So, you’re going to play a Table-Top Role-Playing Game. Cool! Somewhere, probably on Facebook, you said “I’m new at this, does anyone have advice?” so I posted a link to this page on my blog. Why? Because I can’t simply answer your question on Facebook. I’m too verbose for that. But bear with me, I’ll try to give you all the top-level pointers that will guide you toward having a fun and rewarding experience.
Let’s start with the basics. What is Table-Top Role Playing? Simply put, it’s improvisational acting. You are assuming the role of a character other than yourself in a setting dreamed up by someone else. Do what? Have you ever played House or Doctor or any number of children’s games? You be the mommy, and I’ll be the daddy, and blah blah blah. Yes. That’s role playing. Have you ever been to a play or watched a movie or seen a scripted TV show? What those people, the actors, are doing, is role playing. In both cases, someone is pretending to be someone they’re not (unless your name is Keanu Reeves, but that’s beside the point.) In the first example, there’s no script. You’re following an example provided for you and doing the best you can. In the second example, we’re mostly seeing trained professionals following a script under the guidance of a director. And they’re getting paid.
Table-top role-playing is somewhere in-between. It’s an approachable medium where people can experience the art of role-playing without the constraints of Hollywood, but within a rule-set that keeps things organized.
Before I go on, I want to talk about a couple things table-top role-playing isn’t. Despite the name, I don’t consider MMORPGs role-playing. Nor do I include games like Skyrim or Mass Effect. In a broad since, they are, but they certainly don’t fit into the description of table-top. Why? In MMORPGs, you are yourself. You may have an avatar that is a wizard that can cast spells, but rarely do you speak as a caster when talking to other players. When talking to non-player characters, like when doing quests or dealing with a vendor, your lines are scripted and you choose from a menu. There’s nothing wrong with these games – I play them and have a great time doing so. But I don’t consider it role-playing in the same sense that we’re discussing here.
Okay. Back on topic. Someone has told you about this great game called… whatever. Maybe it’s Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe its Pathfinder. Or Shadowrun. Tunnels and Trolls. Traveler. GURPS. Savage Worlds. Or a hundred or a thousand others. Maybe they shove a huge book under your face and said, “Here’s the rules.” Eek! Don’t be intimidated. Take a few moments to flip through the book and appreciate the artwork and graphical design. Look at the back cover and gasp over the price. And realize that you don’t need any money to start playing. Someone can loan you every bit of supply that you need. When I run games, I have extra dice, pencils, paper, and I’m perfectly willing to share my copy of the rulebook with you, as should anyone else introducing you to the game.
They want you to create a character. Cool! This is your avatar in a strange, mysterious setting that is unlike anything you’ve experienced before, except in the movie theater, on TV, or in a book. They’ll hand you some dice or give you some numbers and tell you about stats, attributes, skills, feats, and so on. Stop them from going on. First ask them what type of setting you’ll be in. Is it a high fantasy setting with swords and sorcery, knights and dragons? Perhaps it is futuristic where you’ll be travelling to strange worlds and meeting aliens. Maybe it’s a current-day setting where you’ll be taking on the role of an international spy.
Now think about a character in a movie or on a TV show within that setting that you feel connected to. Maybe you like James Bond or Princess Leia or Conan the Barbarian. Maybe it’s not the main character you connected to. Whoever it was, pick one. Tell your game master that this is the kind of character you want to make. They will help you through the process and finally stop at the hardest question you’ll ever face when building a new character. What will you name this character?
Perhaps you already have a name in mind. Perhaps not. Me, I cheat. I find a random name generator, generate about ten names and pick one that I like.
Now you’ve gone through and created your character. There’s all kinds of numbers and someone has probably tried to tell you what they all mean. You’re confused. You’ve also been handed a set of funny-looking dice. Don’t sweat it. You’re new, and it will take time for you to understand the details. The good thing is you’ll learn as you go.
It’s time for the game to start. The Game Master (or whatever this game calls it) will describe to you and the other players a scene. At some point, he’ll pause and ask everyone “What are you doing?” Often, the first scene in any table-top RPG is when the adventuring party first meets. You’re in a bar or tavern or café or something. You’re sitting at the bar sipping your favorite libation, or at a table with your back to the wall, or at another table near the fireplace playing cards with some tough-looking guys. There’s a commotion when some dude comes in, obviously distraught, and says to the gathered crowd that he (or she) needs help with a problem, and is willing to pay a generous sum of money. Now is your opportunity to act. There are many things your character can do – from the obvious the absurd. But here’s an important step in the process of role-playing. If YOU were that CHARACTER in that SITUATION, what would YOU do? Place yourself there. Immerse yourself. Let your imagination go. “I accuse the guy on my left of cheating, stand up and flip the table over!”
Splendid! Things will happen. The adventure will start, and you’re on your way to a fun and rewarding gaming experience. Somewhere along the line the game master will tell you to roll some dice. Some rolls are better than others. You’ll make notes on your character sheet and your character will improve over time. I can’t delve into details because each gaming system is different. What’s important to know at this point is that nearly everything that goes on your character sheet is in accordance with the rules of the game.
There are times where you’ll immerse yourself in the role of your character. As much as possible, try to speak AS your character, not FOR your character. Instead of saying, “I tell the guard at the gate that if he doesn’t let me in, I’ll beat him to a pulp,” say “Listen, mister, if you don’t let me through the gate right now, there will be consequences.” The game master might say, “Roll for intimidation.” You roll the dice and the guard will react accordingly.
Then there are times where you’ll step out of character. Many systems use a semi-tactical combat resolution system where there’s a map with miniatures, representing the characters and the opponents. The rules outline what you can and can’t do, what dice to roll and when to roll them, and so on. Even though you’re now playing a sort of tactical board game, you can still play your character. Instead of just rolling the die and announcing the result, say, as you’re rolling, “I swing my light sabre in a wide arc as I spin toward the Sith apprentice!”
There’s the one thing that all players, new and experienced alike, fear: Character Death. Something has happened and you’ve taken lethal damage in combat. You failed a saving roll. You did something stupid and must now face the consequences. Perhaps you’re playing a game where no one gets out alive anyway, and the more innovated, clever, or spectacular your death, the better. It doesn’t matter – death happens. It’s part of the game, though some systems are more forgiving than others. Regardless, you’re invested in this character. It’s like a pet or a child. Its death is painful, like a part of you has been ripped from your soul. What do you do now?
Simple: Start over! Create a new character, but now that you have your feet under you, you know the game system a little bit, and you have some knowledge of the rules, you can create a better, more dynamic, more interesting character. At this point, you don’t have to follow some fictional stereotype. Come up with something completely original. Enjoy the process. Go so far as to create several characters so that you always have one ready. Be willing to try a more complicated type of character – perhaps one that can wield magic, or psychic powers, or The Force. Perhaps you could create a character that’s the opposite of you. The key is to have fun. That’s what it’s all about. We’re playing a recreational game. We’re not getting paid, and hopefully, you’re not paying to play.
After you’ve enjoyed a few sessions and you’ve decided that this is a good fit for you, you can decide if you want to invest your money. Start with just the basic book. Don’t spend your money on expansions, either official or third-party. Not yet, anyway. Yes, the books are expensive, and not all of them are useful. Before buying anything, go online and read reviews. Ask your game master and the other players what they recommend.
One last topic before I close: People. The players you’re with, as well as the game master, are people. They will make mistakes, and worse, they will let their emotions take over. It may even happen to you. It’s true that there are some people you’ll never get along with. It’s true for me. If you’re in a group where there are disruptive players, and the game master doesn’t seem to do anything about them, or worse, the game master is a jerk, don’t be afraid to walk away with your apologies and find another group to join. It’s not the fault of the game system, its author(s), or its publisher. It’s a fact of life. If you’re not having fun, determine the reason. If it’s because of other players, make the tough decision. Trust me: I’ve done it more than once. I won’t blame you for wanting to quit because of other players. I only ask that you make the effort to find a different group with players that are more suited to your gaming style, before deciding to quit playing the game entirely.
I’ve said this several times, and I’ll say it one last time. We’re playing a game and the purpose is to have fun doing it. It’s a recreational activity that you should enjoy. Like anything else in life, you should have balance. This shouldn’t be your only recreational activity. When properly balanced, this can be a fun, rewarding, and entertaining experience. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve busted out laughing during a session. Put aside the psycho-babble mumble-jumble, any preconceived notions, and whatever else might be inhibiting you. Sit down, build a character, and have fun!