Thinking Out Loud - Building A Beginner RPG

In the last year or two I’ve finally been introduced to tabletop RPG games. I started by playing Call of Cthulhu with some friends at work, then moved on to Dungeons & Dragons 5e by DM’ing a couple of games for my girlfriend and her relatives on our Christmas break. Since then I’ve DM’d and played more D&D, played more Call of Cthulhu, bought more games & adventures that I have yet to play (Star Wars Edge of the Empire, Fate, Fiasco, 5e adventures, etc.) and read a lot of interesting material about role playing and tabletop gaming in general.

Safe to say, I’ve geeked out on RPG’s. I’ve found them to be tremendously entertaining. I want the ability to play them with my good friends at whim, and have them experience the same fun that I’ve had. So far, that has had mixed success.

With some of my closest friends from high school and college we’ve had an incredible time as they hacked and slashed their way through my intro adventure. There were dirty jokes, wild surprises, hilarious banter, and a loose but compelling story driven by friends who have no more social barriers with each other - and who have a special love for tabletop games of all kinds.

For my girlfriend and her family, we had mixed success. Combinations of a huge group, varied age range, familial relations, all put barriers in the way of the rambunctious good time I was hoping for. In the end, you live and learn, but the scary thing about having that experience with beginners is it’s hard to get them to come back to the table.

Me (right) DM'ing for my girlfriend and her family last Thanksgiving

No big deal though right? I could just play RPG’s with my RPG-loving friends right? Well, one of the biggest benefits of RPG gaming - the in-person time you spend with friends - is also one of its biggest downsides. All my current RPG friends live a city away from me. So how do you convert your friends, any of your friends, into RPG friends?

This thought has made me think a lot about D&D and RPG’s in general. What makes them fun for me? What parts could I do without? What can you strip away without losing the heart of the game? Is there a way to make the core of RPG gaming fun extremely easy to pick up and run with? There has to be a way…

I’m not the only one thinking about this. There are ‘simple’ games and rules systems that are supposed to let you get started easily. But before I go spending more money on gaming sourcebooks without a promise of any payoff, I’d like to understand what I’m actually looking for.

What Makes Gaming Fun?

First, let’s enumerate all the things that make tabletop RPG’s so special.

Cooperative gameplay

I love that RPG’s are cooperative. It eliminates the friend-on-friend tension of typical board games where feelings can get hurt or player skills don’t match up. Instead, the most experienced player can play with the least experienced, and your players can work together to explore and improve as a team. Your team faces challenges together, and they get rewarded together, meaning huge victories are so much more exciting.

You can get a lot of the same feeling in a co-op video game, but a lot of them stop at our next point…


Another awesome aspect of RPG’s is your characters are on an adventure. An adventure with progression, narrative momentum, and-hopefully-a dramatic payoff. In fact, most good adventures have many integrated storylines to explore, each with their own twists, mysteries, and rewards.


This is something that is hard to capture in pre-made games like board games or even video games. While possible, building stories in something like a video game is so time consuming and expensive that you’re very limited in your options as a player.

What’s awesome about RPG’s is that there are countless adventures to explore, and even more that you could write or improvise given a solid system. And, due to the improvisational nature of RPG playing, you can even re-play adventures multiple times with only minor tweaking and new characters. There are endless ways to explore a story-based adventure in an exciting way.

Fun with imagination

One of the best things about RPG gaming is the chance to flex your imagination. It lets the players each bring their own concepts and ideas to the table, and to build on them as the game progresses. The story, the characters, the actions you take under pressure - they’re limited only by the minds at the table.


This makes for an incredibly deep game. It lets us explore anything, any place, any character that we can think of. It gives us the freedom to do anything we can think of, while giving us helpful guidelines to make it all seem real.


Of course, playing a game where you’re an IT professional with a 9-to-5 job and regular responsibilities and pressures isn’t so fun. RPG’s give you the ability to break the shackles of ordinary life that we’re bound to ordinarily. In a good RPG, you’re given the tools you need to think up an awesome new character complete with strengths, bonds, and flaws that drive them. They let you be someone you’ve always wanted to be, or someone who you want to explore as.

If you’ve ever enjoyed creating your Sims family, or creating a character in a video game, you’ll appreciate the role-playing nature of an RPG.

It lets you separate yourself from your inhibitions and truly explore your imagination with friends.


This one is important to me. A criticism I heard from Hayley when we played D&D with her family is that it felt like we weren’t actually hanging out. That because of the pretense of role playing and because of the complexity of the rules she felt like she wasn’t actually visiting with friends. An important criticism, but not one that I blame on the game itself.

I think when an RPG group is really clicking, this isn’t an issue at all. Instead, you are collectively building memories together that only you will be able to share. It’s a way of bonding with friends that is unlike any other. You can bond as characters in ways you might not ever be able to bond with each other in normal life. You will share an experience that will never happen again. There’s something extremely powerful in that.

What Makes Gaming Hard?

So there’s a ton of awesome things RPG’s give gamers. Then why is it so hard to capitalize on that fun?

Too many rules

This is the big one. Why are the popular board games lime Monopoly or even Chess so popular? Because people know the rules. There are better versions of those games, but we keep playing the ones we know because it makes it so much easier to play and to teach to new users. The easier the rules, and the more common the rules are across games, the easier to play and learn.


Nobody likes the feeling of playing a board game and needing to stop the fun to flip through the instruction pamphlet so you can litigate a specific rule. Prospective players see the D&D core rulebook and cringe thinking about all the rules they could never learn that they’ll have to digest and understand before fun can even begin. Not to mention all the time wasted looking up details mid-game.

Not everyone is involved

This to me is the biggest downside I’ve experienced firsthand as a DM and as a player. RPG’s give you the flexibility to bring in many characters, but doing so inevitably eliminates play time for everyone involved. It’s possible to be successful, but it means there is an increased burden on the group of players and their chemistry to drive the story and keep the other players entertained and involved.

More frequently, characters feel left out and bored while everyone watches one or two players make decisions or role play while they’re on the sidelines. A game geared towards beginners should make sure everyone gets a chance to drive the action - even without knowing the rules.

Getting started takes too long

You might have had this experience setting up a board game. The process of unpacking the box, setting up all the pieces, and explaining the rules to new players can be exhausting. It’s a huge barrier to entry for people just trying to get into a game. A good board game advocate will likely try to get this out of the way early, but for new players there’s still the matter of understanding the basic mechanic.


An ideal RPG would minimize setup time - this includes character building - and scrape away layers of mechanics that get away from that first dopamine hit of excitement. Get my player to their first dice roll fast, and make sure it has an affect on the game.

A part of this is pre-written adventures. While systems like Fate are billed as ‘simple’, they don’t come pre-packaged with adventures to get you started. Putting all that creative pre-work on the DM is a surefire way to make sure a game never gets started.

Physical location

This one is hard. There are options for remote play - like just using Skype and/or apps like Roll20 - but they often require even more prep work and eliminate some of the fun of tabletop gaming like actually being in a room with everyone and seeing them react.

For beginners, I think the only way to do it is in person. But, if there’s a way for the game to minimize materials by using our phones to make it easier to get started remotely, that would be a plus.

What Do We Want?

Okay so we’re getting an idea of the pros & cons of tabletop RPG gaming. Now, let’s see if we can’t build out a hypothetical game structure that supports what we want in beginner game (hopefully with room to grow).

Straightforward Mechanics

This is obvious. If the worst part of the game is flipping through the rule book either before or during a game, and it’s not delivering memorable value to us as role-players, then it’s the first thing that needs re-thought. The game mechanics need to strike a balance between simple and comprehensive - but with an emphasis on an extremely simple core repeatable mechanic.

In D&D, this is rolling a d20 and adding modifiers. Of course the devil is in the details of that latter step. Understanding what modifiers to add is often complex, and entangled in the complicated character-building setup. Call of Cthulhu uses the percentage die, but complicates things with a huge list of skills you have to choose from to do an action. What I want is die rolls that are so simple they can be easily and fairly deliberated without the DM so that the story can be driven forward naturally.

Ideally, players roll one dice. Based on the result of that one dice - and without adding more than one basic modifier, if any - they determine a range of success. Maybe there’s a way to abstract this dice roll further, with custom die or even a die-rolling companion app. Takes a way a bit of the fun of the tabletop but is certainly more accessible.

Approachable Setting(s)

Crafting an ideal setting for all potential players is impossible. So many people come to different RPG games because of the setting alone. What is important about the setting? What makes the Forgotten Realms of D&D exciting? Or the mysterious horror setting of Call of Cthulhu? Or sweeping sci-fi epics?


I think it’s a combination of factors, mostly:

Simple Character Creation

Building a character is one of the joys of a good RPG. But there’s a sliding scale on customizability-to-complexity, and usually new players only see the complexity. Finding a way to create relatable archetypes that can carry with them the brunt of the mechanical decisions would be a good way to eliminate the paralysis for new players. A way to allow those more fine-grained choices later as gameplay advances is a good way to ease beginner players into it.

Let players have choice when it comes to background, but include pre-written content and ideas for new players - being forced to be that creative before you’ve ever even started a game can be hard.

Pre-written Adventures

The downside of a game book like Fate is that it gives you all the system tools but no way to start playing right away. The setting, the story, all the narrative guardrails of gaming are up to the game master. That’s a heavy burden! Even if we make the assumption that the game master has experience leading games, it still means there’s a lot of pressure to find a complete game or write one from scratch.

A good beginner RPG has to have a rock-solid beginner adventure that is included with the game. Many times players buying these game books have never played an RPG before, or at least the given RPG they’re exploring. It’s understandable to expect the game master to do some background reading, but not building a whole world and story for his characters to explore.

Adventures need a powerful hook, compelling story fit with mysteries, twists, and fun characters to encounter. It needs to drive the narrative in times when the new players aren’t exactly sure where to go or what to do. It should reward excessively, and keep things interesting and snappy. In an intro adventure, players should feel like badasses, and they should be able to be as cinematic as possible in mechanic-heavy encounters like combat. It should also have plenty of world-building material for the fledgling game master so they can rely on the source material at first to get players engaged at the table. A map or two couldn’t hurt either.

Impactful Action for All

This section is about combating the common boredom of tabletop games - waiting for your turn. RPG’s are exciting to me because they offer narrative satisfaction on top of the mechanics, meaning normally when it’s not your turn there are ways to either entertain yourself or be entertained by the action at the table. However, with new players, you’ve got less-experienced RPG’ers and players who sit waiting for their turn because they don’t understand how they can act.

roll paralysis

In an ideal beginner RPG, the barrier for understanding what can be done is hopefully lowered with a simple mechanic for doing things. But the game should also be biased towards getting the quiet players involved. Some of this is the responsibility of the game-master, but adventures can help facilitate this interaction. Intro adventures should need the input from all the characters to overcome challenges. It should penalize the ‘strong’ characters in funny ways, and pull in all the characters as often and early as possible.

And, like I mentioned before, emphasizing cinematic combat and reducing the friction of combat mechanics is essential. Combat is when the mechanics of a tabletop game are thrust to the forefront. Minimizing this feeling of waiting for your initiative to come up is critical. Let characters act together! Let characters interject during turns! And make it so when it is your turn all you have to do is roll a dice and act.

Low-pressure Role-playing

Asking a bunch of RPG newbies to the table and start fully inhabiting their characters and driving an improvisational narrative is hard! It’s scary as a new player to commit to your character and leave behind your social inhibition. There’s the social fear that you’ll be too weird, or that you’ll be doing it wrong, and when you’re with all-new players there’s no one there to show you how it’s done.

An ideal beginner game would include some way to bring out this RP-focus, and more importantly help players realize they can drive the story forward. Put enough role-playing opportunities at the beginning of the adventure, and include easy-to-play over-the-top NPC’s for the game master to inhabit. Make the first challenge a riddle from a wizard or a conversation that needs to happen in a bar. Pull out the RPG elements and story elements as soon as possible.

Mechanics are learnable, they’re the matter-of-fact aspects of gaming. Role playing and story building is what makes tabletop RPG’s special. A good game makes sure beginners can experience that as soon as possible.

So, What’s The Game?

I guess now we should have a game system, dice system, setting(s), and core ruleset all formulated in our heads right? I should start writing the game and stop complaining about what a game needs! Not quite.

This post is about me trying to understand what to look for in a game, and to see if anyone knows of a game that meets my description. While I don’t have all the answers and I don’t know exactly where to look for my perfect game, I feel like I’m a little bit closer to answering the questions about what makes a game fun for beginners. At very least, I’ll begin trying to apply these principles as a game master to help players learn and grow especially in their first session.

RPG on! If you made it this far and have thoughts about RPG’s or any suggestions for me, let me know on Twitter @ajkueterman!