Playing D&D without Wizards of the Coast – alternatives to 5e

What if I told you that Wizards of the Coast is just one of many publishers of Dungeons & Dragons? Sounds strange? WotC are the commercial owners of the D&D brand, and anyone stupid enough to use it without consent would get sued to oblivion. That, however, does not mean other publishers aren’t releasing great games that are just as much D&D as the game made by the trademark owner.

Why consider avoiding Wizards of the Coast?

But let’s just take a step back and discuss why you consider alternatives to Wizards D&D.

Well, first of all – maybe you shouldn’t. If you really enjoy the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and don’t have a problem with the company Wizards of the Coast, then you’re all good. You should do what makes you happy. If you’re happy with D&D 5e then by all means – play it!

However …

  • Perhaps you just don’t like fifth edition D&D.
  • Maybe you have a problem with how WotC conducts their business or,
  • you’re worried that they will step into the NFT (safe link, Wikipedia) space like their parent company Hasbro?

There are many valid reasons why to step away from whoever owns the commercial rights to put a Dungeons & Dragons logo on their book cover. Also; you don’t even need a reason other than being curious and wanting to try something new.

But is it really Dungeons & Dragons if it doesn’t say so on the cover?

Short answer: yes!

Longer answer: yes! You see, there’s something called the Open Gaming License (OGL), which makes it legal to create clones of D&D. You can basically copy the rules and publish them under a different name than Dungeons & Dragons. The OGL is what Paizo used in 2009 to create the Pathfinder RPG, which outcompeted fourth edition D&D.

Here, let me quote whoever described the OGL on Wikipedia:

Dungeons & Dragons retro-clones are fantasy role-playing games that emulate earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) no longer supported by Wizards of the Coast.

They are made possible by the release of later editions’ rules in a System Reference Document under the terms of the Open Game License, which allow the use of much of the proprietary terminology of D&D that might otherwise collectively constitute copyright infringement.

These rules lack the name D&D or any of the associated trademarks.


Many of such clones exist today, and they’re gaining popularity as roleplayers are switching from fifth edition to other alternatives. Some of these games are bunched together under the Old-School Reinassance movement, but wether you like that specific playstyle or not these games can be played in any way you prefer.

Games created and published under the OGL are sometimes exact clones of earlier editions of D&D (like Old-School Essentials), but more often they are tweaked, keeping the D&D core but making adjustments and additions to the rules and mechanics. In any case, most of these games are usually compatible – so you can use adventures from one game and play it with the rules of another!

So you see what I mean when I say it doesn’t need to say Dungeons & Dragons on the cover of the book to be D&D.

Ok, so what are my options?

Plenty, believe me. There are tons of D&D clones out there. Some of the most popular ones are Labyrinth Lord, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Swords & Wizardry, White Box and OSRIC.

I’d like to put the spotlight on two major alternatives to fifth editions Dungeons & Dragons – Old-School Essentials and Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Old-School Essentials – for the D&D purist

Old-School Essentials (OSE) by Necrotic Gnome is an exact replica of the Basic/Expert mechanics of the game from 1981. If you choose the basic OSE you get the rules from D&D, just presented in a modern and more intuitive layout. It’s easy to read, wonderfully illustrated and just a really solid product that oozes quality.

OSE also has “advanced” supplements that add options that are not cloned from D&D but harmonizes really well with it. I recommend starting with the basic “classic fantasy rules tome” though, it’s just awesome.

The rules of D&D Basic Expert, ahem I mean Old-School Essentials are available for free online in the system reference document database.

Photo of old-school essentials rules tome

Dungeon Crawl Classics – for the D&D rebel

If OSE is loyal to the roots of D&D, Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) by Goodman Games is quite the opposite. While the core of DCC is certainly and unmistakingly Dungeons & Dragons (in my opinion somewhat close to third edition), this game is full of wild and imaginative innovation. Everything from character creation to spells to the imagery is tweaked, remade and re-imagined. DCC is D&D’s feral cousin. It’s a thick book, but don’t let that scare you – the rules really aren’t complex.

A myriad of great adventures have been published for Dungeon Crawl Classics, so even if you don’t choose this specific game you should keep an eye out for their supplements (remember when I said these games are usually compatible?).

Oh, it uses really wonky dice as well, which is fun.

Photo of Dungeon Crawl Classics rules book
Wonky dice is part of the experience of Dungeon Crawl Classics!

Wrapping up

Anyway as you can see there are many ways to play Dungeons & Dragons without using books that says Dungeons & Dragons. For whatever reason you migh have to step away from Wizards of the Coast there are plenty of good (better?) options to chose from.

While a big company might own the commercial rights to the trademark, they do not own the hobby. We do.

DISCLAIMER: I am not in any way sponsored by the brands mentioned in this article. I've bought the products myself and have not been sent review copies or anything like that.

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How to create a D&D campaign world – a step-by-step guide

A wonderful and inspiring part of the roleplaying game hobby is worldbuilding, however many dungeon masters feel it’s a daunting task to create their own campaign world. In this guide I will do my best to outline my method of building fantasy worlds. I hope it will help you by making worldbuilding more inspiring and less of a chore.

My core worldbuilding philosophy: start small and expand

In my opinion the biggest mistake many worldbuilders do is biting off more than they can chew. If you create a huge world map and then try to fill it with everything that could possibly exist in a world you tend to either overwork yourself and lose interest, or stretch your imagination too far and end up with something quite bland “like butter scraped over too much bread”.

Not only does “starting big” risk draining your inspiration, it is also (most of the time) unnecessary. A typical adventuring party in a quasi-medieval D&D campaign won’t visit every far corner of the world, and even if they do this is not something you need to plan out years in advance.

A campaign world isn’t necessarily a “world”. It might not even be a country. It might start out as just a small town and its immediate surroundings. We could call it a “campaign environment”. It might or might not develop into a world but for starters let’s concentrate on what you need rather than what you might need in the future.

What you need is a playground for your players’ first few adventures.

A list of things that you probably need to know right now:

  • The overall theme or genre (high/low/dark fantasy, steampunk, etc.)
  • What monsters lurk in the woods just north of town
  • The name of the local innkeeper and some other important NPCs
  • The most relevant deity in your starting region, and how it is worshipped

A list of things you probably don’t need to know right now:

  • The name of the king in a neighbouring country
  • What lies beyond the sea or the mountains far to the west
  • Every significant faction in the country and how they interact with each other
  • Details on every organized religion in the world

Creating your homebrew campaign world – a step-by-step guide

Step 1 – the overland map

Create an overland map or get one online. A few (7-10 or so) hexagons of terrain will do. Each hex is 6 miles. Fill the hexes with the general type of terrain you want for your theatre. Woods, mountains, grasslands, hills, moor, swamps, etc. Add a few interesting landmarks.

Note: you don’t need to use hexes if you don’t like them. I find them really useful for making maps and tracking both travel and exploration in a campaign, but if you prefer to measure distance differently go right ahead and choose another method.

Fourtower Bridge Hex Map

Step 2 – the starting town

Create a small town and a handful of non-player characters (NPCs). Some of these NPCs need help with stuff, and they need adventurers to take care of their problems. The NPCs are some of the best roleplaying tools you have to shape your campaign and influence players/player characters.

Here’s a town you can use if you don’t want to create one from scratch: Link to Fourtower Bridge.

The Bulette's Barrel inn - isometric map
“Meet the locals” – the inn is often a central location for roleplaying in a fantasy campaign. A great place for the players to learn more about the world.

Step 3 – adventure sites

Make up a few adventure sites and connect some of them to the NPCs in town. A deserted mine, a desecrated temple, a ruined old tower, a brigand hideout, etc. Draw some simple location maps and mark the sites on your overland map. Place treasure and monsters.

Note: You don’t have to make up all of these adventure sites from scratch. There are plenty of free resources online, or you could buy short adventures from websites like You can also find a lot of free maps and adventure sites on this website, for example The Haunted Cloister, that can easily be dropped into most fantasy campaigns.

Top-down dungeon map of a druid's cave
The druid’s cave is a small adventure site, perfect for an evening of gaming

Step 4 – build your world by playing in it

Start playing. The player characters are a bunch of adventurers in search of gold and glory. They arrive in town and have just enough money to spend the night at the inn. Drop rumours on them. Let townsfolk seek their aid. And then let them decide what to do next.

Breathe life into your little world but don’t plan everything ahead. Roll on random tables. You deserve to be surprised just as much as the players do. Between games always keep a notepad with you. Write down cool stuff you come up with. Inject it into your campaign. As you come up with new places to explore, draw new hexagons or add to existing ones on your overland map.

Ask the players what they want to do. Let them inspire you as you expand on the overland map. What do they look for, and how can they get it? What lies beyond the mountains in the west? What’s the origin of the strange idol they found in the abandoned mine?

Build as you go. Make stuff up. Allow yourself to get surprised. Use free stuff from the community. Work with your players. Build a world – not a story. You don’t need an endgame yet (if ever). You have a lot to discover, so enjoy the ride.

Bonus tools: random tables and rumours

Random encounter tables

Random encounter tables have been a staple of fantasy roleplaying games for many years. They are not just relics of old, but actually really good tools for worldbuilding that animate your world and make it feel more dynamic. By creating random encounter tables you define what creatures inhabit an area of your world and you make it significant. The probability of encountering a certain type of creature tells a lot about your world.

If there’s a high risk of encountering orcs in your campaign environment it should be reflected in the encounter tables, let’s have a look at an example:

Random encounter table – west moorland road

Roll 2d6

2-6No encounter
7-8Merchant caravan
9-10Orc raiding party (2d6 orcs)
12 Hill giant

What does the above random encounter table tell us about the campaign environment? Well, first of all it seems commerce and travel is a thing in this part of the world – there’s a fair chance of bumping into merchants. We also learn that orcs seem to be the dominant non-human race in the area, and that they’re on the prowl making travel risky (but not risky enough to fully deter humans from travelling). There are also more powerful monsters (trolls and hill giants) lurking nearby, but apparently they’re not common enough to outcompete the orcs – perhaps they are allies? It’s just a simple table, but all of the above are important and defining elements of your worldbuilding.

Remember that you can have random tables for more things than encounters, such as weather and other types of events. For example, a random weather table tells a lot about the climate in your campaign environment. If you’re aiming for an occult feel to your campaign perhaps a table of mystic omens would make sense to create.


The Internet doesn’t exist in a fantasy medieval world, and the adventurers can’t google “nearby adventure sites and treasure”. Rumours are perhaps the most common source of information and will play an important role in determining how the players will decide on what to do in your world. They do not know about the old tower ruin two hexes to the north unless you somehow tell them about it, so creating such rumours for them to pick up when interacting with NPCs is a good way of helping them learn about the world beyond the hex they’re currently exploring. Again: The NPCs are some of the best roleplaying tools you have to shape your campaign and influence players/player characters. Plant rumours to guide players without forcing them in a certain direction.

Not all rumours are (nor should be) true. Some have just grains of truth in them, and some are just nonsense. However all of them help bring your world to life.

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GOBLIN RATING – how to measure lethality/difficulty in D&D

I came up with this silly little system to measure lethality in a D&D game. All editions are different in this perspective, as are all OSR clones. Dungeon Masters also have different approaches to death and dying. The GOBLIN RATING is a way of defining the lethality at your table. It is also a good way to make it clear to players what to expect by providing them with an example most of us can relate to by answering the question “how dangerous is a goblin?

How to define your GOBLIN RATING

To determine the goblin rating of your game decide how many goblins would it take to pose a serious threat (risk of character deaths, or even a total party kill) to a party of level 1 adventurers in a head on encounter. A high goblin rating indicates a more forgiving game than a low one.

Click here to view the GOBLIN RATING chart (opens in new tab)

GOBLIN RATING – the five steps

1CATASTROPHIC – Avoid combat at all costs!
2FATAL – I have a very bad feeling about this …
3PERILOUS – We’re ready to negotiate to avoid conflict.
4THREATENING – We pick our fights carefully and only when at an advantage.
5RISKY – We’re here to kill monsters and steal shit.

The Bag of Holding is a bad magic item for D&D

Please excuse the provocative title, but I would like to talk a little about why I think the Bag of Holding is an item that’s better left out of your Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

What is a Bag of Holding?

The Bag of Holding is a magic item that exists in most (all?) editions of D&D, as well as most clones (like Pathfinder and OSR games). It is basically an enchanted bag with an interior considerably larger than it’s outer dimensions. It is used to store treasure and equipment that would otherwise be too cumbersome for the player characters to carry.

Below is how the Bag of Holding is described in D&D Basic/Expert from 1981. Note that in those older editions weight was defined in coins. 10 coins were equal to one pound, so this Bag of Holding can fit items with a combined weight of 1000 pounds. (source: Old-School Essentials System Reference Document):

Bag of Holding
A normal-looking, small sack that can magically contain large objects and weights.
Size: Objects of up to 10’×5’×3’ can fit inside the bag.
Weight: Up to 10,000 coins of weight can be placed in the bag.
When full: The bag weighs 600 coins.

The modern version of the Bag of Holding (D&D 5th edition) is more or less identical to the B/X one, but carries “only” 500 pounds of weight.

What purpose does the Bag of Holding serve?

In short: the Bag of Holding lets player characters carry much more items than they would normally be able to. This is of course extremely useful for a bunch of semi-medieval adventurers in a fantasy world. Players are happy because their characters can bring more equipment and salavage more treasure. The dungeon master is happy because he doesn’t need to bother with rules for tracking encumbrance.

Why the Bag is Bad.

So, why is this a bad thing?

Well, it’s not bad per se. If you want to run a superhero style D&D campaign, where characters are larger than life then it’s fine to not track mundane mechanics such as encumbrance. But then again – why not just ignore it completely? You don’t need the Bag of Holding as an excuse to remove encumbrance from your game. Just assume the characters somehow manages to carry everything they want.

But to me D&D isn’t a game of superheroes and epic encounters. To me D&D is a game about heroic burglary and expedition style adventures. I would argue that most older editions of the game support my approach. Others would argue that later editions are built for something very different. Both viewpoints would probably be correct.

If you want to play D&D the way I prefer, then mundane choices become important. The Bag of Holding removes those choices from the game. It makes them irrelevant, and that is why it’s bad.

Expedition style D&D

Expedition style burglary adventures are all about prioritizing. When encumbrance is a factor the party need to somehow decide what to bring on their journey.

  • How many torches do we really need?
  • How much water and food can we carry? What if we run out?
  • Do we need to bring any special equipment or tools based on what we know of the site?
  • Can we make do with one tent, or do we need two?
  • Do we bring things “just in case” or only what we know we’ll have use for?
  • Do we need to get a donkey? A cart? What do we do with it when we enter the dungeon? (hello Bill)

By having to make all these choices the game becomes richer. Already in “town” the players need to start planning their venture. They benefit greatly by gathering information about the adventure location as such information can help them prioritize. Without a Bag of Holding these are hard choices! With a Bag of Holding they can just buy up the whole inventory of the store and they’re all set. There are no choices to make except for possibly financial ones.

A game of burglary

D&D is a game of burglary. It’s about reaching hard to reach places, and enter dangerous sites to find treasure and get out alive. This presents important choices. Treasure weighs – often a lot. If the players have a Bag of Holding they can just grab whatever they find and stuff it. If they don’t – well that’s another story. The 200 pound statue looks valuable, but is it worth the effort? Salvaging a chest full of coins is a feat of it’s own. Even if you manage to get it out of the dungeon you might not be able to bring it back to town without assistance. Perhaps better bury it somewhere where X marks the spot.

Being encumbered is risky, especially in old-school D&D where combat is dangerous. An encumbered character is putting his or her life at risk should a hasty retreat become necessary. When danger lurks around the corner you want to make sure you’re able to run. Having to leave treasure behind is an excruciating decision to make, but an important lesson can be learnt here: next time make sure to bring hirelings on your expedition.

All these decision makes the game richer in my opinion. What the Bag of Holding does is to remove such dilemma, and that’s why I think it’s bad.

Edit 2020-10-11: this has made some people angry. That’s fine, there’s no reason to agree for the sake of agreeing and everyone plays the game the way they want. Some of the angry readers have accused me of being a boring DM for taking the mundane into consideration when playing D&D. And while they might be right about me being boring (I hope not, but I’m not the right person to say) I’d like to write just a few words about why I think the mundane has an important place in my campaign:

The tension between the mundane and the fantastic

A lot of people roll their eyes over mundane things like encumbrance mechanics in D&D. To me such things are important to set the right tone in the game. It’s not about “high” or “low” fantasy. It’s about tension between the mundane and the fantastic.

To me fantastic genres like fantasy, horror and sci-fi is at it’s most captivating when the mundane encounters the fantastic. It is the contrast between those two realms that creates tension and awe.

If your character is a flying half-demon that shoots laser from his arse then few things in a fantasy world will feel very fantastic. Finding a magical item will be convinient, but never awe-inspiring because magic is an everyday commodity.

This is why I prefer human characters and why I think it’s good to count torches and track encumbrance. Because when the characters are rooted in the mundane, encountering something that isn’t is a truly magical experience.

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Dungeon design tips: the balance between flair and function

Sometimes when I post my dungeon maps online I get angry comments pointing out design elements that “doesn’t make sense” because they don’t serve a practical purpose. Such elements can be anything from a simple alcove to a corridor dead-end or more fantastic features such as a bottomless pit or a unpractical trap. The people protesting these elements claim things should be constructed with a clear, practical purpose or it doesn’t make sense and breaks the immersion of the game.

But does everything in a dungeon need to serve a practical purpose? No, it certainly does not.

What is a dungeon?

I will be discussing “dungeons” in a fantasy context like Dungeons & Dragons or sword & sorcery litterature. In this context the dungeon concept is not limited to the prison-pits of medieval and renaissance Europe (although a prison could certainly have non-practical features).

In this broader definition a dungeon can be any type of confined space where the adventure takes place, such as:

  • the underground temple of an evil cult,
  • the cursed mansion of a deranged noble
  • a necromancers dark tower
  • the ruins of an ancient dwarven city
  • the cave-settlement of an orc tribe
  • an old crypt containing the remains of a great general
  • etc.

Why do we build?

Humans have always created things with little or no practical purpose. We do it because we are visual, creative and curious creatures. While we are amazing at creating practical things like the wheel and the nuclear power plant we are also driven by aesthetics and curiosity. This heavily influences the way we craft things. We construct a fully functional fighter plane, but still feel the need to paint shark teeth nose art even though it doesn’t affect the functionality of the plane.

Sometimes we build things just to see if we can. We do it it to prove our exceptional skill and to instill awe. The Statue of Liberty was useless as a lighthouse, but a wonder of engineering and still one of the most famous and beloved landmarks on the planet. Does it serve a practical purpose? Not really. Does it make sense? Yes, to a human it does.

This is not something new. There are cave paintings more than 40 000 years old that likely served no other purpose than decoration or religious expression. Medieval castles were certainly built with a practical purpose in mind, but they are still fitted with decorative and extravagant features – things of beauty and pride. Quite often humans do things just to show off.

The folly of architecture

There’s even a word for this: folly. A folly is a structure, often eccentric in nature, that serves no other purpose than decoration. Like a Roman ruin built in 18th century England or a “Chinese” pavilion in a Swedish palace park. It’s basically a very expensive conversation piece. Another example is the classic garden maze.

And sometimes we fail. Sometimes we build things in a certain way just because we didn’t know better. Not all architects are good at what they do. History is filled with examples of unsuccesful construction. It’s easy to say in hindsight that such a construction element “makes no sense” – but it did to the ones that built it.

In short: while we build things to serve practical purposes we also build for the sake of beauty, curisosity, awe, narcissism, vanity, superstition, faith, love, hate and … folly.

The sense-making dungeon?

Considering the above not everything in a dungeon needs to “make sense”. While there need to be some balance – everything should probably not be silly – adding decoration or eccentric design features makes the dungeon more interesting to explore. It makes for a better game.

An insane (but powerful) necromancer has his minions create a dark underground palace. Would it really be so far-fetched that his megalomaniacal ego would shape the construction of such a site? Does it not make sense that he will create traps that are overly sadistical in nature even if the typical nature of a trap is to deal out instant death? What would his idea of “beauty” be? Probably different than most.

A rich and decadent nobleman builds a castle. Would it not be possible that he’d spend his gold on a folly labyrinth just to show off for his guests? And with all gold spent on the folly, the construction of the rest of the castle took an abrupt end leaving several corridors in dead ends.

When an obscure cult build their temple, their leader gets a vision telling him the ceilings of the inner sanctum may not be taller than five feet. Ridiculous, of course, but people in the real world have come up with stranger religious dogma than that.

Designing your dungeon

When you design your dungeon, keep this in mind:

  • not everything needs to be practical
  • not everything needs to “make sense”

You don’t have to be able to explain everything in a dungeon. People will sometimes build for shits and giggles. If you come up with something cool that you can’t explain – leave it in. There’s a good chance the imaginary dungeon builder did it just for the hell of it. Maybe she had a good reason which is now lost. Who knows? The best dungeon is the one with a mix of practical, predictable elements and elements of art and mystery.