A Game for Noobs

I just saw a post by Xaosseed about the ongoing GM shortage crisis in RPGs, and immediately thought that this shortage has now been going on for probably 50 years.

My view has been for quite some time that the biggest barrier to entry for learning how to run an RPG is the fact that you first need to have mastered the majority of the rules before you can start giving it your first try. And I think most people who are looking at the prospect of running a game themselves are having Dungeons & Dragons before their eyes. The game with the three big tomes that I think come out as about 1000 pages in total. One of the games that doesn’t really have a game structure or any procedures to follow. D&D is an awful game to first try learning gamemastering with.

I think one thing that the RPG world could really use would be a simple system that is specifically designed to be easy to run for new GMs who have never run a an RPG before, and maybe even never played an RPG before. Which also would be a game that is easy to learn for players. And it should be specifically marketed as such.

The first priority would be for it to be a system that has relatively few rules and mechanics that GMs and players would have to know. It should be a short rulebook, simply on the virtue of not looking daunting to people who feel they have no clue what they are signing up for. But also, we would want to minimize situations where the new learning GMs have to interrupt the play to look up the rules for how something works. What we would want to teach is not how to manage mechanics, but how to conduct play. Which is the skills that we would want them to learn and that they could transfer to whatever game of choice they want to switch to later.

The game should have a very clear adventure structure and procedures for play. Instead of a game where players can play anything and do anything they can image, limit it to a clearly defined scope in which the overall goals are clear to both players and GMs. Provide templates for how adventures can be prepared and set up that GMs can fill in with their own content.

Also the game would have to be designed to work best for fairly short campaigns. Assume that a campaign might run for three or four adventures and that will be it. That might be enough for a lot of people completely new to RPGs to feel like they have a basic hang of how to play and run an RPG, which then will make it much less daunting to start a new campaign with a much bigger and more complex game. And again, it should be presented as such. It does not have to be a cool game that experienced players need to feel excited about to play it. If it is clear from the start that the goal of playing the game is not to be start of a great new campaign, but to help a new GM get some practice at the basics of running the game over the course of just a month or so, I think a lot of longtime players would be totally up for it. Even if that noob game is not what they actually want to play as their own game of choice.

As a consequence, the game would not need to have much replay value. If you’ve seen anything the game has to offer after four adventures, that would be fine. It would be perfectly okay to get bored with it very quickly.

I don’t have any clue how to make such a game. But I think it could be really great to have something like that. It wouldn’t even have to compete with D&D. It could simply be very successful as the thing you play to prepare for playing D&D.

4 thoughts on “A Game for Noobs”

    1. I thought that “Tails” was part of the “Powered By the Apocalypse” game family but judging from a quick lookup, I must be thinking of another; there’ve been several games based on that cartoon. One interesting mechanic is that since you get XP from failure, learning in a plot-relevant way is supported by the rules. PbtA games like “Dungeon World” can be a good intro to RPGs and there’s a wide variety of genres for that, but they’re also kind of limiting in that you’re supposed to fit your actions into specific Moves.

      How about “Mini Six: Bare Bones Edition”? It’s free and only 36 pages, of which most are optional rules and settings and monster lists. One of the settings is a good example of what the article’s talking about for a self-contained short campaign: Victorian-era ghost hunters. Players will know the ghost-busting premise and the setting’s different without being too weird, and there can be a specific series of missions.

      I’ve been playing/running “Godbound” lately and value it for being rules-light and focused on making big changes to the setting (“I train the villagers; I repair the ancient sewer system; I convince them to end slavery”). Not sure it’s a great intro RPG though because the players have a ton of freedom of action and the book is long and complex. What I’d do is point a GM to its adventure creation tables (or those in “Worlds Without Number”) for system-neutral ideas. What else? “Tiny Dungeons” is simple but it seems to be marketed as more kid-oriented and I’m not sure players will want that. I’m not eager to recommend anything from D&D or Pathfinder themselves, but they do offer “Beginner Box” sets with a newbie GM in mind. There are some little RPGs such as Pignatelli’s “Adventurers!” or “2d10 RPG” written to be just 1-2 pages long but I don’t know how comfortable a newbie would be with them, saying, “What do I do with this?”

      To the extent the problem is people wanting to play rather than GM, it’s worth looking at games with GM-less play, if you can accept having a more random experience or at least one player knowing what’s ahead in a pre-written adventure book.

  1. I think ICRPG from Runehammer does all those things and more.

    Moreover I think the GM shortage has always existed, and the key reasons are 1) people just want to play, 2) people think it’s hard (the reason Matt Colville created those awesome ‘running the game’ videos)

  2. I broadly agree: most of the ‘introductory’ games I know of are rules-light but don’t then use that freed up space to deliver an accessible guide to players and GMs on good practice and play culture.
    I think a faux-D&D (ie expected vernacular fantasy themed) capsule game: https://knightattheopera.blogspot.com/2024/01/capsule-games-part-1-introduction.html?m=1 would be a good offering. As you identified, a restricted scope and expectation of finite play would be important – I would argue a design for single sessions that can be chained together but each intended to be a complete ‘adventure’ would be best.
    If something out there already does this, would love to hear about it! This is an area where polish and production value would be important – to seem ‘proper.’

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