Get into roleplaying through boardgaming

Boardgames as an introduction to RPG

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Are you curious about roleplaying games, but not ready to buy a rulebook or to find a bunch of people to play with? There are tabletop games that can help ease you into RPG, or serve as alternatives to playing an RPG. Here are 5 of my favourites.

The obligatory disclaimer before the list is that playing an RPG has no true substitute. The limitless imagination possible in an RPG just doesn't exist in any other game. That's why roleplaying games exist, to fill the need of a game system that has no predetermined board or storyline, and that can instantly adapt to the whims of players. As long as you're satisfied that an RPG-like game is not, regardless of how close it gets, actually an RPG, then these tabletop games satisfy many (but not all) of the requirements for an RPG.

It's also worth mentioning here that the definition of "RPG" might not be as definitive as one might think. To me, an RPG is a game of rulebooks and collaboration with a group of friends on how to solve a theoretical puzzle. But if you've never played a tabletop RPG before, or you have but you play differently than I do, then you might have your own definition. Maybe to you, an RPG is the experience of choosing skills from a skill tree. Or maybe it's a few minutes of NPC conversation between exciting combat sequences. Or maybe it's just the conversation. Or the story. Who knows! It's all valid, because ultimately RPG is really just (wait for it...) a feeling. The games on this list address different aspects of what you might be looking for in an RPG.

1. Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

One aspect of RPG is the joy of playing a character, finding special items to enable powerful attacks against enemies, and leveling up over time. Pathfinder Adventure Card Game provides exactly that game loop, and a lot more. In the base game, you get an Adventure card that defines several scenarios you must play through. Each scenario defines various locations and villains each game session uses.

To start a game session, you pick a scenario (ideally in order of the adventure) and set up a number of Location decks. Then you choose a Character (there are 7 or 8 to choose from in the base set, and more can be purchased as expansions) card. Your Character card has your character's attributes on it, each one represented by a dice. Seoni, for instance, is a powerful sorcerer so she uses a d12 for her arcane spellcasting attribute, which means it's possible for her to score very high on those rolls. For an attribute that's not her specialty, though, she'd use only a d4 or a d6 or a d8. Each Character gets a hand of Item cards to boost their attributes, so even though Seoni might have to a use a d4 for an attack roll, she might have a weapon that adds another dice to the skill test.

During the game, your Character encounters the cards at each Location as you search for the villain of the scenario. When you encounter a card, you must decide how you interact with it. You can fight or escape monsters, try to evade traps, unlock treasure chests, ally with NPCs, and so on. All of these tasks are done through dice rolls based on your attributes and, optionally, by playing cards from your hand.

The trick is that the cards in your Character deck are both resources for better chances at succeeding as well as your HP counter. That might seem strange at first, but it's a brilliant design choice that forces you to make hard choices to manage your resources extra carefully. Luckily, some cards can be "recharged" for later use, but that usually requires a successful skill check, so it's rarely a guarantee.

I have just one base set of the first edition of Pathfinder Adventure Card Game and one expansion (and it's not even for the right base game), and I've been happily playing it since 2017.

To get an idea of how it plays, you can watch some of my playthroughs online.

2. Mansions of Madness

Part of the fun of an RPG is exploration. You're constantly discovering new corners of the game world, and there's always some cabinet to peek into or stone to look under or curtain to pull back. Sometimes you find a cool Item, other times you just get a jump scare as something unearthly attacks you. This is the joy of RPG exploration, and it's what Mansions of Madness does especially well.

This game is a little unique because it's integrated with an app you can run on Steam or on a mobile device. In theory, this cuts out a lot of board maintenance, or at least it cuts down on how much thought you have to put into board maintenance. In practice, you still have to place a lot of tokens and shuffle lots of cards and place tiles and so on, but instead of referencing a book you're instructed to do so by the app. That absolutely removes a mental burden, although you can sometimes start to feel a new burden of serving a mindless app. In other words, the app is nice but it doesn't make the board game invisible the way the board is literally invisible in a traditional RPG.

The stories in Mansions of Madness are investigative. You're out to solve a mystery in a Lovecraft setting. The stories are basically scripted, not randomly generated, so there is a finite number of scenarios included in the box, but I've found them to be very re-playable. Eventually you do get really familiar with a scenario, but with lots of characters to choose from, you can bring whatever level of roleplaying you want into the game. Discovering a dead body for a hardened investigator wouldn't be cause to stop searching a room, but it would probably send an athlete or wealthy socialite running. If you choose your character's actions based on how you think they would react to elements of the game, no matter how familiar those game elements are to you the player, then you're really really roleplaying!

Mansions of Madness is a BIG box, too. It's got lots of floor tiles, lots of cards, lots of very cool miniatures you can paint (or not). I think of it as an RPG kit, because you can use the game assets to run adventures you make up as you go, just like a traditional RPG. Once you start playing the mansion for friends who are playing characters, you've officially, genuinely, crossed over from board gamer to game master.

3. What next?

A lot of people have accidentally played an RPG as a kid, mostly through Choose Your Own Adventure and similar books, in which you read a page and then choose which page to turn to next based on some story-driven decision. Those books presented choices to the reader, and the choices made by the reader alters the way the story is told. There are finite possibilities, but it's a good implementation of one of the core concepts of RPG. The What Next game is basically a choose-your-own-path adventure story written on a deck of cards.

There are three decks of cards in the box, so you get three stories to play through, each one designed for a different difficulty level. The decks are not small, and each card contains one section of the story path. At the end of each card, you're presented with choices, and then you skip forward to the card that corresponds with your decision.

Some choices require a skill test, and this is one of the things that sets What Next apart from a simple pick-your-path story. You don't have a character sheet and you don't use dice. Instead, there are minigames included in the box that you must complete. For example, if you're digging for treasure, you might have to reach into a bag of blocks and try to find a specific shape just by touch. If you're trying to piece together clues, you might have to assemble a specific shape from a set of tiles. Most, if not all, of the challenges are physical, but there are few that require dexterity (I think there's one game about catching a card, or something, but I always just skip that one because I can't catch).

Obviously the physical minigames set it apart, and of course the stories are scripted so they're finite. If you decide that you actually do need to let your housekeeper drown so she won't murder you (yes, that's a plot point) but the card doesn't give you that option, then you just don't get to do the thing you think your character must do to succeed. Player agency, in other words, isn't really part of this game. You're on a ride, and it's fun, but it's on rails. You can play a "real" RPG if you want to go in another direction.

The stories are universally silly, and the minigames feel like party or carnival games. It's a lot of fun with a good friend, and if you to experience the choice-driven story part of an RPG, this is [almost] exactly that.

What Next? isn't a perfect game. After you play all three decks, the box is pretty much used up. You can re-play the adventure a few times, but it's limited because there's just a limit of story paths. However, I think its greatest strength is, in a way, its limitation because a clever player will need to solve them. And I think the solution to What Next? is to just play an actual RPG, even if it takes the form of a homemade What Next? deck.

4. Fallout the Board Game

Character management is one of the defining elements of an RPG. It's what sets an RPG apart from multiple-choice stories and from basic dungeon crawlers and from army-sized wargames. In an RPG, you have a character whose stats you use when making decisions and testing your skills, and those stats get better over time. The Fallout board game has lots of character attributes to track, but not in the way that makes it feel like a chore. In fact, it's really the driving force of the game. You do what you do in Fallout to make your character more influential and more powerful. In a way, the stories and adventures you have along the way are incidental to character progression, which frankly is how a lot players view RPG, for better or for worse.

Fallout is a tile-based game, and your character moves along the world map, avoiding super-mutants and and raiders and radiated beasts, searching for settlements and ruins, and hopefully completing quests for NPCs.

The dangerous stuff usually gets resolved through combat. The game uses special VATS dice, designed to visually reference the famous VATS system from the video games. When you roll, you're rolling simultaneously to see whether you hit your enemy (indicated by a body part selector graphic) and whether your enemy hits you (indicated by bullethole icons). You can additionally use skills and special perks to re-roll a bad roll. As you level up, you get more skills, and so your luck, such as it is, gets better and better.

Quests are resolved through the Encounter deck. These are a What Next style pick-your-path adventure, with choices at the bottom of each card, and often a dice roll to determine success or failure when there's a factor that random chance might affect the result. Like What Next, the story potential is limited by the fact that it's written down on physical cards. Unlike What Next, though, Fallout has five different characters you can play, and playing through a familiar story from a different perspective is kind of what roleplaying is all about. You can get a lot of mileage out of these Fallout quests. It's a huge deck of cards, first of all (probably as many cards in it as all three decks in What Next), and each story is tied to a tile location. Not all tiles are used in all games, so you don't see all the same quests in each game. Beyond that, there are obviously lots of different branches to each story, so you can make different choices each time, and then on top of that you can always play the quest differently based on the character you're running. It's very robust, and it's a great way to get used to intentionally adopting a different point of view.

Your character is central to the game in more ways than just the quests you go on. As in the video game, you're S.P.E.C.I.A.L in the board game. You start with 2 skills, and then you collect more as you gain XP. You also gather special items, which you can use or sell. You can buy items at stores in settlements, or scavenge for items out in the wasteland. You have a health bar that counts down as you take damage, and a rad counter that counts up as you move through radiation. Should your health and rad levels collide, you die, so the more rads you take the less health you can afford to lose before you rest.

You may or may not feel that you "know" your character in this game, but you definitely feel like you know your character's stats. You're constantly adjusting and improving your character, and it's a lot of fun.

5. Dungeoneer

I think this game is out of print, but I'm including it in this list because it's one of my favourites, and you never know what you'll find on Trademe or Ebay or your local thrift store. Dungeoneer is a dungeon crawler that uses cards as tiles. At the start of the game, you place the Entrance card on your game table, and then shuffle the rest of the deck. Draw four cards and place one at each cardinal direction around the entrance. You have the start of your dungeon.

There are several different characters you can play, each with their own specialties. A character's skill grants a bonus to your dice rolls, and as your character levels up the bonuses increase.

I have to confess that I've never played Dungeoneer as a multiplayer game. I play an solo mod I developed, and while it's not a perfect set of rules for the assets provided, I've played it since 2018 and the game remains my default travel game. The box is tiny, being about the size of two poker decks, and the game play is a great implementation of a dungeon crawl.

The dungeon crawl is a staple of classic RPG. You move through hallways and rooms, you smash down doors, loot treasure chests, slay the monsters. There are mechanics for all of those things in Dungeoneer.

Combat is pretty exciting, too. It's a little bit of dice rolling, but you mitigate the element of chance with item cards and spells. You always have the option of escaping, too, so you're not only managing resources you're also tempering your own expectations as you face new and stronger challenges. It's a tense experience that captures the excitement and anticipation of an RPG dungeon, plus the joy of having a character that grows more powerful the more you play, and it all fits into a deck of cards.

Bonus: Dark Cults

This one's definitely out of print, but it deserves a mention. Dark Cults is by Kenneth Rahman and was published by Dark House in 1983. It contained 108 cards, not including one expansion pack. It's my favourite game, and it's the only one on this list that accurately provides the narrative component of an RPG.

This is simplifying matters a little, but essentially you (in the game world) leave your house late one sleepless night for a walk. You draw a card from the deck, and then you narrate what your character sees and does in reaction to the subject of the card. Your character visits starnge locations, encounters strange characters, finds unusual objects, and you explain them or interact with them through storytelling. Why have you encountered "A brutal convict" or a "Wretched beggar", and what happens when you do? Why is there a "Unwholesome smell of death" around the corner? Do you go to find out, or do you hurry away?

You're in control of your character's actions, thoughts, and emotions. As you interpret the world, as shown to you by the cards, you're likely to start developing your character's backstory, too. You can't react to "echoing footsteps" or see "malignant leers from passers-by" without learning something about yourself (or your character). If you run away, maybe you're an academic, but if you rush in to investigate, maybe you're a detective or fighter. Discovering your character in the game is as fun as discovering the game world around you.

The point is, there's no wrong way to play Dark Cults. It's a storytelling device that has the exact right atmosphere for me: late night suburbia with just a little spookiness mixed in. It's horror without being horrific, though there's plenty of allowance to make it as morbid or as goofy as you please.

I've recreated Dark Cults with Creative Commons artwork, and released it for free.

Ease into RPG

You can't always be playing an RPG (although you can get close). All the games on this list either have a solo option, or can be easily adapted for solo play. Try one or two of these games to experience elements of an RPG, and to just have a heck of a lot of fun.

Photo by Riho Kroll using the Unsplash License.

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