Tissues have Kleenex. Internet search engines have Google. Lip balm has ChapStick. For tabletop role-playing games, the Big Brand is Dungeons & Dragons. So you've heard about it. You've always thought it was a little dorky, but you were interested so you wanted to give it a chance. You read The Lord of the Rings, you bought a die with more than six sides, and maybe you watched that Vin Diesel video.
But something's just not clicking with you. Elves and magic aren't your thing. If you're going to sit around with a bunch of adults to play pretend, you're going to shoot the pretend gun in your pretend hand. Or you're going to be the one that dies first in the horror movie. Or you just want an imaginary friend again. Well, fret not. The following is a list of game systems that I like running to when I want a break from d20s and dungeon crawling.
Evoking the wastelands of Mad Max and Tank Girl alike, Apocalypse World is your go-to for living out your post-societal fantasies. Instead of a character sheet, you have playbooks that list the unique abilities of your character. What caused the apocalypse, you ask? That's up to you and your players. With the second edition of the game successfully crowdfunded, you can get the first edition free if you enter your e-mail on the page linked above.
I also want to mention that D. Vincent Baker's Apocalypse system is a thing of beauty. One of the problems I have with D&D is the binary outcome mechanic. Either you succeed at the thing, or you fail at the thing. Apocalypse World keeps it interesting. When you roll, generally one of three things happens. You can either succeed, win a partial success with consequences, or fail and make things worse for you and your party. It keeps the story interesting in the way "sorry, Bill, you just don't pick the lock" doesn't.
If you want a take on D&D Powered by the Apocalypse, then you should also check out Dungeon World.
Monsters and Other Childish Things
Monsters and Other Childish Things (MaOCT) is Arc Dream's game about children whose imaginary friends can and will take a bite out of you. Role-playing as a child can be an interesting experience. We were all there once (arguably, some of us still are), but seeing it through the eyes of an adult can be dark territory indeed. Find the right group for this, or throw seriousness out the window and run this game as Pokemon.
The One Roll Engine (ORE), which is the system MaOCT operates on, might need some getting used to if D&D is your launching point. You roll a set number of d10s (called a pool here), and instead of just hoping for a big number, you're looking for matching sets. Two twos, four fives, or seven tens, as an example.
The Quiet Year
Yes, we're back to maps again. Avery McDaldno's game about drawing a map sees role-playing games in a new light. You and your group don't have individual characters. There is no Dungeon Master. Instead, you represent a community of survivors as a whole living out their last, quiet year before the arrival of the Frost Shepherds. Each player adds something to the map, and as the weeks progress, a story emerges.
We're getting into indie publisher territory with this game. The weeks of the year are represented by a pack of cards, which is both ingenious on McDaldno's part and eerily convenient. Each card is associated with events that affect the game world. They can be good, or bad, or most interesting of all, present the player that drew it with a choice.
I'd like to publicly confess something here. Yes, here, tucked away in the eleventh paragraph. I'm a sucker for action movies. Jackie Chan, Who Am I?, Van Damme, Bloodsport, Schwarzenegger, The Expendables, you name it, I'll watch it. I still get a little teary from the speech at the end of Rocky IV. I'd look up to these heroes when I was a not-so-little-around-the-middle kid, and I'd dream about kicking henchman butt all over a ladder factory. So Daniel Bayn, the seven year old in me (nay, the seven year old in all of us) thanks you for writing Wushu.
A major selling point of this game, apart from being freely available, is its interesting dice mechanic. The game is played with your regular, everyday six-sided die, and your roll is influenced by how well you describe your character's actions. So pop in that Steven Seagal DVD and start stealing some moves.
Ah, Fiasco. The darling of the role-playing game indie market, and with good reason. I've used it to introduce newcomers to the hobby, as a lesson in improvisation, and as a tool for writing fiction. To oversimplify the game, you and your group act out your own movie. If you're a fan of movies like Fargo, Bad Santa, or even Weekend at Bernie's, and you like your protagonists with big dreams and a severe lack of forethought, you should give Fiasco a try. Your movie night isn't restricted to Coen-penned films either. There are playsets reminiscent of Titanic, Anchorman, and, yes, even D&D. Those are playsets off the official site. There are a slew of them made by the community.
But how does it work? Well, playsets like the ones I've linked to provide a framework for your game. They broadly state what kind of characters your group is going to play, and what locations, objects, and motivations are important to the story. These are rolled and assigned randomly. Then together, the players elaborate on who or what exactly these characters and motivations are. Then the house lights go down, the management tells you to turn off your cell phone, and you jump in.
Call of Cthulhu
Call of Cthulhu (CoC), not to be confused with its Lovecraft story namesake, is the D&D of horror role-playing games. In fact, the first incarnation of the game, written by Sandy Petersen, was published in 1981. This was just four years after role-players first started rolling up fighting-men and magic-users. I've used the game to run cosmic horror a la Lovecraft (or August Derleth, or Thomas Ligotti, or Laird Barron if you're looking to expand your reading list). I've also used it for your standard zombie apocalypse scenario, your by-the-numbers slasher flick, and, of course, Twin Peaks.
Now to the nitty-gritty. CoC uses percentile dice, which is a fancy way of saying two d10s. Your character has certain values in their skills, and if you want to succeed in a task, you have to roll under that value. That perfect 1 or that disastrous 100 may be rarer to come by than the 1 or 20 in a Dungeons & Dragons game, but that make their appearances all the more memorable. One of your character's stats is Sanity, and if you lose too much of that, say goodbye to your character's mind and say hello to a fresh character sheet.