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Looking for a more narrative, less combat-centric alternative to D&D

Magean

Villager
Hey all,

I've had a talk with the other GM in my group of players and we both agree that we're getting tired with D&D's focus on combat. It takes a lot of prep and play time and ultimately, it's not our preferred part of the game. Especially past lower levels, since large amounts of HP make combat last even longer and also create a well-known interpretation problem. How do you describe massive, successful attacks that nonetheless leave their target above half her total HP? You can't have them be a graze, nor actual wounds either. Anyway. There's also a somewhat jarring discrepancy between heavily structured combat and the lightly structured rest of the game: social interaction, exploration, mystery-solving... typically boil down to one or a couple d20 rolls whereas combat has detailed mechanics.

So, we're looking for a game system that puts more structure on the off-combat parts, and has much more fast-flowing, perhaps more abstracted combat.

However, we don't plan to abandon our current campaigns. I'm running two Eberron campaigns, I like that setting very much and I've invested a lot of time into reading about it, to the point that I've reached the grok threshold. I don't intend to learn a new setting. Meanwhile, my friend is running Out of the Abyss and we're eager to continue the campaign.

So, we need something that broadly supports D&D tropes. In my case, I'd be interested in a system that meshes well with Eberron's fantasy pulp-noir feel: perhaps a comics-originated one? Then, we would adjust the details later. For a start, we could simply hybridize our gaming, importing foreign mechanics into D&D to get the feeling.

So far, I've two ideas in mind:
  • Genesys' narrative die system (with home-made dices or digital simulation), which forces more intricate interpretation and improvisation
  • Dungeon World, because DW is often quoted as an alternative to D&D, even though I so far have failed to understand what it does so specifically (I've never played PbtA games)

And I'm turning to you for input on the matter.

Thanks in advance!
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
If you like swords and sorcery, you might look at Swords of the Serpentine. It is based on the GUMSHOE engine, but the point spending system has been adjusted away from just getting informtation, and turned more towards doing awesome cool things.

The print version is not yet available, but if you preorder, you get the pre-layout pdf version of the rules immediately.
 

Plane Sailing

Astral Admin - Mwahahaha!
Fate Core would probably be a good alternative, although it is very different in mechanics from D&D it should be quite practical to run Ebberon or other D&D settings with it. No classes, but there are skills, and the aspects is a big part of describing characters and making combats more dynamic. Descriptive wounds too.
 

Magean

Villager
If you like swords and sorcery, you might look at Swords of the Serpentine. It is based on the GUMSHOE engine, but the point spending system has been adjusted away from just getting informtation, and turned more towards doing awesome cool things.

The print version is not yet available, but if you preorder, you get the pre-layout pdf version of the rules immediately.
I heard about Gumshoe in an Alexandrian piece. I thought of it more as a Cthulhu-mystery dedicated system, but the derivative you linked to could do the job, indeed.

Fate Core would probably be a good alternative, although it is very different in mechanics from D&D it should be quite practical to run Ebberon or other D&D settings with it. No classes, but there are skills, and the aspects is a big part of describing characters and making combats more dynamic. Descriptive wounds too.
Ah, yes, Fate, that's another big name I've often read without knowing what is was about. I'll check that.

Thanks to you both!
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Hey all,

I've had a talk with the other GM in my group of players and we both agree that we're getting tired with D&D's focus on combat. It takes a lot of prep and play time and ultimately, it's not our preferred part of the game. Especially past lower levels, since large amounts of HP make combat last even longer and also create a well-known interpretation problem. How do you describe massive, successful attacks that nonetheless leave their target above half her total HP? You can't have them be a graze, nor actual wounds either. Anyway. There's also a somewhat jarring discrepancy between heavily structured combat and the lightly structured rest of the game: social interaction, exploration, mystery-solving... typically boil down to one or a couple d20 rolls whereas combat has detailed mechanics.

So, we're looking for a game system that puts more structure on the off-combat parts, and has much more fast-flowing, perhaps more abstracted combat.

However, we don't plan to abandon our current campaigns. I'm running two Eberron campaigns, I like that setting very much and I've invested a lot of time into reading about it, to the point that I've reached the grok threshold. I don't intend to learn a new setting. Meanwhile, my friend is running Out of the Abyss and we're eager to continue the campaign.

So, we need something that broadly supports D&D tropes. In my case, I'd be interested in a system that meshes well with Eberron's fantasy pulp-noir feel: perhaps a comics-originated one? Then, we would adjust the details later. For a start, we could simply hybridize our gaming, importing foreign mechanics into D&D to get the feeling.

So far, I've two ideas in mind:
  • Genesys' narrative die system (with home-made dices or digital simulation), which forces more intricate interpretation and improvisation
  • Dungeon World, because DW is often quoted as an alternative to D&D, even though I so far have failed to understand what it does so specifically (I've never played PbtA games)

And I'm turning to you for input on the matter.

Thanks in advance!
Honestly, and a tad bluntly, your issue in your first paragraph about hitpoints has a good chance that a lot of Dungeon World isn't going to sit well with you. Dungeon World is chock full of similar situations, where you have to take broad and undetailed resolution mechanics and create a specific fiction with them. It also means that you can't prep like you do with D&D -- the game will fight you very much if you try. Your statement about having grokked the Eberron settings would lead me to believe that you view setting as immutable once the GM has an understanding of it, and Dungeon World works much better if everyone, including the GM, finds out about the setting as you play. This is because DW allows players to effectively require the GM to create setting details about things the players want to exist from time to time. And you shouldn't negate this because you've already decided about that thing. That works in D&D, but not really in DW. It's a very, very different beast than 5e, and you'll need to pretty much abandon your plans in play to successfully make the switch.

That said, DW is a fantastic game, but then so is 5e. They do things differently, which is pretty cool. But, given your firm statements about what you want above, I wouldn't recommend DW.

I have zero experience with Genesys.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I heard about Gumshoe in an Alexandrian piece. I thought of it more as a Cthulhu-mystery dedicated system, but the derivative you linked to could do the job, indeed.
There are a couple of Gumshoe games that take on Cthulhu mythos. But there are a bunch of other genres - investigators uncover vampire-conspiracies (Night's Black Agents). Troubleshooters after a beneficent galactic republic has fallen (Ashen Stars). Teen mystery solvers (Bubblegumshoe). Time travelling agents trying to defend the timestream (Timewatch), and others.

Most previous versions of Gumeshoe have been focused on mystery solving and "procedural" fiction, in which there's a general procedure for characters to go about dealing with whatever the conflicts in the series are - cop shows are procedurals, as was a lot of Star Trek, for example. They work on the assumption that the act of finding clues is not the itneresting bit - putting together the clues and figuring out what they mean is where the entertainment is.

In Swords of the Serpentine, the authors take some of the same mechanics used for investigation, and make them more action-oriented. And "action" is broad here - not just combat.
 

Big Bucky

Explorer
Blades in the Dark is sort of an offshoot of DW and is superior in my opinion. It is very much a “fiction first” game. Although it really works best with a Peaky Blinders/the Wire type of criminal empire building campaign.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Blades in the Dark is sort of an offshoot of DW and is superior in my opinion. It is very much a “fiction first” game. Although it really works best with a Peaky Blinders/the Wire type of criminal empire building campaign.
You can mod it to different genres (disclosure: I'm a huge Blades fan), but unless you recreate the tight interaction of the factions, you lose a huge amount of the game. Blades works as beautifully as it does because it leverages the tensions and relationships between factions against PC tensions and relationships to drive new fiction. Blades is finely tuned by having everything constantly be in tension. If you don't recreate that, by, saying trying to use the rest of the Blades ruleset to run an stock Eberron setting, it's going to fizzle like a damp match.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
So, here's something to think about. Different games do things differently. That's obvious. Some are close, and do similar things, some are really far apart. You need to make sure that when you play a game, you're playing it how it was meant to be played (at least at first, you can modify it, of course, but you should know the baseline first). Again, this is kinda obvious.

What gets less obvious is when you want to do things like take your existing setting and port it into another game. Doing this is usually asking for trouble. Settings tend to take the play goals and focuses of the game they were created for and bake them into the setting. If you try to port it to a game that works differently, you've got a setting with baked in assumptions from one game that you're now trying to use in a completely different game. That's going to cause problems.

Eberron has a huge amount of the base assumptions of D&D baked into it. Sure, it's different from other D&D settings and is fairly unique among D&D settings, but it's still got D&D as it's foundation. Trying to take that setting, outside of very high level tropes (and not all of them), and port it into another game is going to cause issues. If the game is similar to D&D, then the issues will likely be small and can be papered over. If the game isn't that similar to D&D, or has a few big differences in core assumptions, then you'll have trouble.

If I was looking for a different system to handle Eberron, I'd be keenly examining the assumption sets of both. Honestly, if I were to recommend a game where you kept most of the Eberron setting but changed the focus of play away from combat and had strong resolution systems for social and exploration play, I'd recommend FATE. FATE has large assumption difference from D&D, but the way FATE encodes that is through descriptive tags. This works well with many settings because it's pretty trivial to turn a setting assumption into a descriptive tag for a character or scene. That said, FATE may not at all be what the OP is looking for.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Savage Worlds does a good job of D&D and there an Eberron conversion book for it. I'm going to playing in a SW Eberron game starting this week and the feel is there but it gives you other options. Swords of the Serpentine would be awesome too, I love the game, but it would be more work on your end to convert stuff.
 

Nytmare

Adventurer
I'm in love with Torchbearer at the moment. Out of the box it supports a lower magic world than most modern versions of D&D but it's definitely less of a combat head scratcher. Every complex problem is answered with a narrative driven kind of rock/paper/scissors card game that covers everything from arguments to combat to wagon chases. It is not however (at least in my limited experience) really built to handle world shaking events and prebuilt story arcs outside the scope of a dungeon. I'd say to use this one if you're feeling like recapturing more of that AD&D feel with modern storytelling elements.

Blades in the Dark would need more work, but I think it would plug in to Eberron nicely. Mechanically Blades is a Heist game that involves players throwing themselves unprepared into the thick of things instead of spending hours and hours planning and prepping for every conceivable outcome and inconvenience, and instead answering problems by triggering flashbacks that explain how they had planned for that exact set of circumstances. I'd be surprised if there weren't several fan made bits and pieces to help you do the heavy lifting. Blades default setting is very noir, but I'm not sure how much of that feel would stick around without those setting and base character classes.

Third pick would probably be Savage Worlds, which I have not in all honesty looked at in about 15 years. It's a more genre neutral generic setting that allows you to plug in different rulesets to capture the feel of the game you want. My impression of it was that it was very much a modern day version of GURPS, but without all the math.
 

Tonguez

Hero
I love Fate because it's a narrative system that handles all the conflicts the same way (in Fate Accelerated there is only one Stress Track for all types of conflict whether social, combat, mental). The system is based on players and GM creating 'facts' (aspects) during the narrative and then using those facts to tell the story.

It does require the players to know the genre expectations so that their aspects and approach match the setting, but if youve got players who are already experienced with Eberron and permit themselves to be proactive in play then it shouldnt be an impediment .

You can mod it to different genres (disclosure: I'm a huge Blades fan), but unless you recreate the tight interaction of the factions, you lose a huge amount of the game. Blades works as beautifully as it does because it leverages the tensions and relationships between factions against PC tensions and relationships to drive new fiction. Blades is finely tuned by having everything constantly be in tension. If you don't recreate that, by, saying trying to use the rest of the Blades ruleset to run an stock Eberron setting, it's going to fizzle like a damp match.
do you think the Dragonmarked Houses and other organisations and nations of Eberron could work with Blades faction system? - eg Players are Purified members of the Silver Flame
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Savage Worlds does a good job of D&D and there an Eberron conversion book for it. I'm going to playing in a SW Eberron game starting this week and the feel is there but it gives you other options. Swords of the Serpentine would be awesome too, I love the game, but it would be more work on your end to convert stuff.
Totes forgot about Savage Worlds. Yeah, that might do the trick.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I love Fate because it's a narrative system that handles all the conflicts the same way (in Fate Accelerated there is only one Stress Track for all types of conflict whether social, combat, mental). The system is based on players and GM creating 'facts' (aspects) during the narrative and then using those facts to tell the story.

It does require the players to know the genre expectations so that their aspects and approach match the setting, but if youve got players who are already experienced with Eberron and permit themselves to be proactive in play then it shouldnt be an impediment .



do you think the Dragonmarked Houses and other organisations and nations of Eberron could work with Blades faction system? - eg Players are Purified members of the Silver Flame
Not without a serious re-write or a very narrowly focused game.
 


Magean

Villager
Thanks for all these answers, that's quite a lot of suggestions!

After collecting them and doing some research, I have compiled the following list of options that are "big names" and / or came up often regarding what I'm after:
  • Fate
  • Swords of the Serpentine
  • Fellowship
  • 13th Age
  • Shadow of the Demonlord
  • Savage Worlds
  • Mythras

Ideally I would need to watch people play, or read through a primer for each of those, and then run a one-shot to see how it goes.

That said, since RPGs can have steep entry costs, both monetary and time-wise, I would really appreciate a "nutshell comparison" of these systems, to D&D 5e and to each other. After all this list contains things both very different (Fate) or somewhat close (13th Age) to the D&D paradigm.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Kevin Kulp, of the creators of Swords of the Serpentine did a playthrough on the EN World podcast, there's a link on this site to it somewhere.
 

shesheyan

Explorer
Blue Rose AGE seems a good fit from what you say in the OP.

«This section I noticed also features in other Green Ronin AGE books. It asks the questions "What do you do?" and "Who are you?" The focus of this game then is character dynamics. It is not "The party of adventurers set out to destroy the dragon." it is "Brynn, Heylg, Bethan and their friends sought out the threat to their beloved kingdom and stopped it before more lives were lost." There is nothing wrong with either situation, it is just one is better suited to Blue Rose. Becaase of this there is more focus on group dynamic. Maybe Bethan, normally a strong independent warrior who fights for just causes, is also deathly afraid of fire from an incident in her childhood. Now fighting this dragon is not just a straightforward matter of defeating a beast; it is now a metaphor for overcoming fear even when you are normally strong and brave. It could be that Brynn's best contribution to this battle is not her magic to attack the dragon or her healing, but her ability to empathize with Bethan and bring out the warrior she is from the scared girl she was. If this dynamic is not that interesting to you, that's fine, the Blue Rose/AGE game will still let you kill the dragon, but something essential is missed.»

Full review: Review of Blue Rose: The AGE RPG of Romantic Fantasy - RPGnet RPG Game Index
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Thanks for all these answers, that's quite a lot of suggestions!

After collecting them and doing some research, I have compiled the following list of options that are "big names" and / or came up often regarding what I'm after:
  • Fate
  • Swords of the Serpentine
  • Fellowship
  • 13th Age
  • Shadow of the Demonlord
  • Savage Worlds
  • Mythras

Ideally I would need to watch people play, or read through a primer for each of those, and then run a one-shot to see how it goes.

That said, since RPGs can have steep entry costs, both monetary and time-wise, I would really appreciate a "nutshell comparison" of these systems, to D&D 5e and to each other. After all this list contains things both very different (Fate) or somewhat close (13th Age) to the D&D paradigm.
I'm a huge fan of 13th Age. I will publicly say I love 5e but that 13th Age fills that same niche even better for me. That said, it was written as a "love letter to D&D" by D&D lead designers of 3.0 and 4e, and while it has good rules supporting everything else, it does follow the D&D conceit of much of the character creation information is based around combat. For example, just about every spell listed is a combat spell, with the expectation that the very flexible ritual system can be used to change any of them into whatever non-combat use you want. Want a magical fireworks display? Sounds like a short ritual and use up your fireball spell.

I really adore the system, but it also has HPs and may not address your specific concerns. Or maybe it does. For instance the equivalent of a 5e long rest, a full heal-up, happens after four combats*. So there's absolutely no pressure to try and force in more combats during a day. (* - DMs can give it sooner if the encounters are tough, and the players can get it earlier at the cost of a campaign setback.) That might be just what you need so you don't feel like you need combats every sesssion, or overwhelming every session.
 

Tun Kai Poh

Adventurer
13th Age solves the 5e combat problem by amping up the combat - with HP damage scaling up over the levels (and other mechanics) to make sure combat doesn't bog down. But it will feel like JRPGs in the way that damage and hit points inflate enormously over 10 levels.

The assumptions (class, race etc) are very compatible with your default D&D campaign so converting will be easy. I converted from a 4e campaign to 13th Age with ease. However, some of the narrative rules (Icon system) need some interpretation and work by GM and players to make them work well.

Swords of the Serpentine will probably defocus combat a lot - the resource point-spend mechanics (which I experienced in Night's Black Agents) will make recon, planning, and dirty tricks a lot more powerful, so that often a cunning party can avoid a lot of combat. But the magic system and world assumptions are uniquely Serpentine, and there will be a lot more work to adapt to your existing campaign.

Those are the two top recommendations I have.

Fellowship is also good but may not fit your particular campaign and play group. Read and see.

Savage Worlds is a great toolkit for fantasy adventure, but also needs a lot of work to adapt.
 

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