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5 Tabletop RPGs You Should Play

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So, you wanna get into the big bold world of tabletop roleplaying games, huh? Maybe you’ve decided to spend more time with friends and you think game night is a great way to do this or perhaps you’ve got inspiration for a sprawling world and you just really want to evolve it by telling stories in it. Suppose you don’t know where to start, like what RPG system you should use. You could go with Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a classic for a reason and fifth edition D&D definitely strikes a delicate balance between crunchy and simple. Maybe you’ve recently been watching Nerdarchy’s most recent live play Moon Rises and you want to try your hand with Cypher System. Maybe there’s another game you’ve wanted to try but you’re just not sure on the matter or maybe you don’t even know where to start when you want to branch out with RPGs. Don’t worry. If you want a brief rundown of what different systems high and low points are you’ve come to the right place. Today we’re talking about five different RPG systems — what they do well, what they could do better and general pros and cons. Before we delve even that far feel free to check out the video I did over on my own YouTube channel where I break down the strengths and weaknesses of different types of RPG systems.

How to decide on an RPG system for your next game

Once you have a handle on what type of setting you want to run it makes the decision process a lot simpler, based on how much legwork you’re willing to do. Over the course of these rundowns I’ll classify them as one of the following based on the categories mentioned in my video:

  • Genre/Setting Agnostic
  • Genre Specific/Setting Agnostic
  • Genre/Setting Specific

Cypher System

Type: Genre/Setting Agnostic

If you’ve been watching Nerdarchy Live’s Moon Rises campaign then you’re aware of Cypher System by Monte Cook Games. Numenera came first, a genre and setting specific system that broke character creation into a descriptor, a type and a focus. Cypher is essentially Numenera but stripped down to its core mechanics and its main goal is to be accessible as a truly baseline RPG.

This system is phenomenally flexible, allowing for Game Masters to run literally any type of story. Much of this is thanks to its versatility of customization and the four types (essentially classes, but not exactly). While we’re all familiar with the warrior archetype and explorer is pretty close to the rogue or ranger, adept is where things get interesting and really emphasize the neutrality of the core mechanics.

Adepts manipulate things on a fundamental level. It might be through magic or psionic powers, or they might be hackers or tech masters. These are the guys with super powers and it’s really cool to see a system embrace a versatile, flavor neutral magic system as robust as this one.

The other big change here is in the speaker, a character all about talking to others. Whether that’s a bard or cleric convincing the masses, or it’s a character willing to stand up and lead their friends into danger, the speaker is probably the most interesting of the types in MCG’s Cypher System.

Where the game falls a bit flat is in its presentation. By virtue of the genre neutrality you can’t simply call something a missile or a magic wand. Instead you get a lot of talking around things with examples given. While this is a huge help to introducing new or unfamiliar players with the concept of a genre agnostic system, it does make things hard sometimes.

Another sticking point when it came to presentation was in where to find information. While the second edition of the game has streamlined much of those elements the first edition book, which is the same game but with less content and differently presented, struggled to make things clear and there were definitely elements of confusing wording when it came to rules and how to build a character.

The game is an absolute blast, with its Effort and Edge systems being the star and forcing players to think about their abilities as resources to spend or save. It gets really interesting, really quickly.

On the whole, Cypher is one of my personal favorite RPGs I’ve encountered and it bums me there isn’t more of a robust community surrounding Cypher System. I do suspect this stems at least partially from its licensing and lack of having any sort of open source option for content creators like what D&D, Savage Worlds and others have. However, it’s a very solid system and one of the coolest things about it is its versatility and ability to adapt to literally any genre or setting. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: There is a Cypher System Creator Program through DriveThruRPG to allow for fans and third party publishers tp release products for the Cypher System. Check it out here.]

Dungeons & Dragons

Type: Genre Specific/Setting Agnostic

The granddaddy of all RPGs, D&D has made a name for itself in a big way with the recent surge of popularity. Published by Wizards of the Coast it’s what many people think of when it comes to RPGs and if you’re into the scene chances are pretty high you’ve played.

Strengths here are obvious. Many people are familiar with D&D so getting together a group is pretty easy and even if you only know people who have never played D&D is an easy sell for many people by virtue of name alone.

The system is crisp and elegant yet has potential for great complexity if you’re intimately familiar with the system. It ages well and once you have a firm grasp on a class you have a pretty comfortable sense of how to play any character of that class, lending to a game that’s easy to slip into with a group of people you don’t know. It’s a gateway to social interactions and new friendships. Plus with the plethora of support for the system including online tools, third party supplements and accessories galore you could play D&D for literally decades with new adventure modules and homebrewed mechanics.

Where D&D falls a bit short is in its concrete mechanics. Once you play a fighter you generally know how every fighter works and this means you might get bored, or if there’s another fighter in the party you might end up stepping on each others’ proverbial toes when it comes to combat, especially.

D&D is heavily geared toward fantasy and it’s really hard to strip away the genre entirely. This means the types of stories you can tell (while vast and entertaining) are just never going to fit into certain molds. Sure, you could probably finagle it with some heavy reworking but this requires intimate knowledge of the system and deep familiarity with the fundamental structures of the system. It’s not easily adaptable for new DMs to run non-fantasy settings.

Cypher System, Dungeons & Dragons, Fantasy AGE, Quest and Savage Worlds represent a wide array of tabletop roleplaying game experiences.

Fantasy Adventure Game Engine/Dragon Age RPG

Type: Genre Specific/Setting Agnostic (Fantasy AGE) — Genre/Setting Specific (Dragon Age)

I was first introduced to the Dragon Age RPG by Geek & Sundry’s Tabletop. Green Ronin does a decent job with capturing the essence of Thedas in an RPG, and when this proved to be a hit they stripped it down to its core mechanics then altered it into what we now have as Fantasy Adventure Game Engine. There are other AGE systems put out by Green Ronin Publishing offering more genre neutral options but the core of the system as fantasy still shines through.

Fantasy AGE is a robust, crunchy system that strives for a balance of the realistic and the fantastic. Its Stunt system is one of my favorite mechanics to play with in an RPG and its use of 3d6 instead of your standard dice array makes it feel really different in a fundamental way that works really well with how they present things. Due to the 3d6 system players and GMs tend toward average results, which just feels right. This makes extremes feel more special, which I think is a good thing.

The system uses a three class system (mage, rogue, warrior) allowing for a heavy amount of customization. The unique feature of allowing for two subclasses as opposed to one breathes some much needed freshness into the RPG scene.

Where the system falls flat is in its complexity and presentation. AGE systems are incredibly crunchy. They’re math heavy and there are nuanced complexities to rules contributing to a refined system. However, in spite of this many elements — the magic system, in particular — feel imbalanced in a way that just seems out of place given how specific the system is at times. While I’m not opposed to a bit of clunkiness in a system (and I think it’s unavoidable to a degree) there are elements like the attribute scores that just feel needlessly complex and are not presented in a well formatted structure.

On the whole the game is pretty well presented but with how well they present certain aspects of the game you’d think they would pay a bit more attention to layouts. None of the books are bad by any means but they pretty much require you to read through them in their entirety before running a game. They aren’t conducive to picking them up and playing them on the fly.

Despite these issues the system is quite fun and the Dragon Age system, which is a pinch more elegant IMHO, can be a heavy draw for new players to RPGs as they’d already be familiar with the setting and genre. Fantasy AGE is easy enough to use as an introduction to new players but the learning curve necessitates an older audience. It’s a great system if you aim to mix things up with your gaming group or if you’re looking for a way to traverse the lands of Thedas.

Quest RPG

Type: Genre Specific/Setting Agnostic

Quest is such an interesting game! I mean that. Its simplicity lends itself to being an introductory RPG, which is its primary aim. The art is gorgeous and so ingrained in its specific style, I could spend hours just thumbing through this looking at the artwork.

Quest is a fantasy RPG by The Adventure Guild with an emphasis on simplicity and storytelling elements. This is exactly the kind of game I recommend caregivers play with children. It’s inviting and fantastical with just enough structure to get you going. The book is a short, easy read and the system itself guides to understanding its core structures so you can modify it to suit your needs.

The system does fall a bit flat in that it is so simple it could be easy to grow bored of it, and it is definitely not a strategy or war game simulator in any way. Its core is about facilitating storytelling and while this simplicity is much of the draw it can also repel some people looking for that good, good crunch in an RPG.

Quest is aware of what it is, doesn’t try to be something else and offers exactly what you need to pick up and play right away.

Savage Worlds

Type: Genre/Setting Agnostic

Savage Worlds by Pinnacle Entertainment Group is an elegant system to facilitate adventurous stories. Whether sci fi, fantasy, mystery or otherwise Savage Worlds offers what you need to play a game with enough crunch to satisfy but never overwhelm.

The balance of elements in this system floors me at times. The attributes use dice and by rolling your attribute die and a d6 (taking the higher) you determine if you succeed or fail at an attempt.

The system codifies abilities and limitations with edges and hindrances. These are a core component of what makes Savage Worlds shine. Every character feels different from every other and the modular nature of the abilities contributes to that genre neutral system core it’s renowned for. What’s more, while not as vast as others Savage worlds does have a thriving, vocal community of creators and contributors to the system. This is only increased by Pinnacle’s unique approach to licensing and I think it may be one of my favorite licensing models I’ve ever seen for an RPG company.

The sticking points for Savage Worlds lie in the learning curve and the bizarre initiative mechanic. There is definitely a learning curve to running this game, particularly for experienced RPG players. This is because the system works quite differently from others in key respects and it’s a lot crunchier than most genre/setting agnostic systems.

As for the initiative system I just don’t like it. I know some people do. I am not one of those people. Using playing cards to track and determine initiative just feels wonky and it’s very nonconducive to online play, which can be a major sticking point these days.

That being said Savage Worlds is an excellent RPG for running games in strange or specific settings and the system is both crunchy and flexible, striking a delicate balance for new and experienced players alike.

What do you think?

What are some of your favorite RPGs? Are you familiar with any of these game systems and if so what are your thoughts? Drop us a comment and let us know!

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Steven Partridge

Steven Partridge is a published fantasy author and staff writer for Nerdarchy. He also shows up Tuesdays at 8:00pm (EST) to play with the Nerdarchy Crew, over on the Nerdarchy Live YouTube channel. Steven enjoys all things fantasy, and storytelling is his passion. Whether through novels, TTRPGs, or otherwise, he loves telling compelling tales within various speculative fiction genres. When he's not writing or working on videos for his YouTube channel, Steven can be found lap swimming or playing TTRPGs with his friends. He works in the mental health field and enjoys sharing conversations about diversity, especially as it relates to his own place within the Queer community.

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