Pro tip: You can play “D&D” without going anywhere near a Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast product
As we watch the ongoing shitshow of Hasbro of the Coast’s fumbling attempts to kill and recreate their open game license (OGL), which has essentially overtaken my entire social mediasphere (and probably yours, too), I feel the real story is being completely overlooked.
Psst: You can play D&D without playing Dungeons and Dragons®.
Yes, you and your besties can grab some dice, miniatures, tortilla chips, and carbonated beverages and sit at a table fighting off hordes of monsters so you can loot their lairs of precious coins and magical swag.
In the nearly 50 years since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson published the first set of D&D rules (Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures), countless players and game masters have taken the skeleton core of D&D—building characters with numeric attributes and sending them to explore fantasy worlds and battle monsters—and tweaked and twisted and remade the rules into a veritable hydra of home-brewed systems.
Some of those systems have had remarkable success. One of the earliest franchises to build from the success of the original Dungeons and Dragons was Chaosium. Chaosium melded roleplaying with H.P. Lovecraft’s weird horror fiction to create Call of Cthulhu, perhaps my favorite RPG of all time, and one with an extraordinary wealth of supplementary materials.
Nowadays, you can roleplay everything from superheroes, pirates, rabbits, teenage monsters, and explore worlds from the earth’s ancient past to the far future among the stars. In fact, it’s hard to think of a genre or setting that has not been made into a tabletop RPG.
But even if you wanted to just play hardcore D&D—you know, with axe-wielding dwarves, pious paladins, wily rogues, and fireball-hurling wizards—there are more ways to have that experience without opening an official Hasbro-produced book than there are eye stalks in a lair of Beholders®.
Here are some of my favorites—some from small independent creators and some that are more well-known. Check them out, and let me know in the comments if you have others you think deserve more widespread attention.
More recommendations will be coming in part two, so be sure to follow me so you don’t miss them!
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The One Ring (2nd Edition)
Level: Good for advanced roleplayers, as there’s not a lot of hand-holding in the rulebooks
I wish this game got more attention than it does. After all, Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were an enormous inspiration for Gygax and Arneson (along with the pulpy fantasy fiction of Conan creator Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock and others, which you can find lovingly collected in Appendix N: The Eldritch Roots of Dungeons and Dragons by my friend Peter Bebergal).
Tokien invented the archetypes—elegant high elves, sturdy, axe-wielding dwarves, and cunning but lovable halflings—that are hardwired into the canon of the fantasy gaming genre.
So it’s kind of fitting that now, as we watch corporate D&D implode, this faithful, gorgeous, and well-designed RPG allows many of us wizened grognards to have our wish—to explore and play in the Middle Earth Tolkien created.
The rules are elegant, with the perfect level of crunch (I particularly enjoy the mini-game style of the journey and council rules, and melee combat is fast and fun). The game’s time setting is between the events in The Hobbit and LOTR, so there’s no worries about breaking the canonical stories. And the setting is well-known to most fantasy fans, thanks to the success of the Peter Jackson films, so it’s easy to jump right in without having to spend time on world-building and backstory. You likely already know what Middle Earth and its denizens look like (yeah, kinda like New Zealand).
But honestly, it’s just damn fun to play an elf or a dwarf or a hobbit or a human ranger in the beloved professor’s rich, gorgeous, and beloved world. I just started a campaign with my group and we were instantly smitten.
There’s not a lot of fireball-flinging and you can’t be a wizard, but the magic in the game—mostly based in magic items, but elves get quasi-magical abilities—is very Tolkienesque and a nice antidote to “every character has magical abilities” 5E Hasbro D&D.
Get: Pick up the Core Rulebook and the Starter Set, which has a great booklet on the Shire and some starter adventures with premade characters (yes, including Bilbo). If you find your group is enjoying it (and I’ll bet they will), game masters can get The Ruins of the Lost Realm, which has adventure seeds, locations, and lore you can use to build a campaign).
Note: The boxed Starter Set comes with misprinted “feat” dice (!), basically specially designed d12s, but Free League will kindly send you replacement dice at no cost if you ask.
Dungeon Crawl Classics
Speaking of D&D’s inspirational texts, if you’re more a fan of the brutally fun hack-and-slash-and-loot of the pulp fantasy that fueled OG D&D’s origins, you should be playing Dungeon Crawl Classics.
DCC is as old school as it gets. You want to be an Dragonborn® multiclass paladin rogue? Sorry, pal. This is 1979, and if you’re an elf, that’s your race and class. Ditto dwarves and halflings—if you’re a dwarf, you’re a dwarf and you do dwarven things. The basic classes are here, but that’s it—cleric, warrior, wizard, and thief (yes, thief—you steal shit, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser-style).
And, sorry to say, you’re going to die.
For those who only know Hasbro-D&D’s unkillable, overpowered characters and liberal options to escape death, that might be shocking. But like in the ancient old school games of my youth, DCC puts the possibility of death front and center—which is an enormous part of the fun.
In fact, the way the game suggests you start a campaign—a process called a “funnel”—has you rolling up a handful of underpowered characters (straight d6 rolls for ability scores, no bonuses) and running them through a wild and deadly adventure “funnel.” Those characters that survive the meatgrinder and wildly unpredictable magic become your 1st level PCs. It’s ridiculously fun, especially if you’re grown tired of complex, multilayered characters with 10-page backstories.
Although DCC is very much an homage to the crunch, simplicity, and dangerous adventuring of the original D&D, it’s definitely not a reskinning. The magic system is brilliant and hilarious—spells can, and do, misfire dramatically—sometimes harming the caster, but they can also go nuclear, annihilating your foes in unexpectedly glorious and comical ways. It also leans into science fiction (including a spinoff game, Mutant Crawl Classics).
And the art in the book is not just reminiscent of early D&D books, but new work from some of the original artists, such as Erol Otus and Jeff Easley, is scattered throughout the rulebook.
Get: The core rulebook has everything you need to get started, and the hardcover is about the size of two hardback Hasbro rulebooks for only $40. Luckily, there is an enormous amount of ancillary material—adventures and funnels galore, campaign settings (including Lankhmar), supplements, and spinoffs. Goodman Games knows how to treat their fan and creator community with respect and appreciation, and it has paid off in a wealth of supplemental content—just take a quick peek at their website.
Note: DCC uses some unusual dice for the game—not just the standard polyhedrals, but d5, d7, d14, d24, and d30. You don’t need them, and they’re not cheap, but hey—why not roll some weird, fun dice?
Old School Essentials
But hey, maybe either because you’re an ancient nerd like me, or simply out of curiosity, you want to play D&D exactly as it was played in the glory days when it was the private passion of bookish geeks and largely unknown by the masses (and before it became absurdly linked to satanism). You wanna roll old school like an old fool? Old School Essentials has you covered.
This is a reskinning—a clone, in fact—of the Dungeons and Dragons Basic and Expert sets (my introduction to the game), with some additional books that incorporate Gygax’s Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rules. This is a time machine in a game. This is what the kids on “Stranger Things” would have been playing. These are the rules I was running as Dungeon Master when I started my high school D&D club in 1982 (told you I was old).
About 20 years ago, I had the idea of digging out all my old D&D books and running an old-school game for my friends (many of whom are my age—our group is called Middle Aged Dungeon Delvers—and who remember the old rules fondly). But as I went through those books, I realized old D&D was a mess. Rules weren’t logically arranged, material was not clear and was sometimes contradictory, and putting it order seemed impossible. So I gave up the idea and went with a Hasbro/WOTC campaign instead.
But then the “old school renaissance” (OSR) happened. Apparently I wasn’t the only one missing a more simple, deadly, and frankly fun style of playing D&D. And Old School Essentials was one of the pioneers in revamping/reorganizing and cleaning up the original game.
Get: Pick up the Rules Tome here. If you dig it, grab the supplements and advanced books.
Note: These rules are compatible with most original D&D and AD&D modules and supplements, so you can play hundreds of older adventures available in print (at your local game store, eBay, etc.) and in PDFs online.
And you don’t have to be old to play old school. Simplicity and fun never go out of style, which is why so many people are drawn to this growing style of play.
Next up: More ways to play non-Hasbro/WOTC D&D! Subscribe/Follow so you don’t miss them!
Michael M. Hughes is a writer, speaker, and magical thinker. He is the author of Magic for the Resistance: Rituals and Spells for Change as well as numerous other works of fiction and nonfiction, and he speaks and teaches classes on magic, tarot, occultism, and more. He occasionally opines on RPGs and other nerdy deliciousness, too.
His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, CNN, The L.A. Times, Rolling Stone, Comedy Central, Wired, Elle, Vox, Cosmopolitan,and even the ultraconservative The American Spectator, which wrote: “He may play footsie with the devil, but at least the man has a sense of humor.”