Starting college I had no social connections. Lucky for me, I made connections with people I still call friends today. Table Top Role Playing Games (Table Top RPGs) played a big part in forming those connections. By gathering with those people every week, not only did I make new friends but I also fell into one of the greatest forms of social interaction and entertainment out there. Of course, making new friends is a great benefit of playing Table Top RPGs, but it is not the only one.
Have a flair for the theatrics? Want to impress your friends with your wondrous method acting? Then Table Top RPGs might be for you. You like to imagine yourself as a rugged hero slaughtering orcs and finding treasure? Like taking part in crafting a deep and engaging narrative? Or how about drawing fantastical worlds and creatures? Most important of all, do you enjoy kicking back for few hours with some friends and sharing an intensely imaginative experience?
There is a lot to be gained by seeking out a group to play Table Top RPGs with. Getting into Table Top RPGs helped me transition from high school me to college me. If your only ideas about Table Top RPGs are vague images of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) then it is a prime moment to get involved with them and the people that play. You will make new friends. You will have a good time. You may even learn to see the world differently, think differently because of the experiences you have. I wrote this article with freshman me in mind but really anyone who has an interest in getting started with Table Top RPGs will find it useful.
What is a Table Top RPG?
A Table Top Role Playing Game is a game where you role play a character within an imagined world using a set of pre-determined rules for conflict resolution and skill/ability checks (resolving combat, resolving tense social situations, or seeing if a character succeeds at something with a chance of failure). The action of a Table Top RPG takes place almost entirely within the imaginations of the players. Table Top RPGs usually have a Gamemaster (also known as a Dungeon Master or Storyteller depending on the system) who is responsible for crafting and presenting the world to the players (some RPGs have no GM, like Fiasco). The GM is also responsible for playing as any non-player characters (NPCs) they may encounter in the course of play. They craft and guide the narrative that the players play through. Finally they are responsible for enforcing the rules of the system.
The other players in the game create player characters (PCs). These are the characters the players play as in the game. The players narrate what their characters do in the game. If the players attempt to do something that has a chance of failure the GM will prompt the player to do something like roll a dice to see if they succeed. The player usually has to roll a value within a certain range and their skills or abilities will augment the final result. The same process is used for combat except that sometimes you are trying to out roll your opponent.
What do you need to play?
You need some other people to play with. And one of those people should be a Gamemaster. Ideally, whoever is acting as the Gamemaster should already be familiar with Table Top RPGs but if not that is fine. It is just some extra work.
The next thing you want is the core rulebook for what system you want to play. The core rulebook of a system sets out the rules for the game and setting information for the world you will be playing in. Lots of Table Top RPGs have supplemental books that add extra stuff like new rules or setting information but in order to start playing you just need the core rulebook. Once you have the core book you will also need whatever is needed for conflict resolution. Typically this is dice. Many different kinds of dice. Table Top RPGs tend to use dice with various sides and are abbreviated when referred to. A d4 would refer to a dice with 4 sides and a d6 would refer to a dice with 6 sides and so on. So lots of dice. Though it can be other things, like a Jenga tower (Dread).
And finally you need time. In my experience a good session lasts about four hours. This gives you the time to play a fleshed out portion of the game. This is not a hard and fast rule. Some groups really get going and barrel through more than four hours. Some groups may not have that much time and can only squeeze in a couple of hours. Play what you can.
There are other things you can use to spice up your sessions. You can whip out some graph paper or figures to represent your characters. Such things are not needed but some groups like the visual and tactile component that allows them to manipulate their characters in the imagined world. White boards can be used to draw out maps or battle grids. There have been several programs designed to generate maps for Table Top RPGs. Some artistic players draw portraits of the player characters. Some groups like to play ambient music during their sessions or have various other props to add to the mood of the game.
There is a lot more than you think when it comes to deciding what to play. The first thing to consider is what kind of world do you want play in? What do you want to play as? When most people think of Table Top RPGs the first thing that usually pops into their head is Dungeons and Dragons. Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy setting that takes place in a world, a universe very different from our own. And Dungeons and Dragons is not the only fantasy setting (Pathfinder, Dungeon World).
Maybe you want to play a modern day wizard (Dresden Files) or battle aliens in space (Traveller). Maybe you want be a vampire fighting for power (Vampire: The Requiem) or a werewolf helping to protect the pack (Werewolf: the Forsaken). Maybe you want to be a grizzled detective stalking the streets in your trench coat (Deadlands Noir, Trail of Cthulhu). Table Top RPGs have come a long way from the early days of D&D. There is now a setting for just about any world you want to play in. If you have the experience or confidence you can even pick up a system that only provides the rules and you fill in the setting details (GURPS, FATE, Savage Worlds). There really is no a end to what kind of character or world you can play in.
One thing you want to consider when choosing a system is how rule intensive it is. Some games have lots of rules for conflict resolution or checking to see if your character achieves something. They may involve referencing tables or multiple rolls. Some players like the sense of detail these systems provide. But others think such systems get in the way of the narrative flow of the game. These players will favor systems that have less rules governing conflict resolution or ability checks.
Another thing you want to consider what kind of time do you want to invest into Table Top RPGs. Do you want to play one shots, scenarios, or whole campaigns?
A one shot is what it sounds like. It is a self-contained narrative that is played out completely in one session. One shots can lead to all sorts of craziness since you do not have to worry about maintaining your character over multiple sessions. They are also a good way to test out unfamiliar RPGs before you decide to devote more time to them.
Scenarios are the middle ground between one shots and campaigns. Depending on how long your play sessions are one shots and scenarios may be the same thing. Scenarios may only last a few sessions before the narrative is wrapped up. Many scenarios with narrative links can form a campaign.
Campaigns are narratives with several play sessions involved. At the beginning of the campaign you create your player character and as you play through your campaign you can level up your character, choosing how they grow and become more powerful. Campaigns can just be a running narrative that lasts many sessions or they can be more episodic where the only commonality are the evolving Player Characters.
Finally you should decide what kind of game you want to play. Do you want a game with narrative depth, where you get to emotionally explore your character and the world they inhabit or do you want to be a murder hobo (a character that just wonders around killing stuff and collecting treasure)? Either way of playing is fine but if the group you are playing with is not all on the same page on what kind of game is being played then this can create problems.
The key to getting the most fun out Table Top RPGs is figuring out what kind of player you are, what are your tastes and playstyles. You do not have to have all figured out right away. Play and find your way.
Whatever group you end up in make sure there are some ground rules on what everyone is comfortable with, this includes each other. Sometimes groups are made up of people who just met. This can mean you might have a couple of people who do not get long or have someone who is unpleasant. Maybe someone uses RPGs as a way of living out unhealthy fantasies, such as sexual harassment without real consequences. Maybe you have a couple of players are always breaking out of character to bicker with each other. These things can make other players uncomfortable. If this happens there were will need to be some clear communication about the issues. Hopefully things work out and everyone has fun. But sometimes issues cannot be resolved and someone will have to leave the group.
There are a lot of issues and concerns that might come up during play. Maybe you do not like the way the GM runs the game. Maybe there is too much out of game chatter. Maybe others are not considerate of your schedule. There is a lot that can go wrong. Regardless of the issue the best thing to do is try and talk about it. Clear and open communication is your friend and may get you further than you think. If after talking it out things still do not change you may have to make the tough choice to leave that group. It can be hard but you decide where the line is.
What if you have tried joining all the groups around and it just is not working out or there are no local groups where you are at? If you still have the RPG itch you can try playing with others online. Some groups use Google Hangouts as way of playing Table Top RPGs using video chat. There are also platforms like Roll20 that provide tools for people to play Table Top RPGs online.
Sometimes it can be hard to properly describe Table Top RPGs. Give a real sense of the experience. Table Top RPGs have been important to me and I think they provide a fantastic experience that is hard to match. I wrote this article with a college freshman in mind partly because that was what I was when I started. It helped me gain some social footing. I’ve written what I think would have been useful to me when I first started playing Table Top RPGs, I hope it is useful for anyone who is interested, not just college freshman. Really the best way to learn is to jump right in. I have tried to provide some direction for those interested. And I hope I have not scared any away.
- Dungeons and Dragons – The game that started it all.
- DriveThruRPG – A digital storefront for lots and lots of RPGs.
- Local Game Shops/Barnes and Noble – Always check out your local brick and mortar stores. Most comic book/hobby shops stock Table Top RPG materials including all of the dice you could ever need. Barnes and Noble has also developed a Table Top RPG selection (mostly D&D and Pathfinder, though some other stuff too).
- Obsidian Portal – A nice digital platform for tracking the details of your campaign.
- Roll20 – If you have no one to play with in person this a good resource to try and play with others over the internet.
- Campaign Mastery – If you are interested in GMing this is a good resource for learning the art of Game Mastery.
- Happy Jacks RPG Podcast – This YouTube channel contains videos of RPG play if you want to see what it is like.