What Can We Learn From The First Chapter of RPGs? Part One

You know what’s scarier than a Tarrasque? Ignorance.

One of the most challenging parts of writing a tabletop RPG is, in my opinion, writing the opening chapter. Meant to be an introduction to the game, this chapter needs to:

  • Explain the concept of a role-playing game to someone new to the hobby (as well as basic concepts like game mastery and dice notation)
  • Set up the general mood and setting for the game
  • Explain in very brief terms the core mechanics of the game
  • Usually, provide an example of play which is both representative of real gameplay and shows some game mechanics in action

This is a lot for a single chapter to do, especially when you consider these chapters are usually no more than a couple of pages. These pages are one of the first things a new player is going to look at, though, and they’re going to expect this chapter to introduce them to the game. First impressions are everything, after all, so designers need to make this one count.

The trouble I was having was figuring out exactly what mechanics to introduce in this opening chapter. Do I just discuss the core dice mechanic? Do I introduce systems which heavily influence this dice mechanic (for instance, the Strain system in Blackmarked)? Do I talk about character attributes? Do I discuss specific ones, or just the fact that attributes exist?

As a bit of homework, I decided it would be interesting to look at other tabletop RPGs, and see how they handle this first chapter and the introduction of their mechanics. I set up some simple rules:

  1. I only looked at fantasy RPGs, and crunchier ones at that. My game is a rules-medium fantasy game, so I figured that was where I should look to see my inspiration. That means yes to looking at Dungeons and Dragons, no to looking at Dungeon World.
  2. I’m specifically looking at how mechanics are introduced. Explaining the concept of a role-playing game is pretty constant across games, and introducing setting is dependent on how much setting a game has to introduce. All games have mechanics to teach, though, and each game could differ significantly in how much of their mechanics they teach, so this is what I’m interested in.
  3. As a result of Rule #2, the “first chapter” doesn’t necessarily mean the very first chapter in the book. To avoid going “Yeah, this first chapter is just setting, so there’s no mechanics”, the “first” chapter of every book is the first chapter that includes any game mechanics.

Without further ado, let’s begin the analysis. This post is going to focus on Dungeons and Dragons, and the following one will cover games that aren’t Dungeons and Dragons, because I said so.

Dungeons and Dragons, 3.5th Edition

Fuck you Krusk, I’m King of Tall Skinny Moutain!

Let’s begin with the grandmaster of fantasy tabletop RPGs, and with the oldest edition I have: good ol’ three-five. This was my first RPG system, and thus holds a special place in my heart.

The introduction chapter of D&D 3.5 begins with the mechanics by introducing The Core Mechanic, as it calls it. This mechanic is three simple parts:

  1. Roll a twenty-sided die
  2. Add relevant modifiers to the result
  3. Compare this result to a target number to determine success or failure

This is the core mechanic upon which all other mechanics in the game are established, so the game lays the foundation to teach all of this here. It then goes on to teach what specifically those “modifiers” are, mainly Attribute and Skill modifiers, thus introducing the main elements of every D&D character. It goes on to cover some obvious edge cases (mainly what happens if you don’t have any Skill ranks for a Skill check).

Once that all is introduced, it adds another layer of complexity by discussing attack rolls, which are Skill checks with an added wrinkle in the form of Armor Class, which forms your target number. Another element of your character is introduced, and another layer of complexity is added to this Core Mechanic: the idea of the target number.

As long as the book is talking about combat, it quickly touches on some other concepts of combat. Time is measured in rounds which are the units of time which the whole game uses, and in each round there are three different kinds of actions you can make: standard, full, and move. It doesn’t explain what these are per se, but it does explain what configuration of these actions you can make in a single turn.

Alright, that’s quite a bit of information to pack into a single chapter, and it’s all in just a few pages. Players are equipped with the main mechanic, as well as the most common cases in which that mechanic manifests. Now, players have a foundation upon which they can learn all of the weird, specific sorts of dice rolls they are going to have to make.

Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition: Y’all Like World of Warcraft, right?

Fourth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons is…let’s say…controversial. Many people believe this system plays like a tabletop miniatures game instead of a roleplaying game, eschewing any roleplaying elements, focusing almost exclusively on combat.

This is immediately obvious from the first chapter. The first bit of mechanics that Fourth Edition teaches the player is that there is a clear distinction between combat and non-combat encounters. That’s pretty telling. Narrative encounters are described simply as the absence of combat.

Once this distinction is out of the way, there’s a quick example of play. Interestingly, though, this example doesn’t actually describe the details of the mechanics at all. It just sort of vaguely hints at the existence of things called skill checks, and that occasionally you’ll have to make these checks in an opposed fashion. Cool.

How do you make checks? Easy, The Core Mechanic. Again, the main mechanic of D&D is taught in the form of these three easy steps, but instead of leading with it, it’s the last thing explained in the first chapter, meaning you now have to think back to what you just read and imagine how this Core Mechanic was being used behind the scenes in that example of play. Writing this chapter this way forces you to actively think about how the mechanics are being abstracted for your convenience, and in fact, ends up being an inconvenience.

Dungeons and Dragons, 5th Edition

“Zap zap, motherfucker!”

A return to form and an apology for Fourth Edition, Fifth Edition tries to balance the beginner-friendliness of Fourth Edition with the fiddly and all-encompassing rules of 3.5. The resulting game seems like it’s striking a chord with a lot of people.

The first chapter of the Fifth Edition marries the first chapter of its father and grandfather. It’s brief and simple, yet constructed in such a way that it forms the basis for learning the rest of the system.

Fifth Edition begins by offering the briefest example of play yet, basically doing nothing but describing the dynamic of “Dungeon Master describes, Players react”.  This honestly means this example of play isn’t explaining mechanics at all, it’s really a part of the “What is a Role-Playing Game” section.

Once that’s done, whoa, crazy, it’s the Core Mechanic, presented at the start of the mechanics once more, where it belongs. Now we know what all of the game mechanics are based on: a twenty sided die, some modifiers, and a target number.

All of a sudden, a new element is presented: advantage and disadvantage. These ideas are simple and presented simply. If you have advantage, you get to roll twice and take the highest. If you have disadvantage, you have to roll twice and take the lowest.

Alright, so what I don’t like about this intro compared to 3.5 is that 3.5 used mechanics as a way to begin to describe what characters in this game are composed of. Players who read 3.5’s first chapter know that they need to start thinking about Attributes, Skills, and Armor Class. Players of Fifth Edition just know that they’re going to have to make d20 rolls, and that they are going to need to somehow get good modifiers and advantage.

Think about this, though: Fifth Edition isn’t trying to teach you what a character’s made out of, because it’s targeting Dungeons and Dragons veterans. Part of being an apology letter to veteran players is treating them like old friends, and that means not explaining to them stuff they already know. Let them jump into the knitty-gritty of the system as soon as they can. New players are given just enough to introduce them to the system. They maybe don’t get as much leading them into the system as they do in 3.5, but they aren’t getting confused.


“These skeletons technically can’t be copyrighted, so we just resurrected them! Good as new!:

When Fourth Edition came out, a lot of people missed 3.5’s way of just having a bunch of crunchy rules for everything. Since RPG rules can’t be copyrighted, the good people at Paizo took 3.5 and just…made more of it. This en-more-ening of 3.5 came to be known as Pathfinder.

Pathfinder‘s first chapter just oozes with this philosophy. The first thing it begins with is a massive glossary of basically every major game term, explained in brief, but still fairly descriptive terms. Everything from Armor Class to Experience to Rounds to Skill Checks get covered here, and anyone new to the game will get instantly confused.

Once this section ends, there’s a quick overview of how character creation works, which provides some context for some of the concepts explained in glossary, creating a solid mental category of “character stuff” that your brain can shove some of those terms you just learned into.

Paizo also decided to abandon the Core Mechanic, instead opting for a general form version: dice rolls are going to be of the form XdY, plus or minus modifiers, and rolling higher is better. Higher in comparison to what? Who knows. Who cares. You’ve played D&D, you know how this works. This general form of the Core Mechanic does imply correctly that you’re going to be rolling all sorts of dice, but it obscures the fact that d20s are your main weapon here, which is indicative of the sort of game that Pathfinder is: a big swingy game full of epic heroes. Of course, you’ve played D&D, so you know that.

Pathfinder then goes on to explain what every ability score is, how to generate them, and the idea that you get bonus spells from abilities. Beginners are going to be even more overwhelmed by these concepts then they were before. Again, this game isn’t built for beginners.

Finally, we have an extremely in-depth example of play, covering how Skill checks work, initiative and initiative bonuses, Difficulty Class, saving throws, attack roll bonuses, types of damage, and Armor Class.

The key to understanding Pathfinder is that it came out when 3.5 players had transitioned to Fourth Edition. They read and learned this new system and decided they hated it. Pathfinder then came along and went “Hey, remember this system you love? We brought it back”. This first chapter isn’t meant to teach you the rules, it’s meant to remind you how things used to work, before Big Bad Fourth Edition came and ruined everything. By touching on so many concepts so fast, it hopes to jog your memory to the point where you can pick up where you left off.

Alright, so that’s how the Dungeons and Dragons games begin their games, and how the first chapter changed and adapted to suit the needs of the new edition. Now, in the next post in this blog, let’s see how the competition tried to set itself apart, or maybe top, the top dog.

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