Where to begin with RPGs?

Tabletop roleplaying games are a fantastic and immersive hobby, and are one of the great passions of my life. They create entire universes within which the player can, through the medium of imagination and dice, interact with in a way that no other means of gaming can capture. It’s no wonder that they have finally started to truly break their way into mainstream culture.

Yet over the years a huge number of games have sprung up, each one approaching the hobby through a new lens. And with the industry set up in such a way that new books and different editions of each game must exist in order to maintain each game as a sustainable product, it can be exceedingly hard for a new hobbyist to find a way into RPGs in general.

Thankfully the last few years have seen the growth of the starter kits. Each boxed kit professes to be a grand way into their respective game. It’s certainly not the first time that kits like this have broken new ground – my first experience with RPGs was the Dungeons and Dragons ‘black box’, pictured here. It was a grand adventure which explained the complex rules of second edition D&D (complete with THAC0 – oh goodness, how did I ever manage with that?) in handy and involving cards, and provided an adventure for budding heroes to cut their teeth on.

Over the years, I have grown to love introducing new players to tabletop RPGs in the same way. For veteran players like me, new players come to the table fresh, without much of the baggage that we tend to accumulate over the years of playing – new players never care about class balance at maximum level, or inconsistencies in a game’s in-universe lore. The curiosity and passion for the hobby burns brightest at that point, and it’s always a joy to help them take their first steps.

In order to help you to do that – or if you are a new player yourself and are unsure of which game you might want to try out – I have put together a list of some of the best starter sets on the market today. They are in no particular order, and I have tried to make each one suitably balanced in terms of describing the positive and negative aspects of each box.


Dungeons & Dragons

Very little needs to be said as an introduction. D&D has become so synonymous with tabletop RPGs that it is the by-word for the hobby as a whole. Over the decades since it was first created, Dungeons and Dragons has lead the way in how fantasy adventure role-playing has been presented. Now in its fifth edition, this starter set is ubiquitous, available in almost every game store, comic book shop, board game retailer and basically everywhere else you can imagine.

This set comes at an excellent price point, often retailing for less than any other set on this page. But it also contains slightly less, with only two booklets. The first contains cut-down rules for the game (more than enough to play, though, so fear not on that!) and one containing a batch of adventures. You will also find five pre-made character sheets and a set of dice.

The adventures themselves in the box are definitely what make this set worth it. Playing through them will take several sessions, making this box a great start for those looking to get a good five or six evening’s enjoyment out of learning to play. While the box itself could offer more, the price-to-adventure ratio here makes this a strong choice to begin your journey.


CALL OF CTHULHU

Set in the 1920s and drawing heavy influence from the pulp horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, the Call of Cthulhu RPG is one of the oldest and longest-running games around. Innovative for its time in the implementation of a sanity system to replicate fear of the supernatural creatures, the recent 7th edition of this game has been an exceptional example of how a game can progress over time.

Call of Cthulhu sets the players as investigators, academics and detectives. This starter set captures that very well, with three booklets. The first is a choose-your-own-adventure style affair for one player, which many veteran players will recognise as Alone Against The Flames. The second booklet includes cut-down rules for playing Call of Cthulhu, while the third booklet includes three stand-alone classic adventures. You’ll also find five pre-made character sheets, blank sheets to make your own character, the standard set of dice, and some rather nice player handouts.

With a low price point and a hefty amount of playable content, this is a solid starter set for players who are looking for an investigative experience that is a little bit different from the usual fantasy hack-and-slash affair. I highly recommend this set.


Star Wars

Fantasy Flight Games currently have three different Star Wars games available. I won’t lie, that alone makes this a difficult prospect for new players – fans of the franchise have little way to know if they should look to the ‘Edge of the Empire’ line (pictured here), ‘Age of Rebellion’ or even ‘Force and Destiny’. The trick, however, is in knowing what type of Star Wars adventure you want to play! If you want to play as a Jedi or Sith, ‘Force and Destiny’ is the box you’ll want. If you want to be a rebel pilot taking down the empire, ‘Age of Rebellion’ is your bag. For the cut-throats, bounty hunters and smugglers, ‘Edge of the Empire’ is the one to go for.

In this set, you’ll find the cut-down rules, four pre-made characters, and a bundle of specialised dice and tokens. While the game can function with standard dice, the rules are really designed for the ones included here. The adventure could be finished in one long evening or split over two, and the box does include a download for an additional adventure.

While the game does have a low price point, comparable to D&D, it also offers less adventure play and fewer character options. The tokens and dice are useful if you wish to go on and play the full game, however. That, in addition to the somewhat complicated means of dividing the franchise over three different game lines, makes this option rather difficult to recommend for new players.


Pathfinder

Long considered to be the best rival for Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder was established when D&D moved to their fourth edition. Maintaining a more classic feel to what had made earlier editions of D&D popular, Pathfinder grew to become its own unique game line, with an exceptionally strong setting and accessible mechanics. Although the rise of fifth edition D&D has overshadowed Pathfinder somewhat, it remains a powerful player in the RPG marketplace.

The Pathfinder starter set is heavily packed. It comes with two booklets. The first containing a short choose-your-own-adventure style introduction and cut-down rules for character creation. The second contains an evening-long adventure, with basic rules and a guide on how to make further adventures. The booklets contain gear, magic spells, items, and monsters. You’ll also find dice, four pre-made characters and a handful of blank character sheets.

But also, you will find a whole stack of cardboard pawns to use (quite a huge range, in fact), and a map – the reverse side of which is blank and can be used with any kind of marker pen. That’s incredibly useful! The Pathfinder box has more content than a lot of other boxes, but that is also reflected in its price tag. Despite that, it’s still one of the strongest on this list!


Shadowrun

Another classic game, Shadowrun is set in a cyberpunk world of mega-corps and industrial espionage fused with magic. Players are elite hackers, street samurai and elven mages who infiltrate skyscraper and government bases to run covert missions. At the time of writing, this game and its fusion of sci-fi and fantasy is soon to enter into its sixth edition. This review will cover the fifth edition beginner box, however, as it’s the one that I have at hand.

Included here you will find a cut-down rules booklet that contains a single adventure, five character sheets, dice an extract from the Shadowrun novel ‘Fire and Frost’, dice, a booklet full of setting information, and a dossier booklet that outlines in-depth one of the characters. The settling booklet is very nice and useful, but things go downhill from there. Character sheets are explained poorly and don’t really explain the gear or abilities of the characters in a clear way for new players. The dossier is also rather confusing, covering only one of the playable characters. Players have no means to make their own characters.

The rules barely cover any hacking, and the adventure included is a run-and-gun combat scenario without any covert stealth or espionage and can be finished in a little under half an evening. To make matters even less user-friendly, many of the components in this box are shared with the Shadowrun: Alphaware Toolkit, another product that serves a very similar function to this, which can be very confusing for new players looking at Shadowrun for the first time. My advice – wait for the sixth edition starter set, scheduled for release in a few months time!


Numenera

Monte Cook has always been a very interesting figure in RPG development. His work tends to have strong exotic atmospheres, and none capture that better than Numenera. A fusion of fantasy with sci-fi that sees characters venturing into ancient and forgotten worlds, If you like the idea of a fantasy-type setting in which ancient and forgotten technology from a bygone era is treated like magic, this is worth a look.

This particular box comes with a cut-down rulebook that is very heavy on setting and aesthetic. You also have four fairly involving adventures, five pre-made characters, dice, and a whole bundle of cards that are used specially in the game. Also of note is that it contains a single-page ‘cheat sheet’ for the GM – much like a GM screen – which is extremely useful.

Numenera is a solid game to consider, especially for the more visually minded players and GMs out there. Lavish descriptions and atmosphere is definitely the way to go with this one, but that can leave some of the more action-orientated players feeling a little uninvolved. With a solid price point and a decent lot of components, Numenera is a starter set that I would still recommend looking into if the image on the cover catches your eye.


Legend of the Five Rings

Set in the land of Rokugan, Legend of the Five Rings (or L5R) is a game in which you play as a samurai sworn to one of several warring clans. A classic game in the 90s, L5R had been unavailable officially for many years until Fantasy Flight Games recently placed this new starter box before us.

This set comes with four playable characters (each of a different clans) which are easy to follow and understand. You also get a set of specialist dice – Fantasy Flight also did the Star Wars game above, and do love their specialist dice! Included is an adventure book that does a good job of guiding the players and GM through learning the rules as they play, and a cut-down rulebook which feels just a little too light and cut-down if I’m honest. You will also find several tokens and a download for a second adventure.

In all honesty, the cost-to-adventure ratio in the L5R box is a little steep. This is still a good introduction to the game and its setting, however, but it’s a game that tends to lack a lot of the more traditional combat-and-magic of many more beginner-friendly tabletop RPGs, opting for a more traditionally subtle approach. I would still recommend this product, but not for new players who have never tried an RPG before – think of this as an intermediate level product.


Star Trek Adventures

There have been many Star Trek RPGs in the past, unsurprisingly. The newest one by Modiphius is a unique one, incorporating their distinctive 2d20 system. This is a system which simulates the ebb and flow of dramatic tension in the game, and is one that I think works well with the right GM but poorly at the hands of the wrong kind.

This box contains six pre-made characters, three interconnected adventures, a cut-down rulebook, maps, and tokens that the game uses for the afore-mentioned ebb-and-flow mechanic. The rules don’t contain character generation at all, and are very heavily edited to the point where they can be a bit unclear at times. The adventures themselves, however, are pretty solid, and the tokens are very useful. Also contained are more specialised dice.

The thing that makes this box stand out is that it has an excellent price point. It’s well-rounded, giving you everything that you need to dive right in and play, and has a unique system that can offer a lot of fun. The price-to-adventure ratio in this product is very high, so you can easily pick this up without feeling that you’re breaking the bank.


Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

Love it or hate it, Warhammer is basically a British geek institution. Now in its fourth edition, the tabletop RPG makes a sturdy alternative to those seeking adventure without plastic models. Cubicle 7 have brought us a new starter set for fantasy adventures in the classic Warhammer world.

This box includes some very lush dice, six pre-made character sheets which include some lovely in-character ‘secret knowledge’, maps, reference sheets, a hefty booklet containing setting information, handouts, tokens, and an adventure booklet that contains well over ten missions. The lid of the box also doubles as a GM screen with details printed on the interior, which is a nice touch and good use of space.

Also worth note is that this box set is extremely good value, for less than £25 you receive a lot of material and components. The game’s system is excellent, but also very brutal (in keeping with the setting) and it is definitely a game that aims to appeal to the fans of the franchise. If you’re not really interested in Warhammer’s grim aesthetic, you might want to go for something else, however.


Starfinder

I make no secret of the fact that Starfinder has become one of my favourite RPGs of recent years. With a streamlined and easy-to-play system that fuses magic and sci-fi and a setting that maintains all of the eccentric swashbuckling of a space opera, there’s just so much to love here! Every class plays in a fun and exciting manner, every combat is impact-full and dynamic. This game is D&D in space in every positive way.

Made by the company that created the Pathfinder box set, the Starfinder starter box builds on that. In truth, it is almost the same product, transplanted from the fantasy to the sci-fi setting. It comes with two booklets. The first containing a short choose-your-own-adventure style introduction and cut-down rules for character creation. The second contains an evening-long adventure, with basic rules and a guide on how to make further adventures. The booklets contain gear, magic and technology, items, and monsters. You’ll also find dice, but this time you will find six pre-made characters and a handful of blank character sheets.

This is a solid start for people new to RPGs, but it may not translate well to players who have more experience. The adventure is very much a ‘dungeon crawl’, complete with a mechanical dragon at the end, which is wonderful for people new to the hobby but may leave experienced players wishing for a little more in the way of exotic alien planets. The starter set also trims out spaceship battles and resolve points. But then, the wipe-away map and cardboard pawns are still great resources, so there is still something for everyone here.


No matter which of the starter sets that you might prefer or settle on, I hope that you have a fantastic time gaming and that they leave you looking forward to many adventures ahead!

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