Five Awesome RPGs for When You Need Something New

Dungeons and Dragons is pretty much the standard whenever you’re trying to form a new group.  It makes sense, D&D is the original and it’s still the biggest brand in the industry even after 33 years.  Today, though, we’re going to look at some RPGs to break out when you’re played out on raiding dungeons and slaying dragons and need a change of pace.  There are some great games out there that didn’t make this list because they are too similar, either thematically (such as Dungeon Crawl Classics) or mechanically (Such as other d20 games) or both (Lookin’ at you, Pathfinder) to provide a real change of pace.  Let’s start with…

5. Mutant Epoch

Alright, look, Mutant Epoch is about as far from Dungeons and Dragons as you can get.  It’s set against a post-apocalyptic, Fallout-style wasteland where mutants and cyborgs and clones are running around everywhere.  It’s a wild and crazy game that makes for some wild and crazy game nights but the reason it doesn’t rank higher on this list is because it has a few quirks that make it unique and awesome, but also make it kind of a specific craving.

For one, the game has your characters be completely randomly generated, and I mean completely.  Everything but name and gender are determined by the dice, including race, profession, dominant hand, whether they can read, count, and swim and so on.  Your character is then thrust into the world, usually with a debt looming over their head.  The reason this is so crazy is because it means that a party can be wildly out of balance at level one, with Player 1 rolling a stock human kitchen slave who can’t read and has no useful skills, and the other players rolling Combat Clone soldiers and Cyborg Maurauders and Mutant Space Moose Gladiators.

Now, the potential that this gives the players is awesome, but infinite possibility means very little stability and making a game with this much randomization work and be fun for everybody takes a particularly deft GM.  When I played, the strategy we took to getting the group balanced was to just have people roll characters until there was something that vaguely resembled a balanced party and it was a ton of fun.  If you want a post-apocalyptic high-stakes survival adventure, this is the RPG for you.

4. Legend of the Five Rings

Legend of the Five Rings is one of the few RPGs I can honestly say that after multiple sessions I’ve never had a bad experience with.  Like Mutant Epoch above, L5R is a kind of specific taste because the setting is very specifically to the Feudal Japan-inspired Rokugan, and there’s not a lot of room to play a character who doesn’t fall into that setting’s Samurai style.  With that said, though, the game has a solid balance and manages to give the players a lot of options even with the strict adherence to the setting.  You can play several different styles of samurai, shugenja (mages), and courtiers (the social class) from different clans, giving you enough character options that no two characters need to be very similar.

The game being built entirely around a specific setting has a lot of advantages.  Because all of the mechanics (aside from the basic roll and keep mechanic, which is used by some other RPGs such as 7th Sea) are engineered to play within the setting, everything functions pretty smoothly.  There’s minimal, if any, generic rules language that forces you to figure out how it adapts to a specific situation because the rules are written for the specific situations that game puts you in.  As an added bonus, while the setting is obviously meant to resemble Japanese history, it’s also specifically NOT Japanese history.  You don’t need to know anything about actual Japanese history beyond the basic, and heavily romanticized stuff that’s common knowledge.  So if you want all of the excitement of a samurai epic, I recommend you polish off your katana and your d10s and give L5R a shot.

3. Vampire: the Masquerade

Technically part of a largeseries of RPGs, Vampire: the Masquerade is the most popular of White Wolf’s World of Darkness franchise.  The players take control of vampires who work to support their clan’s agendas and partake in the various power struggles going on in their city while maintaining the masquerade, a universally agreed upon illusion of normalcy.  T I recommend Vampire instead of any of the other RPGs in the franchise, each of which is based on playing a different sort of supernatural creature, for a few reasons: vampires are the most commonly encountered creatures within the lore because they’re what the setting started with, and they also have something resembling a traditional RPG class system with the different clans each having distinct powers and strengths.

Like a lot of the games on this list, Vampire is less about adventurers on an adventure and a lot more about character driven storytelling.  It’s designed to be a lot more fluid and open-ended than D&D and for a while was probably the most popular RPG for people who wanted a change of pace.  The game focuses a lot on the struggle of monsters trying to live like people, dealing with their hunger for blood and trying to maintain their humanity.  The fact that blood doesn’t just allow them to survive but also makes them stronger means that even if a player is trying his best to be the good guy they can find themselves deciding that, just this once, they need to feed on the nearest available victim.  Of course, some people also just play their characters as superheroes with fangs, decked out in black trenchcoats and doing their best Blade impression, it’s really up to you.

The one thing about this game is that you really need the right group to make it work because it’s so heavy on the character development and actual roleplay.  Vampire is best when you have players who are into what’s going on, which means that it’s also best when you have a group of players who are comfortable being in character around each other.  Perhaps more than any other game, this one is dependent on having the right people at the table.  But if you’re looking for some good horror/adventure roleplaying you really aren’t likely to find a better game than Vampire.

2. Feng Shui: Action Movie Roleplaying

So, Feng Shui was one of the first RPG books I ever actually owned because my mom was huge on the idea that Dungeons and Dragons would result in me being carried off to hell in the strong, unrelenting arms of Satan himself.  Feng Shui, though?  That was fair game!  It didn’t have a single dungeon OR dragon in the title!  Anyway, that bit of personal backstory aside, Feng Shui is a game where the players take on the role of action movie characters from various subgenres.  This system allows ancient kung fu masters to fight alongside renegade cops, killer cyborgs and superheroes.

So how does the game justify all of these genres blending together?  Well, while I’m inclined to respond to my own rhetorical question by asking “Do they really need to?” but the game actually has a pretty awesome setting to play in based on interdimensional conflicts and time travel.  Your heroes travel through different periods of time and other dimensions thwarting criminals on every level from the streets to the stars to the underworld.  Or, if you prefer, you can play in a more contained setting of your own creation.

I don’t want to discount the game’s usefulness for heavy storytelling, but I do want to emphasize that this game has a special ability that lets you effectively reload between camera cuts, allowing you to fire way more shots than your weapon’s capacity should allow.  This is the game to play if you want to get a bunch of friends together and tell an awesome story without worrying too terribly much whether or not it necessarily makes perfect sense.  Oh god, now I want to start a Feng Shui campaign.

1.  Call of Cthulhu

It’s hard to get a bigger change of pace from the traditional adventure RPG than Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG.  Instead of heroes the players take the role of survivors, scholars and investigators who have come too close to the dark secrets that man was not meant to know and are now doing their best to avoid death and insanity against a threat that they are horribly ill-equipped to handle.  It’s the iconic horror RPG for a reason.

Call of Cthulhu has a lot of supplements for different kinds of stories in different settings, but the core book gives you everything you need for all kinds of horror stories from slashers to the supernatural.  Even though the game is naturally geared a bit more towards cosmic horror, with the bestiary being full of creatures who exist at or beyond the edges of time and space, the brutality of the game’s combat coupled with a sanity mechanic to reflect the stresses of any horror situation make the game suitable for whatever you want to scare your players with. This is one of those games where losing is fun because players usually come out of it with a story to tell.  I personally remember just about every character death I’ve ever had in Call of Cthulhu because, when you’re battling forces from beyond the stars the question is rarely “Will you die?” and much more often “How will you die?”

The horrific nature of this RPG adds to the horror, of course, but it also adds to the triumph that comes when your heroes win.  Preventing the rise of Yog Sothoth feels so much more satisfying when you knew going in that the odds were against you and one misstep could have easily led to your doom.  Call of Cthulhu does require a skilled GM, as you have to be able to scare players who know that they are not in any actual danger themselves, but in the right hands it can be a truly harrowing experience.  If you haven’t played Call of Cthulhu yet, then I highly recommend that you get your hands on a copy and give it a shot.

One comment

  1. […] Five Awesome RPGs For When You Need Something New @ The Game Detective – A good article that recommends a number of games that play differently to your standard game of D&D or Pathfinder.  A number of the games presented here are ones that I really love.  Vampire: The Masquerade and Call of Cthulhu are definitely worth your time!  A good read, with great descriptions of each game. […]

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