In any creative medium that lasts long enough, there’s bound to be stretches where it seems like everybody is just copying what everybody else is doing. (In art history, they refer to these periods as movements.)
Tabletop roleplaying games are no exception. An acquaintance of mine once lamented that so many games were using Powered By The Apocalypse, but not really doing anything to really make their game unique, and made the leap in logic that they were just doing so because everybody else was making a game that used PbtA.
I remain largely unimpressed if a game bears a logo signifying that it uses a certain ruleset. However, I have also witnessed a few instances of people reacting strongly to such labels, both favorably and not. I try to remain dispassionate whenever I notice a trending game engine or game style in our hobby. I’ve seen it happen numerous times before. More often than not, it’s just that: a passing trend that in time, will be mostly forgotten.
In light of that sentiment, for your reading pleasure, I present you with “5 Creative Movements In The RPG Fandom” so as to celebrate the unique inventions of our hobby.
1) The Fantasy Heartbreakers
A term coined by Ron Edwards of the web forum The Forge, Fantasy Heartbreakers is a type of game that Edwards identifies being prominent in the 1990s. They were independently published games of the fantasy genre that seemed to be products of people trying to bring their own take on what Dungeons and Dragons could be.
He describes many of them as having great ideas, but being trapped behind the shortcomings of D&D, for one of three reasons. They don’t play to what truly makes them unique, they make some minor adjustments to some of the apparent problems D&D had at the time, or they just flat out keep some of the absurd themes that D&D was stuck with.
The reason these are titled Fantasy Heartbreakers is twofold: they were obviously fantasy games, but more importantly, this was a considerably more difficult time to self-publish. The internet was budding, and some of these games did take advantage of having websites, but DriveThruRPG didn’t quite take off till some years after 2000. This meant the cost of self-publishing was considerably higher, to the effect of thousands of dollars just to print. (The cost of commissioning artwork, if you could even afford it, would compound the issue.)
And so, a fantasy game designer’s dream of being the next Gary Gygax would often end in a broken heart -- so much effort, so much investment, all to be forgotten in a market too small for them.
2) There’s A GURPS Book For That
Generic Universal Roleplaying System is the flagship RPG of Steve Jackson Games, the company that may be better known for the Munchkin franchise. While now typically scoffed at as having way too much math to be enjoyable, there was a time when GURPS addressed issues of contemporary games. Issues such as character creation being too rampant, or playing in a different setting requiring learning a completely new game.
In the 90s, GURPS was all the rage, and much like how Steve Jackson now licenses out Munchkin whenever he needs to pay the rent, he did the same with GURPS during its heyday. While both Steve Jackson’s own web-store and Drive Thru RPG boast staggering collections, this isn’t the complete library.
There were numerous books published that bore the GURPS logo, including the now out of print Vampire: the Masquerade GURPS sourcebook, and even a few Japan-only exclusives such as GURPS Runal. The heyday of GURPS may be over, and large swaths of its library may now be difficult to find, but it’s hard to deny that it’s an important artifact of tabletop gaming history. (Especially since the Secret Service once seized all of Steve Jackson Game’s equipment over one of their GURPS sourcebooks!)
3) D20 System
After the Fantasy Heartbreakers bled out, but before the weight of GURPS’s massive library collapsed on itself, Wizards of the Coast acquired the remains of TSR, and brought us Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, and with it, the Open Gaming License and the moniker d20 System.
With the freedom to use the rules to D&D to make one’s own supplements and games came a deluge fan made splat books, along with officially licensed games. Some of these were good, or at least well received, such as Mutants and Masterminds, or Blue Rose by Green Ronin publishing.
I’ve read through Blue Rose; frankly, this was much like one of the Fantasy Heartbreakers opined upon by Ron Edwards close to two decades ago. It added a few new mechanics and a different setting, but at the end of the day, it was Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition with a different coat of paint.
Most games either fell into the above category, or showcased some of the flaws of Dungeons and Dragons’ core mechanics. Big Eyes Small Mouth d20 is one such example of the latter. It tried to include the freedom of a point buy game with the structure of a level based one, and failed pretty miserably at both with a kitchen sink setting.
The surge of the d20 system died down some the flop of Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, and the revival of D&D in the public eye with 5th edition. Though somewhere between the 4th and 5th edition being released, a new movement gave way.
4) Powered By Fate (Or The Apocalypse)
Sometime before Dungeon and Dragons 5th edition being released, FATE and Powered by the Apocalypse picked up in popularity. I remember some of the ways friends of mine initially described FATE when its 4th edition was released in 2013. They described it as being “easier to understand” and “letting you do anything.”
Which brings us to where we stand now. We’re in the middle of a movement marked by narrative games using FATE or Powered by the Apocalypse cropping up, either as fan made games like the numerous Star Wars FATE games, or as independent publishing, such as a Nahual, a Mexican game about urban fantasy, set in (surprise) Mexico.
Social movements have a strange way of not being all encompassing, though. The Fantasy Heartbreakers were happening at roughly the same time GURPSmania was, which dragged on sometime into the era of the d20 System’s reign. Moreover, with Dungeons and Dragons having some of its rules released under the Open Gaming License, we’re seeing a second wind of extra Dungeons and Dragons material during our current age of FATE and PbtA, including High Level Games’s own addition to this canon: Snow Haven.
5) Bonus! Standard Roleplay System
To illustrate that this isn’t exclusively a trend in the English speaking roleplaying game community, I’d like to touch on something similar that’s happened in Japan. The game publisher Far East Amusement Research is one of the big names in publishing RPGs in Japan. They’re known for two things: having published Tenra Bansho Zero, as well as creating the Standard Roleplay System.
The Standard Roleplay System is exactly what its name implies: a standard set of rules that FEAR’s games use, creating a similar wave of games in Japan as we’ve had in the West. One of the most bemoaned examples from Western fans of Japan’s RPGs is a game called Monotone Museum, which was designed to prove a point about SRS: anybody, even those who don’t have much experience in RPGs, can make one.
The rules deviate very little from the SRS document, and shares a lot of common themes with other FEAR Games, including Tenra Bansho Zero and Double Cross. Themes such as stacking multiple archetypes to make your character, having a cosmic force that both empowers and corrupts your character, and having to take steps to avoid being lost to said force.
I’ve initially bemoaned how similar so many different RPGs can all be the same, but as I wrote this article and took the time to organize my thoughts on the matter, a few things did dawn on me. The first is that every so often, something truly new does come around and shake things up. The other is that even within a familiar framework, there can still be room for something interesting to be made.
After all, despite basically being a clone of JRPG video games of the time, Earthbound is still one of the best games of its kind.
While Aaron der Schaedel has been in the RPG fandom for a very long time, he’s spent most of that time in the fringes of it, where he’s found all kind of wonderful, bizarre, and even horrifying things. You can (and should) ask him questions about the things he’s found via twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/224851/GURPS-Fantasy
Listen, I love D&D. Medieval fantasy is my main jam and no matter what other games I play, there is a spot in my heart that will always be kept for that game and that genre. But for the good of D&D, I want you to stop playing D&D.
Now, let me explain: I’ve been playing D&D since I was 12, using a battered Red Box with no polyhedral dice and less understanding of the rules. I started DMing right away, and have remained in that position for the majority of the time that I have been in this hobby. I played out of the Basic Rules Cyclopedia, I played out of Gygax’s AD&D books, I played out of the 2nd Edition books, and eventually was dragged kicking and screaming into 3.0 and 3.5, where I spent the next decade. I didn’t get to play (but read) the 4E books, and have been off and on playing 5E since the day that it came out. I have played Pathfinder and 13th Age and I like a lot of what they bring to the table, but let’s face it, they are still D&D. I would guess that something like 90% of the hours I have actually spent playing tabletop RPGs have been in D&D.
But I am not playing it right now. And I am doing that, partially, so I can get better at D&D.
A little over a year ago, I challenged my home group to take a one year break from D&D. It was mainly because I had continued to become more and more aware of all of these other games; a buddy of mine ran a FATE Core game for about a year, which we made into an actual play you can find here. I backed the second edition of APOCALYPSE WORLD because I had been hearing about it and devoured it. It read like a profane graduate thesis in rethinking how you run any game!
So at this stage I started to devour and take a chance to play any game I hadn’t played before, from Mouse Guard to Call of Cthulhu to Night’s Black Agents. I learned a tonne of stuff and eventually ended up running a Star Trek Adventures game on Roll20, a Numenera game with my regular group, and playing an amazing Savage Rifts group. This all led me to write this challenge.
You need to stop playing D&D. Play and read all the other games you can. Come back to D&D after a bit. It’ll change your life.
That being said, I know most of you won’t take that advice, so being the good sport that I am, I have a few things that I have learned based on the games that I have been reading and playing.
1) FATE Core - Zones
I have started to use zones when I am running more tactical games that typically can either require or heavily suggest a grid map. Now, I am no opponent to grid maps, but there is no replacing theatre of the mind for ensuring that you are really envisioning the most badass things your character can do. So, in FATE as opposed to things like D&D you don’t use grids or hexes, you have zones. With zones, you break up an encounter into sections of the space in which people are acting.
Let’s use a bar fight for example, you would take out some Post-It notes or index cards and on one, you would write, “Common Room,” on the next, “Behind the Bar,” and on the next, “The Back.” We decide where our players are given those cards and then we can even place markers representing them on those cards. Each zone card represents an area of the bar that PCs can be in, or move into our out of.
Now, players can do pretty much anything, make their attacks, move around, etc., within a single zone. The amount of feet moved doesn’t need to be tracked, but passing outside of a zone means you used your full movement to get there, assuming it is feasible to move between the zones. If the door to the “Back Room” is locked, you may have to be more creative to move from the “Common Room” to the “Back Room.” This helps decide if folks get hit by an area of effect, decides what enemies are where and seeing which PCs, but beyond that it takes all of the grid-tracking usually required.
Of course, if the fight takes them into zones that you haven’t put down at the beginning, simply add them. They head out the back door? Now give a quick description of it and add a card that says “The Alley.” Goes the other way? “The Street.” See?
I find this stuff a little less effective in large scale or longer distance battles, but it is really effective at managing indoors, and small, dirty, battles with lots of terrain types or changes.
2) Numenera - Less DM Dice Rolling
In Numenera, the Game Master doesn’t touch dice. If a player wants to say, make an attack, they roll against the rank of the thing they are attacking, and if that thing wants to attack them back, the player rolls to defend. It is a simple and elegant system, and no one at the table is unsure if the GM is taking it easy or going hard on the group. Everything is all out in the open. Now, I am personally (but your fun isn’t wrong, it’s just me) against fudging rolls from behind a DM Screen. If I know or suspect that my DM is doing that, I automatically have about 25% less fun according to my calculations. The main reason? I want to know that the spectacular thing I accomplish was accomplished by me, not because the DM took pity.
So now, when I DM for D&D, I try to make most if of my rolls out in the open, for everyone to see. It adds tension to the table, people are staring at the dice as it tumbles across the table, wondering if the big bad is going to smash down their character, and I think it is the ultimate in fairness.
3) Apocalypse World - Threat Clock
I haven’t personally used this one yet, but I am aching for an opportunity to try it. In Apocalypse World the basic use of the clock is to provide a visual of rising threats in the fiction of the world that you are playing in. There are several things that can raise the threat level and if it hits say, “midnight” then something happens. Something like this is used in the D&D 5E adventure Out of the Abyss wherein *SPOILERS* a crew of drow hunters are pursuing your party, and if you do certain things, like leave a trail, wait too long in one place, or if the dice gods hate you, they can get closer and just spring on you wherever in the story you are, regardless of whether you are ready for them. I think that is a very effective tactic in making situations in your world somewhat unpredictable and tense.
In D&D I would adapt the Threat Clock to be specific to whatever you are facing. Let’s say for example the threat that is designated in your world is that the cultists are trying to raise a forgotten dark god to destroy the world. Every time that your players do something that hinders that, move the hand on the clock back, and every time they do something that either takes too much time or fails to hinder, or even helps them, the clock moves forward. If it hits midnight, something terrible happens. At lower levels it could be that the cultists find out that the players are after them and start to dispatch assassins. Mid-level, maybe they can summon a couple of demons to hunt the players or even that they suddenly change their plans to befuddle the players’ plans. High Level? Announce that if the clock hits midnight one to three (depending on how often it is happening for your group) times, the dark god will be raised. Each time it does, something bad happens, until the end of all things is upon the world.
4) 13th Age - One Unique Thing
OK, this may be cheating a bit, as I stand by my assertion that 13th Age is still technically D&D. That being said, it’s fantastic designers (Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, the lead designers of D&D 3rd and 4th Editions) have done a few things that are elegantly simple and add a bunch to gameplay. The one that I keep coming back to us your One Unique Thing. The One Unique Thing is something about your character that is completely different from everyone else. It provides no mechanical benefit but should be something that helps to define your character and at its best, provides a springboard for stories involving that aspect of your character.
For example, if your One Unique Thing is that you are “The last in a long line of warriors sworn to protect a dying religion” that sparks a lot of questions that can be answered in gameplay. Why are you the last? Why is the religion dying? What is the religion? And so on. At best, these things are not fully defined previous to gameplay but are discovered organically during gameplay.
5) Night’s Black Agents - GUMSHOE Style Investigations
In Night’s Black Agents you play disavowed spies uncovering a supernatural conspiracy, it is a game about investigations. And you know what is super not fun about most D&D investigations? Binary pass/fail rolls. Let’s face it, rolling a d20 an then adding a bonus or two, especially at low levels, mean that skills are very swingy, giving a relatively high percentage that “expert” characters routinely fail to notice things or find clues, or see something out of the corner of their eye, etc. They either do or they don’t. The GUMSHOE rules system was designed to address that problem, by just making any clue that was imperative to move the plot along, automatic. And the more I thought about it the more that I realized that that is exactly how it should be. How fun is it to have your plot grind to a halt because of one bad roll? Zero! It is zero fun.
In GUMSHOE, the primary clue is automatic, but you can spend skill points to get additional detail or additional clues that help. This can be easily adapted into D&D by allowing the roll, but no matter what that roll is, they get the main clue, the rest is to see extra detail or additional clues that may provide more context or speed up the investigation. And yes, that means that if you are playing that a Nat 1 is a critical fumble of some type on skill rolls, they need to be able to both fumble and get the clue.
OK, so you probably don’t have to stop playing D&D to learn these things.
I am just going to suggest that you read and play as many other games as possible, even just to try them and learn from them, because let me tell you, the designers of D&D do, they always have, and it make them better. And a version of 6th Edition’s best and most innovative mechanic is already out there being used somewhere, and it’s awesome.
Quinn C. Moerike is the CEO and Managing Partner of High Level Games, and is continuously working on a million projects. Right now, he is working with a team here at High Level Games to develop a new setting featuring anthropomorphic heroes for Savage Worlds called Archons of Nikud. He is also the resident grognard here and deeply appreciates his childhood tactical play of moving ten feet and then checking for traps.
Picture Reference: https://www.amazon.com/Numenera-Corebook-Monte-Cook/dp/1939979005
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games