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My family and I mostly play board games, and like strategy and cooperative games, but I want to branch out into RPGs. We like to play games generally the same way. Which is, we don't really like to act out roles, as in pretending we are some other person, while playing a character in a game. We do like the adventure and story telling aspect of these board games, but our style of play is generally participatory from the point of view of an outside observer.

I am very fascinated with role playing games in general, and I'm looking for something that would work with my family's preferences. I'd like an RPG that is not overly complex and can be learned quickly enough to start playing in an evening, and which can be played more as "outside observers" guiding our characters through adventures and stories.

Ideally there would be cooperative and strategic elements to manage and guide our characters through, as well as character advancement ("leveling up") and achieving goals.

We have liked dungeon crawler games and sci-fi ones, so genre preference isn't much of a limitation.

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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!

Just as an aside, playing a roleplaying game but with the attitude of an "outside observer" is using what's called either "author stance" or "director stance" (depending on some details). It's an uncommon but legitimate way to play RPGs (the more common "acting out" is, appropriately, called "actor stance"), and you might find interesting things to read by putting it into a search engine. There are games that are suitable for that stance, but there are enough that we'd need more specific requirements to narrow it down to few enough to make a good recommendation. – SevenSidedDie Sep 5 '13 at 6:50
@BrianBallsun-Stanton I believe they're using "boardgame aspects" to capture what's been analysed as "author stance" in RPG theory. I did an edit to highlight that and try to draw out what requirements I could infer through that lens. (e.g., Microscope with only dictated scenes may fit some of these requirements, if I understand right.) – SevenSidedDie Sep 5 '13 at 7:06
Do you want games where a Game Master is mandatory, similar to board games like Descent, or would you prefer all the players to be involved in the story-making in an equal way? – leokhorn Sep 5 '13 at 7:46
Maybe something like HeroQuest ? – Rob Sep 5 '13 at 8:40
Fiasco is one of the more pure "author stance" games IMO. – mxyzplk Sep 5 '13 at 11:31

Almost any roleplaying game can be played in the 3rd person mode of "I think Joe will go talk to the goons."

To have the authorial stance implies, in gaming, does not imply lack of 1st person. You have used it, tho', in a manner which implies seeing it as non-first person.

The common stances¹:

  • Self² - I play only my character as if I were there in their place
  • Munchkin² – I play only my character so as to "win"
  • Actor¹ - I play only my character as I think the character would choose to act
  • Author¹ - I play only my character as I think good drama would require
  • Director¹ - I play my character and other elements as needed for story.

If you truly want author stance, again, most games can do so, but you'll find it best with games that define the personality to some degree.

Games that enhance the authorial stance also tend to be games that at least dabble in directorial stance.

Several games that do this: Fate, Houses of the Blooded, Blood and Honor, any of the Cortex Plus series games (Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Smallville, Leverage, Firefly), Burning Wheel, Burning Empires, Mouse Guard, Torchbearer.

Simple, but not simplistic, strong on allowing authorial stance,limited directorial stance, I think Cortex Plus is probably the best bet, with Fate a close second, and Houses or B&H as a third option. Note that in PDF, Houses or B&H are only $5, so one can take a look and see them first, before seeking hardcopy.

¹: these are typical forge-defined stances
²: Not officially stances, but significant subsets of the actor stance that don't meet the usual Forge expectations

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This has reminded me of Real men, roleplayers, munchkins and loonies – Rob Sep 6 '13 at 8:17
@Rob Haven't read that one before... but it really isn't relevant. There are a few games which focus on the Self-Stance. One, Trauma, is a french game translated to English. Villains and Vigilantes is "Self transformen into Superhero"... Self is very much a different stance in practice than Actor stance. And Munckin as stance is about turning it into victory by any means other than directorial stance. – aramis Sep 7 '13 at 9:57

Have you considered starting with something like Once Upon a Time? Although it doesn't fulfill all your requirements (i.e. no character advancement/strategy), it is my impression that it fulfills the main ones: which is heavy focus on story-telling and assuming author stance.

It is an astonishingly fun cooperative game: basically, players get cards representing story elements (such as characters, events or places) and have to narrate a story based on them; the way the story-telling turns flow is very intuitive and quite fun.

In theory, being a card game, it is slightly competitive: i.e. it has the end-goal of winning (which most RPG don't have). On the other hand, in my experience, given the right group of people, the game doesn't necessarily have to follow this flow, and could be slightly adapted to fulfill your needs.

Again in my experience, this game would be a suitable bridge between playing board games intermingled with some story-telling and acting, and going RPG. It has allowed me to introduce people resistant to RPGs to what I feel is the core and most important aspect of them: story-telling and sharing.

It helps the shy because you don't have to intervene if you don't feel like, and can participate just by listening: this is a huge deal for some people, who don't want to feel the pressure of acting in role-play (or even of being asked what their characters do). On the other hand, you will see that, taken this pressure away, most people actually get into the flow and collaborate to the story.

Also, by having cards with elements, it helps both those who have some kind of performance anxiety (people who think they lack imagination) and also makes sure that the story follows some kind of coherent track.

Last, but not least, games are also self-completing and manageable in time: though for me the fact that an RPG campaign can last for years is an astounding thing, a lot of people are intimidated by this statement or don't want to commit. By ensuring that the story closes, you take this away again, contributing to a more relaxed environment.

Depending on the mood, you can get completely nonsense hilarious adventures, or deep and meaningful stories; no matter what, in my experience, people will keep talking about the story and the characters for a while, and it's not uncommon for player to want to start the next game a few days or weeks later more or less where the last one left off (or calling in aspects of that).

And I guess you see where I'm going with this: as players get more fond of the characters, of the settings and of the story-telling, this will transition smoothly into a full-fledged RPG campaign (perhaps diced, with character advancement if you so wish, and with a “central authority” such as a game master).

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Aye, Dark Overlord is similar enough to Once Upon A Time that I'll suggest it here rather than as a separate answer. If OUAT fits the bill, A,DO may as well. – aslum Sep 9 '13 at 16:22
While a lot of fun, “Aye, Dark Overlord” is a few steps more towards board games than RPGs compared to “Once upon a time”, in my opinion. – NinGen ShinRa Sep 10 '13 at 20:57
thanks. I'm probably going to pick up One Upon a Time for my daughter's birthday. – b johnson Sep 24 '13 at 21:59

RPGs don't require the players to pretend to be their characters only that they act as their characters within the game.

In Jon Peterson's Playing at the World and other books written about the early days of RPGs 3rd person was a common way of handling characters. The earliest games were run by the same people who ran various wargame campaigns and their players treated their characters much the same as they treated armies, an extension of themselves into the situation at hand.

The main difference between early RPGs and their immediate wargame predecessor is that they focused on playing individual characters and that they could attempt anything their character can do with the action adjudicated by a human referee. There were rules to handle specific situation like combat but unlike wargames players were expected to attempt things not covered by the written rules. In which case the referee had to use his best judgments as to what occurred and what rolls are needed.

As for what RPGs to use, I recommend any of the lite RPGs available. In particular Fate Accelerated, Swords & Wizardry (a D&D retro clone) (A quick start), Labyrinth Lord (another clone), Microlite d20 or Savage Worlds.

The absolute fastest way to try a classic RPGs is the Swords & Wizardry Quick Start Which has character generation, referee guidelines, and a full adventure.

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Since your family is familiar with board games I would recommend: Descent:Journeys in the Dark.

I played this one a bit over a year ago with a couple people and as I recall it was a blast!

The game has a brisk pace and doesn't necessarily require anyone to role-play any part of it because you move pieces on a board that is constructed along the way. The adventures are pre-built and the rules very simple, not requiring a lot of preparation to get under way. I have found with new players to the RPG genre that many of them get overwhelmed with the character creation process and this game in particular makes it dead simple.

Game play is just like pretty much any other board game, players take turns rolling and deciding what to do. You do need to have one person who is the GM but as I recall that person can also participate in gameplay as well because of the random nature of the game setup. This might not be as straightforward as I make it sound, it's been a year or so since I had a chance to play, but as I recall our GM participated in the game and also took the role of a fighter to play along with us.

What I thought was really cool about the whole setup was that everything that happened was pre-scripted and didn't require any on-the-fly dialog made up by the GM, it was just a straightforward dungeon crawl that didn't require any seriously critical thinking. Come to think of it, I'm going to go order a copy of the game myself now that it's fresh in my mind again!

Whatever you decide, just remember to have fun with your family. I run a Pathfinder campaign once a week or so with my family and the key to having fun is to not take anything too seriously. It's just a game, if they do something silly and end up falling off a ledge or getting their head chopped off by a massive orc then that's the breaks, we make a new character and move on.

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