Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Top Five RPGs for Beginners - Building A Better List

Earlier today, someone over on G+ linked an article from Across the Board Games (a blog I've never heard of) which lists a "Top Five Role Playing Games For Beginners." Before I say anything about the quality (or lack thereof) in the article, I should first say that (a) I should anticipate that I wouldn't necessarily agree with the picks of a blog with which I'm not familiar and (b) I have a lot of experience (both positive and negative) with introducing rpgs to beginners and have some very strong opinions on the matter. I don't feel the need to rehash the list that you can read for yourself, nor to denigrate their choices since that seems like a waste of my time. I'm sure that the list I'd write of "Top 5 RPGs for Beginners" would look a lot like the list written by most of the folks who swing by to read Dispatches, so what I'm less concerned with is "which games" and more concerned with "why those games?"

Simple Math 

Not this
It can be tricky for veteran gamers to remember every single "+1" or situational bonus, so how can we expect new players to do it? Also, no matter how much we teachers of rpgs like to think we're remarkably thorough in our education of newbies, we need to accept that there's something we're going to forget to teach. Simpler math means there's less to remember and less to teach. A game like Swords & Wizardry Whitebox is great in this regard, where bonuses are few and limited in scope. Ability Scores in Whitebox provide at best a "+1" bonus if extraordinary (15 or better) or at worst a "-1" penalty if inferior (6 or worse), which means there's a lot less influence from Ability Scores on the game's math, and "situational modifiers" are few and far between, which means less for the new gamer or the teacher to remember.

Characters To Grow Into

Many games require the player to have a concept of what his character is going to be like or what they'd like their character to be able to do before getting started on creating a character. In my brain hole, this is putting the cart before the horse. Without knowing how to play the game, how can a player have any concept of how they'd like to play it? For this reason, I would not recommend games like FATE Core to new players, despite the game's focus on simplicity and learning curve since they rely heavily on the concept of the character as a character. Instead, I'd advocate the creation of a character as sort of "game piece"
 through which the player interacts with the game world and which allows the character-as-character to emerge from play. I think DCC's 0-level funnel system is a great example of this, since it lets the new player try out up to four characters (have "four game pieces") and has few consequences if one or more them are killed off ("removed from play"), allowing the player to experiment with many different aspects of the game (possibly even including death!) all at the same time.

Gaming Lingua Franca

There are certain terms and concepts that we gamers carry from one game to another. Class. Race. Level. Strength. Charisma. You don't have to be playing D&D or a retroclone to be dealing with these terms, either. But what the terms mean stay roughly consistent from game to game, making translation from one system to another fairly simple. Runequest, for example, uses most of the same Ability Scores as D&D (with the same distribution range and with some few additions to the roster), and the fictional concept of race shows up in RQ as well even if class is absent. This is one area where DCC is a mixed bag. Sure, we have race, class (and race-as-class), armor class, saving throws and other common concepts, but Mr. Goodman renames most of the Ability Scores, which can be confusing if folks aren't careful about keeping their nomenclature consistent. This is another place where I think that S&W shines, since it easily touches on all the "greatest hits" of gaming concepts, as do most retroclones.

Rules Don't Get In The Way Of Fun

Mortal trickery knows no rules
There's a popular current theory in games that "games are about what they have rules for." Thus, D&D-based games are "about" fighting because that's what they have rules for. World of Darkness games are "about" talking because that's what they have rules for. RuneQuest is "about" dancing because that's what it has rules for. No really, it does. I think you can see where I'm going with this: it's bullshit. Sure, other people have expressed that thought before me and at great length, and so I won't rehash the argument here. Instead, let me merely say that the game is about whatever the people who are playing it decide it's about. The rules should facilitate the game that the gaming group wants to play without getting in the way of them. Now, for many groups into sophisticated story telling in their games, this may include rules for social systems, but for new players who have yet to make the transition into viewing their characters as characters and not as game pieces, such rules could very easily get in the way for new players and serve to stifle the creative spark in the nascent player. I've never seen anything shut down creative game behavior as much as a "No, you failed your skill roll so you can't do that." Instead of arbitrary skill checks for games with new players, consider systems where rolling for success or failure is for the stuff that requires less imagination ("I hit the goblin with my halberd" requires a lot less imagination than an impromptu impassioned speech to the townsfolk) and leave the success or failure of the creative stuff to the collective imaginations of the gaming group. In this case, the game isn't about what it has rules for, but about what the group's gaming behavior reinforces. Swords & Wizardry, DCC, Labyrinth Lord, B/X, OD&D and all the rest of the early D&D/retroclone community fill this criterion exceptionally well.