9 RPGs for your next game that aren't Dungeons & Dragons
Dungeons & Dragons is pretty great, but sometimes you need to mix things up. Whether it’s trying something outside of Medieval Fantasy, or wanting a system with less number crunching, there is a world of RPG systems out there to give a try in your next one shot.
Call of Cthulhu
Tentacled horror and paranormal investigation in H.P. Lovecraft's London
Call of Cthulhu is the ultimate horror RPG. While other systems can be fitted into scary stories, this one is built around it. You are investigators in Lovecraftian London, there are horrific monsters and terrible crimes, and your character will probably go mad or die horribly. If you want a system to put a scary story in, this is it.
The game has 40 base skills, any of which your character could choose to learn to help with your investigation. While combat is possible within the system (and widely available in a world of cultists, criminals, and tentacled monsters), the game is more about intrigue, puzzles, and investigation.
For players who want something different to 1920s Lovecraft horror, there are other versions available. Cthulhu by Gaslight takes the game back to the 1890s, where Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper can get involved in the story. Delta Green is an excellent alternative version of the game set in the 1980s. Instead of London noir, this version offers 80s X-Files style paranormal investigation.
To play you’ll need the core rules, and a standard set of 7 dice, though most of the time you’ll only need the d10 and d100.
Masks: A New Generation
A giant robot is smashing down Main Street. Your best friend tried to kiss you. Your mom thinks your grades need work.
Your mentor thinks your team is bringing you down. Oh, and your costume is ripped.
Just another day in Halcyon City.
Masks is an absolutely brilliant system. You play young superheroes trying to save their city, and find themselves.
Masks is a playbook system, which essentially means that, depending on which superhero archetype you choose, you get a character sheet that’s unique to you. How you get XP, what your abilities are, what skills you have, are all up to you and what you think your character would value. The core book includes rules for mixing classes and making custom playbooks, so you can truly make your character unique.
The base archetypes cover every type of young superhero you can imagine, from the double life secret hero, to the child of a famous superhero trying to fulfil their family expectations, the alien who has fallen to earth, or the one who technically has no powers but is good enough in science class that it doesn’t matter.
The system is far freer than Dungeons & Dragons players might be used to. While in Dungeons & Dragons you may have a specific number of spells, at specific levels, which can be avoided by exact rolls, and if they hit they do an exact number of damage, Masks has none of that. If your power is ‘magic’ then you decide what that means, what kind, how do you cast it, what does it do, it's all up to you. There is no initiative, players take their turn when it feels narratively appropriate to do so; players are encouraged to add detail to the world that they feel enhances the story; instead of points of damage, harm is inflicted in emotional or physical ways, whatever feels like it fits the situation best. When a player takes all the harm they can then they don’t necessarily die, they could run away, defect to the enemy, or go mad. It’s the ultimate ‘Rule of Cool’ system.
The only negative aspect of the game is that with great power comes great responsibility. When your power level is relatively undefined, and there’s very little limiting you from dominating the narrative, it can be easy for ‘main character’ players to take over. It’s important to remember that it’s not a game you play to ‘win’, it’s a story you write together.
Masks: A New Generation uses standard D6s, and you’ll only need the core book to play a game. It’s also available on Roll20, so you can play online as well.
Blades in the Dark
Play as a crew of daring scoundrels seeking their fortunes on the haunted streets of an industrial-fantasy city.
Blades in the Dark is a relatively recent RPG, it came out in 2015 but is already considered one of the best systems out there. It’s another playbook system, meaning each character is unique, and all a player needs is their playbook sheet (no sifting through books every time you take an action) and some dice. You play a gang of criminals in Duskvol, a twisted Victorian city in a steampunk, gothic world. Along with growing your character, the group works toward building a criminal organisation to claim your place in the city.
Blades has a flashback mechanic, meaning you can spend resources to have already done something. This mechanic alone makes the RPG experience so much better, as you can get right into the action and decide what prep you would have needed to do as and when it comes up in the narrative. Did you remember to bring a lockpicking kit, train a little harder at scaling a wall, contact a friend who could help, or set up a distraction for your getaway? You did now.
In addition to Blades itself, the system has spawned ‘Forged in the Dark’, a whole community of custom systems that use the same basic rules. The Playbooks are easy to custom make to fit whatever world you like.
To play Blades in the Dark you’ll need the sourcebook and some D6s, it is also part of the playbook integration on Roll20, so if you’d rather an online game you can get your Playbooks on there.
Star Wars RPG
Explore and embody characters from your favourite parts of the Star Wars universe
The Star Wars RPG uses a storytelling dice system which allows for degrees of success or failure. This creates great story moments where your character may successfully repair the transfer circuits in his ship just in time for a dramatic jump to lightspeed only to come out of hyperspace in the middle of an asteroid field. There are multiple versions of the system, depending on the part you wish to play in the world. In Age of Rebellion you take a place amongst the rebel alliance; in Edge of the Empire you play smugglers, scoundrels, or outlaws, on the outskirts of the universe; and in Force and Destiny you find your place in the way of the Jedi. The different versions are made to be compatible so you can have a party of characters from different backgrounds.
The Star Wars RPG has some of the best space combat rules for any system. So much so that it’s a common set of rules to borrow for other games that could do with more interesting vehicle or sea combat. You all have a role to play on the ship, things to maintain and perform alongside the fighting itself, it makes combat between ships in space so much more involved and interesting than simply attacking each other.
You’ll need the book and some of the custom Star Wars dice to play. There are also published adventure paths for whatever aspect of the extended Star Wars Universe you’d like to explore
Through The Breach
Steampunk card-based adventuring in Malifaux
Through the Breach takes place in the world of Malifaux, where steam power collides with magic, monsters, and the Wild West.
Player characters are the Fated: individuals who have glimpsed their inevitable destinies and can choose to embrace their end, or try to fight against it.
The game resolves through cards rather than dice, as the GM deals fates to the players; they can then use their own hand of cards to change events and succeed.
You’ll need the core book and some fates cards, and there are many book and pdf expansions available.
There are also many smaller Role Playing Systems, with simpler rules and more of a focus on fun and story
Kids on Bikes
Something mysterious is afoot in your town and it’s up to you and your friends to investigate what!
Kids on Bikes is the one of the only systems where you can play as kids who feel like kids.
The tone is very similar to Stranger Things or IT. It’s got enough rules to support the narrative, but at its heart it’s cooperative storytelling.
The magical version of this game, Kids on Brooms, is equally good. Think Harry Potter style magical kids, who have powers but are still learning how to use them. You’re at a magical school and it’s up to you and your classmates to explore mysteries and get into shenanigans together.
Every cat has a human, and every human has problems. Play as Magical cats in a town threatened by witches, robots, and raccoons, and protect the humans who care for you with your magical cat powers! It has simple rules which put emphasis on characters and story, and it is written to be accessible for any age group.
Monster of the Week
Many RPGs are high fantasy, meaning they take place in a magical world and the supernatural isn’t so strange. Monster of the Week is urban fantasy, meaning that when you and your high school friends come across some terrible paranormal being that you need to take down, it’s quite the surprise.
The system uses the ‘monster of the week’ format often employed in TV shows (think Doctor Who, Supernatural, or Buffy), meaning that each session is it’s own self-contained adventure. This makes it excellent for one-shots as well as for longer games.
In addition to the system, there are expansions which can be used for any RPG. Tome of Mysteries is an Anthology of short form mysteries and monsters for you to drop into your next game. While they are designed for Monster of the Week, they are equally well suited to any game that could benefit from the presence of a new monster or puzzle.
Most small RPGs are light and fun, Dread is not. It’s a horror game, and to play you’ll need to bring a scary adventure idea, and a Jenga tower. When a player takes actions, they draw blocks from the tower, and when it falls, someone dies. There are more complex rules available, but a lot is up to the GM and how much mechanically they want other than the wobbling tower of blocks.
There are different character sheets available depending on what kind of horror you’d like to play, Beneath a Full Moon has elements of traditional survival horror, Beneath a Metal Sky is a sci fi world, and Beneath the Mask is a slasher where not even the GM knows who the killer is. Character creation is mostly loaded questions about your relationship with the other Player Characters, meaning you rapidly establish bonds both good and bad, making everyone’s inevitable horrible death that bit more dreadful.