When I started playing tabletop games in 1981 (at the mighty age of 6 years old), the hobby was accessible. A young guy could walk into Waldenbooks and find a special stand filled with material for aspiring role-playing gamers. Most important of these was the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Adventure Game Basic Rules boxed set, the famous "Red Box" which became the best-selling product ever released by TSR Hobbies. The Red Box was designed to introduce new people to D&D, and came with a set of dice and an introductory adventure so you could begin playing immediately. The seminal Velvet Underground debut album was said to inspire everyone who bought it to start a band. The Red Box was like that. Everyone who bought it started a campaign.
Getting into tabletop gaming today is an entirely different experience. On the one hand, people who've never played a tabletop game have a much easier time grasping it than they did during the 1980s. The ubiquitous offspring of D&D - computer RPGs and MMOGs - have made everyone familiar with formerly esoteric concepts like "leveling," "classes" and "experience points". But on the other hand, it's no longer possible to walk into your mall bookstore and pick up a Red Box and start playing. Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons is a complex beast, and it's mostly learned by word of mouth from friends. Unfortunately, that means that new players come into the hobby only through a Close Encounter with someone already playing. It's just hard to learn how to run a tabletop game unless you're already hanging out with people who run tabletop games.
Fortunately, that's begun to change. A slew of new products is aimed at making gaming accessible for new players. I can't do justice to them all, so I'm going to recommend two:
Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits
Treasure Awaits is the starter set for Precis Intermedia's new fantasy roleplaying game line, Ancient Odysseys. Designer Brett Bernstein describes Treasure Awaits as "a labor of love [that] encompasses the root of fantasy roleplaying, with simplicity for beginners, as well as the capability to play without a director and even by oneself."
Precis Intermedia has always been one of my favorite independent tabletop publishers. They offer streamlined, quick-playing games at an affordable price, and pack more value and flavor into 10 pages than most publishers can fit in 100. The staff of The Escapist actually played in a campaign using their Hard Nova 2 rules a couple of years ago, and I had high expectations for Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits.
It doesn't disappoint. The game is actually a small boxed set, about the size of a hardcover textbook, that comes with a 36-page Basic Play rulebook, a 24-page Dungeon, a 24-page Further Adventures supplement, a reference booklet, a conflict action map (more on that later!), two dice, and a bunch of character sheets. All of that arrives for $19.95. It's also available in PDF at $9.95 - either way, it's a great value.