Let’s be honest: Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder control the RPG market. I’m not here to debate whether this is a good or bad trend for the industry, but the last thing anyone on planet RPG needs right now is another book about adventures in the “Forgotten” Realms or Golarion. When there are only two main competitors in an industry, things can get a bit boring.
But things don’t have to be like this! There doesn’t have to always be a master and a student. A two-party system is not necessary. You don’t have to choose only between Yin and Yang. There are too many different RPG products on the market for roleplayers to get stuck in a place where they can only play two kinds of games. Roleplayers don’t have to play D&D or Pathfinder.
It’s okay to not get caught up in Paizo and Wizards’ RPG-Industrial Complex. I want to help. There are a lot of great RPGs that players can pick up and start playing right away, and they won’t break your brain. Or the one you mean!
There are a lot of Old School Renaissance/Revival (OSR) titles, which are especially interesting to more traditional roleplayers. Sometimes mechanically, but almost always in terms of tone, OSR games are just like the original D&D. The OSR movement puts more importance on GM and player freedom and choice than on following a strict set of rules. The focus is on the GM making decisions about rules using a “rules-lite” model to give players more freedom in how they play.
One of the main reasons why players don’t want to try a new system is that it takes time to learn the new rules. OSR RPGs are made with few rules, so they are easy to start playing right away. Many of these OSR systems are based on the first editions of Dungeons & Dragons, especially the Basic/Expert sets (B/X), where rules weren’t as clear or rigid and could be interpreted in different ways. Also, D&D and Pathfinder are based on these older games, so it shouldn’t be hard to learn how to play them.
Because of the Open Game License, there has been a lot more OSR material in the last few years. The variety of products should give every player a chance to leave their Wizard/Paizo safe zones and go back to when roleplaying was new, dangerous, and exciting.
Here are some OSR RPG products that should help you get back into roleplaying if the Big Two of tabletop gaming have made you lose interest.
Are you looking for an RPG that has a heavy metal theme? Mörk Borg from Free League Publishing is your game. The website for the game probably says it best: “Pitch-black apocalyptic fantasy OSR RPG about miserable jerks doing their best/worst in a bleak, dying world.” Both the content and the layout of Mörk Borg are unashamedly dark and moody.
The book is a tribute to all the black heavy metal dreams you had as a teenager while you were twirling your nunchucks. The book has rules, information about the world and how it is dying, and a first dungeon crawl to help you get your game going quickly. Aside from having (pardon the pun) killer rules, the book is also one of the best-designed rulebooks on the market. Mörk Borg worked hard to be the game that parents feared during the Satanic Panic, and it succeeds in the best way possible.
The Jazz Age has always been a big draw for me. During the 1920s and early 1930s, there is a lot of crazy stuff going on. Gangbusters is great because it lets roleplayers dance with flappers, deal drugs with mobsters, and fight with agents from the 1920s.
Gangbusters is about as old school as it gets when it comes to titles from the Old School Renaissance. It was first made by TSR in the early 1980s. The current B/X edition came out in 2019, and it uses the same rules as the Basic and Expert sets of D&D. Gangbusters takes place in the 1920s, which is a nice change of pace from the high fantasy settings of the big two. Visit Drive Thru RPG to buy either a PDF or a physical copy.
THE BLACK HACK
The Black Hack is a slick, no-frills OSR role-playing game that looks and feels like original Dungeons & Dragons. The rules are only 30 pages long and can be found online for free. The rules of The Black Hack are simple and the game moves quickly. Your group won’t have any trouble understanding the rules and making characters that are ready to play in just a few minutes.
One of the best things about the Black Hack is how much free and paid content is available from “third party” developers. The Black Hack is used as the rule set for The Cthulhu Hack, which is based on Lovecraft’s famous mythos.
BARBARIANS OF THE RUINED EARTH
In terms of games that use The Black Hack rules set, Barbarians of the Ruined Earth has a Gamma World-like crazy post-apocalyptic setting. The title alone ought to make any serious RPG player seek out Barbarians of the Ruined Earth! The end of the world in the game is fun and full of life.
Gamma World, Mad Max, and Thundarr the Barbarian are all big influences on Barbarians. It’s a pleasant mix of sword and sorcery, science fiction, and neon tinged weirdness. When aliens blew up the moon, they broke up the earth. If you go to DIY RPG Productions, you can find helpful tools and links to buy the game.
OLD SCHOOL ESSENTIALS
Old-School Essentials (OSE), at least in terms of how it works, doesn’t have much new to offer. It is a remake of the Basic/Expert (B/X) version of Dungeons & Dragons, which Tom Moldvay and David Cook changed in 1981. This is not a secret, and the publishers even give a detailed document that can be thought of as the errata that connect B/X and OSE. Like the retroclones I’ve talked about before, the goal of OSE is to make it easier to use and play an older version of D&D. Labyrinth Lord and Darkest Dungeon, on the other hand, were both free, while OSE is sold at a price that is typical for an original RPG. This is fair because OSE is probably the best-formatted retroclone I’ve ever read. Also, it’s worth mentioning that when I use Basic D&D in my games, I tend to use the later versions, like BECMI and Rules Cyclopedia, because they have more rules. The OSE reading of B/X does a great job of getting rid of ambiguity and giving as much clarity as possible from the source material. This helped me understand why B/X D&D is often seen as the OSR’s ideal: Less rules gives you more freedom. Rules Cyclopedia D&D is simple at its core, but it has a lot of AD&D-like fluff that makes it harder to use as a starting point and much harder to refer to at the table. The basic rules of OSE, which don’t cover the whole game but are enough to get started, are less than 60 pages long, which makes sense for a style of play that relies as little as possible on rolling dice and looking up rules. Many of the rulesets, including the next one, are meant to be distillations, where as little reading (and specificity) as possible stands between the players and the game.
Whitehack is also a condensed version of Basic D&D. Like The Black Hack, it made assumptions about what parts of the game were important and then went in a completely different direction. Characters are first defined by the attributes they roll, and then by which of three classes they are a part of: the Deft, the Strong, or the Wise. Most of the other important parts of a character, like their race and job (which includes what a modern D&D player would call “class”), are set by a single set of rules called “Groups.” Each Group is put next to an attribute on the character sheet to show that the character’s membership in that group affects that attribute. Because of this, making characters is both easy and flexible.
Most of the rules in this small book are designed to make the story flexible, even more than in other games. Even the shorter Black Hack has a list of spells, but Whitehack doesn’t. However, the B/X spell list is included as a conversion tool. With the possible exception of the list of items, there isn’t much in these rules that hints at a setting. Even the list of items has a few things that seem to be there to directly expand the setting options from standard D&D (I’m thinking of guns in particular).
Whitehack seems to come from the same OSR school of thought as game designers like Kevin Crawford, who build their games on a D&D framework. This doesn’t mean that Christian Mehrstam and Kevin Crawford make similar games. It just means that they both think it’s important and useful to separate the mechanics of D&D from the genre of D&D. Given this, what I like most about Whitehack is that it shows that you can change the setting of D&D a lot, even to something you wouldn’t recognise, and it will still be a fantasy game at the end of the day.