Top Ten RPGs (that aren’t Dungeons & Dragons)

Now don’t get me wrong, I have a fierce Gnome warlock, and I will argue favorite editions (5th, don’t @ me) all night.

But there’s SO much role playing goodness out there that isn’t Dungeons & Dragons. Different mechanics ranging from rules light to ‘break out the calculator and spreadsheets.’ Settings that will take you far into the future, or to days of yore. Genres from the creepiest horror to the most outrageous dating sim. Familiar IPs and unique new worlds. Embodying tiny mice warriors or gigantic mechs.

Is your role playing group ready for an all new adventure? Let me share some of my faves.

Mouseguard – Archaia

If you grew up reading Redwall and Wind in the Willows, MouseGuard brings stories like that to life. The mouse territories are protected and maintained by the MouseGuard. Parties may set out to deliver mail, defend boarders from threats like weasels and snakes, or make city repairs after a long harsh winter. A unique combat system makes ordinary checks into much more interesting conflicts (soothing a scared mouse rabble or debating with an opponent become interactive instead of a single dice roll) and players are even able to train each other in their skills. And those skills can be used in interesting ways as well (maybe your apiarist can collect some honey to win the heart of a sweet toothed official.) Adventures can be epic or everyday, but they’re all extraordinary when you’re 4 inches tall – MouseGuard is fantastic for epic campaigns from a different perspective.

Time and Temp

Someone needs to get out there and fix all those little paradoxes and anomalies in the time stream. But with budget cuts and public disinterest, staffing is short and so they’ve resorted to hiring temps in order to patch things… With the Time and Temp setting you can go back and witness the most amazing historical events, or just to change the official Duncan Hines brownie recipe. Small actions can have big ramifications. Small size and ease of set up/explanation make it a great one shot, or fans could chain adventures to REALLY see how they can change the future (with a modest health package including comprehensive immunizations for history’s most prolific diseases ).

Legend of the Five Rings – Fantasy Flight Games

If you’re looking for something with a rich backstory and a shade more crunchy, Legend of the Five Rings drops you into the center of a world steeped in tradition with thousands of years of lore. Players assume the role of individual clan members, working towards the honor and defense of Rokugan but also for their individual families and alliances. In addition to a combat and magic guidelines, L5R also challenges players to practice their diplomacy and presents choices that might cause personal conflicts – do you choose to help your opposing clan party member, or act in your family’s best interest in the same situation? Great for long term campaigns, with a lot of opportunities to make unique, memorable characters.

Fiasco – Bully Pulpit Games

So you want to plan a heist? How about a heist that goes horribly, hilariously wrong in all the best ways? Fans of Guy Ritchie films will get a kick out of Fiasco, a rules light storytelling game in which you and your friends will watch everything unravel gloriously. Fiasco is quick to explain and there are dozens and dozens of scenarios online, from pecan farmers in Atlanta Georgia, to plague era London, to dragon hunters, to warring organic farmers. Fantastic for one shots or even as a party game.

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Dread – The Impossible Dream

You will learn to dread the Jenga tower… Dread is less a specific setting (though generally horror) and more a mechanic. The twist? Any decisions you make or actions you take go to the tower – specifically, you’ll pull jenga pieces to determine the outcome. Its simple, but a brilliant way to build suspense – at first every player is content to explore the haunted woods or confront the grisly specter, but as the game progresses and the tower thins, everyone will be biting their nails with each pull. This one is a convention fave and another great one shot, particularly for Halloween or horror themed game nights.

Hollow Earth Expedition – Exile game Studio

Journey to the Center of the Earth meets Indiana Jones – Hollow Earth Expedition evokes the feel of a dime store pulp adventure. Quick learn mechanics (roll the dice and count your odds and evens) make it easier for new players to pick up. Your group can choose to fight nefarious villains, escape from man eating plants, and even tame triceratops all in a single afternoon. Great for shorter campaigns or episodic sessions.

Bluebeard's Bride - Magpie Games | Bluebeard's Bride ...

Bluebeard’s Bride – Magpie Games

Gothic and chill inducing, Bluebeard’s Bride is an investigation horror game based on the tale of Bluebeard. If creeping around a haunted manse in the dark is your bag, this game will send delicious shivers down your spine. The story is yours to tell – whats in Bluebeard’s house? Uniquely, your party is ALL the bride, each playing a separate aspect of her psyche (called the sisters). Is something sinister lurking in the house, and will your story end tragically or triumphantly? Fantastic for one shots, or can be broken into short sessions for a small campaign.

The One Ring – Cubicle 7

While we all know the story of the Hobbit and the Fellowship, what was going on in the rest of Middle Earth? The One Ring gives your party the opportunity to adventure in Middle Earth between the two events, fighting spiders in Mirkwood or exploring Rivendell. Mechanically the game play will seem familiar to long time role players with a target number and success die to roll. Conversely, the familiar IP will help new players feel more confident in the setting. The One Ring offers the opportunity to play epic LOTR lore (like visiting Angmar and learning the lore of the Witch King) or more light hearted (like a party of dwarves only intent to find treasure and beer), so its well suited with any flavor campaign.


BubblegumshoeEvil Hat Productions

Bubblegumshoe celebrates Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, and Mystery Inc. by casting your party as a team of teen sleuths. Solve the mystery of the missing roller skates, or find out if the swamp ghost really is just Old Man Jenkins. Great for families and mixed age role playing groups, this features a slimmed down list of investigate abilities, and a host of pre-established characters and settings to help new players AND new GMs get started. Great as a one shot or an episodic storytelling adventure for groups that don’t get to meet as often.

Story Telling games – Various

Last but not least, a shout out to the small box storytelling games like Someone Has Died, Carrot & Stick, and …and then we Died. Generally using a small deck of cards or a single sheet of instructions, these games start with a premise (a will reading, a floating island, etc.) and through card pulls they invite you weave a story collectively. Short and sweet, they’re a perfect teaser for a long LARP evening, a great palette cleanser after a long crunchy board game, or just a quick diversion on a rainy afternoon.