As we continue to talk about the off ramp from D&D, I want t discuss two ideas.
The first is the difference between leaving a game and abandoning a game. There is a weird paradox in gaming where we interpret the idea of leaving a game as criticism, but celebrate the discovery of new games. The reality is that actual abandonment of games is much rarer than adding another game to the list of those you play, and in that sense, “leaving” a game is a very positive thing. It means you’re trying something new, and more games in the world is a good thing. Yet we still wrestle with that knee jerk sense that these things are zero sum, so I want to call out that when I talk about leaving D&D or pathfinder or d20, I mean it in the positive sense, not in the sense of discarding them.
Second, kind of leads into the point of the piece. When I propose 13th Age, Numenera and Dungeon World as the D&D off ramps, that is not the same thing as saying they are the only good options available out there at the moment. We are living in a golden age of fantastic games, and while the three games I’m discussing are all great, the reasons I have selected them are tangential to their general quality level. They each have a specific thread which, I feel, can be followed from 3.x to end up there.
For a historical perspective, consider Vampire. When it came onto the scene, it was a lot of people’s first game, but lots of other players came across from games like D&D. But other than the fact that they were both games, there was no real natural progression from D&D to Vampire. It was just a jump. And so would it be to go from D&D to Cortex Plus, or Hero, or Savage Worlds or, yes, even Fate.
There is also a totally unfair element of timing to this. Green Ronin has two games (Dragon Age and Song of Ice and Fire) that could legitimately make a case for being potential off ramps based on their content, but they came out to early (and there are other complicating factors as well). It makes me sad because I love both games, but I just don’t think they’re in the mind at the moment.
So speaking of timing, why do I think now is the time? Three factors, and I’ll just own up that the first is intuition. It feels like it’s time, and it feels like D&D Next is about a year behind where it needs to be to catch the wave.
The second is that while Paizo continues to put out great stuff, it’s definitely a very mature line at this point. The Pathfinder RPG is a solid foundation and fanbase, but the things they’re going to be exciting us with over the next year or two are things that progress from that foundation (like, say, Pathfinder Adventures).
The third is that there is clearly energy in the fanbase. Numenera and Dungeon World came out of Kickstarter, and 13th Age’s first supplement was also kickstartered. Importantly, all three saw fan response that indicated a lot of pent up demand. Now, admittedly, this is not strictly limited to these three games, but they definitely ride that wave (and in the case of Numenera, it’s kind of critically telling).
So all that said, why these three games.
Numenera is probably the most and least obvious. Mechanically and stylistically it has the least overlap with D&D – it’s technofuturism with a system whose only overlap with D&D is the use of a d20. How is it an off ramp? And the answer to that it, honestly, Monte Cook. Cook was the first guy to really get the d20 PDFs moving, and he’s steadily and consistently built a fanbase who respond to his particular view of D&D. I don’t want to dismiss his design skills, but they are largely overshadowed by his vision and his ability to share that vision. He is taking the step away from d20, and he’s bringing along several thousand friends.
And I think he’s cognizant of this. While Numenera’s trappings are very different from D&D, its structural underpinnings are (deliberately, I presume) very similar. Magic is explained differently, but otherwise it’s still very magic, and the entire tone of play feels very close to Gazetteer era D&D. More, the game is basically an argument for trusting GM creativity. The empowered GM can be a contentious idea, but for many people, 4e’s move away from it was one of its more off putting components. all these things combine into a much more natural progression from D&D than may be immediately evident
Dungeon World is somewhat more obvious, since it is in many ways a specific distillation of the “D&D Experience”. It is probably the smallest off ramp of these three because it has no big names associated with it and it’s one of those weird Indie games, but for a certain segment of the populace, those things are benefits, not drawbacks.
Dungeon World is a very disruptive games, with a very different way of handling play, but it frames it all through very familiar D&D tropes. This may be hippie, semi-abstracted narrative-layer translation stuff, but it’s hippie, semi-abstracted narrative layer translation stuff wrapped around hitting orcs with swords. This may not seem like a big thing, but I feel it’s a large part of why Dungeon World often overshadows Apocalypse World, the game it’s based on.
If you’re not familiar with Dungeon World, there’s no way I can explain it fully in the space available, but the big reason I consider it an off ramp is that it provides a very essential D&D experience with a lot of the fat cut out. Some might argue that it got some muscle as well, and the reality is that it’s not a game for everyone. But for the gamer looking to push their boundaries while still fitting in a D&D shaped box, this is probably the way to go.
13th Age shares some characteristics of both of the other two. While Tweet & Heinsoo may not have quite the rock star pull that Cook has, they are definitely names to conjure with. And while 13th Age is not as much of a weird hippy narrative game as Dungeon World, it definitely has parts that drift that way (and honestly, there’s a weird resonance between the 13th Age and Dungeon World classes, though that may just be me.)
So Simon from Pelgrane actually commented the other day, and shared a little bit o 13th Age background, and specifically that it genuinely grew out of the designer’s own d20 game (rather than back-grafting d20 onto the ideas of the game, which is how I thought it felt). I totally believe this, but it does not diminish my sense that 13th Age really has pushed d20 past its bounds and into the realm of something else.
Yet despite that, it still has the familiar patterns of d20. In fact, the text is pretty clearly written as someone’s second game after some D&D. If Numenera is an inobvious off ramp, 13th Age is basically lit with great green neon letters pointing the way. Take your D&D knowledge and use it to do more and different stuff!
I realize this is a weird way to look at games, but I’m going to make the case for why this is useful. As gamers, we have a bad habit of hearing “I like X, what else should I try?” and no matter what X is, we say SAVAGE WORLDS. We are not necessarily very respectful of a path from thing to thing. In this case, I am thinking about these three games as the answers to the question of “I like D&D/Pathfinder, now what?”
And in each case, the answer is a little bit different, but framed similarly.
If you like being the heroes of the setting, moving from place to place, uncovering cool new things while getting more and more badass, and your GM is really awesome and you love him, then try Numenera. (Alternately: Did you buy Ptolus?)
If you really like the experience of D&D – crawling through dungeons, hectic fights, weird magic – but want maybe a little less crunch and you want to try something really new and different then try Dungeon World.
If you really like D&D, but you just want to push your experience a little further, and you really like playing someone who’s a mover and a shaker and really an important part of the setting, then go with 13th Age.
Now, note, those pitches don’t speak to what’s awesome about the games. They speak to what the D&D player resonates with in D&D, and finds a parallel and expansion in the game. And explicitly, none of them are “Do you like FUN? This game is ALSO fun!”
I call this out explicitly because this is the internet, and that means that people have opinions about other off ramps. And I’m open to that. But if you’re going to make a case for one, then I strongly suggest you address the following questions:
1) What is in it that the D&D player is going to resonate to?
2) Is the game currently alive, active, and non-insular enough to catch their eye?
3) Is it different enough from Pathfinder to catch their eye but not so different as to cause whiplash?
If you have good answers to those points, I’m totally open to them, but this is not open season for your favorite game. So, go to – convince me this stool needs another leg! There are no wrong answers!
Except Fate or Savage Worlds.
Those are totally wrong answers.
- Though I will admit that for each of those games there are arguably specific products which might be an off ramp from Fate, but that’s a whole other train of thought. ↩
- Insert someone’s favorite game here. ↩
- Yes, “I want something totally out there which is also D&D” seems contradictory, but that doesn’t mean it’s a position no one holds. There plenty of people who use the world D&D in lieu of RPG the way some use Coke in lieu of Soda (Screw pop. We’re not barbarians.). ↩