Exploring Other Games

Exploring Other Games

Feb 07, 2023    

The world doesn’t need another angsty #OpenDND post, so I’ll spare us all that, but the Open Gaming drama around Wizards of the Coast’s critical fumble of community trust has led me to look for other games to both patronize and potentially run as a one-shot campaign break, three-shot miniseries, or even full alternative to Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

I know my gaming tastes pretty well. I’ve run a half-dozen systems that are not D&D, but I wanted to expand my horizons. Here’s how I went about it.

What I’m looking for

  • games that know exactly what they are about and why they are fun. If we are telling stories, what is that story? D&D 5e is about big dang heroes fighting increasingly dangerous monsters and saving a fantasy world. It needs to be obvious what a game session or campaign is about beyond a simulation.
  • systems that have enough crunch to give player’s a sense of choice as they make their characters.
  • systems that have an implied setting or come with an interesting and compelling setting
  • a game that comes with great pre-made adventure content that I can customize to my tastes rather than having to create content from scratch. I ran a completely self-made 5e campaign in 2021 and I burnt out. It’s going to be a while before I personally have that kind of energy again.

Getting exposed to more games

My usual 5e youtube content creators almost immediately started posting about D&D alternatives, but I wanted to go further. Your average RPG system review isn’t much more than a mechanics tutorial or book art flip-through. I needed to find better reviewers.

Asking the honest question of /r/rpg Reddit forum provided some pretty great recommendations for RPG reviewers. To learn whether a system met my tastes and would be fun for me to run and play my top sources have become:

  • Dave Thaumavore (Youtube)
  • Seth Skorkowsky (Youtube)
  • When can we play (Youtube)
  • Dungeon Master of None (podcast) … nsfw

Questing Beast on Youtube mostly does Old School Renaissance (OSR) adventure reviews that aren’t helpful for my current mission, but buried in there is some pretty good information on OSR titles that goes deeper than other sources.

The result: my RPG reading queue

Not included in this list are games I’ve already explored in past years like Dungeon World, Blades in the Dark, Call of Cthulhu, and Trail of Cthulu … which are all excellent


Alien RPG
If everyone knows what's in that derelict ship, is it still fun?

First up, I need a one-shot. I want to read a game that has a great intro adventure experience and the stand-out recommendation and a pretty good read was the Alien RPG Starter Box from Swedish publisher Free Leauge. I’ve played plenty of horror games, and one of the golden rules is not to ever tell the players the name of the monster. It lessens the horror. Alien somehow gets away with it. Even though the scenarios are evocative of specific movies and familiar monsters, the writing of the Starter boxed set Chariot of the Gods is so good that somehow it gets away with it. Here are the things I liked:

  • By playing fully into tropes of haunted house / hidden agenda / betrayal games along with a high-mortality three-act structure that lets players take control of NPCs introduced throughout the game, Alien brings players along for the ride and doesn’t depend on xenomorphs being a surprise. It leans into expectations rather than having to subvert them. As a result, an Alien one-shot likely gets away with things that just would not work in a longer horror campaign.
  • Scripted character objective cards, organized more like how I’ve seen LARP organizers wrangle incite conflict and action exactly how I used to run Delta Green games.
  • The starter set is the beginning of a three-book arc of pre-made adventures, which lines up with my criteria above.
  • While mechanically light, Alien has an innovative stress system that emphasizes the adrenaline moments of survival horror. Unlike Call of Cthulhu’s slipping slope of a sanity system where everything is downhill upon a character’s first encounter with the Mythos, Alien characters may be more effective when stressing. It’s a good mechanical balance that doesn’t punish people for encountering the content.

Alien RPG is going to be a must-play for me the next time my normal game can’t get to a quorum of players or we decide to take a mid-campaign break.


Symbaroum - dark fantasy in an immersive world

Here in early 2023, there is no lack of dark fantasy D&D alternatives. The popularity of the Witcher video games and TV series has taken care of that. Pitched as a ‘Princess Mononoke’ meets D&D meets Scandinavian RPG writers, Symbaroum has all the appeal of OSR dungeon delving but wrapped in an interesting setting that wouldn’t look out of place among high-theme mainstays of the TSR 90’s settings like Dark Sun and Planescape. Set only twenty years after a human civilization ends its generation-long war against necromancers to rebuild next to a dark forest full of horrors. This game is about characters setting off from a high intrigue wilderness outpost to seek buried treasure in a Dark Forest that hides the ruins of a lost civilization. It’s a story of the hubris of the human world bent on exploiting against all better judgment… quite the turn from the usual quest to interrupt cultists from summoning a big bad. Are we the baddies?

Five Torches Deep

Five Torches Deep
Five Torches Deep - a quickly accessible OSR option

I think I’d like to try running a straight-up dungeon crawl, not only out of interest in the old-school play style of OSR but also to try out some creative table prep like making some modular dungeon tiles. After much research, Five Torches Deep (5TD) seems like an option built as an easy transition for 5e players while allowing modular inclusion of older concepts. 5TD sells itself as a bridge game, and that might be a very appealing option. The game’s creator is on hiatus, so there aren’t a wealth of supporting books, but I’m hoping the wealth of OSR dungeons out there will be explorable with this game should I choose to run it. I am also hoping the game is lightweight enough that it could be playable in a system-less VTT tool such as Owlbear Rodeo.

Old School Essentials

Old School Essentials
OSE - A playable nostalgia cruise through 1st edition D&D

My first D&D was the 1991 D&D Black Boxed set, a watered-down version of 1st edition D&D meant to attract new players like me in an era when the 2nd edition had too steep of a learning curve. Old School Essentials takes the 1st edition “Dungeons & Dragons—BX version / Moldvay Basic” from ten years prior, in 1981, and corrals it into a better organized but still awkward throwback retro-clone. This game is instantly familiar to me. Sometimes games, especially video games, are too old to go back to without the help of nostalgia. I hope that just like pulling out an old Atari or Nintendo, OSE will have the same appeal and approachability. OSE has the additional appeal of having broad compatibility with content built for D&D whether it be old Dungeon Magazines or the many books of the OSR being reviewed by Questing beast or over at tenfootpole.org