Here are some tabletop games that aren’t D&D for your roleplaying game needs
This isn’t a post about how terrible Dungeons and Dragons is — I think it’s a fine game system for a specific kind of role playing campaign. I play it, I enjoy it, I’ve made some fun characters I’ve really liked with it. But every so often, I see someone get up to announce that there are other role playing games out there… and then that’s where they stop. They just say Hey, there are other RPGs than D&D you know and then walk away. It’s confusing, because if people legitimately didn’t know that and were interested in finding out more, how hard would it be to, I don’t know, tell them about those other role playing games?
So here I am, doing exactly that. Of course, I can’t list all of the other RPGs out there. And I’m likely to accidentally or on purpose leave your favorite out, which is okay — we have a comments section so you can get in there and talk about your favorite game system or standalone RPG to your heart’s content. I am well aware that I am just one person with my own unique tastes. Still, rather than just swanning away after informing you that other game systems exist, at least I’m trying to tell you what they are.
So here are a few of the many, many RPGs out there that aren’t D&D. No, I’m not mentioning Pathfinder. I love that game, it was my favorite RPG of 2019, but it basically is D&D — it’s descended from D&D 3rd Edition and the current game is influenced by developers who worked on D&D 4th Edition. It’s D&D with different priorities. I’m going to try and stick to games that provide something different.
If you like superheroes, try Mutants and Masterminds
I love a lot of superhero stuff, and superhero RPGs are among my favorite superhero stuff out there. I spent years playing Champions, which is the game I switched to when the 80’s Marvel Super Heroes game stopped being published — you can look at the rules for that system in the retroclone Faserip if you’re curious — and I’ve already discussed Masks on the site and why I like it a lot.
But one game that I keep coming back to when it comes to superheroes and role playing is Mutants and Masterminds.
The game came out around the same time as D&D‘s 3rd Edition, and even used a heavily modified version of that game system, but in the almost 20 years of its existence has evolved into something distinctive and a whole lot more interesting and flexible than that early version. And that early version was itself pretty darn amazing. What I like most about M&M is how it manages to be approachable without being too simplistic to model superhero powers, how the system can adapt to a whole host of genres, and how well supported it is, with numerous sourcebooks published over the decades of its existence. I really like this game, and it’s one I’d recommend to anyone looking to branch off into superhero RPG’s for a while.
Also, the game setting is pretty broadly generic superhero while still having a few really nice flourishes, like a generational story with clear comic book analogues that allows them to age and be replaced in a way modern comic books are afraid to, which I really think makes it a lot stronger.
Exalted is a fantasy RPG, but extra
Look, there are a lot of fantasy RPGs on the market. And a lot of them are great, like the big dogs of the field that I’ve already mentioned, or superlative games like 13th Age. Or I could try and steer you to one of my obsessions, the weird but accessible Talislanta, or I could go into the oldest days of the hobby and try and tell you about M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne which has seen several attempts at commercial viability over the years. But while I have a place in my heart for all of these and more, today I’m going to recommend Exalted, which takes themes and elements from anime or JRPG video games and crashes them into epic fantasy of the type that dominated mankind’s earliest efforts, such as the tales of Gilgamesh, the Illiad and Odyssey of Homer, the Theogony of Hesiod, the Tain of ancient Ireland and the various Eddas of Scandinavian mythology, even Beowulf or The Song of Roland.
If you want to do a kind of roleplaying where you start off as a kind of epic hero, where the stakes are vast and the powers and abilities both you and your opponents use are over the top, and you like video games like the Final Fantasy series with their limit breaks and enormous swords, Exalted is a great game to check out. It’s a game set in the primordial past, where a series of gods have won a titanic war against their progenitors by creating the Exalted, mortal warriors who can draw upon the power of the cosmos — now, after a long reign as the masters of creation, the Solar Exalted were deposed by their more human Dragon Blooded soldiers, and have only recently been reincarnated to try and set the world right.
It’s a fun game where you get to do things like cut a building in half or channel the power of the Sun to melt an entire army’s weapons, make deals with angry spirits and minor gods, and rally the people of creation against sinister Deathlords and accursed Green Sun Princes out to destroy the same gods that overthrew their masters so long ago. There’s incredibly advanced magic that almost seems like technology, decadent empires desperately clinging to relevance, and fantastic creatures on the edges of the world, and you play one of the most powerful beings in all existence, returned from death into a new life to decide what your role in this world will be. It takes fantasy RPG elements, tosses in the kinds of powers and abilities you’d more likely see in an anime or JRPG — it’s absolutely one of my favorite games.
Agon is what I’ve always wanted in a Greek mythology RPG
I loved Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and I wasn’t subtle about it. I think Agon was literally made for me. If not, it still manages to be the Greek Mythology RPG I so desperately wanted both Mythic Odysseys of Theros and Odyssey of the Dragonlords to be. Both those D&D sourcebooks were very good, but they were still D&D when you get right down to it, whereas Agon does an absolutely amazing job of being a tight, narratively focused experience that I absolutely love.
From the renaming of the referee The Strife Player emphasizing how that one player runs everything the hero contends with to the very elegant system for character creation, the wholesale adoption of the yes, and improv style of games like Apocalypse World, the lovely and evocative art, Agon is a really excellent gem of a game and I’d love to see it expanded. A Celtic myth inspired version of Agon adapting stories from the Mabinogion or the Tain, for example, would be utterly lovely — and yes, I know about Sláine but you know what, there can be more than one game for Celtic myth, and one that borrows Agon‘s systems and outlook would be excellent.
At the same time, though, Agon is uniquely rooted in the source material, and it feels very at home there — the same way the older epics viewed the world and destiny/fate is shot through here, like thread used to stitch together a garment. It’s absolutely one of my favorite new games and I heartily recommend it for a very different kind of RPG experience.
Okay, so that’s three down, and so, so many to go. We’ve talked about this subject before, focused more on the companies putting out these games, but I wanted to make sure to mention just how many good games are out there and how I know I didn’t get nearly enough in this post.
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