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Pen and Paper: Non-Fantasy Settings

Updated on June 15, 2015

In my last “Pen and Paper” entry, I talked about the superhero genre, though it was more of a love letter to running superheroes with Savage Worlds. The main point of the article, however, was that I enjoy playing tabletop games in genres other than fantasy. In fact, I’ll state now that if you want to play a “classic fantasy” game, stick with Dungeons and Dragons. It’s been doing fantasy since before there was an option besides fantasy.

Changing genres is key to healthy roleplaying. It gives you new challenges, it allows you to try out characters otherwise unusable in the fantasy setting, and simply allows for a change of pace. I’ve already talked about superheroes and I think they fit into tabletop perfectly, but there are many different genres to try out. For new players who are looking for something different, these suggestions are for you.

Far East Fantasy

This might be a cheat but I’m going to use it. It may be fantasy with different sensibilities, but those differences are strong enough to be a separate genre. True, in this genre, you can have sorcerers, sword fights, ogres, and large scale wars, but it forces the player into a whole new world. Since Japanese and Chinese culture is different than America, you have to roleplay accordingly. The cocky, go-in-alone hero is less successful in a society built on honor and community. The lone knight might be fun to play, but he’s an outsider in Japan.

There’s plenty of source material to influence this type of game. Legend of the Five Rings is definitely, the place to start, as it gives you a system and an entire world to work with. The clans are well thought out and balanced and you’ll definitely grow to have favorites. There are fiction books telling stories in this world, which are hit or miss, but will provide plenty of ideas for running a game. You could read Usagi Yojimbo and watch Akira Kurosawa’s period films. Romance of the Three Kingdomsand movies like Red Cliff are great as well, and so is Bioware’s Jade Empire.

Survival Horror

This isn’t really a genre as it is a sub-genre. You could play a survival horror game in any setting, even fantasy. But, a horror game will stand apart from others. One of the first games I ran for some friends was a horror survival game set on an island full of dinosaurs. It was more inspired by Dino Crisis than Jurassic Park and, around one in the morning, it became creepy. Of course, for all other scary things, Call of Cthulhu would be the place to start.

With zombies and other supernatural monsters all the rage, it’s easy to find source material for this type of game. Play Resident Evil or watch 28 Days Later and you’ll have a good idea of how to run one of these. It can have a strong action moment or two but the main idea is that your players are underprepared for what they have to face. It becomes more about their non-combative skills and decision making than about fighting rolls. Try it out, especially for a late night game.


Like zombies, the post-apocalypse genre is going strong these days. Gamma World did this but you could find other systems to play in this genre. The main idea is that your heroes are trying to survive in the ruins of the old world and things aren’t going their way. You could go The Book of Eli for tone, but I would suggest allowing for mutations and other forms of monstrosities. Let your players deal with a new breed of grizzly bear, one with antlers and fire breath. It might sound ridiculous, but this genre allows for some bizarre creations.

Obviously, Fallout is a good place to look. The Road might be worth a look for a more realistic end of days, but I would rather go bigger. Perhaps something like Chrono Trigger or Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind would work better? The point is, the world is over and you can go to town on the new order. Just remember, the time between Judgment Day and your game will make the all the difference. Players in a game set hundreds of years after the end of the world will be in a completely different culture than those walking right out of the vault.

Space Adventure

Space is a setting that will never get old. You cannot run out of space, you can’t limit your heroes to a certain town. It’s space. It’s infinite and so are the possibilities. Space adventures can take all sorts of shapes and it allows for every type of subgenre. Look at Firefly, which was a western in space. Or you could take my advice for survival horror and do something more akin to Dead Space. There’s always the ability to adapt rules like Shadowrun and put them into deep space. Like all roleplaying games, your limited only by your imagination.

Traveller is a great place to look for a more original setting. It’s been described as Dungeons and Dragons in space and seems to be the standard to hold. Star Wars is a good choice and might be more accessible to new players who have a base knowledge of the universe. Still, there’s always room for your own world(s). You will never run low on source material and you could run your game episodically, switching the tone every week.

Savage Worlds and Beyond

There are plenty of other systems out there that will allow for other genres. Each type of game seems to have a certain ruleset out there that does it well. A simple Google search will help you find the system to run your genre. I’ve read rules for running a game like a Japanese RPG, playing more like Final Fantasy than Dungeons and Dragons. I even have a copy of Cadillacs and Dinosaurs if I wanted to play that game.

I like Savage Worlds because it allows for every type of genre. All the settings I listed above are doable with the single Core Rules. You could go beyond my suggestions and play a pirate or western game, or come up with your own original setting. Of course, with a book like Savage Worlds, picking one genre to work in might be difficult. Maybe you’d be better off doing something like Sliders and switch it up every game.


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