Beyond Dungeons & Dragons: Tabletop Roleplaying Games


Oliver Long, Columnist

Most people have heard of Dungeons & Dragons. Thirty years ago in the public consciousness, it was an evil tool to corrupt children to Satanism; now, more charitably, it’s that game from the first scene of Stranger Things. Tolkienian high fantasy and weird dice: for better or worse, it’s what the world at large thinks, if they think anything at all, about the term “tabletop roleplaying game”–even I got my start when my dad bought me some old D&D rulebooks at a garage sale.

But there’s a lot more the hobby than just that. You can find a system to simulate any genre you please. There’s a range of complexity, too: anywhere from fastidious mecha combat simulators to games without dice at all.

The basic schema is this: You have a group of about 4-7 people. Most of them (the players) have a single character: this character has statistics describing what they are good or bad at. One person (the gamemaster, or GM) plays the rest of the world, describing locations, characters, enemies, treasures, et cetera, for the other player’s characters to encounter. When a player character faces a challenge, they roll a die or dice, influenced by their character’s statistics, to determine if they succeed.

For instance: Charles is playing an honorable knight named Sir Eglamore. Mary, the gamemaster, has sent the player characters on a quest to kill a dragon at the top of a mountain. Sir Eglamore wants to climb a rocky cliff to set up a rope, so the rest of the player characters can get up more easily. Being a knight, he has a high Strength score, so he’s good at climbing: Charles will add a bonus onto his die roll. If the result is higher than a number Mary chose to represent the difficulty of the task, Eglamore will make it to the top. If the result is lower than the difficulty, he makes no progress; if it’s a lot lower, Eglamore might fall and hurt himself!

Different systems handle this in different ways, but that’ll give you a basic understanding. It’s a hobby I’ve loved for years. As a player, developing a character to inhabit and then seeing how they interact with whoever your friends invented is a joy; as a gamemaster, your players will always surprise you and shape the world in ways you never could have predicted.

If you’re curious but scared to be the one in charge of everything, here’s a bit of advice: start with friends. It’s better for everyone to be equally lost, figuring out the system together. You don’t have to be a great actor to play characters or have all the rules memorized–just get a couple of buddies and some snacks, and dive in.

If you’re looking for a place to start, here are some of my favorite systems outside the D&D behemoth, in ascending order of complexity:

Doctor Magnethands: As much a party game as an RPG. Hilarious, incredibly simple, and free online. A great place to start (though we DO NOT condone the recommendation that you be drunk). All you need is paper and pencil. The rules are only two pages, so give it a read!

Blades in the Dark: Play a crew of scoundrels in a post-apocalyptic victorian city powered by ghost juice and demon whale blood…? As nuts as the setting sounds, it’s a lot of fun. Simple and improvisational mechanics–you’ll have to be creative to run this one.

Vampire: the Masquerade: an urban fantasy of moderate complexity, with a rich and byzantine setting of ancient vampires, organizations, and feuds.

A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Ever wanted to run your own take on Game of Thrones? As befits the source, it has the most robust social conflict mechanics of any game I’ve seen. About on the level of D&D for complexity.

Good luck, and good games!