Whether you just want to try something new with your group, you have a new bunch of players you’re bringing into the hobby, or you are done with D&D like I am, let’s talk about how *I* would create a similar-but-better-in-every-way experience to D&D. For this we aren’t going to use just one game, we’re going to use several resources from indie creators. We’re going to create several fun evenings with your friends, and we will do it all without breaking the bank! Let’s get started.
First up, your rules system. My pick for a D&D feel but more flexible and narrative, is The Black Hack Second Edition. The main rules are 30 pages (with an additional 90 pages of stuff for the GM) which makes it super easy to learn for beginners and skilled players alike. But it has narrative drive built in to the game and as the name suggests, it encourages you adapt and change things to suit you and your players. And at just $6 for the entire rule set, or $2 if you just want the player rules, you can afford to kit out your entire group with a copy for a fraction of what, say, a PHB costs. But I’ll save that for the tally near the end.
Moving on to worldbuilding. While a certain big fantasy game has its own big, wonderful setting to play in, it is super problematic and riddled with racist baggage. So why not sit down with your group and create your setting together? In one evening you can have a campaign world that everyone loves and is excited to be part of, because everyone contributed. And as the GM you will gain valuable insight into what each of your players is excited about in the fantasy space, which is invaluable. Up until a few days ago I might have suggested using something like Microscope to help build your world. I still think it’s a fun game in its own right, and a great way to build the “high concept” and broad history of your campaign world. If you aren’t in a hurry it is definitely a fun way to spend an evening and start building your world.
But a few days ago, the creator of my favourite character background generator, Meghan Cross, released Session Zero: World Building Edition, and it is a brilliant and light collaborative world building game you can play in an evening as well. For my purposes what makes SZ:WBE a better fit than something like Microscope, is that Meghan’s game gets you a playable world faster. You can quickly build out an area big enough for your characters to explore, and when you are ready to go further you take some time and do it again, creating new things or building upon something from the previous session. So if you want to build your big, deep fantasy setting first, do Microscope for the broad strokes and deep history and then Session Zero:WBE to settle details. But if you want to get to playing and worry about deeper history later, start with Session Zero:WBE and get your group to the table. And for a limited time it’s 50% off! (So make sure to tip back up to full price, yeah?)
Now for character backgrounds! I sort of spoiled this one earlier, but grab you a copy of Session Zero. In fact, grab the bundle; Meghan did an expansion to Session Zero which adds interesting new options you don’t want to miss. I recommend the character Session Zero follow the world building Session Zero, only to allow your players to build character backgrounds that fit the world you have created together. I am not trying to prescribe a linear process, however, and you should do all this in whatever order you find works best for your group. In fact I hope the whole process is one of iteration and adjustment, so your group creates a game and a world that works best for them. That is the way you’ll create a space you can freely and excitedly tell stories in.
That said, I will strongly suggest your talk about TTRPG Safety Tools, specifically those created by Kienna Shaw and Lauren Bryant-Monk, in between character and world building. That way the players have a sense of what they and each other have in mind, and they can better establish their boundaries. And with those boundaries in place you can build out your campaign world, knowing you are not making something intrinsic to your campaign that might offend or harm your players or yourself. Having safety discussions while you are building out your characters and world blends these tools into your game, so they become smoothly ingrained in your process. Also, this toolkit is up for an ENnies Award this year; I think it deserves your top vote because of how valuable these tools are to the well-being of gamers everywhere. But you do you, I am not your conscience.
And here’s a little bonus suggestion: You’ve come to the end of the campaign you built, but aren’t quite ready to leave those characters behind. Why not play out their retirement? Stewpot, by Takuma Okada, is a delightful game about retired adventurers running a fantasy tavern. When your campaign ends, slot in your characters and keep on playing. Bonus on top of bonus: you now have a fleshed out tavern location, complete with NPCs, for your next campaign! Delightful evenings of homey game play and a jump on your next campaign? What’s not to love?
Now let’s talk about price, because one of the concerns I often hear around learning a new game is the cost. Let’s tally up:
- The Black Hack Second Edition ($6, $2 for just the player’s bit)
- Session Zero: World Building Edition ($5)
- Session Zero Bundle (base plus expansion) ($6)
- TTRPG Safety Toolkit (Free)
So bare bones, if you picked up one copy of each that is $17 USD and you have everything your group needs to build an exciting fantasy campaign, with characters they love and a setting they are excited to explore because they built it themselves. And if you should finish up with that campaign and want another? For NO ADDITIONAL CHARGE, you can take all these resources and build new characters and new worlds. Rinse, repeat, ad infinitum.
And not for nothing, but the money you spend goes to independent creators who will benefit directly from your support, and will be excited you are telling stories with their creations. Heck, at the price I quoted everyone in your group could afford to grab their own copy of each book for less than half what a PHB costs! More support, and now every member of your group is ready to build out an entire campaign of their very own. And more support to independent creators means more great games from independent creators, and voila! You’re helping grow our hobby and playing amazing games while you do it.
Of course this isn’t the only way to build out your campaign. There are all sorts of excellent indie resources for you to explore, and you should definitely do that. This is a path I think is useful, but your group may want to go in a different direction. I encourage you to look for the resources that work for you. And please comment here or track me down on Twitter, let me know what path you took; I’d love to hear about it!