketing for corporate is to be able to imply any criticism of their product is not about the product’s quality but rather the moral foibles of a misguided and pRoBlEmAtIc fanbase.
You do not have to be stuck with DnD, Wizards of the Coast, or Hasbro, however. Especially when its best attribute, the open gaming license, might be about to be heavily curtailed or revoked. This may even include the company revoking the rights to already existing spin off properties made by third party creators and then seizing them and selling them themselves.
But now the alternative games can grow their numbers and the hobby can remain strong as it lets a thousand games go their own way from a stifling shared origin. Like the worlds of Jack Vance’s Gaian Reach, there are now enough of tabletop gaming alternatives with their own distinctive culture that they can diverge and hopefully avoid the gray sludge effect of post-TSR DnD’s trying to appeal to everyone and therefore not really appealing to any particular core group. The point is that there should be no hegemonic replacement because there shouldn’t be a catch all game in the first place. There should be different tones, systems, and playstyles. This encourages creative production and small business while also discouraging the missionary drive for mass assimilation and formulaic and predictable experiences or a company trying to please too many people at once and robbing its products of their original appeal.
With all that in mind I would now like to list some alternatives I either have experience running myself or have heard enough about from people I trust to at least talk about. It is my hope that at least a handful of people who might never have tried an RPG other than DnD (Or never tried one at all) might come across this via keyword search and find out about something new that could interest them and keep them away from getting sucked into the unfolding nightmare of OneDnD by default.
First, let us start with the biggest gap being left at one’s table if they are defecting from the worlds biggest roleplaying game. That of a modern system with a strong action emphasis and the potential to play in high fantasy settings with a large degree of customization. The clear winner on this front is my new favorite game which came out in 2015 but I only discovered about a year ago: Shadow of the Demon Lord. The world is ending due to supernatural cataclysm and the very fabric of reality tears itself apart, so what better thing to do than to try to survive long enough to be as terrifying as the world around you? SotDL is its own game, but in effect it basically operates as a Berserk-style of TTRPG. Nightmare monsters roam and societies become corrupted so your only real choice is to band together into the kind of people who can meet such monsters toe-to-toe. This translates mechanically a fast and brutal combat system with the deadly and simple sensibilities of an old school game and the slick modern mechanics of a new game. Of all games I have played, it has the best advantage/disadvantage mechanic (called boons and banes) which enables a degree of variation and nuance few others do. This game also comes with a post-apocalyptic expansion to add Road Warrior style themes (which I am currently using for my campaign) and a closely related but technically separate game called Punkapocalyptic to flesh out such themes even more. Since it is my personal view that post-apocalyptic settings are the best campaigns for open world and random generation, all of these materials are useful to harvest in my current game master phase of embracing the random, the hexgrid, and the dice generated dungeon. Additionally, the creator’s greater library of related systems will expand later this year with his more family friendly (most settings really like gore and body horror) and general audience Shadow of the Weird Wizard-something that should come out at just the right time to soak up some disaffected DnD players.
If, unlike me, you prefer crunchier more rules-intensive systems but with a similar flow to that described above, consider Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, which tries to model the pace of its gameplay off of the highs and lows of 1930s sword and sorcery pulps and has a strong dedication to its source material being accurately portrayed.
Now let us turn to a different type of game. The one that has dominated most of my life. That of the investigatory and skills-based game. First are foremost of these is Call of Cthulhu. While not my first game as a player, it was the first I ever ran as a game master-and to this day the one I run the most. My love for this game could be an entire blog entry in its own right, but if you know anything about Lovecraft and how learning about the eldritch cosmos takes a massive toll on human sanity you can probably guess how this game works. Players literally drive themselves mad trying to solve mysteries (or running away from things they couldn’t possibly handle). CoC is a game of percentile dice where the most useful skill could be Library Use and the least useful the combat related options. The best game masters run in the 1920s and 1930s over the modern day, of course. Having a party that wants to play normies in an un-normie world running away from things constantly lest they die and losing their minds is basically peak weird fiction good time.
I have heard good things about Mothership, which has a similar system but in space science fiction setting and is more open ended about what you do with it, but not having yet played it these are things I cannot vouch for myself. Same with Traveler which eschews horror themes for pure exploration. Another thing I have yet to run but have read is the post-apocalyptic Degenesis which you can download here for free.
The third and final game I am going to mention as being worth to get the full bolded font treatment in The Dying Earth RPG. This, and games like it, are a third type of option where the players are often pitted as much against each other as antagonists outside of the party. Additionally, the core dynamic is one of multiple countering forms of pettifoggery (yes, including pettifoggery itself as a skill) to emulate the style of Jack Vance’s pompous self-serving characters. DE rewards players for wit and cunning, be it against their own allies or mutual foes. It strives to play very rules light while also asking much from its participants in a collaborative farce. Mechanically this is the easiest game I have ever played, but in terms of quick wits and player input it remains unmatched.
While it is a mechanical system I am not a huge fan of, I would also like to shout out the first ttrpg I ever played back in middle school (that wasn’t Second Edition DnD anyway), Werewolf the Apocalypse. White Wolf as a company really seemed to be the big thing in the very goth-fused mid and late 90s before burning out rapidly and seeming to mostly live through (pc) gaming franchises since. Its World of Darkness setting, of which Werewolf is a (the best) part, is highly evocative to many and serves as a good modern-action setting for those who like urban supernaturalism.
Because I have banged on about the Old School Renaissance (OSR) scene before, and also because it might fall under this new Hasbro-inspired weirdness with the open gaming license, I won’t talk about it much here. I will simply state that if you want to check out the real old school but still very much DnD derived small press scene, Old School Essentials has the authentic Boomer experience down perfectly and Mork Borg shows how experimental the genre can become.
The options are out there and they are waiting. We as a society need collaborative imaginative games to help us escape from late-stage neoliberalism and think outside the confines of corporate fiat while practicing the cooperative skills that help us respond to random events. The decline of the DnD franchise should not be seen as the end, but rather a challenge to explore new options. I hope in my own small way I have helped you do just that here.
For additional reference I will now list just a few youtube channels and podcasts I believe may be of service to game masters and players alike as they look for alternatives and/or inspiration:
Seth Skorkowsky– Excellent GM advice, small press game reviews, and a strong focus on Call of Cthulhu. This is my favorite one.
Dave Thaumavore RPG Reviews-Small press and indie reviews, extremely thorough. His multi-episode run down of Degenesis is especially good.
Questing Beast– OSR reviews, covers a lot in a famously diverse and expansive subset.
Vintage RPG Podcast– Often hilarious coverage of forgotten about supplements, spin offs, and questionable decisions (Dallas, the RPG anyone?) by older game editions.
Dungeons and Discourse– Already linked to in the post text, I only discovered this channel today but it seems great at analyzing everything that’s going on with DnD at the moment.
Captcorajus– Strong 1E DnD history focus but with plenty of indie/OSR reviews and occasional other content.
Dm Nel– Shadow of the Demon Lord focused channel with some episodes explaining the rules and mechanics but most on lore.