An Introduction to Table Top Role-Playing Games 101
Updated: Jun 2
Written By Alyss Harris
I once had a t-shirt, written on it;
“Dice, 5 dollars
Pad of paper, 8 dollars
Pencils, 2 dollars
Having enough imagination to play D&D, Priceless
For everyone else, there's Xbox”
It was a joke and a dated reference to old MasterCard commercials, though, in a way, strangely accurate. Role-playing video games for the most part are a pale imitation of the wild thrills and pleasure that tabletop role-playing games can bring.
You may already have some level of exposure to tabletop role-playing games. Either through video games, TV shows, movies, comics, or memes based on and in these different games. Or you might have a friend who has talked about their latest gaming sessions with die hard fervor. Maybe you played a few games, but was not able to keep up with the group. If you have exposure that is great. This introduction will be a refresher course. If you have little to no exposure, then it is hope that this brief introduction will help you feel the joys that so many of us players and Storytellers already know.
There are many games and gaming systems out there, too many to list. Because the systems and games themselves are so adaptable, the worlds you can imagine and combinations of stories are almost endless. You can be a mage or knight fighting wizards and fire breathing dragons and evil kings. You can be a vampire in the middle of the night plotting how you are going to rule the city. You can be a cyberpunk hacker in a cyberpunk dystopia. Or you can be part of a group trying to save the world from evil cults. It is this almost infinite combination of possibilities that I fell in love with and has me keep wanting to come back for more and more.
A good friend asked me once, having no experience with Dungeons and Dragons, what the game was like and how to play. The over-simplified answer? You sit around with friends while you listen to my pretty voice tell a story, that you help tell by interacting with fellow players and non player characters, and other story elements provided by me. They accepted that answer and took a gamble, and the following Friday were fully immersed in the game and having a blast.
One of the most common complaints or questions about these kinds of games is, “I don't really know the rules,” or, “I don't really know how to play.” As a new player, so many years ago, I played my first game of Dungeons and Dragons without knowing the first thing about the rules. I learned by playing and eventually started running my own games and learning what worked and what did not. First and foremost, the number one rule is that this is a game and to have fun. The rules are there mostly as guidelines for Storytellers to provide a consistent gaming experience for their players. The second rule is that the Storyteller makes the rules and has final say. But, it is the sacred responsibility of the Storyteller to be fair and consistent with disputes and concerns about the way the game is being run, and to explain in detail why things are being done that way. So as a player, knowing the rules is not as important in these games versus, for example, chess. As long as you and your fellow players are having fun and the Storyteller is being fair and consistent, knowing the rules is not a requirement for you to enjoy it. Just keep an open mind, ask questions, be open to the experience, and be an active participant. Those are the most important rules that my experience as a player and my observations as a Storyteller for inexperienced players has taught me.
Another common question and concern is, “I'm not smart enough to play these games,” or, “Isn't there a lot of math involved?” This is brought up usually when an inexperienced player is confronted with a blank character sheet. Empty boxes, seemingly random numbers, and enough fill in the blank math problems to make an algebra teacher giddy. On top of all of that, in order for it to make sense, you need to consult at least one book, related to the first question and concern, not knowing the rules. It can be intimidating. It was for me at first. Having experienced players around and or an experienced Storyteller can make the process go smoothly. If no one in your gaming group is experienced, which is actually very common, the books themselves do go step by step in the process. There are also resources online and communities that will go out of their way to assist you in understanding the process. With that out of the way, the math that is involved is just simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. On rare occurrences there are some simple fractions or percentages, usually in quarters. Typically the most common math problems are addition and subtraction, followed closely by, “is this number bigger, smaller, or the same as that number?”
New players can also be intimidated by the dice, either by the amount you need to roll, or by the fact that there are dice that have more than six sides. Due to this, it is a common misconception that the games require a lot of math. Each die has a use and function in a particular system, and after two or three sessions you will have it down to a science. With enough time, you too will have a collection of dice, lucky dice, unlucky dice, favorite dice, and an urge to check out new dice sets when you see them.
So what do you need to start playing? Firstly, people, either an established group or just a motley crew you gathered. You need to pick the game, and pick a Storyteller. They will either create a new world, or use a published story. Also needed are the rule books. There are typically two to three core rule books usually minimally required to get the game started. You can buy physical or digital copies, or even check your local library. For dice, you can either buy physical sets or use apps. Character sheets can be paper, or there might be editable .pdf versions available. Lastly you need a time and place. Most players and Storytellers will feel if it isn't in person then the game cannot happen. You might need to be more flexible, so you can use Roll20, a website designed to host and run virtual tabletop role-playing games. You can use any number of video conferencing services, Facebook, or Discord for more options.
Some additional things that can make your sessions more fun and entertaining? Snacks and drinks. You can go classic with Mountain Dew and Funions, or have fun with pizza and wings. Drawn out maps, three-dimensional terrain pieces, and figurines can help make the game feel more real and make it easier to visualize the action. There are websites and apps for voices, sounds, music, and to help writer's blocked Storytellers with stories and plots. Additional rule books can give your group access to more of the game’s worlds and systems, which add more possibilities for your games.
Tabletop role-playing games are a wonderful passion to have. These games can build lasting friendships and help strengthen critical thinking skills, problem solving, the imagination, and self-identities. All you need is an open mind, good people, a pinch of imagination, and a few lucky dice rolls.