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I've always wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons, but where I live it's more of an underground thing, so it was difficult to find other players. After recently moving to a new school, I made a few nerdy friends who didn't know D&D, so I've shown them some stuff. Some of them loved the idea, while others were a bit more apprehensive, since we're basically a group of gamers.

So we're planning to get together and play a bit and experiment. I've been reading the books for a while and told them to read the first chapters to get the basic idea. The thing is, although the game (4 ed.) has everything to please everyone, it has a lot of (somewhat unnecessary) rules. So I was wondering if anyone could point me in the direction of a fantasy RPG that has great storytelling potential and also the tactical combat possibilities of 4e.

Requirements summary:

  • Good for a group of entirely new gamers (no experienced GM)
  • Still has tactical combat "like 4e" but much more rules light
  • Supports storytelling, not tactical only
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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

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OK, if these answers don't start being more of the format "I used game X with a group of complete beginners (or saw it happen) and here's how it went" this question'll get closed and answers deleted. Last warning. –  mxyzplk Nov 8 '12 at 19:37
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And now? Now we delete answers that don't follow our rules. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 13 '12 at 22:59
    
The more I look at this question, the more I feel that it cannot be answered well in this format. Which is a shame, because it's a great question that I wish we had a good answer to, but I don't think we do (and that includes my well-received one). Which system is best seems primarily opinion-based – yeah, you can make some cases on how systems fit the requirements, but the requirements are not tight enough. –  KRyan Aug 8 at 12:42

12 Answers 12

up vote 28 down vote accepted

Dungeons & Dragons 3.x – Too Many Traps

The first tabletop RPG I played was Dungeons & Dragons 3.5ed.

I recommend against 3.5 (or Paizo’s “3.75,” Pathfinder, which is really not all that different). It’s complicated and has a ton of rules, plus a lot of options that are (apparently intentionally) “traps” – stuff that looks good, but is really a waste of resources. Wizards had a very “ivory tower” design for it, and tried too hard to reward “system mastery” – which none of you have. It’s entirely possible that a 3.5 game would go great, but I personally would consider it risky – more likely people will be confused and people will wind up with wildly varying power levels.

Note that this is coming from an avid 3.5 player – I really do like the system. But it is not a good system for new players. I was only successful because I had a seasoned DM – which you guys don’t – and because I read about the system – both the actual rules and forum discussions – for a long time before I ever made a character. And I got a lot of help on that character (that thread has over 125 posts in it).

So 3.5 could work, but I really do not think it is a good idea.

Dungeons & Dragons 4e – Better Balance, But Still Complicated

Dungeons & Dragons 4e has a much better reputation in terms of balance and design. The rules are more consistent and Wizards actively avoided traps. It is still very much are “rules-heavy” system, though, and non-trivial to learn. Also note that unlike most of the other options presented here, you need to buy D&D4.

On the other hand, it’s the latest version of the most popular brand of RPG. There’s a ton of material out there for learning, there are plenty of players, and Wizards themselves have a lot of tutorials and the like – paying for a product does come with certain perks in terms of support that you can expect. That is definitely a plus; I can say from experience that the lack of these things makes some of the other systems mentioned here harder to learn.

Legend – My Favorite, but Small and Still Rules-Heavy

My personal favorite system, Legend, goes even further to avoid traps, and also removes a lot of rules deemed more time-consuming (to learn or to play) than they were worth. I’ve seen a number of comments and testimonials from players for whom Legend was their first tabletop RPG, and the overwhelming majority of those comments were positive.

While I am definitely not an “absolute beginner” to Legend (I was a pre-release playtester), I did DM a group, of whom only one had played a tabletop RPG before. The game was quite fun, but I felt that I was guiding them through their actions an awful lot, and due to their busy real lives, none of them was really going and learning the system between sessions, and without doing that the game had a lot of trouble. I think Legend is a great game, and even reasonably good for newbies, for a tactical, rules-heavy game, but you do have to spend a fair amount of time learning before you can begin playing.

Plus, it’s a very new system with a very small following, being developed by an indy company; they only have one book and that book is officially still beta. It’s definitely playable, but it’s hard to give a recommendation to a work in progress.

Rules-Light Systems – Easiest to Learn and Get Involved In

And really, all of these systems are “rules heavy” and there is a good chance that this is not what you want. A rules-light system would probably serve a new group better – they tend to have fewer and simpler rules, relying more on winging it with whatever sounds cool/plausible, and things like mechanical combat abilities are less emphasized. Therefore, I recommend games like Risus or Mouse Guard, which have very good reputations as rules-light games.

But I haven’t personally played either Risus or Mouse Guard, I’ve only heard good things.

My Favorite Rules-Light System – Fate

My best recommendation, then, is Fate – it’s rules-light, it’s free, it’s pretty popular, and unlike Risus or Mouse Guard, which I have not played, I’ve played Fate and can only say that I really want to play more of Fate. It’s a very good system.

Fate may not be as tactical as you like, but in my play experience it’s much easier to pick up. Our group was 100% new to the system (though not roleplaying in general), and we were playing the Dresden Files RPG (which uses the Fate system), despite only the GM being familiar with the source material. The game went very well, and I would say that our experience likely hindered as much as it helped since Fate is very different from Dungeons & Dragons – for everything we didn’t have to learn, there was something we did have to “unlearn.” The fact that the game went very well and was easy to pick up for us, I think, also means it would be relatively easy for even “absolute beginners” to do so.

Conclusion

For a heavily tactical RPG, you probably are looking for a rules-heavy system, but I’m not sure that there are any that are going to mesh well with the “absolute beginner” nature of your group. Such systems are complicated and have a lot of rules, which means usually new players join established groups who can teach them. Since you don’t have that, it may mean a lot of confusion, or someone sitting down and spending a lot of time reading and then finding a discussion group where they can ask all the questions they need answered to play. Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 or Pathfinder are probably bad choices. Dungeons & Dragons 4e is probably better, and the externalities (popularity, official support, etc.) are strong considerations in its favor. I personally like Legend better still, but it’s a small RPG without a lot of material or players.

Better systems for a group of only new players are more rules-light, however. These systems cannot offer as much tactical mechanical play, because they have fewer rules. Risus and Mouse Guard are two such systems that I’ve heard are good, but have not played. Fate is a system I have played, and it’s very good. I strongly recommend it. I think it will probably be the easiest to pick up and play for a new group.

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Ideally, I think you should play the game you want to play. Even if that means a steeper learning curve over something you aren't interested in. Since you mention interest in D&D 4e, what I'd recommend is just using the D&D 4e quick start rules. Having said that, I completely agree with KRyan about Fate being very easy to pick up and play (and the same goes for it's predecessor, Fudge, although it hurts my eyes to look at their web site :) The guy who stuck the bounty on was looking to see if there were any updates. The only update I would add is if the OP was interested in other editions of Dungeons and Dragons (like 5e) to visit their page, but even the ostensibly 'basic rules' are almost 200 pages.

If you are interested in what game will most people be playing, Pathfinder seems to be holding a long lasting lead, at least by my understanding of the search trends, while 3.5 has continued to hold the lead compared to other WOTC products. It's difficult to parse out the trends and search data because the terms do not yield 100% distinction, so depending on how look at it, the results may trend otherwise. - Also, just since writing this, 5e appears to have increased pretty steadily.

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For first time Roleplayers, I recommend Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

Good for a group of entirely new gamers (no experienced GM)

D&D 5th edition was created with the intent that new players and new GMs can easily get into the game. The rules are "long" because most of it is filled with basic information to get players and GMs into the mood and feeling of D&D. Granted, not everyone thinks GMs and roleplaying games should be run the same way, but for the tradition swords and sorcery feeling that games like D&D invoke, the books and advice are great for new players and new GMs to instantly "get" what to do.

This past weekend, my niece was introduced to RPGs for the first time, and using the Starter set, even without really even making a character, she got right into the mood and understood what her options might be.

Still has tactical combat "like 4e" but much more rules light

5th edition has different possible levels of play with character classes with different levels of granularity. You can play tactically and you can play loosely depending on what is needed for the fight. If you choose classes like the Battlemaster or the Warlock, the game feels more like 4e with more rules, or you can play simple classes like the Thief or Champion and let the rules slide to the wayside. This is another benefit of 5e for new players, since players can see which style fits them best, and play to that style rather than trying to foce themselves to play a style of RPG they may not like.

Supports storytelling, not tactical only

5th edition makes a happy break from D&D tradition in it's emphasis of character backgrounds and personality traits. They put these rules upfront and have a prominent place on the character sheet. Like most good storytelling games, the non-tactical combat aspects of the game have rules but the rules do not define how you can play, they merely provide a framework for which to interact with the world around you. I have been playing many D&D games online the past few weeks, and in 3 of them we spend most of our time out of combat, doing all sorts of things with few dice rolls. The experience has been very rewarding, allowing us to explore a world as freely as we would like.

I highly recommend not confusing what games that experienced role players enjoy or find easier or better for their stories with what is easiest for people to pick up and enjoy. There needs to be a balance between direction and freedom so that players can do not get lost from their lack of contextual experience.

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DO NOT PLAY D&D WITH BEGINNERS!!!

It may be the first RPG but none of its editions or spin-off games (Pathfinder, the D20 variant games) are suitable as first RPGs.

A game for new players should include the following factors:

Fun: They have to enjoy themselves throughout the game. If the new guys remember that they spent a lot of the evening sitting waiting for their turn or doing sums to fill out their character sheets then they won't return.

Drama: How did you get your new players enthused to try role-playing? You told them about all the epic things you've done in character. Perhaps you showed them the IT Crowd episode where Moss GM's a game for his boss and the american businessmen. You didn't tell them the tale of how you once rolled a 17 added 9 and beat the Ogres AC to inflict 12 damage and reduce its HP to 0.

Brevity: Unless your new players are very unusual they are probably not used to spending longer than the length of your average feature film on an activity. A 4-5 hour game session playing through the latest Pathfinder Adventure Path, even if its fantastically run, will have many of them losing interest before you reach the climax. Keep your first game short and sweet.

The best way to pick a game for new players is to talk to your players about their interests and pick a game that caters to them. Fans of True Blood will find it easier to relate to the concepts of a World of Darkness game than SteamPunk enthusiasts. Keep the session you have planned short and fairly simple with strong dramatic themes that the players can play along with easily and don't use anything that will require you to open a rule-book.

Call of Cthulhu has some very good short-form convention modules that will appeal to horror fans and it is very rules light from a mechanical point of view. The same goes for World of Darkness.

Savage Worlds and CORTEX are also good simple, fast playing systems that can be used to run most genres of game and can be spun out into entire campaigns if the group takes off.

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I began with two out of print games you'd either never find or which would cost too much money. Since two very important factors to consider are Availability and Expense, I started over over. $100 to $150 is a very reasonable investment when spaced out over several years of play, but many people would consider it a huge amount of money to spend only to discover it's not the game for you after a single session. :)

GURPS 3rd Edition

GURPS is on its 4th edition, but 3rd edition copies are still easy to find, cheaper than the 4th ed books, and more playable in my opinion. GURPS can become complex, but much of the complexity is in the form of optional rules, which also makes it a great choice for those who want to get into something quickly, but also want something with potential to grow later.

A quick look on ebay finds me several affordable choices for a 3rd Edition Revised core. Heck searching for GURPS Revised, I found a copy for two bucks plus reasonable shipping from a seller with 100% feedback. This is all you need to begin, so it's low-risk option.

GURPS is a point-based system, so the process of creating a character is a tad more complicated than most level-based systems. However, for the added complexity you get a more customizable character.

In play, the game has a very simple core mechanic, 3d6 roll under your stat or skill. Combat can be very simple, with many optional rules to increase both complexity and realism. Out of combat, there are rules for social interaction, and plenty of skills, advantages and disadvantages to affect social interactions and role play.

Overall, GURPS is probably the best choice for your requirements with a reasonable price point. Later, if you like the system enough to stick with it, there are over one hundred source books for various genres, many of which are just as easy to find on ebay. GURPS source books are among the most broadly useful source books I've ever owned. I use them all the time, even when not playing GURPS.

Now, here's my ideal game, on the off chance you have the time to search and the money to afford:

The Fantasy Trip

Before Steve Jackson formed Steve Jackson Games and made GURPS, he worked for a company called Metagaming. There he wrote The Fantasy Trip. TFT began as two small boxed games: Melee and Wizard. Each was a tactical combat game, one focusing on armed combat, the other on magic duels. Both are excellent rule-light tactical games, and the boxes came with everything you'd need to play: rules, map, playing pieces.

Later the company published Advanced Melee and Advanced Wizard, books with many more options, but the same simple core system. To this they added a third book, In The Labyrinth, which introduced options to turn your tactical character into a fleshed out character for role-playing, with a very simple skill system, playable races, and rules for interaction and character advancement (which admittedly did lean a bit too heavily on combat). ITL also introduced the bones of a gaming world. It's not fleshed out, but it is enough to spark your imagination.

TFT's rules are simpler than GURPS, play is easy, but there are still a lot of tactical consideration in the map. However, the books and games are much harder to find for a reasonable price.

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I have played/mastered D&D, Gurps, Das schwarze Auge, Savage Worlds and BRP/Cthulhu and I think that for beginners, Savage Worlds is a very good system.

Beginners can be overwhelmed by too many mechanics. Savage Worlds finds a good middleground between having too many and too few rules.

Character creation is quick and easy, and many effects rely on a common mechanic with different visuals. That helps minimizing rule clutter.

The GM can hand out "Bennies" to the players for actions he thinks are good enough to be rewarded - these in turn can be used to mitigate bad consequences or boost rolls.

Also it is quite generic and can easily be reskinned to fit many scenarios.

In the end it depends on you and your players' preferences, but for a novice GM i would suggest

Savage Worlds

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Welcome to the site! This is a well-written answer, but I don’t know Savage Worlds well enough to vote on it; sorry. At any rate, you seem to be on the right track, but it is worth checking out the Tour if you haven’t. And when you get 20 rep, feel free to join the Role-playing Games Chat! –  KRyan Aug 8 at 12:27
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Note that players will need the Bennies, so don't be too stingy with handing them out. The game has incredibly swingy rolls and is consequently quite lethal without mitigation options. –  MrLemon Aug 8 at 12:40

This is a little out there maybe, but if your players don't reject it, you might want to look into Call of Cthulhu. The system it's based on, BRP or "Basic Role-Playing," is one of the simplest around. Most things players or NPCs do resolves to a D100 roll against some number, usually that player's skill. It gets trickier when using firearms that shoot more than once a round, but that's nothing compared to learning a whole system of resolving combat on a grid as you would with D&D or Pathfinder.

Note however, Call of Cthulhu is a very different kind of game than D&D, and characters tend to die a lot. It really helps if at least the GM is a Lovecraft fan. So, it's an option, but it might not be absolutely the best for your particular group.

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If you want a D&D experience with simple rules, I recommend getting Dungeon World. It's got the character classes that you expect, but its rules quickly get to the heart of a dungeon crawl.

The story framework is straightforward: there's a narrative discussion between the GM and players, but when certain situations are narrated a rule triggers. Benefits of Dungeon World include character creation in five minutes, party creation in ten minutes, and characters actually being effective no matter what choices they make. And because the book is Creative Commons–licensed, the Dungeon World rules are online so you can get a taste of it. (The book is still more convenient, and it's affordably priced.)

I have run Dungeon World with new gamers to great effect. One had played a lot of World of Warcraft and wanted to try an RPG—she asked for D&D, but I wanted something with minimal prep that also allowed class selection and character creation. Another player was familiar with RPGs but hadn't played in ten years. Both got the hang of it during the first session.

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I would suggest Pathfinder.

I began a group of completely new people, with only myself having any roleplaying experience at all, and we've been going for several months. Our longest running game lasted for several weeks, but that was to be expected. I had never DMed a game before, and the people in the group who seem to have a knack for it had to rely on watching me DM to get an idea of how to do it.

I would also suggest doing as we did, and looking up the relevant rules as they come into question, and not trying to learn all the rules ahead of time. That way, people get used to finding answers with the RP, and learn how to fit the rules around it, instead of trying to make the RP fit within the bounds of the rules.

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So, you like 4E, tactical combat, etc. Instead of looking for a lighter RPG that will fill the shoes of a more rules-heavy RPG, why not look into a Starter box? They tend to have lighter versions of the rules that are beginner friendly and set new players up with the knowledge needed to move into the core rules.

4E has a Starter Box that I've heard good things about, through I've never actually played it.

If you're not completely married to 4E and willing to try something similar, I cannot say enough good things about Pathfinder's Beginner Box. In 20 years of gaming, I haven't seen it's equal - it's simply the best, most beginner friendly entry-level RPG product I've seen. As a plus, Pathfinder is a really great system that added a lot of needed changes to D&D3.5E, and after playing 4E for a few years I've come to regard Pathfinder as "What 4E should have been."

My time with the Beginner Box has gone very well, even with a new player GMing. I've even considered running entire campaigns with it as sort of a Pathfinder Basic, using the core rules only to fill in the gaps as the characters gain more levels than the BB covers. Another plus I have for the Pathfinder Beginner Box is that it also comes with a battle mat and a large number of cardboard miniatures that remain useful even after you outgrow the set.

So, my advice is to get started with an entry-level product, and once you and your players feel comfortable moving to more advanced rules and are seeking new character options, introduce them to the core rules. Add supplemental rulebooks as your players become more comfortable with the game.

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This doesn't address the part of the question where they want more support for narrative from the rules. My experience using 4e for introducing someone who wanted strong narrative control to RPGs for the first time went poorly, to put it mildly. She liked a game where the rules were about making story pieces (A Penny For My Thoughts) much more. –  SevenSidedDie Nov 8 '12 at 21:50
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Where does the question mention "more support for narrative from the rules"? I think you might be reading a lot more into the desired "great storytelling potential" than I am. –  Steve G Nov 8 '12 at 22:43
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4e leaves "great story potential" entirely untouched, relying instead on the experience and skills of the GM. Given this is a group of all-beginners who are looking for a game that does provide that potential itself, that seems to disqualify 4e. –  SevenSidedDie Nov 8 '12 at 23:40

D&D 4th Edition is a good game for playing fantasy tactical combat. Whether it is great for what you want does come down to taste, as you've noticed. To introduce people to the rules without overwhelming them, you can use a introductory set.

There are two starter sets for 4th edition, the Red Box and the one without a cool title.

Either of them should have enough information to get your group started. The included rules are light enough to get picked up quickly and can be expanded on when you graduate to using the full books.

Personally I'd stick to the Red Box as it includes a solo adventure that helps players work out what they want to play. This will help avoid the overwhelm that comes with looking at the character builder for the first time. Be aware that it is something that you will only need once per player.

When it comes to the storytelling possibilities of D&D, there are rules for more structured stories that come in the form of skill challenges. If you don't use them (and you don't have to) then you still have the same support for out of combat roleplaying as previous editions of D&D and Pathfinder.

My Experiences

When I was a rank beginner, I got to play with an AD&D 2E version of the Red Box starter set. That (especially the solo adventure) helped me learn the terms, the flavour of the game and how to play; all in small steps. This new set is very similar to what I cut my teeth on.

I've played with absolute beginners (usually young teens) at D&D Encounters. 4th Edition gave them enough structure to avoid analysis paralysis, but enough tactical choices to do something useful most of the time.

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Have you actually used these with any new gamers? And if so how did it go? –  mxyzplk Nov 8 '12 at 12:36
    
I've used red box with newbies to 4e (but experiened DM). It worked quite quite well. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 8 '12 at 12:56
    
@BrianBallsun-Stanton Then maybe you should answer the question... –  mxyzplk Nov 8 '12 at 19:35

You would go with on of a classic edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The setup and premise is straightforward and there are dozens of free resources and low cost products available to use.

I recommend Swords & Wizardry, Core Rules

Particularly with the addition of the Swords & Wizardry Quick Start

Or Labyrinth Lord

All of which are free to download.

The strength of classic editions of D&D lies in the millions of gamers that they successfully introduced to the hobby of tabletop roleplaying. Campaigns are easy to setup and expand. They can start with nothing more than the details of a town, a small wilderness, and one to three levels of a dungeon maze, then expand from there. There are details and options but not so much that they overwhelm the novice referee and players.

I also recommend reading a Old School Primer for getting the most of out of the rule-lite nature of the classic editions.

The Old School Primer also explains how you can add tactical detail and complexity despite the simplistic combat rules. In a nutshell it involves the referee describing the encounter, the player describing their actions as if the character was really there, and the referee making a ruling using their best judgement as to the chance of success and the ultimate result.

After playing a campaign or two you and your group will have good idea of is liked and disliked. From there folks can figure out what other RPGs, you would like to use.

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Have you actually used these with any new gamers? And if so how did it go? –  mxyzplk Nov 8 '12 at 19:35
    
It went very well, character creation was straight forward and they easily grasped the intricacies of combat. Novice referees I found got the idea of creating underground maze as a place to adventure straight forward. However I don't see how adding that is germane to my answer. I noted the advantage of using the system and why along with material to help to get the most of it. I don't need to add that I been refereeing 30 years for a variety of groups at different skill levels along with helping novices to make the answer any better. –  RS Conley Nov 12 '12 at 18:23
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please read our guidelines on system-rec questions especially good subjective, bad subjective. You having real experience with real beginners is all that keeps this answer from being deleted, as it's a prerequisite - therefore I would count it as valuable indeed. –  mxyzplk Nov 13 '12 at 1:23

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