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My friends and I are trying to get into tabletop RPGs but have ran into some difficultly finding a system/setting that fits.

We gave Eclipse Phase a shot but found it to have a pretty high barrier to entry given our inexperience. We also tried Burning Wheel but the group found it boring and frustrating. Ultimately I largely attributed this to the guy who ran both campaigns. He is the only one who has any experience with RPGs in our group so we let him GM but there was little guidance, with the PCs (myself included) attempting to essentially define where we were, what we were doing, etc. The result was people pretty turned off of RPGs. We were not entirely sure what we could/should do, where we were, or how the system worked and it lead us to wonder if we should even continue to try RPGs.

After awhile it became clear that my group needed more guidance for the RPGing part but have a knack for the combat aspects (they really enjoyed Descent). I know they can be creative and just need some help coaxing it out. I considered trying Fiasco but since it is the role playing they have trouble with right now I don't want them to get bored or frustrated again.

In one last effort to keep their interest I am going to try and GM, however I am also incredibly new to all of this and since I have not even participated in a successful campaign I am looking for something I can handle as well. As a result I am looking for advice on a system that could help me create a campaign and get/keep my group interested. The genre they most find interesting is High Fantasy (like D&D) and Sci-Fi (like Eclipse Phase).

I was told by some people to avoid D&D due to the high barrier to entry and as a result have been looking elsewhere. I was looking at Mouseguard because I have heard good things but it doesn't fit those genres as well and I don't know the setting very well. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

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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!

put on hold as too broad by doppelgreener, Phil, Nigralbus, Joshua Aslan Smith, KRyan Aug 28 at 13:06

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Quite aside from system recommendations, I'd recommend downloading a copy of Greg Stolze's "How to Run Roleplaying Games" and its companion "How to Play Roleplaying Games". (Scroll to the bottom of the page for the download links.) The former is good advice that a GM can usually find in the GMing guide for their system, but is still good on its own (especially since you haven't picked a system yet); while the latter would be helpful to your fellow players so they can have some idea of what to expect and do during a game. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 3 '13 at 22:38
    
A clarifying question: do you think having examples of what to do when the dice aren't rolling would be the right kind of help, or do you think an RPG that gamifies the non-combat parts of play would be more helpful? –  SevenSidedDie Sep 3 '13 at 23:08
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Please only suggest systems that you personally have had good experience learning as a newbie or seeing other newbies learn. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Sep 4 '13 at 2:49
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Not really an answer, so I'll just comment here, but once you've identified a couple of likely RPGs, you might take a look on YouTube for a recording of a live play session. There are many out there showing groups playing various versions of different games. Watching some of these may "prime the pump" for you and your group on what some typical RPG actions are for players and GMs throughout a session, and how the role-playing and mechanics interact in a given game system. –  Zimul8r Sep 4 '13 at 13:56
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Separately from game system, I strongly recommend that you use a familiar setting. Everyone knows what a Jedi or a hobbit is (probably; do confirm!), but if you spend half the session explaining about how the Xorkanians are lizards skilled at fire magic and the Rosgoba are actually aliens with list technology, you'll lose people. Good luck! –  Jon of All Trades Sep 5 '13 at 2:31

10 Answers 10

up vote 26 down vote accepted

Firstly, have everyone who has never roleplayed before read Greg Stolze's How to Play Roleplaying Games. This is an excellent primer that takes the reader from zero knowledge of roleplaying apart from curiosity about it, to a fully fleshed-out idea of what it actually looks like to sit down and play a roleplaying game. Just having this knowledge will solve a lot of your problems, possibly to the point where you don't actually need a game recommendation in order to start playing any ol' game enjoyably.

Second, you yourself should read his companion article, How to Run Roleplaying Games. This will give you a basic grounding in what you do during the game as the GM, and how to prepare for a session or ongoing campaign. It will guide you through thinking about your own preferences about how much detail you want to bring to the world you will be describing to your friends, and how to go about creating that detail before play and on-the-fly during the game.

I really do think that reading the first, and possibly the second, will go about 90% of the way to solving the trouble you've been experiencing, and the other 10% you'll learn by doing as you sit down to play your first game after reading those.

I would also recommend reading the answers (and following the links therein) on these two questions here on RPG.SE:

They have a variety of different types of answers, including examples of what happens between (and leading up to) rolling the dice, suggested games for novices, and different ways of explaining the whole concept of roleplaying. The first is really basic and may not be useful to you anymore, but if so, the second is definitely going to be the right degree of detail.

You may not even need a system recommendation at this point, since you'll probably find every RPG (including the ones you've already tried) much more playable, enjoyable, and self-sustaining than you found your previous attempts. I'd still recommend trying a different RPG to avoid tainting the experience with the bad memories of the previous attempt. But really, most games should suit you fine at this point.


If you really still want a recommendation, I'm frankly not sure which specific game to recommend you since the effects of not knowing how to play an RPG and not having a helpful GM to teach how to play so thoroughly hides any other problems the game might caused by not suiting your group. It's hard to tell what features of a game you need, when you haven't yet really properly started using the games you've tried, right?

It's kind of like someone who has trouble with a car, and asks for a recommendation for a car that crashes less, when they haven't yet learned to drive – it's quite possible that there was a problem with that car, but we can't know if there was, let alone diagnose what that problem might have been, since not knowing how to drive completely obscures anything that might have been wrong with the car's suitability to the driver.

So my recommendation is to grab any game that is

  • Playable with a single book or at most two (one for the players and one for the GM)
  • Has a built-in setting for you all to start with and riff off.

… and run it. You can find games free online (there are many high-quality games that cost nothing to download legitimately), or just pick one off your friend's gaming shelf that looks interesting to everyone. (Or, if you have the money to spend on a gamble, browse the local RPG shop and just take a likely-looking game home with you.)

I recommend games playable from a single book because it's hard to learn both how to roleplay and how to understand this complex multi-volume RPG at the same time. A game that comes in two books (one for players and one for GMs) is also fine, but anything that requires multiple books just to figure out how to make characters and how to run the game is going to drain your group's enthusiasm before you even begin.

A game with a built-in setting is important so that you (the GM) aren't flying completely blind for the first time. (Beware of feeling like you have to stick closely to the setting as written though: it's there to be your inspiration and guide, but you totally have the authority to ignore or change it where you like. A pre-made setting is suppose to be helpful, not a prison!) A pre-made setting also gives your players some guidance of what sort of people live in the world, who they might want to play, and what sort of adventures they get up to.

I'm still tempted to mention some of my favourite games that fulfill these criteria… but in truth, I'd only be mentioning them because they're my favourites, not because I know they'd help you. As I said with the driving analogy, I really can't tell what games would suit you and your group yet. However, you can read about all kinds of interesting roleplaying games that have been suggestion for specific uses by browsing our tag. You can also get an idea of popular games by browsing the titles on RPG.net's General Tabletop forum, which often includes threads along the lines of "sell me on RPG-so-and-so". (I've discovered many awesome RPGs that suit me by doing that, and many I was at first interested in and then decided I wouldn't like by reading further in the thread.)

Browsing through those recommendations is much more likely to suggest a game that sounds good to you than I could possibly suggest by giving random guesses based on my own tastes, which are unlikely to exactly match your own!

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All my initial gaming groups got introduced to gaming with beginner boxed sets. It was Star Frontiers and Basic D&D back in the day; these are out of print now but their direct descendants are the D&D 4e beginner boxed set (red box), the Pathfinder beginner boxed set, and the Star Wars Edge of the Empire beginner boxed set.

These feature

  • Smaller, consumable rules
  • All the various doodads you need to play
  • Starter adventure(s)

Which really help with people getting started. It sounds like "roleplay is the problem" but underlying that is the GM not knowing yet how to craft adventures - give people something to do, keep the pacing up, etc. So a game that has a lot of published adventure support can help get past that. D&D and Pathfinder fit that and I'm sure the Star Wars game is coming out with a lot soon too given FFG's publishing schedule. And, they hit your fantasy or sci-fi requirement. Plus, they are played by a lot of people so there will be online adventure support, actual play videos, and other resources - and you can meet other people in your community who play them. Most indie games (including Eclipse and Wheel) are played by a diminishingly small percentage of the gaming community, which means it's a lot harder to bootstrap by having someone else show you how to play etc.

You don't have to choose a game and play it for the rest of your life, so the fact that the larger 4e or Pathfinder ecosystem is large and rules heavy is irrelevant. You're trying to get enough trigger time inside an RPG so that the players and the GM learn how to do things, and then you can go super complicated (Eclipse Phase and Burning Wheel are definitely two of the most complex games to ever pick) or storygame like Fiasco or whatever floats your boat.

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Starter adventurers are a HUGE boon for people just starting out. They provide a setting and a set of objectives for the players to tackle, and let the GM settle in without having to create everything. –  Tridus Sep 4 '13 at 11:37
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My RP group started out with the 4e Red Box and I'd definitely echo the recommendation to start there. You can't really go wrong starting with D&D I don't think. –  wax eagle Sep 4 '13 at 11:45

Dnd 4th edition is the closest I know of to "Descent". The combat is very much like a board game and characters have nice well defined powers with which to use in thier turn.

DM'ing is supposed to easier than previously, particualrly with the monsters also getting set powers to play in thier turn.

The roleplay aspect can also be very light to start with, but can definietly be ratcheted up as your players come to grips with it.

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And it's not as complex for starters as the previous editions where you could easily botch character creation, mechanically at least. –  Zachiel Sep 4 '13 at 1:01
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D&D 4e also has a beginner box, which is a good way to get started without needing to buy a ton of stuff. –  Tridus Sep 4 '13 at 11:38
    
+1 to @Zachiel; you have to put in effort to make an unplayable character in 4e, and the ability to retrain one thing each level lets you fix anything you're not having fun with. –  Brian S Jan 9 at 22:51

Castles & Crusades might be just what you're looking for. It's a rules-light D&D 3e clone that's said to be easier to learn and DM. You can look up the free quick-start rules.

D&D-type games make good introductory RPGs, in my opinion. They have clearly-defined goals and rules for resolving actions. Your character sheet gives a good summary of what you can do in any given circumstance. The setting encourages you to interact with your environment in easy to understand ways (explore, search, loot, fight), but the game is versatile enough that you can equally spend a whole session without rolling any dice.

If you like C&C and are ready for something with more detailed rules, consider transitioning to something like D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder.

Also, I'm hearing good things about Dungeon World lately, but I haven't played this yet so I can't give an accurate opinion.

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I'd recommend, however, not necessarily considering some of the D&D3.5/4 and Pathfinder stuff right off the bat. A lot of people do because there's free resources for 3.5/Pathfinder, and then wind up biting off more than they can chew. –  Kyle Willey Sep 4 '13 at 1:42
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Dungeon World is one of the ones I was tempted to suggest but eventually rejected the idea: it allows (but also demands) a lot of creative authority from the players, which may be ill-received after their first experience with that kind of play. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 4 '13 at 2:27
    
Or at least, as a first experience when you're all new to rpgs. –  okeefe Sep 4 '13 at 14:19
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@SevenSidedDie Well, when all of the people at the table are newbies, "creative authority" will fall to a newbie regardless of the distribution of player roles. Might as well spread it around a bit rather than dumping it all in the lap of a beleaguered and bewildered GM. ;) –  Alex P Sep 6 '13 at 20:53
    
@AlexP Yeah, I could see that. :) Anaphory's answer about Dungeon World addresses most of my concerns on that count, and does it pretty well! It makes a good case for how the creative demands are distributed being clever enough to short-circuit the usual blank chalkboard problem. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 6 '13 at 21:07

One of the possibile options is Savage Worlds. Although I don't much like it myself, it will provide you with quite simple mechanics (there is no default setting for it, although there are many settings prepared for it, many completly free).

Warhammer 2nd Edition is quite simple as well, although quite old.

I personalny started as GM in D&D 3.0. There were some problems at the beginning, but after initial problems it can provide much fun.

On personal note, recently released Numenera has easy mechanics, is fast and has a very interesting world, combining fantasy with sience-fiction.

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+1 for a simple and fun game. I've successfully used this game with brand new players. I'm fairly experienced, so I can't really speak to new GM plus new players, but I expect it would work well. One surprising advantage over D&D: players always know the dice to roll (well, except for damage). –  Jon of All Trades Sep 5 '13 at 2:26
    
Isn´t that the same in D&D 3.x? –  sergut Sep 7 '13 at 9:17

I was recently asked by some people who wanted to try out role playing, but they were some eighteen people, so me the other experienced GM present could not do them justice without help, so we asked if somebody was also willing to learn how to GM.

The system we settled on teaching him was Dungeon World, and it worked out very nicely even though he did not have the time to read the full rule book. The reasons we chose that system were as follows.

  1. The rules a player needs to know to start playing are listed on the character/class sheet (2 pages of which the back page only comes into play slowly, or 4 pages for some magic users) and the basic moves sheet (2 pages, of which the back page is only relevant in special situations.)
  2. The GM gets a few pages that contain good guidelines for how to make the game interesting
  3. The basic sheets are freely available, and the book text is CC-BY licensed (though it takes some search to find it in an immediately useable format; the InDesign sources are on GitHub)

To also address the points in your question: Obviously, you won't get around

the PCs (myself included) attempting to essentially define where we were, what we were doing, etc.

After all, that's a big part of role playing. In Dungeon World, the GM has to work with the group to establish the setting, so there should be some define where you are initially, but the idea is that the GM asks leading questions to get interesting answers, not to force the players to be creative without guidance.

Also looking at what to do, there is not only good guidance for the GM, but also for the players, though it is more implicit. While the GM is explicitly told things like “Show signs of an approaching threat”, The players get out-of-character rewards (XP) and things they are good at (moves) to show them what to do.

The experience system rewards you for playing your character in the context of the party. For example, you choose your alignment, which gives you a description like “Endanger yourself to heal another.” (Good Cleric), and every time you do that, you get XP.

Every class has some interesting moves to choose from at character creation, and the class moves together with the basic moves that are available for everyone should give you good ideas what your characters can do well, and should try to do.

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Two thumbs up for the Stolze primers.

Sometimes just perusing several games and finding the one or two that really grab you is the way to go. Boxed starter sets can be a good gentle slope introduction to a game, but they're usually not cheap. There are a wide variety of free quick start PDFs available for various games. They give you a feel for the game without presenting all of the details, and are usually coupled with one or more introductory scenarios so you can get started immediately.

This page (full disclosure: it's on my site) provides links to quick start rules for A Song of Ice and Fire, Dragon Age, and D&D. It also provides links to quick start rules for Basic Roleplaying, Fate Accelerated Edition, and Savage Worlds, all of which are generic rules that can be used in whatever setting you choose.

Of all the systems mentioned above, the one I've had the most experience using as a first game for newcomers is Basic Roleplaying. The rules are clean and straightforward, and increased complexity can be added with optional rules included in the book. It's possible to play an extended campaign with nothing but the rulebook and some time spent creating and maintaining a setting.

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Alright, let's share a little experience from a long time roleplaying gamer who likes to play with inexperienced gamers.

A good recommendation for beginners would be Talislanta 3rd edition. Creating a character is a breeze and can be done in mere seconds (choose a template, add two +1 and one -1, add a little personal touch, that's it). I know of nobody, who didn't grasp the rules in just one session completely. All versions of Talislanta can be downloaded on talislanta.com for free. It has very little tactical combat, though.

Another good fantasy rpg is warhammer 2nd edition. Character generation is mostly randomized and can be done without any experience. Ruleswise it is lightweight. The only complaint could be the setting, which is rather ... unique and a little strange. This game can be rather deadly, too.

If you like to try a little wacky style, go for D&D Gamma World. A good entry into D&D 4, but with a lot less rules and much tongue-in-cheek-humor. You can't have more fun with so little effort. Seriously. This games gives you all the tactical options for combat, too. I love that game. It is neither Sci-Fi nor Fantasy, though. But it is still a good introduction into the world of D&D 4, which isn't too complicated either if your are going to use the essentials line.

Stars Without Number is a retro-Clone-D&D-game with a sci-fi-setting. It comes with a random star-system-generation. It is easy and helps you with creating a playable background. Good game to start with.

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I'm kinda a sucker for this, but have you tried the d6 system games? Stuff like Septimus offers a pre-existing rich setting, but the other free PDFs you can find include D6 Adventure, the modern day one, as well as generic D6 Fantasy and D6 Science Fiction (or Sci-Fi); you can just do a simple Google search and find them in the top couple links, and, other than the magic, the system is simply "roll X dice based on your character's skills plus their attributes, add it all up, and compare to a difficulty number set by the GM". I've run it with novices myself and found it to be pretty intuitive for both myself and them, and Adventure D6 includes a short Choose-Your-Own-Adventure styled solo game that clarifies the rules and how to play.

In addition, look into some GM/Player general ground research; I ran a column on my blog entitled "So You Want To Play?" and I'm working on creating a webcourse on the subject, but the stuff that SevenSidedDice suggested from Greg Stolze is a great starting point.

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Have you had personal experience watching a group of people learn how to play d6 system? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Sep 4 '13 at 2:49
    
It was one of my first, and I taught my Shadowrun players to play it pretty early on in their experience with gaming. D6 Adventure includes a mini-adventure that can be played solo and includes clarifications and explanations of the rules. –  Kyle Willey Sep 4 '13 at 14:31
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@Kyle By asking, Brian is hoping that you will amend your answer with that kind of information. :) –  SevenSidedDie Sep 4 '13 at 15:10

I really don't know why people would say that D&D has a high barrier to entry, at least with 4th ed. The combat system is very streamlined, and every roll follows the same rules (higher is better), which is not always a guarantee.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition is very extensible, and was built to be so, so that's where the complexity can come in, but if you're looking to ease into gaming, running with just the core Player's Handbook (PHB), Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG) and Monster Manual will give you a fun experience that is easy to manage, and doesn't result in a "too many choices" scenario. As you become more experienced, then you can start incorporating other books and rules and such. 4th ed really did a great job at simplifying the mess that was 3rd ed/3.5, and I think it's a great system for a beginner.

Furthermore, 4th ed D&D is very forgiving when it comes to character creation. There is a built-in system by which you can remake the majority of mechanic choices you've made up to that point, albeit incrementally. At each level, you can "retrain" any feat or power (I feel like I'm forgetting something else, too), for something else that you qualify for. This means that, though you may make mistakes when first building your character (as everyone is prone to do, even experienced players), you are not beholden to those mistakes – you simply fix them as you level.

Even better, you can use retraining as role-playing opportunities. If a player decides that he/she really wanted to be charming rather than scary, they can practice their diplomacy skills, perhaps take lessons, and work through unlearning their natural intimidation skills, as the character. Or they can just not, if that's how you want to do it. It's flexible.

Additionally, the DMG has a section devoted to guiding the DM in crafting their adventure, including establishing the plot, pacing, designing combats (which is very easy), designing traps, rewarding the players, incorporating their backstory, etc. If you find that you need help working on any of this stuff, the book is always there for. When you decide to incorporate more books, the DMG2 has even more devoted to adventure crafting.

The great thing about D&D, in my opinion, is that it does have rules that govern various actions and situations, but the system is intuitively adaptable enough to allow both the DM & players to use their own rules when they either don't know a rule exists (common for beginners), or don't like the established rules. The rules are there to fall back on, but they aren't necessary, and if you do make a ruling about thing X and later discover that there actually was a rule about X, then it's easy enough to say, "oh, I found this rule."

As a final point – one which a few others have made – D&D is well-established, and there is a ton of pre-cooked adventure fodder out there. There's the stuff made by WoTC, but there's also a lot of user-generated content that you can pretty easily shamelessly steal for your own game.

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Welcome to the site! Please take a look at the tour and the help; they're a useful introduction to the site. And since you have 20+ rep on another SE site, feel free to join the chat! Although you make very good points about 4e in comparison to 3.5, the three core books are still 800+ pages of manual for a new-to-RPGs group to teach itself. (If a person joins an existing group, the barrier is much lower--but that's not the case for the asker of this question.) –  BESW Sep 6 '13 at 23:00
    
I disagree. One point of my post was that they DON'T need to learn all the rules to start playing. The basic combat and skill rules are fine, and flexible enough to cover anything you could want to do. As they work more through the book, they can incorporate more rules. They don't need to know the rules for tripping - they can make it up easy enough using basic rules. Also, the players need only be concerned with the PHB. The DM has more to learn, but that is every game, and there NO REASON to learn the Monster Manual. –  Travis Sep 9 '13 at 14:11
    
I think, compared to other games, D&D 4th edition isn't really made for beginners. It does have a high level of entry. Compare it to Talislanta 3rd, Dream Park, Cinematic Unisystem, even Warhammer 2nd etc. That being said, 4e (for me) greatly improved with the arrival of the essentials line. That new take on the classes and the better organized books really helped. –  user10297 Jan 11 at 10:32
    
I haven't played those systems, so I don't know about those. However, as I noted above, there is not a need to know everything to play. Understanding the basic purpose for skills, being able to determine the correct ability for an action that doesn't exactly fit a skill, and being able to read a power get's you 90% of the way there. The powers have their rules built in. All you really need past that is to learn what a burst vs a blast means, etc. which is not asking much. That said, I started in 3rd ed and my 1st DM experience was in HackMaster, so perhaps I have an odd viewpoint. –  Travis Jan 13 at 2:58

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