D&D Off Ramp – Why These Three?

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[1].

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.[2] 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[3] 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.

  1. 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.  ↩
  2. Insert someone’s favorite game here.  ↩
  3. 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.).  ↩

28 thoughts on “D&D Off Ramp – Why These Three?

  1. John

    Funny thing: I’ve lately been trying out Dungeon World as an on-ramp to D&D. I GM’ed 7th Sea, then Deadlands, then Savage Worlds (for a long time), then FATE and Apocalypse World, and never once any D&D. Dungeon World was kind of like dipping my toe in the water of “mainstream” RPGs.

      1. John

        Thanks! Now, based on some comments on the 13th Age Conclusion post, I’m thinking of picking up 13th Age in support of the same goal. I don’t know if I’ll ever run Pathfinder, but 13th Age may be a good fit. I moved to a rural place where d20 is the order of the day, so that would be an easier pitch, I think. Hopefully I can get them to try Fate later on.

        So in at least one case, these games are likely a two-way nexus rather than one or the other ramp.

  2. walkerp

    I would also add that Numenera follows the designer-down tradition of 3e, which appeals to players who want material (setting info and rules expansions) delivered to them from the designer, which was the 3rd edition model. And 13th Age, at least from the way I’ve seen 4e fans talking about it, has a lot of elements in it system-wise that appeal to their playstyle, so it may draw from that base more than Numenera.

    As for the fourth stool leg, Barbarians of Lemuria Mythic Edition for the win! (heh heh wishful thinking).

  3. Craig Maloney

    I’m wondering where Monsters and Magic would fit in this milleau, since it on the surface is a d20 system, but with d6 dice, “fate points”, and a claim of backward compatibility.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Similar space to Dragon Age and many others – good rules/concept match, but no external pressures (which is really a nice way to say “buzz”) to push people towards it.

      1. Craig Maloney

        So where would the OSR fit on this stool? Games like Labyrinth Lord / Castles and Crusades have a bit of notoriety in the RPG circles, but not the same clout as Pathfinder. And while Labyrinth Lord is a mostly bolt-on replacement for D&D Basic / Advanced, Castles and Crusades borrows heavily from the D&D lineage and then seasons it with it’s blend of fixed DC checks.

        Thinking about them, they’re likely not off-ramps, as tourist attractions. 🙂

        1. Alan

          I think the OSR faces the challenge of being a bunch of different things, making it difficult to get a lot of buzz in one place. “Well, it’s like (3e/4e) D&D, but simpler. Except sometimes it’s more complicated. And there are a half-dozen different systems, ignoring the minor ones. But don’t worry, they’re mostly compatible, except when they’re not.”

          I’m incredibly happy that the OSR is around and recommend that everyone try some OSR games. The fragmentation is part of its strength at the table, but it means it is a poor off-ramp.

  4. Brantaylor

    I’ve only ever played D&D, except for a brief bit of Alternity, but I’ve started looking for new systems to dabble in. I can say that the Dungeon World fanbase is one of the nicest groups I have come in contact with. They’re very helpful in the Google+ group and are more than happy to help you learn the system.

    I’m also increasingly more and more interested in 13th Age, and I look forward to giving it a try too. I couldn’t agree more that we’re in a golden age of gaming. The only problem is I have so many systems I want to try, and so little time to try them all.

    My biggest hope is that as more and more people move away from D&D and into other games, maybe more people will jump into the hobby and we can get away from the “Tabletop gamers worship the devil” stigma that some people associate with D&D.

  5. Murph

    Check out Old Skool Hack. Modern sensibilities, some indie narrative stuff, slightly more crunch than Dungeon World, heavily D&D influence.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Shortest answer is that they’re no better an off ramp fro D&D than they are for almost another game. They’re more generalist than D&D specific.

  6. Ed Gibbs

    Now fully understanding your point, I rescind my nomination of Fate. Though let the record show it’s still in extraordinary system.

    I really like the point you bring up with Numenera. I feel like modern, new-agey narrative RPGs are kind of kicking the teeth out of GMs and not letting them do what they’re supposed to do: tell the story. Bits and pieces of the GM’s jobs seems to be floating over to the players, and I although I can definitely see how that’s awesome, it also instills doubt where once there was none. I find this the case when playing Dungeon World; I’m often worried if I’m “playing it right,” or if I’m leading the players too far in one direction or another.

    Numenera, the way it reads (I’m running it this Sunday, so we’ll see how practice holds up to theory) seems to harken back to the “fire and brimstone” GM, though tempered by modern game design theory. I’m all about that!

    1. Alan

      Dungeon World is, like D&D, forgiving. The authors have commented that the GM moves are just an attempt to capture how they ran games, the sort of content some games just call “advice.” They also noted that almost everything many D&D DMs do fits comfortably under one of the GM moves. I suspect

      My own weird progression (D&D 2e, 3e, 4e, OD&D, Dungeon World) really emphasized how similar to early D&D Dungeon World is: an emphasis against the GM “telling a story” and instead playing to see what happens and a simple rules meaning the GM needs to make a lot of judgement calls.

  7. mxyzplk

    Yes, this reminds me of the ’90s when all my friends and I were off-ramping from D&D for the first time. 2e was long in the tooth and suddenly we were playing Deadlands and Fading Suns and Feng Shui and a whole wash of other stuff, not completely abandoning D&D but also not being exclusive to it.

    I just got done reading Numenera, and all of Monte’s advice sections definitely have a big D&D-offramp chip on their shoulder. “You may be used to getting experience just for killing monsters…” It seems to quite deliberately be a transition game you play immediately after D&D. From your review, same deal with 13th Age (I’m reading that next).

    1. Staffan

      There’s a difference in that Numenera is written as a new game from the bottom up, whereas 13th age is explicitly a new version of D&D – sorry, “d20-rolling RPG” – that veers off into some story-game territory. Monte Cook may aim his marketing at D&D players, but Numenera has pretty much nothing mechanically in common with it.

    1. Alan

      Torchbearer is an interesting beast. At the moment it doesn’t feel like an off-ramp because it lacks the “buzz” Rob mentioned. But it’s young and that may change.

      Torchbearer is very Old School Renaissance in many ways. (Mind you, none of the following are present in all OSR games. But they are elements you would not usually see in a modern game outside of the OSR.) Halflings, dwarves, and elves are classes, not races, and draw even more strongly from Tolkien than D&D ever did. Towns are explicitly mechanical, with significant NPC interaction discouraged. Part of what happens in town is dictated by random encounters. There is a strong focus on managing resources: equipment, food, money, and time. Combat is incredibly brutal; if you’re trying to kill your opponents, you are practically guaranteed to have a PC die. I don’t know how a “typical” 3e or 4e player would take it.

      For fans of any edition, Torchbearer is going to be weird in other ways. Time is a big deal, but is managed in a very abstract way that can feel unrealistic. “Damage” is entirely based on acquired conditions, and will require working from the mechanical result back to the effect (Why does climbing a wall make you Sick?). Money is similarly abstracted; you “spend” money in town, only rolling to determine if you actually had enough at the end, meaning you might unexpectedly find yourself run out of town by creditors.

      That said, it captures a lot of D&D. You’ll know the races, classes, monsters, and tropes. The included adventure feels like it could fit in any edition of D&D ever. I’m keen to get it on the table and find out how it actually works in play.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Wonderful game, but pretty mature in its market. That said, I believe it’s the foundation of Torchbearer (in the same way Mosueguard is, or so it has been explained to me) which has been mentioned by some folks as a possibility. I need to read it.

      1. Chris Shorb

        You and me both. It’s on my stack (I think it’s a 1st edition, got it at a con for a song). I just know that it will scratch that “high fantasy” itch that D&D players tend to have.

        The community may be insular – I’m not a part of it myself. I do know Jennisodes Jenn gave it a lot of love back in the day, which led me to buy it. I do know it’s active:

        Final criterion: is it different enough without causing whiplash? That remains to be seen following up on above-mentioned reading.

        As you say – it’s not the “new hotness” like N, 13, and DW.

        Maybe they need to kickstart something awesome, like Burning Shadow (a Burning Wheel Shadowrun hack… or something).

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      DCC is an interesting case, but I think the name says it all – I think it has an audience in mind, and that audience knows what it wants. That’s a very different sort of scenario. But that’s just based on my impression.

  8. Blue Tyson

    So are your offramps different for people coming from different versions of D&D?

    I have never read any of 3/4th editions, for example.

    I do like Monsters and Magic, as well.

  9. Anders Gabrielsson

    Torchbearer has D&D offramp potential, I think. It should be suitable for people who want the logistics bits of old school D&D play without the legacy of D&D mechanics. In a way it’s kind of a mirror image of Dungeon World, maybe? Dungeon World is all about the fiction and having simple rules to facilitate imaginative play while Torchbearer seems to be more about using a very crunchy set of rules to set up a framework in which play can take place. Or something, I’m speaking very theoretically here since I have yet to play either game (though I have played a couple of sessions of AW).

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