Looking for D&D-like alternatives to D&D 5e

Thomas Shey

Big same. The same players that puzzle over their sheet for a painful 2 minutes every time it's their turn in 5E are the same players who in Shadowdark play combat-as-puzzle like they are Special Forces who can run trigonometry calculations off the top of their heads.

It doesn't make any sense.

I think for my player groups, it's something more like:
  • If the character sheet is simple, combat-as-puzzle runs pretty quickly and the players are engaged with the fiction (see above).
  • If the character sheet is complex, the sheet is a puzzle to interpret in order to play through the combat.
Not to denigrate them too badly, but I also have about 5 players out of the 20-30 or so in my "regular-ish" player pools who, after many, many dozens of sessions, still ask every time I make them roll an ability check "Is that with a d20, or...?" I mean...seriously?!

Well, regarding the latter, if people can't engage with even the most basic mechanical elements of the game, even the most basic games are going to be a problem.

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Doing the best imitation of myself
Well, regarding the latter, if people can't engage with even the most basic mechanical elements of the game, even the most basic games are going to be a problem.
This is 100% true. One of the things about D&D is you can pick a class with varied difficulty and complexity in play. If you're not big on dealing with spells or abilities, the Champion Fighter is for you. You attack on your turn, and only have to decide when you want to Action Surge or use your Second Wind.

Now we played a 5E game recently where the Champion never used either of those abilities, and they were still sort of fine. The rest of the group did the heavy lifting, and we reminded them about their second attack when they got it. They served as an HP sponge and occasionally defeated a monster. The player had fun.

5E is a game where you get out what you're willing to put into a game. But I think it does a decent job of letting a fighter just roll some dice on their turn. And if the player is able to engage, they will be happy too. The rest of the group just has to accommodate it.

But yes, you're right: if you can't engage with it, I know that I wouldn't have a good time at all, and it can be frustrating for the rest of the group.


"Diegetics", by L. Ron Gygax
Being fair to 5e here, any system with any meaningful in-combat decision making beyond the OD&D "pick your target" can slow down if you have people with decision paralysis or ADHD tendencies to get distracted.
Yea, it's heavily group dependent. @el-remmen started a thread about it not too long ago. Some groups can do PC turns every 30 seconds, others take 4-5 minutes.


So, I am going to come back to the first suggestion from @schneeland - Savage Pathfinder would be an excellent choice in my opinion. I'll talk about Savage Worlds in general here but Savage Pathfinder is Savage Worlds with a number of 'combat spelunking' options pre-created for you.
Folks, just a quick calibration.

Neo-Trad DMing style.
I'm not quite sure what that means, but Savage Worlds has an excellent mix of traditional and somewhat narrative elements. Certainly the GM role is mostly a traditional one, and the system mostly goes with 'action resolution' in combat encounters. But the system has more narrative sub-systems like Dramatic Tasks where the players can be given a lot more flexibility if the GM wishes. We find it a great mix of play elements. The meta currency of Bennies can be used for dramatic scene editing (with GM approval) by RAW however Bennies are so widely valuable that we rarely see this done at the table in my group.
2.5-3 hours weeknight sessions. Just want to play.
This is a big win for Savage Worlds. Once you are comfortable with how the system works it really flies and you can fit a lot of play into a shorter session. We play weekly evening sessions of about 3 hours including table chat and the adventure moves on at great pace. One of the subtle ways that Savage Worlds promotes this is that there is no need for filler combats in the system. It is not based on an attritional model that assumed X level appropriate encounters per day. So you can just use the full combat system for interesting and meaningful combats and either remove all 'filler' fights or run them in a zoomed out way using Dangerous Quick Encounters that are intended for fights which are basically certain victories but the main question is 'at what cost?'.
Doesn't want 5e any more. Sees lots of cracks, including some deep ones like challenging high level parties without it being super swingy and balance between classes with 1-3 encounters per day.
Savage Worlds has a flatter growth curve than D&D, with the PCs starting more like 3rd level characters and topping out more like 12th level characters for the most part. You can push the power level higher with supporting materials if you want to. The exploding dice mechanism and how damage works means that all enemies remain a threat whatever your character level, and conversely any challenge can theoretically be overcome. This is where GM discretion is needed. Only use the 'full' encounter rules for scenes where the outcomes is in the balance. For cake-walks just use a quick encounter. For impossible tasks just say so and stop the players burning bennies in a futile attempt. Also, it does not have ever-escalating hit points that need endless filler combats to wear them away. Every fight can be an interesting one.
The do not want OSR.
Perfect, it is not a D&D offshoot.
Enjoy tactical grid combat and it's a requirement. But can't be slow and take up most of a 2.5-3 hour session.
Savage Worlds came out of The Great Rail Wars war-game set in the Deadlands world. It has tactical combat by default though you can choose to put more or less emphasis on this as is your preference. It doesn't technically use a grid, it uses table inches and gang-up bonuses etc but using a grid to make positioning and movement quicker than whipping out a tape measure is standard for us. It is easily as tactical as 5e in my experience, probably more so as tactics like disarm, shoving people, grappling, distractions and so on are all available to everyone. Again, you don't need to use those additional rules unless you want to, but they are there and there is no 'feat tax' to use them. Once you have the system down combat moves quickly in our experience and balances speed of play with meaningful choices well.
Mostly looking at MCDM, DC20, Daggerheart, Tales of the Valiant, and if I'm to pitch another game will need supporting points (from this list) why it really fits.
I can't comment on those other games, I'm having too much fun playing Savage Worlds to try them. :) On a more serious note, Savage Worlds meets basically all my personal gaming needs and I have pretty much stopped looking at new systems as a result.
Various Players

Need a straightforward game. That's does not mean rules light, but just one where a new player who reads the rules once can understand their options.
The core rule book has all the rules a player or GM needs, and the meat of that is about 30 pages, comic book sized.
Character creation/advancement: No trap options/feat taxes. No need to pre-build for a bunch of levels. Limited places to shoot yourself in the foot. Non-optimized characters need to be viable.
Savage Worlds characters have a baseline competency because of the Wild Die which gives them a additional chance to succeed at skill checks in comparison to minor characters (major NPCs get the same benefit) and it's a skill-based game at the core with no hard-and-fast character classes*. It supports any character concept and the rules for Testing Opponents mean that you can use any reasonable skill to make enemies distracted (less like to succeed) or vulnerable (more likely to succumb to attacks etc.) and so, for example, a purely academic character pointing out vulnerabilities to their combat-focussed allies would be a viable option. As characters advance they can take 'edges' which kind of encompass both class abilities and feats from a D&D perspective. These give additional options and sometimes there is a lesser and greater version but I would not describe any of them as 'traps'. Since there are no classes* there are no power differentials baked in between character types and resource utilisation.
I see lots of great recommendations for games, but I'm trying to find something that threads some specific requirements that vary between the group. If you could limit suggestions to ones that will fulfill these that will help. And if suggesting existing systems, please give me ammunition about why those games would be a better fit than the ones the DM is currently looking at.

Another potential benefit - Savage Worlds and Savage Pathfinder have excellent VTT support across multiple platforms, so if you want to play on a VTT you are very well covered.

Savage Pathfinder has a sizeable bestiary and covers the core classes from Pathfinder 1e in the base book. There is an Advanced Player's Guide with some more edges and powers (plus other stuff) and currently a Kickstarter for APG2 and a second Bestiary as well. We have been playing a Savage Pathfinder game for the last year which started off as a 5e game then moved over. We are all having much more fun that we would have been with 5e which we have also become burned out on.

* Savage Pathfinder has 'class edges' which are short edge-trees with three or four edges in them. They aren't actually trees, more like families since you only need to take the first edge to get access to the others and they aren't a chain of mandatory picks; if you only want the first and third edge in the family that is usually fine (some edges do build on top of pre-requisites so specifics vary). This is used to help give the niche-protection feel of D&D-like systems without a more restrictive class design. In core Savage Worlds there are no classes at all and it's all about the choices you make enabling you to pick up later edges with higher pre-requisites to mechanically differentiate characters.
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In one group I'm in the we're on hiatus because the DM and their spouse, who is one of the players, had a baby. Woo!

The DM is looking at moving away from 5e, but keeping to a similar style game. With the proliferation of post-OGL-debacle Fantasy Heartbreakers out there, he's been focusing on them. I'm the "system wonk" in our group, so I've been helping him look at them. The issue is that I believe we have some competing interests in the group. So all of us are way more informed than just I am, so I figured I'd crowd-source this out.

Still looking for a D&D-like fantasy experience, that works well in a 2.5-3 hour weeknight window. Also we have a wide gap in optimization ability and interest in the group, so something like 5e where one person is playing a concept character and another is playing an moderately optimized character aren't super far apart.

EDIT: We play online, so VTTs that help are a good selling point, especially for the established systems that I'd have to convince the DM to look at since he's focused just on the new crop.

The DM: Runs on a spectrum between trad and neo-trad, with a stated preference to shift more neo-trad for this upcoming campaign. While will play a variety of systems including Story Now, for him to run it needs to support that DMing style. Got burned out on 3.x, sees the cracks in 5e and wants to move on even though enjoyed it. While likes all aspects of running, specifically likes mechanical support for crunchier, tactical combat. Likes 4e but didn't get to play a lot so knows there are problems they haven't encountered. Which harkens back to cracks in 5e, especially balance between classes when running short adventuring days - in 4e everyone has the same. Has been primarily looking at the new crop of games like DC20, PF2R, MCDM, Daggerheart and Tales of the Valiant. Wants to do a test run before commiting, so lack of quickstart/playtest/SRD is a problem. Could be sold on other systems, but would need to be shown it's definitively a better fit than the ones he's looking at. Note: 13th Age 2nd Ed has been disqualified because it's not tactical grid combat, so that's a requirement. Also isn't interested in OSR.

The Professor: Super busy, wants to have a straightforward system that they can absorb and understand. (Straightforward doesn't neccesarily mean rules-lite - 5e was fine.) Works best if they understand mechanically what their character can do, doesn't appreciate more free-form RPGs. Once and done - doesn't want to learn lots of systems. Wants to be powerful, doesn't optimize but will make sure not to shoot themselves in the foot. Probably best with a system that's doesn't have half a dozen sourcebooks with character options. EDIT: Will not do well with lots of small situational bonuses.

The Dreamer: Not particularly into mechanics. Would not do well with a system with lots of fiddly bits, especially around character creation/advancement. No feat taxes/trap options sort of thing. Fine with 5e, mostly because it's what everybody plays, but also fine with PbtA, Fate, and other systems. Also the person who puts together all of the clues the DM has been dropping and figures out the big picture stuff. Doesn't optimize. EDIT: Will not do well with lots of small situational bonuses.

Mr. and Mrs. Professional: Another couple, both whom are DMs of other games, including doing things like paid DM gigs at "D&D in a Castle" events. Experience with multiple systems. They both pick up systems quickly, and like to make quite able/powerful but interesting characters. Expect the least trouble with picking up a new system, though one is laid back and will go with whatever the DM says and the other is a bit more nitpicky about addressing their own wants.

Me: Likes a variety of systems, but never tried PF1 because of how burned out I was from 3ed and 3.5. Don't want to have to preplan a character's advancement to make it work. Have the most fun reigning in optimization to be where the group's power level is, and am concerned if that's a wide gap between the optimizers and non-optimizers in the group. More into neo-trad and Story Now, but I do like a robust character creation/advancement system. EDIT: While the DM likes 4e, two problems I had with it were: far too many conditions to evaluate on different tokens, and one player prone to decision paralysis will slow combat to a halt. I'd like to avoid those.

I just went back through and underlined some important parts. And just to reiterate, needs a crunchy, tactical, grid-based combat that still goes quick enough not to dominate a 2.5-3 hour session.

So, what will resonate the DM so that he wants to run it, but would also be a decent fit for the players?
Sounds to me like Level Up is something to check out. The odd person out is your Dreamer but they’re already kinda the odd person out.

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