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While a demonic entity floats creepily in the illustration’s background, ringed by an ethereal light, a thin-legged mech strides toward an infantry formation, cutting through another mech with its massive sword. Links of ammunition ring its neck, and sparks fly from the impact. Image: Massif Press

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Pivot your D&D group to a different system — something built with combat in mind

7 games to put the fight back into your regular gaming group

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James D’Amato is an actual play podcaster, game designer, and author of the Ultimate RPG Guide series published by Adams Media. For 10 years he has recorded sessions of hundreds of different RPGs for the One Shot podcast.

If you love Dungeons & Dragons, but you’re curious about the many thousands of other tabletop role-playing games on the market, it can be difficult to know where to start. Especially if you enjoy a really crunchy, technically demanding rules system, picking up a new game is a big commitment — especially if you enjoy combat. That’s why we’re exploring alternatives that cater to different tastes!

In my first piece for Polygon, I addressed the needs of those who want more role-play — storytelling and narrative design — in their TTRPG. But another one of the biggest draws for the D&D player base is its combat system. For many, it’s just not worth picking up another game unless they know their characters can kick ass. While these games also provide good role-playing experiences, they pay special attention to the action. If you love to roll for initiative, you might find a new love on this list.


To make things more digestible, we assigned stats to the games on this list.

Average session: The average length of a single session.

Difficulty: This tells you how hard it might be to pick up this game for the first time if you have only ever played D&D.

Crunch: This tells you how mechanically complex a game is. For reference, D&D 5e would be a ⚫⚫⚫⚫⚪ on this list.

XP: Learning some RPGs will actually make it easier to learn others. A game with a high XP stat can be a gateway to mastering dozens or hundreds of others.

Wushu: The Ancient Art of Action Roleplaying

The cover of Wushu: The Ancient Art of Action Roleplaying has a white background. A black and white yin/yang motif is formed by two pistoleers, circling each other with one gun in each hand. Image: Daniel Bayn

Designed by Daniel Bayn

Average session: 1-2 hours

Difficulty: ⚫⚫⚪⚪⚪

Crunch: ⚫⚪⚪⚪⚪

XP: ⚫⚫⚪⚪⚪

Inspired by martial arts films, Wushu: The Ancient Art of Action Roleplaying is about detailed action. It has a very simple premise: The more detail you add to a description, the more powerful your action becomes. All rolls are done with d6 die pools, meaning that the more details you add to the description of how your character is trying to land a blow, the more dice you get to roll.

While Wushu lacks the mechanical depth and character customization of most RPGs on this list, it nevertheless joyfully encourages creativity through its action scenes. It remains a bit of a unicorn, however, since this game won’t help you pick up any other systems, but you might learn a lot of new narrative skills you can apply to other games.

Feng Shui 2: Action Movie Roleplaying

A martial artist in monastic robes stands on top of a speeding Dodge Charger — white with flames on the side. They are holding a samurai sword. Inside the card, a tattooed woman with red hair is leaning out the driver’s side. Another woman holds two pistols akimbo and is firing out the passenger side. A third woman is leaning out of an open rear door, casting a spell. The car is jumping off a bridge at speed. Image: Atlas Games

Designed by Robin D. Laws, published by Atlas Games

Average session: 2-4 hours

Difficulty: ⚫⚫⚪⚪⚪

Crunch: ⚫⚫⚫⚪⚪

XP: ⚫⚪⚪⚪⚪

Feng Shui 2: Action Movie Roleplaying is a love letter to Hong Kong-style martial arts and action films. Its mechanics encourage genre emulation, guiding players to imitate films like Supercop, Drunken Master, and Yes, Madam. The result is a fast-moving game that teaches you how to think like an action hero.

Players choose from dozens of “character archetypes” like The Karate Cop, The Everyman Hero, or The Scrappy Kid and customize them with a long list of “shticks.” These abilities are what guide the players to honor the genre and make their games memorable. For example, “improvised weapon mastery” grants bonuses every time a character uses an everyday object as a weapon, but only for a few attacks. To keep getting the bonus players must constantly find new objects in the environment. What was initially a one-off gag becomes the running joke capable of keeping scenes feeling fresh and fun session after session.

The core book of Feng Shui 2 is packed with player options. Like Wushu above, learning this system won’t open many doors to other games, but playing it even once will make you look at combat in a whole new way.

Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game

Designed by Christopher Badell, Dave Chalker, Cam Banks, Philippe-Antoine Ménard; published by Greater Than Games

Average session: 2-4 hours

Difficulty: ⚫⚫⚫⚪⚪

Crunch: ⚫⚫⚫⚪⚪

XP: ⚫⚫⚪⚪⚪

Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game gives players the thing they absolutely need in a superhero RPG: deep customization. That begins with the superpowers themselves, which range from your run-of-the mill enhanced speed and flight to bizarre ones like the ability to transform precipitation into spiders. Abilities in this game are designed to be customized and reskinned to fit a player’s vision. The actual mechanics are presented with simple meta tags; once you understand them, you can make them fit any concept.

Sentinel also controls the pace and excitement of combat through the “scene tracker” system. As initiative advances, the tension steadily increases — unlocking stronger character abilities and interesting twists. This ensures that things are always getting more exciting as each battle approaches its climax.

Of note is the fact that this game pretty much only has rules for fighting. Most anything else that takes place outside of combat is barely supported at all. But if all your group really cares about is fighting, then you can expect Sentinel Comics will be a great fit. It’s loosely based on the Cortex System, so learning it will help you branch out to other Cortex-powered games.

Phoenix Dawn Command

Designed by Keith Baker, published by TwoGether Studios

Average session: 3-4 hours

Difficulty: ⚫⚫⚫⚫⚪

Crunch: ⚫⚫⚫⚪⚪

XP: ⚫⚪⚪⚪⚪

If you used the Eberron setting for D&D, you already know and probably love Keith Baker’s work. Phoenix Dawn Command is one of his underappreciated projects, but if combining creativity and strategy in your role-play sounds good, then it might just be the hidden gem for you.

Characters in PDC are warriors called Phoenixes who can die, then be reborn stronger, up to seven times. In fact, that death mechanic is so integral to the lore of the game that it’s the only way to level up. It’s not a question of if your character will die, but when they’ll kick the bucket and what that sacrifice will mean.

PDC’s other major departure from traditional D&D tropes is that it uses custom decks of cards to represent characters, allowing players to choose where and how to make their biggest moves. Jumping from polyhedral dice to cards is quite the leap for some players, and PDC hasn’t had any major expansions or imitators for you to build off of the experience. However, the boxed starter set has everything you need to begin an incredible campaign. If you like games where you work as a team to make tough strategic choices, PDC fits your group like a clenched fist inside a well-worn glove.


A lancer pilot in an Eastwood-inspired cape stands in front of a towering mech. The mech’s hand is raised, with a giant revolver in it firing away. Image: Massif Press

Designed by Tom Parkinson-Morgan and Miguel Lopez, published by Massif Press

Average session: 3-4 hours

Difficulty: ⚫⚫⚫⚫⚪

Crunch: ⚫⚫⚫⚫⚪

XP: ⚫⚪⚪⚪⚪

Lancer is perhaps one of the most mechanically rich mecha RPGs ever published, and in my opinion it stands out as the gold standard for the subgenre today. It empowers players with a jaw-dropping level of customization, allowing them to make truly unique war machines with distinct abilities. The combat system itself is rich, with many different layers for players to move and fight exactly how they like.

Lancer splits itself between ultra-crunchy combat and narrative-focused downtime mechanics. So even groups with a mix of “roll players” and role-players will find there is something here for everyone. It also provides character creation and campaign support through an app on the Lancer website.

Currently, there is nothing out there quite like Lancer. It will be a big adjustment coming from D&D. It’s a relatively new and popular game, though, so there is a good chance that you’ll see many new games under the Powered by Lancer license in the coming years. You can get started with the free edition, which is available for download right now.

Pathfinder Second Edition

Banner art for Pathfinder’s second edition, showing a dual-wielding dwarf, a sorceress, and a fighter going after a red dragon, bursting through the wall above its horde. Image: Paizo Publishing

Designed by Logan Bonner, Jason Bulmahn, Stephen Radney-MacFarland, and Mark Seifter; published by Paizo

Average session: 3-4 hours

Difficulty: ⚫⚫⚪⚪⚪

Crunch: ⚫⚫⚫⚫⚫

XP: ⚫⚫⚫⚫⚪

The original Pathfinder was literally based on D&D. Pathfinder’s second edition, released in 2019, updates the core concept with mechanical innovations, but it’s still fantasy heroes battling monsters for treasure. It offers a staggering number of character options and rewarding mechanical depth.

If you want something different enough to feel fresh, but not too different from what you are used to, Pathfinder Second Edition is a great pick. You can also easily branch out to other Paizo products, like Starfinder.

Gubat Banwa

Designed by Joaquin Kyle “Makapatag” Saavedra

Average session: 3-4 hours

Difficulty: ⚫⚫⚪⚪⚪

Crunch: ⚫⚫⚫⚫⚫

XP: ⚫⚪⚪⚪⚪

If you want a bigger change, Gubat Banwa is it. This game is described as a “tactical martial arts war drama” RPG inspired by the culture and mythology of the Philippines. As a result, it looks and feels totally unique while still focusing on heroic and dramatic characters kicking ass.

When creating a Kadungganan, the heroes players control in this game, you’ll find options on par with the rich and rewarding mechanics of D&D. However, Gubat Banwa has mechanics to emphasize the “war drama” part of the pitch, grounding characters with Convictions, Conjectures, and Complications to esure action scenes are dripping with pathos. Simply put, the game hits hard both physically and emotionally by design.

Gubat Banwa is built for grid-based combat with rules for movement, terrain, and areas of effect. Players have access to over 25 martial disciplines when creating a Kadungganan and they all take advantage of that tactical system. This is a game that flourishes with a group that fights thoughtfully. If you have ever been proud of a well-placed fireball, you will find a great deal to love here.

Finally, GMs, or Umalagads, will find the system provides great support for the role, providing slick, diverse, and easy-to-reference enemy statblocks. With several basic enemy types each featuring a range of subtypes, you have plenty of options to challenge your band of Kadungganan. There is a lot to learn, but it’s all presented in a way that is easy to pick up.


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