Combat has long been considered the core activity of role-playing games, but there are excellent systems which move the focus of the game from gory limb chopping to other parts of the human experience. Try a game that moves the emphasis from parrying to politicking. Or creation. Or social annihilation. You might find a kind of fun you were missing.
Legend of the Five Rings
I have played more Legend of the Five Rings (L5R to aficionados) than any other role-playing game.
L5R is a game of Japanese history and mythology if that mythology was given a blood transfusion by JRR Tolkien. There’s a gigantic wall, beyond which lurks a corrupt and evil god (like Sauron!), and you play samurai and wizards and ninjas. The Empire of Rokugan is ruled by an Emperor, yet clans within its borders vie for territory and favor.
Despite all that conflict, there are complex legal and social prohibitions on killing other humans. You, as a samurai, are technically the property of your lord. If you are killed, your lord is essentially bound to go to war over the insult. Likewise, if you kill another samurai, you have likely just become the catalyst of a war with another clan, and your lord will likely be very, very unhappy with you. Even if you duel another samurai, you need to get permission from your lord first because your life is not yours to lose. It belongs to your lord.
This moves the focus of the game to intrigue and politics. There are entire character classes built on socialization, such as the courtier, and they have real and terrifying power in the game. In Legend of the Five Rings, a word can be as deadly as the edge of a knife. The standard courtier maneuver is to expose a samurai’s shameful secret, whether real or fabricated, forcing the samurai to choose between a life of dishonor and killing himself, and we all know which choice a good samurai is to make.
If you’ve never played L5R, I’d recommend picking up a PDF of the first edition of the game, which does a genius job explaining the world and mythology, and a physical copy of the 4th edition, which has superior rules. Oh, and maybe check out City of Lies by genius game designer Greg Stolze. It’s probably one of the greatest settings of all-time. Essentially, you play samurai FBI agents tasked with cleaning up samurai Las Vegas. It’s more fun than shoving a pair of weasels in heat down your trousers.
Speaking of Greg Stolze…
RPG virtuoso Greg Stolze created Reign, a fantasy game of kings, merchant princes, guildmasters, and conspiracy. If the focus of a Dungeons & Dragons game is a group of adventurers in a dungeon, Reign pulls out to show us the machinations of nations.
What makes Reign wholly unique is its Company rules–company here meaning any organization, from a library all the way up to an empire. Companies are statted out just like characters are, with traits like Might, how much military muscle it can bring to bear, Territory, how much physical space it controls, and Treasure, for how much money it has, etc.
A university library, for example, would likely have no Might and little more Territory than the space of its halls, but could, given the value of its ancient tomes, could have lots of Treasure. A world-spanning empire would likely have high scores in all three.
Reign has a system of actions for Companies. One Company can attack another, spy on it, and even engage in counter-espionage, all of which is resolved with an opposed roll based on the Company stats.
Better yet, these Company rules are designed by Stolze to be ported from system to system. If you’re playing D&D 5th edition, 13th Age, or Pathfinder, there’s no reason you can’t add in the Reign rules and expand the scope of your campaign. Reign also has its own rules for character generation and combat with the One Roll Engine, a fantasy world designed for epic action, and it has a bevy of free supplements out. If you’re interested in taking the system and porting it into your fantasy game, check out Reign Enchiridion, which has all the rules you need in a digest format.
Bubblegumshoe is the role-playing game of teen sleuths “solving mysteries in a modern, American small-town.”
If you ever wanted to play Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, or Veronica Mars, here is your chance. The GUMSHOE system, created by RPG luminary Robin Laws, is revolutionary because you no longer need to roll for investigation or knowledge. If there is a useful clue to be found or tidbit of knowledge to be known, and you have the requisite ability, you get what you need. This means that investigative scenarios no longer go off the rails if players fail a roll to receive a necessary clue.
In Bubblegumshoe, game design masterminds Ken Hite & Emily Care Boss take the GUMSHOE system and adapt it to the conventions of the teen mystery genre. They add a crucial high school skill, Grownup Face, which allows your character to be taken seriously by adults, and Cool, which is like social hit points. And you’re going to need those social hit points because there are full-on rules for social combat in the game. There are even social called shots! And of course it’s harder to land an insult on kids that are cooler than you…
The combination of mysteries and high school mayhem make Bubblegumshoe irresistible.
Microscope is the RPG of history creation.
By the end of the game, you will have created a history of a world. The game is so flexible that it could be used to create the history of a space opera empire which stretches on for millennia, or the life and death of a single street gang. In a single session, instead of playing out a few days in the lives of your characters, you play out entire eras of history. It allows you to tell massive stories of defeat, decay, victory, and genesis, all from the point of view of a historian. Combat is so far from the center of the game its rules can be summarized in one sentence: Any time you want to hurt another character, that character’s player decides whether or not you are successful.
And the game is a ton of fun.
Written by Ben Robbins, Microscope has no GM, and during the game, players take turns creating periods, events, and scenes. A period is an era of history, an event is an important thing that happens during a period, and in a scene, players act out an event, taking on the roles of protagonists and antagonists at a turning point in history.
It sounds ridiculously simple, but it is incredibly addictive. It’s hard to stop playing, because the history you create is your own, and there’s always more of it to explore…
How do you enjoy games that take the focus off combat? Let us know below!
Feature image courtesy Evil Hat Productions. Other images courtesy Fantasy Flight Games, Lame Mage Productions, and Evil Hat Productions.
Ben Riggs speaks five languages, and has lived in four countries on three continents, but still manages to lose his keys in the bathroom. A friend to man, animal, and werewolf alike, you can discover more of Ben’s thoughts on game, the universe, and everything on Twitter, or on the Plot Points Podcast, available on iTunes or Libsyn.