Updated: Jun 21, 2022
Today’s topic comes from question I've gotten all the time over the past decade: “Do you believe there’s a ‘best system for beginners’ out there? If so, which system?”
Short answer: Yes! Long answer: Sort of.
See, the tricky thing about role-playing is that it’s entirely subjective. What works for one player, or even one gaming group, may not work for another. And that’s especially true when talking about specific games and systems. While I love Dungeons and Dragons, and really enjoy other games like Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, I can also appreciate that they won’t appeal to everyone’s sensibilities – some might find them too crunchy (especially EotE), others might not like the “generic” fantasy role-playing of D&D, etc. So, finding a game for a group to agree on can be hard enough, even in a group of seasoned players.
Fortunately, there are two pieces of good news, which make this process considerably easier.
First, and probably most important, is the fact that players are adaptable. For the most part, if you put a game system in front of a player, they can get their heads around it, especially if you work with them to help understand it. Don’t get me wrong – dropping a book in front of someone and saying, “Just read chapters 1 – 4, regarding character creation, and then you’ll be ready to play” is generally not the most effective way to get someone to understand a game. And I say that as someone who has done that, and done it more than once.
But I also ran a D&D podcast where we brought in players who hadn't necessarily played the game, and I've run several gaming groups where at least half the people at the table have never played D&D prior to our game, so it can definitely be done. The trick is presenting the game in a simple way, where they can easily comprehend what’s in front of them.
For example, when I recruited players for our podcast, I would usually design several pregenerated characters for a guest to choose from. Then I’d usually send an email with a few brief descriptions, which usually look like this:
Barbarian (2 versions) - Barbarians are basically like the Hulk or Wolverine unleashed - they're fighters who lose themselves in battle and just go ballistic on their enemy, unloading powerful blows. I guess "Conan the Barbarian" is probably the best example.
Barbarian, Dwarf Outlander - Just like in Lord of the Rings, dwarves are stocky and hardy. They're very proud, passionate people, and usually have epic beards. Being an outlander means that your character grew up in the wild, and wandered the untamed earth. Maybe you were a nomad, an explorer, or even a marauder, but one thing is for sure - you are most at home in the wilderness.
Barbarian, Stout Halfling Pirate - Halflings are basically hobbits, but their feet aren't as hairy and they're not QUITE as fat. They're light on their feet, and for the most part, kind and curious. But yeah, this is a tiny little halfling who goes ballistic with murderous rage in battle because he's a pirate.
And so on. The trick is not to overwhelm them with the mechanics of how the character works – just to offer them the broad strokes of what makes the character unique. And I don’t offer it in a vacuum – I include pictures, links, and references to movies, to help them get their head around what it is we’re describing.
And most RPGs understand their own high barrier to entry, which is why D&D, Pathfinder, Numenera and other games all offer “Starter Sets / Beginners Boxes,” to offer a simplified introduction to the game for any interested parties. The pre-written character sheets I provide to new players are inspired by the sheets included in the Starter Set, even going so far as including a guide to leveling up the character.
But, despite the fact that the new edition is incredibly streamlined, it’s still true that Dungeons and Dragons can be a daunting game, as can many of its contemporaries. For some, that’s not a problem – some new players prefer having a set of rules already in place, as it offers some structure. However, it’s not necessarily going to be the best system for everyone… especially if the new players have never even played a role-playing game, and don’t know what to expect.
Fortunately, that brings us to our second piece of good news: There are a LOT of great games out there, and they’re designed for exactly this reason.
Thanks to the rise in self-publishing online, and to crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter, the role-playing game community is entering an unprecedented renaissance. Gone are the days where every new game was just another complex, numbers-porn version of D&D with the serial numbers files off. These days, there are a ton of newer, more rules-light systems out there, specifically designed to appeal to new players.
This is by no means a comprehensive list - these are just games I'm familiar with, and that I would recommend as good starting points, depending on what you're looking for:
If you still want that D&D experience, but without as many numbers, one popular choice is Dungeon World. A hack of Apocalypse World, Dungeon World has a simple dice system, very easy character creation, and most importantly, an emphasis on story and character. The game is so successful in making a story-first version of a fantasy RPG, that the new edition of D&D was actually inspired to include some similar elements, in the form of their “Bonds,” “Flaws,” and “Ideals.” Not only did D&D add these traits to character creation, they moved them to the very top of the first page of the character sheet, because they’ve realized what the creators of Dungeon World had proved – encouraging players to build and role-play a strong character is the best way to hook them into the game.
The second game is Fiasco, which is quite literally a “story game” – yet, oddly, is also one of the few competitive RPGs. Inspired by films like those of the Coen Brothers, Fiasco has players build characters designed with poor impulse control. Then, you literally just improvise scenes with other characters, all with goals in mind, trying to screw each other over to get what you want. Halfway through the game, there’s a “turn,” as an event happens that changes everything, and the players react to it – and when the dust settles, the winners tend to come out smelling like roses, and the losers may wind up in prison or dying violent deaths.
Even though the game is competitive, in that some players “win” and others “lose,” it still feels just as collaborative as any other game. The primary goal of the game is simply to tell a good story, and that means some characters might get their legs broken by a loan shark, or die in a car crash because they cut the brakes to another car – poetic justice is a big part of the end of that game, at least the way I’ve played it.
The third, and maybe one of the most fascinating, is Dread.
Dread is a horror game, but instead of using dice or cards like most games, it uses a Jenga tower. Anytime a player wants to attempt to do something, they have to pull a brick from the tower. If you successfully pull a brick (and place it on top, just like in Jenga regular), you achieve whatever it was you were trying to do. If the tower falls, your character dies. (You can also knock the tower over deliberately, in order to succeed at your task but ALSO die – giving you the chance to sacrifice yourself heroically). And that’s basically everything you need to know in order to play the game.
The brilliant thing about Dread is that it solves the biggest challenge of any horror game: building tension. No matter what mood you’re trying to set, it can always be defused or derailed by the joking atmosphere of most RPG groups. But with Dread, you can make as many jokes as you want… they won’t make that tower go away. That ever-more-precarious tower is still literally looming over the table like the specter of death, and as much as you can try to laugh your way out of your situation, you’ll still have to pull a brick.
You’ve probably noticed that all three of these are story-based games, and there’s a reason for that – in my experience, the story seems to be the best way to get people into role-playing games. Sure, some people tend to prefer more complex games in general, and will likely gravitate towards crunchier games. These are probably the same players who also tend to enjoy more elaborate board games, such as Elder Sign. But when you’re trying to introduce someone to the hobby as a beginner, they’re generally expecting something more like a “game” – something with rules and tokens and a board. So, when you take all of that away, it can be very daunting to a new player… so putting them into a story game, where they can fall back on their knowledge of archetypes and tropes, can be a very effective approach.
Before you introduce a player to role-playing games, talk to them and figure out what it is they’re expecting. Do they want to be bold adventurers (Dungeons and Dragons), or tell a fun story with some high stakes (Fiasco, Dread)? Do they want something silly they can pick up and play (Everyone is John, In SPAAAAACE!), or something with a bit more detail? Then do your best to tailor the experience to that – if someone wants something simple, but your heart is set on playing the Warhammer 40K role-playing game, you may want to adjust your expectations.
However, you can still have your cake and eat it, too – just do your best to make the game as accessible as possible. And the trick to that is to take the onus of the rules off of the new players. In one of my recent one-shot games, I brought in several new players, and gave them all pre-written characters. When the game became a continuous story, some players were happy to keep the characters I provided, but others were interested in putting together their own characters.
I could have had them all roll up characters from the beginning, but when you invite people to a “game night,” they just want to be able to show up, learn the rules, and start playing. But once my players got a taste, they wanted to try designing their own personalized characters, and I was happy to help them out.
The truth is, there’s no magic bullet game. D&D is more accessible than it’s ever been, and a great option for some, but not every player/group is going to love medieval fantasy. So, ask your players the most important question: what do they hope to get out of the experience?
And then play Dread and let me know how it goes. I really want to play that game.