An Introduction to Roleplaying Games

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[Note: A friend who has heard me lament the popularity of D&D and the relative obscurity of other, “better” games asked the question: “So: my group is thinking about starting to play a roleplaying game. What should we play?” These answers are a bit tailored to her, and mostly tailored to the starting player.]

I am curious what the rest of my RPG-steeped friends think of these as introductions.

Hey, so I’ve been thinking about your “what are those better games you like to talk about?” question, and I wanted to expand on my answer. I still think (TL;DR) “just start with D&D” was fundamentally a fine answer, but I also wanted to give you some context to make a more informed decision.

(It appears I went a little crazy writing this. Your question gave me an excuse to write down thoughts that have been rolling around in my head for a while. I will likely post it (edited) online for others to tell me where I got it all wrong.)

It looks like you’ve jumped the first hurdle, you have found a group of people you like who also want to play.

Out of curiosity, do you have an experienced game-master? (GM, D&D call them a Dungeon Master, DM) It is certainly not required, but if not, then it is even more important (if only at the beginning) that you choose a game with a rich back-catalog of adventures & campaigns. The neophyte GM will have enough to learn and worry about without adding world-building to the mix. (Though some folks take to world-building like fish to water, I still think it’s important to set the whole early experience up for success for everyone.)

Even if your [DG]M has experience, but has not done so in decades, it probably makes sense to keep things simple at first and start with an off-the-shelf adventure. (but, of course, YMMV).

Playing RPGs require a commitment, in materials, in learning, in time. But this does not have to be the only game you ever play. No matter what you start with, you’ll learn mechanics and ideas that will carry-over to other games if you ever decided to try something else, and you’ll hopefully learn which parts of the game appeal to you and which ones don’t.

Which brings up another point about RPGs: they appeal to people for different reasons. Some folks want to solve puzzles; or tell a good, entertaining story; or embody a character very different than themselves. Others love the tactical and strategic planning of combat, or more generally to play around in an internally consistent world simulation. There are also folks who just want to bash heads as a way to blow off the stresses of life. And then there’s the friend who always just wants to play a ninja, regardless of the setting. :)

Obviously different players will embody those archetypes in different amounts over time. And the best games will have something for each of them, but in differing quantities. Of course, some players are very particular about their preferred ingredients, and may not enjoy a game that doesn’t conform to their notions. (Even if they are unable to articulate why.)

So with all that out of the way, what are some of the things you could play?

[Fair warning: Some of the games I suggest below I have not played since you were in swaddling clothes, the information given may be woefully out of date]

Dungeons & Dragons

There is a reason that the granddaddy of them all is not just still around, but is far and away the best known RPG of all time. It has grown from its antecedents in tactical war-gaming, and beyond its origin as “LotR with the serial numbers filed off.”

It has something for everyone in a good proportion. If it did not, it would never have survived this long.

Some might quibble on the fact that it seems to favor combat over role playing, but that is not an insurmountable hurdle.

Moreover, in the latest (5th) edition, they have done a lot to streamline some of the more Rococo excesses of the 2nd-4th editions. I have come around to it as a decent system by which to introduce new players to the joy of roleplaying. That is the main reason I suggested you start there. It’s kinda the Coca-Cola of RPGs.

… Umm … ?

So, given that, why did I rail against it so much (and, though you did not know this, for so long)? I think there are a few reasons:

First and foremost, the progression of the game is one gigantic power fantasy. Characters may start out puny (and more recent editions have (IMNSHO, correctly) shortened that curve, too). But every. single. thing. they do after that makes them stronger and more powerful. That one-way trip to godhood was appealing as a wimpy, largely powerless 13 year old. But that power progression on rails gets tiresome. I wanted more variation in dramatic progression. But as a first game, nobody’s been in that Skinner Box on rails over and over yet. For players learning rules, there is some comfort in knowing that while there may be danger to overcome, they don’t need to worry about making a bad decision in their character advancement.

Next, the concept of “leveling up” had another flaw in my mind. Even allowing for learning curves having natural cycles of plateaus and rapid development, the *poof* you suddenly have a whole bunch more abilities began rubbing me the wrong way.

Finally a bit of geek heresy. Beyond the magical trappings, the high fantasy setting doesn’t seem to appeal to me as much as it does to others. [GASP] When I swore off D&D I focused on the above and was highly critical of the iconic characters dealing as much damage when they were an inch from death as they did fresh and ready for battle. But that is high fantasy. I had also grown weary of the Murder-Hobo flavor to most D&D campaigns. (Whomp monsters, get gold, lather, rinse, repeat).

In short, I was one of those aforementioned players who knew what he didn’t like, but had a hard time articulating it. I misconstrued my own tastes for flaws in the system. It’s taken the intervening decades of maturing and occasional rumination to piece together everything I said above.

A Special Word About Pathfinder

Note: you might want to skip to the next, actual recommendation and ignore this part of the ranting (or come back later).

Pathfinder started as a modified (and many people feel improved) version of D&D 3.5. First, some positive notes about Pathfinder: It has a thriving community behind it, and Paizo (the publisher) has embraced the digital revolution: If I understand that correctly, it means all of the rules and supplements are available in searchable, cross-indexed form and/or tablet apps. If true, that’s a really, REALLY nice feature!

However, it is still, at its core, D&D 3.5:

AD&D 2nd Edition was, at least in some part, a reaction to the point-build, skill-based systems that took the RPG design world by storm in the late ’80s-’90s. It had plenty of other Second-System Effect oddities, as well. I distinctly remember flipping through some of the books and saying “Meh. Too little, too late.”

3rd Edition simplified some of the mechanics of 2nd Edition, removed some arbitrary limits and restrictions, and took the character specialization to new heights. Now most questions are resolved by rolling a d20 and adding your bonus. Sounds simple, right? How many bonuses would you like to add? You have a plethora from which to choose: flanking, unarmed, 2-handed, multi-strike, zippity-do-dah.

It is hard for me to talk about the effect that had without resorting to terms like munchkin, or the less pejorative, but still dismissive power-gamer. The freedom to tweak every aspect of a character, and multi-class to wipe out all the hindrances inherent in your class(es) can bring out these tendencies in just about anyone. Looking for the perfect storm of abilities that stack in ways that rain righteous, fiery death upon ones enemies, while making yourself impossible to be touched and to hell with the story, or even anyone else’s fun.

But, look, just as it is possible to write bad code in any language, a system appealing to the munchkin/min-maxer/power-gamer set does not mean that every game played with it is fraught with nothing but that style of play.

I am certain there are large swaths of people that would take umbrage at much of what I have to say about “f20”[*] gaming. But that’s just my take.

Call of Cthulhu

CoC sits at the other end of many of the spectra from D&D (though not all of them, it is still a product of the early ’80s in RPG design)

Set in the malevolent world of H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos against the backdrop of the real, roaring 1920’s. This is the granddaddy of all horror RPGs. Rather than building an iconic, heroic character on their way to being masters of the universe, you play occult investigators fighting a pitched battle against horrors from the beyond on their way to the grave or the asylum. The deck IS stacked against you. In fact, the more your character knows about what is really going on the lower the cap on their Sanity (a core character statistic) becomes.

This is not a game for murder-hobos. This is a game of slowly piecing together a series of clues and trying to keep the world safe and your sanity intact (probably in that order).

Another difference between Call of Cthulhu and your typical high fantasy game is that a frontal-assault on enemies will almost certainly backfire because: a) your Professor of History and Mythology character has likely never handled a gun in his life, and is much more likely to shoot his friends than any of his enemies; b) discharging a firearm within city limits is a great way to bring in the authorities in a hurry and with them come inconvenient and uncomfortable questions about what, exactly, it is you think you are doing, and where did all that blood come from? c) most of the horrors you are trying to keep from being unleashed on the unsuspecting world are not affected by corporeal weapons anyway. Happy shooting!

Why would anyone want to play a game where failure is the likely outcome? I think it appeals to the same part of us that became programmers. But yes, horror roleplaying is not everyone’s cup of tea, and you definitely need buy in from all of the players before starting this type of game.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that while the game itself is relatively safe, Lovecraft himself had some - unfortunate - politics and even much more unfortunate rabid xenophobia and virulent racism. It could be (and probably has been) argued that some of his horrors were metaphorical, but you can read his fiction without being aware of those elements (Or I could as a sheltered New England teenager, not far from his Providence home.) However, even if it is all in the public-domain now, some folks may be squeamish about playing in his worlds for reasons other than those indented.

Trail of Cthulhu

If investigative instead of monster-whomping gaming sounds appealing to you, but you are less sure of the cosmic horror, I would suggest Trail of Cthulhu. The system allows you to pick a more pulpy style of game instead of the purist horror genre. Full disclosure: I have not actually played Trail, but I have a great respect for designers Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws (more on him in a bit)

In fact, I might recommend ToC over CoC even for traditional horror gaming. I have been listening to their podcast, and their discussions of Robin’s design of the Gumshoe system makes me think it’s an ideal system for this type of game. I also recently discovered the “Dreamhounds of Paris” supplement where you play surrealists (including Dalí, Man Ray, et al.) roaming Paris and HPL’s Dreamlands trying to save the world while also trying to remake it. It’s like they wrote the material for ME! (Ask me why my laptop is named Celephaïs.)

Delta Green

Delta Green is a more modern (1990s last I saw, but presumably updated) setting for CoC. The premise is that after the government raid of Innsmouth (from HPL’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth), the US Government realized the mythos was a big problem, and formed Delta Green to combat it. Your PCs play DG agents working in other departments (FBI, CIA, CDC, ATF, TLA) who are trying to keep a lid on the problem and not let the rest of the country know what is going on.

Think X-Files-esque (though I am fairly certain DG was published before it aired). One advantage of DG is that it answer the question of “why would this mismatched collection of strangers talk to each other, never mind help one another?” Another advantage is that it is probably easier to draw some folks into a DG rather than a standard CoC game because they get to play secret agents.


Oh, hey, I just realized that it might appeal to you as someone who enjoys NetRunner! (He says, moving it up the list.)

This game combines cyberpunk, urban fantasy, and conspiracy.

The setting starts out as a typical cyberpunk landscape: Mega-corps use their near-infinite power (including private armies, corporate policies more powerful than public law, etc.) to control most of the world and its population. Cyberware and bioware allow normal people to perform superhuman feats of all kinds. Most users of The Matrix jack-in via direct neural interface.

And into that dystopian world, magic returned. In the far-flung year of 2011 (Man, that makes me feel old!) Magic returned to the world, splintering the human race as many of them regained suppressed traits that came out as fantasy races. Dragons and other fantastic creatures also returned, and native ceremonies suddenly packed a wallop. Magic and ’ware can do things we once only dreamed.

Between the cracks of society the players are Shadowrunners: expendable sub-contractors who extract data, artifacts, and people from rival corps and governments.

Like the cyberpunk stories that inspired it, Shadowrun is dark and dystopian world, with high stakes and personal risk.

(I should note that earlier editions of Shadowrun had some - let’s just call them bugs - in some of the rules (combat, in particular had some break points), but I would be surprised if that were still the case.)

Savage Worlds

Savage Worlds is a generic system for pulpy adventures (think Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even Pirates of the Caribbean). I generally dislike generic systems, but Savage Worlds does not try to be all things to all people like GURPS[**] or even the abortive attempts to port all games to d20 a decade ago. [*shudder*]

Its mantra is “Fast, Furious, Fun!” and it strikes a nice balance of providing a framework to have fun and getting out of the way. The edges and hindrances give characters some depth, providing good hooks for role playing. And the exploding dice as well as the distinction between Wild Cards vs. random mooks really works well in a pulpy setting. I want to talk about two settings in particular:

50 Fathoms

This is a sword & sorcery setting with swashbucklers instead of knights. If you have any desire to play pirates, this is a good place to start.

The players can play pirates who, through a terrible storm, somehow found themselves in Caribdus, a world of islands left after 3 witches drowned the world with a curse. Or they can play one of the more fanciful races the visitors from our past meet along the way.

Necessary Evil

More geek heresy time: I never really got into comic books. I loved Sandman and Watchmen, as well as a handful of other graphic novels, but beyond those …

Given that, superhero games are even less appealing to me than high fantasy. ;). And yet this setting has a twist that I love: it’s your typical superhero world, or it was before the alien invasion came down and wiped out all the superheros. Now the only ones left to save the world are the supervillains.

That conceit makes the world interesting to me. I still am not itching to play it, but if everyone around me wanted a supers game, I might suggest it. (Or find other friends ;-`> ) However, if a comic book superhero game might appeal to you, this is my recommendation (though you should probably ask someone who actually likes them. ;)

Incidentally …

Savage Worlds is a streamlined and genericized version of Deadlands, a game by all rights I should absolutely hate: The Old West? [Bletch] A “cutesy” mechanic based on playing cards and poker hands? [Ugh] Where the Civil War never ended? [Check, please!]

And yet, my introduction to the game was through a group of friends who had played together for years, knew the system inside and out, and were a joy to play with. They made the poker-hand schtick seem clever and a nice nod to the setting, and the poker chip bennie system is, quite honestly, very clever. I also liked the depth the edges & hindrances gave characters, though it can be min/maxed a bit if you are not careful.

It just goes to show, with the right group, any game is fun!

Vampire: The Masquerade

Really, this is just a placeholder for any of the World of Darkness games.

More horror role-playing, yes. But when Vampire came on the scene it changed things dramatically. Its focus on storytelling (its underlying mechanics are called the Storyteller System) definitely appeal to the Method-Actor & Storyteller archetypes above. It generally doesn’t have enough “crunchy-bits” for the hardcore Tacticians in the group, but it can be a great way to introduce RPGs to everyone else.

Another game that is not for everyone, but if you find yourself surrounded by the type of folks who would enjoy it (and you would as well), it can be great fun!

Casting a Wider Net

I think those are my recommendations for a wide variety of places to start (or jump to after your first game). But I cannot leave well enough alone, here are some more, for your consideration.

Unknown Armies

Both the first and second editions of this game are completely out of print, but I love it too much not to recommend it. … And Greg Stolze has been hinting on Twitter that a 3rd edition is in well underway. [Cue the sound of me squealing like a schoolgirl, or gibbering like a madman in the tunnels under Fairfield Hills.]

UA is a game of “power and consequences” set in the modern day. It is gritty, twisted, and dark.

The Occult Underground. They don’t advertise, you cannot find them with Google, there is no map to their location. And yet, you know it exists. Or rather you know it must exist. You know because you have heard the rumors: a song that drives people to suicide, a man whose face melts with each dawn, a videotape of the birth of a goddess. And you have seen the signs. Once you started looking, they were everywhere. And now you know you must find it, before it finds you.

Players of this game are on the trail of the Occult Underground. Either they are on the cusp of discovering the true nature of the world, or they are well on their way to warping it to their own ends. Most of the characters in this game fall into two camps: adepts and avatars.

Adepts are chaos magicians whose obsessive world-view allows them to warp reality to fit that obsession. But that power comes at a cost, your obsession takes over your life, and brings with it taboos. Being an adept cannot be a part-time job, the obsession will eventually consume you. Cliomancers gain power from special places, plutomancers gain power from transactions, cryptomancers are obsessed with secrets.

Avatars channel a cosmic archetype: The Mother, The Fool, The Pilgrim, The Messenger. Unlike adepts, who force their view of the world into reality, avatars gain their power by passively tapping into the power of their archetype. Some do it consciously, but many do it unconsciously.

Where Call of Cthulhu has one sanity stat, UA has 5 madness meters: Self, Isolation, Helplessness, Violence, and Unnatural. Moreover, a character can become hardened as well as more susceptible to each type of madness. And they can do so at the same time, developing tics and obsessions that push them even further away from mundane society.

… And I could go on for ages about this game, and will if you let me.

Mouse Guard

Based on the wonderful comic strip of the same name. I’ve never played it, but I thought it might appeal to you for the obvious reasons.

Ars Magica

A collaborative game set in a version of the 12th & 13th centuries where all of the mystical and magical concepts of those times are literally true.

This game is most interesting because each participant plays multiple characters (“Troupe Style”), and the role of the GM is rotated around the players.


In Nobilis the players take on the roles of the personification of abstract concepts, anything they can imagine: night, time, pathways, water. In Nobilis our world, Prosaic Earth, is just a lie the world told itself to explain suffering and to keep mere mortals from descending into madness. Mythic Earth, by contrast is an animistic plane where everything is sentient, and is one of many of the worlds that hang in the boughs of Yggdrasil, the world tree.

One of the interesting things about Nobilis is that it doesn’t use dice or any other random elements for resolution, instead players spend Miracle Points to affect outcomes.

Feng Shui

Feng Shui is a game set in the worlds of Hong Kong action films. It tends to be combat-heavy, but the combat itself is a lot more cinematic and descriptive stunts rather than heavy crunchy-bits.

Character creation is based on choosing from template archetypes that embody the protagonists of those films.

Feng Shui is often credited as a progenitor of a new wave of simpler, descriptive RPGs, though Robin D. Laws demurs at that characterization, however he might just be being Canadian about it.

In Conclusion

There are a lot of games out there, I didn’t even really scratch the surface. I want to help you find a game you’ll love, because I think the most important part is that you have fun with the game.

But in reality, all of these games require one element in common: a good group of friends with which to play. The better the group, the less the game itself matters. (No matter what my adolescent self thought.)

(Have you figured out which gamer archetypes I gravitate toward based on these recommendations? :)

[*] Robin D. Laws’s name for the fantasy-d20 sub-genre of games. There are a lot of them, especially recently as the “old-school” movement taps into people’s nostalgia.

[**] I am fairly certain I will never play GURPS, but I am damned glad they continue making it. The setting books and supplemental materials are great things to mine for inspiration and flavor for other games!

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This page contains a single entry by Erik Ogan published on March 2, 2015 12:59 PM.

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