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Rutskarn’s RPG System Hoedown, Part 1

By Rutskarn
on Saturday Dec 5, 2015
Filed under:
Tabletop Games


I used to get really needled when TV shows and movies portrayed D&D as some kind of hilarious degeneracy Gollumlike people get up to when not lusting after cheerleaders or hacking the Pentagon. Then I grew up, moved to the relatively open and pressure-free environment of college, and found out the surprising truth: the takeaway of most non-nerds had been that the dragon game those bespectacled clowns had been playing had looked pretty fun. Go figure.

So that’s not my least favorite myth about RPGs anymore. My least favorite myth is that playing them is hard.

Truth is, if you have a quarter of a brain, want to pretend to be a barbarian for an afternoon, and know a few people with similar inclinations–and you have a stable enough internet connection to read this paragraph–there is basically nothing stopping you. You do not need a sponsor. You do not need a coach. You do not need seven hundred dollars of special equipment. If you and your buds get a wild hair, I promise you that you can be up and running with some kind of tabletop experience in actual minutes. If you want to run the most common systems, it will require anywhere from two to six hours of research to have a really good start.

There are more great systems to play now than ever before–which brings me to the one part that really is difficult for a newbie, which is figuring out what to play. While I’m sure someone out there has written a dynamite guide for setting new players up with the right system, I haven’t encountered it. Mostly I’ve encountered either squawking narcissistic slapfests explaining why everything north or south of a treasured game is terrible or very vague guides that are approachable at the expense of being educational or substantial.

Here’s the thing: there is no best game for beginning players. It really depends on who you are and what you want to get out of it.

Let’s start with Dungeons and Dragons.

For people who play a lot of tabletop games, D&D has a very complicated status. It’s a big classic game beloved by countless players and is tied to the DNA of pretty much all interactive entertainment out there. It’s also carrying around forty years of baggage and sacred cows from the pre-Nintendo era. It’s not hard to find dedicated groups of roleplayers who play D&D exclusively and it’s not hard to find groups that won’t play it under any circumstances.

Here’s the thing to get out of the way right up front about D&D. It is, and always has been, all about the bullshit.

What is “bullshit?” Let me put it this way:

If you want a game system that tells you exactly what happens when you attack a monster, I can point you to a hundred.

If you want a game system that tells you exactly what happens when you attack a monster with an axe, I can point to several dozen.

If you want a game system that tells you exactly what happens when you attack a large undead monster with a freezing greataxe and you’re a barbarian of middling expertise in decent shape except you’ve caught a touch of dwarf pox and also you’re really only good at using spears, the list basically narrows to D&D and a few systems almost as good as D&D. The point of Dungeons and Dragons as a game is not that it’s the best game for telling stories and certainly not that it’s the fastest game to learn, it’s that it’s an in-depth repository of rules for how to conclusively resolve Heroic Fantasy Situations. It’s rejected by groups that don’t want to track and dignify all of those petty details, and with good reason: it is those petty details.

When I talk about which editions I’m recommending, I’m really boiling each edition down to two questions:

1.) What kinds of Heroic Fantasy Situations did the developers want to create?

2.) How good a job did they do?

Without further ado, let’s talk about my recommendations:

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition

This is probably the simplest version of D&D I’m going to talk about today.

Some people reading this are chuckling darkly, so let me hasten to say that this game is not at all intuitive. Later editions of the game try to make it so that understanding one of the game’s little subsystems (your character’s skills, your character’s ability to resist poison, your character’s ability to break down a door) allows you to understand how to do basically anything with any character. 2E is not that sophisticated, but it’s not that ambitious, either.

2E is one of the last editions to really lay down the law. Sneaking? There’s rules for doing that–if you’re playing a Thief. If you’re not, the game makes no attempt to help you.

Getting really good at a particular weapon? The game has rules for that–if you’re playing a Fighter. If you’re not, the game makes no attempt to help you.

Want to play a Dwarf Mage? Then you want to play a different system.

But once you’ve learned some of its more charming idiosyncrasies (lower armor class is better, there’s specific percentile rolls for almost every application of strength) it’s also one of the easiest rules systems to apply. Leveling a character in a later edition can take take anywhere from five minutes to an hour, depending on how juicy your choices are and how much math you have to do; leveling a character in this edition generally takes about thirty seconds. Combats are resolved quickly because options are limited to the obvious. Many situations are simply left to the DM’s discretion–instead of rolling to see how the Duke reacts to the proposal, you’re encouraged to just figure it out yourself. As a DM, it’s actually pretty breezy and relaxing to run once you’ve gotten the hang of it.

The biggest drawback of 2E is also its biggest strength: it is classic. Playing this game is a return to the fantasy of the late 80s, where life was cheap, treasure was king, elves were pretty, and dwarves were dour. Take a walk through its illustrations and you’ll find it strikingly different than modern fantasy–it looks less like a modern computer RPG and more like the lid of a hippie jewelry box.

Third Edition Three Point Five Pathfinder

Okay, so let me skip over about a decade of history in one sentence: the next major edition of D&D went through several big fiddly revisions, the last of which was actually undertaken by a third party. The final result was a game called Pathfinder, and if you’re coming in at this point, it’s probably the only iteration on this theme worth worrying about. It has the added advantage of being totally free along with just about all of its supplemental material.

Pathfinder is different than 2E in two ways which deliberately balance each other out. On the one hand, it has a farther reach–it can and does try to tell you what happens when your fighter attempts to sneak, your wizard starts swinging a sword, or your dwarf starts studying arcana. It can even let them all become good at those things. One the other hand, it unites most of the game’s rules under one basic and elegant mechanic so all this added complexity doesn’t become overbearing. When you factor in all the little variables and modifiers and character development choices you can make, it all averages out at slightly more complicated than 2E for a lot more flexibility. You’ll spend more time fussing with the rules and less time wishing they existed, if that makes sense.

The result is also a less laser-focused and on-the-nose fantasy milieu, but that’s kind of the point. It offers more freedom to style the setting and action to your group.

While this isn’t the system I’d recommend to all new groups, this is the system I’d recommend to most of them. Just know you’ll be spending a little more time nose-down in a book before you get started.

NEXT WEEK: 4th and 5th

Comments (113)

  1. Joshua says:

    Or you could start them with the Basic D&D set, skipping 2E altogether. Depending upon what they like and what the games are focusing on, you could then upgrade them to 3X/Pathfinder, 4E, or 5E.

    Spoken as a person who’s *basically* played every version of D&D (and Pathfinder), and enjoyed different aspects of them. Basically being that I never played 1E except for the old computer games, but I did play the basic red box D&D.

    One other positive aspect that you missed from the 2E is that it accommodates “couch-style gaming”, where minis, tactical maps etc. aren’t really needed. I remember all of my games through the 90s were basically us sitting around a dorm room, or someone’s living room in an apartment just explaining what our characters were doing. Not only is this cheaper for gamers starting out, it’s simpler and more relaxing.

    3E strongly encourages sitting down around a tactical map, and 4E basically requires it. It’s more optional with 5E, but more in the sense that you may want it for certain encounters and can probably skip it for simpler ones.

    • MichaelGC says:

      Aye – although that won’t be true for absolutely everyone. To a certain kind of mindset – e.g. mine :D – it’s actually simpler to start out with something a bit more board-gamey (i.e. with miniatures & maps & all that fun stuff) and thus a bit more strictured & structured. The freer couch-style would be something to move on to once my sort of mind had begun to get the hang of things, I think.

      Not arguing with what you say, of course! – I’m just saying that what is simple will be different for different people. At, er, a high-risk of wellduhitude now that I think about it!… Anyway, obviously best to start with what you’re most comfortable with, and go from there.

    • Hawk says:

      Yeah, I’d say BECMI is a great entry point for the otherwise uninitiated. Simpler, more streamlined (though not yet intuitive). And of course 5E is BECMI and 3.5’s bastard lovechild, but I’m sure you’ll get to that next week.

    • Merlin says:

      I’d argue that 5E mechanically is just as grid-focused as 3E and 4E, but simply by repeatedly saying “You can play it gridless!” they’ve created a culture more willing to eschew using one. It’s kind of an interesting (and pretty undeniably positive) bit of groupthink.

      • It’s DEFINITELY not as grid focused as 4E. 4th was very much a tactical miniatures combat simulator, and there were entire classes based around moving characters around the board in small amounts. In 3rd/5th, there are only a few abilities that actually move things around, and even then precise amount of movement is less important. You could easily have a party composition where no one cares about positions beyond “are they in range or not”.

        • Joshua says:

          Reasons why using a grid map would be needed:

          1. Area of effects, traps, etc. This has been true for all editions, and so you can easily wing not having a map if this is the only issue.

          2. Opportunity Attacks. This emerged with 3.0, and was the most obnoxious with 3.0 over any other iteration of the rules. This strongly encouraged maps, because it was a big deal to know where everyones’ characters were in relation to each other. 3.5 cut back on some of the insanity of Opportunity Attacks, and 4.0 cut them back even more to just moving past an enemy and/or using targeted ranged spells next to them. 5.0 kept this trend, so now you’re really only provoking OA if you’re completely brushing past an enemy. I actually like this last change, as it makes for less stilted combat positioning without resorting to silly 5′ steps or Shifts, although I don’t like the fact that casters seem to have free range again even if in melee combat (you can get Disadvantage, but it’s a non-issue for save-based spells).

          3. Forced movement. 4E was crazy for this, as they thought that having all of the characters moving around a battlefield constantly would make the game more exciting. 5E has a few things like Thunderwave, but not really on the same level as 4E.

          4. Tactical Advantage. Aha, get an ally on the other side of an enemy, and he/she’s flanked! This sounds like a nice tactical option, but it quickly became one of the few tricks to pull, and then add in the fact that another enemy can get on the other side of *you*, and you end up with the infamous “conga line”. 3E and 4E both had this a lot, but 5E really doesn’t because there’s no inherent advantage with positioning yourself at a specific spot around an enemy unless you’ve got a Rogue in the group, and then it’s simply you’re melee fighting the same enemy as the Rogue, whether that be on opposite sides or right next to each other.

          Maybe others that I’m missing, but 5E definitely has a *lot* less need for the exact positioning of a map.

  2. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Here's the thing: there is no best game for beginning players.

    Yes there is.


    You have been asked to be the GM for a group of people who have never played a tabletop RPG before. They do not wish to play any version of Dungeons & Dragons, nor do they wish to play GURPS. Which system do you choose?



    • 4th Dimension says:

      Paranoia is good if the people playing it are dins with the idea that their character can loose while other people’s characters will win. Some weird people, like me, enjoy more co-operational rather than adversarial play. Also people playing adversarial need to know how to maintain a distance from what is happening to their character. You don’t wan’t Bob getting pissed off at Jim because Jim’s character killed Bob’s one time too many and than to rub it in made a joke about it.

      • Zaxares says:

        Yeah. While Rutskarn’s basic premise is still correct if you’re looking at putting together a game for people who have never played before, once you’ve had a few games with your friends and have a better handle on what kinds of players they are (what they enjoy, what motivates them), it can drastically affect the kind of playstyle you’ll want to use. And that in turn can affect your decision on what kind of game you’ll run, because the different rulesets and systems lend themselves to very different styles of play.

        3E/Pathfinder, for example, I’d argue is very much a game that min-maxers will adore, because of the sheer volume of number crunching and blending different rules/classes/feats together it can offer. There’s far less wiggle room in 2nd Ed, where the paths to power are fairly well defined and certain races/classes will simply never be able to ascend to the upper echelons no matter what it is they do.

        • Jake says:

          I started a group of my wife’s coworkers with a game of Paranoia and they really liked it, but that’s because my wife and I both knew them and we were confident enough in having judged their dynamic to know that was the game for them. We’ve done board games with enough of them that we mapped their desire for Werewolves into a desire to enjoy Paranoia, and were right.

          I ran Stealth Train, then Mr. Bubbles, and they picked up the intricacies of the “rules” really, really quickly. I had six players, and thirteen deaths in one session, and that included the one person who had all of their limbs broken and then kept from committing a healing suicide for the rest of the session because of friendship.

    • Loa Vecre says:

      Within the medieval fantasy genre, I’d strongly recommend Cubicle 7’s Lone Wolf Adventure box. It has the distinct advantage of being a system specifically made to introduce beginning players and GMs to the hobby and the whole box comes in slightly cheaper than the average big rulebook.
      You basically open the box, let the players pick a prefab character and then the GM just has to read through the first book, which has a step-by-step andventure that gradually introduces the core rules and shows the GM how to run things.

    • Falterfire says:

      Except where is a beginner going to GET a copy of Paranoia?

      Paranoia isn’t in print, and from what I can tell there aren’t anywhere near as many extra copies of the sourcebooks floating around as there are D&D books.

      When I tried to start a game of Paranoia with friends we failed at the first hurdle because it looked like it was going to be well over $100 to even buy one of the books we needed.

    • Anachronist says:

      I would recommend Call of Cthulhu as a “best” game for beginners. My first tabletop game was D&D 3.0, then 3.5, then the GM introduced Call of Cthulhu and I was amazed at the simplicity and elegance of it. It was refreshing to spend more-game time on developing the story, solving problems, and role-playing, and have a simple percentile-based mechanic to resolve outcomes. None of the players even had to read a rule-book, that’s how good for beginners it was (analogous to Paranoia where the players aren’t allowed to know the rules).

      I found the pacing in CoC much improved too — when a combat situation arose in CoC, it progressed in near real-time rather than slowing to a crawl like in D&D. I always found it strange that time passes quickly in D&D when you aren’t fighting, but slows way down during combat, to the point where each six-second round can take as much as 15 minutes to resolve.

      Paranoia’s OK for a beginner too, but for a group of friends new to tabletop RPGs, I’d prefer not to introduce a game that fosters lack of trust and, well, paranoia about fellow players. Call of Cthulhu feels more like playing on a team where all players watch each other’s back.

  3. Primogenitor says:

    I’d guess this is also one of the reasons why D&D is the most successful pen and paper to cRPG conversions. The rules are so tight that its easy to implement in code, at least for combat.

    • Bropocalypse says:

      It’s also the most well-known and possibly the oldest, so it’s the first thing most people(including those largely unfamiliar with tabletop gaming) will think of, including programmers.

      • For example, when people make lists like this, D&D is always on there. Ruts isn’t going to include every random table top system that’s ever been invented.

      • Peter H. Coffin says:

        AD&D was also very stable for a LONG TIME, which meant a lot of people got the opportunity to taste the same flavors of it and have that common ground. 1st Edition was static (though occasionally expanded) for ten years. Then 2nd Edition was static (and occasionally expanded) for another ten years. And then the metaphor changed as discussed above from dice and scribbled notes and rules for mechanics, to maps and tokens and rules for tactics. I’d go so far as to say that 3rd and beyond were more of a different game than (A)D&D were prior to 2000, and even though those were incompatible rulesets, they were approaching the same experience.

    • King Marth says:

      It looks that way, but as Shamus himself pointed out since the rules are set up to make each die roll exciting (sort of, attack rolls at least), the combat looks quite swingy at the default pace of WRPG play where it doesn’t autopause.

      On the other hand, the plethora of rules makes D&D computer games possible at all. No natural language processing needed for most common cases, though of course you can prod a DM into letting something silly happen.

  4. I don’t have any experience with D&D, because almost all of my experience is with The One Ring. (Which is a great system, BTW. I’d be willing to call it the best of the Hobbit/LotR licensed games.)

    I couldn’t recommend a single system to everybody as an introduction to roleplaying games, because people want different things. But for someone who wants lots of role-playing and not much roll-playing, I would recommend Fiasco. I’ve had some very fun experiences with that game.

  5. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

    I suppose if you want to play a high fantasy DnD game, these are good starting places (I agree, I wouldn’t try to start someone on 4th or 5th).

    However, when I was introducing people to roleplaying, I thought the storyteller/star wars D6/Ryssus systems were best. First, everyone intuitively understands “ah, I roll lots of dice, and if I get high numbers that’s good” and they also understand splitting dice pool. “Ah, I can do, like, six dice worth of action, so I have to allocate those dice across those actions.”

    Also, there’s something exciting about rolling a lot of dice.

    • Bropocalypse says:

      (I agree, I wouldn't try to start someone on 4th or 5th).

      4th, no, certainly not. 5th, however, is very well supported on an official level for new players to get into. It’s part of the reason why 5th edition has been the most successful of all D&D iterations to date.

      • Yeah, 5th is definitely a good starting place, and would probably be my default recommendation if you’ve never done anything before. It’s definitely good at certain things, but at the very least it’s flexible enough to give you a taste of most things different RPGs are good at, and if it doesn’t totally float your boat it will help point you towards what kind of things you DO want to be well supported in your system of choice.

        It’s also a good middle ground, if you have a bunch of people that want to play together, but aren’t all 100% into the same style of play.

        • Joshua says:

          5th is also much easier than 3/4/Pathfinder for simply having to make a few broad choices about the type of character you’d like to play, and then simply starting. Although there’s some diversification due to class paths, backgrounds, and the like, you can have a newbie say “I want to play an Elven Ranger like Legolas”, and the character could easily be rolled up for them without having to make too many choices. They can make a few choices later on (such as the aforementioned level 3 class path) without really having to have made plans beforehand.

    • ehlijen says:

      I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I must say I think the White Wolf Storyteller system (favourite incarnation so far is nWOD) has some really great selling points, the most important of which is:

      Stats and skills are not hard linked

      I.e. if the GM decides that holding still in the bush of sting nettles you ended up in is a Strength + stealth roll when most games would say dexterity is the stealth skill, the rules encourage that kind of thinking. And I think that it’s a big help for starting GMs, to be told: do what you think makes the game more enjoyable, not what the rules require.

      White Wolf and now Onyx Path have been undermining that freeform approach with their latest crops, sadly, with complex subsystems and ever fiddlier conflict resolution rules. Those rules aren’t bad for the most part, for the specific games they’re making, but they are at odds with the ‘eyeball it’ approach that makes nWOD Core (Mortals) so wonderfully flexible and easy to pick up.

      • p_Johhnston says:

        Actually fifth edition takes a move in this direction. It links skills to stats, but also takes care to explain that it’s not a sacred bond. If you want the rouge to roll a strength+stealth check then you can. I often have my players make charisma investigate checks or dexterity animal handling. It’s actually really nice to have that freedom.

        • ehlijen says:

          I did not know that but I like it now that I do.

        • Joshua says:

          Yeah, I like that, but really hate the way they implemented skills with going out of the way to not call them skills. It’s all phrased as ability checks, with the skill being a subset. Roll an Intelligence (Investigation) check, or a Charisma (Persuasion) check. It just ends up being really confusing, especially the way they changed Disarm/Open Lock into using Thieves’ Tools.

          I think you could still get away with doing the optional stat by doing it the way it should be done, which is “give me an Intimidate check”, and then flipping it to be “give me an Intimidate check, but use Strength instead of Charisma”, or whatever.

          One of my few complaints with 5E.

  6. Akuma says:

    I’m a bit mixed on the Pathfinder recommendation.

    I played mainly 3.5 back in the day so when I started playing again Pathfinder was an easy choice (Especially since I could get all the details without having to buy books all over again) but as time has gone by Pathfinder appears more and more bloated to me now. I blame the power creep mostly and how if you want your character to be actually good at something you need to whip out a spreadsheet. As I started DMing more and more I started to dislike how the 3.5 foundations kind of force a character build to feel like tunnel vision.

    I’ve moved onto 5th edition now and I like alot about it and have started writing adventures for it, but I can’t escape the feeling a different much less popular system would be right for me. Unfortunately due to how I play and the groups I interact with finding the time to play games with different rule sets is tricky at best. But thems the breaks.

    • Matt Downie says:

      Pathfinder is clearly pretty bloated by now. There are upsides to this – you can imagine pretty much any kind of character and there is a way to create them and make them effective under the rules.

      But my brain is seriously over-stuffed with Pathfinder rules by now, and there’s still a high chance that if a player creates a new character using the internet it will use a whole bunch of systems I don’t know. I’d recommend a new player learn 5E rather than risk becoming a Pathfinder expert like me.

    • Purple Library Guy says:

      Not sure it’s really a recommendation as such. Seems to be saying this is one game that makes a reasonable starting game, and an idea of the way it rolls. Doubtless as the series progresses there will be others, including non-D&D ones, that are also reviewed fairly positively. I’ll be interested to see when/if he gets to GURPS and what his take is (I myself am very fond of GURPS, but there are arguments against it, and some would say it’s got complexities that make it not a great starting game).

  7. Cybron says:

    Since I wouldn’t expect Ruts to cover it, I’m gonna go ahead and throw in that if you’re looking for a scifi RPG, try Traveller. There are a bajillion different editions but the Mongoose version is probably the most beginner friendly.

    I still prefer 3.5 over pathfinder myself for a few reasons. I doubt those reasons are anything a new player would care about though, given that they have so much wrestling with the system to do.

    I don’t think 3.5/PF are very well designed but when it comes to system-heavy RPGs there’s a lot to be said for familiarity. I have a decade of experience with making up encounters and numbers on the fly in that system, and understand what the party can and cannot handle at any given moment. Makes it really easy to create the right level of tension. This is why my group has been pretty slow to switch over to newer editions of D&D.

    • Gawain The Blind says:

      I prefer 3.5 to pathfinder too, though I do like pathfinder a lot. What I don’t like about pathfinder is that its so massive, and character abilities so different, that if you don’t specifically limit the books your players can create characters from, the game becomes hours of just referencing books for every little thing. “Well, my gnome can breathe fire out of his face but only on alternate.. lemme check.. yeah, Tuesdays. The rest of the week he can shoot fireballs out of his ass, unless he’s within striking distance of an orc, in which case the face fire thing is right back in! Also he can breathe underwater unless the moon is out, or unless he (flip flip flip) yeah here it is, unless he is holding hands with an elven ranger, in which case he can fly. I used 5 different books to create him, here they are.” multiplied by how many players you have in your group. In my case 6 or 7.

      3.5 has a lot of little expansion books and such too, but none of them have the same sweeping changes for character options that the extra books for pathfinder bring. Huge, game changing things. More like “This is a fighter, he’s really good with horses and lancing bad things.”

    • Purple Library Guy says:

      When you say “Traveller”, just what are you referring to? The original? One of the remakes? The original has the benefit of being very simple in many ways, but kind of limited, and then there’s the annoyance that you could spend an hour rolling up a character only to have them die during their xth “term of service” before you had actually started playing them.
      I don’t know much about the remakes. There was a GURPS Traveller released at one point, which I’ve tried and I thought it worked rather well . . . GURPS maps onto original Traveller mechanics surprisingly smoothly, because they’re both skill-based games without levels or character classes, and with relatively few ability scores (ST, DX and so on). And Traveller’s 2d6 success/skill rolls are fairly similar to GURPS 3d6; both bell curves, the GURPS one just gives a slightly broader spread. Most Traveller skills have a GURPS equivalent, and GURPS has rules that let you do the Traveller “Start with wealth or status or important possessions” thing. So all it really needed was rules for technology, alien races and such specific to Traveller, and you had an effective port.

  8. Merlin says:

    Ruts, I love ya, but I think you’re coming at this from the totally wrong direction. There is absolutely a right game to play, and it’s only barely dependent on who you are and what you want to get out of it. The best game for a beginning player is whichever game allows him access to a non-beginner.

    If the only RPG player you know/can find is a 2E guy, have him run a 2E game. If he’s a Lady Blackbird guy, you’re playing that. Or Dread, or Dungeon World, or Fate, or whatever. The important thing is that you learn the ropes as you go, from an honest-to-god person rather than a tome. (Or collection of tomes, in D&D’s case.) Not (just?) because Books Are Lame, but because translating from A Bunch of Rules to An Actual Game is a complicated, difficult thing to do if you’re just trying to get your legs under you.

    Any kind of genre-specific or system-specific nitty gritty is a distant second place, and doing this sort of thing in any depth feels a little bit like starting your first PC build by learning about motherboard bus architectures.

    • Matt Downie says:

      Depends on your situation, of course. Maybe you’re looking on internet meetup groups for something to join, and you find a dozen different options in your city. Maybe your friends say they’d like to try an RPG but none of them know any and they think you’re the sort of person who can learn a system and be the GM for them.

    • silver Harloe says:

      Reminds me of a programming adage: there IS a best programming language to use: the one your best programmers have the most experience with. No matter how terrible or unstylish the language, your programmers will be worse if you switch to Most Popular Thing Today than if they stick with what they know.

    • That’s fair, but then you don’t need a guide. This is for people that don’t have access to someone experienced with a system they are willing to run. You and your friends want to try tabletop and don’t know where to start.

  9. King Marth says:

    I’m reminded of the Drowning and Falling RPG. It’s about a bunch of heroes that face perilous dungeons where they may drown and/or fall to their deaths. Monsters sometimes show up, to increase the risk of drowning and falling. Dwarves can hold their breath longer, and elves fall on their feet. There’s a section in the rules asking about modes of death like fire and electrocution; it patiently explains that the game just isn’t about that sort of thing, though smoke asphyxiation might be close enough to drowning to fit in if you want to play like that.

    The commentary here is that you can tell a details-oriented game like D&D or GURPS by how they have specific rules subsets for drowning and falling. If mundane hazards are treated cinematically as just another in-game situation to roll your Overcome check against, you’re playing in a different style.

  10. Nidokoenig says:

    Surely, when picking an RPG system, you should start as you mean to go on and decide using a handful of dice and a loot table? Though then you get into an argument about which loot table to use and the bell curves of different dice rolls.

  11. I tend to base my ideas about what systems are good for newbies on how long it takes to make a character or NPC. If it’s going to take 2 hours to pick all your stats, feats, classes, etc., it’s better to start with something a bit more streamlined for your first gaming session.

    The (quite possibly) worst example of this is actually Mutants and Masterminds 2nd edition, a game that I love dearly, but it can take literally all day to make up a single character. It’s amusing because it PLAYS very fast–if you’re using pre-generated characters (or ones with a few simple this-or-that choices) instead of designing one from base principles, it’s a GREAT entry system for new gamers because the response to literally EVERYTHING is “roll this d20”. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

    Fortunately spending your points when you’ve gotten them generally isn’t as bad. It’s nailing down the initial concept that’s the time-eater.

    • ehlijen says:

      DnD 3.x could actually get quite bad in that regard, too, if the custom starting gear selection was fully utilised. It could also lead to nonsense like every party starting with at least several hundred pieces of chalk.

      It can also be a problem in shadowrun if you’re looking at lots of cyberware.

      Generally, I think character creation should avoid decimal point calculations if at all possible.

      • p_Johhnston says:

        I personally love more complicated systems like “mutant’s and masterminds” and “shadowrun” because I love trying to optimize the characters. I always tend to see systems with lot’s of options as a sort of puzzle. If I fit all the stat’s and gear together in a certain way the result if a glorious pictures of death and destruction. So basically I’m a munchkin.

        That being said I know that most people don’t have my particular quirks so a simpler starting system is usually better, even for a more seasoned group sometimes.

        • Don’t get me wrong, I love M&M, but I would NEVER spring the character creation on people who haven’t played a game before. D&D/Pathfinder may be bad but try deciding your stats/feats/skills/powers/equipment when they ALL COME FROM THE SAME POOL OF POINTS.

          You get one person who’s less than decisive and you’ll be there all week.

          • ehlijen says:

            Yeah, without some guidance and/or examples for new players, such open systems tend to fail more often than they succeed for the first few games :(

            Character creation apps/programs can help immensely, but I’ve never liked more than one computer at the table.

          • krellen says:

            Last time I played M&M with a newbie, I just asked her what sort of character/power she wanted and built the character for her. She was able to make more informed decisions by the time she got points to spend herself after that, and it worked out pretty well.

            Ease them into it.

      • Peter H. Coffin says:

        Heh. And then there’s Traveller. Where a starting character goes through possibly a 20 year military career and could end up dead or with literally a space ship and enough money to retire on, obviating the entire need for the adventuring. Lemme say that again: Your character can die in the process of character creation, necessitating starting all over again.

      • Purple Library Guy says:

        Shadowrun is lots of fun, I’m very fond of it. And somehow, even though there are some ludicrous things about the mechanics which really ought to wreck it (difficulty changes target numbers while skill adds dice, so the probabilities don’t map, worsened by: target number changes can multiply the difficulty or make hardly any difference, depending what the difficulty currently is. That is, +2 difficulty from 4 to 6 gives you 1/3rd the chance of a success, +2 from 6 to 8 gives you 5/6ths the chance) somehow it all mostly works out in practice, and meanwhile some of the mechanics really support the feel of the game, like Essence and stuff.

        But I’d never recommend it as a starting game. Nope nope nope.

    • Purple Library Guy says:

      Strong point. But, it depends, too. If you’re dealing with people who are new to gaming, but who read, are imaginative/creative and so on, then it helps to have a flexible game. When they say, “I want to play a character who’s like this!” it’s nice if you don’t have to say, “Um, the game won’t let you make one of those.”

  12. Bryan says:

    Are you going to mention the fantasy flight games Warhammer 40k line, “Only War”? I’m curious if you’ve played it, I just got a few books to go with my savage worlds and 3.5 edition DnD books.

  13. Decus says:

    I think it’s probably important to mention, even for new players/GMs, that the most important rule of any system is that you never have to roll and you can change any rules to your liking.

    Now, new players/GMs shouldn’t go changing everything since doing so without understanding the system can go very poorly overall, but there is a theme of things that even new GMs can and really should change, like immediately, before anybody has created a character: cut and slim down the available classes and skills to fit how you’re going to be running the campaign. Are you ever really going to be using the multiple language checks? Should you actually let one of your players sink points into some form of riding when you can’t see it coming up meaningfully? Especially if only one character would want it? How about that spell list? Should you actually let your spellcaster have rogue-ish spells when somebody else already made a completely rogue-ish character? Are you going to be tracking carry weight to the weight unit or are you just going to fudge it mentally and go by mutual agreement? Maybe get rid of that from the start so somebody doesn’t up their stats just for that.

    On and on. There are things like that that should absolutely be changed from the start just to keep the players on the same page and steer them away from trap skills (which absolutely change from game to game, depending on the campaign). A skilled GM running a largely unplanned campaign can sort of adapt to the skills/classes their characters pick and attempt to highlight them, but going in new or with a plan it’s highly recommended to reduce player choice down to only what you’ll make meaningful for them–you don’t want to be running Daggerfall as a tabletop.

    As for the other point, about never having to roll, that’s probably super important for people just getting into tabletop. When you’re new having to open up the rulebook mid-play to see how you’re actually supposed to do something can be a mood killer, so it’s usually faster to just make something up or not make rolls at all and then, after the session is over, you can look into how you’d handle it “by the book” in the future. In other cases, if the GM wants and thinks a certain party should win, no roll is required–usually most GMs will ‘fake’ rolls in those instances to keep the tension from the fall of dice, but you’re never required to go by your roll’s results when not doing so makes more sense or would be more fun for the party. I’m usually of the opinion that in those instances you shouldn’t even call for rolls to begin with, but if the players want to roll, perhaps to risk a 1 or get more from a 20, I never stop them.

    • Matt Downie says:

      In a system like Pathfinder, if your players have access to the internet, there are hundreds of character class archetypes and thousands of spells available. By the time you’ve worked out which options ought to be banned, they’ll probably have released another rulebook.

      • Decus says:

        That’s even easier though! “Just use core.” A new GM should never, ever open up the pandora’s box that is all of pathfinder, though even if they did it’s easy enough to broad strokes limit options by telling your players what checks you will not be making–it’s usually the same suspects.

        • Matt Downie says:

          There are things in Core that are just as overpowered as anything in the later books (A Barbarian with maxed out strength, a good archer, certain spells.) And there are horrible trap options too. (It is very easy to make a nearly-worthless rogue.) But Core-only does have the advantage of the GM having a chance to keep track of it all.

          • evileeyore says:

            “It is very easy to make a nearly-worthless rogue”

            Worthless for what? This is one of those loaded assumptions. If the game being played is all “Orc and Pie” then not doing consistent damage (or helping others do consistent damage) is ‘worthless’.

            If the game is mostly about high court intrigue and low life back-alley deals, then a Rogue optimized for Charisma and Face skills is supreme and ‘dealing damage’ is ‘worthless’.

            • Decus says:

              Yeah! That’s exactly my point. What is or is not worthless changes depending on what sort of campaign is being run, thus a GM should be very clear on that from the beginning so players can logically determine what is or is not a trap. Pre-emptively removing options can help that.

              If they’re just running pure or 80% combat then that limits the useful classes, feats and skills to check. If they’re running 80% social or politicking then that limits the usefulness of pure combat. Magic classes are largely balanced by how strict the GM is with their resource availability, with most defaulting to less than even by the book strictness, but at the same time if a GM were to be want to impose their own extra strictness on top of that either because of the setting or tone or even whim that’s something you’d want to know in advance before you set your sights/get your hopes up for using some of the more resource intensive spells.

              edit: I guess to be concise the most important thing is communication of desires between GM and players, as that’ll shape how much of any given system is worthwhile during character creation.

            • Matt Downie says:

              Pretty much all published Pathfinder adventures involve fighting constant battles. Characters that can’t fight well either feel sidelined by the other PCs, or get the group killed. I’ve seen it happen to Rogues in multiple groups.
              And Rogues aren’t especially good at intrigue. Unlike 2E, anyone can be decent at sneaking and disarming things if that’s where they put their skill points. A Bard is likely to be better at Charisma skills. A Wizard can compensate for lack of skills by casting spells. Charm Person! Invisibility!
              (Fighters, meanwhile, can dish out damage, but get nothing to use outside of combat, so they’re the other kind of potentially-useless character.)

              • Decus says:

                Do the majority of people run published pathfinder adventures? I feel like that kind of defeats the purpose of pathfinder. It’s a giant toolbox trying to account for potentially everything and by design you’re not going to be using or even wanting to use every tool for every campaign, but if all of the published adventures use the same toolsets every time that’s kind of bad.

                And even then, Rogues are only “useless” if the party and the GM aren’t all on the same page re:let the rogue fill their niche. Most of the reasons Rogues are bad is because other classes technically could edge into the non-combat niche where they excel, but as a GM you have no reason to let your other players do that largely because other players have no business trying to make what a fellow player wants to do effectively useless. By the books, the other stuff has options to edge in on them so you can get by without a Rogue, but if you’re going to be having a Rogue? Don’t need to take those options and at most, if some of those options are taken for roleplaying reasons, they should be used in aid or in absence of the actual Rogue rather than taken to the extent of one-upmanship. In that case the Rogue is hardly useless, provided you’re designing content for their skills and abilities and the main monster of your campaign isn’t, like, something immune to all critical and sneak damage.

                Really though, the point wasn’t even Rogues specifically; you can make the same case with any class or skill or any other tool in the box. As a GM, do I want my players to sink points into Perform? Survival? Linguistics? Profession? And to what extent before they’d become disappointed with the result for my particular campaign?

                • Matt Downie says:

                  Pathfinder is kind of like a character creation system built around a combat system with an RPG system bolted on. If you don’t want regular battles, you’re probably playing the wrong game.

                  I’m running my own adventure at the moment. (I was constantly trying to find excuses to add traps and locks to make the rogue feel less useless, but the player still wound up retiring the character.)
                  While Pathfinder is a good toolset for creating NPCs with, it’s also insanely hard work to do it that way. Suppose I want a head of the assassin’s guild that the PCs can interact with. Creating a high level character, deciding how many skill ranks he needs in Sense Motive, picking feats, looking up his unique class abilities, equipping him with magic gear because a character without magic gear is incredibly vulnerable… If I use the toolset properly, I might spend an hour making this one character who the PCs might decide to avoid entirely.
                  I don’t know what proportion of GMs use published adventures, but I bet it’s high.

        • Gawain The Blind says:

          Damn, I should have read more comments before posting. WELL IT NEEDS TO BE SAID TWICE. At least.

    • Knul says:

      …important rule of any system is that you never have to roll and you can change any rules to your liking.

      This “rule 0”, “you can change or ignore any of the RPG rules”, always struck me as a weak argument. Of course players can do that. They can also do that with board games, sport or even video games (through cheat codes or modding).

      If a game is well designed, players do not need to fix or ignore the rules. Especially new players shouldn’t have to do that. It’s hard for new players to know which rules can be safely ignored or whether a house rule breaks the game.

  14. cold_blowfish says:

    I hope this series will, at some point, cover Burning Wheel. I’ve heard Things about it and it intrigues and intimidates me.

    • Chuck Henebry says:

      Burning Wheel has an incredibly steep learning curve. And it can be punishing: get ready to fail at stuff all the time. If you go in expecting to be the stellar Hero, your hopes will be dashed pretty quick. It’s best suited to scrappy characters capable of getting back up, dusting themselves off, and laughing about their loss.

      The game excels is in giving munchkins an advancement system that WANTS to be abused. The more they try to game the system, the more they wind up playing the game.

      It’s also great in offering simple yet drama-rich skill systems for figuring out who you know (Circles) and what you can afford (Resources).

      But the game is tough to get your head around just by reading the book””especially the core bit about Beliefs and Instincts. So your best bet is to find a group of experienced players who can show you the ropes.

  15. Mephane says:

    Speaking as someone who has never played any tabletop RPG and knows D&D rules only from NWN1+2; if I were to start doing pen-and-paper games, I would totally want to start with exactly the game I am going to play in the long run (probably being whatever the other people around play all the time). Especially with many editions of the same system existing, I’d rather learn only one edition that is successful, popular, logical and generally regarded as being well-designed, and then stick to that. I don’t think I would enjoy learn a system in one edition when I basically know that I am going to switch to a different (maybe more complicated) edition anyway. It would feel like a total waste of time to me.

    • ehlijen says:

      While that is certainly easier, I must recommend trying out a few systems if only to reach a better understanding of what it is you like about roleplaying and how to spot and cultivate it in your groups.

      The more experience you have with different systems, the better you’ll be at understanding why a given system encourages certain things and discourages others. Even if you intend to stick to one system, you can still learn a bit about how to tailor that system with a few houserules to possible be even better at delivering exactly what you want from it.

  16. evileeyore says:

    Okay Ruts I’m taking exception to your use of the word ‘exactly’. It doesn’t mean what you’re implying it means here.

    D&D is not an ‘exact’ system: Hit Points are inexact*. To Hit versus Armor Class is inexact*. Etc.

    You want ‘more exact’? You go with GURPS or a few other far more ‘rules gritty’ systems**.

    D&D is a fan-fav (IMO) because it is quick and easy to understand for starting Players and more-so because it is quick and easy to Game Master***.

    You want ‘less exact’ you go with a more abstracting system like GUMSHOE or FATE.

    * Point in fact those two subsystems of D&D are heavily abstract. ‘Hit Points’ are a mix of ‘body damage, tiredness, morale, and chutzpah’. ‘To Hit v Armor Class’ can be a matter of “Your sword bounced of it’s tough hide” or “It nimbly dodged your blow” or “Your sword bites deep but the wound closes as fast as it was struck” all depending on the monster, the whimsy of the Game Master, and other factors.

    ** To those following at home, ‘rules gritty’ doesn’t mean GURPS has to be ‘all the rules’, the stripped down ‘GURPS Lite Guide’ (which is free at SJG) is often faster and easier to get into than D&D (baring OD&D, BECMX D&D, 5e D&D, and a few OSR D&D clones), and a very good chunk of GURPS is ‘optional’ rules that only exist to more granularly attempt to simulate ‘reality’.

    *** Or so I’m told. Personally I find D&D more difficult to GM because of the ‘level’ system than I do GURPS, but I’ve been GMing GURPS for 25 years and prefer to GM by the seat of my pants. I dislike being told ‘what challenges are appropriate for what levels and character types’. That’s bollocks.

    • Peter H. Coffin says:

      I got no quibble with his use of “exact”. The stuff that those things (the hit points, the armor clase, the to-hit rolls) are as abstractions of “actual events” are very exacting in that you’ve got a precise notion of exactly how many abstraction counters you’ve got left. That the abstractions are abstractions over a very imprecise and inexact set of “things happening” (such as “Is my vambrace now cracked by a ‘miss’ such that the next very same swing will ‘hit’ and why is my arm not incapacitated by that blow such that I can’t grip my sword well anymore and cannot bear through on my swings such that they can be easily fended away by my opponent’s shield?”) because that level of stuff is far more complicated and requires so much literal accountancy that it would take an hour to get through killing AN orc, much less a hoard of orcs, and probably require players to make a strategic retreat for a month following to allow for sufficient physiotherapy and retraining after every fight. It’s far more practical in a game that’s supposed to bob along entertainingly to have all that inexact stuff abstracted to an exact thing (hit points) that can be restored with a potion.

      • evileeyore says:

        “I got no quibble with his use of “exact”. The stuff that those things (the hit points, the armor clase, the to-hit rolls) are as abstractions of “actual events” are very exacting in that you've got a precise notion of exactly how many abstraction counters you've got left.”

        Except that isn’t what Ruts said. He had a long precise list of what exactly was going on before the attack:

        ‘If you want a game system that tells you exactly what happens when you attack a large undead monster with a freezing greataxe and you're a barbarian of middling expertise in decent shape except you've caught a touch of dwarf pox and also you're really only good at using spears, the list basically narrows to D&D and a few systems almost as good as D&D.”

        Which is completely false. There is a laundry list of games that can handle this level of ‘exactitude’, and very many that don’t (several of which are D&D). And the ‘exactness’ you means is “Do you deal damage when you swing or not?”, which is not very exact in comparison to the description of the scene.

        GURPS on the other hand (depending on how much of the rules are being used) is far more exact. And in GURPS Hit Points are meat damage. Not morale. Not fatigue. Not chutzpah. You swing your sword, if you hit, you deal physical damage. You don’t “just graze the foe and reduce their willingness to fight”, which is entirely valid in D&D (and often a required ‘description’ for 4e D&D what with Warlord being able to heal be saying a few ‘encouraging words’). Indeed, in 4e D&D (which admittedly Ruts doesn’t even mention in this post) every GM I know simply stopped describing combat damage ‘effects’ because of the Warlord (and a few other inspirational ‘heal’ types).

        “…because that level of stuff is far more complicated and requires so much literal accountancy that it would take an hour to get through killing AN orc, much less a hoard of orcs, and probably require players to make a strategic retreat for a month following to allow for sufficient physiotherapy and retraining after every fight.”

        Untrue. I can a run 1v1 combat in GURPS with full rules options turned on in under 15 minutes. For the ‘horde versus a party”, yeah, that would take a few hours. Much like it takes in D&D. Specially at higher levels in D&D when every Player has a long list of abilities (some of which are single use – so use it wisely) and any “subpar” action can be immediate character death. I’ve seen D&D (3e/Pathfinder) combats take days (as in multiple 8 hour sessions, for one combat).

        “…and probably require players to make a strategic retreat for a month following to allow for sufficient physiotherapy and retraining after every fight.”

        Or the party drinks their potions and have their spellcasters cast Healing spells. You know, just like in D&D. ;)

        • Shoeboxjeddy says:

          I feel like you’re taking 4E too literally or not literally enough. Basically, every class has access to magic. Not like… fireballs. But like a yell so loud the monster takes damage and can’t cast spells. Or a stab through a giant dragon’s tendon (with a tiny halfling dagger) so strong that it actually makes them unable to move quickly, but only for like a minute and then it can again. So “inspirational speech so inspiring you recover from a critical wound” isn’t actually that weird, in that system.

          And GURPS (from what I’ve played) isn’t as literal as you’re describing. If I could, in a medically accurate way, divide my life force into 20 discrete units and then took a blow so powerful that I lost 15 of them all at once, it WOULDN’T MATTER that I had 5 units left. I would be in a coma. I certainly couldn’t respond with a trained maneuver of martial strength at that point.

          • evileeyore says:

            “I feel like you're taking 4E too literally or not literally enough.”

            Just literally enough actually. As I said, HP in D&D is a mix of physical injury, morale, fatigue, and chutzpah. That a Warlord’s Inspiring Words (or whatever it’s called) can restore lost HP in the form of a morale boost is a big part of this.

            “So “inspirational speech so inspiring you recover from a critical wound” isn't actually that weird, in that system.”

            I don;t think it’s weird. I think it’s, well, inspired and works fine for D&D.

            “And GURPS (from what I've played) isn't as literal as you're describing.”

            It’s exactly as literal as I’m describing it. A physical attack in GURPS deals physical damage. A morale attack, attacks the foes morale. Fatigue attacks reduce Fatigue. Etc.

            “If I could, in a medically accurate way, divide my life force into 20 discrete units and then took a blow so powerful that I lost 15 of them all at once, it WOULDN'T MATTER that I had 5 units left. I would be in a coma.”

            That’s a different beast, and yes in GURPS if you took three quarters of your physical damage capacity you’d likely either be in a coma, or dead, or reduced to scraps that need to be squeegeed up. GURPS has two distinct physical damage caps:

            The First is -5xHP, at this level you die. No if ands or butts. If your “15 units of 20” was a reference to this cap (likely) the average Joe in GURPS (10HPs) would have to have made 4 Consciousness checks (or pass out) with increasing difficulty, a Stun check (which can also leave you Unconscious), and have made 3 Death Checks (to not die). He has to make a Conciseness check for every action that isn’t “Do Nothing” (essentially you lay there and bleed and remain conscious, but nothing else). A completely Average Joe in GURPS taking 3/4ths of his “not die” Damage Capacity is likely Dead, or very, very lucky.

            The Second ‘damage cap’ is -10xHP. This is total physical destruction. You have been reduced to ash or a large smear on the landscape. Average Joes do not survive taking 3/4ths of this cap. Even most Super Heroic Joes do not survive taking this much damage. It’s a pretty specific group of powers that allow for survival past -5xHP, and completely Average Joes will not have access to these powers (Though in some Supers and Fantasy games, the Average PC might).

            “I certainly couldn't respond with a trained maneuver of martial strength at that point.”

            Depends on Genre (which governs how many ‘realism simulator’ rules are being used) and where you took that damage. 3/4ths of your ‘Not Die’ damage capacity in one hit from a Fallout 4 Bottlecap Mine*? Every limb is crippled and unusable. You may have lost your sight and hearing. You are likely just laying there bleeding, cursing Bethesda’s damn explosive damage. Some crazy impossible sword blow/fist punch that could cleave a tree in twain? Well… maybe. A blow to the Torso** could still leave you somehow standing… but you’re playing a game in a genre meant to emulate “Crazy Martial Arts Movies” or maybe “4-Color Supers” so this is perfectly okay.

            * In a ‘realistic’ setting this sort of ‘single hit damage’ only comes from Large Objects hitting you (cars, the ground, buildings falling) or Large-Area Injury (explosions, immersion in molten metal, etc). Anything else will ‘blow-through’ and do far less damage in one hit. And yes, I know I’m calling F4’s explosions realistic… don’t hate me.
            ** Since you cannot take that much damage to a limb in GURPS (it’s catastrophically removed far before 3/4ths Not Die Damage Capacity) and a blow to the Head will leave you Stunned and most likely Unconscious (baring a roll of 3 or 4 on 3d6), I’m presuming it’s a Torso hit.

    • Purple Library Guy says:

      All game systems are ultimately abstract. GURPS is no exception. It’s my favourite system, but “armor class” isn’t really any more abstract or less exact than “Parry = (weapon skill/2) + Passive Defence”.

      • evileeyore says:

        “All game systems are ultimately abstract. GURPS is no exception.”

        Well yes. But in GURPS the abstractions are to attempt to simulate reality (in most cases, there are of course many genres run in GURPS that get far away from simulating reality) and to get closer to “accurate” descriptions of actions. Not further away, which is most of D&D.

        “It's my favourite system, but “armor class” isn't really any more abstract or less exact than “Parry = (weapon skill/2) + Passive Defence”.

        It is much less abstract than Armor Class. In D&D if you ‘swing your sword’ and miss, you have no idea why you missed, if you even in fact ‘missed’. All you know is this: You failed to deliver HP damage to the foe. Any further information is supplied solely by the descriptive whims of the GM.

        In GURPS you do know why you failed to deliver precious HP damage: Either you missed, or they Parried, or Blocked, or Dodged, or their Damage Resistance exceeded your Damage, or they did take damage but healed it immediately.

  17. stratigo says:

    I’ve had at east 6 on line groups fall apart in 4 sessions max. It isn’t hard getting started, but keeping going certainly seems to be.

    The only long term campaigns I have got were dark heresy and Rogue trader in person. Albeit I went to a tiny liberal arts college for my undergrad and the dnd guys there I didn’t get on with the way they played. Not knocking them.

    I’ve also sort of kind of… don’t like DnD. But here’s hoping shadowrun group I got now works out.

  18. ehlijen says:

    I’m really curious to see your take on FATE, Rutskarn.

    I’ve rarely seen a game that, in my opinion, fails so weirdly at what it means to offer.

    • KingJosh says:

      Ruts talked about Fate in Diecast #27. http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=20839

      I can’t listen to it where I am, so I don’t recall how long they talked about it, but I remember Ruts liked and recommended it.

    • Decus says:

      How do you think it fails? And I guess to start, what do you see it trying to offer?

      As a GM, my main thing against it is encounter swing but that’s fixed very easily with optional weapon and armor rules, specifically armor as max and weapon as min. That cuts down on players, very much by the mechanical rules, stacking all of their bonuses for super hits against anything since suddenly things can only take so much damage at once, on both sides. Weapons as min means that even ties or low rolls cause decent damage. This applies to social settings too since it’s easy enough to think of ‘weapons’ and ‘armor’ for those encounters too.

      As far as it failing on its offer, the only thing I can personally think of is ease of use. But the thing is that, as long as you have enough trust, it’s super easy for players to use or rather should be–the GMs are the ones who (potentially) have it hard since it’s mostly all on them and communication with the players rather than a rule book in terms of how this Aspect the player just made actually works, mechanically. Is it just a +2? Does it make something more interesting happen? Like if the player just stated that they’re Behind A Shipping Container, is that just a +2 to the defend roll if they invoke it or is it a passive block/barrier to shooting attacks, no invoke required, for however long it exists? The where, when and how it applies? That’s all on the GM and their ability to communicate which is very hard or very easy compared to looking it up in a book depending on the person and the level of trust between everybody involved.

      • ehlijen says:

        What I see it wanting to deliver is a rules light, hands off open to anything RPG ruleset.

        I’m leaving aside that open to anything also tends to mean not particularly supportive of any specific themes for a moment. That is always a trade off and if something specific is desired, players will likely look for a game with a built in setting anyway, rather than an open system, so it should be a minor issue if it is one.

        No, where I think FATE fails is the hands off part. It is not hands off. It forces every action, interaction or circumstance into a select few ritualised rules and requires a fair bit of tracking what aspects have been created and how many invokes they have.

        The second ‘I grapple the raider’s leader and shove her into the wall’ turns into ‘you created an advantage, note down: grappled, two free invokes’, I’m mentally out of the game world. I don’t feel like I’m using a rules light system to immerse myself in a fake postapocalyptic world, I essentially made up an excuse to use the rule I wanted. I was thinking backwards to the way I want to think when playing RPGs.

        FATE is somewhat rules light, too light I think. It only has a few rules, and it straightjackets everything into those few rules. It’s not like nWoD core* which offers a few mechanics and then lets the ST run wild in how to apply them in specifics, it dictates the entirety of most its few rules interactions. The rules are light in FATE, but they are not open, and to me that was noticable in the game. I never felt free to act. I never felt like the system was open. I felt it was simply generic, not varied or flexible.

        FATE, in my opinion is a rules light-ish, heavy handed, generic RPG system.

        *nWoD is not perfect, but I consider it one of the best rules light, hands off, open games that I’ve played so far, even though that is apparently not what it was meant to be (it was ‘refined’ quite a bit away from that with Godmachine)

        • Decus says:

          How does grappling play out in other systems, though, such that you are not pulled out of the game world? I’m just not seeing what system would not pull you out here unless your comfort is in set, static stats rather than a constantly changing environment? Did your GM in this example not make it an opposed roll for some reason? Is that your over-arching issue? Did they just make the Aspect a +2 instead of logically making it limit the range of action that could be taken by the grappled character? Did your GM actually say ‘you created an advantage’ as narration? I imagine the last of those might be the issue if so, since that’d be like the GM narration of D&D spouting off all of the rolls and math they did to arrive at the grapple result! But that’s not a problem of the system itself. Your first sentence about grappling the leader to the wall? That’s the aspect/the narration.

          The rules are actually super open in Fate. Aspects are themselves super open. You can make your own skills with their own trappings. You can use skill pyramids, columns or modes, etc. to capture any tone or setting. If you want you can change the skill range too, with characters maybe having negative skills. In Dresden Files (and other pre-core stuff) the range of actions included stuff like blocking, but in core it’s all just “create an advantage” because in core “create an advantage” is super open! It’s as closed as your GM wants to make it, but by the books it’s meant to be super open and include all of the stuff from Dresden or Legends of Anglerre or any of the other pre-cursors.

          Basically, it’s a system where a lot of its quality will exist or not exist based on the GM since the books themselves aren’t necessarily going to lead to even an acceptable campaign, way moreso than most other systems–if you read the book expecting things to be rather closed, you’ll gloss over everything that makes them super open (the golden, silver, bronze etc. rules repeated throughout) and instead just focus on the +2 here, +2 there.

          • ehlijen says:

            Other games have grappling rules, or suggest grappling rules that are different from every other ‘create advantage’ action.

            I’m fine with changing environments, I am not fine with needing to keep track of checkboxes for said changes in case I need to use them later.

            Any action in FATE, as I experienced it, would end up in the player going through a list of aspects and checking to see which to invoke after the roll to get a number they were happy with. This, to me, was rarely an in character view of the situation, but an entirely out of character checklist to hunt for bonuses or preserve them for later.
            Because using the aspects is voluntary, the player needs to know them, which means the players need to keep track of all aspects created by the party. The GM can’t just do it behind the scenes.

            And I think we differ on what ‘open’ means. If ‘create an advantage’ is the one rule used for everything the players can think of, that’s not open in my opinion, that’s simple. Simple can be good, but it doesn’t make the system open.
            Sure, it’s more open than not allowing large swathes of things at all, but open to me means a system that is able to cater to a wide array of possibilities with a wide array of possible rules interactions.
            nWoD has more potential dicepools (and a few static values) to pit against each other for resolutions than FATE, so for me, there is more space for the rules to be open in there.

            Basically what I like to do is to imagine what a character would do in the given situation, declare the action and then use a quick and clear method to figure out if it worked or not and then move on. I don’t want to analyse the dice roll for long, I don’t want to check lists for bonuses and I don’t want to have to keep notes on more than a handful of status effects.

            FATE fails me in this regard. It asks me to keep as many notes as a more number crunchy system, it asks me to go through lists after my dice roll prolonging dice resolution and it asks me to make out of game decisions on out of game resource expenditure (fate points, free invokes). BTW, I’m not a fan of out of game resources like fate points.

            I’d say Og the caveman RPG has more open rules than FATE and that’s just everything is ‘roll a d6, succeed on a 4+’ (the game’s central idea is in interparty communication not action resolution).

            I’m glad you like FATE, but I see it as failing rather oddly because even though I’m absolutely after a system that offers what it means to offer, it uses all the wrong tools for me to enjoy it.

            FWIW, I still managed to enjoy the campaign due to the story and the friends I played it with. FATE isn’t unusable or some abomination. It’s just not ever going to be my preference.

  19. Christopher says:

    But what about GURPS!

    Nah I’m just kidding no one cares about GURPS.

    • Gawain The Blind says:

      The people who care about GURPS are the people who insist that you install linux, while stroking their beard and tipping their fedora.

      • evileeyore says:


        I throw down my glove at thee! I own not a fedora, am clean of check, chin, and jowl, and do not understand linux at all!

        Actually the type that prefer GURPS simply prefer a system designed to try to ’emulate reality’ as best it can (while allowing for the fantastic).

        • Purple Library Guy says:

          For me, it isn’t actually the reality emulation that sold me. It’s the combination of fairly clean with very strong flexibility. I’ve played a Wild West quadraplegic powerful psionic doctor, a two-headed centauroid pacifist wizard, a rock star, a fairly standard elf who’s a master of nearly every craft and who, between that and his magic, could be dropped naked in a howling wilderness and if you checked on him a week later he’d have an elegant home, nice clothes, well made furniture, cutlery, glassware, weapons, armour, food, wine . . . you can be almost anyone you want in GURPS.
          You can be almost anyone you want in HERO System, too, but there you’ve got like 10+ ability scores and just owning a sword practically requires you to set up a little power framework defining the damn thing. GURPS is pretty streamlined for both the level of realism and the amount of flexibility.

      • Purple Library Guy says:

        That was an oddly palpable hit. Well, except I sport a beret (purple).
        But you’re saying it like it’s a bad thing. If more people recommended Linux, stroked their beards and had hats to tip, the world would be a better place. In Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life”, the corporate dude’s findings about what life’s meaning in fact was had two parts; the first point was, “People aren’t wearing enough hats.” So, that proves it!
        All in all, if GURPS is the game favoured by people who recommend Linux, stroke their beards and tip their hats, this is surely a strong point in its favour; it must be a great game if that august sort of personage enjoys it.

  20. Heather B says:

    can’t wait to see how far into the weeds Ruts is going to go for this series. There are just so. many. systems. and the number seems to be growing faster all the time.

    My gaming group has gone through a few dozen over the last decade or so. Right now, my favorites are Numenera/Cypher and Unhallowed Metropolis. Easy to pick up, flexible, storytelling oriented, well designed books so looking up a rule isn’t a chore, etc. We’ve also been having a pretty good time with 5th ed so far.

  21. Nicholas Hayes says:

    Whilst I am loyal as hell to WFRP 2nd and L5R, my recommendation for newbies that are less interested in those settings would be White Wolf Mortals or Vampire (nWoD is probably easier to grasp) because it’s just so easy to get into.

    That simplicity also becomes it’s own drawback though – combat is ridiculously easy to minmax for, and though that shouldn’t be the point in a storytelling-style game it does become wearisome through exposure. Still, there’s a lot of really interesting ideas in the various nWoD systems, particularly Promethean and Changeling

  22. Zak McKracken says:

    2nd edition is limited?

    … I guess it depends. I was introduced to it some time in the early 1990’s, and into a group with a well-experienced DM and players with as much experience as me (except I had played a different system before).
    We had: The player’s handbook and some typed and photocopied additional rules from some RPG club in a nearby city. And it worked marvelously. We had a dwarven monk (more Kung-Fu than cleric), a swordfighter / magic user /cleric half-elven guy, and we barely consulted the rules except for the effects of spells and such, or when leveling up.

    We did draw a few maps to not get lost, we sometimes used figures from some board game to represent players and opponents in a battle (but often we didn’t even have a table), and most of the things that weren’t quite obvious from the handbook were decided by the DM. Almost all stories were improvised anyway, barely any pre-written adventures (and if we had those, we’d deviate from the plot soon).

    … which leads me to conclude that with a good DM who can improvise and gets enough respect from the players, almost any system should be good for newbies. When she left, it got harder. Still, I find it weird how different experiences of different systems are for people, depending on who they play with. Barely recognize 2nd edition when people discuss it on the webs, even though I played it for almost 10 years…

    • Gawain The Blind says:

      Yeah, 2nd ed isn’t limited, it’s just not codified. 3.0+ tried their best to create a rule for every situation. 2nd ed assumes your DM will just handle it. I suggest that makes it much more open, rather than limited.

      A good example of this is creating magic items. In 2nd ed, there aren’t really rules to cover it, except for very basic stuff. But it suggests gathering weird ingredients, going on quests for special metals to forge it with, etc, and then it leaves the details up to the DM.

      Frankly, I like that a lot more, but you have to have a group that is coming from a different direction then MMORPGS and CRPGS, because they will want to know specific rules for everything ahead of time.

      Playing without a grid map was great.

      • Zak McKracken says:

        I think it’s really all about the DM …

        I suppose that if the entire group is newbies, then 2nd edition will place some huge limitations on them unless they realize they can just go off the rails whenever they please.
        I was in a DSA (German system, not sure if there are translations) group where everyone was so in the meta game that they became fairly annoyed when it was my turn to DM and started giving them a little more flavour information than the adventure book contained and allowed them to just go wherever they wanted rather than tying them to the rails… which resulted in a very long day’s hunt for some game-irrelevant eagle somewhere on a mountain.

        I sure hope Rutskarn will at some point get to choosing groups/DMs in this series, and hopefully also to some tips for DMs. There are some radically different gaming systems out there but I think it’s the DM and the group that really make or break an experience.

    • Purple Library Guy says:

      Depends what you mean by “limited”. 2nd ed. allowed a massive amount of possibilities and combinations. If you were looking at the rules and saying “What can I do with this?” you’d never run out. But there are a whole lot of things it did not have room for. If you came up with a concept for an interesting kind of person to have get involved in adventuring, while not particularly thinking about rules just about what sort of thing you’d like to do, there was a decent chance the rules would not allow it. Or at best, that you could say your character was like that but it would have no game impact.
      Any “character class” based system is inherently somewhat limited unless the classes are meaningless. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing if you like the classes.

  23. kdansky says:

    Anyone getting into Pen and Paper RPGs and starting with D&D is not doing themselves a favour. The systems are clunky, simplistic, complex, overly focused on combat and only work decent with very specific stories in mind: “High powered tolkien-style dungeon crawler” – If you want to play anything else, from Wild West, Greek Demigods, Wuxia, court intrigues, space exploration, transhumanism, horror, super heroes or faerie tales, D&D is wholly unsuitable.

    Really, the best D&D Edition to start with is not D&D. Especially 2nd is praised by the old-school gamers wearing seven pairs of nostalgia glasses, but it’s an abomination. There are only two systems out there I would recommend it over (which are infamously bad: FATAL and Racial Holy War). In nearly two decades of weekly RPGs, only very few systems got into the way of the game. 2nd was one of them.

    • Sleeping Dragon says:

      Shrug, it’s the nature of the system. I’d say D&D still is* the go to system for tactical fantasy dungeon crawling but it has very obvious deficiencies in other areas (I never fully grasped the craze of converting absolutely everything to d20 that was going around at one point). I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame D&D for not being very good for running WW2 spy drama stories where this was never the intention (I think Greek demigods could sorta work with enough liberties). In a similar fashion Vampire: the Masquerade doesn’t handle giant mecha space combat very well…

      *Mind you I’m a 3-3.5 guy and my experience with other editions is limited or second hand. I know for a lot of roleplayers 2 is the edition of choice but I never saw the appeal myself.

  24. Gawain The Blind says:

    Now lets talk about obscure systems! I suggest The Riddle Of Steel, which I own but have never played because nobody else wants to. Because generally if you get stabbed once, you die.

  25. Zak McKracken says:

    Given that the year is 2015, I do wonder whether there’s some system that just abstracts its complexity away into a simple piece of software, the way cRPGs do, resulting in electronic character sheets and such, but then lets the players and DM focus on the story and decision-making bits rather than juggling numbers by hand.

    I think that would be a pretty cool thing for newbies intimidated by the many numbers and rules, and also for anyone else who’s not in it for the number-juggling or min/maxing.

  26. Jarenth says:




    • Jarenth says:

      Alright, alright, I’ll actually contribute.

      I played a bunch of 2E and 3.5E in my roleplay-formative years, and my preference is squarely the latter. That said, one thing I really liked about 2E, and that most later editions dropped, is non-weapon proficiences: systemizing what your character is good at outside of being a murder machine. The Profession skills in 3.5E felt like a meager way of keeping that same idea alive to me, still mostly focused — as most things in that game are — on making you a more effective destroyer of worlds.

      I like the new Background aspects of 5E quite a lot for much that same reason.

  27. Dev Null says:

    The single best gaming system for anyone – master or newb – is “whatever the nearest decent GM wants to use.”

    Having played a lot of systems over the years, I have never found the rules system to make a significant difference in the enjoyability of a game. It’s all in the world-building, and the GM. I’ve been lucky enough to be in some fantastic games using _terrible_ systems (1st ed Shadowrun, anyone?) and some pretty mediocre games using systems that seemed pretty reasonable. Ignore the rules and play the game.

  28. MadTinkerer says:

    Savage Worlds is my go-to system of choice for a lot of things, but especially heroic fantasy. I have the core rulebooks for every edition of D&D except the Cyclopedia and AD&D1 (because when I played those, my friend owned them so I didn’t need them myself), but when it comes to what I’d like to run, it’s Savage Worlds every time.

    Savage Worlds is nice because it accomplishes the many of same things as D&D with about a third of the numbers. It focuses on major details, leaving minor details to be filled in by the players and GM. This can be seen in everything from how damage works to the “trappings” for spells allowing spellcasting characters to define the look of their spells however they want with the dice mechanics staying consistent.

    Argh, have to go, might post more about my favorite system later.

  29. Vermander says:

    I’ve never really played pen and paper rpgs, but I’ve always been fascinated by source books, especially ones that go into intricate detail about the settings of the games. I was never particularly interested in D&D because a world with so many different monsters/races of humanoids/types of magic never seemed “real” to me, but I love reading material for games like Harnworld, Pendragon or Space 1889.

    I’m pretty sure the process of rolling dice, adding up stats and having to calculate results from tables the would be less fun for me than just making up imaginary stories in these settings though.

  30. Perceptiveman says:

    Kiiiinda disappointed here that an article about getting into RPGs features not just Pathfinder (which I regard as horrifyingly overcomplicated and a seriously daunting way to get anyone who has never played an RPG before into the hobby) but also ANOTHER edition of D&D that is not just complicated, but also out of print, as far as I can tell.

    Sure, you can theoretically learn RPGs by starting with either of these games, especially if you’ve got someone around to teach you (Yes, the correct starting system is usually – but not always – the one that someone is willing to teach you.) but they’re certainly NOT the games I would pick if I were trying to get someone to just pick up a book and play. Partly because I don’t think these games do a good job of explaining all the stuff you actually DO during the game (Not like “Roll a d20 and add your strength mod” but like “Narrate what your character is doing.”) but mostly because most people aren’t interested in reading multiple 200+ page books to learn how to play a game.

    This is actually a major problem with the RPG industry. The games are terrible at introducing new people to the concepts.

    If you really want to recommend a D&D edition to beginners, yes, BECMI is probably what you want. The BECMI Red Box/Basic Set does a good job of conveying the gist of what an RPG actually is.

    Otherwise? I dunno. It sortof depends on what genre people want to play in. “Killing stuff in a dungeon” fantasy is a pretty specific niche, and I don’t think there are actually that many people out there who don’t play RPGs who want to do that. The best game for introducing new people is a game about some sort of fiction than they enjoy, with mechanics simple enough that they can be playing in ten minutes or less.

    • Blackbird71 says:

      Well, AD&D 2nd Edition isn’t exactly out of print; you can still get the “premium” reprints of the three core books off of Amazon. Barring that, you can get official PDFs off of sites such as http://www.dndclassics.com/ , and used copies of the old manuals are plentiful and cheap on both Amazon and eBay.

      As for complexity, until now I have never seen AD&D 2E accused of being as complicated as Pathfinder. I suppose it is a matter of opinion and perspective though. Pathfinder (and similar d20 games) goes the route of giving all the math to the players to sort out, the result being having to keep track of all sorts of little modifiers and the like, and knowing which ones apply whenever you make a roll, and then adding it all up. 2E takes the path of many “old school” RPGs of computing most of the math in advance and publishing it in tables. This reduces the math that has to be done at the game table, but it means you spend time looking up charts all the time.

      So if you consider having to know where to find the appropriate charts (most relevant ones were repeated in the index at the end of the book anyways), taking the time to look them up, and knowing how to use them correctly to be complicated, then I suppose you could call 2E complicated. However after having played both, I still don’t think it holds a candle to Pathfinder in degree of complexity.

      • Perceptiveman says:

        It wasn’t my intent to assert that 2E is “as complicated” as Pathfinder, merely that it is still quite complicated. Comparing it to, say, Fate Accelerated, or Mouse Guard, or BECMI Red Box, or Dungeon World, or Lady Blackbird and 2E comes out looking very complicated, because it’s full of tables for unique lookups and edge cases.

        Is it as “bad” as Pathfinder? Well, depending on whether you find table lookups harder than math, you could make a case, but that wasn’t really my assertion. But just because a game is only a 50 out of 100 on some hypothetical complexity scale instead of 75 doesn’t mean it’s not complicated.

  31. BenD says:

    Hey! You all have justified the name of the website like, at least three times this year. Maybe this post can carry over that justification into 2017!

  32. Moridin says:

    Pathfinder (and 3.x in general) is a TERRIBLE game for people new to the hobby. It’s a bloated mess that teaches bad habits and frankly its only real advantages are its popularity and the fact that it’s free.

    It’s an okay game for people who know what they’re getting into, but for new people I’d recommend just about anything else instead.

  33. Ahiya says:

    No RuneQuest?

    The Mongoose reboot was bad, the the earlier RuneQuest rules were awesome and addressed a lot of problems that people still have with tabletop games. I’ve still not found a game that with the combination of easy character customization and intensely entertaining worldbuilding.

  34. Adalore says:

    Risking repeating what others may have said, Pathfinder is good as long as you are fairly strict about “Expanded” content because it gets stupid really fast.

    Some of it is nice to have but the cost to keep everything straight goes nuts pretty fast if you are going into expanded class list and then a third party’s version of that classes thing.

    Like Cavaliers(released later.) and using the “Fortune” order which was made by a third party, which has some of the most potential to be hidden op based on the player’s awareness of other content because they can take order powers from OTHER cavalier orders so limiting that stuff from the git go is wise.

    at least using the website like this one : http://paizo.com/pathfinderRPG/prd/ Allows you to be very clear about where your stuff is coming from and you can just say “Core + Advance books.” and have the rest be on request stuff.

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