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

Magean

Villager
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.
Thanks. Actually, there's an Eberron in Savage Worlds conversion book, so that may be worth checking out.
 

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Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Swords does a better job of combat than you might think, although it isn't a 'focus' the way it is in D&D. Cunning plans are certainly easier to run though, that's true. It's something I see as a feature really. One of my complaints about D&D is the lack of mechanical support for that sort of thing. Combat in Swords is probably more deadly than D&D, but that's mitigated by the enormous latitude provided by the investigative spends, much of which can be spent in combat if that's what you need. I also love that you can use words and morale in combat just as effectively as a sword.

The adaptation thing for SW is quite valid, but in the case of Eberron the work is already done.
 

pemerton

Legend
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.
Isn't Eberron a faction-based world?
 

Tun Kai Poh

Adventurer
Swords does a better job of combat than you might think, although it isn't a 'focus' the way it is in D&D. Cunning plans are certainly easier to run though, that's true. It's something I see as a feature really. One of my complaints about D&D is the lack of mechanical support for that sort of thing. Combat in Swords is probably more deadly than D&D, but that's mitigated by the enormous latitude provided by the investigative spends, much of which can be spent in combat if that's what you need. I also love that you can use words and morale in combat just as effectively as a sword.

The adaptation thing for SW is quite valid, but in the case of Eberron the work is already done.
The thing I love about GUMSHOE (and Blades and Leverage to some degree) is that you can work out flashbacks with your GM in the middle of an action scene that will retroactively impact your situation. Whether it's having a flashback to hack Barcelona's traffic light system in order to gain an edge in a car chase in Night's Black Agents, or deciding that you stole a gondola last night and parked it under the docks where your team is being attacked so that you can make a quick getaway in Blades.

Or in the case of Kevin Kulp's Timewatch, you have a flashforward to say that you're going to go back in time and put that gondola there later from your perspective. :cool:
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Isn't Eberron a faction-based world?
Yeah, and you could certainly run some sorts of Eberron game very well with the Blades rules set. Urban stuff in Sharn for example. Intrigue generally. Eberron has more of that than other D&D settings.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Isn't Eberron a faction-based world?
Having factions isn't sufficient. Lots of games have factions. It's the structure and interaction of factions that feed the Blades engine. Eberron is closer than Firgitten Realms, and both have factions, but both are far too loosely integrated to matter.

Plus, Blades requires that the PCs can't just leave and let things blow over. That's not a feature of the Eberron setting (which I love, btw).
 

Tun Kai Poh

Adventurer
Having factions isn't sufficient. Lots of games have factions. It's the structure and interaction of factions that feed the Blades engine. Eberron is closer than Firgitten Realms, and both have factions, but both are far too loosely integrated to matter.

Plus, Blades requires that the PCs can't just leave and let things blow over. That's not a feature of the Eberron setting (which I love, btw).
Well, you can do the Scum and Villainy approach where you can affect your Heat by moving to another jurisdiction...provided you have transport.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Sharn would work fine for Blades. The faction integration is tight and there are lots of them. I'd probably rank the wards by heat, some hotter than others. Law and order is unevenly applied, which is perfect for a Blades game.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Sharn would work fine for Blades. The faction integration is tight and there are lots of them. I'd probably rank the wards by heat, some hotter than others. Law and order is unevenly applied, which is perfect for a Blades game.
As I said, it would take a good bit of work, even for Sharn. Or you're going to have a flat Blades game that doesn't work very well. Blades is so tightly integrated across all play phases that letting the pressure off in one will cascade and cause a lot of the engine to falter.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
As I said, it would take a good bit of work, even for Sharn.
Like I said, I disagree, but life would be boring if everyone agreed about everything. When the genre and moving parts are close I don't find it that hard to port. I turned Scum and Villainy into straight Star Wars without much trouble, and I expect Sharn would be in the same boat because it has so much in common with Doskvol. If you want high fidelity to the Vancian magic system and that sort of thing it would be a lot more work, of course. Blades would do a decent job of sketching relatively low-magic, even the Eberron sort, without too much fuss though, IMO.
 

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.
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.
So today I spent a lot of time reading about GUMSHOE, and Swords of the Serpentine may be an interesting investment. Does the pre-release PDF contain an introductory scenario with pregen characters, or anything to quickly get going, learn the system and get the feeling without much learning and prepping on the GM's part?
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
So today I spent a lot of time reading about GUMSHOE, and Swords of the Serpentine may be an interesting investment. Does the pre-release PDF contain an introductory scenario with pregen characters, or anything to quickly get going, learn the system and get the feeling without much learning and prepping on the GM's part?
The pre-release PDF does indeed have a scenario in it, and there is a pack of pre-gens the comes with, as well as a blank character sheet. Frankly, the pregens aren't really necessary. I have never, and I do mean never, had more fun making characters than I have with Swords. There's a thread over on RPG.net (doc link in post 276) that has another PDF with some really good pre-gen characters, including a couple of mine. The whole thread is worth browsing, it's a pretty wide ranging discussion of the system and it's parts, including a lot of ideas for hacks and the like. One of the game's writers is in there regularly too.

I absolutely love the game, and can't possibly recommend it highly enough. (y)
 

Tun Kai Poh

Adventurer
How could I forget that there is an excellent example of play featuring Kevin Kulp running the game for Morrus and Peter???
 

innerdude

Adventurer
So I feel like I need to chime in on Savage Worlds.

For perspective, from 2012 to 2019, I ran three different Savage Worlds campaigns, and participated in two others run by other members of our group. It was the sole game system used by our group in that time. I'm not saying that I have unassailable knowledge of the system or anything, but I've seen just about every component of it at work at some point in that time.

Here's the thing about Savage Worlds --- it's not a "narrative" system. At least, it's not a narrative system in the same sort of category as you might consider Fate or Cortex+ / Cortex Prime. At it's heart, it's actually a fairly "traditional" sort of RPG. In play it feels very much like my early days playing the D&D Rules Cyclopedia / Red+Blue Box / BECMI sets---only the rules are 4x more flexible, elegant, and cohesive, with more player character options than early D&D, without veering into the extreme character optimization of D&D 3.

The effect of the elegance is that it leads to a much more open, active, "improvisational" style than you'd see in any version of D&D since the year 2000. In fact, that's probably the best way of describing the feel; it's an "action improv" focused game, not a "narrative" focused game.

If you're looking for a D&D-style game, only with faster combats, a system that not only supports but enhances player action improvisation, a flatter power curve, and a focus on human-level (or slightly larger than human) combat, it's a beautiful, beautiful system for achieving that.

Just don't go into it thinking it's going to evolve into a high-brow character drama. It's still combat + action focused, it's just that it's so elegant and flexible that it allows for low- to zero-prep improvisation.

It's also not going to give your players the sense of being world-bending superheroes, like D&D does once you hit level 12+. Characters will definitely be larger than life, and clearly among the "best of the best" of their in-game world, but they're never going to feel invincible, and the baseline magic system at its most powerful would only reach what a level 8 or level 9 wizard in D&D is capable of.
 

Plane Sailing

Astral Admin - Mwahahaha!
Going in the other direction, I did once use Runequest to run a very successful set of Eberron games - combat is more crunchy than D&D as you have attacks and parries, and armour defending against damage, but it works very well for a gritty game with pervasive low level magic. You have to do a lot more work if you want to support the flashier magic and cleric spells Though, so I’m not convinced it would be a great option for you, but it’s out there!
 

Bluenose

Adventurer
A little late to the thread, but Modiphius' Conan 2d20 might suit what you're looking for. One of my group's trial games was exactly the sort of heist Conan is sometimes involved with, except it went off without combat and was still pretty satisfying. There is a free quickstart available and an app with a pretty complete set of character generation rules to create PCs with if you want to take a look. Non-combat tasks are handled well, in my opinion.
 

Sadras

Hero
@Magean

I recommend 5e and you do not have to change much or learn another system

Stream-Lining Combat (by limiting endless Hit Points)
cap Hit Dice based on size
Small/Medium - 6 Hit Dice
Large - 10 Hit Dice
Huge - 20 Hit Dice
Gargantuan - 20+ Hit Dice

  • Perhaps have higher level spells require more than 1 caster.
  • Cap Levels at a certain point, grow laterally intead of horizonatly like the D&D E6 system
  • Begin with 25 ability points to allocate instead of 27
  • Employ the many gritty optional rules within the DMG (Sanity, Healer Kit Dependency, Long Resting Rules, Lingering Injuries)

Exploration/Roleplay emphasis
Introduce a Skill Challenges system (similar to 4e), Use NPC Reactions, Fail Foward, Degrees of Success
 
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Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
A little late to the thread, but Modiphius' Conan 2d20 might suit what you're looking for. One of my group's trial games was exactly the sort of heist Conan is sometimes involved with, except it went off without combat and was still pretty satisfying. There is a free quickstart available and an app with a pretty complete set of character generation rules to create PCs with if you want to take a look. Non-combat tasks are handled well, in my opinion.
If you want the 2d20 engine, Dishonored might be a better pick than Conan. It's a solid system though, for sure.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Frankly, the pregens aren't really necessary.
I think they are needed, at least from the point of view of understanding the approach to equipment. Without pregens, you probably don't realize what that's actually supposed to do for you.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I think they are needed, at least from the point of view of understanding the approach to equipment. Without pregens, you probably don't realize what that's actually supposed to do for you.
That's a good point. I really just meant that you'll be so busy making cool characters of your own that you won't need the pregens. The gear is one of my favorite parts of the process, along with What's best in life... and a place where the system really shines IMO. It's a great idea.
 

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