As a long-time DM, I spend most of my time playing D&D. But over the years, I’ve learned there are many, many game systems out there that can be just as fun. Between the different D&D editions, The World of Darkness series (Best known for Vampire: the Masquerade), Warhammer, Blades in the Dark, Crash Pandas and the other thousands of systems out there, it can be daunting to do anything but stick to what you know.

Today, however, we’ll be looking at branching out, learning new systems, and giving yourself an infinity of options for your games.

People at a convention playing various tabletop roleplaying game systems
Anyone who’s ever been to a con knows there’s a lot of systems out there beyond D&D

Step 1: Choosing a system

Usually, you don’t pick up a new system for the sake of learning – there’s usually a reason for it. I first picked up Blades in the Dark, because I heard of a system for a Dungeon-Keeper style game that was based on it. Similarly, most systems cater to a specific interest – usually in the form of a specific genre. If you heard about a specific system and you just want to try it, that’s great too, as the difference in mechanics might make more sense to you and your players at the table. In either case, the key is to talk to your players and make sure you find something that it fits with all of you.

In terms of systems, I’ve found the following questions to be useful:
– What’s wrong with the system I’m currently using?
– Am I looking for a more complex system?
– Do I want a system that is more/less forgiving on players?
– Am I looking for a specific play style or genre?
– Is there a specific feature I’m looking for in a system?

Wizard showing off his librrary
I’ve seen people with bookshelves like this, and I totally picture them as powerful wizards of roleplaying

Most of these questions can be solved by house ruling your existing system, but house rules can be a pain to balance and document, and a different system for a specific campaign can help move players to the specific mindset for that game.

Now that you have thought about why you’re looking into new systems, it’s a good time to decide what system you want to use to achieve that goal.

What we’ve found so far

While this list is hardly exhaustive, I’ve looked at a few systems over the years, for various reasons, and here are the first things I’d look at for specific reasons:

Heists, Cloak and Dagger: Blades in the Dark was made for this, and so was Scum and Villainy, which is based on it. However, most systems can be made to run one or two adventures in this format.

High Fantasy: You can’t go wrong with D&D here, though Warhammer also has a very well-tested system using d100’s. This genre has hundreds of systems though, so definitely look around.

Superheroes: The Marvel system is robust, but painfully complicated (and involves d100’s for most rolls). I’ve also seen Gurps used for superheroes in several cases. Other systems include Champions, and Mutants and Masterminds.

Supernatural: My top pick here is the World of Darkness series. Vampire: the Masquerade, Werewolf: the forsaken, and many other titles are all cross-compatible, with in-depth focus on each section of the supernatural underworld.

Grinning Vampire
There’s a lot of hype going around vampires at the moment, with Bloodlines 2 on it’s way out – many fans of the game may not know it’s based on a ttrpg

Horror: [Call of Cthulu] is a popular one here, you can see some expert gamemastering by Taliesin Jaffe here for a taste. Dread also has an interesting system, and is literally made to get the blood pumping.

Racing: No joke, check out Crash Pandas. Super cheap (Pay what you want), the whole system is like 2 pages, and it’s loads of fun. Check it out here.

General Mayhem: For a more generic system designed to be adapted for various uses, check out GURPS, OpenD6 and True20

Step 2: Lore Diving

While not as important to learning the mechanics of a system, I find that the lore included in rulebooks lends a lot of context to making the rules easier to latch on to, and the earlier you start learning the (suggested) lore of a system, the sooner your brain starts building on inspiration for you to build some fun adventures for your new players to enjoy the new system in.

Nothing quite like a deep lore dive to some good music – check out Mighty Vibes – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsu8S9Pvbio

Much like in video games, the first adventure in a system can benefit a lot from having tutorial elements – if you’ll be teaching your players the system through play (this is almost always the case), then your first adventure should be structured to contain some elements that can use different elements of the games’ rule sets.

Also much like video games, these first adventures can also be a great space to foreshadow and introduce elements of the larger story you wish to tell throughout the campaign, making it that much more important to get familiar with the story elements of your game as soon as possible.

Step 3: Character Building

Reading through the rules is great, but many of the concepts you come across can feel arbitrary without the context of a character sheet. The last few systems I learned, I experienced this – poring through rules and rules and vaguely starting to click on some terms here and there, until I skipped to the end of the book and saw the character sheet, and…

“Oooooooohhhhhhhhhhh”

Suddenly everything made sense. Once you look at how you create characters within the system, the rest of the rules within the system suddenly start making a lot more sense. Once you’ve started actually filling out that first character sheet, all the rules become pieces to a puzzle that you can clearly see taking shape in the context of each other.

Fallout 4 Character creation screens
Just about every game these days has this part – but with ttrpg’s they actually help things make sense. (Image from Fallout 4)

Step 4: Using your characters

Once you have a character sheet, look again through any rules you can find related to how they interact with the world. Combat, using skills, communication, travel, day-to-day living, using items – These are actions your players will typically try to do in any RPG, plus any that are specific to your system.

Reading through them is well and good, but no DM should be expected to memorise so many entire rulebooks. It’s important to build knowledge of the most common interactions, but it’s also useful to know where to look things up in a pinch – having a sense of what section of the book might hold certain information helps, and knowing the name used for a specific thing (“is it fatigued or exhausted?”) makes it much easier to find in the index of the book.

Sydney Scoville looking at a network of magic orbs
There’s far too much information for a character to just memorise, it pays to be able to look things out.
(Source: Grrl Power, Check it out)

A good way to cement the information is to have a dummy character and run through an adventure with yourself – using the rules and trying to throw yourself as many weird curveballs as you can. This will give you a sense of what rules get used the most, and highlight what parts of the game you can or can’t handle naturally, and prepare you for the surprises that players are so good at bringing out of the blue.

Step 5: Start playing

It’s true with D&D as it is with many systems – you can learn the rules, build the worlds, and prepare as much as you can, but this is a never-ending process, so there’s no reason to delay the game as soon as you’re ready to get started.

You will get some rules wrong, and that’s ok – if you’re just starting out, you’re not exactly hosting Adventurer’s League. The point is to have fun, so focus on that. If you happen to get more comfortable with the game as you go on (don’t worry, you will), then power to you!

“Well, the rules never say you can’t…”
When in doubt, just go with “Yes, and”

Be ready to make some things up, just try to use what you do know about the system to keep things in context, unless you have some crazy ideas that you think your players will like, in which case, just be consistent with them.

Step 6: Have fun!

Honestly, you should be doing this the whole way through, but the reality of being a DM, is that sometimes it can be daunting, and sometimes it takes a bit of work to be ready to play. Remember that the goal at the end of the day is to have fun with the people you’re playing with.

And that’s what makes it all worth it.

Have any systems you’ve learned that we might like to hear about? Have any stories about oddball rules or homebrewed systems? We’d love to hear it!

Categories: D&D Guides

Dylan Beckbessinger

App developer by day, Chaotic Neutral dungeon master by night, Dylan has been a DM for 10 years, and an avid fan of all things geekdom for far, far longer than that. Favorite class is eldritch theurge, because raw power doesn't need any limits.

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