The 5th edition of the Dungeons and Dragons tabletop role-playing game is riding a wave of increased interest in role-playing games far beyond the boundaries of traditional “nerd” culture these days. Through the introduction of tools for online play and support of several highly popular “actual play” streaming shows, publisher Wizards of the Coast have really succeeded in equating “role-playing games” with Dungeons and Dragons in popular opinion.
However, there’s more to pen and paper role-playing than the Player’s Handbook, and in this article, we provide you with introductions to some of the other role-playing games out there that we love, and how they differ from DnD in interesting ways. In short, our list of best Dungeons and Dragons alternatives.
This website being what it is, be prepared for quite a few Warhammer-flavoured entries in this article, but there’s also a lot of other good stuff. Dungeons and Dragons is an amazing role-playing game that deserves all the praise and popularity it gets, but if you’re looking for Dungeons and Dragons alternatives, this article is for you. If you are just looking at some inspiration for a new character, look at our article here.
Read on to learn what RPG tabletop games you could play next.
Age of Sigmar Soulbound
Cubicle 7’s Age of Sigmar: Soulbound is, as the name suggests, a tabletop role-playing game based on the Mortal Realms setting of the Warhammer Age of Sigmar tabletop miniatures game, but it’s not just interesting for fans of that game: Soulbound is very much an rpg with it’s own distinct identity and ideas about what should drive players forward in a game.
The setting of Soulbound
To those who are not familiar with the setting of Age of Sigmar, here’s a short primer:
The Mortal Realms are an odd combination of extreme high fantasy knights, elves, dragons and daemons with shredding guitar solo levels of heroism everywhere and dark, gritty, urban horror fantasy full of sadistic cults, witch hunters, dark magic and steampunk technology. Basically, everything fits in there somewhere.
The setting features 8 distinct magical realms floating around in an empty void, and each of them is based on a specific magical energy that completely defines life in that realm:
- In Aqshy (where the first adventures for the game takes place), it’s all about fire, with oceans of lava, burning deserts and all that.
- In Ghur, everything’s a beast or monster of some sorts, and cities are built on the back of giant traveling worms while hordes of orruks (orcs) throw themselves at the tiny pockets of civilisation that manage to survive in the realm.
- In Chamon, everything is metallic, and an airborne duardin (dwarf) civilization power amazing technology with a gold-like substance harvested from magical gas clouds that are said to be the breath of their smithing god Grungni.
- In Shyish, Death is everywhere and the afterlives of all kinds of species and religions are placed next to cities where undead and living humans live side by side, all under the mercurial rule of the great Necromancer god Nagash – and so on and so on.
It’s pretty crazy, but also pretty great, and while the miniature game’s lore sometimes suffers from not being grounded enough, Soulbound manages to turn all this heavy metal t-shirt art madness into a world that people actually live in, and where you know what people eat, how they build their houses and what they believe in.
But that’s just the world – there’s a story in there as well. The Mortal Realms were almost conquered by the Forces of Chaos, which are daemonic powers that feed on the emotions of mortals, and the tide just barely turned when the God-King Sigmar of the Realm of Heavens, Azyr, launched a counterattack with his heavily armoured supersoldiers, the Stormcast Eternals. Now, small pockets of civilization are slowly expanding into an empire all across the Realms with the aid of men, duardin, aelves and other beings aligned with the principle of Order and against Chaos, Death and Destruction.
If you want to know more about Age of Sigmar lore, we have several articles on that subject:
- Beginner’s introduction to Age of Sigmar Lore
- Age of Sigmar Lore and Storyline Explained
- Lore of the Age of Sigmar Realms and setting
Your characters in Soulbound
In Soulbound, the players are a kind of superpowered agents for the God-King, called (you guessed it) the Soulbound, and in addition to creating your character, you also create your Soulbound group almost like an extra character, complete with a Party Sheet with goals and resources recorded on it (classic Warhammer roleplay style).
The concept of the Soulbound being almost a superhero group is one of the things that makes the game stand out from other fantasy rpg, since the divine calling of your heroes also mean that they’re very capable even from the very beginning of the game.
The Age of Sigmar universe is all about very high stakes, wild magic and over the top action, so in Soulbound, you don’t have to begin your game by killing rats and wolves with a rusty shortsword. In fact, some of your character’s most useful abilities are available right from the start. This also means that leveling up in the traditional sense isn’t as important in Soulbound as it is in Dungeons & Dragons, which gives the game a unique feel that lends it very well to one-shot games that are begun and ended in a single game session.
Character types and other mechanics in Soulbound
There are many character archetypes to choose from, and almost all of them, including the ones released in the game’s expansion books, directly correspond to an Age of Sigmar miniature you can buy. This is really cool if you have an Age of Sigmar collection, and between all of the expansions, most of your other miniatures can cameo as enemies and NPCs as well, but it can also feel somewhat limiting if you’re used to all the different subclasses and branching paths of DnD or Pathfinder.
Luckily, like it’s the case in many other newer role-playing games, these archetypes are mostly just a collection of skills and talents from a much larger list that you can also use to create your own archetype from scratch. During a one-shot I GM’ed for the game, one of the players had created his own gunslinger archetype from the options in the core book, and it worked really well.
In an odd choice for a game based around a tabletop miniature wargame, Soulbound‘s combat system is designed for a kind of “theatre of the mind” experience where everything can be resolved without the need for a map, grid or other visual abstraction of the battlefield.
The game’s dice system will feel pleasantly familiar to any Warhammer player, however, with its buckets of six-sided dice whose rolls can be buffed or debuffed in various ways. It’s pretty easy to figure out, and combat is usually pretty spectacular due to the relatively high power level of both you and your enemies.
Since its release, Soulbound has received many new expansions and adventures, and Cubicle 7’s support of the game doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so if you’re an Age of Sigmar player who wants to dive deeper into the game’s lore, or if you’re a fan of over the top fantasy action, don’t hesitate to pick it up.
Wrath & Glory
If you want to try your hand on an RPG that’s not based on medievalist fantasy tropes, Wrath & Glory is the perfect palate cleanser. The game takes place in the dark future of the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop miniatures game, which means that in addition to swords, magic and orks, there are also huge spaceships, rocket launchers, lasguns and aliens.
Setting of Wrath & Glory
If you’re not familiar with the background of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, it goes something like this:
10,000 years in future, thing’s aren’t looking great for Mankind. They’ve spread across the galaxy, colonizing thousands of planets under the leadership of the god-like superhuman Emperor (there are some bits of Dune inspiration in there), but some of his cloned supersoldier sons, the Space Marine primarchs, have rebelled against him, which ended in one of them almost killing him so that he is now more or less a living corpse with wild psychic powers. In his relative absence, the Imperium of Mankind is governed by a terrifying cocktail of military oppression, grotesque bureaucracy and the dogma of a regressively religious and anti-scientific leader cult.
So far, so good. There’s war everywhere, because the rebelling Primarchs are still going at it, and in addition to them, there are a number of alien civilizations who oppose the spread of Mankind across the stars. The graceful Aeldari are dwindling but powerful and arrogant; the war-addicted Orks grow stronger and more numerous the more fights they manage to start; the utilitarian T’au Empire offers a visionary alternative to the darkness and oppression of the Imperium for anyone willing to give up everything to serve the Greater Good; Ancient immortal metal skeletons from the Necron dynasties are rising from their tombs all across the galaxy, and so on.
This is a maddeningly bleak universe with incredible depth due to the fact that game designers and writers have been expanding on it for more than thirty years, and within it, crime noir stories of gangs and detectives exist side by side with gods clashing in the sky while millions of soldiers wage war beneath them. The best thing about Wrath and Glory is that it gives you options to play in this universe on many differents levels across that grand scale due to its Tier system.
Mechanics of Wrath & Glory
The Tier system works in such a way that the Archetypes/classes available to you in character creation are split into four different tiers, which are basically power levels.
In Tier 1, you can play as a simple foot soldier of the Imperium, an Aeldari pirate, a lowly Ork or even an Imperial bureacrat, so you’ll mostly be playing war movie-like scenarios or something where you have to navigate the dark corridors of great industral cities within the Imperium.
In Tier 2, you can be an elite soldier, a Rogue Trader explorer captain, a magic-using psyker, among others, bringing you closer to the relative power level of an early DnD party, whereas in Tier 3, you can be a superhuman Space Marine, a Tech-Priest or a powerful Aeldari Warlock.
Finally, Tier 4 lets you play as an Inquisitor with immense bureacratic and martial power, making you feel like a truly superpowered being.
While this categorization of different tiers of play must have been fairly straight-forward to design, it does a great job of teaching you that you can tell all sorts of stories within the framework of this game, and like its cousin Soulbound, it’s very well suited for one-shot sessions or maybe even a campaign where your characters switch careers as they become more powerful.
When it comes to statistics and character sheets, Wrath and Glory is a bit more complex than Soulbound, but this suits a game that’s also less light-hearted or superheroic than its sister game.
Wrath and Glory is dark and gritty from top to bottom, and the basic narrative principle of living in a world where everyone is at war with everyone shines through all of its game systems. One of my favorite examples of this is the way the magic system can punish you for rolling 1s when trying to cast something:
There’s a whole d66 table (meaning a list that you roll two dice for and then pick an item on the list based on the number created by putting the scores of the two dice rolled next to each other) in the core book that can lead to all sorts of horrible and fascinating things happening when your psychic powers go wrong. Roll an 11 or 12, and all lights around you go out. Roll a 25 or 26 and all statues and paintings around you weep blood. Roll a 91 or 92 and you character is possessed by a daemon!
This highly dramatic approach to roleplaying through rules is also evident in another cool mechanic in the game: Whenever you roll a pool of six-sided dice, you usually have to include one with a color different from the rest. If you roll a 1 or 6 with this special dice, stuff happens (good if its a 6, bad if its a 1), and usually, you get to choose a way to roleplay this. The fact that this is included as a mechanical way of creating interesting roleplaying opportunities, rather than just some statistic advantages or disadvantages, says so much about Wrath & Glory and how it’s always trying to encourage players to be creative.
The Warhammer 40,000 setting of Wrath & Glory might be a dealbreaker for some fantasy purists, and that’s completely fair, but if you’re up for immersing yourself in a very different roleplaying game world that’s extremely deep and consistent in its worlbuilding, I highly recommend giving the game a try. Stop playing in dungeon world and get gritty in Wrath & Glory.
This game has the coolest fantasy setting I’ve ever encountered. Imagine a world that combines the nature vs. civilization conflicts of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke (and a lot of its style) with fantasy tropes such as elves, dwarves and goblins, as well as a heavy dose of dark folklore (think Hellboy) and a critique of colonialism. It’s a lot, but it’s basically what Symbaroum is.
Setting of Symbaroum
The game’s setting takes place around the huge and impenetrable forest of Davokar. The forest grows on the ruins of a lost civilization, and its outskirts are the home of human barbarians, elves and ogres. Just outside the forest, a human empire on the run from a great cataclysm (I don’t want to spoil the story too much, so we’re keeping it vague here) is gearing up to invade the forest to conquer the barbarians and discover the treasure and mysteries of Davokar.
Depending on which party you build for your campaign, you can end up approaching the conflicts of Symbaroum in very different ways: Perhaps you are a group of religious zealots looking to convert the barbarians, a group of barbarians raiding outposts outside the forest, or a ragtag band of ogre slaves and goblins trying to make your fortune by hunting treasure in the forest?
The best thing about Symbaroum‘s setting, however, is the way its designers have managed to keep it mysterious. There’s something going on in the heart of the Davokar forest, but it’s never explained what it is, and the world outside the immediate surroundings of the forest and the human empire is only hinted at. The setting is essentially more of a tone or a style than a usual DnD campaign setting, and it works so well if you’re the kind of Game Master who likes telling your own story rather than following anything published.
Mechanics of Symbaroum
If you only buy the core rulebook, you have 4 races and 3 archetypes (classes) to build your character from. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but there are several occupations (subclasses) for each archetype, and the character builder is very freeform, so you can basically build whatever character you can think of. The Advanced Player’s Guide is a bit of a must-buy as it greatly expands your character options. The races you can choose from look familiar at first glance (human, changeling, goblin, ogre in the core book, and elves, dwarves, trolls and undead in the Advanced Player’s Guide), but each race has been reimagined from the ground up for this game. Dwarves and Ogres are especially weird and nothing like what you’re used to.
The rules of actually playing the game might take a while getting used to for a DnD player, especially because they mess with one of the core ideas of DnD mechanics:
In Symbaroum, when making a check with a d20, you have to roll under the value of a difficulty class, rather than equal to or above it. The developers have described this as a choice that reflects the dangerous nature of the Davokar forest’s world: you’re always trying to avoid getting killed, ducking and dodging rather than being a superior force. You’re a visitor to Symbaroum’s world, and you’re lucky if you succeed, rather than the feel you can get in a DnD game where the whole world exist for the sake of your characters. Nobody in Symbaroum is the Chosen One, and the dice roll system reflects that. This is a different to roleplaying games you are used to.
Other than that, Symbaroum is a very roleplay-heavy game that explicitly encourage the players and GM to only roll dice when a situation can’t just be resolved through roleplaying, so you have to like that style to enjoy the game.
Symbaroum has received, and continues to receive, strong support from Free League, with lots of expansions having already been released – and if you like the setting but dislike rolling under and rather than rolling over a set value, Free League is planning to release a version of the game with DnD rules in addition to the original game.
The One Ring
If you got into fantasy role-playing games because you read The Lord of the Rings as a kid or watched Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of the books, why not try a game that actually has Tolkien’s work as its setting?
If that sounds like something you’d like, take a look at The One Ring, the only tabletop role-playing game that’s built from the ground up to help you immerse yourself in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.
Mechanics of The One Ring
Like the first edition of the game, The One Ring is deeply invested in respecting Tolkien’s world, style, and values in any way it can, which shows in everything from its beautiful artwork and deep lore to the abilities and statistics of your character: Your character has a Strength score like what you would expect from a DnD character sheet, but most of what you find on your sheet is very different. Rather than Dexterity and Charisma, you have Wits, which is what the best hobbit burglars have in spades as well as what Gandalf is mostly all about, and Heart, which is a perfect statistic for a game world that’s so much about finding hope and struggling against despair.
Hope is also literally a statistic you can track for your character, and your character has to have a Shadow trait, which is a personal flaw such as greed or cowardice that the Dark Powers can exploit to thwart the plans of your fellowship.
All of this makes for a moral, ethical and psychological foundation for a role-playing game:
You’re not just merry adventurers out to find loot and fame – going for either of those two can actually be a problem because ambition and greed is easy for evil to exploit -, you’re a group of companions in a dark world fighting to keep hope alive and not succumb to despair.
Another mechanic that distinguishes The One Ring from DnD is its rules for what would normally be considered a form of downtime in DnD: travelling, resting, and spending time away from your fellowship. A campaign can take years in in-game time, and just like in the books, a lot of your time is spent walking across vast expanses of often difficult terrain where you have to live off the land.
The One Ring has expansive and enjoyably interactive rules for doing this, and if you can accept that much of your playing time will not be spent fighting cool monsters, this can be a really refreshing way of playing.
While there’s plenty of combat (and fame and treasure) to be had in The One Ring, it’s really the game for Tolkien purists who think fantasy storytelling should be “about something” rather than a power fantasy or fast-paced hack’n’slash. This isn’t to say that DnD can’t be a profound and existential experience, but The One Ring has those big Tolkienesque questions of honour, hope and despair built into its DNA.
Also, if you think all of that sounds great, but you don’t feel like learning a brand new rules system, Cubicle 7 released a version of the One Ring’s older rules designed for the DnD 5th edition ruleset a couple of years ago that you can still buy. It’s called Adventures in Middle-Earth, and if you’re familiar with Tolkien lore and Dungeons and Dragons, it’s an amazing frame for a good Middle-Earth role-playing campaign.
The license for this system has recently passed into the hands of Free League Press who also publish The One Ring, so expect a new version of Adventures in Middle-Earth pretty soon.
Pathfinder Second Edition
Pathfinder is the perfect role-playing game for you if you’re looking for an alternative to Dungeons & Dragons, but at the same time, you still kind of want to play Dungeons & Dragons.
The original version of the game grew out of a version of the third edition of DnD, so to a complete outsider, the two games seem almost indestinguishable: There are swords, elves, dragons and funny dice all over the place, and even the abilities and concepts such as Armor Class and Feats are immediately familiar to a DnD player. The most famous of all livestreamed DnD campaigns on Twitch and Youtube, Critical Role, started out as a Pathfinder campaign and was converted to DnD’s 5th edition, so they’re really not that far apart rules-wise (but for geeks into this, they are super different).
Mechanics of Pathfinder
But why play Pathfinder instead of DnD, then? The short answer is that it’s a bit more advanced, and more like Dungeons and Dragons used to be around 3rd edition, but it’s also doing its own thing in surprisingly modern ways. For example, there are tons and tons of options for each ancestry (formerly known as races) and class in the core rulebook, but it’s structured and presented in a very beginner-friendly and easy to use way. The core rulebook is huge (642 pages), but that’s partly due to the fact that everything is thoroughly explained.
In combat, there’s so many things you have to keep track of (you have to spend an action to raise a shield if you want to receive any defensive bonus form it) that it borders on simulation rather than role-playing, but there’s a nice icon system that makes it easy to understand how to use each action, and so on.
Whether Pathfinder is actually more advanced than playing DnD with all the expansion content for that game is a difficult discussion, but mechanically, Pathfinder is certainly more geared towards players who like granularity and complexity in their rules (and builds). In addition to that, even the core rulebook just has so many options for everything, whether it’s classes, feats or what you can do on your turn in combat. I think there was a bit more of a justification for Pathfinder’s existence during DnD 4th edition, when DnD turned very World of Warcraft-like with lots of streamlining in its design, but it’s still amazing to be able to play a pen and paper rpg in 2022 that feels like something out of the 90s presented in a modern format.
If you like playing published adventures rather than creating your own, the Adventure Path system for Pathfinder lets you and your party following an ongoing narrative with continuous new releases, and the game has a rich and detailed world that can firmly stand on its own without feeling too much like the Forgotten Realms of DnD or something like that.
Pathfinder also has a science fiction cousin called Starfinder, which takes many of the rules of the fantasy game and plants them among the stars in a colourful Star Wars-but-not-Star-Wars world where you’ll even have a character sheet for your starship. Beware, however, that Starfinder hasn’t been upgraded to the full Pathfinder second edition ruleset.
Mouse Guard RPG Second Edition
If you’re a parent looking for a family-friendly tabletop rpg to share with your kids, I really recommend taking a look at the Mouse Guard RPG.
The game takes place in American graphic novelist David Petersen’s beautiful Mouse Guard universe, which is sort of an extremely low fantasy, Dark Middle Ages Wind in the Willows world, where sentient mice live in small towns surrounded by dangerous countryside. The only connective tissue of their vulnerable civilization is the Guard, a military and diplomatic force of trained warriors and rangers who escort caravans between towns and fight predators and the enemy weasel kingdom. It’s a gorgeous world that expertly blends early European medievalism with the fauna of Northwestern Europe in a way that will feel familiar to many children across the globe with its rodents, birds of prey, rabbits and snakes as well as swords, shields, bows and axes.
The Mouse Guard RPG casts players as young Guard Mice learning the tools of the trade, which means you’ll have to describe your parents and mentors on your character sheet. This is great for especially younger children joining the game, since it can feel much relatable to them and allow them to approach the world as someone resembling themselves. This doesn’t mean that the world of Mouse Guard isn’t dangerous – it absolutely is, and outside of settlements, there’s stuff everywhere trying to eat you and your companions, even though it’s owls and foxes rather than orcs and undead.
The game comes with a map of the mouse territories, background information on the key leaders and heroes of the guard, and a deck of cards you use to resolve conflicts. The game doesn’t have a combat system in the DnD sense with dice-rolling and stat modifiers, but if has elegant card game-like rules for resolving skill checks and combat that’s easy for children to understand and use.
Mouse Guard is a very guided RPG in the sense that it takes place within a limited geographical space with some of the NPCs and story elements already provided by the game’s rules, so it’s a bit more like playing a published adventure than a free-roaming campaign, even though it’s easy to tell your own stories within the setting.
The focus on skills other than combat (when I played the game, my character was a beekeeper among other things), the detailed but relatable world and the presence of animals you could actually meet in the wilds rather than dragons and mindflayers make Mouse Guard one of the best choices for a family-friendly RPG out there – especially if you and your kids also read the graphic novels to immerse yourselves in the world of the game.
Other notable Dungeons and Dragons Alternatives for tabletop rpg
The above was just a list of our take on the best Dungeons and Dragons alternatives. Below is notable other alternatives of tabletop RPG you could also give a go. The world of tabletop RPGs are vast and varied, so give them all a look to see if something scratches your itch. What are you going to play in your next tabletop game?
- Pendragon (King Arthur)
- GURPS (generic universal roleplaying system)
- Dungeon Crawl Classics
- Warhammer Fantasy
- Blades in the Dark
- World of Darkness
- Start Wars Roleplaying