Monday, April 13, 2020

Oh God There Are So Many RPGs (A Guide)

No TL;DR but I'll just tell you that the good shit is the misc. list at the end
Something you hear a lot in RPG spaces is the recurring lamentation of, "no one wants to try this system with me because everyone just wants to play D&D 5E!" DIY and OSR folks are obsessed with having different systems, making different systems, trying out different systems, etc. On the positive end, I once recall Questing Beast telling his 5th graders that "everyone who plays RPGs should try making their own system at least once" and I can definitely see the value in that as a creative exercise. On the negative end, I recently saw a guy say he's "thankful" for 5E catching 90% of people new to the hobby because it, "keeps the scum out." I love 5th Edition D&D, I'm glad that it's popular, and I'm glad that it's made the size of this hobby fucking explode over the last 6 years. But other games are cool too and I surround myself with people who never shut up about them so I needed to just sit down and make a guide. These are loosely categorized and described briefly. If I found something short that could give you a good handle on the system, I also put it in as a link (usually a page-by-page review of it, or in the case of smaller ones, a direct link to the RPG itself). Most things on this list either don't have a unified task resolution system or they use the basic d20 model, so I really only noted exceptions (and usually only when that exception is one of the most notable things about the system). This is, obviously, nowhere even close to an exhaustive list.

In our first two sections, we'll be talking about any RPG that's just a fantasy-dungeon-crawling-type that you pretty much inevitably end up calling "D&D" even when it's not. Like you say to your parents or your roommates or whatever, "yeah, heading out to Tyler's place for some D&D. See you tonight!" even though you're playing Pathfinder. That's these games.

Firstly, "Old School" Editions of D&D (and their Retroclones)

In pretty much all cases, it's better to play a retroclone than the original thing. For as much as people worship the old editions as sacred texts, they're actually awful books written by people who did not know how to write a game book. The whole point of a retroclone is to repackage things to be more usable and convenient. Pretty much any content made for any of these systems will be compatible with each other. And if you want a full diagram to grasp the publication history, the best one I've ever seen is the timeline on the Wikipedia article about Editions of D&D.


Edition of D&D... ...and its Retroclone(s)
Original D&D (literally as archaic as it gets. Race-as-class, only alignments are Law-Neutrality-Chaos, combat uses rules of a board game called Chainmail, make-it-up-as-you-go rules everywhere, bizarre. I love it) Swords and Wizardry
Advanced D&D 1st Edition (specific, complicated rules for every activity. Nothing standardized. Added Good and Evil. Now races merely have favored classes. Classes have "subclasses" sorta. Psionics in core rules. Female characters have a Strength cap because it was the 70's. Yes, really) OSRIC (Old School Reference and Index Compilation)
Advanced D&D 2nd Edition (cut out the ugly stuff because of Satanic Panic, so no more demons, devils, half-orcs, or assassins. Introduced THAC0. Big emphasis on proficiency and class kits) For Gold and Glory (thanks u/KebusMaximus for telling me about this one)
Basic D&D (really solid but simple. Only 3 levels. Race-as-Class, 4 classes, "Keep on the Borderlands" included) Mazes and Perils
Basic/Expert D&D (the gold fucking standard among old cranky gamers. 14 levels, added stuff for Wilderness Travel, more monsters, misc. Most old school play revolves around this one) Labyrinth Lord (expands to 20 levels, clerics get spells at lvl 1)
Basic Fantasy RPG (ascending AC, race separated from class)
Old School Essentials (pure restoration + lots of optional content, and optimized for use-at-the-table. Definitely the best one)
BECMI D&D (36+ levels, a lot of old people think it went overboard and stopped being the "Basic" alternative to "Advanced". Nerfed thieves, buffed mages, adds skills + complexity, focuses on the planes + immortality, written in a more mature voice) Dark Dungeons (specifically a retroclone of the Rules Cyclopedia)

For as cool and fun as these are as historical artifacts, I don't think any of them are worth playing over something off the following list. Grognards rarely admit that sometimes system can be improved.

Secondly, other basic/low-crunch dungeon crawling games (in order of decreasing familiarity to someone who plays 5th Edition D&D)
  • HERE IS SOME FUCKING D&D (minimalist 5E, silly/edgy. Includes a not-silly version. Free as a folder on Google Drive)
  • Five Torches Deep (minimalist 5E, has some chaos magic, 4 classes+subclasses, has a cool "supply" mechanic)
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess (B/X-based, standardized d6 skill system that people like, “specialist” class instead of thief, firearms, awesome slot-based encumbrance, crazy summoning rules)
  • Knave (classless, raceless, equipment and inventory focused, gritty and murder hobo-y. Personal favorite)
  • Castles and Crusades (d20 SIEGE engine but no skills or feats, prime attributes mechanic, “B/X.5 Edition”)
  • The Black Hack (roll-under stats for everything, player-facing rolls, usage dice, armor as DR, close/near/far distances)
  • The Nightmares Underneath (Islamic fantasy, dreams, basically a compilation of millions of houserules, many task resolution systems)
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics (crazy spellcasting, sword and sorcery, funnel character creation, funky dice like d3, d7, d13, etc.)
  • GLOG i.e. Goblin Laws of Gaming (class "templates" for first 4 levels, special dice-based magic, lots of houserules)
  • Maze Rats (random tables, 3 abilities, 2d6 “danger rolls,” made with 5th graders in mind and maybe the most elegant one here)
  • Index Card RPG (classless, "natural language" rules like "hard check" or "easy check," hearts-as-HP like in Legend of Zelda, loot-based advancement, "room DC" mechanic, timer mechanic, literally index card maps)
  • Tunnels and Trolls (early competitor to D&D from 1975, emphasizes accessibility and simplicity, only uses d6s, uses spell points instead of Vancian magic, armor as DR, can be played solo. Mostly remembered fondly by some old people but otherwise pretty obscure. Still very usable, though)
*Note: There are other ones like Torchbearer and Dungeon World and World of Dungeons and on and on but they'll get covered in later categories.

All of these are neat and special and worth checking out because they all contain nuggets that you'll want to plunder if you are down to houserule your own game. Here's the thing about these systems, though.

Remember the "everyone wants to play 5th Edition!" problem? The corollary is that each of these systems only have an audience with people for whom it was literally the first non-D&D system they found. It was just something different and it captured their interest, mostly for not being D&D. I feel like when people sing the praises of any of these systems, they highly exaggerate what makes it special and they especially exaggerate how different it is from 5E (I've even heard people tell outright lies, saying things like, "I like how in this game, unlike 5E, you only roll a check when there's something at stake!" or, "In this game, PCs can't keep re-rolling new attempts at something! We call it the 'Let it Ride' rule!" or "The problem with 5E is that everything is about adding up +2 this, -3 that, +4 here and doing math! Not this game!")

The fact is that you really don't have that much reason to choose one of these over another, and if you see something that you really like from one of them then you should just steal that element and hack it in. This is the realm of "every GM has their own personal RPG." The only reason why you'd really commit to one system is because maybe it just has a really awesome, usable, comprehensive core rulebook that you'd like to use at the table as your core reference document, unedited and authoritative. For example, every spell in DCC has its own table of random effect results, taking up like a hundred goddamn pages and comprising the bulk of the book. So if you want to use DCC's awesome spellcasting system, you may as well just hunker down and embrace the whole package. But when the differences are between task resolution math like d20, d10, d6, 2d6, d%, roll-under, roll-under blackjack, narrative dice, etc.  they just don't really fucking matter. The only systems here I think I'd gush over are Knave, DCC, and maybe Lamentations. But if I wanted to blow the mind of a new 5E DM then I'd show them the Black Hack. Eventually, if you houserule enough, you'll end up with a pretty unique, crazy beast of its own like Neoclassical Geek Revival (an acclaimed but kind of baffling system, like if you "revised" B/X D&D 10 times over).

What other sorts of RPGs might someone new to this hobby want to know about? Well, I figured the next best category to cover is...

Mainstream RPGs that aren't Dungeons and Dragons

That's right! They exist! Major, commercially-successful ones. It's all relative, of course. Literally all RPGs are kind of "indie" or "DIY" just because it's a small hobby. But these are the ones that are closest to D&D in terms of popularity. Or at the very least, they're on this list because people talk about them all the time and you'll inevitably hear about them. These aren't in any order.
  • Pathfinder ("D&D 3.75 Edition." For people who wanted a dungeoncrawler but wanted more crunch instead of less, especially regarding character customization and designing "builds". Rose to success because 4th Edition D&D had a lot of backlash, basically. Also has full online support for free at https://www.d20pfsrd.com/ [1st edition] and at https://2e.aonprd.com/ [2nd edition])
    • By the way if you're really new to the hobby and you want some history, basically D&D 3rd edition came out in 2000 and is usually considered the dividing line between the "old school era" and the "new school era." 3.5 Edition is a patch released in 2003, and if you want to play this version of the game then Pathfinder 1st Edition is honestly your best option. It is simply a better version of 3.X Edition. A pretty clean revision and update, still backwards-compatible. However, Pathfinder 2nd Edition is distinct enough where you can't definitively say one way or another if it's better or worse than its predecessor.
  • Call of Cthulhu (cosmic horror/mystery RPG about H.P. Lovecraft stuff. Famous for having a Sanity [SAN] stat)
  • World of Darkness (urban fantasy horror. Specific games within this franchise to play as Vampires, Werewolves, Witches, Van Helsings, etc. Roll d10s, add more to pool for better chances of success. Very roleplay-heavy, very serious, very edgy. Allegedly the RPG to have been outselling D&D at some point, back in the 90's)
  • Shadowrun (cyberpunk + fantasy. Really lore intensive so if you can't get into the setting there may not be anything for you here. Then again, you might love it. Uses all d6s)
  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (the Warhammer RPG. Setting-specific. Uses a d% system + "careers," very crunchy. Has a much-acclaimed retroclone called Zweihander)
  • GURPS i.e. Generic Universal RolePlaying System (quintessential simulationist sytem, crunchiest in the goddamn world, very flexible. Uses d6s, roll-under your stat but the margin by which you succeed or fail is also important. In addition to a horrifying amount of rules and systems, it's beloved for its many lore/setting splatbooks on just about every topic or genre imaginable. Most "licensed games" from your favorite movie or book or TV show use a GURPS system, e.g. Star Trek, Conan, Discworld, Hellboy, etc.)
  • Mutants and Masterminds (Superhero D&D, heavy on crunch)
  • Deadlands (Cowboys + Horror. Different editions have totally different rule systems. This is the RPG that Bruce Campbell is really into)
  • Apocalypse World + any "Powered by the Apocalypse" systems (originally a post-apocalypse game but has a million spin-offs, uses a universal system, 2d6+stat with gradations of success, collaborative narration)
  • FUDGE/FATE Core (universal system, roll 4d3, more successes means higher up on a “success” track)
  • Savage Worlds (universal system, traits are measured in die size e.g. "I have a d4 in Strength but a d10 in Smarts and a d12 in Agility!" which is a neat idea. Also it has exploding dice AND uses playing cards)
Some of these are famous for being the go-to game for X genre, whereas others have just gotten lots of attention for being solid "you can play any storytelling genre in this system!" systems. At different points in time obviously this list would have looked very different, so don't piss at me for not putting HERO on it or some other thing that only old people still talk about. In fact I probably shouldn't have even put Deadlands on it since I haven't heard someone bring it up in like 5 years.

The next category of RPGs that someone new to the hobby would want to know about (and which stole some entries off the other lists on here so far) is...

Sci-Fi games for being a spaceman guy

Again, not in any order. I was kind of generous with this list, actually. Some are setting-agnostic and some aren't. You can try to adapt a Star Wars system to something else but you can very easily adapt a generic system to Star Wars (which I would personally recommend).
  • Traveller (THE Sci-Fi RPG for a long time. Crazy long history with a million rulesets over the years. Famous and hilarious for being the game where "you can die during character generation" in its early editions. Seriously. But that's more because char-gen is more of a storytelling minigame where you determine your career so far in order to get your skills. Overall it's a very gritty, unforgiving game, though)
  • Starfinder (Pathfinder in space. Technically science-fantasy because elves and orcs and stuff)
  • Stars Without Number (2d6 skills, minimalist but has good structures, incredibly modular, has good psionics rules, fantastic faction rules. Has a free shortened version)
  • Mothership (minimalist, horror, d10s and d%, inspired by Alien+Aliens, ridiculously well put together books)
  • The various Star Wars RPGs
    • West End Games's system, AKA Star Wars D6. From the late 80's so mostly original trilogy stuff. Kind of archaic but, to its credit, whenever you ask for Star Wars recommendations people will always enthusiastically suggest it. 
    • Wizards of the Coast's d20 system and its revision Saga Edition. Roughly analogous to D&D 3.X's system but tested the waters for some material that ended up in D&D 4E, so it's crunchy but pretty well-designed. If you like the Bioware KOTOR games then this is basically that. The differences built up over time though so here's an outline.
    • Fantasy Flight Game's system, AKA Star Wars Roleplaying Game AKA the current one. Based on rolling pools of custom dice. Kind of story game-y.
    • Community made Star Wars 5E, AKA doing for 5E D&D what Saga edition did for 3E D&D. Has an active subreddit.
  • Warhammer 40k Roleplay (d% system, setting-specific obviously. Has lots of sub-RPGs, most famously Dark Heresy I think, and like Rogue Trader and some others)
  • Cyberpunk 2020 and related games (d10, skill points for success instead of leveling, CD Projekt Red is making that cool looking game of it right now)
  • Gamma World (gonzo science-fantasy post-apocalypse)
  • White Star (off-brand Star Wars, AD&D-based)
  • Scum & Villainy (Blades in the Dark Sci-Fi, for Star Wars, Firefly, Guardians of the Galaxy, etc.)
  • Lancer (badass game about designing giant mecha and fighting with them. Rules available for free)
  • Star Trek Adventures (one of many Star Trek systems of course but this one is notable and neat for having a lot of roleplaying mechanics, since clashing personalities are the heart of the franchise. Also has a really cool "momentum" system in combat)
As you can see, most of the reason these systems exist is for Star Wars. In fact, most of them include rules of psionics pretty much just for that reason. You could also use any of those universal systems I talked about to play a Sci-Fi game. I recall once seeing a Savage Worlds RPG called Slipstream that was just knock-off Flash Gordon and it seemed rad.

What's left to cover? Well, there are literally thousands of RPGs out there. I bet you could come up with thousands of ways to categorize them. I'm not bothering. Instead...

Miscellaneous RPGs that for some reason would be worth telling people about

Obviously this is very subjective and the most relegated to my own experience. These range anywhere from, "okay I don't actually see the big deal but people really like this game and I've seen some pretty badass adventure supplements written for it" to "this game is fucking nuts you gotta hear about this." That's not always a positive thing but it usually is. No particular order here.
  • Mazes and Minotaurs (retro system like OD&D or AD&D but if Gary and Dave were into classical mythology and Ray Harryhausen. A fascinating exercise in alternate-universe design and also a pretty good system for an Ancient Greek game. Short and free, too)
  • Fiasco (Storygame without a GM, very short, emulates black comedy crime films like from the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino, very cinematic, focuses on relationships, heavy on improv and gets hilarious, uses a fuckload of d6s)
  • Scion ("Percy Jackson the RPG" but also American Gods, World of Darkness mechanics)
  • Burning Wheel (really neat, creative narrativist universal system that emphasizes building up complex characters and testing their convictions and principles. Basic task resolution is a dice pool of d6s, count how many succeed. Uses a fun rock-paper-scissors style challenge system that can be skinned for combat, a debate, surgery, hacking, etc.)
    • Mouseguard and Torchbearer are two spin-off systems that modify things based on 1) the comic series by David Peterson, and 2) old-school fantasy dungeoncrawling, respectively. Generally better liked than the original system.
  • Pendragon (THE King Arthur system, heavily based on literary themes so it's mostly story game-y, all about knights and chivalry, generational i.e. the campaign takes place over 80 years so you play as a line of fathers and sons, downtime system is important but interesting. 5th Edition PDF is free online, I'd recommend starting by looking at the character sheet at the end)
  • Into the Odd (very concise but popular OSR "weird fantasy" system. 3 abilities, roll-under d20, attacks are automatic hits and not rolled, characters are mostly pre-made packages)
  • RuneQuest (an old D&D competitor from 1978 that innovated a lot of mechanics. d% resolution, classless, has a skill system, abilities improve the more you use them, attacks in combat targets specific body parts. Overall pretty crunchy)
  • F.A.T.A.L. (fucking terrible troll RPG but kind of hilarious, crunchiest system ever, edgy and gory and rapey, typos everywhere, seems like it was written by a 12-year-old. I mostly included this as "important to know" since it's well-known in the hobby, but also it genuinely is pretty funny just how absurd and terrible it is)
  • Ars Magica (everyone is a wizard in pseudo-historical Europe, has an awesome creative spellcasting system based on combining Latin words, GM role cycles between group members, uses a troupe system)
  • Paranoia (comedy version of 1984, lots of backstabbing, high-lethality but you have backup clones of your PC, very funny)
  • Rolemaster (yet another historical one that people still bring up but I've never actually heard of someone who likes it it has been pointed out to me that it's competitor was 2nd Edition AD&D so it looks pretty good in comparison. D&D competitor with d% resolution and a million reference tables to consult, so it takes forever to do anything + character creation takes forever)
  • Dread (horror RPG that uses a Jenga Tower for task resolution instead of dice. Yes, really. The name is very fitting, too. Also uses a questionnaire style character generation which is fun)
  • Legend of the Five Rings RPG (Based on the card game. Fantasy setting based on historical Japan+China+Korea, has some emphasis on social mechanics)
  • 7th Sea (uses similar mechanics to L5R, all about a fictional Golden Age of Piracy setting where every country is a knockoff of a real world colonial empire except now the noble class is all spellcasters. If you like the Three Musketeers, Zorro, 30 Years' War, Machiavelli, etc.)
  • Rifts (very [in]famous classic RPG that has a fantastic premise and legendarily bad mechanical execution, often cited as a masterclass in poor design. It's a omni-genre multiverse RPG where every different universe and setting is connected through dimensional "rifts," with post-apocalyptic Earth as the playground where they're all clashing. So you have vampires and Atlanteans and aliens and cyborg cowboys and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and dwarves and dinosaurs and blablablabla)
  • Numenera (brilliantly-designed mechanics and set in a really cool Science Fantasy world with awesome lore but really daunting and impenetrable at first. Character creation is based on a statement of "I am an adjective noun who verbs," has 3 stats with limited pool of effort you expend e.g. you draw on the same resource for your attacks as you use for health so you actually get worse in combat the more beaten up you are. All player-facing rolls)
  • Ryuutama (“Hayao Miyazaki's Oregon Trail,” heavy on friendship and exploration. DM controls a PC little dragon dude in the party who collects stories for their big dragon. Also has collaborative worldbuilding! Very cute and wholesome but can be badass too, like Princess Mononoke)
  • 13th Age (D&D 3E + D&D 4E, refined from both systems, setting-specific, fairly narrativist, high fantasy, uber-powerful special snowflake PCs but I've heard great things)
  • Troika! (“hipster Planescape,” gonzo, roll-under d6, uses a luck-points system)
  • Fantasy Craft (really crunchy and hard to use but filled with fucking fascinating rules. If you want to go into RPG design you should check this out. One of the most GM-friendly resources for worldbuilding and shaping the rules around your personal setting. Has some crazy playable races like dragons, giants, treants, etc. Leans narrativist+simulationist)
  • Blades in the Dark (Crime + heists in a Gothic Victorian urban fantasy setting, supposed to be an urban sandbox sorta thing, has a big focus on running your "crew" and doing jobs and fighting with rival crews over turf and stuff)
  • Whitehack (roll-under everything but roll high, i.e. "roll-under blackjack", genre-agnostic, slot-based character customization. This is the system that inspired the Black Hack, but is universalist instead of being a fantasy dungeon-crawler)
  • HackMaster (parody of AD&D, ridiculous levels of crunch, unreliable joke-y narrator, surprisingly playable I've heard)
  • Lasers and Feelings (an awesome one-page RPG where you have two stats: Lasers and Feelings. Actually a really neat and clever rule system, though. I would recommend you look up more one-page RPGs, they tend to have pretty creative game design)
    • Very commonly reskinned for various genres, my personal favorite being Boy Problems, a cyberpunk heist RPG about Canadian pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen. Colin Cummings makes a bunch of RPGs about her and they're all hilarious and awesome.
  • Speaking of micro-RPGs, there's also CRASH PANDAS (illegal street-racing raccoons in downtown LA, only 1 page and free, players work together to control one car, stats include alacrity, chutzpah, ferociousness, and rotundity)
  • Jim Henson's Labyrinth: The Adventure Game (oh god this game is so cool it's literally the movie Labyrinth but turned into a fucking rad RPG)
  • Exalted (high, HIGH fantasy epic godling heros but in a very anime way, unbelievably crunchy but people say it's like Dragon Ball Z levels of crazy power awesomeness)
    • If that sounds cool but intimidating, the same guy who made Stars Without Number made an RPG with a similar premise called Godbound but is very low on crunch.
  • Shadow of the Demon Lord (Dark Souls / Darkest Dungeon-type game. Medieval fantasy but also horror, has insanity and corruption rules. Mechanically like D&D 5E + Warhammer Fantasy. Uses d20 system modified with "boons" and banes," which are additional d6 rolls you add or subtract. But instead of stacking, you take the best/worst result from all the dice rolled, so it avoids bonus inflation. Neat alternative to advantage/disadvantage)
  • Genesys (I mentioned Fantasy Flight Games' Star Wars RPG. This is the general system that game uses, adaptable to whatever genre you want. Uses one huge core rulebook and custom dice. Considered pretty narrativist but it's flexible)
  • The Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu, and other GUMSHOE system games (a simple and solid system for investigation adventures by Robin Laws. Its solution to the old problem with detective RPGs is that you always find the clues. Instead, the gameplay is in interpreting them)
This cannot and should not be a "complete" list. The other day I heard there's a Ghostbusters RPG. I've seen approximately 1,000,000,000 Kickstarters for brand new systems. Fucking Wendy's made their own RPG. The only thing I might ever update is the miscellaneous category. Gotta collect the cool shit, especially. But that's not why I made this.

I wrote this to help you explore some of what's out there. To give you a picture of the landscape. Show you the famous tourist spots but also the really cool sites that the travel wiki won't advertise. If you want more, especially more thoroughly categorized so you can make the best decision possible, there's a pretty good catalogue on the RPG subreddit here. If you and your group decide that you want to play a superhero RPG, you might not want to just settle for Mutants and Masterminds because it's the one I included on this list. It's just the one you ought to probably we aware of first in this hobby. There are better ones, I imagine.

And if you're making yet another "not D&D fantasy-dungeon-crawler heartbreaker" then for Pete's sake, do something to make it really special and different.


-Dwiz

P.S. Oh, and yeah, I still play D&D 5E with my group. What can I say? It's my favorite system.

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