Dungeons & Dragons is the most popular role-playing game, but it only scratches the surface of what role-playing games can do. The world is full of alternatives to Dungeons & Dragons (D&D)! Here’s a few examples of RPGs that we at Level One love, and expand on D&D’s original innovation.
Dungeon Crawl Classics
Now of course, Dungeons & Dragons is an old game, over 45 years old right now. (No, really! 45 years! Can you believe it?) Over that time, D&D has evolved a lot. Currently, D&D is a slimmed-down, friendlier and more accessible version of its most complicated forms. But sometimes people long for the young, rough, weird, and sometimes brutal experiences from the 70s and 80s. This motivation has inspired the Old-School Revival movement. Called OSR in shorthand, these newer games find a balance between sleek, modernized, well-written rules and the bleak, mind-bending and often violent tone that D&D has lost.
Level One Game Shop’s favorite OSR game is Dungeon Crawl Classics. This is a game where the dungeon master is a cruel, laughing figure, and characters meet their brutal ends in quick and hilarious ways. Fighting monsters leaves scars on warriors, using magic slowly drives wizards insane, and every experience point and magic item is a cherished treasure. Fear and bravery mix in a world where mystery, weirdness, and foreboding doom are conquered only with greed and morbid curiosity.
Best of all, there’s just as much content for Dungeon Crawl Classics as there is for 5th Edition D&D, and it’s much more affordable. The main DCC rulebook does everything that D&D’s three main books do, but at a fraction of the price. There are a gajillion official adventures available for DCC, too, and those come super cheap too. The only splurge to make on DCC is the Weird Dice!
Tales From the Loop
One of the reasons adulthood sucks is that we’re all so jaded. We’ve seen everything before, and few things are novel and surprising. All of the magic and mystery has left the world.
This is also why the collaborative storytelling of RPGs is so great. We can recapture that sense of mystery and wonder! For a few fleeting moments, we can be children again. We can explore a world that teases our curiosity, surprises us with its secrets, and sprinkles in just enough danger to make things exciting.
Tales From the Loop is our favorite game for this. The world that Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag created in his paintings comes to life in the RPG, mixing the mundanity of growing up in the 80s with the mystery of strange sci-fi. Players play grade-school kids, put upon with the pressures of school, parents, and peers. Your escape from all this drama is exploring the rural landscape of your hometown. And as fate would have it, your hometown is the host for a mysterious experimental power plant, and the remainders of super advanced scientific experiments litter the countryside. Discovering and exploring these semi-magical machines reintroduces the sense of wonder and mystery back into your world.
If the optimistic 80s sounds like your style, you can find Tales From the Loop here. Or, if a more pessimistic, gritty 90s version sounds more interesting, you can find the sister game Things From the Flood here.
Kids on Bikes
Leaning harder into the Kid Investigator genre, we’re also big fans of Kids on Bikes. Whereas Tales From the Loop has a “weird sci-fi” tone, Kids on Bikes hews more towards stories like The Goonies, Stranger Things, Scooby-Doo or even Stephen King’s IT. Kids on Bikes has a little bit more of a horror vibe, but also allows players and storytellers to pull their punches if the tone gets too edgy.
Kids on Bikes really takes it easy with rules, too. The rulebook for the game is small, light and breezy. The game’s system intentionally tries to be rules-light to give players freedom with their characters and stories they create. This sort of game is fantastic for creative people who want to improvise and build on other players’ input. The rules get out of the way and let you do what you want.
If you want to give Kids on Bikes a spin, check it out here. Or, if you want your Stranger Things mixed in with a little Harry Potter, check out Kids on Brooms. Or take a look at Teens in Space for more of a Star Trek or Star Wars vibe.
No Thank You, Evil!
Our final entry here is actually our most unique RPG. Parents who are seasoned role-playing game veterans would love to share their favorite hobby with their children. Unfortunately, the most popular RPGs tend to be pretty rules-heavy, especially for very young players. However, since RPGs are basically about imagination, why should children be left out?
Enter No Thank You, Evil! This is a game that strips the framework of RPGs down to its barest elements, to make the experience easy for children. There are even levels of simplification, so that even children as young as 3 or 5 can play. Children get to define their characters however they want, and the parent/adult that takes on the role of the storyteller is their Guide to help them tell the story of their adventure.
Designed by award-winning RPG author Monte Cook, the game revolves around Cook’s elegant system for describing characters. When inventing their character, the player uses a sentence of “I am an [adjective] [noun] that [verbs]” as the keystone. In Cook’s other games like Numenera or The Strange, adult players expound on this description mechanically; but in No Thank You, Evil! young players stop there and let the Guide take over all the details.
No Thank You, Evil! cuts to the heart of what makes RPGs great to allow children to join in the fun. Check out the game here!
Amazingly Creative D&D Alternatives
So there are four wonderfully clever alternatives to D&D that do what Dungeons & Dragons does, but in new and fascinating ways. D&D’s true innovation is the system for a group of friends to share the creation of a story. Other games explore the wide horizon of possibilities that D&D opened up for the world. Each RPG has its own tone, atmosphere, and tools to craft an unforgettable narrative for you and your friends. Check out these four alternatives to D&D, or a huge variety of others at Level One Game Shop!