Stranger times, new worlds
No matter the size of your house or apartment, being confined to it for a long and undetermined period of time is never easy, whether you are alone or with your family.
As an incentive to make the best of it, you’ve finally decided to open up the door to a world you were always curious about but never took the time to discover.
Maybe you are an experienced Dungeons & Dragons player who never tried another flavour of pen & paper adventures, or you always felt safe playing boardgames but were afraid of the possibly more complex requirements of role-playing games. Either way, I am here to tell you that, whatever your motivation, it’s fine to want to peek in and see what the fuss is all about. Indulging in tabletop RPGs has never been easier and cheaper! Today I will show how and where you can go to learn more about a variety of games, so let’s get started!
Four genres, four games
I have already written a few articles on how I introduced my kids to D&D and I also posted a testimonial written by a younger gamer than myself about how she got started with a group of her high school friends. This time, even though this is still intended as a primer, I want to approach it differently and get you started as quickly as possible by focusing on a handful of games. Hopefully, this will be of interest to beginners but also to those of you who are looking for something different than your go-to RPG of choice.
Dungeons & Dragons
The grand-daddy of tabletop RPGs is hard to avoid or miss and you definitely shouldn’t if medieval fantasy is your thing. Goblins, dragons and adventuring in high fantasy settings wielding swords and magic is what is on the menu. It’s the best form of escapism, both approachable and familiar, for anyone who has read or watched the Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Witcher and any other major piece of fantasy storytelling.
All you need to start is the FREE basic rules PDF which you can download from Wizards of the Coast, the publisher of the current 5th Edition of D&D.
So, that was easy. If you are able to order a physical product online, I would recommend getting the new Essentials Kit which contains the basic rules, a lengthy adventure, a large set of polyhedral dice and more. It’s an amazing box for very little money. Its predecessor, the Starter Set, is equally good and set a new standard in the RPG industry. It encouraged other publishers to introduce players to their games with light, low commitment sets that work as wonderful tasters. They allow you to get a good feel for the rules and the setting without breaking the bank.
Dungeons & Dragons offers a very slick system that adapts to the play style of your group. It’s a wonderful way to discover the hobby and a reference in the genre. You can easily tweak it to suit your fantasy storytelling sensibilities and it is not a hard game to play or learn.
Call of Cthulhu
Currently in its 7th edition, Call of Cthulhu has been around since the early 80s and is a reference in the horror genre. The setting centres around the Cthulhu mythos created by H.P. Lovecraft in novels such as The Call of Cthulhu, The Dunwich Horror, The Whisperer in Darkness, The Dreams in the Witch House, At the Mountains of Madness and more. The game takes places in the 1920’s and focuses on investigations rather than action. It’s definitely very different from D&D in play style and setting. In terms of rules, it’s fair to say that it sits comfortably in the mid range of complexity, comparable to most tabletop role-playing games.
Call of Cthulhu is a game full of atmosphere, mystery and, well, horror! Your character sheet contains the usual fare of attributes that defines the person you play: strength, constitution, intelligence, etc. But a few other aspects make it stand out from the straight forward D&D approach. Completing heroic feats is as difficult as it would be in real life, thus you dispose of Luck Points to tip the balance in your favour when a situation is dire. Your character also has a rather unique Sanity Meter to measure how much he or she can handle psychologically. Reach zero on that one and your character is off to the looney bin for good.
Making the most of its setting, Call of Cthulhu challenges you in ways classic RPGs don’t so it’s definitely worth checking out if you are interested in the horror genre and are looking for something more cerebral.
Tales from the Loop
I discovered the works of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag when his unique retro sci-fi images started to get traction on the web sometime around 2014. He eventually successfully crowdfunded a book that gathered all his illustrations in a wonderful collection. Eventually he joined forces with a Swedish tabletop game developer and Tales from the Loop, the role-playing game was born.
The game focuses on kids living in an alternate version of the 80s populated by fantastic machines and strange beasts. Instead of the regular character classes found in other games, players choose a type for the kid they will play. These include archetypes such as the bookworm, computer geek, jock, popular kid, weirdo, etc. It’s a game where the player characters are all 10 to 15 years old and cannot die, yet the game provides a thrilling platform to live very cool adventures. If you are, like myself, someone who was actually a teenager in the 80s or if you are looking to scratch that Stranger Things itch, this is an awesome way to discover how compelling and fun role-playing games can be! All you need to get started is the rulebook which can be found online straight from the publisher or in places like Amazon. A starter set is also on its way in April as well as a TV series based on the original book by Simon Stålenhag.
Edge of the Empire
For many, Star Wars offers all one needs in a space opera setting. This game takes place in that familiar universe and is well worth checking out if you prefer your adventure with wookies, bounty hunters and spaceships! You can download a free introductory adventure from Fantasy Flight Games, the publisher of not one but three Star Wars themed role-playing games!
Edge of the Empire focuses on the worlds beyond the Outer Rim, where outlaws, smugglers, and the scum of the Universe is found and the Empire has no power or influence. There are two other games based on the same rules system. Age of Rebellion makes you a member of the Alliance fighting against The Empire while Force and Destiny focuses on the heyday of the Jedi.
Aside from Starter Sets, an easy and affordable way to try and play these games is by purchasing their PDF edition when possible. Many publishers offer these digital alternatives in their own web shops. You can also, in most cases find them at the one stop shop for all your tabletop role-playing PDF needs: DriveThruRPG.
If you own a tablet, using PDFs works almost as well as physical books. You might miss the tactile aspect of books as I do but, on the plus side, you can get them right now, you save shelf space and you have the ability to search, which is a real time-saver when you need to double check that elusive rule for that unusual situation.
Even though all the Starter Sets I have mentioned above can be downloaded as PDFs, only Tales from the Loop and Call of Cthulhu can be purchased entirely in digital format. Dungeons & Dragons does have a rather unique digital solution called D&D Beyond. This online service works on a subscription basis. Some of the content, like a powerful and easy to use character creation tool, is free to access so it’s worth checking out if you prefer a fully digital repository.
I want to know more
In case you want to know more about what other games are available and how to get them, I would strongly recommend you head over to Erik Schmdit’s Unpossible Journeys website. As far as I am concerned, it offers the absolute best information on learning how to play, what games are out there and how to get them.
As an example, here are the pages of his site where you will find exhaustive information about the four games I have mentioned in this post, namely: Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, Tales from the Loop and the three Star Wars games.
Erik is a very experienced player and Game Master who does a wonderful job at explaining how to play and at describing rules and game settings. His website is truly a trove of information about the pen & paper RPG hobby!
Off you go
I hope all this will make you want to peek into the world of tabletop role-playing games. And if you happen to be an experienced player of one game specifically, trying out a different system or setting doesn’t mean you are betraying your favourite RPG. We live in a time where information is within reach if you know where to look. Hopefully this will shine some light upon the path to a different kind of entertainment. Have fun!
Wouter F. Goedkoop is a multi-faceted designer, artist and storyteller who, after living across Europe decided to find his home in Nova Scotia where he lives with his wife and kids. He helps people and companies connect with their audience in meaningful ways by telling relevant and impactful stories.