From GURPS to Dread: 4 Classic Non-D&D Roleplaying Systems We Still Love

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When I was a kid, I loved renaissance fairs, fairy tales, and other such fantasy related stuff. One day my father took me to a store called “The Dragons Den” thinking I would like it. I don’t think he quite understood what a gaming store was, but I was enthralled. I bought a AD&D monster manual and read the hell out of it. My neighborhood was severely lacking in other geeks, so unfortunately, I never got to play in a roleplaying game until college.

The first RPG I played used G.U.R.P.S., which was a mind-blowing experience for me because 1) I had never really gamed before and 2) I had no idea there were other systems out there. The rise in popularity of roleplaying over the recent years has generated some fantastic systems, and happily, older systems are constantly being updated to streamline, advance, and otherwise improve their games. I can only speak from experience in systems I have played, but here are a few alternatives that you can try out if you are looking to expand your  horizons in roleplaying.


Image Credit:  Steve Jackson Games

Do you want to build anything? I mean anything.  G.U.R.P.S. is the Generic Universal RolePlaying System created by Steve Jackson Games in 1986. It is a point based system, so instead of rolling to see what your character is like, you get an amount of points with which to buy traits. The basic rule books give you everything you need to build anything from a superhero to a space marine, or a swashbuckler to your basic every day Joe. Considering there are hundreds of supplements, reference guides, and fan created pages, you can really delve deep into creating your characters, worlds, weapons, and more. You can spend hours upon hours carefully spending points in order to create your perfect build, and that’s where the game either succeeds or fails. If you love number crunching, then G.U.R.P.S. is a great system, but if you don’t want to have a calculator on hand at all times while gaming, you might want to check out a more free-flowing system.


Image credit: Mongoose Publishing

Traveller is a science-fiction focused system that was first published by Game Designers’ Workshop in 1977. The character creation system is a game in itself. You choose a homeworld, skills, and a career to start with and then you roll on a series of charts to find out how well you did in your career. There is the chance that you will not survive character creation, since your character can become wounded or even die as they progress along their career. It is kind of crazy, but exciting to see if your Merchant 3rd Officer will survive to re-enlist or get stranded behind enemy lines. Most of the games of Traveller I played didn’t last long, but I really enjoyed rolling up new backstories for myself.


Image credit: The Impossible Dream

Remember how I mentioned free-flowing systems? Dread is an amazing version  of that idea. It is a horror based game that uses a Jenga set as its main way to determine outcomes and the character sheets are extremely simple. You get to choose a name and skills, and then the game master (GM) will ask you a series of questions such as: What are your interests and hobbies? What is your character’s biggest fear? What is your character proud of? What secret would you never share?

You don’t roll dice or buy traits. You just tell everyone what you want to be. That works for the actual game itself as well. As you play, you narrate what your character is doing. If something comes up that would challenge your group, the GM will ask you to pull a block from the Jenga tower to ensure that you succeed. If the tower falls, your character is marked for death and the GM can dictate how and when your character goes kaput. As you follow the plot deeper and deeper, pulling from the Jenga tower gets more and more precarious. This helps build tension and greatly enhances the horror element of the game. It was hard at first to transition away from the feeling that I needed to roll/pull blocks for everything I wanted to do, but in the end it was very liberating to not have spend 30 minutes calculating the grapple rules when trying to tackle a werewolf.

Dungeon World

Image credit:  Dungeon World

My most recent games have been in Dungeon World. Similar to Dread, this system is very open. The guide actually encourages the GM to ask their players to help construct the world and story they will play. Yes, there are more rules to Dungeon World, but instead of dictating everything that happens, the GM will instead ask players questions to drive the story along. Say, for example, an Owlbear has stumbled into your camp, hooting its displeasure. The Owlbear takes unkindly to your presence and attacks. Instead of asking you to roll a defense, they might ask “What do you do?”. This leaves the reaction up to you. Do you dodge out of the way? Do you meet the Owlbear’s lancing claws with a swordstrike of your own? Do you try to talk the Owlbear down with soothing words? The game really becomes a collaborative project between the players and the GM.

This is just a small sampling of the games I have played over the years. Being a more creative focused person with a lack of mathematical wizardry, I have really grown to love Dungeon World, but the other systems have their strengths and weaknesses as well. Having played so many different styles of games has made it easier for me to really appreciate the different aspects they each bring to the table. It all comes down to how you enjoy playing and if any of these systems sound exciting to you, then  go out an try them! You never know what exciting new adventures you will go on when trying new things.

What are your favorite roleplaying systems? Why do you love them? Let us know in the comment below!

Featured Image Credit: Jessica Fisher

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