August 25, 2014

Gateway into Table Top RPGs

Last winter, after playing board games all day, my fiance (girlfriend at the time) found my bag of Star Wars Edge of the Empire dice laying nearby. After asking what all the funny symbols meant, she joked "I want to stab somebody!" And threw the dice. I don't remember what the result was, but there was a triumph and she did stab someone.

An hour later, with the pregenerated characters from the Age of Rebellion beta book, a narrative was being constructed in this dingy little bar where this fight broke out. After that night, a Saturday Night RPG group was established at my home. The four members of the group included two "veteran" RPGers and two "rookies" who's first experience with table top RPGs was that winter night. Soon we started playing "mission of the week" style sessions of Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars system, and we had a blast. But there was a larger meta plot behind this SNRPG group than just some fun times.

My friend and I, who gamed together in the past and are currently gaming in a separate group, talked about setting up an RPG group to run through as many different systems as possible. We each had systems that we had wanted to get to the table, but our other game group is the kind that likes long stories. So if you wanted to get a system to that table, it would take months before it would even be considered. Luckily, with the Saturday Night group, we didn't really have these problems.

Our first system was FFG's Star Wars, were we were able to get more than a dozen sessions in. After Star Wars was the Fate system. We were able to get both Fate Core and Fate Accelerated to the table (and in the other group, we were able to get FAE to the table as well). After running both specs of Fate, we moved onto the new Dungeons & Dragons system (hence forth referred to as 5E), specifically the Starter Set.

With the start of 5E, I was a little worried. I wasn't worried for myself, but for our "rookies" at the table. You see, since the start of the group, I've taken more towards seeing how a new player acts in a new system than how it plays. Most people who have gotten into table top RPGs have come in via a d20 system (specifically for myself, it was D&D 3.X). For our rookies though, their first system was FFG's narrative dice. They had never rolled a d20 until just this weekend, nearly 9 months after playing their first RPG. They were making a move from the system of high narration to the one of "Con Mod" and "AC".  Instead of culture shock, I was worried about system shock.


So how did they fair with 5E? In my opinion, very well. I attribute a lot of this the fantastic job Wizards of the Coast did with their Starter Set and Pregens, which helped immerse and invest the players into the setting. It took a little bit of work to get them familiar with the system. The veterans would throw terms like "Con Mod" and "AC" around, which would need a little bit of explaining for the new players. They seemed a little off that they had so many bonuses to look for every time they rolled a die. A comment about the ability score/modifier system was brought up as well, which just added some confusion. Another comment was that combat was less flamboyant and free flowing than they were used to. After the session, my fiance made a comment that the combat was slightly boring. But, above all else, I would say the entire group made awesome use of the Inspiration mechanic in 5E.

All of these comments and observations were what prompted me to write this. I believe a majority of the comments made by the rookies were because of they systems they started on. If 5E hit the table with the other group (referred to as Tuesday Night), I wouldn't be surprised if they had a slightly opposite reaction to this group. Tuesday Night has a strong attachment to the older D&D system and as a result play in another Pathfinder group. I can see them playing 5E with the full grid rules, enjoying the Advantage mechanic, and completely forgetting about Inspiration; they would see it as a trimmed down Pathfinder.

Between my two game groups, I can see a clear divide. One one side, you have players who are upset if combat isn't the focus game, and the story is a way to piece together combats. On the other side, you have players who are upset if the game is combat focused, and they as much story telling as possible. The rookies in my Saturday Night group are pretty firmly in the latter camp, while a majority of the Tuesday Night group is in the first. Each group has their own definition of what makes a game fun. 

Because each group sees the session as a different way to have fun, they exploit different parts of the game more. Saturday Night might make more reckless use of inspiration, constantly gaining and spending it. While Tuesday might not remember they have it, but coordinate each fight to the point where they don't need to spend any.

I believe a majority of the reason behind this divide is the gateway RPG that brought them into the hobby. Starting with a tactical, numbery system like Pathfinder or D&D 3.5 you'll tend to lean towards games with a lot of structure. If you come in playing Fate, you will probably want as much free form and narration as possible. Switching systems for these players can be jarring. Switching from Pathfinder to Fate, the player will probably miss out on free forming the setting to match your needs. A player switching from Fate to Pathfinder will find it restrictive and rules heavy.

So what system should you use to introduce people into the hobby? I believe the FFG Star Wars Edge of the Empire system is the best system to introduce a new person into the table top RPG hobby. I believe it has a good balance of structure and free form narration that it can keep a player from tipping to either end of the scale. There is enough slack in the rules to allow for awesome moments during the session and allow the players maximum fun, because that should be the overall goal with an RPG. You don't win at D&D, or get the high score in Pathfinder, or get a Newbery Medal in Fate. You have fun. And currently, I think that EotE offers the most fun per die roll for new players.

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