Getting Started: RPGs For Beginners

I wasn’t around back when the original D&D Red Box set by Frank Mentzer came out, the entry drug that launched a thousand ships of the imagination. I did get a copy second-hand that dad bought off eBay, and from its clear and concise writing to starting an adventure within five minutes of opening the box to its badass Elmore cover, I can see why it’s held up as the reason so many people got into the hobby. I can also see why Wizards of the Coast went back to the Red Box idea for 4th Ed.

Getting new–particularly young—players into the hobby is something publishers have not focused on as heavily, even though it was founded by the wild-eyed imagination of thousands of kids and teens back in the ’80s. There was a long, long drought—most of the ’90s, the ’00s, and the early ’10s—where entry-level gaming products were few and far between. Some of that is because the games dealt with more “mature” themes; there’s a reason we never saw a White Wolf or Deadlands entry-level product. Or, as Adam Jury of Posthuman Studios pointed out in the comments, because box sets (beginner or in general) are a huge expenditure for an RPG line, especially since they’re a highly visual media and need a huge investment from the art department’s budget.

Other games tried to release entry-level starter kits, but somehow mucked it up; I was gifted one of the 3.5 Player Kits because I didn’t have a 3.5 PHB, and that kit was almost exclusively a softcover 3.5 PHB with a few “getting started” brochures and a box of D&D minis. I’d already been gaming for years, but those pamphlets didn’t seem terribly helpful. The 3.5 Basic Game may have been better,  though I never saw a copy: it came with a bunch of minis, including a large Blue Dragon, so many people snapped them up just for the figs. Compared to the old Red Box, it just didn’t feel the same.

That’s started to turn around, to the point where the hobby may start growing from the ground-up, may pick up some younger gamers and not rely on the old guard to draw people in. After a few decades of being told that RPGs are no longer just kid stuff, much like comics, the genre had the inspiring realization that you can cater to both the youngest newb and the oldest grognard at the same time. Woah!

A Look at RPG Beginner Products On Store Shelves Today:

Click the link for a great and detailed review.

The 4th Edition D&D Red Box is more than a tad obsolescent at this point, as 4th Edition hasn’t seen any support in a dog’s age and Wizards is gearing up for its D&D Next release this fall. The big draw against it is its price, which is sky-rocketing on the secondhand market into the $75+ range. The original MSRP was $20, which was a steal. The setup is a good mix of D&D nostalgia and D&D new. It has dice, a map, a sheet of cardstock character tokens, some blank character sheets, a stack of Power Cards, with rules and suggestions that explain how to make your own heroes and adventure to 2nd level. Really, it’s just dipping your toes into the D&D waters.

BoxBackFinal

The Pathfinder Beginner Box is still in print, and aesthetically is a joy: Paizo has a great art team and budget, and worked some marvels here. It includes dice, four pre-generated character sheets using the iconics, some blank sheets, thick cardboard character pawns, a map, GM and player rules so you can make your own heroes and adventure to 5th level, and includes a big chunk of Bestiary monsters to fit that level range. So, you can do a surprising amount of adventuring using nothing but the beginner’s box and your imagination. It has (correction) not one, but two adventures: a solo adventure starts the Hero’s Handbook, and a group adventure at the start of the Game Master Guide. It’s pricey at $35, but you get a lot for your money, and if you don’t mind missing half of it and printing the rest the .pdf is $10. Plus, it has a sizable support network of digital resources.

game-layout

The Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game has taken a lot of inspiration from the Beginner Box, as well as the old Red Box of yore that eased you into gaming within minutes of cracking the lid. After sliding everything out of the Beginner Game, you’re treated to pages screaming Read This First!, which explains the general idea of gaming, then Read This Second! which is a quick canned adventure where you learn the system (and how to roleplay) as you go along. Dammit, why can’t more starter games be like that? It includes a set of the funny dice needed to play, a map, a sheet of cardstock character and starship tokens, four pre-generated characters, a pre-generated adventure, and a rulebook that covers all the basic systems as well as how to advance those four pregens. All for $30. Sadly, no rules for making your own characters, but it takes those pregens a good ways up their skill trees.

Note that so far, every box set has had similar features: dice, map, things to represent figures, trimmed down copies of the rules, and ideas to get you started. Edge of the Empire and the Pathfinder box both give you pre-gen characters to get started and a pre-gen adventure to use them in. I think there’s a lot to be said about how both of them start with adventures, since (much like the Mentzer Red Box) it pushes you to learn the game first and get started immediately, instead of having the brand-new GM plan out their adventure beforehand or just wing it.

Fate Accelerated Edition is the entry-level version of Fate. While Fate Core was labelled ages 12+, FAE is meant for younger players (ages 8+) and is a grab-and-go game needing little to no prep. The Fate Core rules are boiled down to a simpler approach (groan), with a clear and concise explanation that does not talk down to the reader. Actually, it has some rather slick manga-style art and a writing style that just screams adventure. No canned adventure, but it does show off some pre-generated characters. It’s a lot more kid-friendly than most game books out there, while still being approachable by adults, which is one of the big flaws most starter products have. It’s 46 pages, free for digital, $5 in hard copy, making it the cheapest entry product out there.

There’s probably some others I’ve forgotten, but even this glut of three (four if you include the hard-to-find 4e Red Box) starter products is a huge step above what was available ten years ago. It’s an interesting sign of the times, the pendulum swinging back towards the hobby’s roots. There’s a saying that the golden age of science fiction is 13, as in the age most fans started reading it. I think gaming falls into a very similar situation, where a lot of hardcore gamers are adults who started rolling twenties somewhere between grade school and college.


4 thoughts on “Getting Started: RPGs For Beginners

  1. Rules complexity has little to do with why there’s no Eclipse Phase intro boxed set (as a matter of fact, it’s one reason why I’d _love_ to do one._

    The economics of making a boxed set are dangerous, so devoting huge cash to them in advance of a game’s publication is a huge gamble. You’ll note that even Paizo didn’t release an intro boxed set for a couple years — after they had acquired a large audience, then they had to start working harder to acquire new gamers, stragglers who were still playing old editions of D&D, etc.

    1. Good point — the cost-prohibitive nature of making box sets is a major factor I just kind of glossed over. And most entry-level kits have so many visual aids, dice, and supplies, it’s easier to do in a box set compared to book form.

      As a huge fan of Eclipse Phase, I’d kill to get an entry-level product to ease some of my gaming friends into it. I’m not sure if it’s unfamiliarity with transhumanist themes or just apprehension about learning a new system, but an entry box could solve both of those problems.

      1. That’s something you have to factor in: because such box sets need to have a low price (I think $35 is a pretty fine price for the Pathfinder box set, which I actually just bought yesterday…), the print run needs to be relatively high to get a good per-unit cost. You can print 1000 or 2000 copies of a brand new RPG and have some hope of making money, but I don’t think you could do a good intro box set at less than 5,000 units, and I bet closer to 10,000.

        And due to their more visual nature than many RPG books, an intro box set will probably have increased art costs than a typical core book. Building it as the first project in a line is an expensive proposition.

        I definitely want to work to make Eclipse Phase more approachable. I’m not sure if a boxed set is the right way to do that (or for us at this time, a _possible_ way of doing it), but it’s absolutely on my mind.

        (Also, take another peek at the Pathfinder box — there’s an adventure in the GM’s book!)

      2. Yeah, it’s pretty telling that, of the people now making beginner boxes, two are industry leaders, and the third (FFG) has established RPG lines, a large art budget, and an extensive history and logistics network for publishing boxed board games.

        There’s an adventure in the Pathfinder box GM book? Jeez, they put too much in it, I can’t keep track of it all! (Skimming through it again, there’s a solo adventure on page one of the Hero’s Handbook to boot. Welp, time to update the old post there.)

        The visual nature really shows in the Pathfinder box; they really outdid themselves on that one. The Edge of the Empire box re-uses art and text from its core rulebook, which is a smart way to save costs. Paizo didn’t, threw a lot of their art budget at it, and came up with a very crisp and clean design, even down to the dice icons.

        The rise and fall of box sets is something I’d like to explore deeper, considering everyone and their cousin was making them back when I started gaming. TSR put out a couple a year, West End Games did a number, L5R had some big adventure boxes, Deadlands had its fair share… now due to price they’re more of a premium product due to their expenditure. It’s something that shouldn’t have been glossed over, but the post is more the enthusiasm that the RPG industry is getting back to having good points of entry again.

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