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Our gaming group has been using various forms of D&D for several decades now, and we've enjoyed it quite a bit, but we have zero experience with other roleplaying games. Seeing all the other games mentioned on here has gotten me thinking if D&D is the right system for us to use (we're fine with change).

But it's hard for me to try to find out where we should go, since I don't even know where we're at on the spectrum. It's kind of like we've always lived in the Arctic, but since it's normal to us, we have no idea that most of the rest of the world is warmer.

So where does D&D fall on the spectrum of RPGs?

Summarizing the comments below, it seems that D&D stands out by promoting a focus on combat, a high fantasy setting, with appeal to those who like working a system of numbers, and using dice to determine outcomes.

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There's a spectrum of RPGs, sure, but so far I can't tell which axes of that spectrum you want D&D placed on. Rules light vs. heavy? Narrative vs. simulationist vs. gamist? – okeefe Oct 10 '11 at 18:40
D&D definitely has its own paradigm. It'll be hard to describe what other games are like in a way that's meaningful simply because how they work doesn't relate to D&D very well—they're in a different paradigm of "what you do at the table" and sometimes "what the rules are for". There are lots of games in the D&D paradigm—GURPS, Savage Worlds, Vampire—and a lot outside it. Your biggest challenge will be "why is this better for me/my group?" because "better" tends to be measured against the metrics that matter to the paradigm you already know. – SevenSidedDie Oct 10 '11 at 19:13
For the features that might make someone want to try certain other games (and which are by contrast implicit clues about D&D's type), the answers to “Learn a new RPG a year”: Which systems are a must-know? are helpful. – SevenSidedDie Oct 10 '11 at 19:17
@Joe a summary of sorts is in Ron Edwards' "System Does Matter" at – okeefe Oct 10 '11 at 20:48
Note to all- please edit anything useful from these comments into the question and/or answer; the comments will be deleted eventually. – mxyzplk Oct 12 '11 at 3:48
up vote 34 down vote accepted

As noted in the comments, there are a lot of axes to compare role playing games on. Here are a few:

Rules Heavy/Light

D&D tends to be pretty heavy in terms of rules complexity. There are a fair number of special cases, but a lot of them are variations on the basic concept of "roll a d20 and modify it with the appropriate stat." You can find more complex systems out there, but many systems will be simpler.


D&D has varied pretty wildly on this axis over the course of its lifetime. D&D 4e tends to be extremely abstract... The rules operate on their own, and it's up to the group to interpret them.

Focus (combat, social, etc.)

D&D tends to be extremely focused on what happens during combat. Fights make up a large portion of any given adventure. This is not to say that you can't use it for other things... But the bulk of the rules covers what happens during a fight, with only simplified systems for other aspects (social encounters, stealth, economics, and so on).


Latter editions of D&D tend to make it very difficult for player characters to die. Other games make combat extremely deadly.


Are characters built from a template with small customizations, or from scratch from a variety of interchangeable components? D&D is the stereotypical level-based system.

Session Flexibility/Preparation

How well does the system handle unusual group sizes? How much time does it take to prepare an adventure? How quickly can you adjust to someone not making it to a session? In all of these particulars, D&D tends to be relatively rigid (3.x being the worst offender).

And many more...

That's just a few off the top of my head. You might browse the tag to get a feeling for the kind of things that people look for in RPGs.

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This is great, exactly the kind of information I was looking for. The points I understand are that D&D is rules-heavy and combat-focused, and that characters are made up as a particular template (class) with chunks of ability coming in levels. The template vs. interchangeable components point is really making me think, thanks! – Joe Oct 10 '11 at 19:44
I imagined what made a game combat-heavy was the particular setting, not the game system. Am I missing something? – Joe Oct 10 '11 at 20:01
@Joe it isn't setting per se (although that's part of it). A lot of it comes from what the system and rules emphasize (D&D emphasizes combat over other areas). Part of it comes from the tone of the books. Part of it comes from the way the printed adventures are put together. Part of it simply comes from the target audience of the RPG. D&D's default setting can support anything from pure hack-and-slash dungeon delves to combat-free intrigue... It's the other factors that tip it one way or the other. – AceCalhoon Oct 10 '11 at 20:35
@Joe GURPS is an example of a game with interchangeable components. Rather than "leveling up" you just get more points and those points can go toward whatever (often skills). Skills range from sword fighting to biology to fortune telling. There isn't a predefined path (or set of paths) for a character - at any point you can take a turn in a different direction with future points (pending GM approval). – user1637 Oct 11 '11 at 2:15
Setting is irrelevant as to whether a game SYSTEM is combat heavy or not. To go back to Joe - when you have that "one instance of combat per evening" in your three hour sessions, how much of the session does that single combat tend to consume? D&D is combat heavy in no small part because it places a lot of emphasis on individual actions in combat. An event that takes 30 seconds of game time can end up taking 2 hours of real time as we zoom in on every missed sword slash and deflected arrow shot. A less combat heavy game system can resolve that same battle in 30 minutes or less. – Airk Mar 23 '15 at 15:24


What has not been mentioned yet, is that dice roll outcome in DnD and derived d20 systems (e.g. Pathfinder) is rather unpredictable: most of the rolls (with the exception of damage roll) is just single d20 roll + bonuses. Since the chance you roll 1 is the same as the chance you roll 15, the results are very random, especially on the low levels when the bonuses are low.

In other game systems you might roll more than one dice.


DnD is very biased towards fantasy. If you want to try something different, Shadowrun offers rich cyberpunk world with detailed rules for firearms and hacking computers.

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Welcome to Edheldil! You need to write an answer which fully answers the question, not just adds to another person's. This question is old, and whilst question necromancy is possible on se sites (there's even a badge for it if you get 5 upvotes), the answer does need to be full and offer an alternative to the established ones. Your points are valid, but best left as a comment to the accepted answer, or incorporated into a fuller answer of your own. – harlandski Mar 22 '15 at 16:36
The relevant meta discussion is here. It talks about our expectations that answers respond to the question comprehensively, and that linked answer provides some advice on what to do if you feel you'd just be repeating other answers in doing so. – doppelgreener Mar 23 '15 at 0:53

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