Stuffed Crocodile

Mazes, Martians, Mead

[The Dark Eye] B1 Im Wirtshaus zum Schwarzen Keiler (Black Boar Inn)

Cover of Wirtshaus zum Schwarzen Keiler

Here’s a thing I wanted to see for a while: I have this pet theory that German-language roleplaying and roleplaying in English-speaking countries have different characteristics not only because, well, different cultures, but also because German-speaking audiences got into the whole fantasy roleplaying at a very specific point in the development of the hobby, and have largely worked from there instead.

What I mean is this: Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye) long has been the main roleplaying game in Germany, in a way that Dungeons and Dragons has been in the English-speaking world. People get introduced to roleplaying via DSA, and many never feel the need to change into different genres or systems, even though these exist. And this has been something people have bemoaned for decades.

DSA was not the first RPG in Germany (that was Empires of Magira/Midgard). It wasn’t even the second (Tunnels and Trolls was translated by the authors of DSA before). But thanks to some adept marketing and the collaboration with Schmidt Spiele (back then one of the biggest boardgame manufacturers in Germany) and Droemer-Knaur (one of the biggest publishing houses), it found it’s way into toy stores and department stores all over West Germany.

This isn’t to say that it wasn’t inspired by D&D. It was. In fact the authors Ulrich Kiesow and Werner Fuchs had already translated multiple rulebooks and boxed sets into German and were negotiating with Schmidt Spiele about releasing them. It just turned out that TSR wanted more money than Schmidt was comfortable with, and so they were contracted to instead make their own game that would “blow D&D of the market”, which it did.

D&D did get published, and then for the next decade or more lived a rather obscure existence in the shadow of big brother DSA.

Illustration by Bryan Talbot

DSA appeared in 1984, ten years after DnD originally came out. The original offering was the Abenteuer-Basis-Spiel (The basic rules), Die Werkzeuge des Meisters (Tools of the Game Master), and four adventure modules: Im Wirtshaus zum Schwarzen Keiler (Black Boar Inn), Der Wald ohne Wiederkehr (The Forest of No Return), Die Sieben Magischen Kelche (The Seven Magical Goblets), and Das Schiff der Verlorenen Seelen (The Ship of Lost Souls). And from the beginning the whole setup was based on modules, or as the DSA terminology called them: adventures.

There is a difference between both terms, and I think it’s quite clear where the German version comes from. These aren’t location based scenarios like Keep on the Borderlands, these are specific scenarios with plotlines a la Ravenloft and other Hickman offerings. Sure, there are dungeons (which even today are loathed in German roleplaying), but they aren’t actually that good, and there is railroading, and while there is a lot of potential for sandboxes the adventures all are scripted and predetermined in a lot of ways.

And I want to have a look at where DSA started with that and how it developed.

I also was thinking about using them with my kids at one point, so I was trying to look through them to see if they are appropriate.

By way, there are a lot of adventures for DSA. A LOT. The B-line (for Basis/Basic) went up to number 25, but the A line (for Ausbau/Advanced) went up to number 213 (which was for fourth edition), before switching to a new numbering (the VA line for 5th seems to be up to number 59 by now), and there were multiple sidelines. I am going through the beginnings though, so at first I will go through the B’s, and then add some A-line adventures in when chronologically appropriate.

In Black Boar Inn by Werner Fuchs (1984)

The first of the bunch.

According to Fuchs this was written by him under time pressure together with the core rules and the second adventure. Everything had to be ready by Christmas so the publisher was able to present all of it at next year’s SPIEL in Nuremberg. Altogether he had about 2 weeks of time for that. This is coincidentally similar to how long Gygax had to write Keep on the Borderlands. But Gygax already had been creating, playing, and refereeing the game for years while Fuchs had not, and this is noticeable.

It doesn’t help that it seems they did not understand Keep on the Borderlands. Fuchs actually mentioned Castle Amber and Palace of the Silver Princess as much more of an inspiration, both of which have a much more streamlined plot than Keep. When looking into it it becomes clear that what Kiesow and Fuchs saw in the game was not the sandboxy game feeling of early DnD, it was the combination of storytelling and improv theatre that interested them. But… they still were working in the constraints of the hobby, so there had to be dungeons. Which the heroes were forced into by a railroad.

Illustration by Bryan Talbot

The plot: the heroes are travelling from the port city of Havena to the town of Angbar. During a rest just before crossing the mountains they stop at the Black Boar Inn in the small barony of Gratenfels. There the local baron shows up, then throws them into the wine cellar for not being able to repeat a nonsense verse. Freed by the bar maid they escape through a tunnel into a cave complex/mine where the baron is using slave labor and monster overseers to mine silver and mint coins. After some typical dungeon shenanigans including orcs and lizardmen, enslaved dwarves, and other things, they escape.

That’s it. There isn’t much to this story, it doesn’t make much sense, there’s no proper resolution except escape, and the baron never gets his comeuppance. (unless the Meister decides to add something, and that is never discussed in the module)

The plot is stupid.

One would have thought there might have been a better way to throw them in the wine cellar than that stupid doggerel they have to repeat or be branded as traitors, BUT at least this brings across that the baron is a nutcase and stays in mind.

What happens if some person actually manages to repeat it properly? Dunno. Don’t care. The heroes HAVE to end in the cellar. They also HAVE to escape through the secret tunnel.

There’s about half a dozen problems with that and we haven’t touched the first room of the dungeon yet.

The dungeon is… not great.

A weird collection of stuff and monsters. Not quite the worst of dungeons I have seen in Dungeons and Dragons, but also not good. The place is a mine in which a variety of humanoids use slaves to mine and mint silver for Graf Greifax.

Illustration by Bryan Talbot

The best thing about it is that the heroes go in blind. They end up in a room and now have to find their way using only touch. On the other hand considering this is the very first adventure many would have encountered this also might be a rather big ask.

The adventure lacks playtesting, of course, but it has some ideas how to ease new GMs into the whole “how to GM” thing. Adventure text here is in three parts, “Common Information” that can be read aloud, “Special Information” that can be gained with even just cursory investigation, and black-marked “Master Information” that contains further information and should not directly been given to players. It’s clear, even if not remarked upon, that this form of presentation is intended for ease of use: PCs come across a new room, you can read the first text, they decide what to investigate, giving you time to read the second category and the third one. I’m not sure if this is still used in the current 5th edition of DSA, but this is the way DSA adventures were presented all the way to 4th edition in the early 2000s at least.

What didn’t stick around were the fanciful names for other parts of the adventure. The maps were called Plan des Schicksals (Plan of Fate), which sounded narmy and fit right into the rest of the system with the Dokument der Stärke (document of strength i.e. the character sheet) and the Buch der Macht (Book of Power i.e. the referee manual).

It was the early times of the hobby, and the game wasn’t just playing to your average gamer, it was playing to kids, and to the adult executives from Schmidt Spiele who thought they knew what kids wanted.

Curiosities:

  • the new monsters in the book also contain “Höhlenschrate“. These are described as dwarf-sized Schrate living in caves. This is the only appearance they have. Later descriptions of the group of Schrate (which in DSA-lore also contains the equivalents of treants, trolls, and yetis) has Grottenschrate (the equivalent of bugbears), but these are at least twice the size. This particular monster just disappeared.
  • Baron Greifax never got his comeuppance and outside of some non-canonical adventures, never was properly mentioned again until 30 years later in the timeline. The barony of Gratenfels in early sourcebooks was described as lordless until a replacement was found. What exactly happened there never was explained. He was later established to suffer insanity, but that was decades after, both in the real world and the lore.
  • The adventure received a sequel about 14 years and nearly a hundred adventure modules later, in 1998’s A84 Rückkehr zum Schwarzen Keiler (Return to Black Boar Inn). This book was an anthology of adventures with homages and connections to older classic adventures. In the Black Boar adventure the whole complex of caves under the inn was given a more reasonable explanation that fit into the established background/metastory of the time. Come to think of it, this was an offering for retro fans already, and it came out in ’98. That was 24 years ago. I am getting old.
  • The player characters by the way are generated after the game already has started. Unlike basically every other starter adventure I have ever read they also are given a specific background: all of them are from Havena. Havena being the only other established part of the setting so far, it was the setting of the sample scenario from the starter box and would become the subject of the first sourcebook.
  • The book was one of those that also were translated into different languages. There are Dutch, French, and Italian versions of this adventure. I’m not sure how successful these lines were.

B1X The Legend of the Lost Supplements

I sometimes have opinions about ttrpg stuff that don’t quite gel with the consensus. But that’s ok, lots of people have that, that’s how we are getting a vibrant hobby going over 50 years.

(50? Yeah, Blackmoor was played before Dungeons and Dragons came along, and Braunstein came even before. Fascinating stuff)

But here’s one that feels a bit of an outlier: I actually really like orange cover B3 Palace of the Silver Princess.

Way more than the green cover version they put out later.

Of course it might have something to do with how I encountered it: orange cover B3 was one of the first few modules I had access to, via the free download section on the old TSR website. They for a while had the idea to publish some of the quirky older modules of their catalogue on there, complete with comments as to the history of the module. They had Ravenloft 2: House on Gryphon Hill on there, Dungeonland, and The Land Behind the Magic Mirror. And the orange cover B3.

And you know what, after going through both orange cover and green cover version (and the DIY version some people put out a few years ago) the original orange cover holds up the best. It’s weird. It has flaws. But it also is fascinating, and it fits in with B1 In Search of the Unknown, and B2 Keep on the Borderlands, much more so than the later parts of the B-Series.

The B-Series was intended to showcase good DM techniques. And this was done by actively teaching people and having them get involved in making the module usable.

B1 was a single dungeon, a hidden fortress of two great heroes. There were things to play with, things to explore, and a sense of wonder. There was a room with pools of magic potions that you had to try to find out what they were, there were fire beetles used as illumination, and there was the fungal forest.

Most notably there were no actual monster and treasure stats in the text. Those were left free, to be filled with help of a table in the back of the book. I think B3 was the only other module that did something like that.

B2 had a small wilderness area, but the important thing actually was the titular keep. It gave people a home base, NPCs to interact with, and a place to recuperate and call home. The caves were an extension to that. Altogether they feel less important, but they do have some interesting situations. Unlike the dungeon in B1 the Caves of Chaos feel lived in. There are rivalries, there are alliances, and there are non-combatants to trigger the moral sensors of the players.

There also is the additional twist that it can be argued that none of the intelligent monsters and cultists in the caves are there by choice. They all might be mind-controlled. The traitor in the keep though, he seems to be doing it on his own volition.

B3 (the original orange one) shows even more of the same. There is an extensive wilderness with regional politics and everything. There are weird monsters that are clearly made up by the author. (Bubbles! and three-headed ubues! and bushes that shoot arrows!). They all aren’t quite that amazing, but they showcase what you can do with your own campaign. This, it basically states, is what you can do with DnD if you put your mind to it. And it would have been great to see what they would have taught in further modules.

Ok, maybe B4 The Lost City is about the same it would have been anyway, but the debacle of B3 killed that.

What happened?

It’s a good question, and one that never was really explained properly. For a long time the module had a reputation for just being bad (and one can still see that in a lot of places online). Later they claimed it was the illustration with the Illusion of the Decapus. That was a young maiden accosted by ten horrible dwarves, only if characters attacked they would find that it was really a tentacled monster.

Most likely it was Erol Otus’ illustration of the Ubues though. Those three-headed beings had three heads one of one gender and two of the other, and Otus decided to use the likenesses of TSR staff of the time for that. That included author Jean Wells. It also included the Blumes, the owners of TSR at the time.

According to legend on the evening of the publication of the module one executive found the art, determined it to be offensive, and decided to pull the whole publication. All remaining copies were the copies that people in the office had received and took home. It is said they even went through people’s drawers in the office to get all the copies of the offensive module.

B3 was republished heavily modified (neutered one might say) by Tom Moldvay, and it was a much more tame affair, with a proper backstory, a plot, and more conventional monsters. Most people who know B3 know the second green covered version, but I feel like something got lost in that process. The Wilderness section was gone as well, starting the adventure right in front of the castle gate. It did clean up a few mistakes though that made it in the first version.

I think it’s a shame. Tom Moldvay created B4 The Lost City as well, so I assume that this module would have been the same. B5 Horror on the Hill felt like a complete change in style though. It was now a starter dungeon, yes, and it was supposed to replace the Keep on the Borderlands, but it didn’t have the same style of teaching. It was… just a normal dungeon. And I wonder what wonderful stuff we could have had if B3 had shipped properly.

Of course it might just as well be that the B series had ended early, maybe after B5 or so.

As it went on it became increasingly bland, then atrocious. B10 Nights Dark Terror is a late highlight, B11 King’s Festival and B12 Queens’s Harvest are terrible wastes of paper and money.

#RPGaDAY2022 Day 12: Why did you start roleplaying?

I was always fascinated by the possibility to create and run a world, or the part of a world, together with other people.

I think this is the real core of why I am so fascinated with it, the simulationist aspect of it all. The feeling that there is a world at your fingertips and the dice as an arbiter of fate and you share an common illusion with others.

I think that is why I am also so interested in those early Blackmoor games and how those were run, and why sandboxes have such a big appeal to me. This was what I wanted from the very beginning, but when I started the whole hobby had already turned towards railroaded adventures. I think I was not the only one who felt that way. The way Das Schwarze Auge often was played was way more simulation of life in a fantasy world, and much less high adventure, despite what the modules wanted it to be. I remember groups doing nothing but tourism in Aventurian cities, and the sense of place I had in these times is still something I miss in most other settings.

#RPGaDAY2022 Day 11: If you could live in a game setting, where would it be?

Oh Gods.

I remember one of my players during my teenage years openly hope for a Cyberpunk future like in Shadowrun, because it would be so cool to live in a world of giant corporations and cyberpunks fighting against the man.

Now we have a cyberpunk present and he works tech support for the local police station. Way to go.

People always claim they want to live in some setting, be it a fantasy world or some cool cyberpunk world, or some historical period.

“Ohhhh, I would feel right at home in the middle ages when men were men and women were demure and obedient.”

Or…

“Yeah, if I was living in the post-apocalyptic wilderness I’d have a gun and be the king of my own kingdom”

Truth is… the historical times people think about were fucking terrible for most people, even worse for some, and bearable to excellent for a tiny minority. But the stories you reference are most often not about the wretched majority. In most cases you wouldn’t be the murderhobo, you’d be the victim. PCs in most games are exceptional characters. Even in a game like ODnD the characters are a cut above the average, no matter how easy they get mowed down in a dungeon.

And arguably game worlds are worse. At least history has long periods of nothing apocalyptic in between, while game worlds have to be gameable and therefore have to provide exceptional situations on the regular.

Jesus, just think about it, even Tolkien’s fellowship were 8 members of the aristocracy and a gardener. You think you want to chill in the Shire? You better get used to working the land then, because someone needs to keep those Bagginses and Tooks fed.

So what game world is even close to livable? I guess some huge star empire might be the best. Even if there are wars on the outskirts of the empire, there is a high chance you live on a peaceful planet somewhere in the core provinces.

That is, until some hack decides they have to throw a few planets into the meatgrinder to show how dire the situation is.

#RPGaDAY2022 Day 10: When did you start Gamemastering?

Just some eye candy

When didn’t I?

I actually didn’t play that many times all together. When I was younger I was the one who got the rulebooks, the only one who read the rulebooks, and the one who even was interested in the game. My players were interested in the playing aspect, but I was the one who liked all those other aspects, from worldbuilding to delving into the lore of campaigns, tinkering with character builds and coming up with ideas for the game. So RPGs always were about something else than being a player for me.

I think this is a problem. I should be playing every once in a while. I have the feeling I am always the one forcing my hobby onto others, and I am always the one who takes the initiative to get a game going. This was the case back when I was living in the countryside, and it is now that I live in a big city. And if I don’t feel the energy to do anything, like the last two years, then I don’t take the initiative.

Well, it might not be helped by the fact that I feel like the hobby is leaving me behind. Everybody seems to be into DnD 5th edition right now, and I just don’t feel like I want to get invested in that game at all. I know it’s what people want to play, but I have the suspicion the current edition neither suits the way I want to play DnD (because I prefer more lightweight rules for that), nor would it suit the way I play newer games (because it’s still too DnD).

This veered a bit away from the question, didn’t it?

#RPGaDAY 2022 Day 9: What is the 2nd RPG you bought? Macross II: The Role-Playing Game

Cover: Macross II: The Role-playing Game

Macross II: The Role-Playing Game came out in 1993. Palladium tried to cash in on the surefire success of Macross II.

What the hell is Macross II? you might ask even as a knowledgeable anime fan.

Well, the original Superdimension Fortress Macross was a seminal hit show in Japan in 1982, got made into Robotech in the West, and influenced both the Transformers and Battletech franchises. It had transforming mechas, space battles, high drama, suspense! Also giant aliens falling to the power of idol pop singers.

In 1992 they decided to make a sequel for the tenth anniversary of the original. Imaginatively titled Macross II: Lovers Again, it concerned another invasion by aliens just this time they had their own singers.

It was not well received. It was not bad as such, but it wasn’t what audiences wanted, and once more sequels to Macross were made, was treated as the red-haired step child of the franchise.

But it is distinctive in being the only Macross series that got a (western) RPG system made for it. By Palladium even, which means it is broadly compatible with R.I.F.T.S, the Turtles RPG, and wherever else they put that system. Yes, the Robotech game as well. They point out in the introduction that it is NOT the same as Robotech.

I have never played this. The only reason I have it at all was because by 1995 it was marked down to pocket money prices in my local game store, and I also was an anime fan.

And to be fair, that cover still looks so incredibly cool!

And the game did teach me important lessons as well. They had less to do with anything about the game itself, and more with the presentation. Because as snazzy as that book looked like, I couldn’t even imagine what sort of scenarios I was supposed to run in it. Replay a series I didn’t even watch (and which AFAIK never was released in my country)? Create scenarios based on the meagre information in the rulebook? What sort of scenarios was this even supposed to have?

I don’t know.

I still don’t.

With more of the Macross franchise under my belt I think I could come up with some scenario whatever it is. After all nothing I could come up with could beat the concept of Macross 7 in silliness. But that’s not how it’s supposed to be. I should come to an RPG and know what it is supposed to be about, and the Macross II RPG basically was nothing more than geeks statting up their new favorite series in their homebrew system.

I mean really, a lot of the main book was taken up by A. character concepts (mostly military) and B. robot stats

If you think about the old adage that space taken by a subject in the rulebook equals time in the game the designers clearly intended this game to mostly take place in various examples of transformable mecha.

They even had a sourcebook (imaginatively titled Macross II Sourcebook One) which had… more variations on mecha. Each with 3-4 pages of description just like in the core book. That is weapon descriptions. And more variations on different concepts about soldiers.

In fact one of the later sourcebooks tried to introduce new ideas for scenarios, and it seems that the expectation was that all the scenarios so far were one-on-one space fights between giant robots.

From the first deck plans book

No, really, the more I think about it the less it makes sense. Maybe it’s a difference with gaming cultures, but it seems this whole game is literally only about fighting against each other in giant robots to the point that the third book tells you you might want to do something else for once? And I would get it more if it was a wargame, but it isn’t. I just don’t really see how they intended this to be run.

I think I am missing context here though. Palladium games had its own universe of RPGs back then, maybe you were supposed to pick up how this was supposed to work from others (Turtles was their big hit) and just transfer it over. I don’t know. Maybe I am just missing something obvious. I just think this game was very unhelpful as someone’s second RPG.

Maybe I should try to run a game in it. Could be a learning experience.

#RPGaDAY2022 Day 8: Who introduced you to RPGs?

some bronze art on the location of a neolithic hill fortress, down the road from my parents’ house

Me.

I’m a country kid. I grew up between farms and woods and castles.

Well, I did, but I spent a lot of my childhood cooped up in my little basement room. And I would watch TV and go shopping to the next bigger town every once in a while. And I got interested in that roleplaying stuff when seeing it in the shop.

I already was a fantasy fan thanks to my mum. And I wasn’t the most sociable kid, but I got interested in that sort of game.

But that didn’t mean I could find someone to actually play with regularly, until I managed to get a few of the other kids in my village interested.

I guess a lot of my hang-ups about RPGs come from the fact that I really never had many others to exchange about them. It also is why I keep thinking RPGs even in this time of pandemics and childcare: I did it for years while alone, hoping for a game. This is just the state I got used to being in.

#RPGaDAY2022 Day 7: System Sunday: Describe a cool part of a system that you love

Reaction rolls were a revelation when I first realized what they are and how they work. People always think Dungeons and Dragons is only about fighting, and then you have actual social mechanics in older editions that somehow got disregarded over time.

You see, in older versions of Dungeons and Dragons reactions of monsters encountered were rolled (partially based on Charisma) and fights were not the necessary outcome. The reaction table looks like this (with variations according to the system):

2d6 Result

2 or less hostile, attacks

3-5 unfriendly, might attack

6-8 neutral, uncertain

9-11 indifferent, unhelpful

12 or more friendly, helpful

That means a monster outright attacking is a rather rare occasion. It’s a possibility though. That is, unless your charisma modifier is high enough to allow for more beneficial results.

Any other result than the lowest likely gives characters some way to deal with the monsters that does not involve violence.

The exception are of course enemies that are attacking outright, like some undead, or enemies that are targeting the characters specifically.

In addition there also are morale rolls. Morale rolls are a way to gauge if and when enemies determine that a fight is not worth it. A group of bandits for example might attack and fail a morale check at the start of combat (they expected no resistance and are frightened off by PCs standing their ground), or they fail with the first casualty, or maybe after half their side is down. Or rarely they might fight to the death for their own reasons.

This gives a wide tapestry of reactions to NPCs, far more than simple violence is the only option, and far more complex than even a DM using his own judgement might provide.

#RPGaDAY2022 Day 6: How would you get more people playing RPGs?

Everybody likes dice…

Right now we are in a bit of a golden age. There’s TV shows and actual play videos that get worldwide recognition and brand visibility. Mostly for DnD 5e though.

And I don’t dislike it, it just is not a game I am interested in playing. It would be nice if more people had these ideas overall. I mean, the idea to sit down and play, get some rules and friends and go on create worlds.

So… basically guerrilla marketing.

I’ve thought about stuff like that for a while: make a basic rules booklet. Fill it with a simple system, play examples, DM guidelines, and a compelling scenario. People always go on about rules light systems, but they keep making systems that are so barebones and basic, but still so abstract that noone could just pick them up and play without effort. You need a game that you can play with minimal effort, but it also needs a hook and a concept that people just GET.

Then spread it dor free via bookcrossing, little free libraries, youth centers, and similar stuff. Drop it in places where people likely to enjoy roleplaying games congregrate, e.g. libraries. Make it fun. Make it inclusive. Make it obvious this is for everybody. But make it subversive. Make it a game about scrappy underdogs fighting bad guys doing bad stuff. Maybe it’s about a Robin Hood scenario. Rescue some poor orphans. Whatever it is, don’t start by making it about fighting fucking rats in a tavern’s basement.

Also, get it into different languages. There are some areas that are woefully underrepresented in the ttrpg community. And I think people could really be interested in the concept, if they just learn about it. Maybe make it French and German and Swedish as well, because there are gamers in those languages already and when they get their teeth into a system they push it relentlessly, but also… there are so many languages that just don’t have many games to begin with. In those countries you have to speak English basically just to learn about the concept of RPGs. And many people do. In many places people will play with the English books, in some places they get localized core rules but have to use supplements in English. The English language market is tiny, mosy other languages have it worse. But that also means that only people who are fluent in English will be able to play these games. University students, some people in high school.

As an aside, I do remember using German and English stuff side by side for my ADnD 2nd/DnD3 time. My players thought I was a bit nuts for doing that.

Anyway. What is missing are the young guys. The kids that get into it in high school. I think I would be great to get those in again.

Of course my idea would be to basically make a pamphlet or booklet and distribute it for free, and who’s gonna finance that? I think there’s stuff like the Free RPG day, but I think most of the stuff there is promotion for whatever systems the companies involved are trying to push, and there’s tons of free RPGs which are spread on the net alone. I was thinking about a small physical booklet with a basic system (d6 based?) that can be used to disseminate the idea (the meme?) of roleplaying to new people.

By the way… isn’t it weird how roleplaying changed from “this is a toolbox to inspire you to build your own games” to “these are the rules and the rules are the rules”? Both is Gygax fault I think. But I do like the stories about the beginning of the hobby where people just spread the idea of RPGs from city to city and some people hadn’t even heard of DnD, but people were running their own campaigns anyway. Maybe my ideas are because I find that idea so endearing. I’d love to be part of something like that.

#RPGaDAY2022 Day 5: Why will they like this game?

Will they?

I guess that’s hit and miss. People have different tastes, and what suits one fine doesn’t fit others at all.

That said… I think many people I started with RPGs stayed with the hobby over the years.

I think the main point is getting the concept across. If you start someone who has never played a roleplaying game before with some heavy-handed system there’s a higher chance you’ll lose them. And even if you do, they might see the effort put in for this one system as a barrier to learning anything else.

People always talk about how people don’t want to learn anything else but DnD, but I’ve seen this happen with Das Schwarze Auge, Shadowrun, and World of Darkness. Too much effort put into a system they didn’t even like to play a game that didn’t suit them.

So, how would that beginning game look like? Retroclone rules, most likely a variant on B/X. A simple system with simple tropes that people can get.

A simple dungeon maybe. People malign them, but Dungeons are good because they limit player choice. People don’t get overwhelmed with a dungeon. Go in, steal the treasure/artifact/whatever is a good structure.

A simple home base. Even if its just a tavern, you want to give a reference to the rest of the world.

Alternatively it will be a simple heist a la Shadowrun (go there, steal McGuffin) or a simple horror/investigation scenario like Call of Cthulhu (go there, investigate mystery).

Sure, you want to have an interesting game. But we are talking people who never played RPGs before. The act of just playing the game is novelty enough. Don’t overcomplicate.