James D’Amato is an actual podcaster, game designer and author of the Ultimate RPG Guide series published by Adams Media. For 10 years he has recorded sessions of hundreds of different RPGs for the A shot podcast.
After the roller coaster ride of the recent Dungeons & Dragons OGL fiasco, many fans of tabletop role-playing games want to try something different. Many do not know that other TTRPGs exist, and those who do realize that there are thousands of large and small alternatives on the market. Either way, it’s hard for both players and gamemasters to know where to start. If your only experience with TTRPG’s is D&D, the idea of learning a new system is quite daunting. When you pick up something new, you want to make sure you’ll like it.
Let’s remember that D&D is a layered and complex game that appeals to fans on different levels. Some like crunching a dense list of spells or a block of stats, and this story isn’t necessarily for them. Instead, this list is made for people who come especially for the table role play. If you enjoy creating characters and backstories, finding dramatic hooks, suspenseful dialogue, and satisfying character arcs, here’s something for you!
To make things more palatable, we’ve assigned stats to the games on this list.
Average Session: The average duration of a single session.
Difficulty level: This tells you how difficult it can be to pick up this game for the first time if you’ve only played D&D.
creak: This tells you how mechanically complex a game is. For reference, D&D 5e would be a ⚫⚫⚫⚫⚪ on this list.
xp: Learning some RPGs makes it easier to learn others. A game with a high XP stat can be a gateway to mastering dozens or hundreds of others.
Where to buy: Please note that while we’ve included links to places where you can buy these games online, they should all be available at your friendly local games store as well.
For the queen
Designed by Alex Robertspublished by Angry Hat
Average Session: 30-90 minutes
Difficulty level: ⚫⚪⚪⚪⚪
For the queen is a simple and easy to learn game with great depth. Teaching the rules is actually collapsed to put it on the table, which only takes about 10 minutes. There are no game masters, stats or dice – your character may not even have a name! However, this game is an engaging character study and a wonderful role-playing experience.
It follows a motley retinue who escort their monarch on a secret diplomatic mission to possibly end a war. Each member of the party was chosen for one reason: they love the Queen. To play, players simply draw cards from a deck of face-up questions. Based on their answers, they slowly learn more about their characters, the queen and their relationship. Somewhere in the deck there is a final question: “The queen is under attack. Are you defending her?” While the answer to that question may seem obvious, most games are fraught and filled with shades of gray.
If you enjoy exploring backstories, playing with emotionally charged relationships, and agonizing at dramatic intersections, then For the queen is the perfect place to expand. There are dozens Descendants of the Queen games, so if you’re into it, there’s so much more to discover.
Designed by Jason Morgensterpublished by Bully Pulpit Play
Average Session: 1-2 hours
Difficulty level: ⚫⚫⚪⚪⚪
Modeled on the Coen brothers movies, Fiasco is a brilliant distillation of improvisational techniques converted to an RPG format. The latest version of Jason Morningstar’s design uses cards to help players define their characters through their relationships and desires, then encourages them to make a wild mess. Fiasco opens up a very different style of roleplay than what you’ll find at most D&D tables. You are not supposed to protect your character and watch them grow. You are supposed to burn everything down and enjoy the drama that rises from the flames.
Start with the Dragon Slayers playset in the core box, but there are dozens, if not hundreds Fiasco playsets available from Bully Pulpit and other suppliers.
Thirsty sword lesbians
Designed by April Kit Walshpublished by Angry Hat
Average Session: 2-3 hours
Difficulty level: For Players ⚫⚫⚪⚪⚪, For GMs ⚫⚫⚫⚪⚪
If you’re a big fan of the “adventures face danger” format for RPGs, but want to enjoy messy character relationships, then Thirsty sword lesbians is for you! It has all the swords and sorcery of it D&D, but it places equal importance on fostering fraught character relationships.
Thirsty sword lesbians is an RPG powered by the Apocalypse. It uses regular six-sided dice and the odds favor medium results, the so-called “mixed success” rolls. With varying degrees of success, GMs can push or pull the action off the head of the table, bringing new complications into the mix. Pre-generated character playbooks offer different and flavorful abilities while also allowing for a degree of customization.
PbtA games have a slightly different philosophy of play than D&D, so it will take some reading and messing around at the table before it clicks into place. But once you get the hang of the format, it really sings. As an added bonus, learn to play Thirsty sword lesbians teaches you the PbtA format, which opens literally hundreds of games in dozens of genres. A perfect gateway to the wider world of RPGs!
Pasion de las Pasiones
Designed by Brandon Leon Gambettapublished by Magpie Games
Average Session: 2-3 hours
Difficulty level: ⚫⚫⚫⚪⚪
Pasion de las Pasiones is another PbtA game with very unique concept and design. It emulates the dramatic and extravagant storytelling of telenovelas. Every move Passion drives characters to make big decisions with big emotions. Instead of using stats, Gambetta lets players build their dice bonus by answering questions – so a character’s abilities change based on what happens in the story. Players are encouraged to get big early to get even bigger later.
As compared to Thirsty sword lesbians above, the unique design of Passion may make it more difficult to build on the experience and move on to other PbtA games. However, this game can teach you a whole new kind of fun.
Designed by Steve Kenson, Jack NorrisAnd Chris Pramas; published by Green Ronin
Average Session: 3-4 hours
Difficulty level: ⚫⚫⚫⚫⚪
Blue rose bills itself as a “romantic fantasy” RPG, designed to mimic the work of Tamora Pierce and Mercedes Lackey rather than JRR Tolkien and Fritz Leiber. It uses Green Ronin’s Adventure game engine system, which puts mechanical weight on both combat and role-playing. The Stunt Point system ensures that roles in role-playing scenes are as tactically satisfying as throwing a well-placed fireball.
If you like the robust character options in D&D, Blue rose can scratch a similar itch. However, that comes with the challenge of learning quite a complex game system. There are a few games that use the AGE system, including the dragon age TTRPG and the upcoming TTRPG based on NK Jemisin’s The fifth season.
Chuubo’s awesome wish-granting bike
Designed by Jenna Katerin Moran, self published
Average Session: 3-4 hours
Difficulty level: ⚫⚫⚫⚫⚫
Chuubo’s awesome wish-granting bike is a Studio Ghibli-inspired literary RPG with a really wild name. Jenna Katerin Moran is known for designing rich, complex and downright dense games. Chuubos is no exception. Despite being completely dice-less, the core book is over 500 pages long. to be doubly, Chuubos is built on resource management. Players choose where to succeed instead of rolling to find out if they succeed. The rest of the game lives off of XP gain gained through completing quests, emotionally influencing other players, and fulfilling a story structure. At first glance, this game seems predetermined and restrictive, but as you learn how it works, it turns out to be a thoughtfully constructed open canvas.
Chuubos is daunting to learn, and not many games are based on it. However, if you like literary themes and emotionally driven stories, or spend time reading fan fiction or role-playing on forums, Chuubos can be a profound experience for you.