Three great games that aren’t D&D – and what to steal from them

This blog mainly focuses on 5th edition D&D. If you’re a regular reader (thanks!), you have probably grasped that by now. Does that mean I only play D&D or that I think D&D is the only game worth playing? Of course not!

In this post, I whizz through some of my favourite RPGs and look at the ‘big thing’ that each game brings to the table. I then offer some thoughts about how easily they can be shipped over to 5th edition ­– and whether they should be.

Fate Core

Home • Fate SRD

Whenever people ask what my favourite RPG is that’s not D&D, I always say Fate first. Storytelling is what I love most about RPGs, and more than any other RPG, Fate feels like a game built with storytelling at its core.

Fate’s ‘big thing’ is aspects and fate points. The designers define aspects as a phrase that describes something unique or noteworthy about whatever it’s attached to. It could be a character trait (‘silver-tongued scoundrel’), an obstacle (‘tricky lock’), a lasting injury (‘bloody nose’), or an ongoing issue in the game world (‘the doom that is to come’). By spending fate points, aspects can be invoked to provide an in-game benefit, usually a reroll or a +2. Alternatively, a player can be compelled to accept an aspect as an in-game complication, and they receive a fate point as part of the trade-off. This constant exchange of fate points is known as the fate point economy.

The other thing I really like about Fate is the ladder. Every roll in Fate uses four Fate dice: essentially d6s but with pluses, minuses, and blanks spread equally over the six sides. You might add a bonus depending on how good you are at the thing in question, and then you look up your result on ‘the ladder’, where each score is rated with a different adjective. +6 is fantastic; +1 is ‘average’; −2 is ‘terrible’. Because of these degrees of success, you might succeed at a cost, succeed with style, fail and suffer a consequence, or somehow get a lesser version of what you wanted. You rarely just fail or succeed.

Adapting this to 5e: aspects already exist in D&D (sort of) with personality traits and the like – but it’s nowhere near as integral to the system as it is in 5e. You could simulate it to some extent with the advantage/disadvantage mechanic, and the DM could reward you with inspiration in the future in return for rolling with disadvantage in the present.   

As for the ladder: there are rules for this in the Dungeon Master’s Guide! See page 242. Many DMs probably house-rule something like this already, but Fate is a good model for how to do it more consistently.

Cypher System

Review: the Cypher System in Play – Scroll for Initiative

I tried the Cypher System for the first time in January last year. You can read my full review of it here. It’s a great system: familiar enough to D&D players that you can get started quickly, but with enough differences and distinctions to feel fresh and interesting. Like Fate, the Cypher System offers rules for degrees of success, and character creation is based around key descriptors, not too dissimilar from aspects.

The big thing in the Cypher System is cyphers (unsurprisingly). As I wrote last year, cyphers are essentially single-use abilities that characters pick up in the course of their adventures. They might be potions, pills, nanotechnology, smartphone apps, gadgets . . . anything. Because cyphers are single-use, they don’t run the risk of ‘breaking the game’ in the way that magic items do in D&D, and because characters are only allowed to have a few at a time, there’s an incentive to use them regularly.

Another element I really like about the Cypher System is the fact that players roll all the dice. So for example, instead of the DM rolling multiple enemy attack rolls, it is up to the players to dodge those attack rolls. This is great because it frees up the DM to focus on other things and gives players things to do in between turns.

Adapting this to 5e: cyphers already exist in D&D in the form of single-use magic items. A potion or a scroll is essentially a cypher! There’s nothing to stop you as a DM from expanding their role in your game. A cypher might provide a burst of speed, a stroke of luck, enhanced reflexes, or a strength boost. Potions of healing get boring quickly.

As for players rolling all the dice: this is relatively easy to do, at least where attacks are concerned. It was a variant rule in 3rd edition’s Unearthed Arcana (p 133 if you’re interested). You’ll need to do a bit of mental maths, but essentially the formula is this:

  • Instead of having an Armour Class, characters have a ‘Defence Check’ equal to AC minus ten. Thus, a dwarf with AC 18 now has an ‘Defence Check’ of +8.
  • Instead of having an attack roll, enemies have an attack ‘score’ equal to their attack roll plus eleven. A goblin with +4 to hit now has an attack score of 15.     
  • When an enemy attacks, players roll a Defence Check versus the enemy’s Attack Score. If, then, our dwarf rolls 7 or higher on a d20, he blocks the goblin’s scimitar. The chance of success is the same as in the original system, except this time it’s a natural 1 that’s a critical hit, not a natural 20.
  • The same approach could be taken for monster saving throws, although we might need a change in nomenclature to avoid confusion with ‘Strengths core’, ‘Dexterity score’, etc.   

Blades in the Dark

Blades in the Dark by John Harper

I’ve only played a couple of sessions of Blades, but I’m a big fan. It’s by no means ‘rules light’, but it takes a potential complex game mode – heists – and streamlines it.

Blades in the Dark is a very different system to D&D, and to cover its mechanics in depth would be a whole other article. So let’s cherry-pick a few stand-out features.

Perhaps one of the most memorable mechanics of Blades is the progress clock, although it’s not something that Blades technically invented. The basic principle has been in RPGs for some time now, but the Blades version is clean and elegant. In essence, any time the players attempt a long-term challenge, you draw a progress clock like a sliced-up cake. A ‘complex’ task might have four slices, and a ‘daunting’ task might have eight. It’s a simple yet suspenseful way of extending a challenge.

I also like the devil’s bargain mechanic. In exchange for an additional die roll, the player boosts their chances of success while accepting a complication: collateral damage, unintended harm, betraying a friend or loved one, offending or anger a faction . . . there are lots of possibilities. Interestingly, this can be proposed by the Game Master or another player.

Finally, while not technically a ‘mechanic’, I really like what this game has to say about running RPGs. ‘Be a fan of the players’, ‘let everything flow from the fiction’, ‘hold on lightly’: the Dungeon Master’s Guide would benefit hugely from this sort of advice. Similarly, for players, there are tips like ‘do into danger’, ‘don’t be a weasel’, ‘build your character through play’, and ‘don’t talk yourself out of fun’. Again, D&D would be a better game if players were encouraged to play like this.

Adapting this to 5e: progress clocks are vaguely reminiscent of 4th edition’s skill challenges. A number of DMs have talked about how to incorporate these into 5e, including Matt Colville and DMDave, although I’m still a little sceptical about whether they are actually very fun.

The devil’s bargain isn’t very far removed from the mechanic of compelling aspects in Fate. DMs: try offering cinematic advantage in exchange for some kind of in-game complication. You might be surprised how many players say yes! (Sly Flourish has a great post about cinematic advantage, itself inspired by Dungeon Craft’s video on the topic.)

As for the advice on running RPGs: this stuff is gold! You don’t to do anything mechanically different – just embrace it!

What RPGs do you steal mechanics from? Let us know in the comments below.

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