Beyond D&D: Five RPGs Worth Trying And Three Just Bizarre Enough to Love

I talk an awful lot about Dungeons and Dragons. It’s the game I started playing when I was 10, and it’s still the game I play most often today. Of the games I’m currently involved with, most of them are D&D or a D&D derivative (such as Saga Edition Star Wars or the new Gamma World). I’m a bit of a Kool-Aid drinker when it comes to D&D, and I don’t mind admitting it.

Despite this, however, it should never be thought that I only ever play D&D. Beyond the big ol’ Granddaddy of all RPGs, I have strong attachments to many other games, and fond memories of campaigns played around the table.

So for a change, I thought I would shelve the PHB, DMG, and MM and pick up other books with more mysterious names and acronyms. Join me on this journey into my RPG library, and you might just find something new that becomes a favorite of yours.

Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu is a game I discovered when I was at a gaming convention in 1984. A guy sitting next to me had this weird booklet with an octopus-headed, bat-winged thingie on the cover. I asked him about it, and he told me it was a horror RPG, set in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft.

H.P. Who? I thought. I had not yet discovered the father of modern horror, but I was about to. I asked for a copy of Call of Cthulhu for Christmas that year, and the odd world of the game made me pick up the stories for research purposes. Years later, I introduced my husband to the game, and it remains his favorite RPG to this day.

Like most Chaosium-published games, Call of Cthulhu has a simple percentile-based skill system that determines success and failure for almost every action. It also has a detailed (and extremely entertaining) Sanity system. I’ve seen many more PCs go insane than actually die. And that’s just RP entertainment at its best.

Deadlands

Who doesn’t love a game with cards and poker chips? No, it’s not Friday-night poker…it’s Deadlands, the RPG of the Weird West, originally published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group.

Deadlands is a fantastic game, set in a dark alternate reality Wild West where magic exists. The Civil War is still going…because half the armies of both the North and the South are made up of undead at this point. Native Americans are a powerful force in the world because of their ability to commune and bargain with the Spirit World. Mad Scientists make infernal devices that run on a mysterious element called Ghost Rock. And that guy with the flashy card tricks might actually be a wizard, disguising his spells as proscribed by one of the greatest grimoires of all time: Hoyle’s Book of Games.

With innovative mechanics such as using poker chips as “Fate Chips” that can alter dice rolls and save your player character’s life, magic that runs based on the Poker hand you draw, and an initiative system that uses 2 decks of cards, Deadlands just *feels* Wild Westy while you’re playing. And the fantasy/horror elements work surprisingly well with all the rest.

Now, I believe the most recent version of the game is a Savage Worlds adaptation. Savage Worlds is a good system, but my heart will always belong to those flaming orange covers of the late 90s.

DC Adventures

If you’ve been reading my columns, you know about my penchant for rubbing shoulders with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and their cohorts online. So it should come as no shock that I’m also a devotee of a paper and pen game based on the same.

I’ve collected various DC Comics RPGs over the years…and I’ve never played them even once. The game systems have always left me so cold that I can’t embrace the heroes and stories I love within the confines of these rules.

Thank goodness the latest incarnation comes to us from Green Ronin, publishers of the excellent Mutants & Masterminds system on which this game is based. So why do I prefer DC Adventures as opposed to M&M itself?

Because I can look in the rules and find out how strong Superman is. If I want to play a character who’s as strong as Superman, or who has a gadget package similar to Batman’s, or have a truth-inducing lasso like Wonder Woman, I can see how the game designers set it up to work in their rules system. That’s a powerful tool for me, because it means I can compare power levels to heroes whom I have an affinity for and knowledge of.

Another reason I ultimately come up unsatisfied with other superhero genre RPGs is that I don’t have the emotional investment in the world and characters. The example characters and settings are all well and good, but give me the choice of defending “Justice City” against “Dr. Villany” alongside “Ultraguy” or defending Metropolis from Lex Luthor alongside Superman…mmm…yeah. There’s pretty much going to be a smoking crater where Justice City was. Sorry, citizens.

Ars Magica

This game came out of nowhere for me. Before Vampire the Masquerade became their mega-hit, White Wolf teamed with a British game company called Lion Rampant and brought us Ars Magica: the Art of Magic.

The game is set in Mythic Europe, in a time period when Covenants of Magi (like a school, coven, or family) were a force in Medieval life, alongside nobles and the church. The rules had two things about them that really grabbed me. First, the magic system was gorgeous. It was flexible, open, and intensely creative, very much like White Wolf’s later rules in Mage the Ascension. Your wizard could theoretically do anything, as long as you had chosen the particular talents to do so.

The other mechanic it embraced that was and remains extremely interesting is the idea of Troupe style play. Each player creates at least two characters that are connected to the Covenant their game is concerned with: a Magus and a Companion. In any given story, a person might play their Magus or their Companion, and the idea was for the Gamemaster to tell stories that might tempt this or that character out. Basically, everyone got a turn to be a super-powerful Magus and everyone else took turns playing their more mundane characters as well, almost like the lower class characters in a Shakespeare play.

The game also strongly encouraged cooperative storytelling. The Players and GM worked together to create details about their Covenant. There were a lot of suggestions of the GM rotating play with other players, allowing everyone to take a turn to play or to GM. At the time, this was an incredibly innovative concept. Now, cooperative storytelling is much more prevalent, but I believe a lot of these ideas come from the days of Ars Magica’s popularity.

The current incarnation of the game is being published by Atlas Games, and it’s well worth a look if you want a medieval fantasy game that is *nothing* like D&D.

Changeling the Dreaming

I have incredibly warm memories of playing Changeling the Dreaming, and my character, Skittle, remains my favorite character from any RPG. To be honest, the newest version of Changeling from White Wolf Publishing leaves me unsatisfied. Yes, it’s true…the main characters are Changelings as Changelings are actually depicted in mythology. But the one person I know who was excited about Changeling the Lost? That’s the *only* thing he could keep telling me when I challenged him to tell me what was actually cool about the new game.

Now, I’m not knocking Changeling the Lost, and I’m not interested in debating which game is superior. I haven’t read it in depth enough to have an opinion as to whether it’s a good game or not. But what I know it isn’t is Changeling the Dreaming.

Most people who talk about the Changeling games they were involved with, especially when they do so with a sneer of contempt, tell me about how everyone in the party were pookas, everything was totally random and silly, and everyone ultimately lost interest.

*sigh* Yeah. Kinda missed the point there, sport.

Imagine that you have the most amazing secret in the world. You have a faerie soul living inside you. This soul is the source of a secret joy that makes you shudder every time you think about it. Drawing on your fae nature allows you to do magic, and to push back the darkness of the world for a while. Only trouble is…no one believes you. They *can’t* believe you. Most people are so wrapped up in their own banality that they can’t see your magic when it’s right in their faces. So their minds blocks it out…comes up with a plausible explanation of what they *really* just saw.

And there you are, slowly being crushed by all the weight of this disbelief. Clinging to your miracle until the day that the world’s grayness takes it from you…makes you forget that you ever were anything special.

That’s Changeling the Dreaming.

Sound dark? It is. But it’s also a glorious game of painting that grayness with watercolors…inspiring people to be creative and imaginative. Fighting against the inevitability of winter. Utterly and raggedly refusing to go gentle into that good night. It’s a butterfly in the snow. Briefly beautiful, but ultimately doomed.

Changeling is sad and beautiful. Find a group who gets it. Find a storyteller who gets it. And tell your story.

Three Very…Odd Games That You Might Just Love

Starchildren: Velvet Generation – This is basically a dystopian future RPG in which the world is being denied its rock and roll. Somewhere between Rush’s 2112 and Styx’s Kilroy Was Here is Starchildren. In this game, you play either a human who’s rebelling against this oppressive socety, or, yes, an alien who has come to earth to rock! What more could you ask for?

Bunnies & Burrows – Okay…there are a lot of furry RPGs out there: Albedo, Jusitifiers, Other Suns, Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness,… Of all of them, however, the most bizarre must be Bunnies & Burrows. This game has actually been popping up for a long time, and its original version was published in 1976…that’s just 2 years after D&D! You could think of it as the RPG version of Watership Down, really. You’re a rabbit…you might be a rabbit who does alchemy, or knows the fighting arts of Bun Fu…but you’re just a rabbit. Commence au carnage.

Skyrealms of Jorune – To be fair, this game is actually a game I love. It has suffered from really bad systems in every version, and that’s a shame. Because the richly detailed alien world that the designers created is
fantastic! I can talk about Jorune society, history, the flow of the energy field called Isho, the moons, how you become a citizen in the Kingdom of Burdoth, what street snacks you can expect at festivals (crispy fried durlig bits, please!) And the art! The art was primarily done by Miles Teves, who helped make this very odd world very believable. How good is he? Well, he went on to design for movies like RoboCop, Total Recall, Spider-Man, Van Helsing, Pirates of the Caribbean, King Kong…

Just a Smattering

As long as this article is, it barely touches on the myriad of great games out there. I couldn’t even begin to put together a comprehensive list of all the RPGs I’ve tried, and most of them have been great.

I recommend that you hit a Friendly Local Game Store and look beyond the D&D. Who knows what you’ll turn up in their used section, or amongst the various small press games. You might find yourself loving Tank Girl, or Torg, or Ghostbusters, or Aces and Eights, or Og, or Pendragon, or Tales from the Floating Vagabond, or…

You get the point. Now go get the games!

What About You?

Is there a game you love that you’re sure no one else knows about? Have you recently cleaned out an attic, found your copy of Dragon Raid or Villains & Vigilantes, and thought, “you know…this game was awesome!”
Well, tell us about it! Turn us on to what you loved or still love.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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