James D’Amato is an actual play 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 One Shot podcast.
After the roller coaster ride of Dungeons & Dragons’ recent OGL fiasco, many fans of tabletop role-playing games are looking to try something different. Many don’t know that other TTRPGs exist, and those that do realize there are thousands of alternatives big and small on the market. Either way, it’s hard for players and game masters alike to know where to start. If your only experience with TTRPGs is D&D, the idea of learning a new system is pretty daunting. When you pick up something new, you want to be sure you’ll like it.
Let’s consider that D&D is a layered and complex game that appeals to fans on different levels. Some like the crunch of a dense list of spells or a block of statistics, and this story isn’t necessarily for them. Instead this list was created for folks who come to the table specifically for role-play. If you like creating characters and backstories, finding dramatic hooks, thrilling dialogue, and satisfying character arcs — then there is something here for you!
To make things more digestible, we assigned stats to the games on this list.
Average session: The average length of a single session.
Difficulty: This tells you how hard it might be to pick up this game for the first time if you have only ever played D&D.
Crunch: This tells you how mechanically complex a game is. For reference, D&D 5e would be a ⚫⚫⚫⚫⚪ on this list.
XP: Learning some RPGs will actually make 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 purchase: Note that while we’ve included links out to places you can buy these games online, all of them should also be available from your friendly local game store.
For the Queen
Designed by Alex Roberts, published by Evil Hat
Average session: 30-90 minutes
For the Queen is a simple and easy-to-learn game of marvelous depth. Teaching the rules is actually folded into setting it up on the table, which only takes around 10 minutes. There are no game masters, stats, or dice — your character may not even have a name! However, this game is a compelling character study and beautiful role-playing experience.
It follows a motley retinue escorting 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 open-ended 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. Do you defend her?” While the answer to that question might seem obvious, most games are fraught and full of shades of gray.
If you love to explore backstory, play with emotionally charged relationships, and agonize at dramatic crossroads, then For the Queen is the perfect place to branch out. There are dozens of Descended From the Queen games, so if you love it, there is so much more to discover.
Designed by Jason Morningstar, published by Bully Pulpit Games
Average Session: 1-2 hours
Modeled after the Coen brothers’ films, Fiasco is a brilliant distillation of improv techniques converted to an RPG format. The latest iteration 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 role-playing from what you find at most D&D tables. You’re not meant to protect your character and watch them grow. You’re meant to burn it all down and revel in the drama that springs from the flames.
Start with the Dragonslayers playset in the core box, but there are dozens if not hundreds of Fiasco playsets available from Bully Pulpit and other vendors.
Thirsty Sword Lesbians
Designed by April Kit Walsh, published by Evil Hat
Average session: 2-3 hours
Difficulty: For players ⚫⚫⚪⚪⚪, for GMs ⚫⚫⚫⚪⚪
If you are a big fan of the “adventurers facing danger” format for RPGs, but want to revel in messy character relationships, then Thirsty Sword Lesbians is for you! It has all the swords and sorcery of D&D, but it places equal weight on fostering fraught character relationships.
Thirsty Sword Lesbians is a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG. It uses regular six-sided dice, and the odds favor middling results, called “mixed success” rolls. With a mixed success, GMs can push or pull the action from the head of the table, pressing new complications into the mix. Pregenerated character playbooks offer distinct and flavorful abilities while also allowing for a modicum of customization.
PbtA games have a slightly different philosophy of play than D&D, so it will take some reading and fumbling at the table before it clicks into place. But once you get the hang of the format it really sings. As an added bonus, learning to play Thirsty Sword Lesbians will teach you the PbtA format, which opens up literally hundreds of games in dozens of genres. A perfect gateway to the wider world of RPGs!
Pasión de las Pasiones
Designed by Brandon Leon-Gambetta, published by Magpie Games
Average session: 2-3 hours
Pasión de las Pasiones is another PbtA game with a very unique concept and design. It emulates the dramatic and extravagant stories of telenovelas. Every move in Pasión drives characters to make big decisions with big emotions. Rather than using stats, Gambetta has players build their dice bonus by answering questions — so a character’s capabilities shift based on what’s happening in the story. Players are encouraged to go big early in order to go even bigger later on.
Compared to Thirsty Sword Lesbians above, the unique design of Pasión might 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 Norris, and Chris Pramas; published by Green Ronin
Average session: 3-4 hours
Blue Rose bills itself as a “romantic fantasy” RPG, designed to emulate the work of Tamora Pierce and Mercedes Lackey rather than J.R.R. Tolkien and Fritz Leiber. It uses Green Ronin’s Adventure Game Engine system, which places mechanical weight on both combat and role-play. The Stunt Point system allows rolls in role-play scenes to feel as tactically satisfying as casting 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 a fairly complex gaming system. There are a few games that use the AGE system, including the Dragon Age TTRPG and the upcoming TTRPG based on N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.
Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine
Designed by Jenna Katerin Moran, self published
Average session: 3-4 hours
Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine is a Studio Ghibli-inspired literary RPG with a truly wild name. Jenna Katerin Moran is known for designing rich, complex, and frankly dense games. Chuubo’s is no exception. Despite being entirely diceless, the core book is well over 500 pages long. Being diceless, Chuubo’s is built on resource management. Players choose where to succeed rather than rolling to find out if they succeed. The rest of the game lives in advancing with XP gained from completing quests, affecting other players emotionally, and satisfying a story structure. At first glance, this game appears predetermined and restrictive, but as you learn how it works it reveals itself to be a thoughtfully constructed open canvas.
Chuubo’s is daunting to learn, and there aren’t many games based on it. However, if you love literary themes and emotionally driven stories, or spent any time reading fanfic or role-playing on forums, Chuubo’s could be a profound experience for you.