Not too excited with today’s prompt but, since there are no alternatives, here’s my thoughts on Substitutes in tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs).
When I started playing, access to TTRPGs was very limited for me and most of the people I played with at the time. TTRPG rulebooks were expensive and difficult to find, so we bought what we had access to and photocopied like crazy.
Moreover, there was this feeling that each particular game “belonged” to someone. This was the reason why I didn’t run MERP (Middle-earth Role Playing), for example: it was my friend’s game, so it wasn’t alright for me to run it, only to play it.
It’s stupid, I know, but such were things at the time.
That’s why I didn’t run Call of Cthulhu for the longest time, or Stormbringer or Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Only later on, as these people disappeared from my life, did I feel comfortable to read and run those games.
So, in a way, I was the substitute GM for my classmates and other friends. Only in certain groups was I the titular GM, and other people reacted more or less like I did; they preferred not to run the same games I did, not unless I wasn’t available to run for one or other reason.
Nowadays my TTRPG library contains many titles, some that I have only because of nostalgia reasons, but most of them I have because I intend, at least, to read and run them.
In spite of that, most of the games that I’ve run in the past 5 years have been D&D 5th Edition campaigns. I’ve also run some one-shots for other games, like The One Ring (1st Edition), 7th Sea (2nd Edition), Urban Shadows, Dungeon World, and Call of Cthulhu (5.5 Edition), as well as countless totally improvisational Fate Accelerated one-shots in conventions (remember those?). I have to add to that playtest games for both The Way of Pukona and Ngen Mapu, the Fate Worlds I wrote for Evil Hat a couple of years ago.
I also ran a couple of short-lived campaigns of Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Vampire: The Masquerade, and Night Witches.
And now I have to add to that a ton of Avatar Legends playtest games.
Still, there are many games in my library that either haven’t seen enough play or none at all.
And I consider those the usual substitutes.
The Fantasy Substitutes
This is perhaps the largest category in my TTRPG library (as it’s to be expected) and, as such, the one that has the most substitutes.
I’d say that today, if I wasn’t running D&D 5th Edition, then I’d be running either The One Ring (1st Edition) or Dungeon World.
The first is, by far, the best adaptation of Tolkien’s work to a TTRPG that’s ever been created, in my (and other people’s) opinion. It’s a little too complicated for my taste, but it’s so flavorful that I can’t help but love it. Of course, the main reason why I’m not running it is that I haven’t found a group of people passionate enough about Middle-earth to play in this world in the fashion of the books (and not those awful movie “adaptations”).
Dungeon World, on the other hand, looks amazing to me after playing and running lots of PbtA in the last months. I think it reads very well, and probably my only major quibble with it is the lack of ancestries beyond the classic dwarf, elf, halfling, and human. What’s more, I’d say that I’d be happier with a “Dragon World” version of the game, more focused in fantasy stories than in modeling dungeon-delving, but I’m told that Fellowship does this wonderfully (I still have to read that game).
Beyond those two there are a couple of other alternatives I’d consider. Going retro with Old-School Essentials, which I love in its simplicity and great presentation, or even dusting off Stormbringer (5th Edition). The problem with the former is that it has too few options available for characters, in my opinion, as each class feels rather anemic compared to their 5th Edition counterpart. With Stormbringer, the problem is of another sort: I’ve never met people who like Moorcock’s Elric as much as I do. Most people whose opinions I respect in fact despise it, so there’s that. And the system is super complex and convoluted for my standards today.
And finally, I can’t forget to mention the genius of Greg Stafford, arguably the greatest TTRPG designer of all time. Both his Pendragon and Prince Valiant are amazing little feats of art, both set in the Arthurian Legendarium with some pretty unique mechanics and overall design. Sadly I’ve never found players who were interested in the Arthurian Legendarium as much as I am.
The Cosmic Horror Substitutes
If someone asked me to run a cosmic horror one-shot or campaign, probably my first choice would be Call of Cthulhu (7th Edition) with the Quickstart rules. I think that’s pretty much the best version of the system, including some contemporary innovations in the design that I appreciate.
If not, Trail of Cthulhu has always been a favorite of mine. I sadly haven’t had the chance to run it—not even once!—so I just have to recommend it on the basis of having read it more than once and always finding it interesting. Its main issue is that the rules are not very well organized, and it has some mechanics which may be difficult to grok at first.
The World of Darkness Substitutes
I have various World of Darkness TTRPGs in my library: Vampire: The Masquerade (20th Anniversary Edition), Werewolf: The Apocalypse (20th Anniversary Edition), Vampire: The Dark Ages (20th Anniversary Edition), Demon: The Fallen, and Changeling: The Dreaming (20th Anniversary Edition)… And I probably wouldn’t run any of them, if I’m being honest.
They are now the substitutes to the wonderful Urban Shadows (2nd Edition).
I’ve run enough Urban Shadows in its 1st Edition incarnation to know that it is what I’m looking for in an urban fantasy game: politics which are actually interesting, a great corruption mechanic, and some excellent rendition of all the classical urban fantasy archetypes: vampires, werewolves, mages, faeries… The works.
From what I’ve read so far of the 2nd Edition, they did only improve and made the game even better so, that’s it for me. Do you want me to run a TTRPG with vampires, werewolves, mages, etc.? I’ll run Urban Shadows (2nd Edition) for you.
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