The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Tabletop RPGs

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Dec. 292023

Tabletop RPGs (role-playing games) offer a unique gameplay experience that’s hard to find anywhere else. With the ability to improvise and co-create the story with friends, there are endless possibilities. For decades, tabletop RPGs have brought thousands together from all around the world. 

But it can be hard to know where to start. Role-playing games are full of rules and a vast dictionary full of terminology. In this beginner’s guide, we’ll explore what tabletop RPGs are, and how to master them through storytelling, strategy, and teamwork. 

The Cultural Impact of Tabletop RPGs

Tabletop RPGs have made a profound impact on popular culture. Initially confined to fringe, outcast communities, RPGs have made their way into mainstream media. Hit television shows like the sci-fi series “Stranger Things” proudly feature tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). 

For decades, friends have gathered to enjoy tabletop RPGs together. Today, live-streaming platforms have also helped rekindle interest in tabletop RPGs, allowing millions to watch and learn from home. RPGs have fostered a vibrant, inclusive community where immersive stories are shared and enjoyed by thousands around the globe. 

There are many cognitive benefits to playing RPGs, such as improving problem-solving skills, creative thinking, and arithmetic. Teachers have been known to incorporate elements of tabletop roleplaying games into classrooms, recognizing their potential to engage students in a fun way.

In today’s digital age, tabletop RPGs have embraced the emerging technology. Players can now gather online in a video game format, allowing the RPG community to continue to grow and evolve. Whether online or in person, tabletop role-playing games remain a beloved staple in gaming culture.

Understanding the Basics

What Is a Tabletop RPG?

Also known as pen-and-paper role-playing games, tabletop RPGs (sometimes abbreviated as TTRPG) are fictional games where players assume the roles of characters in a quest that’s narrated by the Game Master (GM). RPGs are essentially a blend of improvisational storytelling, collaborative teamwork, strategy, and chance, with the roll of the dice deciding the outcomes. 

Key Terms

It’s important to learn the lingo of role-playing games as a beginner to learn how to play. Here’s a list of terms you should know:

  • The Game Master (GM): sometimes known as the Dungeon Master (DM) in games like Dungeons & Dragons, acts as the narrator and referee, controlling and interpreting the rules of the game. 
  • Player Characters (PC): Controlled by all players but the Game Master, these are the protagonists of the story
  • Non-Player Characters (NPCs): characters and creatures who inhabit the rest of the game world and are controlled by the Game Master 
  • Campaigns: The term used for an ongoing storyline in an RPG game, which can last for multiple sessions. 

Basic Game Mechanics

At the heart of role-playing games are their mechanics. Dice rolls are the most common element across RPGs, with various types. Dice can determine the success or failure of small actions like defeating a common enemy, to the ultimate success of a campaign. Some tabletop RPGs come with some type of board game format, but not always. 

A typical game session can take several hours to complete. The rules may vary between games, but the foundation of role-playing is largely the same. With this understanding, you’re ready to choose your character and start your tabletop adventure. 

Best Tabletop RPGs for Beginners

There are a myriad of tabletop RPG games to choose from. Some games are more catered toward seasoned players, while others are great for beginners who are still learning how to play. 

When selecting a game, consider the complexity of its rules—some systems are more beginner-friendly, focusing on storytelling over mechanics. Time investment is another factor; certain RPGs are designed for quick play, whereas others unfold over multiple, lengthy sessions.

Classic RPGs

The first, and arguably the most popular tabletop RPG ever known, Dungeons & Dragons is a highly immersive world of fantasy, full of magical elves, dragons, and epic quests. Pathfinder is another well-known fantasy RPG that’s ideal for those who enjoy detailed character customization.

Sci-Fi RPGs

Fans of science fiction might gravitate towards “Starfinder” or “Shadowrun,” futuristic landscapes with cyberpunk elements. There are even Star Wars role-playing games for fans of the movie franchise who want to join in on the intergalactic action. 

Horror RPGs

If you’re looking for something in the horror genre, take on “Call of Cthulhu,” based on H.P. Lovecraft’s spine-chilling original story. “World of Darkness” is a series of horror RPGs set in a supernatural world with werewolves and vampires. “Blades in The Dark” by Evil Hat Productions is another great horror option for RPGs on the scarier side. 

Local gaming shops often host events where you can discover different types of tabletop RPGs. Online stores also provide many options and can connect you to a global community of players. 

How to Create Your Character

Choose Your Character

Most RPGs will guide you through the process of creating your own character through rulebooks. Generally, there will be options to choose a race or type (such as a human, elf, dwarf, wizard, rogue, warrior, etc.), which will determine your abilities and the role you’ll play in the game. Each character will also have varying levels of statistics like strength and intelligence. 

Character Sheets

A character sheet is basically a summary of your character’s capabilities and equipment, as well as their backstory. Many role-playing games give you the opportunity to create your own backstory, providing even more depth to the gameplay. The backstory should be loosely based on the character’s sheet. But their story can adapt as the game continues to unfold, adding more layers to the rich storytelling aspect of RPGs. 

Creating your own character is one of the most enjoyable and unique aspects of tabletop RPGs. The ability to add your own flavor to the narrative brings the story to life in a fun new way every time you play. 

Playing Your First Game

The first time you play a role-playing game can be both thrilling and overwhelming. There’s so much to learn and do to play the game to its full potential. Proper preparation is key. Here’s what you need to know before you roll your first die.

Learn The Rules

There can be a lot of rules to learn to play an RPG. But fear not, most tabletop RPGs come with a rulebook. Rulebooks contain all of the information you’ll need to know. Read the rulebook all the way through to get familiar with the game mechanics. You don’t need to memorize every rule, just try to grasp the core concepts that will help you navigate your first game. 

Find Players

Finding the right group can make a big difference in your RPG experience. If your friends aren’t interested in playing, local game stores often host community events where you can join other beginners who are still learning how to play. Online platforms with virtual tables are also a great way to start learning. 

Assemble Your Game

Now that you know the rules and have a group to play with, all you need to do is assemble the game. Once you have a game picked out, you’ll start unboxing the game components. These typically include a set of polyhedral dice, a pencil, and a notebook. Different role-playing games require different types of dice, which should be outlined in the rulebook. 

Observe Table Etiquette

If you make an effort to observe the proper table etiquette, it’ll not only make the gameplay more enjoyable for everyone, there’s a higher chance you’ll get invited back to play. Make sure that you respect the other players and their characters, contribute to the storytelling as much as possible, stay in character for the duration of the game, and never cheat. 

By coming prepared, your first time playing will be much smoother, less nerve-racking, and more fun for everyone.

Exploring RPG Gameplay 

As a beginner, there’s a lot to learn. Tabletop RPGs contain complex and nuanced gaming systems, which is also why people love them. These mechanics serve as the systems that govern how players interact with the game world and each other’s characters. 

How to Perform Actions

In tabletop RPGs, actions are dictated by each player orally. In other words, players say out loud what their character’s next action or move will be. There’s room for improvisation, and depending on what the player decides, it could change the course of the game and the character’s fate. 

Whatever action the player chooses to make, it will typically be decided by a dice roll. The dice determine outcomes for everything that takes place during the game, from moving from one space to another, to combat. Each game has its own set of rules for dice rolls, usually involving a variety of dice types (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20). Dice adds an element of chance to the game, while roleplaying allows you to make decisions based on your character’s attributes and backstory.

Combat vs. Non-Combat Scenarios

Most RPGs can be broken down into two categories of gameplay, combat and non-combat. Combat scenarios involve knowing your character’s stats, attacking and defending with your character, tactical decision-making, and using dice rolls to determine the outcomes of attacks and defenses. Non-combat scenarios encompass dialogue, solving puzzles, and skills like persuading other players to take a specific action like disarming traps. 

Character Progression

Unlike other types of tabletop games, characters in RPGs can grow and evolve as the game goes on. As your character overcomes challenges, they’ll gain experience points (XP). If you earn enough XP, your character can level up, improving their abilities, stats, and skills. This sense of character development and progression is iconic to the RPG experience. 

Character Death

Tabletop RPGs are filled with thrilling, yet difficult challenges and quests to overcome. There’s no better feeling than defeating a boss or conquering a quest with your teammates. But sometimes, luck isn’t on your side and your character dies during the course of the game. Games tend to approach character death differently depending on the circumstances. Some games allow ways to resurrect your character from the dead, while others treat character death as permanent, raising the stakes of the game. 

The Role of the Game Master

The game master is the architect of the entire adventure. They wear many hats, acting as the narrator, director, moderator, and organizer of the game. Let’s take a look at the various roles the game master plays and how they shape the role-playing experience.

Organizer

While it’s not always the case, game masters are often the ones who are responsible for organizing the game. Think of the game master as a manager, they’ll get the players together, set up the game, and schedule where and when the game will take place. Game masters will also moderate the game, weighing each player’s wants and needs, and helping less experienced players along the way. 

Storyteller

As the primary storyteller of the game, game masters create RPG settings for all the players and characters. They create the plotline and develop character stories for each of the players that can adapt and change as the game progresses. 

The game master can stage the game on an already published game world, or choose to create their own pre-written adventure. They also help craft the backstories and give context to each player. Most importantly, the game master is in charge of orchestrating the non-player characters and villains that will be challenging the players during the campaign.

Director/Referee

Game masters are the judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to RPGs. They will interpret the rules and enforce the consequences. The game master will also be responsible for deciding every action the non-player characters take against the player characters. Unlike in traditional tabletop RPGs, in addition to enforcing the rules, game masters also act in a customer service role and are sometimes paid employees. 

For those stepping into the role of game master for the first time, it can feel like quite the balancing act. There are many resources available for planning a campaign, from published ready-to-play campaigns, to online forums. Most of all, focus on making the experience memorable and enjoyable for the whole group. 

Advanced Gameplay

Let’s dive a little deeper into the nuances of tabletop role-playing and how you can take further steps to enhance your play experience. 

Developing Strategies and Teamwork

The foundation of role-playing games is teamwork and strategy. The better your team’s strategy is the higher your chances of success. For example, you can help aid one another by sharing your skills and abilities to cover each other’s weaknesses and exploit an enemy’s weaknesses in the process. You can help plan for battle, solve puzzles, or negotiate with NPCs. Finding ways to work together will increase your team’s chances of winning. 

Using Accessories

While not mandatory, accessories like miniatures and maps can greatly enhance the tactile aspect of gameplay. They help bring the game to life by adding more visuals to the gaming landscape. Apps and online tools can also add another dimension to gameplay, tracking stats, and assisting with complex calculations, allowing you to focus more on the narrative and less on the numbers.

Incorporating House Rules 

If you and your group want to add an even more personal touch to the role-playing experience, you can integrate house rules. House rules are additional rules agreed upon by the group that can help resolve gray areas in the official rulebooks. Adding house rules can also tailor the game to the preferences of your group. 

Expanding Your Tabletop RPG Horizons

Once you’ve grasped the basics and are comfortable navigating campaigns, a whole new world is open to you. There are thousands of players out there willing and ready to join you on your next adventure. 

Joining Larger Communities and Conventions

No matter where you are, there’s a community out there for you. Online forums and social media groups like Reddit and BoardGameGeek offer spaces to discuss strategies, share stories, and find new teammates.

Gaming conventions like Gen Con and PAX Unplugged bring together tabletop gaming fans from around the world, offering workshops, panels, and gaming sessions with fellow enthusiasts. They can be the perfect place to learn about new RPGs and industry trends.

Conquer Your Adventure

As a beginner, the road to mastery won’t be easy. You’ll be met with a lot of challenges and obstacles, it will take time and practice to become an expert player. But along the way, as you gain more experience points alongside your character, the games will get more fun and interesting for you and your team. 

So, find a tabletop RPG that interests you. Call up a few friends, or join an existing community of players. Grab your dice, and get ready to conquer your next adventure. 

If you’d like to join a local community of players, visit The Battle Standard, a local haven for tabletop gaming, and more! 

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