Four Alternatives for Fantasy Tabletop Gaming
It’s not inaccurate to say that Dungeons & Dragons is both the largest and most famous fantasy roleplaying game on the planet. But those well deserved accolades don’t mean that it’s the best, or only, fantasy roleplaying experience. Speaking from experience, I know I’m not the only player or DM who’s sat down at one point or another and determined that D&D, while good at what it does, isn’t always the best fit for what you want to do or the playstyle of the group.
This post is a simple list of four alternative fantasy tabletop RPG’s. In selecting them, I used personal experience, heresay (other peoples opinions), and applied the simple criteria of requiring the games to be in print, have active online communities, and that they not be related to the current edition of D&D (5e). I also applied my recently invented new game assessment metrics, Investment Threshold (IT) and Complexity Scale Rating (CSR); these reflect how much of an investment in materials a gamer has to make to get started, and how “easy” a game is to get into as a new player. So, of course the thing to remember with these games is that they run the gamut from familiar to unfamiliar, and from well supported to what could be described as “supported enough”. So, now it’s time to look at some D&D alternatives for fantasy gaming!
Fantasy AGE developed out of Green Ronin’s licenced tabletop release of the successful Dragon Age video game series. This game will have familiar and unfamiliar aspects to players experienced with D&D. Overall, I would describe this game as being more freeform and cinematic than D&D, with a different overall approach to the genre of fantasy gaming. This system is highly versatile, and while it is easy to pick up, is also not as structured as D&D, which may make some players and GM’s a bit uncomfortable (e.g.: all magic users fall under a single class, without regard for the source of their power).
To get started with this game, all that is required is the base Fantasy AGE book (~$33 CAD on Amazon), pencils, paper, and at least three six-sided dice. The game is still in print and supported by Green Ronin Publishing, and is available in .pdf format as well from online sources (for ~$20). The Bestiary, soon to be released Companion, and GM Kit are handy, but not necessary to play this game. The basebook includes an introductory adventure to assist players and GM’s in learning the game and its systems.
Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game (BFRPG) is something from the “old school roleplaying” side of the house; a retro-clone seeking to emulate but not replicate the experience of playing D&D (well, 1e AD&D to be precise). BFRPG uses a heavily streamlined and modified version of the d20 system introduced by D&D 3.0, and has been described as having “fixed” everything that was wrong with AD&D by some. Playing this is great if you’re looking for an old-school dungeon crawl feel, but some players may feel limited by the very basic classes and the approach to player races.
This game is accessible in the extreme, with everything available for free online, and most things available in softback print for very low prices. And by extremely low, I mean you can buy the core book and a set of dice on Amazon for less than $20 after shipping. Only one book is required to play this, and it includes everything you need to get started. The game and system are insanely well supported, and is constantly being updated. Remarkably, it has very high production values for an independent publication.
Publisher: Sage Kobold Productions
System: Dungeon World
Dice: RPG Standard (d4 to d20) with spare d6’s
CSR: Moderate Difficulty Gaming
Dungeon World is a hard game to place. On the outset, it looks and feels like a D&D clone, but it’s a trick. The game itself uses a different set of core mechanics, and does not hold your hand in getting things started, or once things are going. To me, this game feels like it was strongly influenced by a mix of D&D archetypes, older computer or console RPGs, and modern games like Darkest Dungeon. The game is, oddly and somehow, both freeform and extremely restrictive in nature. It’s geared entirely for dungeon crawls through thematic dungeons, and light on just about anything not related to that. It’s a game that you will either love, or hate. I would go so far as to not present it to players as “like D&D”, but describe it as it’s own, unique fantasy experience. A brutal, unforgiving fantasy experience.
To play this game, you need the base book, two six sided dice, and a set of standard RPG dice. It has good online support, including complete character sheets for each class and all its options. The base book will set you back ~$40 CAD online from Amazon. The system is still supported and is slowly expanding with online content.
This is the game for people who want to play something that’s almost D&D, but not quite. Picking up from 3.5e D&D, this game has been (I feel accurately) described as “3.75e D&D”. Based on the 3.5e D&D OGL, Paizo greatly cleaned up the system to produce a smoother running, dramatically less bloated but still at times crunchy system. Pathfinder isn’t so much an alternative to D&D as it is a living and supported evolution of a previous edition. Whether used with its integral world, or for homebrew, it’s well geared to many different styles of play from dungeon crawling to deep roleplay. One thing this game is great for groups who love detail and options.
Pathfinder is a low to moderate initial investment, as two books are required for play, the core rule book and the bestiary, in addition to a standard set of RPG dice. In the softcover “pocket editions”, it’s ~$45 CAD to buy both online from Amazon, or ~$96 CAD in hardcover for both from the same place. Paizo supports the game well, and offers a very similar online support suite to Wizards’ for D&D.
So, there it is, a collection of four alternatives to D&D. Of them, Basic Fantasy Role-Playing and Pathfinder will offer the most “D&D like” experience to a group; simply because they themselves are different evolutions of D&D in both mechanics and spirit. Fantasy AGE and Dungeon World will give a fantasy RPG experience, but will definitely have a different feel and vibe than D&D or the other two games on this list. In any case, the four games here are good place to start if you’re looking for something that 5e D&D is missing the mark with for you or your group.
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