I love D&D. Role-playing games have been my major hobby for 32+ years, and Dungeons & Dragons was the game that introduced me to the world of RPGs. It has a special place in my heart. As fantastic Dungeons & Dragons is, however, there are literally 100s of other role-playing games out there. Each RPG out there comes with its own unique setting and mechanic that plays and feels different than D&D. Half the fun of trying out a new game is learning a new system, then discussing its merits and shortcomings with your gaming crew.
Here are my top three, go-to role-playing games when I’m looking to play something different.
Mage the Ascension - Mage the Ascension (or MtA) was the third game released in the World of Darkness setting, originally by White Wolf Publishing and now by Onyx Path Publishing. Along with it’s predecessors Vampire the Masquerade and Werewolf the Apocalypse, MtA introduces players to a setting that is a shadowy reflection of our own modern world. In MtA, players take on the role of mages, modern-day wizards who can bend and reshape reality via the application of their will through a stringent set of beliefs developed by you, the player, and honed over time, in game.
I like MtA for many different reasons. The game is driven by a straight-forward mechanic, called the Storyteller System, that, by design, strongly encourages issue resolution with in-depth role-playing as opposed to the roll of a die. Playing the game is as much about navigating existential crises and retaining one’s humanity while wielding nearly-unlimited, god-like power as it is about standing up to and thwarting transcendental threats to the very nature of reality. My favorite aspect of Mage the Ascension, though, is its magic system. Structured enough to provide context and meaning, the process of casting a spell is easy and straight-forward, while the effect of a spell is only limited by the player’s imagination and what magical knowledge the character possesses.
Shadowrun – Another role-playing game currently in its fifth edition, Shadowrun is set in the near future mid-2060’s of our own world. Borrowing elements from traditional fantasy RPGs - like elves, dwarves, orks, dragons, wizards, etc. – Shadowrun sets them in a dystopian, cyberpunk world dominated by megacorporations, and virtual-reality accessed Internet, and lots of violence. Players take on the roles of professional quasi-criminals who make a living doing the megacorporations’ dirty work as deniable assets in the metaphorical shadows between the legal and felonious. As a group, characters are called “shadowrunners,” and their jobs, “shadowruns.”
I love conceptual mash-ups in my entertainment and Shadowrun does not disappoint. The game’s alternate history, starting in the 1990s, is thorough, complex, makes sense in the context of the game, and bears tremendous depth. Plus, there are a handful of incredible metaplots that drive the game, having been woven through nearly every published aspect of the Shadowrun universe – novels, adventures, sourcebooks, you name it. Finally, this is the game that coined the term “chunky salsa effect” for using high-explosives in a confined area; what gamer doesn’t like that!? Fair warning for anyone new to the game, though! Shadowrun’s depth of story can be intimidating to new players, and the game is extremely “crunchy,” meaning rules heavy.
Through The Breach – Abbreviated as TTB, this role-playing game is in its second edition and invites role-players into the world of the table-top, skirmish miniatures game Malifaux. The in-game storyline of TTB supposes that some indeterminate time in the past of this alternative-history Earth, a magical undertaking of tremendous power went wrong and tore open a rift between worlds/dimensions/universes our world and someplace else known as Mailfaux. To keep the evil that dwelt there from spilling over onto Earth, some of the magic users involved in opening the rift entered the tear and closed it. Then, for some unknown reason, the rift reopened in the alt-Earth’s late 1800s-early 1900’s. Explorers were sent to Malifaux, who then returned with a magical resource scarce on Earth but abundant on Malifaux, called soulstone. This kicked off a Gold Rush-like frenzy of adventurers, entrepreneurs, gamblers, criminals, and human whatnot pouring into Malifaux, looking to make a quick fortune, a name for themselves, or a build a new life.
The game’s setting is a wondrous blend of Weird West, Steampunk, and elements of traditional fantasy (primarily magic) with a dash or two of horror thrown in for flavor. Not done right, this combo could be a gamer’s nightmare, but the folk who publish TTB (Wyrd Games) have found just the right mix. I especially love the swamp-dwellin’, banjo-playin’ gremlins who are natives of Malifaux and have developed an especial love affair with firearms. I also really enjoy this game’s base mechanic which is built around using a deck of cards rather than dice. Each player, and the game master (called a Fatemaster in TTB), is dealt a hand of cards from his or her deck at the beginning of the game with which the players and Fatemaster can alter their character’s/NPCs chances at success or failure. Though TTB contains the sense of randomness dice bring to any other RPG (one never knows what cards they may be dealt), there is also a greater sense of control over a character’s fate when resolving conflicts due to the player’s ability to play cards from their hands.
If you would like to know more about the 100s of other role-playing games available to you, I’d suggest starting with a visit to your local game store. Even if the store doesn’t carry exactly what you’re looking for mechanically, thematically, or setting-wise, they should know enough to be able to point you in the right direction online to meet your needs. If you’re interested in the games mentioned here, please follow the links below to learn more:
Darrin Dennis has worn many hats over the course of his life, but the one that never changes is that of “gamer.” Having been a role-player for 30+ years, he considers himself extremely fortunate to have lived through at least two Golden Ages of Role-Playing Games (the 80s and today), and plans to keep playing long enough to make it through at least one more. Darrin currently lives in Southern California with his wife, no pets, and somewhere around 5000 unpainted gaming miniatures that need seriously need his attention.