GM-Less Story Game Recommendations for Casual Players With No Experience?

Looking for recommendations for story games that you would specifically recommend for 3-5 players with no story game experience and little to no tabletop RPG experience.

All participants are eager to give this type of game a shot, one has some theater improv experience, one used to play AD&D way back in the day, and one has had a one of experience with Swords & Wizardry at a con.

As far as trope experience, 3 of the 4 core group are familiar with most mainstream fantasy tropes a la Tolkein/Game of Thrones while the one with improv experience has virtually no experience with classic fantasy and sci-fi whatsoever. Three women, one man, two of whom are queer identified. All creative, imaginative, outgoing, and comfortable taking emotional risks.

Open to virtually any genre, but those which require immersive knowledge of niche setting tropes will probably not work for all the players. (e.g. Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Classic D&D, etc.)

Some I’ve heard favorable things about, but not certain whether they’d be recommended as first games with the above group:

Fiasco (have already ordered the physical books)
Dream Askew / Dream Apart
Prime Time Adventures
The Shab-al-Hiri Roach
Our Last Best Hope
A Quiet year
Microscope
Kingdom
Ironborn

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For the Queen is perfect for this.

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Given you have Fiasco en route I’d certainly endorse it as a game for non-game players. If they have enjoyed Fargo then they will eat it up. I’ve not used the recent re-boot but understand it lowers the barrier to entry further.

… and welcome, @NuMystic, to the Community.

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Welcome, indeed!

I haven’t played all the games on your list, but here are my impressions of them:

  • For the Queen could, indeed, work very well. A very solid choice!

  • Fiasco is a bit of a hit-or-miss game, because of how freeform it is. Some people catch on right away and have a great time, whereas others flounder. It wouldn’t be my first recommendation, but when it does “click” for a group, it’s fantastic.

If you decide to play it, reviewing the Tabletop play-through is a nice way to introduce yourself or your friends to the game, and is a helpful demonstration of the rules in action:

The playsets are a huge draw (I sometimes use playsets like these to introduce new gamers to the hobby - they are visual, exciting, and get the game started right away).

  • Primetime Adventures could work or it could fail, for similar reasons: it requires some skill to “assemble” (the brainstorming/Pitch can fall flat if people don’t know what they’re trying to do). Like Fiasco, it could be a great pick if you feel really comfortable facilitating it.

However, it’s not really GMless. I wouldn’t let that stop you… but it’s really a GMed game, if that matters to you. If you’re an experienced GM yourself, that could be a plus. If no one is, then I’d go with a more “directed” game, with clear step-by-step procedures.

  • Dream Askew and The Shab-al-Hiri Roach would be hit-or-miss in my book, as well, depending on how the group connects to them. The former probably has clearer procedures, but the latter has a more “catchy” premise. Neither would be top picks for me here (over the games listed above).

  • A Quiet Year and Microscope are very easy to run/play - you just follow the steps. Great choices! However, they are a little different, in terms of “game genre” - they’re not really roleplaying games, in a sense; they won’t have much (or sometimes even any!) in-character play or drama. They’re more like “make stuff up together” games; a calmer, more brainstorm-like “writer’s room” vibe here, as opposed to, say, Fiasco’s or Shab-al-Hiri Roach’s zany action and drama.

I’ll add a few more recommendations:

  • Dialect is a really lovely and simple game, and works very well. You get to play characters and create a setting/story, while making up a “language” and culture to go along with it. A really lovely and light design that’s easy to run and rewards both setting creation/brainstorming and in-character dialogue/roleplaying with very simple and effective rules.

  • Witch: the Road to Lindisfarne is an odd but strong choice. It’s a very freeform but very hard-hitting game, with premade characters and a basic “story” to follow, which you fill in along the way. If you want to get straight into some interesting moral dilemmas and a real emotional journey in a medieval setting, without having to really learn or master a set of rules or procedures, it’s a strong design that gets you started right away and has a powerful dilemma at its core.

Do not choose this if you’re looking for “light and breezy”, however!

  • Imagine, by Rickard Elimaa, is a really neat “slice of life” experiential game. It helps you set a mood and explore some quiet scenes in a way that’s really beautiful.

  • The Woodperry Murders is a really light and easy game that plays in a short span of time. It’s based on a game that’s also by Rickard Elimaa, and it’s probably the most “user-friendly” game on this list, but may not satisfy if you’re looking for a really intense or in-depth experience. However, it’s free and simple and quick! And it’s free:

http://www.theravenking.com/rpg/The_Woodperry_Murder.pdf

Finally, however, my top recommendation would be a game not many people here know:

  • Muse, a storytelling game by Jonathan Benn.

(Disclaimer: I co-designed this game, building most of the rules and framework, so I may be a “biased” reporter here, if that matters to you!)

This is a collaborative storytelling game, and the game of choice for me when I want to introduce people to the story game hobby.

I find that this is the game I’ve had the most success with, when it comes to playing with non-gamers. The rules give you a light “boardgame” feel, with a clear turn order and procedures, and really support you all the way through, in a way that many of the choices above do not. You can’t really go wrong.

(And you could potentially skip the “setup”, if your players don’t want to brainstorm together, by using a Fiasco playset or a familiar existing story, to make it even more beginner-friendly.)

If you don’t want to buy a hardcover book, you’ll note there is a link to a free (ugly) PDF version at the bottom of the description.

Good luck, and please do feel free to ask more questions, if you are new to this. This a place full of helpful people!

We’d also love to hear how it went after the fact.

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One more recommendation:

If you can find a recording or transcript of other people playing the game successfully before you do so yourself, I’d recommend that very highly. Kind of like playing a sport or making art, you can learn all the procedures or all the rules, but seeing it in action shows you how it’s actually supposed to go and what good players do (which is just as important).

Can you imagine a group of people trying to play a sport, for example, just from a piece of paper explaining the rules? It won’t necessary be a disaster… but it will look very different from the same group trying to play a sport they’ve watched others play before: they will instinctively know where to stand and what some typical strategies might be like, and can start experimenting with the medium right away.

EDIT:

The Tabletop Fiasco videos (there are three, above) is a good example, as long as you’re aware that they’re heavily edited.

Play by forum can sometimes be really helpful. Here are some links to people playing The Murder of Mr Crow, for example (the game that The Woodperry Murders is based on):

https://rpggeek.com/thread/1335360/murder-mr-crow-ooc

https://rpggeek.com/thread/1335885/murder-mr-crow-ic

Reviewing this kind of thing before you play can be really helpful.

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I don’t want to distract the conversation, but I do have mixed feelings on Fiasco.
First, of course, I do recommend it, having run it half a dozen times (including a Holiday based one that’s on track to being a regular tradition. I’m a fan!
That being said, it definitely does capture its sources of inspiration, and there are simply some friends that I can’t run it with, as the player-v-player nature of it all is a non-starter. In the spirit of a collaborative story-game, that kind of makes it… not quite so collaborative in one sense?
Is there a playset or a version of Fiasco that wouldn’t be quite so combative?

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I’m afraid that combative part is an essential part of “Fiasco”, and playing without it would be playing very different game. This is one of the reasons that I don’t like playing it.

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I’m going to be the weird one. I don’t like either For the Queen or Fiasco. Fiasco is quite unstructured and may require aggressive facilitation to work well for raw beginners. For the Queen has the same probably at the opposite end, where if you “just” follow the rules, you get a very dry experience and again, you need a facilitator to step up and poke people by asking provocative questions or you risk the game feeling very bland.

I’m going to reiterate the recommendation I made on Reddit (to this same question I think) and shill for Follow.

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It’s been a while since I was in that situation that I wanted to facilitate an introduction. But I would ask “Zombies or Shakespeare?”

Zombie Cinema is a great one shot, and it keeps all the artifacts of play on cards and a game board. Most people have some familiarity with the genre.
And the game makes a great platform for further hacking or advancing to other systems.

The other game is my own The Daughters of Verona. It’s non violent, funny and it always has a happy ending. You learn enough about the tropes to play it during the setup, in case you didn’t know Shakespeare’s comedies already. Otherwise you’ll feel instantly at home.
Here’s a discount link if it seems interesting https://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse.php?discount=921960f0ff

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@Paul_T’s list is great. even if I join the voices that aren’t really fond of Fiasco, but I talked more over at Story Games about why.

I would like to add one game to that list:

Wow, I didn’t know that I was quoted on that page. :slight_smile:

Anyways, you play women that tell stories about Alienor. The game is really laid back, focuses on relations, and I had great times playing it on conventions. It has a nice hand-holding structure for playing, which also brings me to…

Kagemasu - where one takes the role of the ronin Kagematsu that enters a village in need, and the others are playing women in said village. Hard and clear scene framing with a question at the end of the game.

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Zombie Cinema and Kagematsu, great additions.

Kagematsu has one challenge, though: the Kagematsu player needs to have a clear sense of how to play - I tried to play with a total beginner, and we found that they struggled as Kagematsu. It requires a little bit of a GM-like mindset. It’s not difficult, but would just require a quick 5-minute orientation for that player. That said, a great choice!

I have a nice Google sheet set up to play it online, which I could share.

Follow is freeform in a similar way to Fiasco, and my group struggled with it in the same way. It’s very effective for some people, though!

Another great beginner’s game is Within My Clutches, by my friend David Berg. Unfortunately, it’s not available quite yet, I think. (You play supervillains trying to achieve their nefarious master plans, from the epic and tragic to the petty and ridiculous.)

EDIT: You could try to hit him up here, however!

http://shrikedesign.com/games/wmc/

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I’ve had very good luck using For the Queen with people brand-new to RPGs. It helps having one or two experienced TTRPGers or LARPers in the mix to give the newbies an example of how the game works. The fact that it’s sort-of a card game seems to lower the barrier to entry for a lot of people apprehensive about RPGs who think they have to read a 300-page book to get it.

Once the plague times are over, another game you might want to consider is Meguey Baker’s 1001 Nights. This one works well when played in conjunction with a dinner party. There’s enough of a structure to the game that prompts interesting storytelling.

If people like drawing maps, The Quiet Year is a good choice.

Two games I’d recommend against trying out with absolute beginners are Fiasco and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Both of those are a bit too free-form and can put a lot of pressure on newbies who haven’t yet found their role-playing sea legs. [However, if these newbies have a non-RPG storytelling, improv, or acting background, they might be excellent choices!]

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This is odd for me, because Follow gives you explicit goals and drives, whereas Fiasco feels like it’s just “I dunno, play some scenes?” It is important for someone to step up and “show” people what a scene “looks like” but after that I’ve found it goes very well with first time players.

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I’ll recommend Daniel Wood’s My Daughter, the Queen of France. It requires one player to come up with and pitch scenes, but due to the subject matter and scene sheets I’ve found that less challenging than for example Fiasco. The other players can dig into portraying and exploring their characters/roles in a very structured (and truly ingenious) way. Heavily on the emotional side.

For a more moody and dark game that’s also easy to play, I’ll point to Lost in the Rain by Vivien Feasson. Everyone gets tokens, there are a couple of ways to spend them, players/characters run out of them one after the other.

Another token-economy game (and likely the best one there is in the Indie space if you ask me) would be Dog Eat Dog by Liam Liwanag Burke. I’ve played this with a lot of different people including teenagers and every single game was stellar. It’s just really really good.

If you want something that focuses more on worldbuilding but still has an emotional/character play side, take a look at Caro Asercions i’m sorry did you say street magic. Kind of an advanced Microscope.

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Dog Eat Dog is absolutely brilliant. I didn’t mention it here because it is very much a GMed game (although in a weird way, and players do get to frame their own scenes). However, I second this mention quite strongly! If you are willing to get into heavy, emotional, personal stories, it’s a powerful game.

Interesting! We had the opposite experience (although it took me watching the Tabletop episode of Fiasco to understand a very useful, unwritten rule - frame your scenes as dialogue between two of the characters). Perhaps we can start a thread about this elsewhere?

No it’s not, that’s why I did mention it :slightly_smiling_face:.

Sure! I don’t actually have that much experience with Fiasco though. Maybe I played it wrong, and it’s been a while. I just don’t remember having any idea of why I would frame a scene or what my character’s goal for the scene was a lot of time.

Just took a look at Dog Eat Dog, and perhaps the confusion was due to the 1 vs All nature of the game that is more typical of games where the GM plays the antagonist vs a cooperative team of other players?

It’s a case of young / old lady illusion : there’s no way to undo this knot without cut. Back to OP.

Denominations being worth so much, maybe some GMed games would fit the bill. I am thinking of SWM, in that it gives large authorial power (generally associated with the GM role).
Else, if the label is necessary, what about Contenders ? It’s gamey and focused, and has got a very relatable modern theme (a la Fat city).