In my view, there is an obvious in-principle competitor to D&D and D&D-like RPGs: AW and AW-like RPGs.
There are two obstacles that I think exist, though.
One is that AW doesn't support a commercial publishing model based on selling people lists of mechanical elements and stories to play through.
The other is that most RPGers appear to want a type of gameplay that is based around lists of mechanical elements plus stories to play through. The best-known non-D&D example of that that I know is CoC and variants like Trail of Cthulhu. But for whatever reason those don't seem to be able to grow as big as D&D.
Just some thoughts about the above and your back-and-forth with @Olrox17
Going to quickly link Vincent Baker’s brilliant article on concentric design
as it’s relevant!
So (as we know!) AW definitely can’t address “stories to play through” as the Adventure Path/Metaplot format is fundamentally anathema to AW play (AW being an alternative that is designed to create emergent story merely as a byproduct of aggressively playing and allowing the system to have its say). However, concentric design components 3 and 4 (4 in particular), I think, can fill that niche of OMG I NEED MECHANICAL LISTS AND WIDGETS.
That 3 and 4 (especially) is the large chunk of what makes Mouse Guard so different from Torchbearer and Dungeon World so different from Apocalypse World…or Stonetop so different from Dungeon World. Custom Moves, varying xp triggers, new Threats and Threat Moves, new Gear & Crap and how each of these things integrate with layers 1 and 2 (we haven’t touched upon new Playbooks yet) do a considerable amount of lifting to invigorate and differentiate player and GM decision-space from game to game. An easy “for instance” is the difference between DW equipment loadout and the Stonetop equipment loadout (which pulls directly from Blades in the Dark). Just that one change at layer 3 makes a very sizable difference for both player and GM.
I think this AW model (and any other gsme that employs it snd executes it well) intersects with and supports your position in your back-and-forth. Layer 1 is the base substrate of play. It is “a complete game” (though, Imo, not terribly compelling for more than 2-4 sessions; Harper’s Lasers & Feelings is a good example here). Bring in layer 2 and you’ve suddenly got quite a robust, though neither a terribly complex nor terribly demanding, game that can last for a long while. I mean…there is all kinds of hackery that can be done even at tge simple layer 1 (again, L&F is a good example) and certainly at 2. But, again, 3 & 4 are the big ones and where all the “lists and stuff” exists. This is where complexity amplifies and becomes a positive feedback loop. This is where a publishing model for a company like WotC can (and does out there in the PBtA space) “do its work.”
, do you know how people can play Elden Ring in a (I mean this descriptively and without judgement, not as an epithet) very shallow fashion? Run about with your horse > explore and “herb” and farm xp > interact with some world vendors and Hold NPCs > kill things and keep moving? You know how the same can be done in an MMORPG? That is layer 1 and some (or all…depending upon how you play) of layer 2 in VB’s concentric design. Because ER is designed so well (concentrically), it allows a massive amount of diversity in play aggression and intricacy. You can play as depicted above or you can explore a myriad of extremely consequential aspects of play at very deep and intensely intricate level (NPC stories individually, how they integrate, significant and impactful herbing & crafting, finding “Boss Hacks” via exploration, deeply investigating the huge diversity of weapons/distance control/AoE/builds, interrogating and/or mastering “the meta” of each individual boss and location, and discovering the wide array of endings) while the base substrate of play still holds
So I think WotC can monetize a “simple”game chassis…and I think it can draw in a huge player base that can play it in a wildly diverging manner…that can scale up enormously in depth and intricacy while (a) the “system unwaveringly and transparently has its guiding say” (eg not encumbering a GM with intensive interpretation and mediation, and likely uncomfortable decisions around deploying Force, in the face of the vastness of silent or disconnected rule-space) while (b) the base substrate of play still holds
. They just have to design an absolutely brilliant game like Baker’s AW (or something like Elden Ring)!