October 2011 is Play a New RPG month. A vast majority of the recommendations I have been seeing are focusing primarily on traditional RPGs. So, I ask the question: “are games such as World of Darkness, Eclipse Phase, and Mutants & Masterminds really different from D&D? And, if not are there any alternatives worth considering?”
My argument is that traditional roleplaying games all offer a very similar experience, at least in the rules as written. So, regardless of whether you are playing D&D, Pathfinder, Star Wars Saga Edition, it will have the same general feel. It is certainly true that the games are different, and there are differences of abstraction, and genre. But they tend to have a heavy crunch factor focusing on combat, and task resolution. I am an advocate of “play everything,” so if you haven’t played these games you certainly should. Ultimately, my perspective is that while these games are different they not different enough to get the best bang for your buck.
Rather than switching to another traditional roleplaying game (which would represent a significant time investment for learning an extensive rule system, and the financial cost of purchasing all the required texts) it may be better to look into an story game that offers a novel play experience at a reasonable cost. For the sake of discussion I am going to break these experiences into six categories: transitioning from traditional games, resolution scales, mixed success, alternative perspectives, GMless play, and alternatives to dice. There are a number of different aspects and minutiae, but I feel these are the larger categories.
Transitioning from traditional games is an exercise in trying to find a middle ground between traditional games, and story games. The two primary systems I recommend here are FATE and Solar System. But, since SS features conflict resolution I am going to recommend FATE for this category. There are a number of fantastic fate games available, for venues demoing this month I am recommending Bulldogs! or Diaspora as they both represent good, concise FATE implementations. Many people still recommend Spirit of the Century, but I think it is starting to show its age as FATE 3 has developed significantly since that initial release. For home groups willing to spend several sessions can definitely take a look at the large works, Dresden Files is a particularly good game.
Resolution scales demonstrate alternatives to traditional task resolution systems used in most roleplaying games. For venues running one shots I strongly recommend Lady Blackbird. Its free, light, and always a good time. The only drawback is that the GM should be familiar with the source games: The Shadow of Yesterday, and Mouse Guard. For home groups, the later two options are excellent. The Shadow of Yesterday runs on the Solar System, which features a conflict resolution scale with a special task resolution scale called “bringing down the pain.” Mouse Guard is basically Burning Wheel light bringing in character motivations GM vs. Player turns, and all kinds of good stuff beyond conflict resolution scale and definitely worth the effort.
Mixed success is a novel design feature made popular by Vincent Baker. Focusing on achieving a gray area between success and failure, yes you succeed, but with consequences. The Otherkind dice are great for demonstrating this, but I have found that Otherkind doesn’t always click with people. As a venue, if you have a good GM you might want to look at Ghost/ECHO, which uses Otherkind dice in a cool setting. Otherwise I would look at running Apocalypse World, or Dungeon World (a drift of Apocalypse World and original D&D). Mouse Guard could also be used here, as failure is what makes the game interesting, because it introduces conflicts into the game.
Alternative perspectives is about playing from a uniquely different perspective. Most games traditionally portray the players as paragons of heroism to varying degrees. While it is true that numerous games offer other options, I am recommending My Life with Master for play this month. There is just something that seems to resonate with people playing henchmen for an evil master. This game also demonstrates concepts like predetermined outcomes, shared collaboration, etc…
GMless play holds a special place in my heart. I believe there is something fundamentally dysfunctional about the traditional GM v. Players relationship. There is something about playing gang up no one person, and in exchange you grant them what amounts to Godlike power in the game. Hurray for mechanically enforced artificial social structures! But, I digress. For venues focusing on one shots I strongly recommend Fiasco. Fiasco is dramatically different than traditional roleplaying games, as are many GMless games to varying degrees. Fiasco is a great game though, and can easily be a blast, even with people that have never roleplayed before. For groups, I would recommend something that will last longer, such as Love in the Time of Seid. There are so many good games in this category it shouldn’t be to difficult to find a topic local players are interested in.
Dice are used in nearly all tabletop roleplaying games; they are a bit of a fixture. That does not mean that dice are needed for a game to be good. In fact, the lack of dice is what makes some games great. My pick for the one shot in this category is a no brainer: Dread. Dread is a roleplaying game where the players act out horror films. Each player is given a questionnaire that they fill out, and the GM leads them through the story. Whenever there is a question as to the success of an action in the game players resolve that task by pulling from a Jenga tower. Its a horror game with a built-in tension mechanism, brilliant. Knock over the tower and you’re out. This is one of my first recommendations for people looking to get into roleplaying games, because the rules are simple and accessible for almost everyone. There are many other diceless games out there (many of which use playing cards or a sort of karma system) feel free to dig around and explore new options.
In conclusion, I am advocating that you not only play a new RPG this month, but you play a game that offers a novel play experience for your group. So get out there, grab some texts and learn some rules, its gaming time!
Here is a small list of games I usually recommend grouped in the above categories:
- Dresden Files
- Strands of Fate
- Starblazer Adventures
- Spirit of the Century
- Lady Blackbird
- The Shadow of Yesterday / World of Near + Solar System
- Mouse Guard
- Apocalypse World
- Dungeon World
- Mouse Guard / Burning Wheel / Burning Empries
Alternative Perspectives / Player Agency
- My Life with Master
- Montsegur 1244
- Dogs in the Vineyard
- Breaking the Ice
- Love in the Time of Seid
- Shock: Social Science Fiction
- A Penny for My Thoughts
- Mortal Coil
- Amber Diceless
Other Great Games I Didn’t Spotlight
- Primetime Adventures
- In a Wicked Age
- Dust Devils Revised
- The Mountain Witch
- Don’t Rest Your Head
- Zombie Cinema