Your campaign is ending. It’s been a good time but the story is coming to an end, and your players are looking to the next big adventure. You want to switch it up, and they’re on board. What do you do?
There’s a whole lot of game systems out there, and you probably could run a fun game with any of them. That said, you’re not picking a system because it meets the low bar of “could be fun”. You want a system that will make your game better because it’s there, either because it makes it easier to have fun or it helps you do a fun thing you wouldn’t otherwise be able to or would have thought to do.
This article is for people who want to play something different than what they already have. It’s not about the merits of particular systems or philosophies, but rather about giving a baseline to help people figure out what sort of game works for them. Needless to say, if you honestly believe that one game system is all you’ll ever need, you’re simply not in my audience today. That said, if you’re able to check your biases at the door, maybe you too will find another game that broadens what you can do within the hobby. And if you don’t? That’s OK too. For those actively looking for something new, though, we’ll take a look at what the world of RPGs looks like today, try to think a bit about what picking a new system is actually going to get you at the table, and discuss what a game system is actually supposed to do: Add to your game and elevate it beyond what you and your friends’ brains could do alone.
What the RPG Ecosystem Looks Like
It’s an interesting time to be a gamer. On one hand, the hobby has exploded, and the advent of inexpensive desktop publishing and print-on-demand services has made it easier and cheaper to publish an RPG than ever before. On the other hand, the more things change the more they stay the same. Around the time of this writing, the top 5 RPGs in the US are two versions of D&D (1974), Cyberpunk (1988), Fate (2003), and a licensed game based on the movie Alien (1979). If you count Fate as being derived from Fudge and the Year Zero engine as being derived from the original Mutant, everything about this list is at least 30 years old. That’s a weird counterpoint to the huge influx of games which are much newer and, in a lot of cases, much more interesting.
So what does this mean if you’re looking into this ecosystem thinking maybe about setting and little else? Well, first it means that you don’t really need to look at old games. Sure, there are a few exceptions, but generally speaking unless you already know about, know how to play, and yes, like a game published before 2000, it doesn’t really need to show up in your search. Pretty much every celebrated game which stood the test of time has been revised and republished, sometimes more than once. If you want to play Traveller, playing Mongoose Traveller is a significantly easier place to start than the Little Black Books. If you want to play Cyberpunk, Cyberpunk Red is easier to pick up and run than Cyberpunk 2020. What both of those examples have in common is that there are still fanbases around the older games. If you haven’t played them yet, though, it’s going to be easier to start with the newer version and decide if you want to try the older one. Edition wars happen on a level of resolution that’s lower than most first-time players will care about, and they tend to ignore things that long-time fans can easily ignore but first-time players can’t, like how easy it is to learn the system, how easy it is to obtain a copy of the books for the system, and how easy it is to actually run the system.
Another big change in the ecosystem is that expansion of play format has increased in speed. The vast majority of RPGs for a very long time (and to some degree even now) have been modified wargame rulesets built first around skill checks resolved with a single die roll and a set of complementary rules specifically for combat (maybe with one more subsystem added, like hacking or magic). New traditional games have softened this and new indie games have blown it out of the water. Genesys and Fate both use conflict systems that are broad and apply outside the realm of combat and violence. The Year Zero Engine usually includes a nicely detailed subsystem around the party’s base of operations for the campaign. Powered by the Apocalypse games typically include no player-facing subsystems, but give the GM one or more tools by which to run a campaign arc with no advance narrative. These examples are limited to games which still broadly look like what TSR told us an ‘RPG’ was, and that framework is being pushed against as well. Belonging Outside Belonging uses no dice and has no GM. Fiasco is heavily structured and has only one mechanical decision point per scene. Alice is Missing is run entirely via text message. The downside with form being such a big part of innovation is that so many players don’t know how to parse these games as RPGs in a way they’re used to thinking about (and considering that top 5 list, this problem is clear when you look at sales numbers). The upside to you, as someone looking to run a new game, is that many of them are easily run in one sitting. While I know not everyone has the time, money, or wherewithal to buy a bunch of new games they may only play once, trying out an Alice is Missing or a Fiasco will help you gain a new appreciation for what an RPG can be, and then you can still go back to your regularly scheduled campaign. New systems can help your gaming even when they aren’t the system you’re running for your regular game.
What a New System Gets You
There are a couple ways to think about what you want in a campaign you’re going to play in or run which all affect what sort of system you’re going to end up choosing. The first obvious one is setting. You may have a specific licensed setting in mind for your game, or something of your own design. You may just know the genre you want to play in. The second one is setting ‘feel’. Is this game cinematic? Is it down-to-earth? Are we going for a grand adventure or more slice of life? The third one is focus. There’s a significant difference between a cinematic fantasy game which takes place in a megadungeon and one which is entirely court intrigue. What are the characters doing? What is important to them? Needless to say, the game system you choose affects all of these, and while yes, you could hypothetically run any sort of game in any sort of system, choosing a system that’s aligned to your priorities saves you a lot of work. GURPS is not well-suited to pulp action out of the box, skewing just a bit gritty, but if you want to run a game where your characters are jumping through parallel universes, the tools GURPS provides for that sort of play may make the work needed to get it to play pulpy worthwhile. Similarly, while Fate doesn’t do dangerous and gritty well as-written, its flexibility in character design through Aspects might make tuning the game to the danger level you want worth the effort. There are two considerations for what you want to run that should be most important. First, is there anything about your idea which either requires or would significantly benefit from mechanics which are only contained in one or a few game systems? Second, is there anything that, either because you’re not sure what to do or because it’s a lot of work, that you’d prefer the game system take care of for you?
If you boil down D&D to d20 plus proficiency bonus and GURPS to 3d6 roll under skill, you’d correctly observe they’re interchangeable. That said, game systems are not their core mechanics, and Burning Wheel and Shadowrun do not play the same despite both being d6 dice pools with similar length skill lists. When you pick up a new game system, especially a trad system, what you’re getting is everything built up around the core mechanic more than the core mechanic itself. Why you want a new system, then, is because it’s done some of your work for you. What this means is up to you, really: Dip your toes into the OSR or other versions of D&D and the ecosystem will provide you with more maps, adventures, monsters, and rules hacks than you could imagine. Pick up GURPS, and while the overall complexity is quite high the difficulty level of writing your own crunchy campaign is brought down several notches. Pick up almost any Powered by the Apocalypse system and what you have are detailed procedures for running and playing a game that, if you grok them, make the whole affair incredibly easy.
So what a new game system gets you, more than anything else, is a framework for building out the game you want to play. If you’re more interested in just playing than building your own campaign, it’s hard to argue against going for the game with the most material for play (which is, obviously, D&D). Otherwise, if you do want to write something specific or seek out a specific experience, it’s going to be easier if you find a game that was designed with something specific in mind.
This isn’t to knock on generic games; I know several systems with no implied genre which are excellent and would make great starting points for many campaigns. It can be hard to recommend them in a vacuum, though; to know whether a campaign would work well in a GURPS or a Fate or a Cortex Prime requires understanding what the prospective GM wants the system to add when they’re prepping and running their game.
There’s a big elephant in the room here, in the form of most of the indie movement. Although Powered by the Apocalypse and to a lesser extent Forged in the Dark have gained breadth through popularity with designers, most indie RPG systems released in the last ten years (and a decent chunk of those released before that) are designed with fairly specific experiences in mind. Thinking about indie games in terms of what you’re already planning to do is, frankly, unlikely to get you into the mindset of playing indie games.
Not to self-promote too heavily, but this truth makes reading even the most basic reviews of indie RPG systems extremely helpful. If you were looking at, say, Wanderhome as a game about anthropomorphic characters and the adjacent media that implies, it might not be as interesting as looking at it as a game about physical and metaphysical travel, which is more thematically on-point than thinking of it as like Redwall. Now, it’s entirely likely neither of those were what you thought you wanted to run a game about, as unless you’re coming from Mouse Guard neither of those themes are really part of mainstream RPG publication. This is where I’d say be flexible. As it is, you aren’t going to find a system which exactly matches what you want so looking for a system which adds something unique is likely to make your game more interesting.
Systems are Additive
There’s a lot of people in the RPG space who are more than happy to point out how few rules are strictly necessary to play a compelling game. In some ways, both the OSR and the emergent FKR (Free Kriegspiel Renaissance) movements have at their core a notion of peeling back and discarding rules. There is something to be said about this, but at the same time when 5e D&D is by most estimates 20-30 times more popular than the entirety of the OSR, we can conclude at the very least that most gamers find benefit in moderate rules density.
The key here is that (like the subtitle says) systems are additive, they’re intended to supplement what the group is already doing. On one hand, fast and loose really does work for a lot of games where everyone understands what’s going on; with D&D being based on literally 50 years of ossified fantasy tropes it’s unsurprising that such a relatively large chunk of people can claim to adjudicate an internally consistent world with no backstop. On the other hand, as I keep on saying, there are games other than D&D (and genres other than Tolkien-adjacent fantasy), and unwritten assumptions are infinitely more hostile to beginners than longer rules.
That all said, if detailed resolution mechanics don’t benefit your game, you will have a better time with a lighter system. If you don’t want to write a lot, Powered by the Apocalypse games will help leverage minimal prep and you’ll appreciate that. If you love writing interesting monsters, you might want a system that makes that easy…but if you love designing intricate encounters, you might want a more complex system that makes that interesting. You have to know what you enjoy doing, and what you’d rather just crack open the book for. If the system isn’t aiding with something that you either can’t or don’t want to do, taking away something you don’t enjoy, or enhancing something you do enjoy, you might need a different one.
People are starting to understand this as the hobby broadens. No one will say you can’t run a Regency romance with D&D, but it’ll suck for the GM as they have to either write or improvise mechanics for things that D&D is completely unable to do by the book. You can add a magic system to Cyberpunk 2020, but why? If you want the rest of the experience of Cyberpunk but with magic that’s one very specific thing, but even then you’d have to weigh that against just picking up Shadowrun. While you as the GM are going to create the real magic of your campaign, you need to consider what system you’re bringing along as your toolbox. You can’t fix a car with just a hammer, but you’re going to be unhappy if you buy a compression tester to change your oil.
So after all that, how do you actually find a new system that’s going to benefit you? One piece of good news is that it’s unlikely there’s going to be a ‘trick’ answer to this question. If you want to play a cyberpunk game, you’ll probably have a good time playing Cyberpunk Red. If you decide you want something newer and pick up Hard Wired Island instead…you’re probably also going to have a good time playing that. It can’t be overstated that the most vocal people in online RPG spaces tend to be designers, who read, hack, and play RPGs differently than a lot of their audiences, and are generally much more critical than most gamers need to be. Even though you may be intending to play in the same campaign for the next six months, the risk of picking up a new game you heard something good about is still very low. And even with that said, make liberal use of the Session 3 Rule: if after three sessions you still don’t get it or it still isn’t fun, stop and play something else. But take those three sessions and engage with the game in good faith. If you weren’t going to engage with the game in good faith you shouldn’t have bought it.
You know what you like better than I do, that’s why there isn’t actually a list in this article. Pay attention to what you like, especially mechanics that you like. RPGs have historically been filled with things we tolerate to get to the good stuff, but depending on your play style the tolerated:good stuff ratio of a given system or even an entire type of system may be too high. Over the last several decades gamers spent a lot of time playing systems which were on the whole not great, even if they still added up to good experiences. On one hand, maybe you want to dump D&D for Fate, even Fate Accelerated, because you don’t want nearly as many rules. On the other, maybe you really want to play Exalted because even if the system is cumbersome the setting calls to you. Both of those are valid, which is why both Fate and Exalted have fans.
From a player’s perspective, exploring the RPG hobby and finding new games is low risk and should be relatively easy. Reviews are easy to find, whether they’re on Reddit, Youtube, or independent sites like this one. Anything written in the last 15ish years and popular enough to have a review is at the very least playable, so it’s worth spending a little time to investigate. And while you don’t have to poke your head down the indie rabbithole at all the weird and wonderful stuff coming out every day, if you do you’ll find it’ll expand your perspective of what gaming can be. In short, then, start with newer stuff, look for systems that complement what you want to do, and above all, know that there’s almost no downside to trying something new.
Like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together? First, you can follow me @LevelOneWonk on Twitter for RPG commentary, relevant retweets, and maybe some rambling. You can also find our Discord channel and drop in to chat with our authors and get every new post as it comes out. You can travel to DriveThruRPG through one of our fine and elegantly-crafted links, which generates credit that lets us get more games to work with! Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!