Tuesday, 10 March 2015
The ultimate beginner's guide to tabletop roleplaying
Posted by Scott Malthouse
It's 2015 and the roleplaying hobby shows no signs of slowing down. Perhaps you're reading this because you've always wanted to get into the hobby but you never knew where to start, or perhaps you rolled some dice occasionally in Dungeons & Dragons' hey-dey and are looking for a way to get back into the swing of things.
A little bit about my path into tabletop RPGs. For the longest time I was into Fighting Fantasy, the choose-your-own-adventure with dice books created by duo Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. Incidentally, those guys founded Games Workshop, which eventually went on to produce the Warhammer miniatures games which were my next gateway to roleplaying back in the nineties. With this background in solo gamebooks and wargames, it seemed completely natural that tabletop roleplaying would pique my interest. My good friend, who I still game with to this day, and I went to our Friendly Local Gaming Store (FLGS) and bought the D&D 3rd edition starter set. This essentially contained the rules we needed to start playing...and play we did. We loved it and eventually we bought the rulebooks and some adventures. However, it wasn't until after we both graduated from university until we managed to get a full group together.
We went through various iterations of the group, with people joining and dropping out over the years, which does generally happen, but we have ended up with a happy core group. Now we play all sorts of games and I even publish my own.
Now, that was quite a ride, but you're probably just beginning your journey with roleplaying games. You're going to have a tonne of questions and I'll try my best to answer them. First, let's start with the very basics.
What is a roleplaying game, exactly?
Roleplaying games are unlike any other medium of entertainment. They're a sort of mixture between improvisational theater, board games and storytelling. Usually in a roleplaying game, players take on the role of characters, while one player is the Game Master (GM) (or Dungeon Master in D&D). The job of the GM is to control the enemies, allies and other people the characters interact with and ultimately drive the story along. But ultimately everyone in the group shapes the story. Some roleplaying games don't have a GM, but the majority of the more popular ones do.
Let's take the most popular roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons as an example. In D&D, players take on the roles of wizards, fighters, thieves, bards and more as they set out on epic adventures, defeating evil monsters and gaining treasure. In D&D, as in many games, characters advance when they accrue enough experience, improving their stats and making them better at the things they do. A wizard may learn more spells or a fighter may learn a new ability. Not all roleplaying games have experience and their characters generally stay the same or advance in a different way, but this is the most popular method.
In D&D the Dungeon Master (DM) will create a quest for the characters to go on and craft dungeons in which they will delve, which are often filled with deadly traps and ferocious monsters, as well as populated with rare and magical treasures. The characters decide what they will do each turn, whether it's checking for a devious trap, vaulting over a pit or sneaking into a room to catch an ogre unawares. In order to carry out these actions, the players roll dice or use an alternative randomiser. This means that the story might not play out the way they thought and complications could be thrown into the mix. In D&D, characters have attributes that determine how good they are at certain activities. For instance, if your character has a high dexterity then they will be good at dodging blows or picking locks, while a high intelligence might mean they are better at figuring out traps or reading strange languages. Many other roleplaying games have their own attributes that work in much the same way.
RPG Net has a great essay on what a roleplaying game is if you're looking for more information.
So what kind of roleplaying games are there?
Pretty much every genre you can think of has a roleplaying game associated with it. From horror and hard sci-fi to romance and martial arts, there is literally a game for everyone. But by far the most popular genre is fantasy, which is no surprise considering how D&D was the first and most popular roleplaying game. Here are some examples of games and the genres they fit into:
Fantasy: Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels & Trolls, Pathfinder, 13th Age, The One Ring, Barbarians of Lemuria, GURPS Fantasy.
Horror: Call of Cthulhu, Don't Rest Your Head, World of Darkness, Monster of the Week, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Sci-Fi: Traveller, Shadowrun, Star Wars, Serenity, Dark Heresy, The Strange, Eclipse Phase
Superhero: Wild Talents, Icons, Pow!, Valiant Universe: The Roleplaying Game, DC Adventures
Generic: d20 Modern, Unbelievably Simple Roleplaying, Basic Roleplaying, GURPS
These are just some of the genres and games available, so it's safe to say that you're going to find something you will like. Wikipedia has a handy comprehensive list of games by genre.
How to get a group together
So you've decided on a game to play, but you still need the most important ingredient: the players. Getting a group together can be the toughest part of the hobby, especially if you're not based in the city or just don't know that many people who would be interested in playing. It becomes even more difficult when you're wanting to play consistent games, either weekly or monthly. However, there are ways you can get a group together.
First and foremost, float the idea to your friends. Even if they're not into that kind of thing, you would be surprised how many people would just give it a go, even if it's just to hang out with a friend. However, if your friends aren't interested, how about seeing if you have any co-workers who are interested?
If that fails, it might be worth joining an existing group. Local gaming stores usually have bulletin boards with 'looking for players' notices. If not, check to see if the store hosts a game night, as many often do. Wizards of the Coast, the current publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, have a handy store and event locator to help you find local stores that host D&D games.
But what if you're stuck out in the middle of nowhere? There are a number of places you can play tabletop games online. Google Plus is a great place to connect with other people who want to play and take part in Hangout games. There are plenty of communities on the social network you can join, like G+ Tabletop Roleplaying Games where you can easily find a game to take part in.
If you don't have a Google Plus account you can always join a roleplaying forum like RP Nation or RPOL where you can join or host your own play-by-post game.
6 Steps for table etiquette
So you've got your rules and you've managed to round up a group. Awesome! However, there are some things you should note when playing a tabletop roleplaying game. Just like any other social situation, roleplaying games have their own do's and don't that aren't necessarily covered in the rules.
1) If you're not hosting a game, offer to bring snacks and/or drinks. The traditional table food is generally carbonated sodas and potato crisps (chips), but it's a better idea to try and be healthy. Try carrots, hummus and water. Generally, alcohol is not a great idea at the game table as it can affect people differently and the attention might stray from the game.
2) Get to grips with the rules, even if it's just the basics. This will speed up the game and help it flow. It's ok to have to look up the rules, but make sure you have the basic game down - the other players will thank you for it.
3) If you're a player and the GM makes a ruling, that ruling is final so don't lose your cool and start arguing. Likewise, if you're a GM, don't make unfair rulings just to spite someone or go on a power trip. It's everyone's game.
4) Just don't be a dick. Seriously, if you're annoying the other players by having your character steal their stuff or attacking them constantly they're probably not going to want to play with you again.
5) Try not to meta game. Meta gaming is when you declare something that your character couldn't possibly know, just because you as a player knows it. Meta gaming ruins the illusion of the game and can lead to arguments, so stay away.
6) Pay attention to what's going on. Don't zone out or start playing with your phone otherwise you might miss something important and it can hold the game back.
Playing your first game
Finally, it's time to sit at the table and play a game. Hurray! So what should you expect from a typical roleplaying game?
1. The GM sets the scene: The GM almost always has the first word in the game, setting the scene, recapping what happened last time and describing what is happening now.
2. The players react and ask questions: Once the GM has set the scene, the players can ask questions of the GM - what can they see? What is the grand vizier doing right now? Is there anyone I can pick pocket? Players will often discuss between themselves as to what the best cause of action is.
3. The players act: Once the GM has answered any questions, it's up to the players to take action. One may declare that they are picking the vizier's pocket, and one might say they are going to the weapon store to get a new spear.
4. The GM narrates: The GM will then explain how the world reacts to the players. Sometimes this will require the player to roll a die to see an outcome, which the GM will generally ask for.
5. Repeat from step 1: The GM goes back to setting the scene and the process repeats until the GM declares otherwise.
Some top tips from tabletop gamers
I reached out to some experienced roleplayers and asked them to give their tips for beginning players.
"Play a game before you try reading how to play. It makes the learning curve so much faster when you know what the outcome, pace and style of your first RPG is like rather than trying to work it all out in your head first." +Todd Crapper, creator of Killshot
"Pretend that you're in the situation presented, pretend that you are the character that you've assumed, and then do whatever you think you would, should, or could do." +joseph browning, creator of Classified
"Remember that every player and the GM are ALL collaborators in making the RPG a story. It can be great for all if you're aware of being a team, not competitors." +Steven Schend, Dungeons & Dragons writer
Roleplaying blogs to check out
At the end of the day, the roleplaying hobby is built on community and there's a vast wealth of excellent RPG bloggers out there writing great stuff on a daily basis. Here are some of the best:
Jeff's Game Blog: http://jrients.blogspot.co.uk/
Tenkar's Tavern: http://www.tenkarstavern.com/
Playing D&D with Porn Stars (NSFW): http://dndwithpornstars.blogspot.co.uk/
Gnome Stew: http://www.gnomestew.com/
Dungeon's Master: http://dungeonsmaster.com/
Sly Flourish: http://slyflourish.com/