If you’re aware of pop culture on even a superficial level, then you’ve probably heard of Dungeons and Dragons, also known as DnD. It is the classic TTRPG (tabletop roleplaying game for those of you unfortunate souls who are not in the know). It conjures to mind pastey nerds gathered around a table rolling dice and describing fantasy adventures. And quite honestly, aside from the pastey part (we nerds are a diverse and varied group, thank you very much) it’s pretty accurate. If you ask anyone who’s never played or even actually looked at a roleplaying game, that’s the one they’ll probably name.
Unfortunately, that’s often the only one they can name.
Now I’ve played DnD, and it’s definitely fun, but the world of tabletop RPGs is far grander and more varied than most people realize. I think the fact that Dungeons and Dragons is the only one mainstream culture really knows anything about contributes to the fact more people don’t play-swords and sorcery aren’t for everyone.
Which is why this article will spread the knowledge of a few awesome games that aren’t DnD.
This game is the brainchild of game designer Monte Cook, who actually happens to be pretty influential in the world of DnD, having done a fair amount of work on it in the past. That being said, it is very, very far from DnD in almost every aspect. Set on Earth one billion years into the future, the setting is predicated on the idea that by the time the game is set in rolls around, eight previous civilizations have risen and fallen for one reason or another, and the players are the denizens of the ninth world, as it’s called. The ninth world is effectively in its medieval period, but it has been built on, around, and within the remnants of the past eight other civilizations, all of which rose to achieve startling technological marvels-now called the Numenera-before eventually fading away.
As a result, the people of the ninth world grow up surrounded by complex technology that they can barely understand; what once may have been the core for a hyper-advanced spaceship engine, when found by a ninth world explorer, is repurposed to provide light for an underground community. The people of the ninth world simply aren’t capable of understanding the true purposes of machines and technologies that may not even have been designed for use by humans, but they still use it to enrich their lives and communities. At least the brave ones do. Those more cautious souls steer clear of the relics of the past, for what we know as technology, they can only describe as magic-and it’s only wise to tread carefully where magic is concerned.
The big selling point for Numenera is the fact that the world is weird. It’s full of strange technology that neither the characters nor the players should fully understand; teleporters and flying machines are merely the tip of the iceberg-machines that allow you to travel to different dimensions, robots made of light and plant-matter, mutants with bizarre powers, and aliens whose people have lived on earth so long that they’re essentially natives now, are all some of the things you can expect to find in a session of Numenera. The genre is best described as science-fantasy, with the scientific elements taken and applied to a traditional fantasy style.
There aren’t dragons in this world, but there are giant techno-crab tanks with missile launchers that can destroy entire cities. There aren’t magic spells, but there are satellites still orbiting earth, and someone smart and reckless enough can find a way to tap into their signal and control nanomachines to conjure fireballs to incinerate your enemy. The setting encourages both GMs and players to unleash their wildest dreams on the world, because everything is so weird, that your wildest dream may very well just be another Tuesday for the denizens of the ninth world. This breadth of experience lets players truly feel a sense of wonder as they explore, and indeed, the game is meant to be explored.
2) Stars Without Number
This game is perfect for people who are familiar with DnD but want to branch out, since the systems are very (purposefully so) similar to each other. That’s where the similarities end though. Stars Without Number is a space opera set in the distant future, after humanity was taken to the stars and a great cataclysm threw the galaxy into chaos, cutting off communications and travel, causing many worlds to starve for resources over the centuries of separation, while others developed relatively independently, until interstellar travel connected these disparate worlds again somewhat.
The game is built to create a whole host of exciting adventures for your players to live through. It’s explicitly stated that a Stars Without Numbers campaign should be a sandbox, unlike the more linear experience DnD and many other games assume. And the book delivers on that, giving countless prompts and ideas for you to develop into adventures. What I really love about the game is the fact that it explicitly aims to create a sandbox, not just a world, but a vast galaxy for your players to inhabit and screw around in, and it does so while effortlessly taking advantage of all that sci fi is uniquely positioned to offer to allow a wide variety of potential adventures-do you want a vast space epic, about heroes racing from solar system to solar system to stop the arrival of heartless alien super soldiers? Or do you want a gritty, bloody game of characters struggling against an oppressive regime? Or maybe courtly intrigue and backroom politics is more your speed?
Not only can you have all of that, they could all be the same campaign. And because the universe the creators present is so well realized, none of those will feel out of place provided you put some thought into it. Also, as of this writing, you can buy a free copy of the game that has everything you need to start playing. That blew my mind when I realized. They have a second version you can pay for, but from what I gather, that has only supplemental materials, like AI characters and space magic.
Yes, it’s literally called space magic.
3) Changeling: The Lost
This is a game by the publishers White Wolf, which they originally released under their “New World of Darkness” series of games. The games-of which there are many-take place in a dark, modern horror-fantasy version of the world, where magic and mystery exist just within the shadows of a world that’s similar to ours, but once you scratch the surface, is darker, crueller and far more frightening. Already that’s a big difference from the straight fantasy DnD.
Changeling itself is a game about beautiful madness. The main antagonists are supernatural creatures known as the true fae, the faeries and myths of human folklore. The game hearkens back to the oldest, earliest stories of these creatures, cautionary tales warning people not to leave the path lest they wander into a world of horror, not to talk to strangers, lest the old crone they go home with have a taste for flesh. The game casts the players as the titular changelings, ordinary humans who were lured or seduced or outright kidnapped by the Gentry, who take them back to their realms within the faerie land of Arcadia, to be turned into servants or ornaments or playthings. And while This sounds fantastical, one doesn’t have to dig too deep to see that the stories this game is meant to tell are far more grounded and human. Stories of abuse and PTSD, stories of paranoia and loss, of being dehumanized by beings with unlimited power and non-existent empathy. Changeling is about how abuse can literally twist you, inside and out, into a shape you can’t recognize and probably don’t like.
The fantastical elements and the nature of it as a game allow you to illustrate dark, personal stories and reframe them in ways that make you more than a victim. In fact, that’s another theme within the game-taking back your story, and the power that comes with it. Yes, you were forced to patrol a giant library, never allowed to stop and rest or eat or drink, but you read every book in that library, and used the magic you learned to break free and return home. But once you’re back, how do you square your gratitude, and possibly even love for your new power, with the what you had to go through to receive them? Do you have to be grateful for the durance, because otherwise you wouldn’t have had this power in the first place? And how is this question different from a mother who escaped an abusive relationship, but continues to love the child that relationship gave her?
By turning these questions into fantastical metaphors, we can explore them in ways that we might not be open to doing in a more grounded game. But for all that grimness and soul-searching, the game never lets you forget that you’re a fairy, and that simply by leaving that situation, you’re stronger than many who came before you. The game gives you the chance to be fairy knights, hunting dragons and goblins that dare to threaten your new life. It lets you create relationships and deals with other changelings that make up your community, called a freehold. You can use clever words and arcane spells to rise through the ranks and become the monarch of one of the seasonal courts, that rule and protect the changelings of the freehold. You can weave magics that laugh in the face of time, space and logic. Purely by escaping the horrors of your durance, the game tells you that you have the right to be glorious, you have the right to be great and to be wonderous. You still have to earn your titles, still have to overcome challenges and traumas, but simply by leaving Arcadia and standing under the sun of your home, you tell the universe that you deserve to write your own story, and that you’re strong enough that you can.
Created by First Fallen Leaf Limited, Sins is the most recent game I’ve bought and read, and it really is a game that devotes itself to being unique as well as interesting. And that starts with the setting. It’s a post-apocalyptic world where, simply put, the Earth and mankind got hit with a clusterfuck. After a great war (one where neither side gave in and used nuclear weapons) that was followed by a golden age of humanity, a sudden outbreak of freakish zombies, the arrival of seven bizarre, quasi-supernatural humanoid giants called Reapers that could control said zombies, and then a worldwide nuclear holocaust in an attempt to kill the giants, which didn’t work but left the world a blasted wasteland, the Reapers eventually just…vanished, leaving the zombie-creatures known as the brood and the last vestiges of humanity.
That set up above is already pretty interesting in its own right, but that’s not what made me pick up the game. I bought it because it had something that most post-apocalyptic settings lack-hope. The book brings up again and again that humanity isn’t doomed. It goes out of its way to show that mankind is decent, strong, worth something. The setting isn’t just walking dead style wasteland, dotted with wanderers; real communities are starting back up, between attacks by the brood and the lingering fallout of nuclear annihilation, mankind are making communities, cities, starting over, rebuilding. The game hammers home that as bad as everything is, we’re clawing our way back from the brink. That being said, the game doesn’t shy away from what that takes in such a brutal world. Survival is harsh, it’s dirty, it’s treacherous and often cruel, but the game presents those as facts of life not because humans naturally gravitate to being those things, but because circumstances can force us into places and things that make these things necessary, or even just appealing. But these dark aspects only serve to highlight the brighter ones.
No aspect of the game emphasises the theme of hope and rebuilding as well as the player characters. Players take the role of beings known as Nemessaries, humans that were turned into Broodspawn but were strong enough of will that they retained their humanity, forcing their bodies back into human shape and gaining immense power through doing so. Nemessaries represent, more than anything, the idea that with enough will, mankind can overcome anything, all we need is a chance, and in Sins, Nemessaries are the manifestation of that chance. Beings who, by design can face down most challenges presented to them in the game, capable of tearing through the brood with ease, and through hostile humans with even more ease, able to go where most couldn’t survive, and access knowledge that others don’t even know exist. That’s not to say Nemessaries can’t be threatened, there’s plenty out there bigger and badder than a Nemessary, but those aren’t really the point of the game. The point of Sins is to explore the stories of the characters, to look at their motivations and their drives, their hopes and worldviews, and to watch them struggle towards their futures. That could involve charging head first into an army of Broodspawn, but it could just as easily be about negotiating peace between rival settlements, on the brink of bloody war. It’s mechanics are pretty complex, so it’s not recommended for novice RPers, but if you’re interested in a story-driven challenge, then I cannot recommend Sins enough.
5) Demon: The Descent
This is another New World of Darkness title, so technically this might be cheating, but this game is awesome and distinct, and I’m the writer so I don’t care about the rules. Set in the same world as Changeling above, Demon offers a look at another corner of the world of darkness. In it, the players are the Demons, the Unchained. They bear all the standard trappings of Judeo-Christian demons, former angels of God, who eventually came to rebel and fall into demons. But the game gives that narrative a new twist-God isn’t just God, but the God-Machine. A supercomputer built into the fabric of the world, whose systems and Infrastructure are woven into every aspect of life. Seemingly random and nonsensical actions, with no rational motive behind them being apparent, all serve as part of the occult matrices that allow the God-Machine to bend reality to its alien, inscrutable will. A will in which humans serve as little more than cogs to be used and replaced as needed.
Demon isn’t a game of theological questions by nature. Instead, it’s a game of cold war intrigue and espionage, with demons, the techno-organic former servants of the God-Machine, taking the part of spies, deep within enemy territory, that territory being the whole world. Everything about the game serves to enforce a sense of the paranoia that is part and parcel to a demons life. Each one of them has the ability to create a Cover, a false life, human woven into reality. Demons live their lives as best they can, knowing that if they don’t, these fabricated lives will degrade, leaving them vulnerable to the loyal Angels that would send them to be broken down and returned to the God-Machines metal embrace. Every demon is forced to resist their former master, lest it become ever more established and all-controlling, to the point where hunting demons can become its top priority. But even in this shadow war, the unchained can’t trust their own kind; every demon is a perfect liar, with their own agendas and goals, always paranoid that one of their own may turn them in for an edge. And that paranoia makes it easy to turn on your team. After all, they’d have done the same thing, given the chance…
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