Qfamily Overthrow your (Dungeon) Master! Not every game needs a D20.
As con season approaches with the all-time title bout between Pathfinder and D&D Next in its wake, it seems like a time to step back a little. Let's remind ourselves of the smaller, weirder aspects of RPG fandom. Although publishers willing to commission a large-scale print run are diminishing, the tools available today can more than make up for it. Crowd funding, PDF, POD options - not to mention Amazon and eBay - make it so the obscure titles aren't as obscure as they used to be; most are little more than a Google search away. Although we've put together only a taste of what's available in the market today, here is a sample of ten that might catch your interest.
1. After The Bomb
After the Bomb was originally a licensed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG product but when Palladium Books lost the license they made it more of a generic apocalyptic game. Either way, it was a lot of fun. You also have the side benefit of all of Palladium's books following generally the same system, thus allowing your character to sidestep into other settings. True story; my favorite character ever was an anthropomorphic T-rex from T.M.N.T. dropped into Palladium's kitchen sink RIFTS setting. He liked to eat the limbs of underlings that displeased him. Good times.
For all that, the Palladium system can be a bit of a nightmarish labyrinth of warmed over 1980s-era game design, though I've always thought they handled martial arts well. Having characters with varying number of attacks per round, everyone getting a defense roll, tons of situational modifiers, and everyone having enough hit points to suck up 10+ hits are all obstacles in a gunfight. But in a protracted martial arts duel, they are pretty much on topic and help build atmosphere. Also the Palladium system has stats for "roll with blow" and "backflip". I think that seals the deal.
2. Spirit of the Century
Evil Hat Productions Biplanes, gorillas, dames in distress, what more could you want? Grab your fedoras, gentlemen.
Fate's successful Kickstarter last year has made them a very popular generic RPG from Evil Hat Productions with many settings here or on the way. However, before Evil Hat's ascension, there was a time when their main RPG was Spirit of the Century. A pulp-based setting with survivors of World War I out to Save the World, its ease of use and casual blending of magic and advanced tech earned it a special place in my heart. You play 1920s-ish adventurers organized into a Century Club. Not-Tarzan, not-Shadow, not-Rocketeer, and not-Houdini characters are encouraged and just scratching the surface of the available archetypes.
The best news, though, is that Fate has not forgotten Spirit of the Century in its new era. One of the first books released for Fate Core was The Day After Ragnarok, a book that is effectively a sequel to Spirit of the Century. Basically, Hitler starts Ragnarok and the heroes of Spirit of the Century manage to kill the Midgard Serpent by having not-Rocketeer fly a nuke into its mouth. The remnants and survivors of the Century Club are now released into a post-Ragnarok Cold War world where you're equally likely to be menaced by nazis, commies, and frost giants. Sounds like a fun Saturday night!
3. Blue Rose
Paul van de Velde It's like this, in RPG form.
Blue Rose is one of the more successful iterations of the once genre-crushing D20 system. When D&D Third Edition was first released, the powers that be decided its core system should be freely licensed to basically anyone who was interested. This somewhat quixotic decision did result in the D20 System being adopted or at least acknowledged by almost every RPG release of its time, but being as the license was free, it really didn't directly benefit the brand owners at all. Although it possibly spurred on sales of the core books, I doubt we'll see such an altruistic move by a game publisher again.
Blue Rose's version was called the True20 system and it was liked well enough to spin off into its own line. System issues aside, the reason why Blue Rose is interesting is that it was an attempt to grab the 'other' side of fantasy gaming; the side with romances, semi-relevant religions, and conflicts that didn't always get resolved by rolling for initiative and then cutting each other until one person falls down. Can you do a high, romantic fantasy with the same basic engine as hack and slash D&D? Well, I think it's debatable, but I've enjoyed the games I have played and I really, really appreciate that Blue Rose is something a little different from the default.
4. Abney Park's Airship Pirates RPG
Myke Amend/Abney Park Be a terror of the skies but a danger to yourselves.
If I invited you to play an RPG based on a steampunk band, I'm not sure how you would react. RPGs are obscure. Steampunk is at least semi-obscure and steampunk music is definitely obscure. Plus the era of "band goes on real life adventure" shows seem to have greatly diminished from its heyday of the Chipmunks, KISS, Josie and the Pussycats, JabberJaw, etc. So what are the odds of a band RPG being any good? (Although they are making a Jem movie, so maybe that genre is making a comeback.)
As it turns out, Abney Park's Airship Pirates RPG is actually a lot of fun. "Captain" Robert Brown, founder of the band, is actually into geeky things and has a large amount of involvement with the occasional spin off. It helps that Abney Park's music is less about an idealized Victorian era and more about a weird post apocalypse where everyone lives in the sky to avoid genetically-modified monsters that roam the land looking to kill people. The background story, in which the band gets a time-traveling ship and goes through history righting wrongs only to accidentally set up the most evil dictator ever, is wacky but not particularly overshadowing current events. The game also has surprisingly good rules for crewing a flying ship, creepy automaton-people, and a good variety of character backgrounds and tweaks to choose from.
5. Savage Worlds
Billed as fast, furious, and fun, Savage Worlds trades out much of the book-keeping of more complicated games to bring you a slim $10 full-color rule book. I don't know how much you know about RPG pricing but you can trust me when I say it's practically free as I am very trustworthy due to writing things on the Internet. The Savage Worlds rules are simple, so simple that it's pretty easy to convert almost anything to Savage Worlds as you only have a few things to worry about.
I have played games using the Savage Worlds rules a few times, and combat always kept moving, which was nice, as the more tactical RPGs can bog down here and there. A typical session covers a week in the first three hours and the last hour covers 5 minutes of combat. There are times where I do miss some of the meatier bits of combat (I generally lean towards the more intensive math / details in combat, personally) but there are some innovative bits to the system that keep things interesting. My favorite is exploding dice, which basically mean once you roll the highest on a die you get to roll it again, and if you hit max then you roll it again, on and on until your luck rolls out. Generally this has no impact on a session but once in a while the results are hilarious and memorable.