Tabletop gaming for not-quite-beginners
March 29, 2018 7:32 PM   Subscribe

My partner and some family want to start a tabletop RPG campaign. We have varying levels of experience and none of us have DMed before. How can we get started? Snowflakes inside.

We all have some tabletop RPG experience, but none of us have a lot. 1 person has played DnD in the past couple of months, but is fairly new to it (e.g. only done a couple of sessions). 2 of us have played two or three campaigns (DnD 3e, I think? And Universal Horizons) a couple years ago, but we have shitty memories. 1 played DnD a bunch in the 90s but hasn't since. 1 other possible (but not definite) player has played on and off the past couple of years, I think DnD but I wouldn't know what edition.

We want to start up a campaign that can be played with 4 people, and possibly a 5th person that may drop in and out. We happen to have a DnD 3E Player's Handbook II and Dungeon Master's Guide, but we're not totally set on doing DnD. Are there other systems that would be better to start out with? We're not looking to drop a bunch of money on this, so anything else would have to be free-to-cheap. We also definitely want a fantasy based RPG, though it absolutely doesn't have to be high fantasy. Genre-bending is also cool, we just like magic.

What's the best way to get started? Googling gets me either guides for people who are brand new to DnD and want to know how to get through their first game with more experienced players, or for experienced DnDers who are DMing for the first time. What resources do you suggest to pull together a campaign when we all have some, but not a lot of experience? We're open to DM-less games, but we like story a lot so aren't sure how well that would work. We've also considered round-robin DMing, but aren't totally sure how that works or if that would be too complicated for a first campaign.

Other things to note: we would love something that we can set up and spend an hour playing and feel like it was worthwhile. There will be times where we play a lot longer than an hour, but my schedule can be kind of limited, so it would be great to be able to pick it up when I can squeeze a free hour in (we all live close together and everyone other than me has super flexible schedules, so it'll be super easy to just go "hey wanna play some DnD tonight"). We definitely want something that's pretty heavily character/story-based. If it can be set up to handle someone dropping in and out, that would be nice, but not critical. For our first campaign we would prefer not to have to do much writing, so a pre-made campaign with some flexibility for character/narration would probably be good. Also we already have a bunch of dice and figurines so don't need to spend money on that.

Thoughts, resources, suggestions? What do we need to get started?
posted by brook horse to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Ooh this went on for a while, so here's TL:DR - stick with 3rd edition, or get a 5th edition starters set if you want to try a pre-made adventure out to get your feet wet. Try to stick to one DM for the first story, and if you all can focus short time-frames shouldn't be a problem.

Huzzah for getting into D&D!

Picking up the books can be kind of spendy, unfortunately. As you already have the 3rd edition you can play with that if you do want. If you want to try a more recent version you could pick up D&D Starter Set pretty cheap, about $20 US. It's not a full setup, but it does come with a small pre-made adventure, some standard characters, and a booklet for the players outlining the basic rules. I'd suggest staying away from 4th edition, my friends and I didn't find it so much fun, but 5th edition is good!

You could also look for used copies of players handbooks and dungeons master guides at your local game store. Those will be less expensive although you are taking a gamble on their condition.
Or you can use the Pathfinder system. It's very similar to D&D 3rd edition, but from a different company. It's been out for quite a while now, so you can probably find some for less than you can 5th edition.

I'm not sure if doing a round robin DM situation will work out. In my experience each person has their own style of storytelling and how they run a game, and it can really throw the feel of things off if you have two people with vastly different styles trying to tell the same story. Doesn't mean it absolutely won't work though! My group and I are in a story right now where I'm the DM, but every 8 or so sessions another person takes over to do a side story for 1-2 sessions. It allows me to play in the game some, him to GM, and helps to bring depth and a broader feel to the world (I do more silly, ridiculous situations and he does tense, get by the skin of your teeth situations).

One board game you may want to look into is Myth. It was on Kickstarter a while ago, but each person picks a character and sticks with them as long as the group sticks with a story, although you can all swap characters and start fresh whenever you want to. There's no DM so everyone plays together, and there is a enemy to fight but they're controlled by set rules so nobody has to really play the bad guy. You can also make each story shorter or longer, depending on what you feel up to.

An hour isn't a lot of time for a session. If everyone's fairly organized and you can get started quickly it's doable, but in those cases something like Myth or another board game might be better to try.

And one last thing, remember that your DM is there to tell a story, not to kill you. Conflict is part of that story for sure, but nobody loves losing a beloved character. And the players are there to help build the story together and explore. Lone wolves make for fun heroes to read about, but bad teammates.

Good luck and happy adventuring!
posted by Halimede at 8:17 PM on March 29, 2018

Dungeon World has a setting similar to D&D but with much simpler rules and a sharper focus on character and narrative. It uses the Powered by the Apocalypse system, which I enjoy quite a bit. The other PbtA games are also great, although some of the others I wouldn’t feel comfortable playing with family.

Primetime Adventures is a very minimalist game designed to simulate a primetime drama in whatever genre the players choose. Cooperative storytelling is a big part of its design.

The most recent edition of D&D (5th) has in my experience been reasonably accessible for new-ish players, but getting all three core books will set you back about $100.

You mentioned that you have the 3e PHB2, but do you have the core PHB? You’d have a hard time playing without it.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 8:20 PM on March 29, 2018

Few thoughts:

* Here's a page of free adventures you can pick through in various systems if you don't wanna start with writing your own stuff.

* I ran D&D for years and years, and while it's a fine system, all iterations of it are pretty heavy on homework to put together good adventures. If your time is short and you're big on story/narrative play, I'd recommend taking a peek at FATE or maybe FUDGE. They're much simpler in terms of system, which translates to less prep time for a storyteller - I used to run FUDGE completely off the cuff, and it would be easy to use with premade adventures for other systems.

* Round-robin GMing can work, but I wouldn't rotate each session, I'd do it more after each person has completed a story. (If you only have an hour to play typically, you kinda need to dive right in - most of my sessions ran 4-10 hours instead of 1-2.)
posted by mordax at 8:26 PM on March 29, 2018

I haven't looked super hard, but so far I've only found the PHB2 and the Dungeon Master's Guide. They were from a friend of mine who's pretty experienced, so I feel like she would have given us a PHB as well but I can't find it. Might be somewhere though!

I should also say there will definitely be a lot of times we can play for long periods of time--it would just be nice if we could also squeeze in an extra hour here and there, though I understand if that's not feasible!
posted by brook horse at 8:28 PM on March 29, 2018

You can skate by without the PHB via the System Reference Document (a well-formatted version seems to be here), but D&D will significantly easier if you pick it up.
posted by mordax at 8:33 PM on March 29, 2018

D&D's 5E starter set is great for total beginners but my friends and I were not total beginners when we played it, and it was my first DMing experience and it went really well and they gave me tons of material to go with and it's just a TON of content for what you pay for it. And then if you like it you can move on to adding more rulebooks as you actually need/want them, making up your own adventures, whatever suits you. 5E felt to us like a really great balance of having all the mechanics there for people who're interested in that but being very playable if you want to just keep stuff moving for the sake of time. A single hour might not be long enough for much meaningful combat but as a DM I think I could have totally come up with stuff for players to do for a little span of time at most points.
posted by Sequence at 9:19 PM on March 29, 2018

Prokopetz's tabletop RPG recommendations on Tumblr are worth reading - he answers a lot of questions about "I like X features; what game should I get?"

Game recommendations are going to depend a lot on what kind of game you want to play. Currently, I'm very fond of FATE, which is available free online, and has a strong narrative focus: the players and GM are building the world together. However, it may not be what you're looking for - it's great for telling cooperative stories, probably less great if you want the thrill of stopping orc raids or defeating dragons. (Not that you can't do those in FATE, but since the GM gets to scale the challenges to the player, it may not feel as much like winning. FATE challenge difficulties aren't really based on the numbers.)

FATE, both Core and Accelerated, are both good for "we have an hour; let's do some gaming." D&D may not be that flexible; it requires reference info at hand, and that can mean spending time on setup that doesn't fit with a tight schedule.

I have a friend who swears 5e D&D's combat system is the best - smooth, fun, reasonably accurate for fantasy adventure stories. I have not played D&D more than a single session here and there since 1st ed; I switched to Champions (now Hero system) and GURPS as soon as they were available. Nothing I've heard about it since has convinced me to switch back - but my reasons for stopping aren't everyone's.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:05 AM on March 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

The alternative option is something like Gloomhaven, a campaign in a box.
The story part becomes less flexible that way, but you still get your tactical-combat-with-monsters fix and a semi-coherent narrative.
posted by jozxyqk at 3:31 AM on March 30, 2018

I'm also a big fan of Fate for reasons mentioned above. But the question you need to ask yourselves is what sort of stories do we want to play? Are we playing pulp adventure, tactical combat simulations or are we interested in interpersonal conflicts ala Jane Austen?
posted by canine epigram at 5:20 AM on March 30, 2018

Wizards of the Coast provides the Basic Rules for 5E D&D available as free PDFs here. There are documents for players and for DMs, covering all the information given in the purchasable books, but often with fewer options available. All of the PHB classes are in that PDF, for instance, but with only one specialization option outlined. Don't discount the amount of prep work required -- particularly by the DM -- and keep in mind it may not suit the sort of pick-up game you seem to be looking for.

If you decide not to go the D&D route, I have heard good things about Gloomhaven (review at arstechinca). It combines a boardgame design with a long character-based campaign. It might be a little easier (if no less expensive) than jumping feet-first into D&D, though might not offer the free-form collaborative storytelling that D&D can provide.
posted by The Nutmeg of Consolation at 8:25 AM on March 30, 2018

There are lots of options.

My top recommendation would be Dungeon World because a) it's a fantasy rpg aiming at something archetypically d&d b) it's narrative focused c) you don't need to (and in fact shouldn't) pre-plan an adventure d) there are rules for the GM, which tell you how to GM it, so you don't have to know beforehand (I'd say getting really good at PbtA GM) ing takes a while but is fun and learnable on the job) e) you just need to buy one book/pdf, really only the GM needs to read it f) I think you could do *something* in hour because there's no complex combat. However I'd say most RPGs in which work well in an hour are nanogames which take only an hour.

Some other great picks:

Follow by Ben Robbins. Super simple, flexible and designed to be pick up and play with new players. Story focused and not really about challenges. Not really suited to long running campaigns. His other game Microscope is great if you want to collectively create your own setting.

Swords without Master by Epidiah Ravichol (spelling?). Aimed towards sword and sorcery but flexible. Short and sweet, if unusual, rules. But if you're not all into improvising and playing your strong ideas, don't pick this. All about having your characters do awesome stuff. Also check out Vast & Starlit, which is sci-fi but could easily be reskinned.

Lady Blackbird. Free and suited to a one shot. It's steampunk spacefaring fantasy.
posted by Erberus at 8:48 AM on March 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm a tabletop gamer, but not a big fan of D&D**, so I'm going to keep my recommendations general.

1) Think about getting the 5th Edition Starter Kit. It's inexpensive, I think it has everything you need to get started (even dice) and the campaign enclosed can last a long dang time. Players can come and go as they please, it's just up to you as the DM to come up with something plausible, even if it's "George The Bard got hit by a stray rock during battle and has been knocked unconscious."
2) Folks up top recommended FATE. I would recommend FATE Accelerated; I love that little book. It's great because if your players have characters (takes about 15-20 minutes to create if you're new) you can get started immediately each time you only have an hour, and you can make it very episodic between the 4-6 hour sessions.
3) Upon review, Gloomhaven sounds like a REALLY good alternative if you just want to get together and game with a minimum of fuss. As a new GM myself, I am learning that there really is some advance planning and studying to be done prior to every session.

Welcome to this WONDERFUL hobby! I've been playing since 1982 and love it.

- Bill

**I'm a Call of C'thulhu guy myself.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 12:54 PM on March 30, 2018

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