An Optional Intro to Pen and Paper
So you've heard of Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) and wanted or even tried to get into it? But for some reason you couldn't? Too much math? Too many rule books? I'm here to help! But not by actually giving you a starting point with DnD. Actually, I want to tell you about all the other Pen and Paper (P&P) games that are out there that might be a better fit for you!
Still, let me quickly lose a few words on DnD. DnD, especially its fifth edition (“5e”) is the most widely known Pen and Paper game1. This fact alone is a huge plus: It's easier to find people who want to play DnD, there's lots of published DnD material. You can also find lots of videos or streams of other people playing DnD (called “Actual Plays”) to inspire you. BUT: DnD is also just one of many interesting systems – some of which we will get into shortly. It focuses on Campaign-Style play (where you regularly play with a fixed group for up to hundreds of sessions), it encourages strategic fights over cinematic descriptions, it encourages a heroic fantasy over other genres, it encourages a story led by the Facilitator (GM)2 over collaborative story telling. I'm not saying DnD forces you to play in these ways, just that other games are more well suited to handle different styles of play or different kinds of stories.
Okay, now that we've got that out of the way, I'll quickly point you in the direction of some other big P&P games that are somewhat comparable to DnD. It's not too hard to find more information on or actual plays of these games online. Look into Vampire: The Masquerade for clan politics, Call of Cthulhu for investigating cosmic horror, Shadowrun for Cyberpunk, Gumshoe based games for playing investigative stories, e.g. TimeWatch for time travel, Trail of Cthulhu for cosmic horror (again), Night's Black Agents for gritty spy thriller stories.
But hey, you don't need to spend $40-$60 on a rule book to try out P&P: You can get Lasers & Feelings for Pay-What-You-Want (free, if you want) and get the full one page rules. That's right. It's just one page and you can start playing sci-fi stories in space reminiscent of Star Trek. Or get The Witch is Dead for Pay-What-You-Want. Also just one page to play a witch's familiars that travel to the nearby village to avenge her death and hopefully revive her. Or get the one-page-rules to All Outta Bubblegum for free and play a story inspired by action movies like They Live or Die Hard. The simplicity and brevity of these games means that they provide little guidance as to how they “should” be played. And they require (allow for?) lots of improvisation by the Facilitator and also players. Also, it's difficult to build them out into campaigns.
How about games that do not need a GM at all? The Quiet Year has all of you draw a map of a struggling community guided by prompts on cards. Collaboratively you explore the people of the community, their surroundings and their struggles. For The Queen is also guided by prompts on cards, but here everyone takes the role of a character travelling with the queen. At the end of the game the queen is attacked and everyone makes a decision whether they want to save her or not. Fiasco lets you establish a set of regular characters that are thrown into a high pressure situation (they come to posses lots of drugs or money, are having affairs, have killed someone, etc.) and you then play out scenes between these characters to find out how it all goes wrong. Think of movies like A Simple Plan, Fargo, Burn After Reading, etc. One Last Job requires a GM, but that position can optionally rotate during a session of play. In OLJ players come up with a heist, what the challenges are and what the perfect team would be to pull off this “Last Job”. Out of this batch of games it's the most “traditional” with some math, dice rolling, and character sheets.3
Okay, let's return to some games with GMs! Dread is a horror game that uses a Jenga tower instead of dice. When a player wants to do something challenging they pull a brick. When the tower falls their character is dead. The game mechanic masterfully supports the tension of the story. You do now actually know like 98% of the rules, but in the 99 page rule book you also find three example scenarios and guidance on how to create suspense at the table and how to write your own scenarios. My tip: Instead of letting players create fictional characters to play let them play themselves. This way there's no work on their end to fill out a character sheet and immersion is heightened. Trophy Dark is another horror game where you play out the last adventure of desperate treasure hunters that will most likely end in death or worse. In addition to this “play to lose” approach, it also functions with a “writers room” approach: The players have great influence over where the story goes for their own characters, but also the other characters. Returning from horror, the last game I'll name is Feng Shui 2 where you play out stories inspired by Jackie Chan style Hong Kong Action films. It's got a bit more rules again, but many of them encourage improvisation and colourful descriptions of character's actions. For example, an attack with an improvised weapon does bonus damage, but only for one turn. So you are encouraged to come up with a new improvised weapon each round.
Now we're already this deep in and I haven't even mentioned any Fate-based games or PBTA. Oh well, look them up yourself4 or wait for me to do a follow-up post in the future.
Before closing I want to highlight one important thing: Use safety tools! Pen and Paper is a great hobby and the games and stories we can experience with it are awesome. But the people we play with are more important. Even if you think you don't need it – even if you don't need it! – better be safe than sorry. The X-Card can be integrated anywhere quickly and easily. But here's also a repository of other safety tools where you might find something more fitting.
I hope I have given you a peek into the breadth of the amazing hobby of Pen and Paper. I also hope that I've not given you analysis paralysis or information overload. If you have any questions you can reach out to me using the link at the bottom of this post.
Lastly, I want to provide some further resources:
- DriveThruRPG has lots of P&P games, but also supplements and adventures for those games. Its German analogue is Pegasus Digital.
- itch.io, which originally started as a store front for indie video games also hosts thousands of indie P&P games which can be found in its “Physical Games” section.
- Bonus tip for itch.io: A couple times a year creators team up to make huge charity bundles which you can buy for a Pay-What-You-Want price around $15~$60+ for hundreds of games.
- The One Shot Podcast is an Actual Play podcast where talented Improv actors play all kinds of different P&P games. That's where I first heard of most of the games I recommended here.
- On the podcast The Gauntlet they don't play, but talk about three different games per episode.
- System Matters is a German publisher that translates some cool games and makes them available in Germany (let me know of other German publishers please!)
 At least in English speaking parts of the world. In Germany “Das Schwarze Auge” is also quite popular. ↑  Many – not all – P&P games require for one person to “lead” the game and story. The name for this role differs from game to game. Some call them Facilitator, Keeper, Dungeon Master, or MC. I will refer to them by “Facilitator” or GM (from Game Master). ↑  Fair warning though: The layout of the game looks like garbage and you might need to read the 30 pages of rules twice to get them, because of their poor structure. ↑  This video provides a good starting point on what “Fate-based” means. Similarly, check this video out for PBTA. ↑