After many weeks or months of curiosity, you’ve finally located your friendly local game store to browse around and purchase your first RPG book. You walk in and see a group of people crowded around a table, clearly playing a game with no pieces, board or tokens. Nothing but oddly shaped dice, excited voices and stacks of worn tomes. Turning to the large wall strewn with books of various shapes, sizes, art styles and color schemes, you’re almost a bit intimidated. That begs the question: Where do I start?
Navigating the world of tabletop RPGs can be like taking an evening stroll through a minefield. Your first experience can be so touchy and can shape the way that you view the hobby as a whole if it’s bad. The first nugget of info I can honestly give; don’t let that first experience be your last if it was terrible. Before you dive headlong into this great hobby, try to play with some people who have experience first, for good or for ill. Mainly this is to see how the idea of the game is brought to life rather than learning mechanics specifically. Every system is different and therefore the rules aren’t terribly important until you’re playing that particular game. A first time game that goes well can be something that puts you up on cloud 9 and fills you with a ravenous hunger for more. Search for that good experience, it’ll be the best thing you ever do. That leads us to where specifically to start. If you’re lucky enough to find an established group that’s willing to let you take a whack at it, jump in head first.
Not all RPGs are particularly friendly to newcomers, however. A game like Shadowrun or Legend of the Five Rings very much have reputations for being “elite” level role playing games. Don’t let the term “elite” fool you, it doesn’t mean that there’s a hierarchy of role players like there is in, say, a tabletop war-game community. The mechanics are very specific, pretty complicated and can be very demanding of attention. This takes away from the overall balanced experience of role playing and execution of mechanics. My advice would be to avoid those games for a first RPG experience unless you’re in for the challenge. That might warrant a lot of hate from the community, but I believe it’s a good idea to start simple and work up to complicated according to taste of the individual player. It’s far better to be underwhelmed than overwhelmed.
This is where things get tricky: What if I can’t find a group that will take me in and have to start my own? Learning an RPG in a group setting without someone that’s familiar with what you’re playing can be tricky. Especially if you simply purchase a book based on the artwork and no resources to indicate what the game itself is like. In fairness, we do live in an age where every piece of information you could ever want is at your fingertips, but this is hypothetical. So where do I recommend starting? Most people come from a video game community into the tabletop RPG world, so my opinion may be unpopular…
Image credit to Monkey in the Cage
Yup, D&D 4th edition. Before you slip into an edition wars rage, hear me out. If you’re coming from a video game setting and are completely unfamiliar with RPG’s, this is probably the most clear cut parallel to video games. Therefore, it will be the easiest to understand in translation from screen to table. It’s also the most similar to a board game, making it very relatable and new player friendly.
There’s long list of drawbacks that come with this edition, don’t get me wrong. It falls apart at higher levels, the combats take an incredibly long time, miniatures and a battlemat are required, and role playing is entirely up to the players with no mechanics to speak of that back it up. Not to mention that you need to buy three books to play the game essentially, but there’s a lot to be taken form 4e that has helped shape the modern RPG community. As a warning, I may be a little biased because this is where I started. Would I go back? Maybe for a one off, but not for a long term campaign. It is the easiest transition piece in my opinion, though.
If you’re not coming from a video game background, there’s a lot of other games I’d recommend. With more bias, 13th Age is a fantastic blend of mechanical role playing, mechanical combat, player agency, epic stories and, to wrap it up with a pretty bow, can be played with only one book. From there, if you want to go more narrative and less mechanics, a game like Lasers and Feelings has a huge advantage. The rules are one page long for both the player and game master and you need one six sided die. That’s the entire game. If you’re looking for that epic story, that’s certainly not the game for you, but such a story requires more mechanics.
For a more modern/investigative game, Night’s Black Agents lends itself well to new players due to the simplicity of Pelgrane Press’ Gumshoe system. Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars role playing series (Edge of the Empire, Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny) has some pretty awesome starter box content that gives you a little of everything to get the dice rolling. Finding a group is a challenge within itself, but there are great mediums like the website Meetup that lend themselves nicely to people looking for some social interaction. I had a great experience with Meetup when I moved to Phoenix, AZ for six months. I found a very nice 3.5 group that I played with the entirety of my stay and had a blast.
Be persistent, be patient, and most of all, don’t forget to have fun.
Stay Metal \m/