31 May 2023

Tales of the Variants

As I noted back in February, following the great “OGL Crisis” of Janurary 2023, a couple of companies that produce materials for 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons decided to produce their own versions of the game in order to avoid being subject to any future deleterious decisions by the Wizards of the Coast (even after WotC backed down on scrapping the old OGL).


One of those companies, Kobold Press, recently announced a kickstarter for its 5e variant, Tales of the Valiant. If you’re curious about it, there is a free preview PDF that you can download from the kickstarter page (available even if you don’t want to be a backer).


The name is terrible in my opinion (I think I preferred its previous name, “Project Black Flag”), but the company is solid. I'm mixed on what I’ve seen of the system so far. (I mean, it’s 5e with tweaks, but I'd rather have something more stripped down.) Nonetheless, I’m more likely to use it as a resource in the future than the revised 2024 version ("5.5e") of D&D that WotC is currently working on. 


Cubicle 7 is also coming out with its version of 5e later this year. C7 did very good work on Adventures in Middle-earth – indeed, in terms of the rules, I liked running it a lot more than standard 5e. And I’m going through C7’s Uncharted Journeys book now (which adapts the AiME travel rules to standard 5e fantasy). It also is very good, and I’m thinking of using it in future games. So I’ll be interested in checking out “C7d20” whenever it’s released.


(Regarding AiME: as mentioned last year, the game is now the Lord of the Rings 5e. The system has been revised and is now published by the Free League, just as the Free League also has taken over publishing The One Ring 2nd edition. I just got my "physical" version of the LotR 5e core book, and it looks excellent. AiME/LotR shows how 5e can be used to create something better than the original WotC 5e game. But I digress…) 

For 5e D&D, I remain very happy with my version of it: Into the Unknown with some houserules. However, I do sometimes wish that ItU had similar production values to TotV and the like. But, well, it's only an “indie” game. The kids these days sadly prefer fantasy super-heroes to gritty old-school dungeon delving.


  1. After a lifetime of simulationist wankery, I'm finally drinking the rules-lite KoolAid. I realized I prefer a game that *moves*. All these 5th ed. replacements look like too much work for practical use. If I'm going to run anything remotely crunchy, it will be Mythras, for its internal consistency. For a more streamlined, fast-play, D20-compatible experience, though, I'm going with Shadowdark (although Knave 2 also looks pretty nifty.)

    1. You and me both. All these companies re-inventing a wheel they didn't own in the first place doesn't just leave me cold, it repulses me. If they don't like WotC then do your own original rules set from scratch and dump weird dated stuff that's a heritage of game design dating back to the 1970s. These file-the-numbers off not-5e systems aren't going to hurt WotC sales one bit.

    2. As a player (vs GM) I play Mythras more than any other system, so I certainly agree with you (JD) about its virtues. Shadowdark looks interesting (I supported the KS) but while it's a "D20" game (broadly construed) I wouldn't describe it as "compatible" with most D20 systems (namely, 3e and 5e D&D, and related systems). It's power level is comparable to B/X D&D, so it should be relatively straight forward to use B/X and associated "clone" materials (OSE, LL) with it, but even AD&D stuff would require modifications, let alone 5e.

    3. Dick McGee: I think that you may misunderstand the motivation behind TotV, C7d20, and the like. They're not trying to reinvent the wheel. They're taking the wheel that exists, tweaking it a bit, and bringing it into their own shop. Their primary interest is to keep 5e "alive" and to keep publishing material for it. I do have some sympathy for what they're trying to do, since they relied on the OGL to build their businesses, on the understanding that WotC could not unilaterally eliminate it. So following WotC's nasty attempt to do so a few months ago (thankfully abandoned) it makes sense for them to maintain the viability of their businesses by providing their own version of the rules that they can employ in the future without worry. But I expect that Kobold, C7, and the like still expect that their real $$$ will come from people who play "official" D&D but want to use their products. Nonetheless, the TotV kickstarter is on its way to likely exceed $1 million, so there may be some significant support for non-WotC versions of 5e.

    4. I should mention that, personally, I am much more interested in games that *modify* 5e in interesting ways. Adventures in Middle-earth (now Lord of the Rings 5e) does this. I ran a campaign using AiME that was great fun and didn't "feel" like 5e at all (removing all the spells and magic items will do that).

      Likewise, I quite like Into the Unknown, as it keeps most of the things that I enjoy about 5e while dispensing with a lot of the unnecessary "fiddly" bits (in addition to making the game a bit "grittier" and "old school" in tone).

      One advantage of using 5e as a base for these variants (aside from making them easy to learn for people already familiar for 5e) concerns compatibility: it's easy to plug in stuff from 5e into either system.

      The same can be said of OSR games like Crypts and Things. It's easy to use S&W material -- and TSR era A/D&D stuff -- with C&T, given the underlying mechanical similarities.

  2. Agreed, terrible name. Black Flag was much better! Even as a resource, at this point... why? If you need alternatives to bounce ideas and concepts around, go with free house-rules, like Crimson Dragon Slayer D20. ;)

    1. Regarding: "Even as a resource, at this point... why?"
      Good point. Why indeed.


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).