The tabletop RPG (TTRPG) is a strange genre. It is this blend of improv, board gaming, and socialisation. Not only that, the most popular TTRPG of all time, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), often boasts long, multi-session campaigns.
Players, as characters in the rich fantasy world, bring the epic tales of adventurers to life, playing out events both big and small, hilarious and sombre.
There are many one-shot D&D campaigns that last just for a single session too, which make for great jumping-on points for people new to the genre.
Still, it is often tough to balance the gameplay mechanics and the role-playing aspects of the game. While the former can be smoothed out by a meticulous and nurturing Dungeon Master (DM), the latter tends to leave new players floundering.
It is not easy to let go of certain societal inhibitions, and the lack of clear guidelines or rules to follow doesn’t make it easy for new players to get a handle on how to enjoy the process of role-playing. Thus, they burrow deep into the gameplay mechanics, seeking refuge in the familiar, safe, and reliable rules of numbers and dice rolls.
However, the improvised role-playing part of D&D is what often leads to the most memorable moments, the stories that get retold at the table over and over, and the inside jokes that get the group laughing uproariously.
Here are some TTRPGs with a heavy focus on role-playing to help loosen up those inhibitions. Newcomers to the genre can be eased into the feeling of speaking as different characters, while veterans can learn how to spice the scenes up.
Players: 2 – 4
Play Time: 180 minutes
The Quiet Year is a great game to introduce someone to the collaborative storytelling nature of TTRPGs. Mechanically, the game doesn’t require players to speak and act as a character, doing away with the most nerve-wracking part of the role-playing process.
In the game, players answer random prompts while filling up a map bit by bit together. There are only three actions players can take – discover something new, hold a discussion, start a project. Even when holding a discussion, each player only gets to say one line, very temporarily taking on the role of an abstracted member from the fictional community.
This game lets the emergent storytelling aspect of TTRPGs shine on its own. The minimalist game mechanics, along with the unique maps drawn by players during play, make for a memorable experience and a souvenir of sorts for players to reminisce over.
Players: 3 – 5
Play Time: 100 – 120 minutes
The idea of speaking and acting in character really is a big hurdle to overcome for new players. This is due to how most people aren’t used to the idea of pretending to be someone they’re not, and to speak in a way that’s different from how they usually speak. Not everyone is a trained actor, after all.
Alice is Missing solves this problem by being a silent role-playing game. The whole game happens through text, allowing players to take on the roles of different characters using just their words, and not even having to make any uncomfortable eye contact.
Surprisingly, the game digs deep, and lends itself well to touching on more sensitive topics while hitting powerful emotional notes. It is partly because players are free to explore the nuances of telling a story through role-playing without being bogged down by the pressure of keeping up an act.
There is also acute attention to detail, with a music playlist on the official website and the beautiful comics art style adding to the immersion. Also, Alice is Missing was voted Best Game in the 2021 ENnie Award, which is the Emmys for TTRPGs.
Players: 3 – 5
Play Time: 180 – 240 minutes
Dialect is an award-winning (voted Best Game of IGDN in 2019, among other awards) TTRPG that tracks the rise and fall of an isolated community. There are multiple settings players can choose, and the key mechanic here concerns the creation of new vocabulary unique to said community.
The new words can be a wholly new word, or a shift in meaning of an existing one. With the creation of each new word, players will engage in conversation in-character, coming up with scenes where the new word will be integral. Words created for previous scenes will also invariably be used in subsequent scenes. This tracks the way a community forms their own language as time passes very well.
While Dialect does require live and active role-playing, having the focus be on dialogues rather than having the players mix in the narrating of actions does lighten the cognitive load on them.
Also, the requirement for the new word to be integral to the scene gives the game a slight puzzle element and takes the focus off the players a little bit. This gives a subtle goal for players to cooperate and work towards within each scene, making it much more palatable.
This game lends itself easily to poignant, bittersweet stories, and hints at how affecting TTRPGs can be.
Players: 2 – 5
Play Time: 150 – 180 minutes
The key mechanic in Icarus is the building of the tower of dice. Like Dialect, this game tracks both the rise and fall of a civilisation, except this time, the downfall comes about due to hubris.
Players will spend each turn building up the tower of dice, stacking dice on top of dice, watching the tower get increasingly misaligned, until the inevitable happens. The tower, as a focal point, gives rise to great tension.
Even if it lacks the incisive rules that guide the role-playing in a comfortable manner, the addition of an ever-present source of tension gives players an easy topic and common mood to latch onto. A story about demise looming over the characters’ heads at all times makes for a good introduction to newcomers who want to get a taste for the dramatic as far as TTRPGs are concerned.
Players: 2 – 6
Play Time: 120+ minutes
At times, it is the setting of the TTRPG that makes it difficult for newcomers to get into the groove of things. When the world is one of dragons, elves, and magic, it can be tough to think about what a character should do and how they should react in a given situation.
With BFF! Best Friends Forever, players simply have to tap into their nostalgia. Taking on the role of tween girls spending time with each other, with a healthy dose of eye-catching visuals, this game leads players down memory lane, be it real or imagined.
By using excellent visual aids as ways for players to remember traits about each others’ characters, it also lets players concentrate on enjoying the role-playing process rather than having to concern themselves with potentially forgetting things about them.
This game is, in a word, wholesome. It never fails to put smiles on the players’ faces, and is definitely a gentle and safe choice for any new player.
Play Time: 120+ minutes
It is also tough for people to let go of their inhibitions when they feel an inexplicable pressure to be earnest and to treat the TTRPG with an unexpected level of seriousness.
Goblin Quest does away with all that, bringing players a low stakes slapstick one-shot TTRPG. Players will play as goblins, and they will die. A lot.
Players will try and guide goblins through their hijinks, going on outlandish quests such as trying to fall in love, and have fun finding out from moment to moment how wrong (or right!) those moments will go.
Due to goblins’ fatal ineptitude and general lack of personality, there won’t be choice paralysis that comes with character creation.
This generally prevents players from forming too strong an attachment to their goblins, and the silly premise makes this feel more like a party game. Thus, it becomes much easier to let down one’s inhibitions and enjoy the surprising braindead hilarity that TTRPGs can bring out.
Players: 3 – 20
Play Time: 45+ minutes
Another potential issue with role-play make-believe is the stress and anxiety stemming from the need to maintain logical consistency. It is somewhat paradoxical, because the players are playing out something fictional, but that fiction is supposed to be true to the world the characters inhabit.
Yet here comes a game, where the goal is to make increasingly hyperbolic claims, to make stories up on the fly about the most ludicrous adventures. The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen simulates the feeling of a child trying to make up a lie, while everyone listening knows that it’s a lie. The difference? This is pure out-of-this-world fun.
Other players can throw in questions, inject unnoticed bits of the world into the storyteller’s tale, and watch the storyteller try to incorporate those possibly disparate elements into it. This game requires players to only have the loosest hold onto some kind of logical consistency.
It is a good game for new players to either flex their storytelling muscle or to fully relax and just pull random narrative threads out of thin air.
TTRPG looks like a daunting genre to get into. There is an impression that TTRPGs require a substantial amount of effort and commitment, and truthfully, some do. The experience becomes especially tough when the role-playing and storytelling elements come into play. In a TTRPG, those things seem more like the purview of lifelong extroverts.
However, we hope that this sampling of one-shot TTRPGs shows you that role-playing can be both easy and comfortable. All of the games here are also GM-less (or has a GM-less option, in Goblin Quest’s case), which means that no single person has to shoulder the heavy responsibility of preparing and planning out the games in detail.
They could be the gateway to a lifelong love for the potent storytelling and gameplay TTRPGs are capable of.
This article was first published in Geek Culture.