One of the biggest problems that prevent more people from getting into tabletop RPGs is the perceived difficulty of these games. That’s not all wrong either. Plenty of hardcore tabletop RPG are rules-heavy and complex to play. For veteran players, this is often a fact they relish. It’s in the complexities of the game where the fun lies, after all. It’s easy to forget, however, the daunting learning curve new players face. Just like learning to drive a car, the start of your learning journey is overwhelming.
The good news is that modern potential tabletop RPG fans don’t have to struggle through the same teething troubles early RPG pioneers did. Tabletop RPG systems are much more refined and have been shaped by decades of development. There’s also a healthy selection of tabletop RPGs that dial the complexity down and allow newcomers and casual players to enjoy the essence of what makes tabletop gaming great. These games are great examples of how to make engaging RPG games without drowning players in a million rules and systems.
Dungeon World was first released as a digital file in 2012. The game started life as a Kickstarter, with promises of old-school dungeon fun but with more modern and streamlined rules. The game uses the Apocalypse engine, which was originally designed for a game called Apocalypse World. Although you can purchase a print copy of the game, the entire text is available under a Creative Commons license.
As the name suggests, the setting of the game is fantasy in the vein of D&D. It is, however, its own thing, harking back to classic dungeon crawling games. It takes a very different approach to tabletop dungeon adventures than traditional D&D-like games. The rules are very simple and are more about reacting to in-game events than the rigid application of game mechanics.
They’ve also revamped the way being a game master works, and games are fast to prep. Dungeon World has also been designed so you can never run into a dead end. Something will happen to your adventurers that drives the narrative forward.
You don’t have to take my word for it however. Just head on over to the Dungeon World home page and download the documents you need yourself.
Launched in 2009, Fiasco is published by Bully Pulpit and has earned a reputation as an excellent tabletop RPG perfect for newcomers. The main selling point of Fiasco is that the game does not require a game master. In fact, it needs no preparation of any kind – just 3-5 people looking to have a little fun. Oh, and some dice are handy as well.
The setting of the game is basically the crime caper gone wrong. The creative aspects of crafting the story does not fall to any one player. Instead, everyone contributes to the chaos. The game uses a series of die rolls to choose the various elements that go with one of the broad settings you can choose from at the outset. The game then goes through a number of acts that follow the formula for those crime caper stories.
This game has received high praise in many publications. More importantly, players say this is one of the funniest and most fun games to play with a group of friends. So really, the only reason not to try Fiasco is if you don’t actually have friends.
The first thing that caught my eye when it comes to this RPG is the artwork. It’s a bunch of sentient animals forming a medieval society. Little rodents wielding swords and shields. Who can hate such an original setting?
The game is based on a comic book and graphic novel series. They are well worth reading by themselves, and that will help you get into the lore of the game. It also means that there is rich lore to base a game on. The RPG book is beautifully illustrated and something worth owning just for its own sake. You can download printable copies of the character and GM sheets from the Mouse Guard website, which means you don’t need to worry about running out.
Mouse Guard has been built using the well-loved Burning Wheel RPG system. It uses a dice pool system that relies on D6 dice and a deep character history record. This game is great for beginners since it does not use the full-fat Burning Wheel System. It’s simplified, so even complete newbies can start turning their baby mouse characters into heroic members of the Mouse Guard rangers.
High-fantasy and grimdark fantasy often have a way of taking themselves far too seriously. Goblin Quest is the very opposite of that trend. It’s a slapstick; violent and awfully funny. Goblins are, of course, the favorite butt of jokes in most RPGs – low-level creatures meant to act as fodder before the actual enemies show up. Goblin quest gives the little blighters center stage, but doesn’t make them any more competent. Quite the opposite in fact.
There are five goblins who each take a turn at trying to accomplish a simple task. The most likely outcome is a violent and entertaining end for the goblin in question. This is another party game that’s also an RPG-lite experience. You’ll be laughing so hard that you won’t even notice everyone learning the basics of tabletop RPG gaming.
Star Wars: Edge of the Empire
Call of Cthulhu is a tabletop RPG I’ve played a few times with friends, and I have to say that it is one of the weirdest experiences I have ever had. That makes perfect sense, given that this is a horror-themed game based on H.P. Lovecraft’s universe of utter despair and doom. The game is currently on its 7th Edition and has a long history. In it, each player is an investigator looking into occult, supernatural, and otherwise weird and creepy events.
The big difference between this game and something like D&D is that your characters are anything but heroic. They are just regular old fleshy meatbag humans who are meddling in things far beyond their ken – which is basically every Lovecraft novel ever. So you aren’t really trying to defeat these eldritch monsters, but simply seeing who can live the longest or go insane last.
The rules are pretty straightforward and, in general, it’s more about atmosphere than things like battle grids. There are many versions of the game out, and there’s even a D20 variant by Wizards. Sticking to the main latest edition or Cthulhu Classic is your best bet, though, as a beginner.
Pathfinder Beginner Box
Pathfinder is an incredibly popular alternative to D&D, but it suffers from the same general complexity issues when it comes to new players. This beginner box includes a simplified version of the rules from the full game. It also includes all the physical equipment you need to play.
There’s a slim rulebook and a campaign volume that will get you into the game quickly. If you decide not to go that route, at least you got to play a decent RPG campaign with some friends. If you do make the jump, they’ve made it easy to transition. There’s actually a transition guide included for converting your beginner box characters so they’re compatible with the main game. It’s also a perfect gift for someone you want to get into the game so that they can play with you.
D&D Starter Set
The folks at Wizards of the Coast are well aware that D&D isn’t the most accessible game for newcomers, which is why they specifically created this Starter Set for the 5th Edition of the game. While this is still 5th Edition D&D, you get lists of pre-generated characters, all the dice you need, simple instructions, premade settings and more. If you always wanted to try D&D without all the overhead, the starter set is for you. It’s a low asking price to essentially try out the basics of D&D, and should you decide to take on the full game almost nothing included in this kit is going to waste.
You get a 32-page starter rulebook that includes the most essential things you need to know. It’s much less daunting than the multiple volumes you need for D&D in general; it also has a 64-page campaign book where all the heavy lifting in terms of narrative has already been taken care of. D&D has desperately needed something like this, and starting here is really a great idea.
Castles and Crusades
With a name that riffs of the “Dungeons & Dragons” styling, Castles and Crusades clearly has something to say. Well, actually, the name comes from D&D lore. Before there was D&D, creator Gary Gygax founded the Castle and Crusade Society, so the name is really a homage to that.
The game was launched in 2004 and is based on the D20 system, which, if you don’t know, is the D&D, Wizards of the Coast system that has been incredibly influential. That’s not to say that Castles and Crusades is a D20 game. Troll Lord Games has stripped D20 down aggressively to create a much-simplified game.
While the core of the game, such as classes and alignments, are kept, the minutia have been dropped overall. Skills and feats are gone. Instead, there’s a solution known as the “siege engine”. It works by checking character attributes against the various challenges they come across. The siege engine works for everything but combat. It’s a brilliant idea, given that the most fun we have in these RPGs comes from seeing what creative things we can get our characters to do. While there are a number of settings provided for you, the system isn’t tied to any particular setting. This provides unlimited flexibility in that regard; it’s a brilliant alternative to full-fat D20 games.
Tabletop RPG Outcome
In the end, the most important thing a tabletop RPG must achieve is letting a group of people (or a solo player, in some cases) sit down and craft a dynamic story where they can live as someone else for a few hours. While it’s easy to get sucked up in the details of the game mechanics, new players need to experience that feeling of playing your character instead of being scared off by pedantic rules.
I think the games on this list provide a decent variety of choice for new players or those looking to hook someone into their hobby. The more people who come to love this game style, the better the chance it will survive and grow. Hardcore players are good at keeping the lights on, but growth is just as important. So even if you don’t want to play one of these yourself, why not gift a copy to someone else?