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 by Brett M. Bernstein (Precis Intermedia)
Dragon Age RPG: Set for Characters Level 1 to 5 by Chris Pramas (Green Ronin Publishing)
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.
Treasure Awaits uses a streamlined task resolutions system that will be immediately familiar to players of D&D 3.5 and quickly grokked by novice gamers: You roll a die, add an ability score (like fitness or reasoning), a relevant “pursuit” (meaning a skill, like swordfighting), and then compare the total to a difficulty. If your total is equal to or greater than the difficulty, you succeed. Layers of chrome, such as overkill and calamities, keep the system interesting, but never become complex.
Character creation is equally simple and elegant. You choose a Race (Human, Elf, Dwarf or Hobling) and Vocation (Rogue, Warrior or Wizard), then make a random roll for your Abilities (Awareness, Fitness and Reasoning) on a table determined by your choice of Vocation and Race. Rogues tend to be high in Awareness, Warriors in Fitness, and Wizards in Reasoning, giving the game a structured symmetry that is balanced and comprehensible. After you’ve got your Race, Vocation, and Abilities, a few more die rolls round out your available Pursuits, Weapons, Armor and Spells.
The degree of randomness in character generation is very high; it’s almost as random as the infamous “roll 3d6 and pray” character generation in classic D&D. From the point of view of experienced 3.5 or 4e players, random character generation seems perverse – why can’t you have exactly the character you want? But for a starter set, randomness is ideal. It eliminates the paralysis that comes from being forced to make choices when you don’t understand the rules. And it encourages you to “try again” if you don’t like what you rolled up the first time, helping you learn the rules through repetition.
After introducing you to task resolution and character creation, Treasure Awaits presents rules for traps, combat, poison, spells, scrolls, potions, creatures, direction (i.e. dungeonmastering) and dungeon creation. All of these rules share the same easy elegance of the core mechanic while capturing old-school flavor. Treasure Awaits is not a retro-clone of old school D&D; but it is definitely an homage to it, or perhaps is what Dungeons & Dragons would have been like, if it were designed in 2010.
Any mention of Treasure Awaits‘ mechanics would be incomplete without mentioning its brilliant Conflict Action Map system. Experienced gamers are familiar with the age-old dilemma involved in using miniatures for RPG combat. If you don’t use miniatures, combat can be extremely hard to visualize, and everyone has to be able to keep the fact the Thief is sneaking around the flank, the Fighters are forming a shield wall by the door and the Orc with a wound is closest to the Wizard in their working memory. Unless you’re a gaming savant, that’s not easy. On the other hand, if you do use miniatures, you risk transforming your fluid imaginary battles into a game of counting spaces and measuring line of sight.
The Conflict Action Map charts a middle path. It’s a notecard-sized battle grid with positions for Farthest, Closest, Sneaking, Behind, and The Enemy. In play, you simply place miniatures or counters to represent specific adventurers in their corresponding positions. The Conflict Action Map abstractly handles a lot of painful issues. For instance, who can use ranged combat? Characters that are Farthest from the enemy. Where do the Rogues go, when they are hiding in shadows? Move them to Sneaking if they succeed in their stealth check. Two successful stealth checks put them Behind the enemy, and eligible to backstab. It’s simple and ingenious, and I intend to introduce it into my current D&D campaign at the first opportunity.
For novices, Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits is a great game with fast, fun character generation and easy-to-learn play mechanics. For experienced players, it’s an elegant system that leaves you nostalgic for classic dungeon crawls while still introducing innovative new mechanics. Either way, it’s one of the best starter sets available on the market. Pick it up, and plan to pick up the rest of Ancient Odysseys when it releases, too.
Dragon Age RPG: Set for Characters Level 1 to 5
The Dragon Age RPG: Set for Characters Level 1 to 5 is the starter box for a new line of tabletop games set in the world of BioWare’s award-winning Dragon Age. The decision to release the RPG as a series of boxed sets has been controversial among hardcore gamers who wanted the advanced rules from the start, but designer Chris Pramas had good reason: “A boxed set looks like a game, for starters. Show a non-gamer a typical RPG book and they get confused when you tell them it’s a game. Boxed sets make it easy to break out player info and GM info, as well as include things like dice and maps… I wanted the game to be friendly to new roleplayers. With Dragon Age I saw a real opportunity to do a game with broad appeal that could get more people into tabletop roleplaying.”
Since I’m recommending the game in this column, you can safely conclude that Pramas succeeded in his design goals. And how he succeeded! The box is chock-full of stuff, including a 64-page Player’s Guide, 64-page Gamemaster’s Guide, an Introductory Adventure, a poster map of the game world and three six-sided dice. The production value is very high and the rulebooks are inviting to read.
Like its spiritual ancestor Dungeons & Dragons, Dragon Age uses randomized character generation. You roll 3d6 to generate 8 Abilities, using a table to convert the resulting range of 3 to 18 to modifiers of -2 to +4. That’s a process instantly familiar to anyone who has played D&D 3.5, of course, but Dragon Age dispenses with the legacy 3 to 18 range and uses just the modifier in play. Once your abilities are determined you pick a character background (like Dalish Elf or Ferelden Freeman) and class (Mage, Rogue or Warrior). Character backgrounds, starting health, and starting mana points are also randomly determined. As with Treasure Awaits, the use of randomness is more than just nostalgia for old school D&D, it’s a deliberate design decision – it’s much easier to roll up characters than it is to build them.
Like D&D 3.5 and Treasure Awaits, Dragon Age uses a task resolution mechanic of die roll + ability modifier + skill (which Dragon Age calls a “focus”). The die in this case is a roll of three six sided dice (“3d6”), but with an elegant twist. One of the dice is a “dragon die”. If any two of the dice are tied, you earn a number of “stunt points” equal to value showing on the dragon die. You can then immediately use your stunt points to do something awesome – for example, in a swordfight, rolling 2 stunt points lets you “pierce armor” and halve the opponent’s defenses, while for 4 stunt points you can “seize the initiative” and take another turn at the top of the round. Which stunts are available to you depends on the action you’ve taken and the focuses your character has gained.
I cannot sufficiently express how amazing the stunt point mechanic is: With one rule, Dragon Age handles critical hits, aimed shots, multiple attacks, improved combat options from high skill and more – mechanical challenges that most tabletop games take dozens of pages to deal with. It is simply the most elegant new game mechanic I’ve seen in a tabletop RPG since the invention of dice pools. To find it in a licensed starter set is akin to finding the Rosetta Stone in your Ikea Catalog.
The stunt point mechanic is not the only innovation in Dragon Age, but covering everything would take more pages than I’ve got. The game has everything you need to kick off a campaign in the land of Ferelden. The boxed set, at $29.95, is currently out of stock; but the PDF is $17.95 and worth getting today, especially if your pool of potential players are fans of the videogame.
The Adventure Begins!
Treasure Awaits and Dragon Age RPG are two of my favorite starter sets, but they aren’t the only products worth checking out. For the truly old school experience, Mythmere Games has recently released Swords and Wizardry White Box, while Goodman Games has announced a Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG in 2011. Those seeking a more modern game could check Wizards of the Coast’s new Red Box later this year, part of their strategy of reaching new gamers with Fourth Edition.
Whatever game you choose, you’ll be in a good place. If you’ve always wondered what all the nerdy ruckus is about, these games are your chance to dive in. If you’ve been away from the hobby, welcome back. Either way, it’s time to get started.
Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.