A Beginner's Guide to the Best Tabletop RPGs

Roll for initiative because we're just getting started.

Rob Stanley

There’s something innately special about pen-and-paper, tabletop role-playing games. The combination of collaborative storytelling in, most commonly, a fantasy setting is basically mythological improv when done right. But it can be difficult to convince new folks to dip their toes in — which is why we’ve compiled a nice selection of the best tabletop RPGs for beginner.

The following is by no means comprehensive, and it skews heavily to those systems specifically rooted in fantasy, but it’s a place to start. After all, Tolkien’s a bit more immediately digestible than Vernor Vinge. Better to work up to A Fire Upon the Deep rather than try to start there.

Dungeons & Dragons 5e

Vampires, and witches, and scares -- oh my!

Wizards of the Coast

It’s hard to argue with a classic. Dungeons & Dragons has been the face of tabletop RPGs for decades, and for good reason. The 5th Edition of the system comes with its ups and downs, of course, but there’s nothing quite like the original. Plus, it helps that the system is still being supported — meaning that there’s plenty of content to play with going forward.

Think of 5th Edition here as, say, the potatoes of tabletop gaming. It can be real satisfying, and a staple ingredient of any RPG diet. There’s not as many frills as other more eclectic offerings, but it’s a solid choice in a market full of options.

Mouse Guard

And that's just the cover.

David Petersen

Mouse Guard is not exactly the easiest system to learn, but it has the added benefit of being based on the popular comic of the same name by David Petersen. So not only does the RPG have a whole mess of interesting lore to back it up, it has a built-in storyline for players to muck about in.

The second edition of Mouse Guard was also recently released, making it a bit easier to pick up and play — there’s only the one book, after all, that’s based on the Burning Wheel system. Since it’s just the one, this does make Mouse Guard one of the more affordable systems to go with, and it really puts the “role-playing” in role-playing game.”

Edge of the Empire

Most of the other systems included here rest their laurels on the manner in which the game is played. The mechanics, as it were, take center stage over most other bits. Edge of the Empire, on the other hand, is all about translating immensely popular, er, popular culture to a tabletop gaming session.

See, as the name implies, this system is all about playing at Star Wars with friends. All the major archetypes presented by characters like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and even the more recent Rey are available for players to pick up and get their Force on. It’s an easy sell for many folks that might otherwise find the prospect confusing or unappealing.

Dungeons & Dragons 3.5e

The only books necessary to play.


I’m cheating here a bit by including an earlier edition of Dungeons & Dragons, but hear me out: there’s just so much support for this version of the system. There’s dozens and dozens of books out for 3.5, and it’s a complex system that falls just shy of overly complicated. (Well, sometimes it crosses the line, but you can also just ignore those rules.)

There’s nothing stopping players from adding creations of their own to various systems — dubbed “homebrew” in the community — but having the rules available for creating any number of various class and race combinations is a feather in the cap, so to speak, for 3.5 when compared to 5th Edition.


Wayne Reynolds' art doesn't hurt.


But D&D 3.5e has had its share of complaints over the years. The sheer amount of rules and options released sometimes meant they would often conflict with each other, and even the clear rules could be massively complicated — looking at you, grappling. That’s where Pathfinder comes in.

See, Pathfinder is essentially all of the good things about D&D 3.5e with a series of simplifications that make actually playing a more natural, enjoyable experience. There’s still the loads of options, and publisher Paizo is continuing to support the game with more and more sourcebooks, but the barrier to picking it up to play (and even mastering the system) has been lowered. Of all the options presented here, Pathfinder is likely the one I’d suggest to a friend that’s completely new to tabletop gaming.