Let’s face it, Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder have a stranglehold on the RPG market. I’m not here to argue if this is a good or bad trend for the industry, but the last thing anyone on planet RPG really needs right now is another book dealing with adventures set on the “Forgotten” Realms or Golarion. Having an industry run by only two main competitors can frankly make things a bit stale.
But it doesn’t need to be this way! There doesn’t always have to be only a master and an apprentice. There doesn’t need to be a two-party system! Yin and Yang need not be your only two options! There is a far too great a diversity of RPG products out there on the market for roleplayers to get stuck in a binary gaming purgatory. Roleplayers don’t have to play either D&D or Pathfinder.
It’s okay to not get caught up in the RPG-Industrial Complex churned out by Paizo and Wizards. I’m here to help! There’s plenty of great RPGs out there that players can pick up and run with on the fly that won’t break your brain bank…. Or your literal one!
Especially of interest to more traditional roleplayers is the assortment of Old School Renaissance/Revival (OSR) titles available. OSR games act as retroclones of original D&D, sometimes mechanically, but almost always tonally. The OSR movement emphasizes GM/player choice and independence over following a strict set or rules. The emphasis is on the GM arbitrating rules using a rules-lite model to give agency in the playing experience.
One of the biggest reasons players say that they don’t want to try a new system is the learning curve it takes to memorize new rules. OSR RPGs are rules-lite by design, so they are easy to jump into without much fuss. Many of these OSR systems harken back to the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons, especially the Basic/Expert sets (B/X), where rules were open to interpretation and not as well defined or rigid. Plus, D&D and Pathfinder are the product of these older designs, so learning these games shouldn’t be cumbersome at all!
The last few years have seen a boom in OSR material thanks to the Open Game License. The range of products available should give every player a chance to get out of their binary Wizard/Paizo safe zones and go back to the days of yore when roleplaying was new, adventurous, and lethal.
Here are 7 OSR RPG products that should rekindle your roleplaying flame that’s been snuffed out by lack of choice from the Big Two of tabletop gaming.
Are you looking for the heavy metal version of an RPG? Free League Publishing’s Mörk Borg is your game. The game’s website probably describes the concept best: “Pitch-black apocalyptic fantasy OSR RPG about miserable bastards doing their best/worst in a bleak, dying world.” Mörk Borg is unashamedly dark and brooding, including both its content and its layout.
The book itself is a homage to all the black heavy metal dreams of your misspent nunchuck-twirling teen years. The book includes rules, setting information about the dying world, and a first dungeon crawl to get your play started quickly. Besides being a killer (pun intended) rule set, the book is absolute eye candy, being one of the best designed rulebooks on the market. Mörk Borg tried hard to be the game that parents feared during the Satanic Panic, and it succeeds in the best way possible.
I have always been a sucker for the Jazz Age. There’s so much crazy stuff going on during the 1920s and early 1930s. Fortunately, Gangbusters gives roleplayers the opportunity to canoodle with flappers, bootleg with mobsters, and duke it out with some prohibition agents.
Gangbusters is about as old school as you can get with Old School Renaissance titles. It started life back in the early 1980s from TSR. The current B/X edition was released in 2019 and follows the rules from the D&D Basic and Expert sets. The 1920s setting of Gangbusters is a refreshing setting for roleplaying something outside of the high fantasy settings from the big two. You can purchase a pdf or physical copy by visiting Drive Thru RPG.
THE BLACK HACK
The Black Hack is a sleak, no frills OSR RPG that both looks and feels like original D&D. The rules clock in at a svelte 30 pages and are available for free online. The Black Hack emphasizes speed of play and ease of rules. Your group will have no problem digesting the rules and creating their own ready-to-play characters in just a few minutes.
One of the best parts about the Black Hack is just how much content is out there from other “third party” developers, available for free and purchase. I recently purchased The Cthulhu Hack, which is based on Lovecraft’s famous mythos using the Black Hack as the rule set.
BARBARIANS OF THE RUINED EARTH
Speaking of games that use The Black Hack rules set, Barbarians of the Ruined Earth offers a gonzo post-apocalyptic setting that harkens back to Gamma World. The title alone ought to make any serious RPG player seek out Barbarians of the Ruined Earth! The game provides a fun, vibrant setting for the end of the world.
Barbarians takes heavy influence from sources like Gamma World, Mad Max, and Thundarr the Barbarian. It’s a pleasant mix of sword and sorcery, science fiction, and neon tinged weirdness. When aliens destroyed the moon, earth was left shattered. Those interested can find useful tools and links to purchase the game by visiting DIY RPG Productions.
Troika! is a hack of the 1980’s Fighting Fantasy series from Puffin by Steve Jacksons and Ian Liivingstone (the eventual co-founders of Games Workshop). At its core, Troika! calls itself science fantasy, but it’s almost too psychedelic for that. The game oozes strangeness. Troika! provides a bare bones system with an easy 2d6 mechanic.
There’s just enough of a system and background provided with classes to get the player started, but it also offers just enough to give the players tons of freedom to define and play their character in unique ways. Like Mörk Borg, the art and layout of Troika! is a sight to behold, painting an equally dreamy and trippy view for the player. Anyone looking to bring a bit more strangeness to their gaming table should definitely seek out Troika! Visit Troika!’s website to find out more!
OLD SCHOOL ESSENTIALS
Necrotic Gnome’s Old School Essentials is another OSR RPG that tries very hard to reproduce the experience from D&D’s Basic and Expert sets from the 1980s. As its name suggests, OSE not only brings the feel of older editions of D&D, it also tries to make itself compatible with the older modules as well, making laborious conversion of classic materials a thing of the past. Like The Black Hack, there’s a ton of compatible material out there for OSE.
As with most of these OSR games, its basic rules are available for free. No need to buy anything, but the printed books are well done and easy to read/reference. You can read more about Old School Essentials and download the rules by clicking here.
Probably my favorite OSR related material I have purchased in the last year is Mothership. Inspired by the likes of Metamorphosis Alpha and the Alien Franchise, Mothership is a mix of science fiction and horror. Lots and lots of horror. The zine style Mothership books are scary and haunting, dripping with blood, long shadows, and primordial ooze. The game uses a simple 2d6 mechanic, with its simple rules helpfully reproduced on the back cover for ease of reference.
The game is deadly, pitting players against the bleakness of space and all that entails. Players shouldn’t only be worried about things that go bump in the dark. Sanity and environmental effects play just as large a role in Mothership as aliens nibbling on your bones do. There are a few published adventures out there as well, with each giving your players an open playground to explore. You can find out more by visiting Mothership’s homepage.