Dungeons & Dragons is ubiquitous across the TTRPG world, and for good reason, but it can’t do everything.
The Fifth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, released in 2014, is an easily-understood, solid system for the sort of stories D&D was designed to tell. For a game about going into dungeons to find loot, and battling villains and monsters across a fantasy world, there are few better.
Due to the game’s popularity, however, the first port of call for many is to attempt to use its rules for other sorts of stories they want to tell.
There have even been official attempts by the designers of Dungeons & Dragons to accomodate these.
The recently-released book Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft focuses on a game world influenced by gothic horror and where some of the greatest threats are internal and psychological, rather than external monsters.
Nonetheless, the game is geared primarily for a certain type of adventure, that of swaggering heroes bringing low dastardly villains, and it is this territory that Dungeons & Dragons excels.
While players and Dungeon Masters can stretch or change the rules to accomodate other genres, it is often a lot of work for a half-measure.
Instead, there are dozens of systems out there that can accomodate other genres of fiction, built from the ground-up to support them, and can truly enhance a game that plays to their strengths.
Heists – Blades in the Dark
Released in 2017, Blades in the Dark has won itself acclaim since then, and launched a sub-genre of games under the umbrella of Forged in the Dark.
In it, players take on the role of morally murky thieves and scoundrels attempting to carve out a living in the city of Duskvol, surviving in world beset by ghosts and undergoing an industrial revolution.
It’s a far cry from the medieval fantasy heroics of Dungeons & Dragons, and the games tight ruleset focuses entirely around the players getting into heists, carrying out heists, and reaping the rewards from those heists.
Sparing combat no more thought than any other action – in a departure from the expectation of heavy tactical combat in D&D – Blades in the Dark instead devotes its time and space to rules that better suit the themes and twists of heist fiction.
For instance, players can trigger ‘flashbacks’, where they reveal a previously-unmentioned part of their character’s plan and slot it into the ongoing narrative. If the characters have their tools confiscated at a checkpoint, for instance, a player can announce a flashback where their character planned for such a contingency, and had spares hidden beneath a floorboard in the next room.
The game’s unique dice-rolling system also ensures that most actions, even successful ones, will carry some form of negative consequences, creating a rising thread of tension throughout in a way that cannot be easily replicated in a system like Dungeons & Dragons.
Horror – Call of Cthulhu
Horror has some pedigree in Dungeons & Dragons, with the aforementioned ‘Ravenloft’ setting. However, the default assumptions of the game are that the player characters are mighty heroes who can overcome most threats through force of arms.
Call of Cthulhu, named for the H. P. Lovecraft story of the same name, goes right to the opposite end of the spectrum.
The players take on the role of ordinary men or women such as librarians, detectives, and journalists who are thrust into mysteries far beyond their comprehension.
Most of the threats in Call of Cthulhu are too dangerous to be engaged directly, and even successful combat threatens to claim the lives of at least one or two characters.
It is this sense of helplessness that truly elevates the tension in Call of Cthulhu to levels that more combatative systems such as Dungeons & Dragons cannot match – while the shifting focus means the players can spend more time on other things, such as investigating mysteries.
A combination of using some of the best ideas in horror – while removing the less savoury parts of Lovecraft’s writing – alongside a system designed to emphasise vulnerability and quick-thinking allows Call of Cthulhu to bring an element of horror to tabletop roleplaying that few games can match.
Exploration – Adventures in Middle-Earth
Exploration is one of the three ‘pillars’ that Dungeons & Dragons claims to be built around – combat, story, and exploration. However, it is also the one most notorious for being underdeveloped in the rules.
A lack of challenge, few ways to engage many characters, and having less gameplay variety than combat or social interaction have all been cited as reasons why exploration is not more popular.
However, Adventures in Middle-Earth, a Lord of the Rings TTRPG built off of the base rules of Dungeons & Dragons‘s Fifth Edition, changes that.
Given that last swathes of the plot of both the Lord of the Rings books and films involve a long and perilous journey through wilderness and enemy territory, this isn’t surprising.
With the rules on exploration vastly expanded, it introduces mechanics such as a pre-rolled ‘Peril’ that informs the gamemaster how difficult the journey is likely to be, to pre-set roles to ensure the entire party has their role in the journey, and each success or failure affecting how difficult the adventure ahead is likely to be.
The lack of challenge is also addressed, with characters being unable to rest fully while on the road, ensuring that they are slowly drained over the course of their journey, and forcing decisions about resource conservation.
As a result, Adventures in Middle-Earth builds on the exploration of Dungeons & Dragons to fill that niche, largely left unfilled by the game as it is.
However, the game is currently difficult to get ahold of. Cubicle7, the original developers, lost the license to produce Lord of the Rings material, and Free League, the current license-holders, have not announced their plans with it. Copies can still be found online.
Low Magic – Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
It’s not infrequent that players attempt to create a world or a game that is lower fantasy, more akin to The Witcher, Merlin, or Game of Thrones, where people might go their whole lives never seeing powerful magic, and where individual monsters are cause for alarm.
This doesn’t work well in the ruleset of Fifth Edition, however, where many enemies cannot be overcome without magic, where starting characters can cast a theoretically infinite number of spells, and where even semi-talented spellcasters can warp reality by the end of the game.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, however, takes players to Games Workshop’s Warhammer setting, a twisted version of early Rennaissance Europe where magic is rare and dangerous, and technology slowly advances.
In Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, only a small fraction of characters can even use magic, with the rest relying on weaponry, wits, or simple running and hiding to stay alive. Magic artifacts, if found at all, are likely to be dangerous and highly illegal.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay leaves the players far closer to the mortal end of the fantasy character spectrum, well away from the powerful magical heroes one sees in Dungeons & Dragons, and closer to most of those seen in shows like The Witcher or Game of Thrones.
Science Fiction – Stars Without Number
As a genre often paired with fantasy, science-fiction is another genre people are often eager to try in Dungeons & Dragons, such as this attempt to create Star Wars within the rules.
It’s not without history – since its inception, Dungeons & Dragons has included nods to science fiction, such as laser weapons being findable in crashed spaceships in fantasy worlds, and the Spelljammer setting where players fly a sailing ship through space.
However, Fifth Edition is ill-equipped for this. The game lacks rules for spaceships, other planets, or any number of things associated with science fiction.
While things can be added to the Fifth Edition chassis, it is smoother to play a game designed for science fiction. There are several, such as Rogue Trader, Traveler, or a number of games themselves set in the Star Wars universe.
The standout, however, is Stars Without Number. A sandbox-style game where players travel through a collapsed interstellar empire, making their way from world to world and engaging in adventures, Stars Without Number is built in the style of classic science fiction such as Star Trek or Red Dwarf, with every rule in the system geared towards making that experience.
Niche games and playing them
There is nothing wrong with playing Dungeons & Dragons, it is ubiquitous for a reason. At what it does, it is one of the best.
Playing a game that better fills a specific niche, however, can enhance your experience of the game, save time that could be spent improving your tabletop experience, and engage with the genre you’re looking to explore on a deeper level.
The games suggested in this article are not better than D&D, they’re alternatives with strengths of their own.
What are some other niches in tabletop roleplaying game fiction that are better-filled by games other than Dungeons & Dragons? What are some other stand-outs in the genres discussed above? Comment below, or join the conversation on social media.