Not Your Father’s Role Playing Game
I love Dungeons and Dragons. Like many Gen-Xers, D&D is the first tabletop RPG I ever played. I followed it from the “red box” basic set in the 1980’s, to the first edition “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”, and then 2nd, 3rd and 5th editions. (We’ll just ignore 4th edition for now.) I have fond memories of playing 2nd edition in high school and college. Now with fifth edition, D&D is making a huge comeback. It’s no surprise to anyone that geek culture is not only accpeted but thriving with D&D even making appearance in the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things.” These are all good things and I’m happy to see it growing and thriving again. Fifth Edition is a solid version of D&D, combining old school feel with streamlined modern rules.
All that being said, I actually don’t play D&D much anymore. At least, not the official, Wizards of the Coast licensed game called “Dungeons and Dragons” but I play a lot of pen and paper role playing games that have D&D in their roots. So I’d like to do something a little different here and talk about other pen and paper RPGs that you should try, that are outside the mainstream D&D craze. I think they are all worth looking at. I’ll go over the good and the bad of each game.
So without further delay, here are 6 Tabletop Role-Playing games you should try.
By Steve Jackson
Ah GURPs. If you don’t know GURPS, it stands for “Generic Universal Role-Playing System” and has been around almost as long as D&D. I got exposed to it in high school. The basic idea behind GURPS that you would use the same system regardless of the type of game you were running, a concept many RPGs on this list mimic. While all TTRPGs have their roots in D&D which itself is based on fantasy novels such as Lord of the Rings, GURPS was one of the first RPGs designed to be able to run any kind of game: fantasy, science fiction, cowboys, horror, survival, you name it. Rather than having to buy separate games for each genre and learning the rules for each, you could build any kind of character in any setting. Want to play a robot? Fine, just take the “mechanical advantage” and a few other odds and ends and you have a robot.
The rules were very detailed and “crunchy”, meaning there were lots of mechanics and things to learn. For example, whereas with D&D you might roll some dice for damage, in GURPS you would roll damage and then also use a multiplier depending on what kind of weapon and attack you were using, such as cutting or stabbing. You’d also have to determine to what extent armor soaked that particular attack. Many powers and skills had very specific rules you had to learn to use them.
The downside to all this realism and detail was its complexity. If you and your GM don’t know the game well, it can be a little overwelming keeping track of all the different stats and mechanics of the game. Sometimes this overhead subtracted from the story. It also took about an hour to just make a single character! Still, GURPs has an old school feel and the open endedness of character creation is hard to beat. With personality quirks, powers, disadavantages such as greed or alcholism, GURPS made for really great twists and character launching points. My son’s first RPG character ever had the “weirdness magnet” trait as a disadvantage, which meant strange events and unexplained mysteries followed him around. Despite its flaws, GURPS is an enjoyable game with a freedom few games can match. You can literally do anything with GURPS and there’s a supplement or a core rule for it out there somewhere. My son and I will always have a soft spot for the classic GURPS games.
If you want a an easier introduction to GURPs, you might head over to Steve Jackson’s Games and check out “The Fantasy Trip” a 2nd edition of a more rules light RPG from the 80’s and “Dungeon Fantasy” which is like a streamlined version of GURPS specifically targeting D&D fans:
“The Fantasy Trip” and “Dungeon Fantasy” These have some of the core GURPs mechanics but are less complex.
You can get information about the full GURPS system from:
Pros: amazing flexbility, lots of detail, interesting characters, many supporting supplements by Steve Jackson Games
Cons: complexity both with character creation and gameplay, slightly dated rules
Numenera and the Cypher System
By Monte Cook
If GURPS is an old school, highly detailed, simulationist RPG, Numenera and its generic “Cypher” rule system are everything GURPS is not. Created by veteran D&D module and game designer Monte Cook, Numenera is a hit RPG that spawned several different games using its “Cypher” rules system. Cypher is a modernized, abstract, rules light, and heavily invested in cinematic storytelling over detail and simulation. Where GURPS has 10 attributes, Cypher has only 3 (Might, Speed and Intellect). Where GURPS and even D&D have hundreds of skills, spells and powers, Numenera and Cypher have only a few dozen or so. Rather than quantifying the differences between a lightning bolt and a laser beam, the type of attack or power has a few basic qualities and the rest are just “flavor” that are used as eye candy. Mechanically, a lighning bolt and a laser beam might do the same thing to its victims, but narratively they are described differently in a way that make sense for the game world the players are in and the characters using such powers. The system gets its name from “Cyphers” found throughout the game world: one-use special items that give the characters a variety of powers they can invoke from game to game, rather than always casting the same spells or swinging the same sword over and over.
Numenera is a great setting that puts the characters in a science-fiction/fantasy world far in the future, where 9 civilizations have come and gone leaving advanced relics and creations for the players to discover, that often look like magic. The basic Numenera book has all the rules you need to play in this world. There’s also a “generic” Cypher rule book that lets you play in many different kinds of settings such as traditional fantasy or modern day horror.
Both playing and GM’ing a cypher game is very easy and characters take about 15 minutes to create. Most character creation decisions are based on a 3 part sentence using the format: “I am a [descriptor] [type] who [focus]” This might translate to soemthing like “I am a [tough] [warrior] who [controls beasts]” The descriptor, type and focus gives you 3 different building blocks for your character with many different and options and abilities. This allows for a lot of unique character varieties. It’s also a very flexible system, allowing you to bend the rules to mix and match traits in order to build exactly the character you want.
During game play, players always roll the dice so the GM has extra attention to focus on story, coming up with encounters and monsters for the players to be challenged with. A given task has a simple, abstract 1-10 difficulty scale as do the baddies and monsters themselves. The GM has options to give antagonists a bit more variety such as special strengths and weaknesses. When running Cypher, I feel very free to give a level 6 Ogre only a level 3 perception if he’s kind of dumb and oblivious. Yet there’s no reason to prepare every monster and every stat as it’s absurdly simple to come up with critters on the fly.
I love the Cypher system. It’s a fun, casual, simple game to play. If its lacking anything, its a gradual leveling system. There are only 6 “tiers” for the characters to progress in and skills only have 2 levels of competence, so players often spend their experience points on special powers and a few other advantages. It can also be tough as a GM to challenge even 1st level (or tier) characters most of the time, unless the players have spent all the pool of points that act as the currency for special abilities in the game. Once those points are running low, the players are extremelely vulnerable. The pools act as both a character’s “hit points” as well as the energy that fuels special attacks, spells and abilities. This is a stark difference from other games where characters are always competent with their skills but hardly invincible. Cypher characters are nearly impossible to kill in one or two shots until depleted of ther pools. Then suddenly they are both at risk of instant death and far less competent at their skills, attacks and powers they need to prevent said death. Still, its definitely a game worth playing and a great way to get new players and kids into the hobby. Cypher is one of my all time favorites.
Pros: super simple rules, well-defined spells and abilities, lots of supplements, easy to learn, easy to GM, narrative focused.
Cons: might be too simple, characters are hard to challenge and only 6 levels to upgrade and only 2 levels per skill. Skills aren’t well defined.
I’m including this as an “honorable mention” as I personally have never played Fate, but I played its granddaddy Fudge. I know many players rave about Fate. Fate and Fudge use a very simple dice mechanic of pluses and minuses and a 7 level scale for skills and attributes written in plain english instead of numbers like “Terrible, Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good, Great, and Superb”. Where Fudge is a simple generic system that relies on stats and skills like so many RPGs do, Fate adds some interesting storytelling twists. It adds a mechanic called “aspects” that allows players to spend “Fate points” giving bonuses to some action and having some unique in game effect. Aspects might also complicate the player’s life making things more difficult for her. When this happens, Fate points are regained so the player can spend them later on. Aspects can be descriptions such as “tempted by shiny things” or “badass martial artist.” So they both give the character color and provide a way for the player to do interesting things.
Fate, like its forebear Fudge, is a simple and rules light system that focuses on storytelling over mechanics. Many players enjoy it and it works with a wide variety of genres. The basic system is available for free online and there a number of books and supplements for it, so the community support is great. You should at least check it out.
Pros: easy to learn and play, interesting “aspects” mechanic, good community support
Cons: some find it hard to define aspects, may be too open ended for new players
The Burning Wheel
By Luke Crane
What to say about The Burning Wheel? It’s a beautiful, interesting, complicated…and I’ll probably never play it. It is perhaps the most “crunchy”, most detailed and complex RPG system I’ve ever yet seen, making GURPS seem positively basic. It has very granular skills and multiple layers of stats, everything from “Willpower” to “tracking” and “mending” which can only be purchased by taking certain careers or “life paths” when creating your character. The life paths dictate which skills and abilities you can have and which you cannot. You are even sometimes required to take certain skills.
Like Fate, Burning Wheel has a mechanic that allows bonuses to certain roles based on something called “Bits” an acronymn for Beliefs, Instincts and Traits. Bits are perhaps the most interesting part of Buring Wheel, detailing the things that the character is passionate about or things that are built in to the character’s personality and behavior. When you as the player role-play these Bits, you gain Artha points. Unlike fate, which ha a single pool of Fate points, Artha comes in a variety of flavors that can only be spent certain ways, as well as a variety of ways to earn them.
Combat has three different flavors, but the default uses a “rock, paper, scissors” style of battle where combatants square off, try to guess each other’s moves, and put a number of moves using cards into slots that determine what the characters are doing. Then each card is revealed one slot at a time. Dice are rolled for each action and each counter action of the combatants. There are rules for damage and subtracting damage with armor, being dazed and stunned from injury, and many other details.
The Burning Wheel is a traditional fantasy RPG, so no robots or superheroes in the book. Races such as dwarves, orcs and elves give them unique abilities and a very tolkenesque feel for their backgrounds. You could easily run a Lord of the Rings game with Burning Wheel. Elves have magical songs based on their “Grief”, orcs have powerful rage and dwarves have compelling greed, all of which makes each of the races very different from each other. Only humans can use sorcery. Sorcery is very hard to use, hard to learn and also dangerous for the characters. Often, “game balance” isn’t taken into consideration very much, so a very experienced human might be far less powerful then a newly minted elf. Rather than gaining and spending experience points, stats and skills requires careful logging of their use during gameplay and only certain tests count towards advancement. So while there’s some similarity to the Elder Scrolls Series of games in that using skills advances them, you can’t just sneak around all the time or kill bandits over and over to level up.
So…a bunch of stats, multiple layers of Artha, nearly a hundred detailed skills, many spells, very complex combat, special powers of Orcs, Elves and Dwarves, complexing leveling and detailed role-playing mechanics called “Bits.” Burning Wheel tries to compute and enumerate every nuance to the role-playing game experience.
I loved reading the Burning Wheel rule book both for its level of detail, the style of its art and clever writing and quirky humor throughout the book. Eventually though, I decided against running it for my own games, though I know folks that enjoy it. I just found it too complex with too many rules for every possible situation. If you’re up for the challenge, its worth taking a look at just for the “Bits” and Artha system alone. It makes you want to put Beliefs, Instincts and Traits into every RPG you play!
You can see some of the basic rules of character creation with
You can pick up the full rules at:
Pros: really interesting crunchy rule system, well narrated book, “Bits” provide interesting role playing encouragement
Cons: extremely complex requiring lots of study to master, difficult to make the character you want with the Lifepath system, it can be hard to find specific things in the book
By Russ Morissey
WOIN stands for “What’s Old is New”. Like GURPS and Cypher, it is a generic system that can be used for a variety of genres. It’s a fairly crunchy rule system, much less complex than The Burning Wheel or GURPS but more detailed than Cypher or Fate. WOIN uses pools of dice and a variety of skills and attributes to do basic actions and a set of “exploits” or special moves your character can do. The basics are simple: To scale the wall, the player might roll his character’s Agility + Climb scores on a set of d6 dice and add up the total. If he exceeds a certain number he prevails. Yet the exploits and optional rules allow for a bit of variety and min-maxing for players who enjoy deeper strategy.
Character creation is a lengthy process, involving the selection of multiple careers over the early part of the character’s life, along with attributes, skills, exploits and race. The problem is not the selection of these things but the complexity of certain careers only giving you access to certain skills and exploits. It thus makes it hard to make the type of character you want unless you know the careers very well. This is a very similar process as in Burning Wheel and suffers the same weaknesses. When character creation is done, there’s a nice one-line “Descriptor” for your character such as “a brilliant Human Firemage who loves to gamble”. This give you a succint way of describing your character and your choices. My only complaint with character development is that you can only repeat careers a few times before you start running out of exploits, forcing characters to be more generalists. Overall, I’d like to see a much more freeform selection of upgrades and a lot more examples of spells and special moves.
Combat can be a lot of fun. There’s quite a bit of strategy and most characters have at least two actions they can take in a single round, giving them more flexibility than in other RPGs. It uses a combination of “hit points” like traditional D&D as well as certain injury conditions such as “burned” or “bleeding” that inflict dice penalties. This makes combat feel a tad more lethal, but the characters never feel completely debilitated like they do in Cypher.
Overall, WOIN does a very nice job of balancing simplicity and detail. It has simple rules for beginners and those that want a more basic game and lots of character options and special rules for those that prefer a crunchier affair. It currently comes in 3 flavors: “OLD” for Fantasy, “Now” for modern day adventures and “New” for science fiction. More information about WOIN can be found here:
and a very brief Introduction to the System here
Pros: Great balance between crunchy and simple, very well laid out and easy to read book, lots of strategy for min-maxers.
Cons: Skills are not defined and can be anything the player wants, which can lead to over or under powered characters, needs more exploits and spells defined, can be a little difficult to make the character you want using careers.
Reign and the One Roll Engine
By Greg Stolze
Reign and the One Rolle Engine (or ORE for short) have the same relationship to each other as Numenera does to Cypher. Reign is a fantasy genre system and ORE is the core set of rules and mechanics that can be used for a number of games. Reign is what I wanted The Burning Wheel to be: a generic system with rules for fantasy that cleverly balances simplicity and crunchyness.
If you ever played the old Storyteller/World of Darkness games from White Wolf that were popular in the 1990s (Gawd am I that old???) then ORE will seem familiar. You have a set of attributes and a set of skills and you combine them together in a dice pool. You then roll that many 10 sided dice for this pool. So in keeping with the “we must scale the wall” example from earlier, you might roll Coordination + Climbing. If you have a 3 in coordination and a 4 in climbing, you’d roll 7 ten-sided dice. Unlike Storyteller, you don’t look for specific numbers but instead look for “matches”, dice that turn up with the same number, kind of like poker. So if you rolled that pool of 7 dice to climb the wall, you might end up with results like: 8,8,2,2,2,6,1. There are two “sets” that have matches here: the two 8’s and the three 2’s. We refer to the number of dice that match in a set as the “width” and the matching numbers that come up as the “height” of the set. So the result of the above roll might be written as:
This gives two pieces of information all in one roll (hey! I bet that’s how it got its name!) which can be used for different things. Width is typically most important for speed or ferocity and height is typically skill or quality. So if its an easy wall to climb but you’re racing someone to the top, you might use the 3x2 because the width is “3” and your character will finish his task faster. But if its difficult wall to climb, you might want to go slower and choose the 2x8 since the eight is a higher quality and can tackle more difficult tests.
Reign specifically tailors ORE for fantasy and includes all the things you would expect: medieval weapons and armor, special abilities such as martial paths and esoteric disciplines, magic spells and so forth. Hit locations make combat especially grisly and short. You generally won’t have characters taking on armies of orcs and survive dozens of arrows for hour long battles rolling dice. Like Burning Wheel, combat is a bit of a mini game trying to predict what your opponents are going to do and putting together dice sets that will break thru their defenses and keep yours intact. Yet its a much simpler system.
Again like Burning Wheel, Reign has a set of character options that add some role-playing flair. The players can opt to add “Passions” to their character, things like Duties, Missions and Cravings. When the player character is working towards a passion she might get an extra dice to roll on her current action. If they are working against their passions (perhaps avoiding a craving such as alcoholism) they lose dice. Passions stack up, so a character could have +3 or -3 dice to any given action, assuming all their passions are involved.
Another thing that makes Reign special is its use of “companies.” Ever want your character to lead a group of bandits, be a general in an army or a fanatical cult leader? Reign has specific rules for these types of games. If your characters gains enough followers and fame, they can form a “company” and run anything from a criminal underworld or an arhturian style kingdom. Furthermore, they get to choose which missions they want to actually role-play with their main characters and which ones they want to send in their minions their stead. Players that love spying and intrigue might infiltrate the king’s court and roleplay that out, while leaving the actual battle to their army and a few dice rolls.
The default setting in Reign RPG is a very “low fantasy” world much like Game of Thrones. Magic requires a bit of ceremony, a lot of luck and its effects are generally not spectacular. However, the core system is so easy that I found it relatively simple to port my kids’ characters from GURPS and True 20 as well as their spells and stats. So my oldest son’s Necromancer character can raise the dead all he likes.
Overall, I love Reign and ORE. It allows for simple rules with interesting complications and nuance. It feels gritty and real and I have to admit to a bit of nostalgia at rolling batches of 10 sided dice like the old Storyteller games. Character creation, spell creation, special abilities are all very easy to build. I would just like to see a more active community and more supplements for this fine system for fantasy, science fiction and others.
There’s a ORE based game called “Nemesis” set in modern day horror if you want to get a feel for the rules:
There’s also a couple of superhero based games:
Finally, you can learn more about Reign specifically from
Pros: classic dice pool system that’s easy to use but leaves room for flexibility and complication, Reign book provides well defined skill tree, combat and advancement both apt for strategists, Companies are a fascinating nuance.
Cons: Nothing’s perfect. Reign’s “Coordination” attribute does a little too much, magic is a bit weak in the default setting for my taste, could use a lot more supplements, resolving height x width takes a while to master.
There are many indie RPGs besides classic D&D and so many of them are fun to play. So get out there and roll some dice!