What Can We Learn From The First Chapter of RPGs? Part 2

What you don’t realize is that this Lizardman Warrior is so scary because he’s armed with knowledge.

So, in the previous edition of this series, I discussed how the first chapters of assorted fantasy roleplaying games introduced players to the games’ mechanics. Specifically, I talked about how the various editions of Dungeons and Dragons performed this feat, and how the differences in these first chapters mirror the differences in editions.

Well, there are more fantasy tabletop RPGs out there than just D&D, so a thorough analysis should also include those games which Wizards doesn’t make (or those who adopted Wizards’s rules, in the case of Pathfinder).

Same rules as last time, but here’s a quick refresher:

  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.

Earthdawn, Second Edition

Hey guys, there’s a…there’s a dragon…THERE’S A DRAGON LIKE, RIGHT THERE

A criminally underrated RPG, Earthdawn is equal parts Dungeons and DragonsFallout, and Foundation. In the world of Earthdawn, there was a great apocalypse of demons which destroyed the world. Prior to this, a particularly forward-thinking empire called the Theran Empire got its power trading protection from this armageddon, specifically in the form of vault-like kaers: giant underground cities. Now that the Scourge is over and people are free to walk the scarred earth once more, tensions arise due to the Theran Empire’s power.

Earthdawn begins its first chapter by describing the rolling of dice, and specifically the idea that, if a die rolls its highest value, you get to reroll it and add that to the total (a concept frequently called “exploding” dice). Once that’s out of the way, the game describes why you’d want higher sums: in this game, you’re going to be rolling skill checks with dice to beat a Difficulty Number. Just as your dice can explode, you can also have critical failures, which spell bad news.

Once Earthdawn has this bare basic structure of a dice roll down, it describes what flavors these skill checks come in: you can roll against a DN, roll against a DN and have the degree of your success come into play, or just roll and try and get as high as you can.

With this information, Earthdawn then lays on the final element of complexity into its dice rolling system: Steps. Basically, all attributes, skills, and talents are measured in the form of Steps. Whenever you want to roll for that attribute, skill, or talent, you see what Step you are, then compare that to a table which describes what dice you roll. This gives the system the benefit of being able to require fairly complicated dice pools (such as 1d20+1d10+1d8+1d4 for Step 25) without cluttering the character sheet or requiring clunky conversions. Also conveniently noted is the fact that the number of a Step is always the average of the associated dice roll.

The opening chapter then goes on to describe, in brief detail, the assorted attributes of the characters, but by this point, you already have the fundamental mechanic of the game down pat. Earthdawn does a really nice job of building complexity upon the most simple expression of its rules (“roll a die”) until it has cemented understanding of the whole thing in your mind.

A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying

“And for my first decree, I demand the comfiest pillow in all the land, because the seat of this chair is made of pointy swords.”

I am only a bit familiar with the Song of Ice and Fire series, but I have picked up enough through cultural osmosis to know what’s going on: it’s basically just the War of the Roses period of medieval history with a layer of dragon-colored paint. Heavy focus on interpersonal relationships and politics. Got it.

The intro chapter to SIFRP begins, again, simply: you’re gonna be rolling dice and adding the results together. Sometimes you’ll get bonus dice to roll, and you get to choose the best dice to add to your result. Sometimes you’ll get a modifier, which just adds right to your result, no roll needed! Lovely.

The book then goes on to describe how to perform the most basic skill test. It divides the procedure up into steps, then describes each step, and provides a moment-by-moment example of how it works in action.Once we have this example learned, it teaches a few variants: sometimes you’ll have to do multiple tests in a row for the same thing, sometimes you and someone else are going to make tests alongside other people, and sometimes you’re going to be making tests against other people. This covers basically every significant deviation from the norm.

The system then goes on to describe other edge cases: getting help, taking longer to succeed at a task, how failure works, how to to determine difficulty numbers and whoa, ah, fuck, where’d this character creation come from?

The book just jumps right into some character Archetypes, before we’ve even gotten into detail about what the characters are made out of. The book just says “Here, take one of these, I made ’em special!”. However, for the chapter based around introducing new players to the game, I hate this idea. Character creation is the ultimate moment of expression for the game, and is maybe the most important part of any tabletop RPG. Don’t just encourage players to fasttrack. Also, on just an organizational note, this infinitely more belongs in the Character Creation chapter immediately following the intro.

Dungeon Crawl Classics

“OK, for starters, why did you even think this would work?”

Dungeon Crawl Classics is a masterpiece of old school-style roleplaying. Designed to harken back to the glory days of AD&D, where adventurers were made to delve into dungeons and kill stuff, DCC manages to simultaneously feel familiar to those well versed in OSR-style gaming, while also innovating in new and interesting ways. My favorite feature of DCC is character creation: instead of rolling up a level 1 adventurer per character, every player rolls up several level 0 characters who go through an adventure called The Funnel. Those who survive are elligable to be played as player characters.

Befitting of the Old School Revival, where games have minimal rules to give game masters greater control over how a game is played, DCC’s introduction “chapter” is a single page.

In fact, in perhaps the most refined version of the Dungeons and Dragons opening chapter yet, this page only really has one single section to teach mechanics: The Core Mechanic. In essentially two paragraphs, the book details the concept of rolling a d20, adding and subtracting modifiers, and trying to beat a difficulty number. It also introduces the idea of Armor Class, as well as the idea that maybe you’ll roll a different die other than a d20, in a surgically efficient number of words.

The other 2/3 of the words on the page is dedicated to an interesting segment: a section describing how DCC is different from other games the reader might have played before. We’ve seen games use this first chapter used as a way to teach brand new RPG players, as well as a repository for system vets, but this idea of the “you’ve played RPGs, but not this RPG” is a relatively novel one. Specifically, this section targets people who have played various editions of Dungeons and Dragons, pinpointing the exact ways in which DCC differes from the assorted iterations of D&D.

With this sort of introduction, those who have played D&D in some respect (read: basically anyone who’s ever rolled a d20) are given a mental comparison point, meaning instead of teaching someone a whole new game from scratch, DCC goes “Remember D&D? With these exceptions, everything you learned there translates here”, and the entire process of teaching is replaced with the much easier process of remembering. If you’re brand new, DCC only teaches you the single, base mechanic, allowing the rest of the book to expand upon it naturally.

The One Ring RPG

Pictured: a horrible forest full of monsters, or maybe a photograph of Arkansas

While the original Dungeons and Dragons was heavily inspired by, but not directly related to, Lord of the RingsThe One Ring is a liscensed LOTR game, designed to explicitly recreate the type of stories in Tolkien’s books. We’ve got Hobbits and Gondor and pipeweed and everything, with no need to cleverly dodge copyright.

The first chapter of The One Ring spends a lot of time on story before eventually beginning to explain the game. However, instead of leading with a mechanic, the book starts off by explaining the flow of storytelling, specifically the two phases of the game: the Adventuring Phase, which is where most of the normal RPG things happen, and the Fellowship Phase, which represents characters taking a breather and seeing the results of their action.The game’s first real description of gameplay doesn’t describe dice rolling, it describes the passing of “storytelling initiative”: basically the story stick that gets passed around, giving you the power to control the story.

The first chapter describes its dice mechanics, which is pretty par for the course, but before that it does something pretty interesting: it has a detailed breakdown of the character sheet. Instead of anchoring player’s experiences on the core mechanic, it instead anchors them on the character sheet.

This is the interesting thing about The One Ring, is that it’s truly trying to capture the spirit of the Lord of the Rings books, not just in the mechanics, but in the very way the player thinks. By writing the first chapter in such a way as to force the player to think about the game as a story, and to consider their characters as the origin point for the entire game, The One Ring takes steps to ensure that its adventures are seen as stories, not dungeon crawls.

With this, we can see the sheer variety of ways you ca introduce people to a set of relatively similar games. The very mundane and unimportant-seeming decision of what order to introduce ideas in can greatly affect a player’s understanding of a game, both in the way they comprehend the rules, and the way that they percieve the purpose of the game.



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