Dungeons and Dragons is by far the biggest tabletop RPG in the world, but there are lots of alternatives out there that offer something different to players.
The success of Dungeons and Dragons is warranted as it packages both role-playing and combat into a game that’s both accessible and deep. Not everyone will love each part equally, though. Some might prefer a game built solely for combat while others might want something that’s more focused on role-playing.
Thankfully, there are loads of DnD alternatives on the market that all offer something different. Here are some of the best non-DnD RPGs and what they offer to players.
1. Pathfinder 2nd Edition
The biggest rival to Dungeons and Dragons by a considerable margin is Pathfinder. Pathfinder launched in 2009 as a means of continuing the more open-ended gameplay of 2003’s Dungeons and Dragons v3.5, which was sunsetted in favor of 2008’s DnD 4th Edition. The game technically stands as a spin-off of Dungeons and Dragons published under the Open Game License by Paizo Publishing. It became more distinct from DnD with the release of Paizo’s Pathfinder 2nd Edition in 2019.
Pathfinder has much more granularity in terms of character building and combat relative to current Dungeons and Dragons. This makes for a more in-depth experience that could be more appealing for hardcore fans, but will likely be challenging for new players to wrap their heads around.
2. Blades in the Dark
Blades in the Dark is a fast-rising TTRPG designed for accessibility on all fronts. Instead of emphasizing grid-based combat with loads of rules to learn, Blades in the Dark is made to offer the flexibility to tell interesting stories and let players instantly start doing incredible things with their characters.
The game has a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting that is teeming with criminals. Rather than adventuring or saving the world, Blades in the Dark primarily has players pulling off elaborate criminal acts ranging from bank heists to assassinations.
Rather than tasking players and game masters with intense preparation, things immediately move to the mission with players and the GM needing to think on their feet and improvise their way forward. This makes for a game that’s friendly for both single sessions and longer campaigns, and interesting for both new and seasoned players.
3. Starfinder Roleplaying Game
Pathfinder isn’t Paizo’s only TTRPG option. Starfinder is technically a sequel to Pathfinder, set in the same universe with a number of similar gameplay and character mechanics. The key difference between Starfinder and other TTRPGs is that it sheds the high fantasy setting in favor of a science fiction universe in the same vein as Star Wars or Mass Effect, which is a fun alternative setting relative to the standard high fantasy setting established by DnD.
Starfinder is going to be largely familiar for Pathfinder players to the point where they can easily convert their characters. The game has the same degree of depth and complexity as its sister title, as well as the same steep learning curve.
Traveller is one of the oldest role-playing games and one of the first alternatives to DnD. It’s also one of the first RPGs to separate itself from the traditional tenets of defining a character by their class or role. Instead, character creation was baked into the gameplay itself. The first journey you take defines how your character is built. It’s also a lot less heroic, as characters in Traveller are merchants and mercenaries, all with their own goals in the Third Imperium setting.
Once the character was built, they were already a seasoned veteran of galactic adventures, making it even more unique among tabletop RPGs that prefer to start characters from scratch. This adds a randomness to the character creation that can make it more immersive than more traditional RPGs.
It’s also worth noting that Traveller heavily inspired Starfield. It’s a space opera setting that’s mostly concerned with gritty adventures on the fringes of the galaxy. Therefore, it’s better to think of a character along the lines of Han Solo rather than Luke Skywalker. Traveller is perfect for players looking for a fun sci-fi adventure without that somewhat brutal early-game grind.
Shadowrun is one of DnD’s longest-standing rivals. The 1989 TTRPG boasts a wild setting where high fantasy meets a dystopian future, allowing players to build their characters into elven hackers, cyborg orcs, and anything in between.
The gameplay of Shadowrun utilizes D6s to determine the success of actions. Players get a certain number of dice to roll for an action, and success is determined by the number of fives and sixes they roll.
Players are afforded a great deal of freedom when leveling their characters, as the game doesn’t use rigid classes. Instead, progression revolves around improving specific skills. This lets Shadowrun players pull off some truly unique builds and realize their own character concepts, which offers lots of room for flavor during combat and while role-playing.
Cyberpunk had been around for decades but instantly became one of the most identifiable TTRPGs in the world with the reveal of action RPG Cyberpunk 2077. The CD Projekt Red game was expected to be a hit due to the highly successful launch of 2016’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. This resulted in Cyberpunk 2077 being one of the industry’s most-talked-about games for years due to fan excitement, the splashy inclusion of Keanu Reeves, its troubled launch, and the game’s eventual redemption.
Regardless of the successes or failures of the video game, it propelled the original TTRPG to new heights. Cyberpunk was well-established in the space as a futuristic alternative to Dungeons and Dragons. The game is set in the corporate-fascist dystopia of Night City and draws heavily upon genre motifs for its gameplay.
While there are many similarities between Cyberpunk and DnD, possibly the biggest difference surrounds character progression. Players can augment their character’s abilities by giving them cybernetic upgrades, but this impacts another stat called Humanity. If a character completely loses their humanity, they are no longer playable and become an NPC under the control of the game master.
7. Monster of the Week
Modern fantasy is a staple of nighttime TV, and Monster of the Week openly draws upon them for inspiration. Even in official materials, Monster of the Week compares itself to the X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Supernatural. Monster of the Week looks to capture the feel of those shows with a gameplay experience that works well in short sessions and is heavy on role-playing.
Like many other Powered by the Apocalypse games, Monster of the Week runs on D6s rather than a variety of different dice. The game streamlines the process of determining an action’s success by breaking every possibility down into three possible outcomes; a success, a partial success, or a failure. This sees the story advance with each move by the player, allowing them to “fail forward” rather than just having a meaningless turn.
This makes for a fast-paced experience that lets players and game masters flex their creative muscles. As with Blades in the Dark, this does skew things towards improvisation, which could be more appealing than DnD for some.
8. Dungeon World
Monster of the Week utilizes the Powered by the Apocalypse RPG framework, and it’s far from alone in that. A long list of games utilize that same engine but with their own gameplay mechanics or settings that differentiate them. Dungeon World is another Powered by the Apocalypse title, and has many similarities with its cousins.
Dungeon World is widely held up as the best high fantasy-themed Powered by the Apocalypse game and holds onto some of the flavor and mechanics of DnD. This has established it as one of the lighter alternatives to Dungeons and Dragons when it comes to combat and character creation.
As with Monster of the Week, it offers great accessibility by using a pair of D6s to determine the consequences of most actions. This offers both accessibility and a fast pace for those who want to get into DnD, but just can’t deal with all the math and in-depth character creation.
9. Avatar Legends: The Roleplaying Game
There are loads of different licensed TTRPGs out there. Many of them have been forgotten over time, like the long-forgotten Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game based on the Street Fighter fighting games or the upcoming game based on 2023’s game of the year, Elden Ring. While many of these are half-cocked cash-ins, some of them hold up very well against entrenched competition.
Avatar Legends: The Roleplaying Game is among that lot. The game is based on Nickelodeon’s popular animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, taking place in the same world and borrowing many of the themes from the show. There are several different time periods where a campaign can take place including alongside Avatar or Legend of Korra, during the Fire Nation’s attack, or during the times of Avatar Kyoshi or Roku.
The game uses the same core engine as Dungeon World and Monster of the Week, meaning that it’s comfortably broken up into sessions and tends to be more focused on role-playing than Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder. It’s also a solid option for those who want a lighter experience, with character-building coming through playbooks and role-playing instead of stressful rolling and pouring over the source book.
10. Call of Cthulhu
H.P. Lovecraft is one of the most influential figures in fantasy and horror, with his fingerprints being found across movies, video games, and television. TTRPGs aren’t immune to that and while there are elements of Lovecraft’s mythology in DnD, Call of Cthulhu is one of the oldest Dungeons and Dragons alternatives on the market. First published in 1981, the game is a classic that is on its seventh edition.
Call of Cthulhu leans heavily on the work of H.P. Lovecraft for its gameplay and setting. The game is set in modern or relatively recent times and folds in plenty of the existential and cosmic horror that Lovecraft helped popularize. This isn’t just for set dressing, though.
A major mechanic in Call of Cthulhu is that players need to ensure their characters stay sane. The theme of minds shattering after gaining forbidden knowledge or encountering otherworldly monsters plays out in practice in the game, and players will need to ensure their character doesn’t end up in an asylum during their campaign.
11. Chronicles of Darkness
Chronicles of Darkness is a modern supernatural RPG setting created by White Wolf Publishing that reimagines the old World of Darkness. The lore is now more in the background, with the mechanics generally enabling GM creativity rather than limiting it. For example, Vampire: The Requiem is a lot less attached to the clans in Bloodlines.
While these clans are still easy to add in, they no longer shape the mechanics as much as they used to. This gives game masters a lot more freedom in how characters handle their supernatural adventures. Additionally, the different RPGs set in the world such as Hunter: The Vigil and Werewolf: The Forsaken flow much better with each other due to the unified ruleset.
For context, werewolves were warriors against the apocalypse in the Old World of Darkness, which made them significantly more powerful than vampires. In the rebooted universe, there’s more balance between these dark creatures, each with its own pros and cons.
In short, those who want a more personalized supernatural adventure may want to look toward Chronicles of Darkness. Those who want the fully established world and to play characters within it should consider Old World of Darkness. The various series under the Chronicles of Darkness umbrella have seen a slew of adventure game adaptations dating back to 2000.
12. Vampire: The Masquerade
The most broadly known game under the Chronicles of Darkness umbrella is Vampire: The Masquerade. Much of this stems from the popularity of cult classic RPG Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines, which is set to have a sequel in 2024.
Vampires are standard fare in high fantasy media, but there have been plenty of other takes on the most iconic mythical creature. Vampire: The Masquerade blends the gothic horror and neo-noir genres together for a TTRPG that heavily emphasizes the “RP” aspect while also drawing upon a variety of vampire mythos.
Instead of centering around combat and exploration, Vampire: The Masquerade leans heavily on the game’s lore. The game has a long list of “classes” called clans that draw upon all manners of vampire mythos, ranging from ancient mythology to Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. Each one has its own perks and drawbacks and players need to balance those and take a creative approach when a problem arises while also making sure not to run afoul of their clan.
Vampire: The Masquerade has technically been sunsetted in favor of 2004’s Vampire: The Requiem, but remains a popular TTRPG to this day.
13. The One Ring
The One Ring is an RPG set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and is widely considered to be the best TTRPG based on his work and a particularly strong alternative to Dungeons and Dragons. The first edition takes place a few short years after The Hobbit, while the second edition takes place right in the middle of Sauron’s resurgence to power. The rulesets between both editions remain mostly unchanged.
Although there are sister titles that use a 5E ruleset, The One Ring finds its success with its own innovative RPG mechanics. The two main mechanics are Fate and Skill. These two dice rolls are added together when accomplishing challenges and tasks. If a roll is too low, a player can opt to use Hope points to succeed. Be wary though, because overuse of Hope points leaves players open to despair and corruption.
In true Tolkien fashion, travel plays a huge role in the game’s mechanics. Regular rest in safe havens is a must to survive Middle Earth’s dangers. There are also no spellcasters among the player characters, although they do have access to some mild magics. The One Ring is the best RPG to play for those itching for adventure in Middle-earth.
14. Star Wars: Roleplaying Game
There have been multiple Star Wars RPGs over the years, with different systems and publishers, but the most popular one is the one published by Fantasy Flight Games, simply titled “Star Wars: Roleplaying Game.” This RPG allows players to explore the Star Wars universe and take on roles as Jedi, smugglers, bounty hunters, and more.
What makes it unique is its narrative-focused dice system where custom dice are used to determine not just success or failure, but also introduce dynamic narrative elements. This system encourages players to think creatively and collaboratively to shape the story. There are three settings to choose from, ensuring every Star Wars fan can have the kind of adventure they want.
Edge of the Empire is perfect for those who love the spaghetti western vibes of The Mandalorian. Age of Rebellion is great for re-enacting those classic Original Trilogy scenes of taking down the Empire. Force and Destiny is the setting for those who want to live out their Jedi adventures, like in Star Wars: Jedi Survivor. Whatever flavor of Star Wars players want, this RPG can deliver. And unfortunately, with the third Star Wars Jedi title and Star Wars Eclipse both in limbo, this might be the best Star Wars game experience for some time.
Those who want to play Armored Core 6: Fires of Rubicon on a tabletop don’t need to look any further. Lancer is a science-fiction TTRPG set in a distant future where humanity has colonized other planets. This “mud-and-lasers” setting pits mech pilots, known as Lancers, against each other in a post-scarcity Utopia, built on the sins of humanity’s past.
Lancer is well known for its deep and flexible mech customization system. Players can build and upgrade their mechs in numerous ways, allowing for a high degree of personalization and strategy. In-universe, this is justified by 3D printing tech reaching such a high level that no pilot is ever strapped for parts, assuming they have the funds.
Of course, the real meat of the game is the combat. Lancer’s action takes place on a turn-based grid, where factors such as distance and areas of effect are very much in play. A tactical mind is needed to maneuver your mech through the hail of missiles, bullets, and lasers. The best campaigns string together these fights in the most cinematic ways possible, making Lancer an unforgettable ride.