Tabletop RPGs other than GURPS and diving into the OSR scene

What a hefty title! As I type this out, I’m listening to Mörk Borg by GNOLL—that’ll be important a little bit later. As I’ve talked about in at least one of my monthly updates (including last month’s in which I shared a link to a thread about alternatives to GURPS), I’ve been experiencing GM fatigue, burnout, whatever you want to call it; but I also think I’ve been experiencing some kind of GURPS fatigue. (Maybe I just need to put more points in HT.) As much as I love the system, I think it might be too much for me—at least, for right now. The way that my group plays (and I tend to GM) is looser and more narrative and more focused on what feels right even though we all so much adore that GURPS is so great at simulation, which is really cool, but it kind of begs me to overthink things a lot. At our core, I think my group is more of a Fate group, but that’s not the right system for us either because it’s too loose and things start to feel very same-y after a while. (And I’m only talking about our experiences, of course.)

So, what do I want? Well, it would be something a lot like Fate (flexible, narrative, player-focused), but it would feel less like a toolkit, it would put a greater emphasis on equipment, it wouldn’t be so narrative-focused that it kind of waves away magic, and it would scale well in size and power level (which is why I thought “Knowing Your Own Strength” from Pyramid #3/83: Alternate GURPS IV was such a good start at this for GURPS). I really enjoy not having HP (which is why I really like “Conditional Injury” from Pyramid #3/120: Alternate GURPS V), classes, and levels.

Well, what else is out there? As I said, I have some experience with Fate, which I really do like. For a party-ish pick-up-y game, I’ve played lots of Everyone Is John, which is also fun, but is obviously not the kind of game I want to play for anything more than a session or two. Of course, there’s always Dungeons & Dragons, and I’ve dabbled in 3.5e, 4e, and 5e. I’m glad I did because it allowed me to find Eberron, but even D&D feels like too much while also feeling restricted. (Again, to me. I’m definitely not saying it is, and your mileage may greatly vary!) I’m not a fan of classes and spell lists, and I really think that there are just better alternatives even if I want that same D&D feeling (without going full Dungeon Fantasy RPG, of course). I also tried out the first edition of Pathfinder way back when, and that gave me similar feelings.

Now, as we’ve recently been playing Deadlands in my group, I know that Savage Worlds exists. As I’ve read over SWADE, it seems like it wants to be what I want: fun, fast, and furious. Better yet, PK has some great house rules and gives the system a nice recommendation: “Despite its quirks, Savage Worlds may be the best universal system when it comes to balancing groups of wildly disparate abilities and power levels.” That really speaks to me, and I even reached out to let PK know that said review convinced me to give it a go. Which I haven’t yet. But I’ll surely get there! Now, Savage Worlds still has a spell list of sorts with its powers, but they’re much more generic and there are guidelines on how to reflavor them, which is great. Plus, there’s a wonderfully-made Eberron conversion for SWADE, which means I can play Eberron without D&D and also without doing the heavy lifting of converting Eberron to a more palatable system (for my particular tastes).

Some other options I’ve found:

  • Numenera and the Cypher system in general seem pretty promising, and I’d definitely like to actually give it a go at some point. Numenera was actually the first tabletop RPG that my partner played—thanks to some random frat party.
  • Call of Cthulhu and the Basic Roleplaying system also seem interesting. If our group was more into horror, it’d probably be a higher priority.
  • Big Eyes Small Mouth and the Tri-Stat dX system, the Hero system, and Mutants and Masterminds are all recommendations I’ve been given, but they feel so close to GURPS that I’d rather play that instead (though, I will say that all three of them handle powers and balance quite a bit better).
  • Powered by the Apocalypse feels like an okay narrative system, but I don’t think we’d like it.
  • Genesys seems really popular for this kind of play style, but I don’t like the funky dice.
  • Cortex Prime also feels promising. It seems like it falls somewhere between Fate and Savage Worlds, which sounds right for us. I’ll definitely be giving this one a try.
  • Blades in the Dark is relatively new (to me, at least) tabletop RPG that I know very little about, but it seems like people on the internet really like it. Industrial fantasy sounds up my group’s alley, so this one has to get a try at some point.
  • Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine is another game that I’ve heard about only recently, and, while our group doesn’t ever really do the whole slice-of-life thing, we all enjoy Studio Ghibli movies, so it seems worth checking out for that feeling.
  • The Fantasy Trip is supposed to be something like GURPS 0e, and it has gained a fair amount of support and popularity since its revival in 2019. So, of course I have to check it out.
  • Everywhen just popped up on my radar, and I’ve seen a lot of reviews talking about it as if it’s the middle ground for other people who have likewise pendulum’d between GURPS and Fate—just based on that alone, it seems like it’d be worth a try.
  • Mörk Borg then showed itself to me. (Really, I can’t remember how I stumbled upon it even though it was just a few days ago. Perhaps it was the will of SHE.) A rules-lite over-the-top doom metal fantasy game that leans into itself while simultaneously not taking itself too seriously that hasn’t been out for long but already has a great community? Fantastic. Now, I’m not usually a fan of d20 systems (as I’m a true believer of the 3d6 bell curve), so that says a lot. Plus, the game is gorgeous. It feels like someone tried to turn in one assignment both to their art and game design class. Now, the art (and the dozen fonts) can detract from the experience of reading it, but it has a handy more-easily-readable guide toward the back of the most important rules. I judged a book by its cover, and it has already paid off.

Let’s leave the bullet point and talk even more about Mörk Borg. (I love the colors, and my site is currently pretty much themed for it.) It’s fun, fast, and furious—so, watch out, Savage Worlds. But what exactly is Mörk Borg? Like, what makes it tick? Where did it come from? Why does something like that even exist? What had I been missing in my GURPS-centric world? It turns out I had been missing a growing community filled with indie tabletop RPGs and zines. Why let Wizards of the Coast or some other big company have all of the fun if indie hobbyists can do it better? A big part of this seems to be OSR, which is Old School Revival (or Renaissance or Roleplaying). I am just a wee baby, so I would rather let Questing Beast explain what OSR is. Now, I guess Mörk Borg isn’t actually “true OSR”, but it is definitely OSR-ish or OSR-adjacent or whatever. (And I guess that would make The Fantasy Trip something like GURPS OSR.) Still, the spirit of OSR tends to capture what I’m looking for, especially those that focus more on narrative and eschew classes (and, yes, I know that Mörk Borg has optional classes, but it also has an optional non-class-based feat system).

So, I stumbled into a whole new facet of my tabletop RPG hobby, and I hope this mania simmers and leaves me with a steady rekindled flame of passion. Especially because I’m going to be running Mörk Borg in about a week and a half.

Some games that I’ve stumbled upon so far (not all OSR or even adjacent):

  • The White Hack (a streamlined and innovative OSR-compatible retroclone)
  • The Black Hack (a more-recent streamlined and innovative OSR-compatible retroclone)
  • Macchiato Monsters (which is like a fusion of The Black Hack and The White Hack, and it is very high on my to-play list)
  • Beyond the Wall
  • The Legend of Zelda: Reclaim the Wild
  • Legend of Zelda RPG (which was made by 4chan, I guess)
  • OSRIC
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess
  • Maze Rats and also Knave (which are made by the Questing Beast, look amazing, and are very high on my to-play list)
  • Into the Odd and also Electric Bastionland
  • Jump the Shark (another silly one-shot micro-RPG)
  • Over Arms (which is inspired by JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and Persona—count me in!)
  • NUMA (which is about frog samurai—count me in!)
  • Pacts and Blades
  • Into the Bronze
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics
  • OSE
  • Prole and also Tunnel Goons
  • Acres Past (the game formerly known as Acres Wild)
  • Night Yeast (a cool zine)
  • Dissident Whispers (a great BLM-supporting anthology)
  • Troika
  • Torchbearer
  • Swords & Wizardry

Really, I can’t vouch for any of these too terribly much, and this list is likely way more helpful for me (to keep track of all of this stuff) than it is for you. Still, there’s some kind of lesson in here about how I’ve been into the tabletop RPG hobby for over a decade and have only just now stumbled across these games thanks to chance and GM burnout. I’m excited to do something different. Well, more than something… There are a lot of games on my list. The good news is that I’ll probably never burn out on a system again. Oh, but—one last thing—I can vouch for Mörk Borg. I ran a quick one-shot duet with my partner, and we agreed very quickly that it feels nice and fun.

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