You may not even know there are many tabletop RPG systems other than the world’s most popular one, Dungeons & Dragons (:edit: the OGL 1.0a says I can’t mention them to promote a product using it, so to avoid that I won’t even mention the name of mine. How good it feels to breathe free!). This page is intended to promote a certain subset of tabletop RPGs (TTRPGs), namely ones backed by popular TTRPG communities. Having many choices is important to freedom, but promoting a few popular ones is just as important. Here’s why:
- Having household names that non-players or players recognize gives them a sense of security that they can try the new system and that they aren’t going to spend a significant time learning a system they only need to know for the short term. Tabletop RPGs may be similar to each other, but they are more complex than board games. It is distracting and breaks immersion to have to constantly think about what is the same and what is different. For example, while playing FF8, I honestly felt like house rules were a communicable disease, causing more stress as the game progressed. At least in tabletop RPGs you can choose who you play with regarding house rules. In FF8, the rules are sticky, following you around and added to your repertoire without consent. Unlike TTRPG house rules (where you can choose your group and voice concerns unlike FF8), TTRPG systems are “sticky” more like the house rules of FF8, following you around as you go to another person playing one TTRPG instead of another that is more popular.
- Having a few popular ones helps us create a pool of compatible content. Having a pool of compatible content enables large creators to help small creators. In turn, small creators can use the classes, abilities, creatures, etc. and customize them to create their own content. The small creators can tell bigger stories with less writing, and then often contribute back to the larger community around that system. Also, there is security in knowing that people will be able to play their campaign that they may have spend years writing, formatting, and illustrating far into the future.
Considering that, mentioning a few specific ones may help you decide on one for your next campaign or arduous conversion from D&D that I’m currently facing. I’d like to mention a few potential systems that I could use, though I plan to Pathfinder (2nd Edition). I plan to update this article with more information on each system’s transition from SRD as news arrives.
This list is limited to a set of “viable” ones. Though you may hate that term in this context, I’ve listed reasons why above. :edit 2023-01-26: In my case, having a non-SRD system with a large bestiary will help me convert my book with far less redundant work, so Pathfinder 2e seems best. If you think it has too many mechanics, just remember it is a game. It isn’t on the computer like DNDBeyond so it doesn’t all have to be forced into the same pattern. That’s a big part of what I like about playing IRL (in real life), and what I mean by “sometimes separating is the most loving…” It is unlikely your group will change its play style much or at all just because you are using a different system anyway, so why force it? You may choose a system that works better for you based on the same information, such as if you are different enough from me that you can’t make it work.
- license will be ORC (currently OGL, but has no SRD content in contrast to 1e)
- Simplified version of Pathfinder
- Rules (not lore) is all free and online such as at (discussed at Roll for Combat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTXkxy2KjXU):
- Archives of Nethys: https://www.aonprd.com/
- Pathbuilder 2: https://pathbuilder2e.com/
- PFF2Easy: https://pf2easy.com/
Unnamed Critical Role TTRPG:edit 2023-01-25: The system was created by Matt Mercer of Critical Role and VG voice acting.
- project status (:edit 2023-01-25:):
announcedcomplicated (see below)
- “not a … replacement” People hope that will change due to OGL concerns, but… (see below)
- The public’s consensus on social media is that they seem to have contractual obligations. See their carefully-worded OGL response & top replies or the corresponding Trendsmap data.
- It has been in “announced” status since at least before a missed Q3 2021 release date.
Unnamed Matt Colville TTRPG
(His other channel is MCDM)
- project status: announced
Project Black Flag
(codename; by Kobold Press)
- project status: announced
Blades in the Dark
- steampunk industrial; city powered by demon blood
- “…explained in less than 5 minutes”
Powered by the Apocalypse
a.k.a. PbtA, this is the system originally designed for Apocalypse World.
- story-driven according to neverforged Jan 26, 2023 on How WotC Could Have Monetized…
- Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License
- based on Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA), but with a fantasy setting
- old-school gameplay with new-school rules (“draw maps and leave blanks”) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powered_by_the_Apocalypse)
- Recommended to me by VexingLive on I am the king of the island || Stream #1518 around 1:05:40
- Roll a number of d6’s based on your stat, then count successes rather than meeting a threshold.
- A special d6 of a different color can cause a hindrance: stress if you roll a failure at a stress task such as for a horror setting.
- project status: announced January 18, 2023 they will develop a third-party license
Old School Renaissance is movement with a set of games similar to AD&D (1st Edition). :edit 2023-01-26: Most or all of these games were originally made by pairing down and modifying the SRD 3.5 to recreate the first version of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
Old School Essentials
- Discussed at VexingLive stream link above around 1:09:57
- AD&D brought to modern era & streamlined
- Can be THAC0 or not (ascending or descending armor class). Content made for Old School Essentials (OSE) generally has both numbers for reference.
- all classes are races: limited, but roll a new one in a couple minutes, and variety shows up more in combat
- used by Old School Renaissance (OSR) community
- “clears up the Gygaxian writing” –https://youtu.be/_1u6SkKlzl0
Dungeon Crawl Classics
- Gameplay and setting is influenced heavily by AD&D and Gygax’ listed source material including folklore, fantasy, and sci-fi.
- Uses d7 d14 d30 and the usual D&D dice.
- Spells may fail (each has multiple tiers of effect based on roll).
- 10 levels
5 Torches Deep
- simplified and eases D&D 5e players into OSR –https://youtu.be/_1u6SkKlzl0
Swords and Wizardry
- Status: Plans to change wording to switch to a new license announced in Jan 11, 2023 video “Moving the OSR Forward into the post-OGL Era” around 23:05
- Kickstarter planned for Feb-March 2023
- Due to the efforts being put into this change, City Encounters will be pushed back, but may be pushed without Kickstarter.
- The new license will be based on OGL for the sake of familiarity (such as for publishers and other OGL 1.0a users who don’t want to have to do significant legal research), but improved to explicitly specify it can’t be de-authorized etc.
- He was an associate at a law firm some years ago.
Castles and Crusades
- Closest one to the original Dungeons & Dragons according to Matt Finch (source: Swords and Wizardry video above, at 12:42). He says it is closer to it than anyone actually played, so I’m not sure what he means by that, or why it might be more like it than OSRIC (below).
Basic Fantasy RPG
- Much like AD&D (first edition) but may be scrubbing spell names etc. to be on the safe side before switching the license (source: Swords and Wizardry video above, at 23:59).
- “The Old School Reference and Index Compilation (OSRIC) project effectively reimplements the rules for the world’s first role-playing game…” October 16, 2021, opensource.com
- Status: Uses the OGL 1.0a (according to Swords and Wizardry video above)
- Release announcement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUSgDani080
- Designed by Knights Watch (other channel is Shadiversity)
- his brother is Jazza and he is helping!
- He and Jazza played D&D starting from earlier editions. They eventually saw flaws in it & didn’t like minis and classes that were oriented toward monetization (by way of expansion books in the latter case).
- The system emphasizes serious epic roleplay (RP), with a medieval-like setting influenced by LotR.
- by Dungeon Coach
- had been doing homebrew hacks of 5e for years
- finally departed from it due to OGL changes (including changes he wanted to make, but had wanted to remain compatible until now)
- additional stat: grit
- start w/ lower attribute scores, but get 1 every level
- max level 10 but 11-20 is prestige leveling
- skill proficiencies: you can put points into skills every level
- perception reduced in importance
- 3 tiers: archetype, class, subclass
- get subclass at 3rd level, feat at 4th (can be from other class): You have a core class but can pull these from other classes.
- open character system: character type isn’t tethered to a certain attribute
- faster combat
- overhaul of HP: instead of too low HP at low level and too high at high level, start at a moderate amount
- action points instead of actions
- status: announced
- NEW TTRPG D20 Game System | DC20 RPG
There are multitudes of sources and reviewers online if you want a longer list. This is a list I’m currently promoting. To reiterate why it is limited to a few, this is to enhance the ability of the alternative TTRPG space to be visible in the public eye and enhance compatibility between independent works.
Responses to feedback
:edit 2023-01-25: This is primarily a research article, though like other research articles it has a hypothesis and conclusions. If you were expecting more about the OGL issue itself, notice that the beginning of this article is a rationale for switching to a new system and why choosing a popular one may be better than creating your own. It is about moving forward, not obsessing over new OGL developments. We know enough to expect uncertainty and actions against our interests, which is enough to move on. This article is for people like me who were hanging on hoping there was a way to reconcile and not change their campaign, encouraging them to move on and providing alternatives that are closest to their original goals. That is in contrast to listing my “favorite” systems–on the contrary, I’ve listed ones that are suitable for keeping as much of your original content as possible and suitable regarding the reasoning stated at the start of the article. Also on the contrary I want to clarify that I’m listing these systems as an outsider, not someone who as even used them. Every one of these systems is in flux in 2023 due to the OGL issue, though rules aren’t expected to change (I hear you can’t copyright rules, but IANAL), only names of certain creatures and spells etc. I finished my campaign the same week as the leaks. This if you’re a creator I’m right there with you. The research is therefore just as helpful to me as I hope it will be to you.
The decision that faces many people right now, choosing a TTRPG system, is similar to how new developers often want to create their own game engine. A stubborn focus on repeating mundane engine work (there is potentially enough other slogging involved) as a small creator may prevent you from ever getting around to creating your game, as was the case for me with video games until I started using public-licensed software more. Incremental development can be applied to various types of design such as TTRPG campaigns, not just video game design. In the area of TTRPGs the principle is applied in the same way: Create something that works, then make each successive version something that works, potentially getting feedback along the way. Using an existing engine will help you get there. As I’ve said, having Pathfinder 2e’s large non-SRD bestiary will help me immensely.
I’ve used incremental development as a GM already. I created a random adventure (literally with content from random story, dungeon and character generators which I reworked and combined) to get used to design and being a GM first. Then I created a full-length campaign I had envisioned, which can be defined as a series of adventures with an over-arching story. As I wrote each part of it, my friends patiently playtested it as I sometimes struggled to adapt to our schedule and their in-game decisions. They ended up enjoying it and expecting a continuation. I hope this article helps people new to the hobby or choosing a new TTRPG system for their adventure or campaign.