In this video, I discuss how I evaluate and learn new RPGs. Synopsis below.
While I may not have an entirely systematic approach to this, there are some things I tend to do each time I deal with a new RPG. I’ll break this post down into three phases:
- Discover new games
- Evaluate whether to dive into a game
- Learn a game
As I mentioned in my last video, we’re living in the Golden Age of Tabletop RPGs. Tons of games are being released all the time, spanning both major and indie publishers. The flip side of that is that it can be difficult to actually stay abreast of everything that’s coming out. I rely on a mix of sources:
1) Friends and Communities
Of course, friends are a great source of new games - especially since they likely know your taste pretty well. But communities tend to be an even better source. For example, I’m in a pretty active Discord community, and people frequently share interesting new Kickstarters, announcements from publishers about upcoming games, games they’ve recently played, etc.
This is how I recently discovered EZD6. Someone shared it, a friend ended up running it and shared his positive impressions with me, causing me to pick it up shortly afterwards.
2) Podcasts and YouTube
Podcasts and YouTube channels can be a great way to discover new (or old, for that matter) games. I won’t share any specific recommendations here, as these would be too subjective. Instead, I encourage you to go out and discover RPG related podcasts and YouTube channels that resonate with you.
3) Kickstarter Recommendations
Each time you back an RPG on Kickstarter, the periodic update emails have a section at the bottom that recommends a bunch of other Kickstarters I might be interested in. This seems to be working, as I often discover and back new Kickstarters that way.
4) Bundles, e.g. Bundle of Holding or Humble Bundle
Bundles often provide a tremendous value, with lots of PDFs for a great price. For example, I originally came across Warlock! in a Bundle of Holding in 2021. I flipped through the PDF, it really resonated with me, and I ended up ordering the print books on DriveThruRPG shortly afterwards. I got a couple friends into Warlock! as well - see my earlier point about Friends. :)
Humble Bundle occasionally runs RPG bundles as well.
I’m old-school and still subscribe to a bunch of blogs with a feed reader. As with podcasts and YouTube channels, you’ll need to go out and discover blogs that resonate with you. But for starters, rpgnews.com is a pretty good aggregator.
This phase is a lot more subjective, and I can’t quite pin it down to a neat set of rules.
My sense is that before you can evaluate a game to decide whether you want to get it to the table, you first need to figure out why you’re even considering the game, and what it is that you’re looking for in a new game.
Perhaps you are on the hunt for the perfect system to replace all other systems? Hint: it probably doesn’t exist, but there might be a system that comes close for you, for at least a while. In this case, you want to assess whether the new game improves upon the things you don’t like in your current system, while preserving those aspects that it does well. The latter is important: The grass is always greener on the other side, so chances are that you’ll be drawn in by the things the new system does well. But if it does poorly in other areas, where your old game shone, it likely won’t be a net improvement.
Or are you looking for something nicely complementary to your existing games? Perhaps you’re looking for specific qualities in your game. E.g. something with more tactical elements or more character options, or perhaps something more lightweight, or more whimsical, a different genre, etc.
You might not even have any specific goals. Maybe you’re just looking for something new that resonates with you. If you’re planning to run the game, it’s also important to understand who you’re going to run the game for. Are you running for your homegroup? You likely know them pretty well, and their preferences will play a big role in the selection process. Or perhaps you care more about finding an interesting new game, and you plan to figure out who to run for later.
As for myself: I used to be on the hunt for the perfect system, but I gave up on that years ago. What I’ve discovered about myself is that I enjoy learning new systems and getting these to the table more than I do playing any particular game for an extended period. I go through phases where I’m super excited about a particular system. In some cases, that excitement fizzles out pretty quickly. In other cases, the game becomes part of my regular rotation, even if I might take extended breaks from running it for a while.
Sometimes, I’m looking for a game to scratch a specific itch (e.g. a genre I haven’t played in a while, like Sci-Fi). But most of the time, I’m more opportunistic, and go with the flow.
At this point, it’s important to distinguish between whether I’m trying to make a purchase decision, or whether I already have the game and am simply trying to decide whether to invest in learning it. In some cases, these can be closely related. E.g. if I decide to buy a game on DriveThruRPG, I’ll likely skim it shortly afterwards. In other cases, especially in case of Kickstarters, there may be years in between these decisions. In fact, I’ve often excitedly backed a Kickstarter, only to banish it straight to the shelf when it eventually arrives, because it’s no longer what I’m after right now. I’ve come to terms with this by considering myself an RPG collector as much as an RPG gamer.
Let’s briefly talk about how I make a purchase decision. If the game is already out, I can ask friends and look for reviews on YouTube or on the web. Otherwise, I might only have limited signal available, such as a Kickstarter page. In the best case, they provide a preview that gives a good sense of the product.
I’m generally looking for something that resonates with me:
- Do I like the vibe of the art?
- Does it bring something new to the table that isn’t already covered by 10 other games in my collection? E.g. I don’t really need yet another d20 based retroclone…
- Have I heard of the author, and do they have a good track record of delivering games? Or are they an unknown author, perhaps with an overly ambitious list of stretch goals?
Let’s skip ahead a bit and assume that I’m actually holding a book in my hand (or looking at a PDF on the computer). How do I decide whether to actually read and learn the new game?
At this point, I need to admit a significant bias: While I love learning new systems and getting these to the table, I don’t actually enjoy the act of reading books very much. So if the book is particularly large, I’m much less likely to actually read it. In case it comes with a strong endorsement from a trusted friend, I’d probably give it the benefit of the doubt. But in general, I vastly prefer small books at this point.
Next, I’ll probably flip through the book to get a sense of how well organized it is. Does it have a well structured table of contents? A good index? Or any index, for that matter?
How about the layout and formatting? If it’s easy on the eyes, makes good use of formatting, perhaps with art to break things up, I’m much more likely to proceed to reading it. Vibe plays a big role here. One of my favorite games, Warlock!, actually had pretty basic layout and art in the original edition, but still managed to pique my interest because it did a great job conveying the gritty vibe of the game.
Now, I’ll likely spot check a couple of sections. I tend to start with the character sheet, usually found at the end of the book. I find that this tends to be a pretty good proxy for the game itself. For example, it gives me at least a superficial sense of the game’s complexity, based on how much stuff is on the sheet. It can also provide a sense of how well organized the game is, based on how much care went into the structure and layout of the sheet. Also, a dry and functional sheet might imply a dry textbook-like game, while a more whimsical sheet might convey convey a more engaging book. Obviously, these aren’t hard and fast rules.
In my video, I show two examples to illustrate this: WFRP 4e and Warlock!. Both go after a similar vibe. In fact, Warlock! describes itself as a “rules-light roleplaying game that aims to emulate the feeling of old-school British tabletop game”, and WFRP is an obvious inspiration. Check out the video to see the character sheet comparison, and how this biases me towards Warlock!.
To be clear: I don’t mean to imply that WFRP 4e is not a good game. While it’s not what I’m looking for right now, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was one of my first RPGs and will always have a special place in my heart. I might even have a chance to try out 4e at some point.
Last not least, on topic of character sheets: If a book does not include a character sheet at the end, it immediately scores negative points with me. Worse, some books don’t include a character sheet at all, and expect players to download it from their website. I like to be able to easily reference the sheet while I’m learning the system, so this is an important consideration for me.
After the character sheet, I’ll likely take a look at the sections describing character creation, as well as the core mechanic. Does either of these bring something new to the table? Are the rules easy to understand?
At this point, I should have a decent sense of what this game is going for, so I can decide whether this is in line with what I’m currently looking for. E.g. if I’m looking for something lightweight, but the game turns out to be super crunchy, I might put it back on the shelf for now. Or vice-versa.
If the game passes all these checks, I’ll proceed to reading it. I tend to take my time here, although some games sufficiently pique my interest that I quickly devour the book.
I usually take at least 2 passes. My first pass is a relatively quick skim, and I don’t try to internalize everything at this stage. If I’m still interested after that pass, I’ll take a second pass soon after (and often a third pass before I actually run the game, to really cement things in memory.
While I’m reading the game, I start a new note in my note taking app (e.g. OneNote or Notion). As inevitable rules questions come up, I write them down in an “Open Questions” section. And as I discover answers to these questions, perhaps by searching online, I jot these down on the note as well. I’ll also jot down a few things that stand out to me while I’m reading the book, and which I might otherwise forget. After this process, I tend to have a brief “Things to remember” section in the note.
In parallel to reading the book, I try to immerse myself in the game as much as possible online. I search for reviews and discussions about the game in forums and blog posts. I dive into Social Media - e.g. I’ll join a Subreddit if one exists, or perhaps check out a Facebook group. If there’s a dedicated Discord server, I’ll likely join this as well. My favorite games all have very active Discord servers, and I’ve found these hugely valuable in learning the game, as well as keeping me engaged and interested in the game.
At some point early on, I’ll likely make a character or two, to get a sense of that process. I’ll also play around with the mechanics, perhaps by getting out the dice and doing a test battle.
Eventually, the time comes to get the game to the table (real or virtual). The details of this are beyond the scope of this post. In fact, pitching and organizing games is likely a worthy topic for a future video or blog post.
But high level, there are 2 options:
- A) If you have a home group, you might pitch the game to them the next time you’re deciding what to play next. They might even be open to taking a short break from the current campaign to play a one-shot of the new game.
- B) Alternatively, you can look for players elsewhere. Perhaps you’re plugged into an active RPG community on Discord with an LFG (Looking for Game) channel where people advertise games. The official Discord server for the game can be a great place to find and organize games as well. Otherwise, poke around on Reddit, Roll20, or other places that advertise games.
Afterwards, make sure you reflect on the game yourself, as well as asking for direct feedback from your players. Chances are that this step will either confirm your excitement about the game, or point out some issues that put a damper on the experience. Now it’s up to you whether to stick with it, or put it back on the shelf and look for the next game to sink your teeth into.