So You Wanna Play a Tabletop?

“I’ve been interested in tabletop games since I can remember. It started with cartoons, I think. I would see them playing on TV shows like Dexter’s Laboratory and think: that looks pretty fun! As I got older, I started encountering video games that borrowed from tabletop games. Games like Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic made me that much more interested. Then I found this blog, Adventure Rules. The guy there writes some really engaging articles about tabletop games that really make me want to play. Plus his writing style is so dynamic, and the graphics on his site are artfully done – I bet he’s handsome, too, and super cool. That guy totally inspired me to play tabletops!”

Did that paragraph sound like you for the first five sentences? If so, then today’s article is just for you, adventurer!

Actually, the beginnings of that paragraph are based on me. I remember being fascinated by the idea of tabletops long before I ever played one. I saw them referenced in pop culture and experienced them in a sort of indirect way through video games like Neverwinter Nights. My stepdad used to play D&D a lot when he was younger, and my favorite teacher played in his younger days as well. All this tabletop stuff surrounded me and I really wanted to get involved and play for myself, but I had no idea how to jump in and engage. Add to that my general disdain for interacting with people I don’t know, and I spent years silently pining for a genuine tabletop RPG experience with nothing to satisfy the itch.
Mutants and Masterminds.jpg

My first tabletop game happened in my sophomore year of college. My new roommate – who would go on to be the best man at my wedding, and I at his – was involved in a group that was organizing a game of Mutants and Masterminds, and he invited me to play as well. Man was I excited! I jumped in with vigor, memorizing rules, agonizing over character decisions, and carefully constructing my intended story arch for my character long before I ever rolled the dice. After my first night of roleplaying, I never looked back. In a way, I consider tabletops my “ultimate hobby” because they combine so many aspects of my interests and personality. Theater, improvisation, gaming, storytelling, character building, world design – all of these things are part of why I love the hobby so much. And that’s why every Tuesday, I love to share my experiences and talk about this wonderful hobby.

So today, we’re gonna take some time to talk about how to get involved in a tabletop RPG. If you like the sound of experiencing this form of gaming for yourself but never knew where to start, take heart – today is your day!

STEP ONE: FIND A GROUP
When you’re first getting started, this can be the most intimidating part of trying out a tabletop. Not everyone has the convenience of being in an environment where this sort of thing is common, or knowing someone who has played tabletops for a long time and is ready to introduce you to the hobby. Luckily, you don’t need a massive group to get started. A tabletop game can run very well with just four people: one to run the game (the Dungeon Master, Gamemaster, MC, host, Keeper, or whatever else it might be called) and three to play the game.

Dexter's Lab.jpg
See, four people! Also, image credit to Cartoon Network and the creators of Dexter’s Lab and such.

Chances are if you are the one organizing this shindig, you are going to end up being the leader, the Dungeon Master. If you’re not interested in that role, that’s cool – just make sure someone in the group is willing to take on that responsibility. The DM is an important part of any game, because they control the action, enforce the rules, and facilitate play with the rest of the group. You want your DM to be creative, organized, and to have a good head for the rules of the game. At the same time, don’t feel like the DM has to have the storytelling brilliance of a published author – there are plenty of games that give a beginning DM a fleshed out story to work with complete with pre-designed monsters and dungeons. If your DM is as new to the process as the other players, understand that (s)he’ll make mistakes and that it’s okay; this is a learning experience for everyone involved.

If you’re having trouble selling tabletop gaming to your friends, you’ve got some options. Try to challenge their perceptions (and very likely, misconceptions) about what roleplaying looks like. They may be thinking of LARPing while you’re just talking about sitting around a table and rolling some dice (not that LARPing is bad, but it’s generally a turnoff to the uninitiated). Second, let them know that they don’t have to commit to some kind of long-term, life-consuming endeavor (more on that in a bit). And finally, if you can’t convince any of your local friends to participate, consider organizing a group online. We live in a world of technology that seemed like the stuff of Star Trek to gamers past. Roll20 is a well-known and very effective free website for hosting tabletop games between players who cannot get together in a physical space. Bring up the possibility of an RPG with your pals in a forum or on Facebook or WordPress or whatever. The internet is a vast place with lots of people on it – find some you trust and get a game organized that way.

STEP TWO: CHOOSE A GAME
It’s pretty hard to plan a tabletop game without knowing which game you want to play. Naturally, you can default to the tried-and-true D&D, but don’t feel like that’s your only option either. Explore what is going to work for your group. A good starting place is to determine whether you are planning to commit to a campaign – a series of game nights – or to a single night of tabletop gaming. Some games are better designed for a one night stand than others, and some even come specifically with prepared materials for a single session.
Dread.jpg
My personal favorite RPG for a single session of play is Dread. Dread is a horror game that is played not with dice, but with Jenga. This makes it a bit more accessible – few folks have hobby dice like d20, d10, d4, etc, but lots of folks have an old Jenga set just lying around somewhere. The focus of the game is on roleplaying and narrative rather than complicated rules, which makes it pretty straightforward to introduce to new players. All they are responsible for is creating their character and playing Jenga. And character creation is easy, because the GM provides a set of questions for them to answer that guides them along. And since the game is optimized for single-session play, it’s perfect for a themed Halloween game night. You’re looking at an investment of around $12 for a digital copy of the rules, although there are short reference rules available for free as well. Plus, the three ready-made scenarios included in the book are available for free as well.
Fate Accelerated.jpg
Fate Accelerated is another great way to have a one-off session. Fate is another rules-light game with the focus specifically on your character’s “approach,” or how they do something. Approaches include things like flashy, forceful, or sneaky (plus others) that define how well you perform when you approach a situation in a certain way. You also have “aspects” of your character that are either harmful or helpful depending on the situation. For example, it’s helpful to be the King of England when you’re trying to command respect from an English baroness, but not so much when you are trying to blend into a crowd unseen. Fate allows you to create ANY kind of character, which makes it really great for emulating an established setting like Harry Potter or Doctor Who or whatever you can imagine (another potential selling point for friends who are uneasy about playing). Best of all, Fate is a pay-what-you-want game; pick it up for free, and then donate what you think the game is worth after you and your friends have enjoyed the experience together!
Dungeons and Dragons.png
Naturally, there’s something to be said for the classics, and D&D can be as good a starting point as any. It’s heavier on rules than the games I’ve mentioned so far, but rules aren’t necessarily a bad thing – they offer structure, something that a group of brand-new players may very well need. The dungeon-crawl formula of a fantasy game is also a very easy format to run for an inexperienced DM. Players only have one-three places they can go – the rooms adjacent to the one they are in – and once they step into the next room, you have a guide right in front of you defining if they encounter a monster or a trap and how to handle that situation as the dungeon master. This setup makes it very easy for everyone to learn each rule one at a time and for the DM to slowly acclimate to a role that might be unfamiliar. There’s also something to be said for the constant support given to a AAA tabletop game like D&D; there are always new scenarios being released and updated versions of the game to work out kinks that have been identified through constant play by all kinds of different groups. Starting D&D is probably going to be more of an investment, both on the front-end and long term, but there are some folks in the hobby who have exclusively played D&D for years and never thought twice about changing. A D&D 5th edition starter set is only $20 and has all the materials you need to play the game up to level 5, and the characters are pre-generated so you don’t have to struggle through the sometimes difficult process of character creation your first time playing.

STEP THREE: SCHEDULING
This admittedly is the most difficult aspect of getting a game together, at least in my experience. I’m a young adult with a wife, a kid, and a full-time job that includes on-call duties. My friends are in all walks of life – some are married with more kids than me, some with less, some are engaged or dating, some are single, some work second or third shift compared to my first shift, some live hours away from me. Chances are, you might find yourself in the same boat. How in the world are you supposed to get a group of different people with different schedules organized on a regular basis?

Schedule Meme.jpg
I spent like 30 minutes trying to find this meme in my Facebook history.

Naturally the most preferable thing is to actually find a time that everyone can get together without missing any important responsibilities. But if it works out that easy, chances are you don’t need a guide on it, right? If you’re in the same camp as me, here are some ideas to help you out.

First off, I mentioned earlier that the internet can be a great resource. Is the main barrier to your getting together the fact that people can’t meet in person? Then use a service like Roll20 to host your game. This allows your group to play together during the free time you share regardless of your location. Or maybe it’s not about living far apart, but rather about transportation or kids’ bedtimes. A virtual tabletop can still be a really solid option for you in this situation, letting you meet up when circumstances would otherwise prevent it.

A viable option if you have a particularly large group of people to play with is the open table approach. This approach is talked about in detail on an excellent blog called The Alexandrian – I’m gonna give you the short version here. If you’re interested in this approach, I highly recommend you read the article on the other side of that link, as it is very high quality and has links to other articles that describe the practice in more detail.

The open gaming table in a nutshell is an approach where you have a large group of folks who are interested in playing RPGs and you stick ’em all on a mailing list or a Facebook group or whatever. Run a game well-suited to one shots where it makes sense for characters to drop in and out of the story – examples include a massive dungeon crawl a la the roguelike genre of video games, episodic superhero games in the style of the Justice League, or a “monster of the week” supernatural story like, well, Supernatural. Whenever you feel like playing, send out a message. “Hey guys, I’m free tomorrow night at 8. Let me know if you’re coming.” With a substantial group of people on your mailing list, you’ll probably get a solid number of players each time you want to play. Your players show up, choose their characters, play out the session, and then next time you can run the game with a whole different group of people without concern for things like “continuity” or whatever. This is a really great style for folks who are tentatively interested but maybe don’t want to commit to a full-length campaign, or for those who love to play but whose schedule is an absolute mess.

Finally, if you truly CANNOT find a way to rectify the scheduling problem but you and your group are committed to playing a tabletop game, consider the play-by-post format. This is something that can be commonly found on social media sites like Reddit, but it can be done through Skype or Discord or even text message – whatever is available to you. This setup works exactly how it sounds – you play post-by-post. The GM posts the situation, and players post their characters actions or reactions. Dice rolls are generally managed by a bot or app of some kind but can also be done via the honors system, if you know and trust your group. Play by post misses out on a lot of the magic of the tabletop experience – the social interaction, the amazing things that happen in the moment around the gaming table – but it can be a viable last resort when you really want to experience a game and nothing else is gonna work for you. These games can occur really sporadically, since sometimes the game might stall for a bit while waiting on a particular player to post their dialogue or action. But that sporadic approach is ultimately the appeal – you can play at any instant where you have a free moment, but never have to commit to a long-term meeting with other people. I don’t particularly recommend this approach but, again, it is an option when you really want to play and nothing else is gonna work for you. I know quite a few folks who have enjoyed some pretty interesting play-by-post games while working shifts and schedules that would otherwise prevent them from ever playing.

STEP FOUR: PLAY THE GAME!

bravely-second-party

Once you have a group, a game, and a schedule, all you gotta do is actually dig in and play the game! When playing for your first time, it’s important to focus on having fun and everyone being comfortable with the environment. Some folks have literally no roleplaying experience at all, and the more theatrical players among you may expect such a person to dive into character beyond their comfort level. Don’t ask anyone to dive deeper than they can handle. Roleplaying to a new player may look more like a video game, where she makes decisions that she would make in real life but as a character representing her interests in the game world. That’s fine. Meanwhile, another person at the table may be busting out his best Dwarven accent and pounding the table with fervor as he delivers each line of dialogue. That’s okay too. The focus of your game should be enjoying the experience together – let everyone enjoy at their own pace and things will run a lot smoother.

In the beginning, stick to the rules of the game. You’ll hear experienced RPG players (including myself, many times, on this very blog) referring to house rules they’ve established or special classes they’ve hacked into the game or whatever. Don’t throw all that stuff in your first time. Experience the game as it is meant to be played. Later on, when you have more experience and a deeper understanding of the mechanics, you can begin to make changes that reflect the playstyle of your group.

Finally, remember that this shouldn’t be a long-term commitment unless everyone wants it to be. Making players (or the DM, whoever) feel obligated to stick around when the experience isn’t fun to them is not beneficial. Maybe your first group will be done after a one-shot – that’s okay. Meet up with some new folks and try a single session with them. Over time you’ll find the method that works for you and identify a group that will be in it for the long haul.

FOR FURTHER READING
If this whet your blade and you want a little more tabletop content, I’ve covered the subject in quite a bit of detail here on Adventure Rules. Consider this article on embracing your unique style regardless of what that looks like. Or perhaps this one on The Six Players at Every Tabletop Game, which was written with humor in mind but is also an honest look about the kind of players you can expect to encounter at the table. Heck, feel free to browse the entire Tabletop Tuesday tag using the sidebar on the right side of the screen. My hope is that any articles you read here will be helpful in initiating you into the world of tabletop roleplaying. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments and I’ll do what I can to answer. I hope this helps as you make your first journey into the world of tabletop gaming!

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