For many, the notion of playing a fantasy game with pen, paper, and 20-sided dice conjures up exactly one phrase: Dungeons & Dragons. The massively popular fantasy tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPG) has long been the number one name in its genre, becoming itself synonymous with the TTRPG medium as a whole. Such a generalization is akin to calling all video games ‘Game Boys,’ and may rob people from discovering other TTRPG systems that lend themselves to different stories, genres, systems and experiences.
Dungeons & Dragons is also not exactly the most new-player friendly game, leaving first-timers drowning in ability modifiers, cantrips, and character sheets that are nearly indistinguishable from tax forms. In addition, in recent months, D&D developers Wizards of the Coast have come under fire for the often reductive and racist language surrounding the game’s discussion of playable character races, leading many players to reconsider what game they use to embark on socially-distanced Zoom adventure sessions.
Thankfully, there are no shortage of equally wonderful, weird, and complex game systems to tell sprawling multi-week epics, or just gonzo one-shot sessions, with your friends, sere are the best TTRPGs that aren’t Dungeons & Dragons.
1. Dungeon World
For those of us who can’t quite quit the swords-and-sorcery fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons, players can still scratch that same fantasy itch with Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebbel’s Dungeon World.
The game puts characters in familiar roles: Wizards and thieves and druids, elves and dwarves and halflings (public domain hobbits for the uninitiated), etc. The elegance of Dungeon World is in its relative simplicity, as Dungeon World is a ‘Powered By The Apocalypse’ game, (deriving from the Mad Max-style apocalyptic role playing game Apocalypse World), meaning the majority of player’s actions are resolved by rolling two six-sided dice.
The focus in PbtA games, and in the Tolkien-adjacent high fantasy of Dungeon World, is a more zoomed out perspective of characters’ adventures. Role playing is meant to be a discussion, with players and GMs (Game Masters, as opposed D&D’s Dungeon Master) zooming in on person-to-person scenes where they feel important, and zooming out to convey entire multi-day journeys through just a few quick rolls. Dungeon World is a fantastic introduction into the world of tabletop roleplaying, giving first time adventurers plenty of room to flex their imaginations and get a taste for the thrill of rolling dice and seducing their first enemy as a bard.
2. Blades In The Dark
If a player wants to stay in the realm of fantasy, but with a little bit more mechanical complexity, then John Harper’s Blades In The Dark offers a viable alternative. Blades casts its players as criminals, part of a heist crew, so that each session is the latest big score. As such, players have a huge amount of control over the narrative as they plan out their heists and then go about enacting the plan they set in place.
Blades also offers up a few key differences in play. In addition to harm, player characters can also suffer stress and eventual scars if the stress isn’t reduced in a timely fashion. Players base their rolls off their positioning in each moment, whether it’s desperate, risky, or controlled, and their relative effect, whether it’s limited, standard or great. All these added variables may sound tricky on paper, but in play they contribute to thrilling exchanges and nail-biting sequences of play.
Finally, the game also has built-in “downtime,” crucial moments of role-playing in-between your characters’ jobs for them to try and reduce stress and deepen their bonds with each other. All of these factors connect to reward players being invested and immersed in the world they’re helping build. Actual play podcast Friends At The Table, who played Dungeon World across multiple seasons, also played the game in their mini-season Marielda, for those who want to hear a demonstration.
3. Monster of the Week
Michael Sands’ Monster of the Week is inspired by, as the name suggests, the episodic, week-to-week structure of TV shows like The X-Files or Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
Players will create characters that have one foot in the mundane world and the other in a world of supernatural shenanigans, as they work through short mysteries that thrive in the juxtaposition of these two worlds. You can play as someone possessed, a member of a strange cult, an actual divine being, or even an average everyday person with no magical destiny who just wandered into all this messy business.
The recent subject of the second season of popular actual play podcast The Adventure Zone, Monster of the Week advertises itself as an action-horror RPG. Every character has exactly seven hit points, and character death is so expected that the game rulebook includes guidelines for bringing characters back from the dead. The game also has a nifty ‘Luck’ system: whenever a player has a bad roll, they can just use a Luck point (of which they have a very limited supply, and can almost never regain) to succeed instead.
However, once they run out of Luck, their character is effectively doomed, meaning the GM (called a “Keeper” in this game, for maximum spooky gravitas) can pretty much do whatever they want. Monster of the Week has a ton of room for interpretation and capacity to tell so many kinds of stories, perfect for a group of players that are certain they could’ve done season 3 of Stranger Things better.
4. Glitter Hearts
Inspired by magical girl anime like Sailor Moon, Greg Leatherman’s Glitter Hearts gives you a chance to create your own super-powered teens and try to strike a work-life balance between saving the world and making it to school on time while running with toast in your mouth.
Players choose both an Everyday Identity and a Magical Archetype, meaning you get to choose two, yes, two different playbooks, for a higher amount of customization in character creation. The game is all about building a character that’s interesting and fun to play before anyone has to transform or fight a bad guy, which makes the eventual action all the more resonant because players have bought into their characters’ human sides.
The game’s handbook even has optional rules for further customization— for example, you not only choose your Everyday Identity and Magical Archetype, you also choose your Mystical Connection, the source of your powers. Are you an elemental-based team, like Captain Planet, or are you more tied to emotional states, like the Green Lantern corps? You can even choose to be ‘Vehicular Heroes,’ which is a fancy way to say Power Rangers or Voltron, complete with robot vehicles that can, naturally, link up with each other to form a bigger robot.
With all of these tools at your disposal, Glitter Hearts gives players everything they need to make the Saturday morning cartoon of their dreams.
In addition to being the second consecutive entry on the list that ends in the word ‘hearts’, Avery Alder’s Monsterhearts is about romance. Between monsters. Because it’s their hearts.
Relive your deepest and fondest memories of self-insert Twilight fan fiction by creating a moody supernatural teen of your own. The focus for the players in Monsterhearts isn’t to solve a mystery or defeat any kind of great enemy, but instead to live an interesting life and explore their own identity, which leads to more emotionally-focused roleplaying.
Like many of the games on this list, Monsterhearts is specifically focused on developing its story through shared storytelling decisions. The game’s rulebook says the game is “a conversation,” one that may meander and take some time to find its footing, but always one that goes somewhere. GMing a game is less about devising a clever puzzle to stump your players and more about setting your players’ characters up on a dicey, but possibly rewarding, blind date.
Monsterhearts’ playbook is also very inclusive in its handbook’s language, specifically encouraging queer romance and role-play as a means of a player’s self-expression. Because of this intent to foreground self-identity and sexual identity, and because sexuality and sex are game mechanics within the game itself, it’s important that you make sure you feel comfortable about your game group, and playing a game that discusses these topics. The game’s rulebook includes a chapter on how to tackle these difficult topics with care and consent. Remember to role-play responsibly!
6. The Ground Itself
Maybe building a character is too limiting for you and your friends, being shackled to one character in an entire world of adventure, unable to really stretch your creativity while the GM has all the fun. Everest Pipkin’s The Ground Itself, a self-described “game about places over time,” lets everyone share the same story, as everyone shares the power and responsibilities of the GM. You and your fellow players aren’t telling the stories of any specific people — you’re telling the story of a place.
As a group you’ll decide where your story is taking place, whether it’s a small town, an entire desert, or a whole planet far away in outer space. Then, rolling a dice to determine how much time will pass between rounds (from hours to centuries) players will take turns drawing cards from a deck and answering questions about the place determined by each card, with 10s meaning a jump forward in time.
For example, drawing a Jack of Diamonds means a player has to answer, “what is this place named or called? Who named it, and for what reason?” If a player draws the second 4 in the deck, their prompt is “‘The bar’ opens their doors to all. What is the bar, and who is a regular there,” or, “‘the church’ changes a core mandate. What is the church, and what about their worldview has shifted?”
This open-ended, narrative structure of play means that everyone is equally the author, and as time passes in this place connections between answers emerge in an intuitive and rewarding way. The Ground Itself can be hilarious, unsettling, baffling and moving, all in the same game, powered entirely by how the players choose to build their entire world.
Now let’s say you do like the complex math and endless spreadsheets of Dungeons and Dragons. The answer, then, is the recent game Lancer, from Massif Press. Lancer is a science-fiction TTRPG about piloting big mechs in the vein of Mobile Suit Gundam, which gives you a ton of minutiae to dive into as you and your fellow players build your giant mech, monitor its maintenance, track all sorts of high-concept weapons, damage, terrain and traversal.
Lancer thrives in the tactile elements of role-playing. It’s core rulebook is over 400 pages of charts, item lists, sample campaigns and examples of its exhaustive systems. In playing Lancer, one comes to feel like an expert pilot, maneuvering complex-seeming controls and esoteric diodes with reckless abandon to tell your story of interstellar warfare and big stompy robots. The game is also built to tell all sorts of sci-fi stories, from hardened war narratives to more far out campaigns about eldritch and alien abominations from deep space.
Of all the games on this list, Lancer is the game that will ask you to invest the most time in understanding its vast and complex systems. However, once you’ve sat down and done the math, you’ll likely be qualified for a real engineering degree, and one step closer to building your towering war machine in real life.
Fans of roleplaying the mech genre may also want to check out Briar Sovereign’s Armour Astir, Austin Ramsay’s Beam Saber, or Dream Machine Productions’ Mechnoir.
8. Interstitial: Our Hearts Intertwined
While all the TTRPGs on this list give you the power to make memorable original characters, Linksmith Games’ Interstitial: Our Hearts Intertwined is actually about taking your favorite characters from existing pop culture properties and sending them on world-spanning and copyright-destroying adventures.
Inspired by Kingdom Hearts’ peanut butter-in-the-chocolate mix of Disney and Final Fantasy properties, Interstitial is built explicitly around using established characters. Spider-Man can fight Lord Frieza from Dragonball Z, WWE hall-of-famer Shawn Michaels can pilot an X-wing, Katniss Everdeen can be Eli Bartlett’s new vice president, the possibilities are endless.
Interstitial also differentiates itself in how it makes inter-player bonds a central concept. While plenty of games on this list encourage player characters to have strong feelings toward each other, Interstitial’s Link system requires you to form various kinds of links with your fellow players and with the GM’s characters, because your links are used to make rolls, meaning the more connections you have, and the stronger you feel about them, the more you’ll be capable of doing on your turn.
It’s a subtle but brilliant system that forces players to role-play with regards to making significant connections, as opposed to the uber violent “kill everyone and loot the bodies” play style that can be popular in more combat-focused games. By shifting focus from the swinging of a sword to how everyone at the table feels about the person holding said sword, Interstitial successfully captures the moment in anime when a main character, in the heat of battle, gives a monologue about friendship before regaining their strength and kicking the villain’s ass, and makes an entire game out of that moment.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the other TTRPGs that exist in the world. While Dungeons & Dragons may be the most famous name in the medium, it is by no means the only game in town. If none of these games strike your fancy, keep looking. There are tons of other games on itch.io or Drive-In Games, and you’d be surprised by how much you can find with a basic web search of “[genre you like] TTRPG.”
We all love spending quality time with a good video game, but as social distancing continues to be a necessity, the social aspect of TTRPGs makes them an invaluable source of entertainment and a way to flex your imagination with close friends, all while telling some amazing stories that no one else will ever see or hear. That’s an experience everyone should have.
Some of the coverage you find on Cultured Vultures contains affiliate links, which provide us with small commissions based on purchases made from visiting our site. We cover gaming news, movie reviews, wrestling and much more.
Gamezeen is a Zeen theme demo site. Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.