Well, once again, Wizards of the Coast has stuck their head in it. This time, they sicced the Pinkertons on a YouTuber who had been mistakenly shipped the wrong Magic: The Gathering material – specifically a box of an epilogue expansion to March of the Machine that was due to come out later in May. Rather than just doing the more… practical thing, like leaving a voicemail or sending a certified letter, instead the Pinkertons came out, and threatened the YouTuber with felony criminal charges, in addition to having all their magic cards seized by the police.
In turn, this has led to the discourse once again going in the direction of – “Hey, Wizards of the Coast has demonstrated that the people in important decision-making positions are kind of douchebags, maybe we should give our money somewhere else.” This, in turn, leads to the discussion of alternative role-playing games to play.
Because the Discourse is the Discourse, this also means that in the process of discussion of alternative games, we tend to get a bunch of titles that come up that use different mechanical rules systems than D&D, but also frequently not only are using radically different systems than D&D, but also aren’t even in the same genre – for example, recommending Hard Wired Island or Lancer as alternatives to D&D. Or, you’ll get a recommendation for a game that is close to D&D by being fantasy, but ends up falling into a different mode of play in terms of the type of story your campaign will be about, like with Blades in the Dark.
Don’t get me wrong, all of those games are great. However, if you’re trying to get someone to jump off of D&D to something else, particularly when it comes to thinking about changing their current campaign or next campaign to a different system in the same genre – then you want to play the same kind of ball that D&D is playing. That ball game is what Steve Jackson Games referred to in their add-on to GURPS as “Dungeon Fantasy” – that is a fantasy game that is set in a world that has dungeons, be they lost wizards towers, or cave complexes, or ancient ruins that monsters hang out in, and sometimes attack out of, leading adventurers to go forth to fight them to protect communities and seek treasure.
So, I’m here to help provide some alternative picks for systems you can switch to from Dungeons & Dragons to help fit that style of play.
Honorable Mention: Pathfinder & The OSR
Just to make the necessary mention of these so I don’t get pinged really hard in the comments – there’s Pathfinder, whether 1st or 2nd editions, along with some of the Old School Renaissance systems like Old School Essentials or Swords & Wizardry. These games are ones that have some significant mechanical similarities to Dungeons & Dragons, particularly because they were designed using the Open Gaming License and past or current editions of the System Reference Document as a basis for a larger system that takes cues from earlier editions of D&D, whether it’s 3 & 3.5e for Pathfinder, or for 1st and 2nd edition or earlier for Old School Essentials & Swords & Wizardry. The advantage of taking these systems is that the players won’t necessarily need to re-learn as much, mechanically, for this new game.
That said, some characters might be a little trickier to move over to the new system, depending on how high or low magic the old campaign used to be, and the same for the new system. A spell-blade Dragonborn won’t fit into Sword & Wizardry as well as your Halfling Monk might.
Honorable Mention: Sword World 2e and 2.5e
Sword World 2nd Edition and its 2.5 revision are some of the more recent iterations of the roleplaying game system from whence Record of Lodoss War came (sort of). The game has received some very extensive fan translations but has not received a legal English language release yet, so I can’t speak to how the game reflects the design intent of the game designers, along with any errata that has ultimately been put out for the game. If you want to give it a shot, it’s not hard to find, but this might not necessarily be your thing.
There have been various fan attempts to adapt the D&D mode of play to the Savage Worlds roleplaying system – and then there was a Kickstarter for Savage Pathfinder (Affiliate Link), which was designed not only to adapt the concept of Dungeon Fantasy games to Savage Worlds but also to provide adaptations of various classic Pathfinder adventure paths to the Savage Worlds system, in turn creating a template for GMs to use to run their own Dungeon Fantasy games in this system.
To be clear, Savage Worlds is a really great system to use for doing Dungeon Fantasy games – the game is designed to streamline a bunch of the mechanical elements for making opponents for your characters, and in turn is designed to make combats just a little bit quicker than in D&D – enemies go down if they take even a single Wound unless they’re designed to be more resilient by the GM.
Additionally, the system allows for some design of some higher magic characters that better fit with the idioms of some of the character classes that combine concepts like spellcasting with melee combat. So, the players of your group should be able to adapt their existing characters or character concepts to the new system.
In all, Savage Pathfinder is one of the better options if you just want to take your existing campaign and move it into a different system entirely
Let’s say that you want a game that is a little less mechanically complex when comes to combat, and also less involved when it comes to inventory management than something like Savage Worlds or even D&D 5e – consider Fabula Ultima (Affiliate Link), a tabletop RPG meant to take some inspiration from console RPGs like the Final Fantasy series or Dragon Quest.
Fabula Ultima takes cues from Forged in the Dark games by using the Clock mechanic from those games to handle long-term projects. It simplifies the use of inventory by having a specific stat to handle expendable inventory items like potions. It simplifies combat by basically handling it like you’d handle combat in something like Final Fantasy 1 through 6, by having a couple of different ranks for your characters in their combat formation, and the same for monsters.
That said, Fabula Ultima doesn’t work as well when it comes to adapting your existing tabletop setting and campaign to – this is a game about the sort of big world-sweeping adventures that you get in the Final Fantasy series, where the fate of the world almost always is at stake. That said, if you’re looking to do something grander in scale for your home game, that isn’t a bad one to go with.
Dungeon World & Blades Against Darkness
Two of the more popular indy darling tabletop RPGs that come up when it comes to changing systems are Powered by the Apocalypse and Forged in the Dark. The Dungeon Fantasy version of Powered by the Apocalypse would be Dungeon World (affiliate link), and the Forged in the Dark version is Blades Against Darkness. The good news is that there are enough playbooks out there pre-written by other players to fit more or less every character concept that you would have been using in your old game. Some may be free, some may be “pay what you want”, and some may cost you about as much as a latte, but you could probably represent whatever your groups’ old concepts were in 5e, or whatever concepts players thought about doing but chose not to this time around.
The bad news here is – for certain values of bad news – the GM’s job in Dungeon World is strictly to adjudicate and interpret results. That’s it. If you’re a GM who likes rolling dice, this is not the system for you, because you are pretty much the only player at the table who doesn’t get to roll dice. The GM in Forged in the Dark games does have some dice-rolling options.
Additionally, the core idiom of Powered by the Apocalypse, and Forged in the Dark with it, when it comes to dice rolls is that what would be a “critical success” in other systems – when you roll the maximum possible result on the dice – here is just a success. The way results go are “Failure”, “Success with (generally negative) consequences”, or “Success”. This fundamentally leads to a grittier game. It’s also not completely my cup of tea for this genre of game – Fabula Ultima uses a wider result range, with a critical success equivalent of “Success with Opportunities” – creating a situation where the player can select the “English” they put on a result if they roll very well, instead of only the GM being able to put a spin on a result (and only in a direction that isn’t in the player’s favor.)
That said, if you like a grittier game, Dungeon World and Blades Against Darkness can fit that niche.
Fragged Empire (affiliate link) is a tabletop RPG of exploring the ruins of a post-human interstellar empire and attempting to regain contact with the various far-flung worlds and any inhabitants that remain on it, while also looking for lost technology and ancient relics of that empire. Much as Endless Legend provided a fantasy spin-off of Endless Space, Fragged Kingdom (affiliate link) does the same for Fragged Empire – adapting the concept to a fantasy setting that has been wracked by a magical calamity, using much of the same races. If you want to fit some of the more standard magical races in, there is an add-on (affiliate link) to Fragged Kingdom that will also cover the standard D&D races (Elves, Dwarves, Humans, and so on) as well.
Now, Fragged Kingdom is, much like Fragged Empire, designed around a particular idiom of play, one of exploration and re-discovery – which can certainly work well for a lot of Dungeon Fantasy games, and the “reconstruction after a calamity” also works well if you’re looking for a way to de-colonize your Dungeon Fantasy game. That said, this does entail a bit more fudging to make it something that will work for moving your players, and unless your existing campaign is based around this conceit, this isn’t something that would work quite as well for adapting your existing campaign.
The Cypher System (and possibly Ptolus)
Monte Cook several years back released the Cypher System (Affiliate Link) for the Science Fantasy role-playing game of Numenera and went on to adapt it to cross-genre play with the game The Strange. A few years back, Cook would go on to do a Kickstarter for his classic D&D 3e RPG setting of Ptolus: The City by the Spire (affiliate link), adapting it not only to 5th Edition but also to the Cypher System.
The Cypher System and Ptolus help give you a fully fleshed-out urban Dungeon Fantasy setting, with several smaller regular dungeons and a massive megadungeon, all for your characters to explore, with the various political factions of the city also fleshed out enough for you to move the focus to that if you don’t want to get into dungeon exploration.
That said, much as with Fragged Kingdom, this is a setting that is designed more significantly for a particular idiom. So, if you’re looking for a more urban game (in the same line as a game focused around Waterdeep & Undermountain in the Realms), this would work great – but if you’re looking for more wilderness travel this wouldn’t work as well.
That’s just a smattering of available options – there are numerous other games that would work incredibly well as well (I haven’t even touched any of the licensed games).
If there are any titles that you’d like to recommend as well, please share them in the comments.
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