It is the most popular RPG in the world, but sometimes you want more (or less) from a RPG
Let me begin by saying how much I enjoy and appreciate Dungeons and Dragons 5e. As a lifelong player and GM of RPGs, the brand will always have a special place in my heart. Its current iteration is one of its leanest, and cleanest to date, and for some very good reasons its accessibility has absolutely exploded the popularity of our hobby.
I am grateful for 5e, with its copious support, and myriad official and 3rd party supplements, but sometimes it isn’t quite what my players crave. Sometimes you desire a system that has more mechanical simulation or nuance, and at other times you might need something even lighter on rules. In the spirit of broadening horizons and trying new things (which in many cases might give you new tools to take back to 5e), here is a Top-3 List of RPGs which have absolutely delighted the Fantasy Fisticuff’s team in 2020.
In no particular order…
Call of Cthulhu 7e by Chaosium:
The latest edition in the beloved series of Eldritch Horror RPGs, Call of Cthulhu could not be more different than 5e. Built on the classic “Basic Roleplay” System, players do not gain levels, but rather are collections of skills and abilities. These take the form of (roughly) easy to understand percentage chances of success, as players roll D100, and attempt to roll under the appropriate number. This change alone will challenge your players expectations surrounding ideals such as character progression, or the expected hunt for magical gear.
Further systems are all in service to the theme, as players track and test their sanity against the truly disturbing horrors they will face. Here, the game really marks its differences from 5e. Horror as a genre is all about fear, and disempowering feelings, whereas 5e is most certainly a power fantasy. In CoC, player characters are vulnerable and fragile in body and mind, and charging head-long into any fight is almost a surefire way to die.
Call of Cthulhu is an unforgiving system that very much evokes fear, and paints a portrait of human insignificance in the face of elder space gods, and unknowable monsters. And yet, with skill, and more brains than many other games require, players may just find a way to hold back the darkness, and help the world endure.
As an honorable mention, the game’s big brother Delta Green, by Arc Dream, is an absolute masterpiece, honing CoC’s engine even further, creating one of the best RPGs ever made.
Fiasco by Bully Pulpit Games:
At the end of the day, RPGs are just a shared storytelling game created as a childhood amusement by Charlotte Bronte and her sisters. It is the telephone game. It is mad-libs. The game part of RPGs is what raises them out of pure imagination by introducing structure. Fiasco is a game that is about as rules-light as possible, while still being able to be called a game.
The rules are ultimately accessible, and amount to little more than creating a tension filled scenario (planning a wedding, camping in bigfoot infested woods, breaking out of jail), and creating connections between characters who will each ultimately only care about themselves. Further mechanics are lean, and exist only to structure the story-telling, all while encouraging players to absolutely screw with one-another. It isn’t about if your plans will fail, but rather how hilariously and gloriously they will.
This game verges on the party game, and feels not unlike Cards Against Humanity. It is strictly intended to be about one-shot experiences, and can be perfect for introducing the hobby to new or non-rpg players. If nothing else, it is a fun distillation of what all RPGs are when stripped of their numbers and dice.
Note: Lovecraftesque from Black Armada can fulfill the same role for those who want a horror experience rather than a comedic one.
Shadow of the Demon Lord by Schwalb Games:
Made by Robert Schwalb, one of the minds behind classic RPGs including 5e itself, this game is a wonder, albeit not for everyone. Described by Schwalb as his effort to “un**** everything I ****ed up when designing 5e” its heritage shows. Released just a couple of years after 5e’s launch, Shadow is a further streamlined, but incredibly smart cousin to 5e.
Set in the world of Rua, the game initially resembles a familiar fantasy setting… that is until the grindhouse gore and horror kicks in. Fantasy turned to graphic/mature eleven feels apt here as every fantasy trope has a bloodstained coat of paint. This setting will absolutely not be for most audiences, and yet for those of us with a fondness for games such as Warhammer Fantasy, this feels entirely natural.
Even if you don’t love the setting, this is a must own book. I will actually say it is mechanically superior to 5e in every meaningful way. Elements that could be cut or streamlined with absolutely no cost to depth, have been, and meaningful options like the game’s frankly brilliant path system (its take on classes/subclasses) are numerous, and feel like what one more liberated design pass at 5e could have yielded.
If you do happen to enjoy the grimdark world as printed, the game also features an outright staggering amount of support and fully optional supplements. It’s aggressive release schedule for content virtually rivals WotC’s 5e efforts, particularly impressive considering how tiny the team involved is.
As much as it shocks me to say, our weekly 5e games have almost universally been run using this ruleset. It almost feels like a 5.5e if there were no expectations for the system due to legacy concepts.
So there you have it, a small glimpse at some of the systems that have won our RP hearts in 2020. If nothing else, hopefully this encourages you to engage with the wider world of RPGs beyond the 800lbs gorilla that is 5e!
And remember, Frontline Gaming sells gaming products at a discount, every day in their webcart!