One of the best ways to get into a roleplaying game, especially if you’ve never played and/or run one before, is a quickstart. Now, to be pedantic I’m only talking about these specific kinds of documents, and excluding beginner box sets (although those are a possible addition or alternative to a full rulebook) as well as completely free full-game RPGs (I’ll address this in the conclusion). The quickstarts I’ll go over are ones that are free to download, whether from the publisher and/or through DriveThruRPG. Some of these I’ve had for years, while many are new either to me and/or everyone. Some of these won’t have too many remarks from me, as I’m frankly still diving into their rules and worlds. But, I will at least state whether that game’s quickstart did its job of enticing me to want to learn more about the game or not. Onward!
Against The Darkmaster
This is a relative newcomer, and honestly like a lot of people my eye was drawn to the Against the Darkness quickstart due to looking like the old MERP books; oh those were the days! Clocking in at 122 pages, this is a monster of a quickstart! At the beginning is a page for the CC-BYNCCA license, and it’s a pleasant surprise to see a game released under a relatively open license!
Looking at the table of contents, almost half of this game’s length is due to the listed grimoires and apparently all of the spells that’ll be included in the main rules. It’s nice to have them all included, but for a quickstart it could be pared down to the first few levels (or like some other quickstarts where only some of the spellcasters are available). The artwork, in start black-and-white, is simply stunning! The overall look and design of the game is simple and effective, making it easy both to read and reference. This is something so many games fail to do, so I must commend layout artists Tommaso Galmacci and Nikola Segoloni.
The game has an interesting rule system. It is skill-based, so d100 rolls will be the common made during play. But, unlike BRP this is a level-based system, so levels and XP are still around (although not as many levels and nowhere near the amount of XP of OSR and modern d20 games). But, like BRP and Mythras a player chooses a kin (ie race), culture, vocation, and passions.
Overall this is an interesting game, almost a hybrid of BRP and OSR. If you’re entrenched in either kind you may find this game odd, while if you play both you may find more strengths than weaknesses combined here. I think I lean more towards the latter, and while this may not replace either I will certainly keep an eye out for the full game and see how well it does.
I’ve had Blue Planet on my radar for a long time. An innovative sci-fi RPG, it was something I had always meant to check out. Recently I was pleasantly surprised to learn a new edition is coming from Gallant Knight Games.
Blue Planet: Recontact is a pretty substantial quickstart at 82 pages. The layout and design is modern and slick, but easy to read and navigate. The first 20 pages or so is all fluff, setting information for this near-future world. At first I thought I wouldn’t like a quickstart that didn’t immediately get into the rules and how to play the game, but at least for Blue Planet I wanted to know more about the setting before wanting to learn how to play, so this was organized exactly as it should be (at least to me). The next 15 pages is for a sample adventure, Trouble in Paradise. As I’ve mentioned so many times, an included adventure is rarely included in full games these days, let alone a quickstart!
The next portion goes over rules details, and there’s quite a bit packed into these 15 pages. There’s also quite a bit of vocabulary to learn, but for some reason I was able to pick up on these far better than any Fate-based game. Maybe it was just the lack of side-bars to distract me… The rest of the quickstart is rounded out with sample hardware, biomods (“wetware”), sample alien life, and pre-generated characters.
Overall I think this is an excellent quickstart, and it already shows that Blue Planet is in good hands with an updated rule system and fresh new look. I look forward to the full game and future supplements!
Call of Cthulhu
The venerable horror RPG Call of Cthulhu has been around since 1981, initially authored by Sandy Petersen (who would later work as a level designer on Doom!). Since then the game has gone through six more editions, the latest bringing the most drastic changes (although still nowhere near the changes in the various editions of D&D). For the 7th edition quickstart, Chaosium stuck with its notable introductory adventure, The Haunting, along with slightly updated rules as well as a fresh new look. This edition was put together by Paul Fricker and Mike Mason, but you’ll still see Sandy Petersen’s and Lynn Willis’ names on the cover. Now, I don’t know if they had to do that, but I commend Chaosium for honoring them, especially with having Sandy’s name first!
In its 34 pages, this quickstart is roughly split in half between rules and the adventure. The rules portion seems quite brief, as many readers might be surprised by the relative lack of tables, numbers, etc. That’s the strength of the BRP system, and while I don’t exclusively play games using it I certainly think it’s superior in most cases and use it when I can. The biggest departure in this edition is that the characteristics are now primarily listed in d100 form, with the half and fifth values also listed (skills are now also listed in the same 3-way manner). All three values are utilized for different things, and while it makes sense I think it could have certainly been simplified even further. Otherwise this is pretty much the same game, and even compared to the new Delta Green you won’t find too many glaring differences. Even I can be comfortable playing both games and remember the rules differences between the two, so if I can do it I know you can too!
The included adventure, The Haunting, has been THE introductory adventure for the game, and it’s no surprise to see it in this newer quickstart. While many including myself would have preferred a different or entirely new introductory adventure, I can understand why The Haunting was included. I think the main purpose was to show how well and easy the revised ruleset works, and updating an older, existing adventure is the most straight-forward way to do that.
If it wasn’t clear already, I really like this quickstart. It showcases one of the oldest and best RPGs in a clear, concise manner, in a modern and improved layout and design. Even as a huge fan of Delta Green I’m still tempted to get the full Call of Cthulhu rulebook, and this quickstart, along with some excellent adventures from Chaosium, is to blame for that!
The Cthulhu Hack
One of the most popular “neo-wave” OSR RPGs is The Black Hack. Since its release many hacks and variations have since come out, so it was inevitable that a Cthulhu game using these rules would come along.
Like the Call of Cthulhu quickstart, Nocturnal Rites is split between rules and an introductory adventure. But, in this case it’s four pages total! Yes, four! While the page-count is higher on the DTRPG page, those files (pre-generated characters and a blank character sheet) are actually separate. The actual quickstart is divided between two pages for the rules/overview of the game, and the other two for the demo game/adventure.
In Cthulhu Hack there are two main concepts: Saves and Resources. Saves are simply rolls against a specific score to counter a threat, whether it’s something physical, mental, etc. Resources (Supplies, Sanity, and Investigation) are checked when needed, and that’s also covered by a die roll (of varying sizes depending on the supply, situation, etc.) rather than in minute detail.
The demo adventure/game, Nocturnal Rites, immediately sets the players in front of a supposedly-abandoned warehouse, charged with finding a missing reporter friend. While the players can roleplay any previous research, etc. this demo assumes the players are ready to charge into the warehouse. The demo provides some additional details and a suggested conclusion. Overall at two pages it’s obviously going to be a short adventure, skimpy on any details, mystery, etc. but it does get the job done. I have personally already purchased another adventure from Just Crunch Games (Save Innsmouth), and found it a much-better way to dive into this game, although it still requires either the quickstart or full rules to play (I will personally adapt it to Delta Green).
Overall I found this quickstart to be very that much in name, and possibly a little too light on rule explanations, examples, etc. It’s not a bad way to see if this game might be useful for you, but like most very rules-light games you’ll need to be prepared to fill in a lot yourself.
While Call of Cthulhu supports multiple time periods, its default is the 1920s. But what if you could play in modern times, and not just as a regular person but a soldier, or federal agent? Mix all of that together, add a sprinkle of X-Files and Twin Peaks, and homey you got Delta Green. Originally an add-on for Call of Cthulhu, a few years ago Arc Dream Publishing released a new edition of Delta Green that is now standalone (I wrote a review), while also eschewing the rule changes in the newest Call of Cthulhu and going with its own (and IMO superior) ruleset, still d100-based. I will try to review this objectively, but to be clear Delta Green is my favorite and #1 RPG of all time.
Like the rest of Arc Dream’s Delta Green products, the design and layout of Need to Know is top-notch. This complete quickstart includes an introduction to what this game is about, agent creation rules, the basics of the game system, and an introductory adventure. Unlike most quickstarts, it also includes a table of contents; not a necessity, but it’s nice! You’ll also notice the OGL license, as also included in the main Delta Green book. Basically the rules/mechanics are Open Content, everything else is Product Identity. I won’t go into details about this, but basically the rules themselves are able to be used in your own products, adventures, etc. under the OGL license!
What I really like about this quickstart is that before getting into the rules details it first goes over what the game is about, what the players should both expect and do during the game, how to be a Handler (ie Gamemaster), and an example of play is shown. Next the quickstart goes over the character sheet (my god I love the design of the character sheet!), as well as how to generate all the needed numbers. Next the quickstart goes over some rules details, primarily those relating to combat, damage and death, and insanity (this wouldn’t be a Cthulhu game without it!).
The last portion of the quickstart is for the included adventure, Last Things Last. After the death of a former Delta Green agent and Friendly, the players are tasked with clearing his apartment of any evidence of the organization. There isn’t much left behind, except evidence of a cabin he owned. Following this lead, the players will encounter something surprising. Without giving away anything further, this is a good starter adventure for those new to Delta Green. It covers involvement of a control officer and other aspects of the organization, but it also provides freedom and leeway for the Handler to refine and customize the game to his or her liking.
Unsurprisingly, re-reading this quickstart has only affirmed my choice of this game as my all-time favorite, and I certainly hope others will complete this quickstart with a good impression and want to learn more about the game.
Coming from their work on RuneQuest, Larry Whitaker and Paul Nash created The Design Mechanism. First licensing the name to create RuneQuest 6, that license was lost with Chaosium’s near-death and reorganization. Thankfully, Larry and Paul didn’t throw in the towel, instead salvaging their work not tied to RuneQuest and creating their own game, Mythras.
While the full Mythras rulebook is focused on fantasy, the quickstart Mythras Imperative is more open, presenting options for modern, sci-fi, and other genres to game in. A lean 34 pages, it includes rules for creating characters, skills, combat (taking up the most space), a few spot rules, and five sample creatures. An interesting tidbit, seen on the title page, is that this quickstart can be used as the basis for your own game variation under Design Mechanism’s Mythras Gateway License. It may not be as open as CC-BY or the OGL, but it’s nice to have something available, and I commend Design Mechanism for offering it (one example game I know of is M-Space).
Unlike the RuneQuest quickstart, there’s no introductory adventure included here, and I think that does hurt it a bit. While there’s several excellent adventures available from Design Mechanism for not too much money, they really should have included a basic adventure here (they could have updated the free Caravan or Sariniya’s Curse adventures from their Downloads page).
As mentioned above, after Chaosium nearly self-destructed the original founders and employees returned to set things straight and re-prioritize. One of the first things was bringing RuneQuest back in-house and developing a new edition. Instead of building on top of the 6th edition rules, they decided to cut back and start from 2nd edition.
While the full game was still in development the RuneQuest quickstart was released (the most obvious evidence is the different logo). Another noticeable change was the great design and layout, continuing the improvements seen in the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu.
As I’ve previously written about the RuneQuest quickstart I won’t repeat it here, but I’ll summarize and say this is a pretty solid introduction to what will hopefully be a long-running and long-supported game.
Do you like cyberpunk, but aren’t quite ready to let D&D go? Well no problem! Thanks to Shadowrun, you get your high-tech hacking, guns, and more, along with elves, orcs, dragons, and more! Confused? Good, now you’re getting it! Shadowrun’s unique setting (and just as “unique” ruleset) has helped set it apart for decades now. In its 5th edition the game has bloated quite severely, but even underneath all of that is still a fantastic game that shouldn’t be dismissed. Can the quickstart encourage those interested in the game, or is even it too much?
Like most good quickstarts this one is split between the rules and an introductory adventure. One notable addition is a GM screen at the end; very nice! The design and layout is pretty slick, and the text is easy to read (although the boxed text is too narrow for me). One criticism is like Fate Core there are an absurd number of side-bars. I can see how these might help, but when some pages have them running down the ENTIRE side I have to question if that’s the best way to do it (boxed text perhaps?). With an already-dense text layout there’s simply too much here for me to try to read and wrap my head around the rules. I certainly hope if there’s a new/revised quickstart for the 6th edition that it’s re-done from scratch to make it easier to get into and make it far more encouraging to want to learn more about the full game.
Star Trek Adventures
In recent years Modiphius has become an absolute MONSTER of an RPG publisher, with both its own game lines as well as working in association with Free League, Mindjammer Press, and more. It was quite the news when they secured the rights to make a new Star Trek RPG, which has been tossed around quite a few times. Would they be the ones to do it justice?
The Star Trek Adventures quickstart is fairly lean at 33 pages, and 2 of those (right after the credits page) are ads; if you have to include any (ugh), put them at the end. If you’re not a fan of the LCARS look/interface then you’re gonna have a bad time here, as that’s how the pages are laid out. The white text on black background is very easy to read on a tablet/computer screen (but the pregenerated characters at the end are on a white background; it’s inconsistent and jarring), but the full game’s hardcover rulebook is the normal white-on-black (the PDF is white-on-black however). Unlike most franchise RPGs this game uses original artwork, and overall it looks great. The design and layout, while a tad heavy on that LCARS look, is very easy to read, especially with the non-white header colors. Despite it being 2019, so many publishers STILL can’t get PDF bookmarking correct (or done at all!), but Modiphius has done their homework.
The quickstart begins on page 6, with a brief introduction and then going over rules for characters, tasks, and conflicts. The rest is the included adventure (sorry, away mission) Signals. Like many other Modiphius games this uses the 2d20 system; it’s an interesting departure from d20 and other systems, but it works and is fairly simple to learn and use. I think it’s a good fit for Star Trek, and could see it easily adapted for home-brewed games in other existing shows and movies.
The away mission, Signals, is a short but fairly good adventure. A runabout ship has gone missing, and it’s up to the crew (players) to discover what happened. A simple but workable Star Trek premise, it involves Romulans as well as an alien signal/mystery.
Overall this is a pretty good quickstart. Before even running the included adventure, it didn’t take me more than a single read-through to grasp the concept of the game and the rules. Believe me, that’s not a simple task! I would still have to debate using this rather than a generic system like Fate Accelerated or BRP, but thanks to this quickstart I may just have to pick up the Corebook PDF and/or hardcover anyways!
R. Talsorian Games has been on quite a roll lately, and it has at least CD Projeckt Red to thank for that, with the latter’s announcement years ago of Cyberpunk 2077. Taking the popular cyberpunk RPG, advancing it a few decades, and giving it the attention to detail and elaboration it did with The Witcher series, and both PC and console gamers are salivating at the mouth waiting for this game (I know I am!). Along with this game will come a new edition of the tabletop RPG, but before it R. Talsorian released a Witcher tabletop RPG. This game marked a new era of activity for the publisher, with a much improved look and design along with a refinement of rules. Not too long ago they released a quickstart, Easy Mode.
In a compact 32 pages, Easy Mode contains a very brief introduction to The Witcher world, pre-generated characters, rules basics, and an example adventure (Still Waters). As mentioned the look and layout is modern and easy to follow. There are side-bars, but for some reason these didn’t bother me as much, as many as there are throughout the document. The rules are primarily based on skills, although stats are used as well. Overall the rules, including combat and magic, are not that difficult to learn. The included adventure is fairly short and simple (basically a “one-shot”), but it’s exactly what I would both expect and want in a quickstart. In conclusion I think this is a great introduction and enticement to the tabletop game, whether you’ve played the game series on PC/console or not.
The World of Darkness
White Wolf was most famous for Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and Mage: The Ascension, but there was evidently a call for a game to play normal humans within the World of Darkness. While those aforementioned games were each stand-alone, in the New World of Darkness White Wolf developed and released a single core rulebook, which would indeed allow the creation and development of mortal characters; the new Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, etc. games built off of that book in their own ways.
To showcase those core rules, as well as to show that playing mortal characters was just as viable as an iconic monster, White Wolf released A Nightmare at Hill Manor. At 66 pages this is a fairly meaty quickstart, with about 25 pages dedicated to rules and 25 to the included adventure. The rules cover most of the major areas, including attributes, skills, virtues and vices, merits, combat, morality, and derangements.
The adventure, A Nightmare at Hill Manor, is a small focused story of a haunting in an apartment building. The first few pages provide an overview, and then it’s split into sections based on key events. It’s fairly simple to follow along and run this adventure, and besides the text there isn’t too much besides the characters’ stats. While there’s a rough diagram of the flow of events, I did notice the lack of an actual map. Like the full rulebook, the artwork is mostly good but a bit inconsistent. The layout and design is ok, but the main text size is a bit small for my eyes.
Personally, I’m a fan of the mortals-focused World of Darkness. Its setting is pretty close to what I like in modern horror and mystery, and the rules support the style of play without getting too complex or hairy. With that focus, without the God-Machine Chronicles cruft added on top, as well as Onyx Path not in the habit of releasing free quickstarts, I personally do not like the newer Chronicles of Darkness game. I don’t think I’d choose the World of Darkness over Delta Green, but it’s certainly a contender for a modern RPG, even today. With White Wolf now owned by Paradox and the tabletop portion essentially run by Modiphius, I would LOVE to see a new World of Darkness tabletop game!
In my opinion quickstarts are the absolute best way to test out an RPG and see if it will fit your needs and group. Far cheaper than a beginner box let alone a full game, quickstarts are in my opinion essential for a publisher to show off their game and get people playing as quickly as possible. Some existing quickstarts do this admirably, while others fail miserably. Far too many publishers don’t offer a quickstart, and I think their sales and word-of-mouth suffer for it. Many publishers instead rely on more expensive beginner boxes, some of which cost almost as much if not more than the actual full rules! It doesn’t matter how pretty they’re put together, or what extras come in the box as far as die, miniatures, etc. If your game can’t be distilled down to a dozen or two pages, along with an included fun adventure that makes everyone want to play more of that game (ie spending $$$$), it’s not a game I want to spend time and effort trying to learn and glean from.
So what about those that give away their game completely for free? OSR RPGs are the most obvious example, but there are several others such as Stars Without Number and Fate Accelerated/Core. Do I think they should still offer a quickstart, or have they “put in enough work” and “been gracious enough” to be exempt? Well, in my opinion, even those STILL need to offer a quickstart, because it all comes down to time and effort. You could write and give away a 600-page rulebook, but it wouldn’t matter to me. I just don’t have the time to make sense of things when I could just spend $20, $40, or even $60 for a well-written and far shorter page-count rulebook that will take far less time to learn and want to play.