How to play DnD without actually playing DnD

Better Dungeons and Dragons?

I believe that while Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition is at it's core a decent system, there are better ways to actually play the DnD experience of adventuring through a fantasy land fighting various monsters and foes. I decided I would list out my recommendations based on the experience or playstyle you want out of your DnD games in hopes of helping Dungeon Masters who might be better suited with a different rule system than the official DnD rulesets. I have DMed all of these systems over the years, which gives me a good place to share my experiences and opinions. Be sure to let me know your favorite way to play DnD in the comments. 

The Roleplay/Story Focused Experience:
Worlds of Adventure

You are a hero fighting against evil and darkness. The details of how you slay your foes or pick the lock to the chest don't matter as much as the story you are telling of WHY you are doing such things. Sure you might roll some dice when things are uncertain, but what you will remember at the tavern is the tales of adventure with your companions while on your heroic adventures. 

For DMs who want to just tell a delightful story or allow their players to opportunity to roleplay without having to worry about a ton of rules, I would recommend Worlds of AdventureWorlds of Adventure is a fan made enhancement (or hack) of the Dungeon World ruleset and excels at a narrative approach to gameplay, with the mindset of what's happening in the fiction or story taking precedence and even informing the rules of the game. 

The combat system uses the same resolution mechanics as any other challenge or test, with a few tweaks, and it's more freeform nature really emphasizes the idea of the fiction setting the flow of actions and reactions in an exchange of blows. This style is a perfect fit for a group that really just wants to roleplay their way through an adventure (maybe with some Critical Role influences) and tell fun stories along the way without being bogged down with many concrete rules to remember or reference.

The Pulp Action Experience:
Pathfinder for Savage Worlds

You are on a burning airship, hurtling towards the ground at ever increasing speeds. The robotic pirate captain facing you from across the deck activates his secret Feather Fall jetpack wings and glares at you with red eyes filled with mockery. "Hope you have a good flight" he cackles as you desperately try to slow your descent. 

This is the typical experience you could expect to have with Pathfinder for Savage Worlds, which is a mashup of the Savage Worlds system and the Pathfinder setting of Golarion. The motto for Savage Worlds is "Fast! Furious! Fun!" and delivers an action-packed ruleset that combines a good mix of roleplay opportunities and quick yet detailed combat. The Pathfinder world provides an excellent starting place for the normally setting agnostic ruleset, giving it a clear and easy focus to enable epic adventures. 

I am currently running this type of game set in the DnD world of Eberron, which plays well to the systems strengths of pulp action and noir adventure. The combat system has no hit points, instead relying on a 'three wounds and you're out' style that means most characters can be dropped in a single savage blow. This combined with a whole host of 'quick rules' to resolve things such as social challenges and chases allows the system to live up to it's speedy motto and deliver an unparalleled pulp action experience. 

The 'Classic' Dungeons and Dragons Experience:
Worlds Without Number

You explore a forbidden dungeon, aptly named the Tomb of Horrors, and are bleeding and bruised from multiple fights with the monstrous denizens of these narrow passageways and chambers. You are low on resources, and completely out of any method of healing, when you spot a foreboding statue looming over the next archway. You carefully walk up to inspect it, on the lookout for any traps or devious tricks, and that is the moment when your last torch goes out, leaving only the glowing red eyes of the statue to light your uncertain path. 

Worlds Without Number provides what I would call the classic DnD experience, also called the Old School Renaissance (OSR) style of play. Instead of superpowered heroes cutting through hordes of enemies, you are a group of cautious and careful individuals who survive just as much on their wits and critical thinking than their ability to swing a sword or cast a spell. An encounter with a group of potential enemies starts with a reaction roll to see if they are even in the mood to fight, and if combat does breakout there will be morale checks to see if they run away rather than a relentless fight to the death. 

While you do have spells, magic items, and other resources to keep a leg up on any potential threats, these are limited and scarce. Running away might just be the best option, you can always come back later better prepared to deal with whatever obstacle is keeping the tantalizing hoard of gold outside your reach. A brash and impulsive adventurer usually ends up dead in this system. If you want your campaign to feel 'gritty' and realistic (as realistic as anything to do with dragons can) Worlds Without Number should be your go-to. 

The Tactical Combat Experience:
Pathfinder Second Edition

Telling a good story and having some fun roleplay is great and all, but right now you are concerned with the group of orcs you encountered on your travel to a nearby town. Normally orcs wouldn't make you bat an eye, as you can cut through dozens of them with ease, yet this is a group of battle trained Orc Scouts being led by a Warlord and accompanied by a Witch Doctor. Sound tactics will win the day here, and you will need to play to your strengths and exploit the enemies' weaknesses. You have many tools at your disposal, you just need to find the right hammer for this particularly thorny nail. 

Pathfinder Second Edition is the pinnacle of the 'zero to hero' tactical combat experience. You will start out stomping rats in a cellar, and before you know it you are tasseling with some of the biggest bads the world has ever seen. You can try some diplomacy when needed, but at the end of the day you are here to fight the worst Golarion has to offer. Pathfinder Second Edition is a 'crunchy' ruleset, with numerous modifiers and status effects to keep track of, but for those willing to dive in it offers an expertly balanced system that tells you exactly how hard the group of orcs you created will smash the party. 

With that fine-tuned balance comes the 1-20 leveling system many are familiar with. The enemies you fight at level 1 are drastically different in power to enemies you fight at level 5, let alone to say 10, 15, or 20. If you want to feel like you can mow down a field of goblins with ease, or find the right strategy to just barely come out ahead of the monster a few levels above you, Pathfinder Second Edition delivers. 

The Dragon in the Room

All this being said, if you are happy with your experience playing Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition, then by all means continue with what you know and love! I find that many DMs start with 5e simply because it is the first thing they think of when they hear of a 'roleplaying game', and it has influenced many elements of our entertainment landscape. However, if you are finding that the experience you have while playing DnD is not exactly what you were looking for, or just wanting to try something new, then the suggestions I listed above are a great place to start playing DnD without actually playing DnD. 

I hope you enjoyed this article, and please let me know your thoughts on the systems listed, or your own preferred way to play the Dungeons and Dragon experience.