Monday, 20 November 2017

A Roleplayer's Guide to Roleplaying Games

 A few months back I wrote A Beginner's Guide to Boardgames, which was quite successful. So now I'm going to do the same thing for roleplaying games, because why the hell not? This article will differ because it's less-focused on more recent games and offers more of an overview of the entire field, and also that there is no differentiation between "beginner", "intermediate" and "advanced" games, although I note in each entry how approachable each game is. Generally the main difficulty with RPGs is getting into them in the first place and getting comfortable playing them; once that's achieved it's relatively straightforward to adapt to other games.

So, pen-and-paper roleplaying games. Since the mid-1970s, when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson released the original version of Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs have been a continuous source of enjoyment, bringing together friends and allowing them to bond over murdering dragons in the face. RPGs have diversified over the years, offering rules-heavy, combat-focused games and lightly-codified, narrative games where the emphasis is more on creating a collaborative story than in winning any particular objective or reward.

RPGs, like boardgames, went through a lean period in the late 1990s when video games (including, ironically, some games based on pen-and-paper RPGs) exploded in popularity. They also made a strong comeback in the 2000s thanks to the Internet and, more recently, the arrival of Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites as a way of funding more niche and specialised games.

Without further ado, let's take a look at some of the better RPGs for beginners that are around.

Dungeons and Dragons: The Classic
Well, we have to start here, don't we? The original roleplaying game, the longest-surviving and, for most of its lifespan, the most popular. You know the drill here, a group of players create characters from stock fantasy races (humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes being the basic choices) and stock fantasy careers (barbarian, bard, cleric, mage, monk, paladin, rogue, warrior) and engage in surprisingly diverse adventures, ranging from political thrillers to gruelling dungeon crawls to war epics and many more. It's straightforward, it's fun and it can be quite varied in tone and potential (which is more than can be said for some other, more tightly-focused RPGs). D&D remains probably the ultimate RPG because it's so familiar but can turn on a dime in a heartbeat and become something quite unpredictable and weird.

You do have a choice of which rule set to play with, as the five numbered editions to date (not to mention several variant half-editions) do each have their drawbacks and benefits, and I'll be covering that in a separate article. Fortunately, the current edition is one of the more welcoming, hitting a sweet spot of offering a lot of customisability and options whilst also not being extremely confusing and occasionally flat-out broken. The 5th Edition is well-supported by Wizards of the Coast with a lot of online support, but the relative paucity of published material is a bit surprising, and the lack of new world books updating settings like Forgotten RealmsDragonlance and Planescape to the new edition is disappointing. But compared to the insane bloat of previous editions, the new edition makes D&D a lot more welcoming than it has been for many years.

An alternative choice may be Pathfinder, which is derived from D&D 3rd Edition but eliminates many of its smaller problems (the larger ones remain, however) and backs it up with an immense amount of support and, more recently, an SF spin-off called Starfinder. It isn't as streamlined and elegant as D&D 5th Edition, but it has an utterly titanic amount of content, a friendly and welcoming community and support that is second to none.

Star Wars: The Ultimate Beginner's Game
Well, it's Star Wars, isn't it? You can play a bounty hunters or a Jedi, an Imperial stormtrooper or an ace Rebel pilot, an escaped Wookie slave or a Coruscanti noble. Games can be set at the height of the Clone Wars, the Galactic Civil War, during the ancient Jedi-Sith conflict or, crazily, maybe during a rare period of peace. Hate the movie Rogue One? Form your own crack team of agents and try to steal the Death Star plans your way.

There are three distinct versions of the Star Wars RPG: the original West End Games version, the two ill-advised Wizards of the Coast editions (derived from D&D 3rd and 4th Editions, and neither fit particularly well) and the current game from Fantasy Flight, which consists of three distinct rulebooks (Edge of the EmpireAge of Rebellion and Force and Destiny). I've never played the Fantasy Flight version and have heard mostly good things about the rules, but the complete experience does require purchasing three very expensive rulebooks and then buying custom dice, a huge no-no for most RPGs. Fantasy Flight do good work and I'll give them the benefit of the doubt on that one, but I'm not particularly moved to try the new version (especially after being burned badly on the WotC editions).

Instead, if you can get hold of a copy (and there's been a recent 30th anniversary reissue, which makes things easier) of the original West End Games version, go with that. You only need six-sided dice and the ruleset remains one of the most elegantly designed. It's streamlined, easily understandable but opens up into greater complexity later on. It's a game which will have you gunning down stormtroopers, flying X-wings and doing the Kessel Run, all in under twelve parsecs (put lots of skill points in Astrogation). Compared to many roleplaying games, which tend towards bloat and steep learning curves, the West End Star Wars is a thing of beauty. It's Star Wars! It's fun!

All versions of the game do suffer the "Jedi problem", namely that players portraying Jedi can end up dominating games and getting over-powered, but a canny Gamemaster can overcome that problem by balancing opponents appropriately. Overall, Star Wars has a tremendously well-developed setting and a lot of variety, and the West End Games version nails it very nicely.

Deadlands: The Weird West
The original "Weird West" roleplaying game and still one of the most satisfying roleplaying experiences around. The game is set in an alternative history of the 19th Century, when, at the point of the American Civil War, a Native American shaman inadvertently released Lovecraftian forces of horror into the world. The dead rise, hideous spirits possess the living and horrific monsters appear to threaten the United States and indeed the entire world. Players can take on the role of local townsfolk trying to defend themselves, secret agents belonging to paranormal investigation organisations (the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the Texas Rangers), escaped slaves seeking revenge against the Confederates or anything inbetween. A robust rule system which treats combat like a poker game remains inventive twenty years on (now streamlined with the new Savage Worlds rules system, derived from Deadlands 1st Edition) and there is scope to treat the game like an outright horror game or a zany steampunk adventure with zeppelins and crazed inventors.

This is basically a game for people who appreciate the Lovecraftian approach to cosmic horror, but hate the nihilism and prefer to belief they can defeat eldritch forces from beyond the dawn of time with gatling guns, gyrocopters and steam cannons.

Call of Cthulhu: Go Mad & Die
On the flipside of that approach is Call of Cthulhu, the official roleplaying game of Lovecraftian horror. In this game you create paranormal investigators and set out to investigate strange goings-on in various parts of the world. The emphasis is on investigation, research, cooperation and collaborative storytelling: victory doesn't come through killing the monsters with shotguns, but through surviving with your limbs and sanity intact.

Call of Cthulhu has been hugely popular for thirty years for offering a very different experience to the power fantasies of games like D&D. The characters in Call of Cthulhu are far more fragile and more likely to end up dead, maimed or insane if they try to fight horrific monsters head-on. Defeating the forces of darkness requires brains, wits, intelligence and knowing when to make a strategic withdrawal. To be fair this game is not for everyone - watching D&D-raised power-gamers trying to hack their way through the game and getting angry when they realise they can't can be an uncomfortable experience - but for those who enjoy the tension and the horror, it's a gripping experience.

World of Darkness: Be a Vampire, Drink Blood, Have Fun
This isn't a roleplaying game, but rather a family of interrelated games which share a common background and setting. The best-known of these is Vampire: The Masquerade, which allows you (spoiler alert) to play vampires, with additional rulebooks allowing you to play werewolves, mages, mummies, wraiths etc. Essentially this is a game which allows to play as the "bad guys", but also explores these cultures to reveal a great deal of nuance and complexity.

If you want to play an urban fantasy RPG, World of Darkness is the go-to choice, although there is some confusion due to the fact that there are two distinct versions of the setting and all of its sub-games. Paradox Interactive recently bought the entire setting and seem to be considering a revamp of the whole line, which would be welcome. But if you want to play a vampire and engage in vampire-based shenanigans in a very well-realised world, this is the ideal choice.

Numenera: Be Weird, Be Wonderful
Numenera is, essentially, Dying Earth: The Roleplaying Game (which actually exists as a small, intriguing game from Pelgrane Press). Set a billion years into the future when nine great ages of human civilisation have come and gone and aliens (from both other planets and other universes) have settled on Earth, the game features one of the most vivid and interesting settings to emerge in recent years. The game has magic, although it's really ultra-advanced science and technology, and offers an intriguing balance between traditional D&D-style roleplaying and something far weirder.

Originally launched through Kickstarter, the game is now expanding with a second edition (but don't call it a second edition) which seeks to give players more of an ability to change the world. It's an interesting, original game which takes Jack Vance's original Dying Earth setting and revamps it with a lot new ideas and atmosphere.

There's a lot more out there, of course. There's the Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying title from Green Ronin for those who want to fulfil their Game of Thrones fantasies. There's the newly-released Starfinder SF game from Paizo Publishing or its spiritual predecssor from the old TSR days, Alternity (complete with its StarCraft RPG spin-off). There's a whole family of Warhammer 40,000 RPGs from Fantasy Flight (which are sadly quickly going out of print). There's an intriguing RPG about godlike superheroes in a fantasy realm in Exalted. Deadlands has a post-apocalyptic, far-future sequel game called Hell on Earth. There's a generic universal roleplaying system called, er, GURPS, which can be used to play everything from cyberpunk to adventures on Terry Pratchett's Discworld (and was used by Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont to create the Malazan world). There's the Shadowrun roleplaying game, a fantastic setting which is still looking for a good rules system (and still not finding it). If you can find a copy, there's the bafflingly-out-of-print MechWarrior RPG if you like big stompy robots. There's the Judge Dredd RPG from Mongoose Publishing for those who want to Be The Law, as well as the classic space opera Traveller game, which has been around for almost as long as D&D, not to mention the madness-inducing Paranoia (trust no one!).

There's a lot of roleplaying goodness out there and a lot to choose from. It's a good time for the field and a good time to get involved.

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John said...

I feel like this article is incomplete without a little more discussion of independent RPGs. Most of the games above are from larger publishers, were written by committees and have to appeal to the biggest audience possible so they don't go out of business. There's a lot of good work happening in that space (I play lots of Call of Cthulhu), but the best RPGs are smaller games focused more on their art/craft than profitability.

My personal favorite is Apocalypse World. It's basically Mad Max with a dash of Firefly. The rules system is so good that dozens of other games (by other designers) have derived from it. Of those I can recommend Dungeon World and Monterhearts, if the post-apocalypse doesn't appeal to you.

Anyways, the list above is a great place to start roleplaying, but it's definitely not the end of the roleplaying story. Especially for people who've played enough D&D or Vampire to realize the shortcomings of those games.

Here's my quick list of games I've played and recommend:

Apocalypse World (See above)
Ten Candles (Tragic Horror)
Dogs in the Vineyard (Religion and Cowboys)
Polaris (Frost Elves at the End of the World)
Sorcerer (Mature Magic)
Shooting the Moon (Love Triangles)
Monsterhearts (Messy lives of teenage monsters)
My Life With Master (Catharsis)
Over the Edge (Web of Conspiracies)

LeftHanded Matt said...

Thanks for the great post! I've always had an interested in tabletop RPGs, but just never known anybody who would be interested in playing them. However, I discovered one of the most simple introductory ones to be Dungeon World.

Fritz said...


Nick Boadway said...

I think its worth noting, in the case of D&D especially, that for new players it may be easier to start with characters without magical abilities or whatever the particular game's equivalent is, because those usually require players to learn a whole new set of rules. A great strategy to learn all the mechanics though, specific to D&D, is to play a ranger. Rangers literally do everything in the mechanics, and they get it all staggered over the first few levels typically so the player wont feel overwhelmed.
Additionally, West End is far and away the best Star Wars for noobs. Simple rules and you only need d6 and a cheap book (i got mine online for$20).Its dated, but still fun, and wont eat your wallet like Fantasy Flight (whose game i hate, but i could make a whole post on that).