I received my introduction to the TTRPG world when I was 12. My first game, AD&D. I loved all the characters I rolled into existence, which were many. PC death wasn’t just a possibility back then. Adventurers in that game had a high mortality rate. To this day, many of my treasured memories revolve around those adventures, characters, and game days.
I eventually fell out of the hobby for a while, but like so many, couldn’t stay away forever. But when I returned to the game table, I found that things have changed. My beloved AD&D had a few more editions. Somehow, the subculture slipped into the mainstream and exploded in popularity. The Internet made finding new games and game-tables so much easier.
I wanted to dive into the sea of new and old systems I never had an opportunity to explore before, but I had no idea where to start. Well, I do now. I’ve been swimming through this ocean of content for some time now, and I’ve come to understand the genres that separate various core rule systems.
The following list summarizes 5 of the most popular types of TTRPG systems. We’re looking at core rule genres, so lots of games fall into each of these categories. Think about what these types offer, and if it’s something you might find interesting.
Please remember that this is simply an introduction. By no means should it be considered conclusive. It’s a general overview of some of the more popular system genres worth looking at.
And it will be expanded over time.
The Traditional TTRPG:
Of course, I have to put the OG genre at the top of this list. This system style finds its origins in the 70s and 80s; at the beginning of the hobby. Though chainmail may have come first, Dungeons & Dragons initially defined role-playing games. Though its legacy birthed a variety of systems in the following decades, D&D set the baseline tone for the hobby.
Traditional TTRPG systems keep the beat with the original. They use dice-based mechanics and are principally concerned with dungeon crawling and combat. Character creation and complementary party dynamics focus on collaborative efforts to achieve noble goals. Players need to rely on each other to complete a quest.
Though many genres use polyhedral dice, it’s pretty much mandatory for a Traditional Tabletop RPG. Players face challenges in and out of combat. If a chance for failure presents itself, an appropriate die will be rolled. It’s important to note that though the 20-sided die is popular in the Traditional Tabletop genre, it is not a requirement. Tunnels and Trolls and Rune Quest, which areTraditional TTRPGs, do not use a d20.
Old-School Renaissance (Sometimes Old-School Revival) also finds its foundation in the 70s and 80s era games. However, The Traditional TTRPG and OSR systems differ in what they try to recapture. While The Traditional TTRPG center around character creation, dungeon crawling, and adventuring, they have evolved over the years. New mechanics and objectives have been introduced to these systems.
OSR games, on the other hand, try to return to a less mechanically focused gaming system. Their rules look more like the original D&D or AD&D. As a result, the gameplay sets a faster pace and requires more improvisational storytelling when attempting to overcome challenges. OSR games prefer you to narratively determine the outcome of an attempt rather than simply roll a check.
It’s worth noting that the difference between OSR games and Traditional TTRPGs can be measured with a ruler. Dungeons & Dragons and Shadowrun core rulebooks offer 200 to 300 pages of instruction. Castles and Crusades (an excellent example of the Old-School Renaissance movement) weighs in at 128 pages. It’s a leaner and more streamlined approach. You’ll find more ways to “imagine” your way out of a problem as opposed to looking up the rules for that scenario.
Don’t most TTRPGs fall into this category?
Not exactly. Though the name may give the impression these are adventure games with a focus on combat, there really is more to it.
“Action” comes first in the name of this system or genre for a reason. These games simulate action-packed, fast-paced, escapades. If you want to run a Western with a shootout waiting around every corner, or a swashbuckling tail with dashing swordsmen swinging from chandeliers, Action/Adventure RPGs provide the mechanics you’re looking for. These systems focus on dynamic environments, PC mobility, and fast-paced combat.
It’s easy to visualize similarities between this type of game and action/adventure movies. Think about the pacing and the fight scenes in films like Pirates of the Caribbean and John Wick. The players need to think about their environment while darting around corners or jumping from table to table, and they need to keep these factors in mind while engaged in a life-and-death battle.
The system Savage Worlds represents an excellent example of the Action/Adventure TTRPG genre. This game provides, “Fast! Furious! And Fun!” mechanics for creating highly cinematic adventures. The core rulebook allows GMs to build their setting in virtually any genre, but the publisher, Pinnacle Entertainment Group, also sells setting and adventure modules. The purpose of these worlds is to supply a high-octane setting to unleash your players on.
I almost didn’t include solo TTRPGs on this list, but not because of any problem with the genre. In fact, I greatly enjoy these types of games. Several solo games already received a deep dive review here at the Wizard’s Respite.
However, this category contains a vast variety of subgenres and rule types. Hobbyists seeking something new might find exploration solo TTRPGs, journaling solo TTRPGs, survival TTRPGs, and more. Realistically, this genre deserves, and will one day, get an entire article describing the variety of systems that fall under its banner.
Though solo TTRPGs come in all shapes and sizes, they are unified by their single-player rule design. New gamers should note, however, many of these games do have a 2 player and even multiplayer rule option. Still, their design and marketing centers on solo gameplay. Sometimes it’s a writing prompt, sometimes it’s a combat encounter, and sometimes your character just walks into a different room, but you typically do it alone.
What I enjoy most about these games is the focus on imagination. All TTRPGs systems require imaginative gameplay, but where other systems make cooperation and improvisation the game’s foundation, Solo TTRPGs tend to double down on personal creativity. The game mechanics ask you to design a world or draw your path through a dungeon. They provide tools for inspiration.
Some of my favorite solo systems are Corny Gron, Lost amongst the Starlit Wreckage, and The Last Tea Shop. These systems are wildly different from one another. Their rules, style, and objectives lead players down completely different paths. But they do have 2 things in common. First, they all are designed to be played solo, and second, I’ve read and done a review of each. Links below.
Lots of TTRPG types provide hazardous dungeons to fight through, but the Dungeon Crawl system genre makes it the point of the game. Adventurers explore caves, wizard castles, and even space stations, and they do so while battling ferocious monsters and ruthless enemies.
Dungeon Crawl games can come in a variety of flavors, but there are two major sub-genres; module/supplement dungeons and generated dungeons.
Let’s take a look at modules/supplements first. Hobbyists purchase books containing prebuilt dungeons. These adventure manuals often come with sprawling maps. They provide GMs with NPCs, locations, and plot points that the players can explore.
Generated dungeons, on the other hand, create dungeons as part of the gameplay. These RPGs often come with tables that the DM or players roll against to determine the shape of the dungeon. You might roll anything from a d4 to a d100. After the dice get tossed, you find the results of the roll on a table or chart. It could be a sudden turn, a secret passageway, or a pit full of vipers. These systems build different dungeons every session.
A couple of examples of the Dungeon Crawl Genre would be Dungeon Crawl Classics and Labyrinth Lord. The former offers a rule set and a series of modules filled with dungeons and monsters ready for conquering. The latter provides tables to randomly generate, halls, rooms, doors, and NPCs. If you enjoy fighting your way out of a deep dark pit filled with heinous creatures, these games are worth checking out.
The list will continue…
Remember, this list represents only 5 of the best-known TTRPG genres. There are so many more core rule system categories to look at, but this is a good place to start. Those entering the hobby for the first time can find hundreds of games within each of these genres. Think about what each genre offers, and start looking for some core rule systems. DriveThuRPG and Itch.io are excellent places to look for these books.
I intend to expand this list, so if you have any suggestions, leave a comment. What genre should I explore next?