The family of roleplaying games that emerged in the 1970s grew out of wargames and focused on the mechanics of combat and exploration. Fantasy PbtA games put the fiction first, the mechanics second. As a result, players have much less work to do – their primary job is to envision the situation their character is in and decide how they would react. Rather than a character sheet that lists stats common to every player, PbtA games have playbooks, which offer unique information depending on the type of character (wizard, fighter, cleric, etc.). Where combat in 5e and its predecessors is divided into 6-second segments and takes place in a particular player order decided for each fight, combat in fantasy PbtA games is much more cinematic, focusing on the highlights of each battle rather than every blow. Where players are expected to read a player handbook in 5e, for fantasy PbtA games their playbook and a list of moves common to all players are all they will need.

Ever since Tony Dowler hacked “Apocalypse D&D” out of Apocalypse World in March of 2010 and Vincent Baker gave his blessing for adaptations, the community has been characterized by tinkering and collaboration. Open any fantasy PbtA work and you’ll see a long list of acknowledgements and sources. This was turbo-charged when Sage LaTorra insisted that Dungeon World (the non-trademark-infringing successor to Apocalypse D&D) be licensed under the Creative Commons, a copyleft arrangement that allowed others to incorporate and build upon the works of one another.

This embarrassment of riches can make it difficult deciding which fantasy PbtA game to play. Some answers to common questions.

  • Do you want to play the game with the most third-party material?
    • Dungeon World has the biggest community and the most materials that are directly compatible with it. Most other fantasy PbtA systems may require some level of edits to make this third-party material compatible.
    • Systems that will require less customization of third-party material are probably Unlimited Dungeons, Uncommon World, and Fourth World, as they use the same names of moves as Dungeon World. Freebooters on the Frontier will require somewhat more customization, Homebrew World even more, then Chasing Adventure. Completely different PbtA engines will require much more customization: Monster of the Week, Fellowship, Ironsworn, Fantasy World, Apocalypse World: Fallen Empires. Of these, Monster of the Week may have the most third-party material, though far behind Dungeon World in quantity.
  • Do you want to make the accumulation of wealth the forefront of play or a minor part of play?
    • The focus of Freebooters on the Frontier is the accumulation of 10,000 silver pieces, at which point your character can retire.
    • Chasing Adventure, Homebrew World, and Unlimited Dungeons all use abstract wealth systems, with tags representing a few tiers of value, rather than requiring detailed accounting.
  • Where do you want to set the dial between Dungeons & Dragons and Powered by the Apocalypse?
    • Freebooters on the Frontier provides an OSR (Old School Renaissance) experience, fusing 1970s role-playing with PbtA rules: four basic character types, a high rate of PC fatalities, and even funnel sessions (adapted from Dungeon Crawl Classics, itself an OSR system).
    • If Freebooters on the Frontier is more like Original Dungeons & Dragons, Dungeon World is more like AD&D or D&D 3.5 or so.If you want Dungeon World without any D&D influences, try Chasing Adventure. If you want a more Powered by the Apocalypse influenced design, try Fantasy World. If you’d like to actually play Apocalypse World using fantasy playbooks, try Apocalypse World: Fallen Empires.
  • On the continuum from streamlined to comprehensive, what do you want from a ruleset?
    • If you are looking for just a few pages of rules, check out World of Dungeons or Defying Danger.
    • For a middle ground, check out the Remix expansion of World of Dungeons or look at Homebrew World.
    • For a more comprehensive system, check out Dungeon World and Unlimited Dungeons. For an even more comprehensive system, customize Dungeon World with a wide range of third-party supplements and playbooks. For a richer selection of moves for common situations that occur in play, check out Uncommon World.
  • What type of setting do you want?
    • While most systems are geared towards homebrew fantasy settings, Homebrew World puts homebrew in its name. But Freebooters on the Frontier backs it up with random tables galore to generate the setting. Dungeon World, Unlimited Dungeons, etc. are more about GM improv. 
    • Urban Modern Fantasy is specifically adapted for play in today’s times but with characters touched by the supernatural. Chasing Adventure can be easily adapted to such play. For instance, both include rules for firearms.
    • Fourth World is an independent third-party fan work set in Earthdawn.
    • Stonetop features an integrated setting meant as a jumping off point for player improvisation, with players the expert on the region they hail from or the deity they worship.
    • If you’d like to play a grimdark fantasy, try the Dungeon World supplement Grim World.
    • If you’d like to play “Dungeon World … IN SPACE,” try Adventures on Dungeon Planet.
  • Are your players more interested in staying at home or traveling?
    • Stay-at-homes? If you’d like to play power politics a la Game of Thrones, try The Sword, The Crown, and The Unspeakable Power. If you’d like to improve the lot of a small community, try Stonetop. If you’d like to protect your communities from the supernatural, try Monster of the Week.
    • Why are the adventurers traveling? If looking for lucre, try Freebooters on the Frontier. If undertaking a long journey to overthrow an evil overlord, try Fellowship
  • Do you want a one- or two-shot, a short campaign, or a long campaign?
    • If you’d like to play one or two sessions, check out One Shot World.
    • If you’re interested in 10 or fewer sessions, try Homebrew World or Hard-Knock World.
    • Most other systems are geared for longer campaigns of 10 or more sessions.
  • Do you want to play with kids?
    • For young children, try Dungeons RPG. For tweens, try World of Dungeons or Hard-Knock World. Freebooters on the Frontier includes a “kid friendly” edition.
  • Do you want to roll your own system, drawing from many of the other hacks?
    • Uncommon World includes a configuration tool where you can compare and contrast moves from different fantasy PbtA systems and select the wording that’s right for you and your players. with its configuration tool.
  • Help, I can’t make up my mind!
    • Just as people still play Original Dungeons & Dragons from the 1970s, so you can certainly still play Dungeon World, which was published in 2013. It’s still a good place to start! While some of the systems have been widely replaced (3-18 stat scores, bonds, alignment), you can tweak the game as you go, changing whatever gets in the way of your player’s enjoyment once you’ve stumbled over it. 

A bit more on the pros and cons of some of these systems:

  • Dungeon World
    • The game is very much a “1.0” version, with a host of minor issues that are fixed in subsequent hacks. Despite this, it remains very playable and can easily be tweaked to better reflect your table’s preferences.
    • Of the fantasy PbtA systems, it has the largest active community on Reddit. In fact, the DW subreddit is often where other games are discussed as well.
    • Some avoid the game due to the co-author Adam Koebel’s violation of player consent.
  • Fantasy World
    • Verbose moves are a pro and con, providing a better framework for a first-time GM but possibly becoming tiresome in regular play. Not yet published.
  • Freebooters on the Frontier
    • This is the most polished of the hacks, with a 2.0 edition having been in beta-testing for a number of years now.
    • Very American: It centers the pursuit of capital and the exploitation of the frontier, a particularly American framing of the othering of those native to the edge of imperial expansion.
  • Hard-Knock World
    • This game has had little playtesting but is designed for short campaigns with a rules-light framework.
  • Homebrew World
    • Currently oriented towards short campaigns, requiring minor modification to fit longer campaigns.
  • Stonetop
    • Adventuring for the sake of a village provides a different feel from most other fantasy games. The primary downsides are that the game hasn’t been finalized and the community supporting it is small, with just a handful of third-party playbooks, for example.
  • Uncommon World
    • As a custom framework to use with all the playbooks and third-party material for Dungeon World, reflecting the most popular hacks and house rules while still hewing close to the original, it can be more a meta-hack than a coherent system.
  • Unlimited Dungeons
    • Redesigns all the core playbooks and adds some new ones, while embodying many of the most popular changes to Dungeon World. Some dislike how streamlined the new playbooks are (only 7 advanced moves each) and push back on the abstract wealth system and standardization on using only six-sided dice.
  • Urban Modern Fantasy
    • A supplement to Dungeon World rather than a standalone system, though it comes close to standing alone.

See also:

Photo by Dmitry Vechorko on Unsplash.