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I'm fairly new at this, having just started playing on a Dragonlance 2nd Ed. D&D campaign, and DMing on a 4E adventure. As a programmer, I'm aware of the dictum "Learn a new language every year". I'd like to apply this to RPGs, so my question is: What systems should I try next, and why? Is there a core of games that you feel should be tried to experience most of what this hobby has to offer?

At this stage, although I like what I have, I really want to expand my knowledge and get inspiration on how to do things differently, to be a better GM and player. I want to be challenged. For example, I've read interesting things about Fiasco, and it sounds as different from D&D as a system could be while still being called an RPG. What other games are there that take the field in different directions?

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For various in depth takes on this, see The 12 RPGs Every Gamer Should Play Before They Die (Gnome Stew), Ten Games You Have To Play Before You Die (Geek Related, me!)

I remember going through the process of breaking out of the D&D Ghetto (tm) into other games, and certain games did a lot to expand my understanding of what you can do with the field. Here I'll give shout outs to the big three.

  • Call of Cthulhu redefined heroism and stressed smarts over violence and has a downward spiral instead of a level climb.
  • Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game, way before any of the recent crop of indie games, demonstrated that you didn't need much in the way of rules and could have a game that was almost completely social.
  • Feng Shui, by Robin Laws, which shows you can break out of the "level appropriate challenge" grind and fetch quests into being a real movie style badass (freeing you up from having to worry about XP and loot and leveling and such), and do strong genre emulation in the bargain.

You can play a bunch more traditional games, but you really only get a little bit of insight from them. I'd try games that teach you how to do something different. IMO, Earthdawn teaches you how to be D&D with the serial number filed off. It's a good game but not different enough that you're going to gain a lot in terms of overall techniques from learning it - it's like learning C, C++, and Pascal instead of learning C, Lisp, and Erlang. GUMSHOE, on the other hand, teaches you an entire different approach to investigation games. There's a lot of good games, but if you want to experience the breadth of the hobby, you need to be picking the perimeter points.

As I've thought about it more, I'd definitely play a weirdo indie game - Fiasco or Blowback or whatnot, or even one of the more "super trippy even the GM isn't sure what's going on" indie games like Lacuna Part 1 (I see it's being re-released, it has a listing in GTM last month). If you have the stomach for more serious/adult, I might do Unknown Armies even instead of Call of Cthulhu.

People like Savage Worlds but again I don't know it will teach you anything (especially since you've played earlier less rules-bound D&D's like 2e). FATE - it's the new hotness, and it has some new-ish stuff, but there's other equivalent choices for "kinda trad but with narrative flair" like Cortex in Smallville or Unisystem in Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

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The Gnome Stew list is very controversial... it advises some really bad games specifically because they are bad, and it's damned snarky. –  aramis Mar 7 '11 at 18:27
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Snark? On the Internet? Tell me it's not so! –  mxyzplk Mar 8 '11 at 1:09
    
@aramis I only count 1½ at best: RIFTS and arguably Og. But, Og is a good game, and the reasons given in the article for playing RIFTS at least once are dead-on. –  SevenSidedDie Mar 8 '11 at 16:34
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@myx Savage Worlds will teach use of bennies and the whole reward-cool-play with bennies which enable better success. And for certain settings (Deadlands Reloaded), experience is utterly dependent upon cool play. Fate takes this and goes far further; it turns the fate point cycle into the dominant mode for ensuring success... Which neither Unisystem nor standard Cortex will do. –  aramis Mar 14 '11 at 5:21
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My Advice to Try...

Rolemaster, Spacemaster: classes as determinant of how much it takes to learn something, but without forbidding anyone any particular skill... And for table-driven mechanics. Great fun, but a good bit of work.

Tunnels and Trolls: the GMing litmus test... If T&T falls flat, it's almost always one of three issues: the GM isn't good at describing the results of actions, the players can't get past the silly spell names, or the group is scared by rolling 5-10 d6 and totaling them. It's more old-school a ruleset than little brown-book D&D.... essentially, the 5.5 rules (still available from Flying Buffalo) are substantially the same as 1st ed, but with weapons having been boosted a die. Also, the solo modules are the height of Gonzo Gaming. Ken while sober comes up with more craziness than Hunter S. Thompson on a bender... and so do many other solo authors. A PDF of the heart of the rules is available free on DTRPG as the "T&T Free Rulebook."

Monsters! Monsters!: T&T from the other side of the fight. Party of monsters raids a local village. Compatible with either 4.0 (the SJ edited version) or 5.0 (the later version). PDF of the earlier edition is available at DTRPG for under $10.

Mouse Guard for a totally different structure to play and a simple version of the Burning Wheel HQ mode of task/intent/dicepool.

Dragonlance 5th Age —or— Castle Falkenstein: excellent card based engines. Very different from each other, but well worth it for the excellent fantasy settings, and for the unique experience of knowing your next several "rolls"...

Note that DL5A is during the Gods of Krynn's "vacation," so things are a bit different. Excellent mechanics, but not the Krynn you're used to. (Kender who stopped handling.... Kender who look at life as a grim adventure...)

Spirit of the Century —or— Diaspora —or— Starblazer Adventures: FATE™ system games, lots of variable results on the dice, but lots of ways to make up for bad rolls. Keep in mind: 4dFudge is functionally 4d3-8... skills scale 0-5, difficulties -2 to 7, and using an aspect gets a +2... And, using 2d6-7 is another option for really way-out-there variability.

Car Wars (editions prior to 5e) —or— Battlestations! —or— Boot Hill: Hyrbid borderline RPG/boardgame. Run each as both. Both have published RP-mode adventures, too.

The Try Before You Buy List

WFRP 3E Or Star Wars: Edge of the Empire: the dice pools are interesting. The WFRP setting is grim, but WFRP is also one of the most expensive games on the market. Edge of the Empire is a very similar system, with the same kind of dice pool mechanics. Both are nteable for the symbol-driven dice resolution.

GURPS, EABA, and HERO System. Three different universal systems that work in the same basic way, (point build, tool kits for building settings,) but each does things differently. Each has good points and bad points. Any

Traveller: there are too many editions available in PDF and used... Try with a group that knows it. If you find T20 Traveller's Handbook on the cheap, and like d20 and space opera, grab it and go. Mongoose's version is a good core, with midling-fair to poor supplements. Classic, MegaTraveller, TNE, and T4 are in PDF only. T5 is expensive, but in print.

PDF recommended list

Stuff that's cheap in legal PDFs, and worth the time to learn...

King Arthur Pendragon: One adventure per character year, play a knight from squire to old age... if he doesn't buy it on the end of a sword or an antler.... The PDF of 4th ed is inexpensive, and the Book of Knights PDF is under $5, and is essentially a rules upgrade to a 4.5 edition, and a player's handbook. (Note: not the same as Book of Knights and Ladies...) Reign fills a similar role, but I don't know about it's pricing...

Houses of the Blooded —and/or— Blood and Honor: rolling to gain narrative control over whether or not success happens, rather than rolling to succeed.

This list Subject to massive change

There are always new games being written. And what I'll run/play? I've run all on here but some of the FATE™ system games. It's incredible how FATE pulls out the stops, and makes everything about "can I afford to spend the FATE points to succeed even tho' the dice blew chunks?"

I've chosen my list because of the different modes of play each engenders.

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There's a pretty extensive list here already, but I would add Hackmaster to the list as a must play. It's based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and while it is quite a bit more complex than D&D 3.5, it provides a far richer role playing experience.

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in which ways is it more complex but provides a richer experience? –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Feb 21 '12 at 20:36
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Here's a looooong list of games I suggest, so get ready; I'll try to group these in some method to my madness, but it'll still be crazy. All of these games are available as PDF files or via Print on Demand.

I'm not terribly helpful when it comes to selecting a single game, but here's some stuff I find interesting. If you're looking at it as a terms of various systems being your primary focus, I recommend Eclipse Phase/The Laundry, Shadowrun/Vampire: The Masquerade, D6/Septimus, Remnants, Dust Devils, and Wu Xing/Part-Time Gods/The New Epoch, and Spellbound Kingdoms as general exemplars.

Against the Dead: I actually recommend this game for a number of reasons, but the main reason is that it's a good example of a lighter, easier game (for people already familiar with 3.5 OGL) that also shows how a system can be altered to handle a different setting, though Spycraft does much the same thing. (Good but not a super duper must play)

Bill Coffin's Septimus: I liked this because it's the sort of cerebral and alien science-fiction that engages me, but it's also free and based on the excellent d6 system. I'd check it out if for no other reason than that it's free and it's there (at least if the site's not lying to me), but I maintain that nobody will be disappointed by it. (Free, and decent, definitely worth trying, good for its system)

Blood Dawn: This is actually a cheap 80's knockoff game, but it's incredibly good, if one looks deep enough. It's edgy, conspiracy theory-esque, and kinda crazy, but it's a good example of how a game can be high-quality and fun without being a super duper pain. (Interesting, not a must play, but I enjoy it a lot)

Chronicles of Arax: Another free game that's really decent, I like it because it provides a choose-your-own-adventure feel and a lot of enjoyment can be had from it. It's free, too. (Interesting for being solo and for its own sake)

Corporation: Rather expensive, but a good game. It's got a lot of stuff between its covers and fills a niche that is occupied by the likes of Deus Ex and Syndicate in video games. I'm probably too much of a fan of the genre to speak objectively, but it's good stuff nonetheless. (System's not super duper awesome, but setting and gameplay are)

Classic Traveller: This is a bundle of the stuff you'll need to play Traveller [sic] with a group of people. It's a classic and it's great for insights as well as playing of its own accord. It's also cheap, and so long as you remember that it comes in three separate .pdf files (which causes an inordinate amount of confusion for some people) you'll find lots of enjoyment and great material in here. (Interesting if somewhat obtuse system)

D6: Ok, the whole set of core D6 books free? I love this system with an incredible passion for its simplicity (so long as you stick away from the arcane [ha!] supernatural powers sections), I'd say that it's a great example of a simple but enjoyable game system. It's free, too, which is icing on the awesome cake. (Same as Septimus, these tend to cut more to the chase, a favorite of mine)

Die Type System: This is actually immensely better than it sounds. Admittedly, while it does play exceptionally well, it is very much a parody of traditional JRPG video games, so be warned that it shows. However, that makes it even more endearing for some audiences, and it makes it an even better example of setting and system meshing together. (Interesting as a case study, also high quality, personally I love it for nostalgia and JRPG love)

Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple: Don't let its "kiddiness" fool you, Do is a very great game, with a very solid mechanical system under its whimsical exterior. It's not for all groups, but did I mention that John Wick was a contributor? It's also dice-free, which makes it a very interesting game for someone with a D&D and Shadowrun background like myself. (System is extremely interesting, game itself is high quality)

Dust Devils: While I don't really know that much about poker which limits my real enjoyment of this, it's another example of a diceless game (it uses cards, in case the opener about poker was too subtle) that is really, really good. Plus, it's indie and it's not too expensive. (Not very proficient with it, looks interesting)

Eclipse Phase: One of my favorites, and possibly my favorite setting to ponder, Eclipse Phase combines hard transhuman science-fiction, some really cool setting stuff, conspiracy theories, political intrigue, and pretty much every last aspect of the modern world into a post-apocalyptic scenario (hey, at least we have space, right?) and basically makes it one of the most awesome tabletop games ever. Just the setting alone is worth the price, and the system is pretty solid (if a predictable percentile one). (Super high-quality game, system's not actually too thrilling, a favorite of mine)

Eclipse: The Codex Persona: Free to trial "shareware" licensed tabletop game that's actually really, really awesome. I recommend it because it's much like Against the Dead in turning d20 on its head and doing a lot of stuff with it, though it focuses more on changing the system than the setting. Give it a look, after all if you don't like it it doesn't force you to pay for it. (Very interesting because it takes a familiar system and messes with it a good deal)

Grey Ranks: Handling the Holocaust and coming of age in an incredibly serious way while encouraging engaging and dramatic storytelling, Grey Ranks wins awards for a reason. Go check it out, I shouldn't have to say more. (Super game, very cool, system is very interesting)

Heavy Gear: This is one of my favorite games because it involves mecha action. I'll admit that my tastes are not super-duper sophisticated, but Heavy Gear is seriously one of my favorite games, and I love the integration of tactical and roleplaying gameplay that the Second Edition rules offer. (System's good, setting is awesome)

King Arthur Pendragon: If you love Arthurian myth, I have to recommend this game. I have a print copy myself, and I can vouch for how incredibly awesome it is. It's maybe less freeform than some games, but it's really, really an incredible show of composition and design. (Good for the things it covers, maybe a bit too control-freakish)

Legend of the Five Rings: This is just an incredibly awesome game on every level, with a great show of force on setting, art, and system. It may be incredibly expensive, but it makes up for it by being one of what I would consider the best games of recent years. (Great setting, art, and system, I love this game)

Oathbound Seven: Based off of Pathfinder, Oathbound Seven isn't so much exceptional for its system (which is admittedly fantastic), but for its incredible setting which is packed full of content. If Die Type System is inspired by the system of classic JRPG's, this is inspired heavily by their epic scale. I'm always in awe when I take a look at this, and at $10 for just under 500 pages, you get a lot for a steal! (Setting's good, system's a old standby, I love it nonetheless)

Outbreak: Undead: Also really, really awesome, Outbreak: Undead attempts to be a realistic zombie simulation, with an almost obsessive level of detail. It's gritty and gory, and it's just a really good game. Throw in Free Content Fridays, which means that you get essentially an ever-expanding game, and its $20 price tag gets a little bit sweeter. While I don't buy its claims to super realism, it's fun and it makes a great zombie game. (Interesting for how it handles things, system's pretty predictable, still one of my all-time favorites)

Part-Time Gods: Interesting game with a focus on magical realism. It focuses a lot on social intrigue and psychological stuff, akin to Vampire: the Masquerade. (System's simple, the setting and how they interact are cool)

Remnants: Post-apocalyptic feudal mecha combat? Please. This may be because I'm a fan of this sort of genre, as people may have noticed, but Remnants is both high quality and well written. (System's great for its speed and such, setting's stellar, definitely one of my favorites)

Shadowrun: Ok, I'm a bit of an edition purist here, but not only was Shadowrun my first tabletop game but I feel that its system is one of the best ones out there. I admit that I've never played anything but the third edition, and I don't care for fourth edition terribly, but I absolutely love it. (My absolute favorite game ever both in setting and system)

Spellbound Kingdoms: I love this game's setting, system, and most importantly its combat system. That's not to say that it's lacking in other ways, but its combat system is remarkably cool and focuses on building towards ends, making hand-to-hand combat more intellectual than just attacking and occasionally choosing a maneuver. (System and setting are fun, one of my favorites)

Stars Without Number: OSR-inspired science fiction game; free with supplements that you can buy. Very simple but also very good. It does exactly what it sets out to and is remarkably well focused; there's a reason it gets great reviews. Check it out. (Not super duper, but interesting for comparison to modern d20)

Stellar Wind: Warning, contains real (if somewhat altered) rocket science. It's a good game even if it happens to be a little obtuse at times, it's definitely more for people who enjoy math or physics but it's still pretty decent. (Interesting if you love math stuff, not so much for less math minded people)

The Laundry: Based off of a series of books and short stories I've never actually read, The Laundry mixes low-glamor spy business with Lovecraftian elements to make an outstandingly funny, engaging, and deep setting. Uses the same system as Call of Cthulhu, and is basically Lovecraft in a more modern day setting. Unique for the fact that you can summon eldritch abominations via your smartphone. (Still pretty cool, system's BRP, so it's nothing exceptionally mathematically difficult)

The Mutant Epoch: A great post-apocalyptic setting similar to Fallout or the likes, The Mutant Epoch is both deep and well thought out, with a massive amount of online content. My only gripe with it is that it tells way more than I'd like to know about prostitution in the post-apocalyptic era, but other than that it's good. (Decent quality, lots of content, including some you probably don't want)

The New Epoch: A steampunk game that comes in a number of books, I recommend it or its exceptional amount of stuff and just being rather high quality in general. It is unfortunately split up into a number of volumes, which becomes rather unwieldy and pricy very quick. (Good, d20 based with way too many modifiers but not too horrible)

Triune: Mixes religious and science fiction tropes and conventions to form an incredibly something game. I'm not really sure what to say about this game, but I'd say that if you're looking for something out of the ordinary but not plain bad, Triune can fill that role. (System's decent, setting goes all over the place and is very interesting)

Vampire: The Masquerade: There's a reason that Vampire: The Masquerade has such a giant presence in the roleplaying game community, and it's not just because it's every depressed teenager's angst trip. Its system and setting are well done and deep, and the book is made with high quality standards. (Setting's dark, system's really good and similar to Shadowrun's, which I love)

Wu Xing: The Ninja Crusade: I recommend this partly due to its martial arts system, but it's a great example of a high-quality game. It's very genre-heavy, which makes it a great example of how setting and system can be integrated. (Similar to the New Epoch and Part-Time Gods)

Disclaimer: I review for DriveThruRPG, who I link to incredibly often here. I also am an amateur game developer, hence my ranting about setting and system and their integration.

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Good grief, have you played all of these? Can you give us some kind of rating system? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Feb 20 '12 at 2:47
    
I've reviewed them all under the pseudonym "Erathoniel Woodenbow" or under my real name. My favorites from them all are Remnants for a fast and simple system, Do for a diceless system, Shadowrun for unpredictable and crazy play, D6 for a good overall game, Die Type System is pretty cool overall and shines in character differentiation, and Eclipse: The Codex Persona for the best take on a pre-existing system. Spellbound Kingdoms has awesome combat. My favorites in and of themselves are Shadowrun, Eclipse Phase, Vampire the Masquerade, and Outbreak: Undead. –  Kyle Willey Feb 20 '12 at 3:05
    
Cool. Can you edit that into your answer? Also, welcome to the site, you seem quite... enthusiastic :) –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Feb 20 '12 at 3:09
    
Yeah, I just realized I bumped a ton of old dead threads. I need more sleep. –  Kyle Willey Feb 20 '12 at 3:10
    
Oh, necromancy is encouraged here, we even have a badge for it :) –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Feb 20 '12 at 3:14
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Savage Worlds. My favorite thing about it is the simplicity of the system. Bennies and adventure cards are both a great way for the players to evolve the story, something I've felt DnD always lacks.

Also, give Munchkins or Bang a try. They're card games instead of RPGs, but the rules are very interesting and the combat portions mimic combat in most RPGs.

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I'll try to stick to currently in print RPGs, as out of print ones have an issue of being hard to find for one person, and even harder for a whole group.

First, I'd recommend taking a look at one of several One Roll Engine games.

Reign (I'd recommend Enchiridion at only $10), essentially does D&D except much more efficiently - it rolls initiative, attack, hit location and damage into a single roll, significantly speeding things up. It also has a point buy character generation system that's supplemented by a random roll system - you can do half and half as well. So you really get all the strengths of random generation without any of the weaknesses.

A Dirty World brings in a complete paradigm shift, in terms of allowing words to do just as much damage as weapons, which allows for a completely different playstyle, and provides a system that allows you to handle characters that in most other systems would have wildly different power levels. It doesn't make the best use of the ORE, but it's a brilliant system regardless.

Monsters & Other Childish Things is in my opinion the best implementation of ORE in terms of making good use of it and being a great package. It has a number of qualities that facilitate great roleplaying experiences. Of all of them, I'd say this one is a must have.

Also, you'd have to check out a FATE based game.

Diaspora is a hard sci-fi game in the vein of Traveller, and it makes excellent use of FUDGE dice (that are a core component of FATE) to handle 3 dimensional space combat in terms of relative position and movement. It makes great use of FATE's collaborative generation system to actually go as far as generating your systems and clusters to work with. It really shows the strengths of the system.

Legends of Anglerre is a traditional fantasy implementation, and while it supports D&D style play very well (and has a lot of similarities to Dragonlance 5th Age, my favourite game when including Out of Print), it can just as easily handle playing a dragon, and even has a way of making Sokka in Avatar The Last Airbender be a viable character when being compared to Aang, Katara and Toph. It doesn't have quite as impressive a bestiary as Earthdawn or D&D, but it's quite good, and the rest of the system more than makes up for it. Like Diaspora, it has a collaborative system for generating a setting, which allows everyone to sit down and start playing without any preparation on anyone's part.

Both ORE and FATE are recommendations based on the awesomeness of the system. There are some other systems that are also worth checking out.

Basic RolePlaying & Call of Cthulhu - roughly the same system with some minor differences, that haven't changed in several decades. Percentile based systems hold up very well, with several others such as FASA Star Trek and Millenium's End still being viable compared to current RPGs. While I'd pick FATE or ORE over a percentile system, I still find it fascinating to look at one of the earliest RPG systems and see it stand the test of time, where other systems from the same era are so archaic as to be barely unplayable.

Qin - one thing really stands out for me, the Yin-Yang dice. Given the theme of the game, having a d10-d10 system that would give you a Yin 5 or Yang 4 in terms of determining your outcome just seems right. Thematically, I don't think any other mechanic would be better, so if you're a fan of wire-fu movies, Qin just packages it all nicely, in a way that very few systems do. (Monsters & Other Childish Things and Diaspora are similarly integrated, but they don't have that brilliantly simple thematic integration of the mechanics).

Edit:

Another one just occurred to me. The Zantabulous Zorcerer of Zo. It's laid out completely differently from most RPG books, opening up with a mini-thesis on fairy tales (and good sources for further reading), explains the system (very simple) and setting, and follows with a run through the original campaign. You're getting 3 different types of product at the same time, and it's refreshing to see an approach taken that's based on the system, rather than trying to confine the system to convention.

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Traveller isn't really a Hard Sci-Fi game; Traveller is on the harder side of Space Opera, but it's still not very hard as sci-fi goes. It's got magic (psionics), gravitics, FTL drives, nearly impossible worlds that violate common sense. It's a great game, but it's a whole different genre of Sci-Fi from Diaspora. –  aramis Feb 23 '12 at 6:13
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I have created most of my "other" RPGs off of AD&D rules.

That being said..I would suggust 2 RPGS that I have had good times with:

1) Kult (Be warned, I have had really weird psycho things happen after sessions of this game) - An awesome "behind the curtains of reality" type game. Freaky stuff.

2) Twilight 2000 - Earth based RPG that takes place right at the end of World War III. No complete leadership in any country. Factions and renegade groups. One of the most indepth character creations ever.

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Twilight 2000 2nd edition is less in-depth than several other games; 1st ed is much less in depth. 2TK 2E is, in fact, an adaptation of Traveller mechanics, but with more choice in skills gained. More history is actually generated by Space Opera than by T2K. Mongoose traveller generates even more than that. –  aramis Feb 23 '12 at 6:16
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Apocalypse World

The general rule of thumb seems to be, "If you want to have your mind blown, have all your preconceptions about RPGs shattered, rearranged, and reassembled into something strange and new, read Vincent Baker's latest game."

Right now, that game is Apocalypse World. We're talking about more than, "Oh, that's an interesting way to handle hit points," or, "Point-build vs. Class & Level," here. We're talking about new paradigms. We're talking about distilling the essence of RPGs into a concise and beautifully constructed set of mechanics. I never thought I'd be hot for a game with class-like splats again in my life, but AW made that happen.

I recommend indie games in general for your horizon-expanding exercise. My first indie was The Riddle of Steel and it was in large part responsible for rekindling my interest in RPGs in general. It has terrible flaws, sure, and I'm not playing it now, but I will never forget the way it changed how I think.

I'm a programmer, too, so I can understand if you want to keep some measure of utility in what you're learning. Learning Apocalypse World is like...I dunno, what's edgy now? Scala? Erlang? You would definitely learn something by taking on one of those if you only know, say, Java. But you might prefer to learn something with more traction. Something like...Python.

FATE

Which brings me to . When I discovered FATE, I declared it, in my head, to be the Python of RPGs. It's flexible. It's fast. It makes sense. It'll do what you want and get out of your way while it's doing it. If I were looking for a Python to learn, rather than say, a Clojure, I'd pick FATE. Probably in form, just because that's the official implementation of FATE 3.0 at the moment, and the Dresden Files universe is a ton of fun and it'll give you an excuse to read a baker's dozen of good-to-great novels in the bargain.

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+1 As a programmer, I definitely agree with your analogies :) –  wraith808 Nov 8 '11 at 17:49
    
Always +1 for Apocalypse World :p –  RSid Feb 21 '12 at 22:39
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It's aimed at slightly different audience (game designers), but Mike Holmes' list in this thread is probably worth your attention, if only because Mike has played more games than most people.

Leaving out the ones he mentions more as warnings than inspirations, and focusing more on the games that would make a contrast with D&D, and adding a few from the discussion that followed, I would pick out:

Ars Magica - troupe play and a different magic system

Paranoia - succeed by being entertaining, everyone gets hosed and likes it

Pendragon or Unknown Armies - big on personality mechanics

HeroQuest - narrativist play in the vast world of Glorantha

Nobilis or Amber - diceless play

InSpectres - adversarial narrative rights system, a whodunnit where the players invent their own clues (sounds crazy, but turns out pretty funny)

Universalis - GM-less collaborative world building and storytelling

Castle Falkenstein - atmospheric steampunk, card-based system

Everway - also card-based, interesting setting

And from my recent experience, Og (the Unearthed edition) (there's nothing quite like a 8-word vocabulary to cut down on inter-player arguments)

Not all these games are my cup of tea, by a long chalk. But I think there's something to be learned from most of them.

Edit - I should point out that this list dates from 2003 (I updated Hero Wars to HeroQuest for this reason). There are many, many interesting games designed since that time that are worth your attention too. Fiasco is a good one, as you've already noticed. But it's good to be aware of the classics.

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Ars Magica: Troupe Play and the Aura of Reason were both dropped after 3rd ed. –  aramis Feb 23 '12 at 6:21
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In terms of Game Mechanics, I'd like to pimp the following:

Paranoia: No other game has anything even remotely like Perversity. You earn perversity by being entertaining (often within character, but not always). You spend perversity to modify die rolls... and not always your own die rolls... and not always to help another player. It's also XP, but you have to actually get to the end of the mission first.

Character building is Very Fast, and each character comes with a "six pack" of clones due to the high character mortality rate. Deaths are often at the hands of the other players. Sometimes its an accident.

Damage and treason use the same mechanic with wildly different results (or identical ones). High damage -> death. High treason -> summary execution -> death. REALLY high damage can actually go so far as "vaporized", but then high treason can get you used as reactor shielding, so it evens out.

Hero System/Champions: Incredibly detailed point system for building characters/gear/etc. It actually requires a little algebra to figure out how much an ability/power costs once you start stacking on advantages and disadvantages. This results in character building being Quite Slow.

I've made FAR more characters for champions than I've ever used. I'm that kind of geek.

Play is reasonably quick. Turns are divided into 12 1-second "segments". You can act on a number of segments equal to your SPEED attribute. Everything is built around d6's. Damage rolls can involve 10 or more in a superhero setting. All skill/combat rolls are based on the sum of 3d6. There are two types of damage mitigation.

  1. Don't get hit (static defenses that the attacker must beat to hit you)
  2. Defenses that are subtracted from damage

There are quite a few different kinds of damage (physical, energy, ego(psi), flash(blinding)) each with its own defense. There are also resistant variants on physical and energy defense. That portion of your defense that is "resistant" is applied to "killing attacks". Body (killing damage) and stun (bumps and bruises) are tracked differently from the same die roll.

Weapons of the Gods (one no one else has mentioned yet!)
Super Duper Kung Fu based on a comic book by the same name. The die roll mechanics are unique. You get attribute + skill d10. 5 or 6 is quite a bit for a starting character. You roll it and count matching dice, adding and subtracting any modifiers you might have If you rolled 3 8s, that's thirty-eight. 2 0s is twenty. This in itself is odd, but it doesn't stop there.

Every character has a "river" that can hold a number of dice depending on their degree of super-duper-ness. I believe starting characters can have two dice. You can store UNUSED matches in your river to be used at a later time. So lets say you've stashed a couple 4s in your river. You later role 3 4s... 34, plus the two from your river is 54. That's a HUGE role. Literally "Punch-a-hole-in-the-castle-wall" huge.

ANY opposed roll can put dice in your river. You end up with characters debating Confucianism vs Taoism while pummeling the crap out of each other.

Criticals don't do damage, they add additional effects. Which effects you can inflict are based on the style of kung fu and weapon (if any) you're using. Hook swords can disarm an opponent on a crit, while one fairly common style of kung fu can SET PEOPLE ON FIRE when they crit.

Super Duper Kung Fu. Not "Dragon Ball Z" super, but you can pull off some "Fist of the North Star"/Jet Li in "Hero" stuff. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is fairly tame by comparison. Kung Fu Hustle is about spot on though the players will generally be in the power range of "that guy with the spears\the married couple". Yes, you can make a ranged attack with a musical instrument using its sound. No, it probably won't chop a kung fu guy's head off in one shot.

The magic system is Just Weird, and uses spirits and elemental progressions and so forth. You won't be chucking lightening bolts or making wishes... but you can do some pretty Sick Shit. The "Secrets of Prediction" art in particular basically lets a player try to make a guess about something. The more plausible the arguments for why they're right to the GM, the better chance of success. If the player makes their roll, THEY ARE CORRECT.

"I think the bad guys are hiding in this city over here, because X, Y, and Z".
"okay, beat a N"
player beats N
GM chucks carefully crafted cave hideout

This sort of "let the player write some of the game" mechanic is present throughout Weapons of the Gods.

  1. Players can buy "backgrounds" when building their characters. "My fate is entwined with super-god-weapon X" for example. Sooner or later, the GM must bring that Weapon of the Gods into the campaign. Their fate may be to die on its blade rather than to wield it, but it WILL be part of their fate. A LARGE chunk of the rulebook is dedicated to these backgrounds.
  2. One of the early levels of "lightfoot" (jump off the leaf of a tree-fu) lets you define what it is you're jumping off of. You can invent handy portions of scenery which are then added to the world (within reason). If the GM dislikes it, the next near miss might blast it to kindling, but it WAS there.
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While I think that all of the recommendations made so far are really good, I think that if you are really interested in Growing yourself as a gamer, there are a couple of systems worth checking out.

  • InSpectres A very fast paced game, I have managed to rung a full story (including character creation) in an hour, with inexperienced players
  • Universalis A GM-less (or possibly GM-full?) games, which relies on a token economy that the players use to add different elements to the game.
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Yes! Everyone should play a couple of sessions of Universalis –  Mark Withers Feb 17 '12 at 15:01
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Some more detail on the repeatedly mentioned Rolemaster.

Rolemaster vs D&D

For each major point, 1st sub-point is is D&D, 2nd Rolemaster

  • Attributes
    1. 6 of them: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma, sometimes also Comliness
      • In AD&D and Cyclopedia D&D, Proficiency/Skill rolls made against attribute
      • in 3E/4E, skills receive a modifier from a stat
      • combat abilities modified by stats
    2. 10 of them, in two groups (Development and non-development)
      • Development stats each give from 0 to 10 points to buy skills with per level.
        Agility, Constitution, Memory, Reasoning, Self Discipline
      • non-development stats don't affect dev points
        Empathy, Intuition, Presence, Quickness, Strength
      • All stats used to provide a bonus to skills.
  • Skills
    1. D&D: Proficiencies (AD&D), General Skills (Cyclopedia D&D), and Skills (3E and 4E)
      • Introduced as an afterthought late in 1e as "proficiencies", proficiencies integral in 2E. Not core to classes. 1d20 Roll Low
      • 3E/4E: Integral skill system with 3 cost levels: Class (1:1), cross-class (2:1), and class specific (for another class) which are forbidden. 1d20 roll high.
      • in both cases, each level purchased is same value as any other in terms of die roll modifier.
      • Combat abilities are not skills.
    2. Rolemaster: skill driven
      • Each class sets the costs for every skill. Each skill is separately priced, ranging from 1 point per level to 25 points per level (of 5 to 50 earned per level)
      • The first 10 ranks are worth 5% each, the next ten are 2% each, the next tex 1% each, and further are 1/2% each.
      • all normal combat abilities are just additional skills. Supernatural ones are handled as spells.
  • Magic
      • D&D except 4E:
        • Vancian: Cast it and it wipes from your mind. Study it again to cast it again. Quick to learn.
        • Spellbook for wizards determines what spells can be known.
      • 4E:
        • combat magics are normal class-powers, used either daily, once per encounter, or at will. Learned automatically with level-up
        • Non-combat ritual magics more widely available. Requires a feat or certain specific classes.
    1. Rolemaster:
      • Spells purchased in "lists" several spells at a time. How many at a time is a function of class and which list.
      • spell list picks are a percentage chance to learn that block. Optional rules instead allow a set number of picks per spell, but you still have to buy in order.
      • Spells cast with spell points, which are determined by attribute, and how many levels of spell point development are bought
  • Hit Points
    1. In D&D,
      • primary measure of survivability, and death usually caused by simple hit point loss.
      • Hit Die Type determined by class
      • Number of Hit Dice rolled determined by level (usually 1 per level)
    2. In Rolemaster
      • base equals Con (averages 50)
      • raised by Body Development skill ranks. One rank adds one hit die.
      • Hit Die type by race.
      • some classes may add a bonus per rank and/or a bonus per character level.
      • while death can occur by concussion hits, I've never seen it nor heard of it, except for bleeding out. Critical hits do most of the kills.
  • Combat Process
    1. Roll to hit, roll damage.
      • Multiple attacks vary by edition, but fighters always get more.
      • Combat stats determined by class, modified by attributes.
      • AC by armor worn
    2. Roll to hit, lookup damage in concussion hits and often a critical on table.
      • Depending on options in use, multiple attacks may be possible at full value or by dividing offensive bonus.
      • Offensive Bonus derived from skills and weapon used.
      • Armor Type by worn armor; defensive bonus by skills and/or armor.

More on Rolemaster

Rolemaster was, at first, a series of supplemental books to D&D/AD&D. It was always intended to be a standalone, but in order to avoid being yet another unknown heartbreaker, it sold itself as a series of modular supplements for D&D, each replacing some subset.

As it developed, it kept adding options. Each major revision is a different subset of options, and nicer presentation.

The system is simple, self consistent, and flexible, but noted for it's heavy reliance upon tables and extensive (but still simple) math. The pile of rulebooks is notably thick, but large parts of the many expansions are additional spell lists, usually in a photocopiable layout for easy use.

In play, it's easy to use. Prep can be a bit of a pain. All rolls are made on 1d100, open

It feels anywhere from slightly to majorly different from D&D depending upon which options one uses, and how much magic one allows, with a default of somewhat different.

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Good summary. Healing is very different in full Rolemaster: it might be worth adding a note about that. You've CWed it: does that mean you are inviting elaboration? –  Alticamelus Mar 9 '11 at 9:29
    
Yep. I know I missed some key elements. Dozo! –  aramis Mar 10 '11 at 10:01
    
Can you add this to the tag FAQs? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Mar 18 '11 at 1:39
    
@brian As in add the tag to this Q, or repost this answer as a Q&A, or do you have a particular other Q that needs this A? –  aramis Mar 18 '11 at 2:54
    
The tag taxonomies around rolemaster and harp: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/harp are pretty sparse. These details could find an excellent home there, perhaps on "basic gameplay and differences between these systems" –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Mar 18 '11 at 2:59
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I'd say there are three well-known roleplaying games that at least deserve to be on that list:

  • Shadowrun: Again, edition doesn't matter. While there are several dystopian cyberpunk rpgs, only SR has the unique blend of scifi (Matrix, cybernetics) and fantasy (non-human races, magic). Although some hate SR for the fantasy elements it adds some very interesting conflicts and abilities to a setting where usually only gun caliber counts.

  • GURPS: Complete freedom regarding character advancement and (theoretically) ultimate balance of settings, equipment, skills and abilities. The big G is the probably best known universal game system with an aweinspiring amount of supplements for all thinkable (and unthinkable) settings.

  • Earthdawn: Imho one of the most flavorful settings, with flavor that carries over into the crunch (e.g.: supplements are written from an in-game perspective and all abilities are based on the setting's background). The system is also very interesting in that it offers a hybrid approach between class-, level- and skill-based advancement. Many of the things that you just have to accept as "It's Magic!" in other settings/systems actually makes sense in ED.

Last but not least a very little known niche setting:

  • Blue Planet: One of the best researched and most plausible hard scifi games I've ever seen. No psionics or other supernatural stuff and no hand-held weapons requiring the energy output of several nuclear power plants. A dying Earth left behind and a new world torn apart by greed and ignorance. The system itself is very abstract but still quite realistic - people with a false sense of heroism usually end up dead rather quickly - and there's even a distinction between "being trained in something" and "having a natural talent for something". Advancement is completely skill based and death is always a real threat, just as in real life. Because of the absolute and unforgiving lethality of combat in BP the solution to many challenges involves weapons only in a surprisingly little number of occurrences.
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Hero System/Champions and Gurps are two other systems which are similar to each other, and very different in terms of style and mechanics to D&D. Both are point-based character systems, using 3d6 as their main task resolution mechanic. Both allow very detailed characters, and much differentiation between characters. Both are also classless systems.

Rolemaster is another detailed system, with significant differences to D&D. Die rolls are open-ended (you roll percentiles, if you roll 96+, you roll again and add to the original roll). Combat uses tables, similar to AD&D1, but instead of looking up the target number to hit, you roll, cross-reference with armour type on the right weapon table, and find the damage you deal. Crits have their own tables. Skills are quite granular, compared to D&D4 or even D&D3/.5.

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Burning Wheel changed how I think about, run, and play roleplaying games. Like D&D, it's a fantasy system. Unlike D&D, Burning Wheel has completely different character creation, combat, skills, advancement, and GM/player interaction. Concepts like Beliefs, Instincts, Traits, Circles, and Let It Ride will make you rethink what you want from a game and what games can offer. Failure becomes interesting instead of being a dead end. Fighting for what you believe in and challenging yourself becomes your reward.

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The two pillars of traditional roleplaying (at least in my experience), are class-based and point-buy systems. As you already have experience with a couple of the main class-based games, you might want to try out some of the point-buy systems.

A couple of my favorites:

  • The D6 system by West End Games. An extremely simple system, which allows you to easily expand and modify it. If you dig through eBay, you can find a Star Wars flavored version, although the generic version is available as a free PDF download.

  • 7th Sea by AEG. 7th Sea is an interesting hybrid, in that you spend a large percentage of your points on a single class-like set of special abilities. The emphasis on improv and entertaining the table are a blast (and a change of pace from 4e), but can be a little difficult to get used to.

White Wolf's games, and Shadowrun also fall into this category, but I don't have much experience with the latest versions of those systems... Or games that are further from traditional.

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