27 April 2012

Beginners & Box Sets

In my ongoing quest to write a good beginner's guide to RPGs I have run into a few RPG box sets. It used to be that any game worth its salt would have a box set of the rules, but somewhere in the mists of time they died out altogether. I was pleasantly surprised to see box sets starting to appear a few years ago, culminating in the return of the D&D Red Box. How do these sets stand up as introductory products, though?

D&D Red Box

This one is the elephant in the room. Anyone with any familiarity with the RPG "scene" knows about The D&D Red Box. Wizards of the Coast brought the box back a couple of years ago to entice more new players to the hobby. I can't say if they were successful, but regardless of their success they still created a good entry-level product.

In case you are brand new to role playing,  D&D is a game of epic high fantasy where players take on the roles of mighty heroes as they crawl through dungeons, save the world and, yes, even slay dragons.

The fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons is the most recent version of the game available at the time of writing this and the D&D Red Box is an entry level D&D product which contains everything you need to start playing the latest iteration of the classic game. The rules are simplified and feature a step by step adventure to play through. While these simplified rules are great for beginners, at some point players will want to graduate to full-fledged game.

Pathfinder Beginner Box

Golarion is a high fantasy world filled with gnomes, elves, dwarves and all manner of other fantastic races. With the Pathfinder RPG a player can jump in ready to craft their own epic adventures or join the famed Pathfinder Society, a group of covert agents and adventurers, to further the goals of Inner Sea factions.

Pathfinder rivals D&D 4e in the number of players that enjoy it regularly. Its roots lie in the previous edition of D&D and it maintains a similar play style. Much like D&D, Pathfinder enjoys a lively and widespread community with plenty of organized events to attend.

The Beginner Box is a simplified rules set that, like The Red Box, provides an excellent introduction to the hobby. It contains everything that you need to play and a little bit more. You should be aware that The Beginner Box is an introductory product and does not contain the complete rules. Players that enjoy the game will need to upgrade to the core rulebook at some point. That aside, it is a much more friendly and affordable introduction than the core rulebook is.

Doctor Who: Adventure's in Time & Space Box

The beloved British television show, Doctor Who, has introduced multiple generations to science fiction. It is fitting that the latest incarnation will also introduce many to the fine hobby of role playing. Doctor Who:AiT&S has one of the best, if not the best, introductory box sets available in the hobby. While the game is named after the eponymous and titular hero, the rules do not require his presence. They are written and presented in such a way that any group of heroes can blunder their way through space or time, with or without The Doctor.

Doctor Who comes with the complete rulebook, which is written in a casual and concise way and features a simple, yet flexible, set of rules. While the box set contains everything that you will ever need to play the game, the crown jewel is a set of introductory adventures with step by step advice for first time Guides. Even better, the adventure booklet also contains numerous adventure “seeds” to get a fledgling Guide started on creating their own adventures.

A final thing worth mentioning about this Doctor Who RPG is that it takes an anti-violence stance. The game de-emphasizes violence as solution to problems and instead encourages negotiation and wits.

Warhammer Fantasy 3e

Warhammer Fantasy 3e is probably the most expensive entry point into RPGs. It's also the most comprehensive. The hundred dollar core set looks more like a complicated board game than an RPG. It has custom dice, decks of cards, stand up monsters, and four different rulebooks. There are cards for every class, item and monster in the game. This can be good thing. It means the rules you need are always in front of you and that things can be easily kept track of.

The actual game takes place in the fantasy universe popularized by Game Workshop's immensely successful line of fantasy miniatures. You would be hard pressed to find a more iconic art style in gaming. Fantasy Flight has obviously spent a lot of time making the game beginner-friendly, attractive and complete. Of course, they have also produced a lot of supplemental products and those are of the same calibur.

Having not played or spent much time reading the rules I can't say how well the game actually plays. Fantasy Flight is usually pretty reliable, though.

Mouse Guard Box

The Mouse Guard RPG is set in the world created by David Petersen in his Eisner Award-winning comic book series. It features a world inhabited by sentient mice. Players in the Mouse Guard RPG take on the role of mice that belong to the Mouse Guard, a group that helps other mice survive the wilderness and fend of predators.

Mouse Guard is suitable for all ages, although parents should be aware that the world of Mouse Guard is not as friendly and cuddly as the premise would lead you to believe. The game is easy to learn, clearly written, and has even won an award for its design. The art, taken from the comic series, is also splendid.

The box set comes with everything you need to play, including the rules, adventures, dice, cards and even a map.

Dragon Age Core Box

The popular Dragon Age video game franchise spun off a tabletop role playing game made by the formidable Green Ronin. Anyone familiar with the video games should consider the Dragon Age Boxed Set 1 for their introduction to the tabletop hobby.

The rules are solid, simple to use, and reminiscent of the video games. Players will also be familiar with the lore of the game world, which can be one of the denser aspects of getting started with any role playing game. All of this is wrapped up in a gorgeous looking product. Having flipped through the rulebook I can say that it is very nice to look at. While looks aren't everything, they sure do go a long way in convincing someone to try out the game.

The boxed set, by the way, comes with a player's guide, game master's guide, dice and a map. The game master's guide also includes an introductory adventure, something a consider a necessity in any beginner level product. If I have any complaints about Dragon Age it is that they have packaged the game in such a way that you have to buy a new set for every few character levels. Set 1 only covers levels 1-5 and players will need to purchase up to Set 3 if they want to get to level 20.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess Box Set

Until I began my search for box sets that are currently in print I had no idea that Lamentations of the Flame Princess had a box set, despite being well-versed in the game and supplementary products. (Not well-versed enough, apparently.) While I'm not familiar with this particular incarnation of the game, I can say that the core rulebook is a nice product, if a little spartan looking.

Lamentations takes the high fantasy experience popularized by D&D and games like it and throws it into a blender along with Conan and the Cthulhu Mythos. The resulting game is darker than anything else on this list, but is also a fresh departure from the standard fantasy fare.

Lamentations comes with all you could expect to find in a box set: dice, rule book, GM's guide (called a referee in LotFP), introductory adventure and character sheets. Of particular interest is the included 98 page tutorial book. That is something that sounds very promising from a beginner's perspective.

LotFP sets a high standard as far as retroclone products go and it does so while putting a weird twist on the formula. One thing to keep in mind with LotFP is that it is a game clearly targeted for adults, so if your interest in an introductory set leans towards introducing younger players then this probably isn't the game for you.

Final Thoughts

I am not sure that all of these games will make it into the guide. I worry that if I provide too many options it will become difficult for potential players to make a decision on what to try and, really, it doesn't matter which game they get started with. I also suspect that I have missed a few box sets. If you think of one that is currently in print that I missed, please let me know.

19 April 2012

What are the best free RPGs for beginners?

I have been hard at work on writing a good, system-agnostic beginner's guide to tabletop role playing. I want a guide that any group of role players can point a prospective player at that will give them a good overview of the hobby along with some starting points. One of the sections in this guide recommends games for beginners and I really want a solid set of free games that I can recommend.

There are a lot of free games out there, many of which are for simple systems. A great example is Microlite20. It is a very simple system, it's 100% free and it's fun. Unfortunately, when I look at Microlite20 with a beginner's eye it is borderline incomprehensible. It is great for someone that knows what they are doing and just needs a few rules on a sheet of paper to keep them on track, but new players deserve something that will engage them as a reader and guide them through a good first experience.

I have found this same problem with a lot of the free games that I have looked at, so many of them assume that their audience knows how to role play already. I guess that is not much of a problem when the majority of the people reading and playing these free games are already familiar with the hobby. Still, I can't direct a prospective player to them if I want them to have a smooth and easy introduction to the hobby.

What a Beginner Friendly RPG Needs

  • Straightforward, easy to explain and use rules.
  • The basics of actually playing an RPG. It can't assume the players already know the basic structure and flow of play.
  • Easily obtainable. There can't be any hoops to jump through to get the rules. The necessary gear should also be minimal.
  • A starter adventure and examples of play. Ideally, the adventure would be written such a way as to teach the GM to GM and the players to play.


After a lot of looking around and wading through forum posts I think I have found find the a good set of suggestions for my guide.

Open d6/ WEG d6

If you're well versed in RPG news then you already know that WEG's d6 was re-branded as Open d6 and opened up to the community to do with as they will. The great thing about this is all of the core d6 games became available to anyone with an Internet connection.

Open d6 is a universal system with a very simple and easy to understand set of rules. It has three independent and core rulebooks: d6 Adventure, d6 Fantasy and d6 Space. A new player can pick up whichever of the three setting books appeals to them and get started right away. The writing is great and each book comes with an introductory choose-your-own-adventure section which introduces the rules and concepts of role playing with Open d6. I can't think of a better game to direct a new player to.

 On top of all the great things you can find in just the core Open d6 books, a large number of supplements are also available for free. Since the system went open we have also seen a number of fan conversions and reinterpretations of the system. Cinema 6 is a great example of this in action.

Swords & Wizardry

Swords & Wizardry is what is known as a “retroclone” of the very first edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The original rules have been rewritten and re-published so that anyone can enjoy them even though the game went out of print many years ago. S&W isn't the only retroclone available, but of the free options I think it is the most beginner friendly.

S&W doesn't have as much information for a new player as Open d6, but the simplicity of the rules along with the friendly tone and some solid advice for beginners is more than enough to make it stand out among free games. I am also confident that if we could figure out D&D by ourselves all those years ago that a new player ought to be able to manage with S&W.

Warrior, Rogue, & Mage

In the game's own words, "Warrior, Rogue & Mage is a simple, lightweight roleplaying game that allows a group of players and a game master to experience epic adventures in a fantasy world filled with wondrous magic."

WR&M is a very easy game to learn and play and it features a starter adventure as well as great advice for first-time GMs. WR&M is also available as Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, a version of the game set in an Indiana Jones-esque world of pulp adventure. There's really not much else to say about the game. It looks nice, it is free and it provides a good, solid set of advice for new players and GMs alike.

Final Thoughts

Each of the above games could be improved so that they are a better introduction to role playing, but as far as free games that I've looked at go they are a cut above. I think a box set like the Pathfinder Beginner Box is a superior starting product, but I also think there is something to be said for being able to download a game right now to look at and play.  (Speaking of box sets, I will be going over the ones aimed at new players in a future blog post.)

Am I on the mark with my selections? Do you think there is a game better-suited to be on this list? Let me know in the comments.

10 April 2012

A review of In Between (Polish version)

I was browsing the posts over at RPG Kepos and discovered that their Polish translation of In Between has been reviewed, and positively at that.

The review was from a blog named K20 and got a score of 3 our 5 which, if I understand the comments, is a pretty good score coming from this particular reviewer. One of the issues that the reviewer had with In Between is that The Wasteland was too empty and with too little direction. I can’t say I can disagree with this, The Wasteland acts as a gateway in the game. The players meet each other there, learn about the afterlife and in some cases may become involved in a conflict with a demon. While I can’t see removing The Wasteland phase from the game as it is by far the most evocative aspect of the setting, I can certainly see putting a little more flesh on its bones.

The second issue that K20 brought up was that they felt that the demons are an unnecessary component of the game. I’m not sure I can agree with that one. The demons fill three roles in the game, the first is as a threat to the characters. The demons are there to add an element of danger and drama, something that can pose a threat in all of the phases of the game. The second role they fill is as a balancing mechanic. They exist to counter exorcists (and vice versa). Finally, they provide an alternate path for players to take in the game, they answer the question of “What happens when I do evil/selfish things in the mortal realm?” In fact, through playtesting I soon found that players wanted to be able to go down a darker road. A lot of the demon rules did not exist until version 2 of the game, prior that they had mostly acted as set dressing. So no, I don’t agree that they are unnecessary. Players want to have that darker option, even if they won’t use it. They want to know what happens if they don’t try and redeem themselves. If someone wants to play a game more centered around personal exploration, without the threat of demons (and possibly exorcists), then I think they should go right ahead and do it. It’s very easy to houserule out that portion of the game. Perhaps I should talk a little about that in an Optional Rules/Tweaks section. The Polish version of the game actually has a section like that where the translators added a few house rules that they like to use and I see no reason not to add it to the English version.

The final thing that K20 didn’t seem to enjoy was that the game is GMless. That’s far from surprising. Story games, especially GMless ones, are a very small niche of the RPG world. In this case the reviewer likes to have someone in the role of GM to guide the game, they aren’t interested in sharing that role. That’s fine, not everyone enjoys sharing that role and I can’t hold matters of personal taste against the reviewer.

Those things out of the way, it was still a positive review of the game. The reviewer thought that the mechanics were solid, the theme was interesting and the game was entertaining. Perhaps not to their personal tastes, but entertaining nonetheless. I’ll chew on their criticisms for a while and see if I can make the updated English version even better.

Speaking of the English version: yes, it is on the way. I haven’t forgotten about it, I’ve just been busy with other things. Tweet, the fellow that did the layout for the Polish version, supplied me with some layout and logo files that will make this the nicest version yet. I also have the revised set of rules that was hammered out in the back and forth during the translation. This means that the Polish version is actually more up to date than English version because they translated from my in progress new edition and not from the published second edition. Layout work is slow going, but I hope to have this finished up sometime in the summer.


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