I am looking to give someone who has never played an RPG a gift of a game and some dice, but this isn't someone who I can necessarily just RUN a game for, so the book needs to do as good a job as possible of teaching the "fundamentals" out of the box. I'm expecting the individual in question to scrounge up a couple of friends to play with, so the game doesn't need to specifically cater to solo or extremely small group play, though working with 3ish people would be a plus, I think most RPGs probably manage that okay.

The individual in question is a big Marvel fan, so the original thought was Marvel Heroic Roleplay, but upon examination, it doesn't seem to be very good for beginners, and it also appears to assume a very large number of assorted dice, which is not a plus in this situation either. ("Here's this game! And the 50 dice you need to play it! Have fun!")

So while Superhero games are a plus, the most important thing is that the book teach effectively.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Edited to add, but I expect them to scrounge up some friends. \$\endgroup\$ – Airk Dec 18 '14 at 22:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Stack's requirement that game-rec answers come from positions of experience rather than speculation means only a select few citizens will have useful answers (as many gamers are brought into RPGs under the intimate tutelage of their peers)--but it's an awesome, challenging question and I'm excited to see the answers it attracts. (If it's lacking good answers in a couple days, somebody ping me to put a bounty on this to get more attention on it.) \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Dec 19 '14 at 0:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Stack doesn't always give fast turn-around on questions like this one, so if you need recommendations fast but sloppy to get something before Christmas, the Role-playing Games Chat could probably help puzzle something out (though it likely won't be as solid or vetted an answer as the main site can provide). \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Dec 19 '14 at 0:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's not super urgent; I can either fake it for Christmas, or send this late, or whathaveyou. \$\endgroup\$ – Airk Dec 19 '14 at 3:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Airk - How old school are you willing to go? Tunnels & Trolls is a simple (and cheap) fantasy RPG originally published in 1975, with many later editions, which offered a number of solo adventures - a great way to learn by doing. \$\endgroup\$ – RobertF Dec 19 '14 at 15:05

Mutants & Masterminds

Suggesting this for a few reasons, which I'll sum up below. Mutants&Masterminds is a very open game focused on modern day superheroes fighting supervillains. I've some experience running the game in both its traditional superhero style and a homebrew fantasy mode. It's one of my favorite games to run both with highly creative and with very new players.

Handlings small groups

While M&M suggests some kind of team to play with, it handles pretty well even with only 1 or 2 players. The mechanics are very forgiving of bad rolls, high power players vs low power mooks works quite well, which means even a single hero can take on a squad of goons, and the setting itself generally says that heroes don´t die, they are merely defeated. So even if everything goes to hell, the players will just wake up in the villains deathtrap, ready for a daring escape, rather than dead.


The setting is modern day superheroes like the Justice League and stuff. Each player runs a superhero, and they can be built any way the player wants. The game comes with a whole bunch of example characters which are (very poorly) disguised well known heroes, so if the player wants to "be Superman" he'll have a ready made character in the book.

This means it's a setting everyone knows well, too. You can play it in your own city, which makes it easy for the DM. While in normal games questions like "Is there a big library in this city?" require lots of making stuff up, now both players and DM will have a pretty clear idea of what is and is not available.

(The first time I played, I was in college and new to the city and actually learned about a few new buildings that I wasn't aware the city had. But it also saved me from having to make up any new locations, and poor descriptions don't matter when everyone in the group has been inside the building a scene takes place in. It lowers the bar by a lot for the DM.)

For the DM

This game has very low book-keeping, which makes it easy to run for DMs. Making monsters is easy as they just follow the rules for players, there's very little bookkeeping (the game doesn't use hitpoints and most powers have unlimited uses or very real roleplaying limitations to their use). It comes with an example adventure, you can use any of the listed player characters as villains and there's a chapter on using normals in the game.

Plus, because you're using regular people half the time things don't even need stats. You can just assume that the hero can beat up the mook unless there's like a dozen of them, and they're armed.

In my experience, if the DM can come up with a fun story (or sometimes even a fun starting point for a story) the rest will follow naturally, with very little need for heavy prep work or needing huge amounts of mechanical things.

The last game I ran had little more prep than "The characters will be inside a maglev train, which is also carrying something valuable in a safe, and some guys will try to steal that thing." From there on out, I decided one of the villains would have laserbeam powerz to cut open the safe. I made a grand total of 4 characters to fill out the team of bad guys.

With these 4 character sheets, I ran a game session spanning a full day. The story went completely different from my expectations when the players startled laserbeam-guy while he was cutting the safe and he swung his arms around, accidentally cutting the train in half and stranding it in the middle of an uninhabited area... but it worked out really well. Due to the superpowered nature of the game, most of the things that require lots of little rules in a grittier or more realistic game can be easily hand-waved here.

Also, the game lets you throw together new mechanical creatures very easily. One of my games required there to be a Troll for the players to fight in the middle of the game. Making one really was no more complicated than "Hmm, it should be big and strong, have claws, and regenerate damage" and then quickly assigning it some appropriate ranks in the Size, Strike, Super-Strength and Regeneration powers. You can set these up in 5 minutes and use them for a scene, and if they survive and have to return later you can always flesh them out more afterwards. Since there's no spell selection, complicated balance rules or attributes that affect dozens of things in the creature, there's little chance of accidentally ruining something.

For the players

One of the main things I dislike about certain systems is the first time you introduce new players and they ask if they can play X is that you must tell them "no, because that's too powerful/difficult/I don't know how". Mutants&Masterminds allows EVERYTHING from the start, with reasonable balance still in the game. All the powers scale exponentially, but you can pick whatever you want. Even things like manipulating time itself are available (albeit with a "please ask your DM because this can ruin stories" notice).

Here's some of the characters I've seen played, to give you an idea of the kind of things that are possible. Most of these were played (and played well) by first-time players: - A modern blind samurai - A guy who could turn into a lightning storm and teleport through eletricity-masts - A shapeshifting druid who would turn into crazy beasts - An inventor who would build crazy weapons in the middle of a fight - A juggernaut who could not be moved except if he wanted to - A dwarf who controlled the earth and made earthquakes and the like - A regular guy who was so lucky he could operate inside a super team (he had no real superpowers, just the ability to change die rolls to a 20)

All of these were quite balanced, some were crazy superheroes, some were regular people. Due to the powerpoint mechanic, all of them could work very well together. None of these had any complicated mechanics; most characters only have about 5 active powers to worry about. Even some of my players who were turned off by the complexity of games like Dungeons&Dragons had no problem running these.

Difficult situations

Another big problem with running a game as a new DM is dealing with players who come up with difficult plans. M&M has a built in mechanic for when players do something that the DM does not know how to deal with (ie; plans that would circumvent the entire rest of the story) in that he can throw up a complication or even just say "we can't do that because it would break things" and award the players with special storypoints that they can later use to do cool stuff, to take away the sting. This allows a bit of railroading around really complicated or storybreaking things without the players feeling bitter about it. The points can also be awarded for when players do really cool things, to reward coming up with over the top things.

As an example, during one of my first games as a player, the storyteller had two villains in a scene. One active threat and one merely observing undetected. Unfortunately for him, I had a character who had radar-vision and superpowered-tracking skills; and I would have no problems detecting and following the second, more powerful villain. Upon stating I wanted to follow the sneaky guy while the rest of the team took off after the main trouble maker, he realised that I would either be able to circumvent half the story (by easily tracking what should be a hidden villain) or get myself captured/killed (by confronting someone we wouldn't be able to deal with even as a complete team)

Instead, he told me the enemy villain fled down a drain and managed to "somehow evade me in the sewers". In most games this would be a real let-down, but because you get a special token which is only awarded for being awesome (normally by doing amazing in-character things, but also when you outwit the storyteller) it doesn't feel like that. It just makes you feel cool and lets you jump back into the rest of the story. It's a combination of mechanics, setting and consensus around the table that you're running a superhero game that makes it work.

Level progression

Level progression is simply spending more points, just like character creation. This means no picking classes or having to match certain things together; you just upgrade whatever powers you found coolest or select new ones as you will. Plus, you get points at every session so you CAN upgrade something at every session, or wait a bit to get enough points for something really cool. The game's scope runs from ordinary People (Power Level 1-3 or so) to creatures that make even Superman poop his pants (at the max Power Level 20 you can do just about anything you want)

The crazy weapon builder I mentioned above for example, was originally supposed to play like a guy who carried around a bag of infinite weapons. But when the story began, the player realised it was more fun if he'd make them himself. From then on out, over the course of 2 or 3 sessions, he invested all his points into powers that would let him build new things in the middle of a fight. The switch from weapons-guy to crazy inventor came very naturally that way, and let him completely re-envision his character. That's something not a lot of systems seem to allow.

Extra bonus

The game uses only one type of dice (of the 20-sided variety) and all of this goodness comes in a single book. You can optionally buy a settings book for more information, samples, etc, but I've never used any. Plus, you can get the open rules for the game for free here: http://www.d20herosrd.com/

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a generally good answer, and I agree that M&M is probably a good way to go, but you don't ever reference actual experience with learning to play with this system, which is what the querent is asking about. Game-rec requires a reference to actual experience, and you don't mention how this system works for people who are learning on their own. \$\endgroup\$ – DuckTapeAl Dec 19 '14 at 9:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you have a good way to format such experience? I have learned to play this game from the book by myself (though not as my first) and have taught a number of new players, but other than listing out all the ways in which it's great I'm not sure how to reference actual experience. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Dec 19 '14 at 9:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ The RPG.SE guidelines for game recommendations are linked just under the question itself, as is the more general Stack Exchange guidance on providing good subjective answers. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Dec 19 '14 at 9:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ To clarify: all you have to add is why the game's features were great for your experience teaching yourself about RPGs with this system. That takes it from "These features are great!" to "I know these features are great because they worked for me." \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Dec 19 '14 at 10:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ Alright, how's this? I added in examples from the first times when I DMed and played the game. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Dec 19 '14 at 11:12

The only superhero game I know of that effectively teaches beginners how to roleplay is out of print. It is the basic version of TSR's Marvel Super Heroes. While I am a fan of Hero Game's Champions and Mayfair's DC Heroes RPG, TSR's Basic MSH RPG is gold standard of accessibility for novices.

While there are websites with old Marvel PDFs that are tolerated by Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast, your best bet are the following:



Noble Knight Games

Looks like you will pay between $18 to $35 as of December 2014 for a vintage boxed set. Note these are link to the searches I used not the product themselves.

There is a modern Marvel-less incarnation of the system behind MSH RPG called the 4c System. It takes name from the four colors used in the action chart of the original.

However I strongly recommend trying to get a hold of a vintage MSH RPG Boxed set.The writing is just infused with the love of comics, superheroes and all things Marvel. Something that will greatly appeal to a fan of Marvel Super Heroes.

The two books of the Basic Set are strongly oriented toward people who know nothing about roleplaying games. It almost laid out like a comics with copious illustrations tying every game mechanic back to something in the Marvel Universe.

For example the section on abilities not only as the usual table showing the different scores and their effect. It just doesn't have a column where the name of the Marvel Hero that best represents that score is shown, it has a head shot of that hero as well.

Combat mechanics are not only describe but a mini-comics illustrate each combat round in the example. The whole basic books is packed with stuff like this.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Please remember this is a game-rec question with its attendant guidelines. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Dec 19 '14 at 13:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ I read and played MSH RPGs. \$\endgroup\$ – RS Conley Dec 19 '14 at 13:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Then it'd be great if you use that experience to explicitly inform your answer. Talk about why and how teaching yourself the system was such a good experience that you're recommending it for other. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Dec 19 '14 at 21:36


The rules system and book are both fairly compact for an RPG. It explains everything you need to know in order to play, in friendly terms. Because it's centered around one-session games it is more approachable to a first time player that may be not yet feel ready to commit to a campaign. The only preparation required is to read the book and have it handy.

The components needed to play are a bunch of d6s (a less intimidating die for the non-RPG player), index cards, and a pen or two.

I've introduced this game to many veteran RPGers, and to people completely new to the hobby. Everyone has loved it. It has a fast, fun, lightweight feel.

Fiasco is setting-agnostic. It rely upon rolling on a group of tables that guide you in setting up the story and characters. These tables are called Playsets, and there are dozens available for free PDFs download from the publisher's website, and elsewhere on the internet. The Playset will provide a setting, and help shape the tone and characters.

A big list of official and fan-created playsets: http://www.bullypulpitgames.com/wiki/index.php?title=Fiasco_Playsets

A super hero playset for your Marvel-loving fan: http://www.bullypulpitgames.com/wiki/index.php?title=Heroes_Of_Pinnacle_City

If you give this as a gift, I'd recommend printing out two or three playsets your friend would enjoy and bundling them with the book. The core Fiasco book does come with a couple inside, but more tailored choices will help them see how flexible his new toy is.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you had anyone teach themselves on this system? \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Dec 19 '14 at 21:36

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