Better games than D&D?
March 29, 2008 10:23 PM   Subscribe

What RPGs are there that are better than D&D?

Hey all,

There's been a ton of commentary on the web since the death of Gygax about D&D, and much of this ends up in squabbles (or at least debate) about whether or not the game really is any good, and what's better.

Well, what's better? And why do you love it? (and likewise, any drawbacks?)

I've played and loved D&D, Top Secret, and Champions. I've liked what I've seen of Ars Magica and Paranoia. I want to get a group together again, and D&D tends to be easiest because everyone knows it. But if there were more worthwhile systems out there, that'd be worth picking up the materials and having a bit of a harder go finding players, I'd like to hear about it. Thanks!
posted by Durn Bronzefist to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (36 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
If you're interested in a modern day setting, I like the (new) World of Darkness setting by White Wolf. I think the Mage setting is especially good. In it, all the PCs are magic users, but casting overt magical effects in front of normal people can cause big problems. I think it's more difficult than D&D to run, but I find it more fun to play.
posted by demiurge at 10:30 PM on March 29, 2008

FASA's Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game
posted by johngoren at 10:38 PM on March 29, 2008

There are plenty of systems that do something better than D&D, but it's hard to make any recommendations without knowing what you're looking for or not looking for. For instance, if you want pulp action a la Indiana Jones and James Bond, you want Spirit of the Century. If you want Western movie style moral choices and showdowns at high noon, you want Dogs in the Vineyard. If you want highly tactical combat combined with heartbreaking tragedy, you want Burning Wheel. If you want a superheros RPG that can handle Superman and Batman in the same party, you want Truth and Justice. If you want gritty fantasy, you probably want the new Warhammer edition, but since the publisher just lost the license you'll have to track down a copy on eBay or something.

If you want a more classic D&D experience, then you probably want Castles & Crusades for an simplified old-school feel, or 4th edition D&D (coming out around June) for a more LOTR-movie feel.
posted by inkyz at 10:47 PM on March 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

It is better to decide what you want first, but I have found it is easiest after you have some common vocabulary to work with when you discuss your goals with your group. To do that I would recommend going to The Forge and reading the articles titled "Narrativism: Story Now", "Gamism: Step On Up" and "Simulationism: The Right to Dream". Those articles really helped me realize what was leaving me unhappy with certain games but not with others.
posted by slavlin at 10:54 PM on March 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

It depends on what you want out of RPGs.

D&D is unapologetically about killing monsters and taking their stuff, and it's a lot of fun in that regard. While many people have used it for campaigns based on intrigue and political maneuvering, it wouldn't be my first choice in that direction.

The White Wolf settings put a lot more into the social realm. Personally, I felt more drawn to the last version of Vampire than the current, but I really like the current version of Changeling.

If you find yourself looking at D&D and saying "That's not realistic!" you might want to check out GURPS, a game engine that starts with the intention of reflecting actual human capabilities, then builds on that in numerous campaign settings ranging from fantasy to science fiction to superheroes.

On the other hand, if you want to toss out all pretenses of realism and just have fun, I might suggest tracking down a copy of the long out-of-print Ghostbusters roleplaying game. (Not "Ghostbusters International," which added unnecessary detail.) Ghostbusters is a really simple, playable, fun game, and it can serve as a blueprint for all sorts of farcical action gaming.

If you want something that focuses on characterization, and you don't find a game that's very atypical for RPGs, take a look at "Dogs in the Vineyard." The setting -- mormon-like travelers in a fictional old West -- didn't initially hold the slightest bit of interest for me, but the setting is wonderfully described, and the rules have a really fascinating look at what RPGs can be once their removed from their wargaming roots.
posted by lore at 10:57 PM on March 29, 2008

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

(They have a new publisher, which I didn't know until I went looking for links for this.)
posted by charlesv at 11:11 PM on March 29, 2008

As mentioned, there are a bagazillion of them. But I think one stands out: GURPS. That's Generic Universal Role Playing System, from Steve Jackson Games, and what's distinctive about it is that it has supplements for virtually every fictional genre you've ever heard of and they're all compatible with one another and can be used simultaneously.

GURPS is also noteworthy because of the "GURPS Cyberpunk" fiasco, which almost put SJ Games out of business in 1990.

Jackson is a legendary designer of games, and playability is always one of his goals. GURPS developed out of an earlier game called "The Fantasy Trip", which itself developed out of a set of pocket games called "Melee" and "Wizard". All of those systems use hex grids for movement and facing. All dice rolls are made with cubes; no polyhedrals.

The use of the hex grid removes a lot of judgment calls (is he within range? Am I really on his flank?) and streamlines play quite a lot, without sacrificing fun in the slightest. GURPS also doesn't impose artificial restrictions on character design: no alignments, and no professions. If you've been fighting AD&D, switching to GURPS is a pleasant surprise, sort of how it feels after a throbbing headache ends.
posted by Class Goat at 11:12 PM on March 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah: WFRP takes place in "a grim world of perilous adventure."


Also, Tales from the Floating Vagabond: Ludicrous Adventure in a Universe Whose Natural Laws Are Out To Lunch.
posted by charlesv at 11:15 PM on March 29, 2008

I had a ton of fun playing 3rd ed. Shadowrun in college. SR is a preposterous and ridiculous system (Sprawl style cyberpunk + magical elves and such) with too-detailed combat rules, but it provided a great venue for self-aware comedy from a bunch of science, compsci, and history majors.
posted by thedaniel at 11:45 PM on March 29, 2008

If you're looking for something offbeat, how about "Kobolds ate my baby"?

posted by Class Goat at 11:50 PM on March 29, 2008

I like the White Wolf games as well, because the emphasis seems to be more on the collaborative creation of a good story. I was never able to get into D&D, even though I tried it a few times. I do like to tell and listen to good stories, though, and the White Wolf games were fun.

Bonus: In (At least the first version of) Vampire, the administration nuisance was minimal, which I also like.

[on the other hand, I liked Star Fleet Battles which was all about your administrative nuisance skills. Not a role playing game, though.]
posted by ctmf at 12:02 AM on March 30, 2008

Burning Wheel and Nobilis are both super excellent. But may require some serious persuasive skills to get a group together. I suggest threatening with a fire arm of your choice. Neither require excessive dice rolling so they are perfect for playing at gun point. Second to those two, Spirit of the Century, Over the Edge and Feng Shui are also all great. I'm headed off to bed, so no time to give you a long sales pitch for each of them. Enjoy!
posted by TwelveTwo at 12:02 AM on March 30, 2008

What genre are you looking for? Other fantasy-type games to consider are Earthdawn, The Lord of the Rings RPG and Talislanta. Sci-fi campaigns go everywhere from Star Wars to fighting robots to more fighting robots. Can't forget Call of Cthulhu.
My personal choice at the moment is a homebrew version of d20 Modern, although I've played White Wolf's Storyteller (Werewolf, Vampire, Mage, etc.) quite a bit and would recommend it if the setting sounds interesting. There are a number of variations on the Wizards of the Coast Open Gaming License you might want to consider, such as Arcana Unearthed. I also like Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM) for playability, although it's not everybody's thing.
I could go on and on, but check out for more ideas.
posted by fiercekitten at 12:35 AM on March 30, 2008

I've played many RPG systems starting with the original D&D. Hands down my favorite was an obscure little title called Skyrealms of Jorune.
posted by Bonzai at 12:44 AM on March 30, 2008

Second to those two, Spirit of the Century, Over the Edge and Feng Shui are also all great. I'm headed off to bed, so no time to give you a long sales pitch for each of them. Enjoy!

I'll take a crack for OtE.

I love Over the Edge, but admittedly it's not for everybody because it's pretty rules light. (I don't know which came first, but it has a lot of similarity with fudge [pdf]) You could crib enough of the rules to play it on a single side of an 8.5 by 11 sheet of paper.

The bulk of the main book is mostly describing the setting which players probably shouldn't read if they want to save their gm a lot of work. Basic genre is surreal-contemporary, equal parts naked lunch & the weekly world news.
posted by juv3nal at 1:10 AM on March 30, 2008

I'm surprised that no-one has mentioned Runequest yet. RQ has a combat and magic system that is sufficient to keep it relatively realistic. Where it shines is in the truly brilliant background material and the most believable religion and pantheon I've yet encountered in an RPG. Perhaps it's the people that I've played long-term campaigns with, but my RQ games have been the most satisfying and fulfilling in over 20 years of gaming. I'm playing a pirate-based AD&D game now and often find myself wishing for the nuance of the RQ system.
posted by tim_in_oz at 2:36 AM on March 30, 2008

posted by Paleoindian at 3:34 AM on March 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

It depends what you're looking for...

D&D, and particularly the current 3.5th edition, is excellent for heroic tactical combat, with lots of options and character tweaks and customizability. I don't know of anything better in that niche. Also lots of available sourcebooks and settings.

If you want a detailed, interesting, rich fantasy background, then look at Runequest or Heroquest. Both are in the same very detailed fantasy world, Glorantha, which has been developed and documented since the mid-70s. Runequest's system is a more detailed and realistic simulation, so combat involves hit locations and severing arms and so on. Heroquest's system is more focussed on creating stories, so an unimportant combat might be resolved with a single die roll, but an important debate might involve many dice rolls with various modifiers and reverses as the debaters raise new arguments.

Other games with detailed and interesting backgrounds include Call of Cthulhu, the various Whitewolf World of Darkness games such as Werewolf and Mage, and Warhammer FRP.

There are a whole bunch of new indie rpgs from small presses. It's hard to generalise, but typically, these involve interesting ideas and settings but without the depth of description of the more mainstream games, and creative systems that are often designed to encourage a specific form of play. Often, they are more explicitly about conflict and story than they are about traditional RPG combat.

Among the many indie RPGs worth looking at, try Dogs in the Vineyard: Mormon-esque frontier lawsmen confronting moral dilemmas; Primetime Adventures: create an episodic TV series like Buffy, Heroes or CSI; or Spirit of the Century: free-flowing pulp adventure. There are also more far-out, less traditional RPG games like Universalis: a collaborative world and story creation game; or Snowball: a Memento-style very rules-light RPG that's played in reverse...

My recommendation is to look at a few indie games like the ones above. Typically, they're available as cheap PDFs, so you can get quite a few for the price of the core D&D books, and you'll get a much broader range of ideas that will help you work out what sort of game you prefer. Also try reading The Forge Actual Play forum, which has detailed descriptions of how a broad range of different games play in practice.
posted by siskin at 3:45 AM on March 30, 2008

It's been quite a while for me, but I absolutely used to love RIFTS and DC HEROES.
posted by sandra_s at 6:10 AM on March 30, 2008

I'll throw in a vote for Call of C'thulhu, and the system it was built upon, Basic Role Playing.
I like that they are percentage (D100) based.
While I'm a nerd, I was never big on throwing dice or much at match.
I was an English major, so I loved role playing for the story telling and the social aspects of getting together with friends.

Here are the requisite Wikipedia links to help you discover and explore. Enjoy!
posted by willmize at 6:27 AM on March 30, 2008

The replayability of indie games (defined as: those games originating from the community surrounding the website calling itself "the Forge") is often fairly low, with only a few - Burning Empires, frex, being more than an afternoon's worth of fun. Dogs in the Vineyard and My Life with Master, two of the better ones, notoriously have this problem - once you've played around with the central premise for about four hours, there's not much else to do.

Terminology and ways of thinking about gaming are also pretty controversial in the online community, but so long as you don't start spouting off about how people who play D&D are "brain damaged" it won't hurt you to read their stuff. For a counter-view, check out therpgsite. I post there, but don't actually have anything to do with running the site or anything.

I'd recommend FATE, which is a variation on FUDGE which someone recommended earlier. FUDGE is really a set of mechanics for designing RPGs, which FATE is a system made (mostly) from FUDGE. It's also free, easy to learn, and very robust. You don't need special dice to play it so long as you have some six-sided dice.

Otherwise, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Call of Cthulu and Unknown Armies are all easy to learn games with fairly simple mechanics that you can pick up in under an hour of play. Each requires only a single book, instead of three like D&D, and they're some of the games that I have found, in my personal experience, that were easy to teach and fun to play over and over again.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 6:27 AM on March 30, 2008

Replace "Terminology and ways of thinking..." with "Forge terminology and ways of thinking..." in the above post.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 6:28 AM on March 30, 2008

Another vote for Burning Wheel, which has a cool combat system (you basically plan two moves at a time, more like how people actually interact in combat; you can change move #2, but at a penalty) and very flexible "lifepath" (class) system.
posted by mkultra at 6:56 AM on March 30, 2008

I'd recommend Burning Empires over Burning Wheel because you need to buy fewer rulebooks to get the complete rules, and BE, as the later release, is a bit more polished and more widely available.

For the uninitiated, BE and BW are the sci-fi and fantasy implementations of the same system, designed by Luke Crane. Burning Wheel was first, and requires three books to play, somewhat like D&D. It's gone in and out of print over the few years it's been out, and it can be hard to find a complete set. Burning Empires is a later release, with the rules slightly changed to be less fiddly. It's a single book, still in print last I checked, and has some really neat ideas in it.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 7:31 AM on March 30, 2008

I personally loved Shadowrun, but that will depend on how your group responds to the idea of orcs and elves riding around on motorcycles shooting machine guns, I suppose. To me the idea is pure win.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:42 AM on March 30, 2008

I'm torn between Boot Hill and Star Frontiers.
posted by brucec at 8:02 AM on March 30, 2008

I agree, it's hard to make recommendations if we don't know what you're looking for. Personally, I liked D&D a lot, but my group was able to get into a very character-based (instead of killing and looting monsters) game partially due to the fact that it was a bunch of theatre geeks.

I feel like RIFTS is an inferior choice, largely due to the damage system, which divides damage into regular damage (think firearms) and mega damage (think nuclear missiles). Some PC classes can only be damaged by mega damage; it gets overly complicated and nearly impossible to kill an overmatched opponent.

Vampire: The Masquerade is good for politicking if that's the angle you want to go, though it can be a little tough to DM since a lot of the PC races have prejudices against other PC races, which can make things complicated. The combat system is elegant though, and the concept is fun.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:51 AM on March 30, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great responses and recommendations.

I'm glad I didn't state a genre preference, as it was great to hear commentary on all kinds of different games out there. Being raised on D&D, my initial instinct tends toward medieval fantasy, so in that respect I'm wondering what has scratched that itch for other people, while providing more than the usual hack and slash. I've played Call of Cthulhu and loved it (sorry, forgot that one) and know of Vampire and Shadowrun though I haven't played either (don't mind the latter's setting but notoriously flawed game mechanics, no?). Character-based is a good description of the kind of thing I'm looking for.

At the same time, provided I can find willing players in my area, I would definitely go for a standout in another genre. My only hesitation being that I'd probably have to pick one, as I'm long past having the kind of schedule where I can, say, have D&D weekends and play another RPG Tues nights.

I've pretty much come to the conclusion that anything White Wolf has a hand in is gold, though I understand the inability to find players for some all too well (I'm looking at you, Ars Magica).

I also love percentile systems (CoC; TS), but any system that works will do. My (admittedly limited) impression of RIFTS is that it is inundated with power gamers. Alas, if I lived in a bigger city, I'd have an easier time recruiting for the lesser-known games, but I'll give it a shot. That being that case, though, it may be that I have to canvas for players for X, Y or Z in order to get something going.

More recommendations or further comment most welcome. Thanks again!
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:27 AM on March 30, 2008

I've found that, more than a lot of other RPGs, D&D depends a lot on the players. You get what you give. It's very easy to fall into the mindless cycle of "kill monsters, take stuff, use stuff to kill new monsters" ad nauseum. Some people enjoy this, but I find it monstrously dull. If the DM and the players are will focus on other aspects of the game, it can work well. I especially find the pulp-fantasy of Eberron fantastic.

If you're looking for a game that pushes further into the social realm, the White Wolf games are good if you're looking for something with a dash of horror as well (and I always am). I'm just starting a Mage game and I'm quite excited to see how it plays out (no pun intended).

Plenty of good suggestions above, and I'll throw in a few I haven't seen mentioned. Deadlands is a horror-western RPG that, while niche, is pretty cool if that kind of thing sounds awesome to you. As an example of its personality, there are characters called Hucksters that work magic by playing a hand of poker against Fate. At the table, you really do draw a hand of cards.

Another genre-specific game is All Flesh Must be Eaten. Zombie survival horror.
posted by Nelsormensch at 10:31 AM on March 30, 2008

JAGS Revised is a free download that's won lots of awards. It's basically a gameplay skeleton that you can graft your own story onto. I know one of the authors; they've put tons of thought into making a system that's flexible, fun to play, and easy to get up and running with minimal prep. While I love D&D, those are certainly 3 areas in which D&D never won any awards.

I haven't played an RPG in years but if I were going to run a campaign tomorrow I'd give serious thought to using JAGS.

(the JAGS website appears to be a little wonky this week; just click on the JAGS Revised cover to download the pdf.)
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:35 AM on March 30, 2008

If you prefer the interactive storytelling aspect to the dice-rolling, I'd recommend "On the Edge" by Atlas games. It doesn't focus as much on "system" as it does thinking and acting like your character.
posted by drezdn at 10:47 AM on March 30, 2008

I asked my RPG group and they said:
Star Wars D6 is great for getting a group together if your group likes space opera. Better, the D6 system from West End is simple enough and flexible enough to handle almost any kind of game.

If your group has really experienced players, they might like Exalted, a kind of "fantasy anime on steroids" (says our GM) game from White Wolf. However, at least one person in the group will need to read all of the rule books to make it work - and that's a lot of reading. The Exalted combat system has great pacing and rewards players for imaginative ideas. Power gamers LOVE this system.
posted by debgpi at 11:37 AM on March 30, 2008

Oh goodness, Star Wars D6 and Usagi Yojimbo were the best pick-up-and-play and lets-not-get-distracted-by-the-rules games I played, I think. Exalted was all right but we had too many stereotypically white wolfy players and the game devolved into a silly wank. I think what I'm taking away from this is that it is all about the players - good players can make any system fun times.
posted by thedaniel at 1:48 PM on March 30, 2008

One game that I would suggest checking out if you like unique settings is Godlike. It is WWII with super powers mixed in to the setting. It is a rather gritty setting with some unique play mechanics.
posted by slavlin at 4:58 PM on March 30, 2008

I like Wheel of Time, All Flesh Must Be Eaten, and Vampire the Masquerade. Boyfriend is a huge fan of Mutants and Masterminds and Shadowrun. The new Vampire is pretty aborrant though.
posted by TheArpenter at 7:57 PM on March 30, 2008

Oh one other thing about Over the Edge: if you're into odd experimental stuff, pick up the supplement Weather the Cuckoo Likes. There's a cutups-based task resolution system in it. Loads of fun if you don't mind your game getting a little goofy.
posted by juv3nal at 3:12 PM on April 1, 2008

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