Ferocious 5: Pen & Paper RPGs That Are Not Dungeons & Dragons

Want to try a pen & paper RPG but Dungeons & Dragons not quite what you're looking for? Here a 5 systems that may scratch that itch.

Ferocious 5 sheds light on a whole universe of pop and geek culture connections with bite-size lists. Explore topics, properties, fandoms you never knew existed in this article series on Bunkazilla. This week, Lizzie Barnes takes us into the world of RPGs and Dungeons and Dragons….

Pen and Paper Role Playing Games have had a recent surge in popularity, in part thanks to shows like Critical Role where viewers can watch along as the players take their journey in the setting of Dungeons and Dragons with fantastical adventures aplenty and amusing player interactions among the cast. The game has been in the public consciousness since the first publication in 1974 and sometimes not for the best reasons. Take a look at the 1980s Satanic Panic as an example of how D&D was perceived by some back in the day.

Now the general consensus of the game has shifted. Thanks, in part, to many celebrities declaring their love of the game. For example, Vin Diesel wrote the introduction for the Thirty Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons, with other celebrities like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Felicia Day and My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way declaring their joy of the game.

The game is no longer the butt of cliches and dismissed as something only the weird kids at school play. Now D&D is played by many but it”s not the only pen and paper system out there. There are many great systems and no matter your preference there will be a system that appeals to you. From Sci-Fi to gritty detective Noir, all genres have an RPG system that fits. So here is a list of my 5 recommendations for pen and paper RPGs that aren’t Dungeons and Dragons.

Tales from the Loop by Free League Publishing

Tales from the Loop is an alternate history, science fiction, tabletop RPG designed by Nils Hintze, based on the paintings of Simon Stålenhag. The artwork of Swedish 1980s suburbia, populated by fantastic machines and strange beasts, has won global acclaim and is used to illustrate all the published material for the system. 

In this game, you play as young kids in a 1980s that never was. It’s got everything you need to play out your own version of Gremlins, E.T., Stranger Things, or any nostalgic movie where a group of children pedal their bicycles to save the day without the help of oblivious authority figures. Character archetypes take their inspiration from the well-known characters in movies such as The Goonies or The Breakfast Club with Bookworm, Computer Geek, Hick, Jock, Popular Kid, Rocker, Troublemaker and Weirdo being the current options available for character creation. 

I was lucky enough to have a taster session at this year’s online UKGE and I purchased the system that very weekend. Tales from the Loop is a great starter RPG for anyone who wants to try a pen and paper system but is put off by the sheer amount of source materials required for other RPG series or is perhaps looking for something beyond the standard fantasy setting that many RPGs use. The game is built upon the Year Zero Engine created by Tomas Härenstam, who also served as the editor and project manager. More info on the system can be found here. Though compared to D&D and similar games, the Year Zero engine is relatively rules-light and easy to learn.

It uses a D6 dice system to determine the success or failure of character actions and choices. Characters have numeric ratings for what they are good at, which tells you how many six-sided dice you get to roll when trying to overcome Trouble. A six is a success and you rarely need more than one to succeed.  It is also a nice starter system for those who want to dip their toe into being a Games Master with straightforward but still exciting instructions for all levels of skill. There are even instructions included to help you create and play your own hometown. It blends the fantastic with the mundane beautifully and allows for some amazing situations in a suburban setting that permits the players to ground their play experience in their own lives. 

Tales from The Loop is also a series on Amazon Prime Video and well worth a watch.

Call of Cthulhu by Chaosium

Call of Cthulhu is a horror fiction role-playing game based on H. P. Lovecraft’s work and the associated Cthulhu Mythos. The game, often abbreviated as CoC, was first published in 1981 by Chaosium and is a must for horror fans. In CoC, you take on the role of everyday people who become investigators of the unknown – whether they are prepared or not. The mysterious places, people, and situations you encounter are often not what they seem – you and your friends are the only things standing in the way of diabolical cults and cosmic monsters from beyond normal reality.

The original 1981 CoC is set in the 1920s, the setting of many of Lovecraft’s stories. You do not need any knowledge of the Lovecraftian mythology to play, as you are playing as investigators of the unknown and bizarre phenomena that are bleeding into reality. As such no previous experience in the genre is required. The starter set is a good way to get into the game as it comes with a pre-made adventure that teaches you how to play while you play.

If the 1920s setting doesn’t tickle your fancy, there are additional settings that you can try. The Cthulhu by Gaslight supplement, a blend of the occult and Holmesian mystery and mostly set in England during the 1890s, and modern/1980s conspiracy with Cthulhu Now and Delta Green. More recent additions include 1000 AD (Cthulhu: Dark Ages), 23rd century (Cthulhu Rising) and Ancient Roman times (Cthulhu Invictus). You are also not confined to Earth as a setting as the gamemaster (Called, in the books, “the Keeper of Arcane Lore”, or simply “the keeper”) can take players into the Dreamlands, to other planets, or into the voids of space itself.

CoC is a skill-based system with a focus on character development and evocative but straightforward mechanics. It has exciting additions to the RPG mechanics with special rules for sanity and luck among others. It has a nice, simple system for determining the successful outcome of player actions and choices using percentile dice, so if you have a character skill of 50 it means you have a 50% chance of success, you can use two D10 to determine rolls or a D100. A standard polyhedral dice set comes with two D10 so no need to buy a D100 unless you want to.

CoC is the complete opposite of D&D. In D&D you are stalwart heroes of the land having grand adventures and slaying monsters. With CoC, it is more about bringing the feeling of cosmic horror and creeping dread to life than it is about a high epic adventure. It is a true Lovecraftian horror game in every sense of the word and it is all the more fantastic for it. 

Cyberpunk Red by R. Talsorian Games

Chances are you have heard of Cyberpunk 2077 the much-anticipated video game by CD Projekt Red but did you know that it’s based on a pen and paper RPG system? Cyberpunk is a dystopian tabletop role-playing game written by Mike Pondsmith and published by R. Talsorian Games. It is typically referred to by its second or fourth edition names, Cyberpunk 2020 and Cyberpunk Red, in order to distinguish it from the genre after which it is named. This feature is about the newer edition “Cyberpunk Red” which is due to be released on November 14th currently for the RPG’s digital edition, with the physical book releasing on November 19th but with possible further delays due to Covid19. The Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit was released at the Gen Con tabletop gaming convention in 2019.  According to the publisher, Cyberpunk Red will more fully flesh out the world outlined in the Jumpstart Kit, while giving more detail on gunfights, melee action, and NetRunning — the in-universe term for hacking.

Cyberpunk Red, which is the fourth edition of Cyberpunk, is set in 2045, following the events of Cyberpunk 2020 and serving as a prequel to the video game Cyberpunk 2077. The game is set after a fourth Corporate War. Now before you start to worry that you need to have played the previous editions to enjoy the game let me reassure you that all editions stand alone in terms of gameplay. The books give you the lore needed to understand the setting without having to take a 6-week correspondence course and pass an exam. This was another system I was able to play a taster session at this year’s online UKGE with no more than the knowledge that previous editions existed. It was a 90-minute session and once I had finished I knew this was a system I wanted to play more of and I am eagerly awaiting when it goes on sale.

You play as one of the many unique character roles such as Rockerboy, Solo, Netrunner, Techie, Media, Cop, Corporate, Fixer or Nomad, with an expansive special ability for each role and the Lifepath system means every player character has their own unique, fleshed-out background. Combat is visceral and hard-hitting, with deadly firearms and melee weapons, potent martial arts, and a critical injury system. The system uses D10 and D6 dice to determine the outcome of player actions. It’s a kickass future-world where hackers do battle inside the machine and warriors bend the rules of physics through the use of techno-wizardry and cybernetics. It’s fast-paced and action-packed in all the right ways for fans of dystopian future sci-fi. 

 Vaesen Nordic Horror Roleplaying by Free League Publishing

I know! I know! It’s another Free League game on the list, but again I played this at UKGE and I feel more people need to know about it. 

Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying is based on the work of Swedish illustrator and author Johan Egerkrans, Vaesen presents a dark Gothic setting steeped in Nordic folklore and old myths of Scandinavia. The game mechanics use an adapted version of the award-winning Year Zero Engine mentioned previously.

Vaesen takes place in the Mythic North – or the northernmost part of Europe in the 19th century. Though not the one we know today since there are mythological creatures about and the myths are real and not kindly inclined towards humanity. This is a setting where modern industrialization meets the dark and unknown wilderness, where new wonders of civilization are rising in the cities but the countryside still holds fast to their old ways. For the people there, the dark is all too real and they know to fear it.

Vaesen is a game of investigation and roleplaying rather than combat, not to say combat is completely absent from the game but it is not the focus. You take on the role of an investigator that has “The Sight” and is a part of “The Society”. People with the Sight are able to see Vaesen, the mythical creatures of the North (trolls, ghosts, lindwurms and so on), even when they are trying to stay hidden. The Society is a group of people that have the Sight and have taken an oath to protect humanity from Vaesen and even more so because rapid industrialization and urbanization alters their habitats. If you chose to play the pre-made storyline you’ll find the characters are trying to reinstate the Society. Yet, the society dissolved itself a decade ago for reasons that will start becoming clearer the more the story progresses. The premade adventures are not mandatory to enjoy the system they are there to allow people to dive right into the game.

To emphasize the horrific nature of Vaesen, a system for Fear is a huge part of the game mechanic. For what is a horror game without fear? And Vaesen taps nicely into the fear of the other and unknown lurking under the veneer of what we think we know. 

Vaesen is a D6 system and it has ten archetypes for characters which are Academic, Doctor, Hunter, Occultist, Officer, Priest, Private Detective, Servant, Vagabond, and Writer, which can let you create a character in minutes, or use the included life path tables and let the dice decide. Players have Attribute Points and Skill Points to assign to their character which can vary based on the characters age and archetype chosen. With quick and flavorful rules for combat, investigations and horror it allows for interesting and fluid gameplay in an interesting and unique world.

As a game, it can feel strongly reminiscent of Call of Cthulhu but it stands on its own in the horror genre. The Vaesen are neither good nor evil, yet they always have motivation for their actions. The feel is very old school fairy tales in vibe before the “happily ever after” versions so beloved of modern audiences. It is a wonderful gothic horror series to sink your teeth into.

Exalted by White Wolf Publishing

Exalted is a high fantasy role-playing game published by White Wolf Publishing. It is inspired by a mixture of world mythologies as well as Japanese anime with a heavy dose of Kung Fu movies. The game was first published in 2001 and is currently in its third edition. The game uses ten-sided dice and a variation of the Storyteller System which is White Wolf’s own D10 system used in other publications by the publisher most notably their World of Darkness games.

Exalted is pulp-inspired, high-octane, swords and sorcery roleplaying that launched something of a renaissance in RPGs when it was first published that continues to this day. It showed that there was more to fantasy than the typical D&D flavour. The setting is a world of many gods with everything being imbued with a spirit in some form from the smallest grain of sand to the Sun itself meaning there is power in everything in Exalted. Some are more powerful than others.

The player characters are chosen by a deity or pantheon of deities and imbued with their powers hence “Exalted”. There are numerous varieties of Exalted, the core game is based around the Solar Exalted Chosen of the Unconquered Sun, with the Core Rulebook covering the Solars’ abilities, powers, and place within the setting. While the core rulebook mentions and discusses the other Exalted to allow them to appear as supporting characters in Solar-themed games, additional sourcebooks provide the depth of detail necessary to stage other Exalted as playable characters such as the Lunar Exalted, Abyssal Exalted, Sidereal Exalted, Terrestrial Exalted, Alchemical Exalted, Infernal Exalted. The third edition introduces The Liminals, the Getimians and the Exigents Exalted as well but I’m not as familiar with the third edition as I am with the second. 

The books ask the players “What legends will they tell of your deeds?” and that is the hook for your character. Will you be a hero, a villain, a legend or forgotten? The setting is full of gods and demons and titanic battles between the two to gain dominance over the world and your character is a newly-exalted one of the various flavours hoping to change to the world and must avoid getting killed while doing great things. Now the legends have taught for hundreds of years that the Exalted are “Anathema” and should be destroyed on sight, so that adds an interesting gameplay feature from the norm of heroes that are welcomed everywhere except by the villains. You are seen by the world as the evil that must be vanquished to allow the status quo to continue.

Using the D10 system and depending on what the situation calls for, a character has a number of Dots in Attributes and Skills associated with whatever they wish to accomplish. Each Dot represents a d10 die that is added to a dice pool to roll for task resolution. It may be a personal preference but I love a system that allows me to roll handfuls of dice at a time in trying to create ridiculous feats known as Charms in the system. Charms allow Exalts and other magical beings to perform superhuman feats, and are the most basic form of magic in Creation. Charms are tied to which caste of Exalt you play and are useful in much more than combat. They are limited to your creativity and the GM’s discretion.

Exalted has an impressive back catalogue of sourcebooks, the second edition stands at 33 print books and 17 digital, but you can play with just the core rule book and not miss out on any of the fun of the game. And that is the core tenant of the game. It’s fun. If you have ever wanted to play as  Bruce Lee but with godlike powers or your favourite Anime protagonist then Exalted will allow you to do so, and have fun doing it. 

That’s the list for now. There are plenty more pen and paper RPG systems out there. Let us know your favourite if we missed it this time around.

Until next time… stomp on monsters of culture, stomp on!

Lizzie Barnes

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