Trad/mainstream rpgs


In my several playgroups, one group is open to non-trad games - but only if I run. It’s not a culture of indy games, it’s more of a “Chris wants us to play this game, and we like Chris, and the games he has us play are ok, so let’s do it.” But the other player willing to GM leans more trad in what he wants to run.

The other two groups are D&D 5e groups. Mostly because one group - the GM is only willing to GM, he doesn’t like to play. And he wants to GM D&D. That is a group I have been playing with some players for almost 30 years. I just roll with it - and I do have fun.

The final group is a new one, with mostly new to RPG players. We play D&D as sort of a default. I am the GM. I’m thinking of switching things up to something less D&D-ish within the next year. But again, it’s me driving the indy game playing, not a culture of indy game playing.


I also play it for the genre, which (in my opinion) isn’t high fantasy, it’s “D&D.”

I couldn’t agree more. D&D is it’s own genre - informed by Appendix N; but really now is it’s own thing.


I pretty much never play traditional RPGs these days (with the exception of old-school/OSR-style play, which is lots of fun, but very different in both structural and subtle ways), so I have to speak of this a little bit as an outsider.

However, I think there are a number of reasons these games appeal to people that go beyond circumstances (many, maybe even most, gamers seem to be entirely unaware that RPGs aside from D&D even exist!), social and brand reinforcement (it’s the popular game! easy to find players!), and familiarity and nostalgia. Those seem to have been covered pretty thoroughly already in this thread, after all!

For instance, the very familiar GM/player dynamic (especially in games with Rule Zero heavily in effect) means that you can effortlessly go from game to game without needing to learn new skills or adjust to a different playstyle. Many traditional RPGs are basically the same game, with different stats and different dice to roll, and that makes any skills and habits you already have very transferable. That’s a thing of convenience (after all, many people simply don’t like learning new tricks).

For many people, the ability to explore a well-defined system with lots of rules, character options, and things to expect/built towards is a huge draw. This kind of player might get tired of Lady Blackbird after five sessions, but in their D&D campaign, there are so many classes to “try out”, and you’re always leveling up, getting new abilities, and fighting new monsters. This builds and maintains long-term investment and long-term interest, which is important for anyone looking to run a long, continuous campaign. (I’ve noticed the “indie” games which feature more in-depth material in terms of system to explore - like Burning Wheel, Blades in the Dark, some PbtA games, etc - seem to “catch on” more widely or more easily than rather bare-bones or “rules-light” games in the same design style and genre. So I think this is pretty important to a lot of people.)

If you’re looking to put together a truly long-term game, having a system set out which paces you through the development of a game over the long term the way that, say, D&D’s level progression does, is a really valuable tool. Consider how all of D&D’s mechanics and the overall design both forces you and helps you to stretch out a long, epic, zero-to-hero format for your game, and how much more difficult that would be to do without that kind of support! (There’s no reason, of course, why a game designed in a totally different style couldn’t do the same thing, but it’s not really a design trend we’ve seen just yet.)

Some people really like being able to lean on published products: if you’re not super keen on developing your own material, being able to buy a campaign setting and a book of magical items and a book of special spells and then a constant supply of adventure modules is a huge benefit. This might be because you’re not interested in the creative process involved in this kind of activity (I don’t really buy the argument that learning published material is faster than writing your own, but some people say so, as well), because you really like/enjoy the material a certain publisher produces (whether because you’re simply a fan of a certain writer, maybe, or because it’s better than what you’d come up with by yourself/selves), or because you like being able to lean on material someone else has created because it allows you to GM a game in a particular way (e.g. disclaiming authority over the contents and thereby acting like a impartial referee is something you want and need support for).

If your group is very much organized around a trusted, charismatic, auteur-like GM-figure, with the players used to showing up at the table and being entertained, a “trad” game can enable that really well. Switching to a more “indie” game, which may have rules or a play culture aimed at a more democratic distribution of creative powers, could actually remove some of that fun (and even harm the overall quality of the game) for such a group. I’ve seen such groups try a more “modern” or “non-traditional” design and feel really relieved when they go back to their regular game. Their GM can do an incredible job creating and sustaining an “experience” for the group, and trying games which mess with the distribution of creative authority just gets in the way of what they’re trying to do.

On a related note, more traditional-style RPGs are incredibly robust or flexible in terms of who shows up to play. You can handle a variety of players with a wide range of play styles, skills, experience, and engagement. Your D&D game will work just fine if Bob from the office drops in and joins the party for one session, in other words. Same goes for the number of players at the table: adding a fifth or sixth (or even a seventh!) player to the D&D table doesn’t change the fundamental dynamics too much, but some of my favourite games only really play well in a very narrow range (like how Fiasco is designed for 3-5 people, but really works best with 4).

This recently came up with a group I sometimes join. They tend to play in an “OSR style”, and it’s no problem for strangers or newbies to show up on any given week. Experienced, active, knowledgeable players can play alongside someone who is tired, stressed, unfamiliar with the game, and just wants to kind of sit and listen. The number of players showing up doesn’t matter. In comparison, more focused, narrative games I like to play are quite sensitive to the number of players, their skill/commitment level, and can really suffer if there is even just one person at the table who “doesn’t get it” or isn’t into the game.

In terms of how it “feels” to play, there is a certain dynamic tension present in games which have rules which more or less run as “the physics of the game world” and character death is always on the table. It’s a very different kind of experience than you get playing a character in, say, Fiasco, or, really, any game which guarantees you continued creative input and more or less guarantees that no matter what we choose to do, we’ll find the fun in it. When all you have are your character’s abilities and skills, and death is constantly on the line, there’s a different kind of energy at the table and a different level of tension in the fiction, as well.

Finally, some people simply don’t like or enjoy authoring fictional material, coming up with creative ideas, storytelling, and so on. We can speculate for a long time about why and whether it’s something that you can grow out of, but it’s a common position for some gamers to take. They don’t like the social and creative scrutiny that comes with expressing yourself in a certain way at the table, and enjoy a more “laid-back” game much more.

This can take pretty particular and specific forms. Maybe Julia doesn’t enjoy “acting out” her character and doing “voices” for them, but Julian has trouble switching stances and therefore struggles with games which ask him to make “author-level” decisions for his character. Their friend Xiao has trouble enjoying a sense of immersion when the mechanics are too math-heavy, but Jorge and Anisa just can’t get into a game that asks them to occasionally make decisions against their character’s interests. We all have “technical” preferences about how to engage with the hobby. I strive to be as flexible and diverse as I can when I play, but I don’t expect everyone else to do the same.

There are lots of different reasons some people enjoy “trad roleplaying”, and for any given person it could any combination of the above factors, and possibly many others.


My several-year 5e campaign is about to start back up after about a year off due to the birth of my daughter. I’m in the campaign as a player, not GM, and I’m mostly excited for it to start again. The reason I say “mostly” is because I feel like I’ve kind of explored all I can with my character and I’m not sure that I’m interested in returning to her. It’s a Homebrew setting and there are still plenty of plot threads to pull on, so I’m sure it’ll be great. But just have some trepidation. I know I can always come up with a new character, of course.

I don’t think I’ll ever run 5e again, though. It takes up a lot of mental and emotional bandwidth for me that things like DW/Freebooters/MOTW don’t. Mostly managing combat is awful to me, but I don’t care for encounter design. And while I think crunch can be fun as a player, for me it’s not very fun as a GM.


I’ve played CoC and 13th Age recently at Cons and I’m afraid it reminded me why I don’t run read systems any more … they are sooooo slow …


I don’t play nearly as much any more, but I used to play a crap-ton of them when I ran the store. The level of GM detail and prep that trad RPGs require takes a ton of the cognitive and improv load off players, so they’re way better for kids and new players than most of the Indie stuff I’ve worked with.

They’re also the place you go if you want sanctioned licensed gaming: the depth and micro-specificity that a crunchy trad rule-set provides works wonders for stuff Like Marvel Comics and Star Trek. Even in games where there isn’t a ‘zero-to-hero’ progression, a big trad ruleset lets you throw down a bunch of ‘mini-games’ and situational rules that reinforce the specificity of the universe you’re playing in.

If I spun up a local ongoing game,it’ definitely be in a ‘trad’ system.


I mostly switched to nontraditional RPGs three years ago, after decades of playing trad games. (Mostly D&D 1e/2e/3.x/Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, and GURPS.)

I do still play some trad games from time to time. I was VERY into Pathfinder from about 2010 to 2016, and still really like its campaign setting. About 3/4 of my gaming book collection is PFRPG material, and I’m still connected with a lot of people in the Pathfinder community. The community connection is why I went to PaizoCon again this year, despite not really playing PFRPG all that much anymore.

I do still play Pathfinder, Starfinder, CoC, and GURPS every once in a while. I’m also in a weekly D&D 5e game… we just ran last night, in fact. I do still have fun with trad gaming.

But, man-oh-man, now that I’m used to the narrative style of play, I get SO frustrated with the “pass/fail” dice mechanic of traditional RPGs. Especially so for games that are based on a single die roll, whether that’s a d20 or a d100. (GURPS is still pass/fail, but uses 3d6, so you’re much more likely to roll around an average.)

I forget how liberating I find narrative-style play, until I go back to playing a trad game, and find how my will is so often simply negated by a bad roll.

When talking trad games v. indie games with primarily trad gamers, my talking point usually revolves around the dice mechanic.

In trad games, you declare what you want to do, and the dice determine one of two outcomes: You succeed or you fail. Failure often means “nothing happens”: You swing and miss; you don’t pick the lock; you don’t convince the guard; you don’t find the secret door.

In most indie games, you declare what you want to do, and the dice determine one of three outcomes: You get what you want; You get what you want BUT; or You get something other than what you wanted. But you always get something!


I’m somewhat fortunate in that I’ve recently had experience with both a brand-new player and a brand-new GM in my trad-games group.

The new player started with D&D 5th Edition (first another member’s game, then my game.) She took to it instantly and loved it. She immediately joined a Vampire: The Masquerade game I started running as well, and has been enjoying that quite a lot too. The complexity of these systems (moreso V:TM) has only been a mild issue, and mostly related to getting Roll20 to do what we want. (There’s a separate conversation to be had about Roll20 and other VTTs, and especially automation in those applications, raising or lowering the barrier to entry for games.) It’s perhaps worth noting that the rest of the 5e games weren’t stereotypical D&D fantasies. One was a near-modern fantasy-cowboys-on-motorcycles campaign; the other has the players running a detective agency in the metropolis of Sharn, in the Eberron setting, and plays more like fantasy-Sherlock-Holmes-meets-Leverage. Echoing @Paul_T’s point above, these are also games where the GM has a specific setting and play experience in mind, and there’s a lot of pre-existing trust for the GM to deliver that experience.

Interestingly, I think the major issue I see with trad-games is a poor ratio of prep time to gameplay time. This is particularly a problem for GMs. These games are a simply lot of work to run. I spend 70% of my GMing prep time drawing maps for use on Roll20, 20% prepping stat blocks for monsters the PCs might or might not encounter, and only about 10% of the time actually coming up with plots. The new GM in our group was forced to spend hours trawling through the Wod: Innocents book, learning an unnecessarily-complicated system, pre-generating important NPCs, and overseeing character creation. I had to do the same for my Vampire campaign (and still have quite a lot left to do :sweat_smile:.) Character creation isn’t just a session unto itself; done right, there’s pre-planning as we figure out a group template, and post-session checking and data entry and little tweaks to complex character sheets. It’s work for everyone involved. The work pays off—we had a blast with the first Innocents session, and our brand-new GM absolutely rocked it—but we could probably have had a similarly good experience with a much less time-intensive system.

So yeah. I do love these games, and so does my play group. We’re constantly looking forward to playing again. But as these games wrap up, I want to see how storytelling games play in my group. I had a fantastic experience with a long Fellowship campaign run by a Gauntlet member, and I’d love to see how my group handles those. I suspect they’ll be enlightening for many of us.


Yes, a lot of that sounds familiar. I often say that I would happily run some trad games (I’ve had a group ask me to run modern D&D for them, for example) if I had unlimited time. But, in practice, I just can’t swing it right now, because the overhead is so intense, and the rewards,
in comparison, are slim. It’s hard to go back to spending two-three hours to make a character and a single combat eating up over an hour of time at the table.


What Mythos game hits your optimal pace at the moment he moment?


I definitely prefer the more current trad games that have obvious Indie DNA!

The 2d20 system of Conan and Star Trek go a long way towards introducing sliding success and Success at a Cost. Cortex goes a different route and turns their fiddly dice pools into competing timers as opposed to binary switches. There’s some neat design stuff going on there if you’re ok with the processing time and energy they demand to run well.


I will be honest, my D and D game I am running that isn’t a module I have been sluffing it. Or rather, there’s been a lot of improv :slight_smile:

Players seem ok with it so far. They are my group that I hope to transition to either indy game of the quarter (we play monthly, so a short 3 session game rotation would be fun); or a full on zero to hero Freebooters campaign, maybe using Maezar’s modifications that make it somewhat GM-less.


I think that can largely come down to how you choose to prep though. I primarily run/play trad games and don’t have most of those issues. I don’t use maps and once I’m comfortable with a system I tend to put together challenges on the fly (it helps that even in D&D I don’t overly care for balanced encounters).

As for why I run/play those more over indie games - they fit my preferences more. As a player I often prefer not to have narrative input because I like the surprise of not knowing what is around the next corner or how the plot is going to unfold. Ditto as a GM, I like to be able to plot out details and the world, to unveil them to the players and see how they react. I should be clear here that I also don’t mean railroading, adapting the plot in reaction to player actions is one of my favourite things and I absolutely love going back to my notes after a campaign to see how my initial ideas line up against what actually happened.

Mechanically I agree that the typical pass/fail approach is a weakness but a lot of trad games do say that failure should be interesting/move the plot forward. They’ve just make it a soft move recommendation rather than the hard move mechanically enforced approach that indie games tend to lean to. For me one of the things that appeals about many of the mechanics is the shared attribute+skill vs target number. Learn it once and then it makes learning other games more intuitive, which I think is something that has also been seen with PbtA games.

As for the pool of players then yes I would say there is a larger one and I would say it is significantly larger. D&D is the dominant game there but I think even the smaller trad games have a large number of players. I think Jason was hit the nail on the head with the comment that the modern indie scene was born on the internet and thus makes it easier to find people compared to trad games. The indie scene is more focused into distinct communities while the players of trad games, while more numerous (imo), are dispersed much more widely into smaller groups.


I’ve recently hacked Cthulhu Dark with bits of Cartel to run Achtung! Cthulhu Dark for the Gauntlet - great fun … and using the Modipius setting stuff as scaffolding means negligible prep … What’s not to like.


I’ve heard this complaint about “pass/fail” mechanics before, and would like to understand it a bit more. My current understanding is that it’s a preference for the sort of “succeed w/consequences” mechanic of something like Freebooters on the Frontier (the only reference I have here) v. the more pass/fail mechanic one might find in something like a D&D saving throw.

My own design principles and play ethos come from classic games, 0E D&D, B/X mostly but also Palladium’ s varied 90’s offerings and other games of that era. I tend to view players rolling a test to complete a scheme as either a last resort (saving throw) or part of a larger mechanical sequence (combat). In both these cases the possibility of failure is useful - as the risk of depending on character skill/randomness to try to overcome an obstacle. What am I missing?


@Gus.L, I find that binary pass/fail mechanics are great for clarity, simplicity, and for finality. They “settle the matter” in an excellent way, when that is what is desired.

For instance, let’s use a coin flip to represent a fight. The winner lives; the loser dies.

It gives real clarity and finality to what is happening. “The buck stops here; let’s go deal with another thing now.” That’s great when you’ve come to the end of a plan, and now you just need to put the nail in the coffin. (A lot of OSR/D&D play is like this, especially in games where you really hope to avoid rolling at all, by clever play.)

More nuanced forms of resolution (like PbtA ternary resolution, as one example) give a wider range of results, and fewer “black and white” outcomes. This kind of resolution tends to give more “interesting”, unclear, or unstable outcomes.

You can get that in a single roll, or you can get it by layering mechanics.

Consider, for instance, that a D&D fight might look like this:

Both parties roll to hit the other (and let’s assume a hit is lethal).

We now have four different outcomes:

  • Both are dead.
  • Neither is dead.
  • One is dead.
  • The other is dead.

We get a larger variety of outcomes, and some outcomes that don’t resolve matters at all (e.g. neither is dead). That’s a step less “binary” than the first coin flip mechanic; you can imagine extending that further and further into more complex forms a resolution.

(I do actually think that OSR-style sometimes gets a lot more “non-binary” resolution than people think by layering a variety of mechanics/rolls/resolution methods. For instance, if you roll to do something, and that sends you to a random table, as well as making someone else make a saving throw, you get some of the same emergent fun.)

People like non-binary mechanics because they reliably create dynamic, unstable, compromise situations which call for further play to resolve. “You catch him/you lose him” resolves the current situation cleanly. “You catch him, but he has prepared a trap for you”, instead, just brings us into a new, unstable situation. In this manner, we can easily flow from one unstable into another, fluidly and continuously, which can be really exciting from a player perspective. (If you watch a typical adventure or action movie, you’ll see this kind of thing happening a lot! For instance, Han Solo escapes from Imperial pursuit and finds himself in a cave that’s actually a monster’s mouth! That’s neither a clear success nor a clear failure - it’s something more involved.)

I don’t like this in something like an old-school dungeon crawl (e.g. B/X D&D), because it makes it much harder to reap the rewards of a good victory or to suffer the cost of a poor plan; that can be frustrating for players and GMs, alike, and feel like you’re “stretching out” play unnecessarily. (“I just want to see if the plan works or not; I don’t want to just keep making up more complications forever!”) It can reduce player control over variables and make success and failure less connected to good or bad play.

From a more abstract perspective, “mixed success” mechanics mean that instead of player A getting his way (success) or player B getting his way (failure), more parties get some input into what’s happening in the fiction. That can be really exciting, and help stories develop in a greater variety of directions (often a third option that neither of the two parties had foreseen will arise, for example).

Over the long term, that gives a really different dynamic “shape” to gameplay.

It’s very much a matter of taste.

I would encourage you to play a game with good non-binary resolution (ideally, with people who know how to make it work well, or by GMing it) and experience it for yourself; it’s definitely a bit of game design technology that’s good to be aware of. :slight_smile:


I spent decades running games with %skills and found I wasn’t just avoiding calling for die rolls where failure would be disastrous, but even obscuring opposed rolls to save characters from death because of their crit fail vs. the NPC’s crit success.

Some would say they were stupid to put themselves in that situation and that it wasn’t my job to save them if they did, but I’ve never enjoyed killing characters 'cos they got a series of unlucky rolls.

What first Fate, and then PbtA, did for me was to allow me to make failure interesting and make it a way to propel the story forward, rather than putting an obstacle in its way.

I could GM my way around the obstacles by breaking the rules as written … but that sort of defeats the object of having them.

What I find interesting us how much players from a similar pass/fail background as me seem seem to enjoy the ‘yes, but …’ twists when that are now part if our PbtA and Fate games.


Thanks for the replies Paul T and Alun R - it is the mechanic I thought it was then. I have a hard time seeing a really meaningful distinction outside a specific style of play - one where individual rolls frequently resolve obstacles and the flow of story is fairly heavily improvisational. “Yes and” mechanics seem like they’d work well in such a situation but I don’t see them as hugely different from a well run traditional GMing style - nothing wrong with the mechanic, but it’s results don’t appear to be a huge change.

The two objections as I’m reading them are:
1: Binary rolls and test result in unexpected disaster - I’ll call this the “unexpected disaster problem”.
2: Concern that failure disrupts play by creating with an “insurmountable obstacle”.

In the case of the first I can absolutely see the origin of this concern - I hate it when my player’s characters die - and even more when they die stupidly. Something like the save or die poison of a 1981 Moldvay giant spider threatens this and if the game consists of something like “You enter the room and another giant spider attacks” it’s entirely valid, and this is of course how a lot of 8 year olds played D&D in 1984 - I speak from experience.

However, if the existence of giant poisonous spiders is known to the party, through rumors, description (cocooned corpses, webs etc) or other signs the players are making an informed decision about risk when they enter the spider lair and another one when they decide to go fisticuffs with a giant spider. By the time that Save v. Poison or die roll comes along there’s already been a series of player decision that warn of the risk and encourage alternatives. Hear the rumor of killer spiders - shop for antivenom; see giant spider webs - flush out spiders or set a trap of some kind; see the venom dripping fangs of a giant spider - run! This discovery and decision loop is itself the locus of play - the points where players make meaningful decisions about risk and reward (is it even worth it messing with giant spiders?) and where much of the table time gets spent. The Save v. Poison roll is an after thought, a last resort due to the players’ failure to better solve a clear open ended problem in another way.

Of course for this to work it takes trust in the GM - and a GM that trusts the players. It’s also potentially slow. When risks are serious GMs have to be very clear. When the characters face serious risks the GM needs to be explicit and open because the GM is the players’ only source of information about the world. Doing this well is part of what makes a good GM: using evocative description, clarifying players dangerous decisions and generally letting the players know when the risk is about to turn to mechanics with being overly dull. e.g. Describe the spider’s razor fangs and sizzling caustic venom, the horrid chemic stink when tearing open the cocoon of a prior victim and the look of agony on the face of the mummy within. When the GM provides good information (though not always complete information, there’s room for secrets in play of course) the players have an idea of when they are getting themselves into a potential disaster situation. It’s not the game or the GM that has them risking it all on a throw of the dice, that’s player choice, and I think it makes for good play to honor that decision.

In the second case I generally agree that placing obstacles with as pass/fail gates to further play is a terrible idea. Secret doors that MUST BE FOUND are a classic example from dungeon crawl play - and far too many designers do it! It’s certainly a design problem that a GM needs to address - but I don’t know that the way to always address it is to provide success with complications and total success as the major options.

Instead I like to make sure that no one thing is ever absolutely necessary to continued play. In some ways it’s the same solution as the spiders - there’s always another the option, even when that option is to wander off and engage in a different adventure. Alternatively there’s plenty of mechanical and playstyle choices that make for less absolute obstacles, again largely focused on providing players information to address obstacles in multiple ways.

In the Han Solo example above I’d think that a game or adventure about space ship hijinx should already have a subsystem (a random table might suffice for a one off) that helps make space chases more interesting and so makes the obstacle of escape a series of player information gathering and decision loops (in addition to whatever lack of caution got the space cops on their tail in the first place). To aid this a well designed setting should imply a variety of solutions - how can Han shake pursuers? What do we know about how space ship chases work? Does Han have equipment or resources he can use to improve his chances - laying doggo, dropping cargo, or dangerously overheating his engines? All of these are certainly possibilities in the “succeed w/consequences” one roll model - but they’d be a GM creation, a justification of why the mechanic worked the way it did rather then a player decision. All require that the players have some idea of the nature of their spaceship and space chases.

It seems to me that much of what “succeed w/consequences” does is simplify play by putting story decisions on the GM rather then the players (or maybe both because presumably you can ask the player the nature of the consequence - as my Freebooters GM usually did). It also likely creates an ethos of play that’s somewhat different and it can possibly be a buttress against antagonistic GMing/mistrust - but on the other side of that bad GMing is always a bad time, even with mechanical buffers.

I don’t dislike the success w/consequences mechanic, it works great in some cases - heck most classic dungeoncrawl GMs I know use skill roll failures as wasted time (requiring a good timekeeping/resource depletion system) or a way of determining if the PC can do a thing - informing the player that they can’t sneak past the guards etc - which is very similar, only it breaks the consequences up into multiple rolls (repeated skill efforts or multiple schemes). I do think that the distinction between binary, pass/fail mechanics and succeed w. consequences is overstated though.

Apologies for the text wall and thanks again for giving me the explanation.


For me, those would be “Trail of Cthulhu” and the forthcoming “Fate of Cthulhu.”

I tried “Tremulus” a couple of years ago, and didn’t really enjoy the experiecne. (That may have been because the GM was brand-new to PbtA games, and was trying to run it as if we were playing “Call of Cthulhu.”)

I haven’t yet tried “Lovecraftesque” or “Cthulhu Dark.”


@Gus.L, I don’t think what I wrote had much at all to do with the “two objections” you outline in your post.

Most “non-binary” mechanics allow failure anyway, so they’re still susceptible to those problems.

For most people, it’s the way they develop the game and the narrative, and the way they help move play forward all the time, that’s the draw. A big part of that is the “yes, but” answer, which allows player ideas to be built into play more often and thus generate more varied and unexpected developments in the game.