How To Get Into Tabletop Roleplaying Games In 4 Easy Steps
Sometime in the late '60s, a Twin Cities historical wargaming enthusiast named David Wesley invited his friends over to play a game. He told the 20 players about the fictional German town of Braunstein, and assigned them all roles within it: military personnel, town mayor, banker, university chancellor, what have you. The players interacted with one another in character, and Wesley, as the referee, made on-the-fly rulings on how to resolve situations as they came up.
Wesley thought the whole thing was a catastrophe, but his friends lost their minds over it. One of them, Dave Arneson, would be inspired to co-create what ultimately became Dungeons & Dragons, the first published "roleplaying game" of it's kind.
Roleplaying games may have been birthed as an obscure hobby, but have grown all the way to their own kind of spectator sport.
Despite being more popular than it's ever been, tabletop roleplaying still holds some of its roots as a basement folk hobby for nerds. A large number of enthusiasts learned to play from older siblings, neighborhood friends, or the weird guy at work. So where does that leave you, a neophyte Googling "how do I get into this dice rolling, story fun-time with friends thing"?
You're not screwed! It's easier than ever to get into this cool thing that has players across the world flinging dice, pushing miniatures, and doing bad impressions of Gimli from Lord of the Rings. Soon, YOU could be the weird guy at work opening the door for somebody else.
But first, you need to find something to play.
Finding Something To Play (It's Probably Dungeons & Dragons)
There was a time when there were only a handful of games maybe available at your closest hobby shop, but that couldn't be further from the truth now. A quick run through of popular digital storefront DriveThruRPG will assault you with a seemingly endless barrage of options, from super powered fantasy heroes, all the way to all-female World War II Soviet fighter pilots. Where are you even supposed to begin?
There's an elephant in the room, and it's name is Dungeons & Dragons. You probably knew that already.
If tabletop roleplaying games were video games, D&D would be Super Mario Brothers. It's the biggest, it's the most universally recognized, and it only scratches the surface of a very rich and diverse form of entertainment. And like Mario's World 1-1, it's still probably the best place to start roleplaying.
Dungeons & Dragons easily introduces the fundamentals of pretend gaming in a beautiful package. One player comes up with a cool dungeon, draws it on a piece of paper (or computer screen), and everyone else plays an adventurer trying to explore it. You fight monsters. You take their treasure. You get stronger and find bigger weapons to help you explore bigger, scarier dungeons. Rinse and repeat until you're the strongest in the land, or until real-life responsibilities stop Sarah from showing up on Thursdays and the whole thing falls apart.
Are there better games out there with friendlier, more streamlined rules? Yeah, probably. Almost everyone has a strongly held opinion of what the perfect beginner game is, but D&D is still the top dog, and may always be the main reference point in the hobby.
The Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set remains the best place to begin. For a reasonable price you've got the game's rules, some beginner characters, and a decent pre-written adventure module that'll keep you and your friends busy for a couple of evenings. It doesn't come with a lot of flashy, distracting bits and bobs ... only the bare minimum to get you playing, and that's a good thing.
If you want to go against the grain, there are still plenty of options. There are a number of great Star Wars games to take your adventures into space, Fiasco will help you and your friends recreate the chaos of a Coen Brothers movie, and 'World Wide Wrestling' will have you battling for glory and the championship belt.
The only thing you'll be losing is the massive community of Dungeons & Dragons fans who are talking about the game, and champing at the bit to help answer specific questions. Other games, of course, have their niche communities ... they can just be a little harder to find.
Once you've chosen the game you're most interested in, you're ready to dive into the wonderful world of tabletop roleplaying and ... wait what? You need other people to play with? You can't just play this dumb thing by yourself?
Crap. That means we're going to have to talk about ...
Finding Some Friends (Or Friendly Enough Strangers)
It's likely you already knew the game you were most interested in playing. The real challenge for beginners often lies in finding friends to get started with. While there ARE solo roleplaying games, with more popping up with growing frequency, the true magic is in playing with other people. Preferably with lots of beer, if you're into that kind of thing.
The first step, obviously, is to leverage your existing social ties. With the game appearing on shows like Community or Stranger Things you might be surprised how many of your friends and family actually would be excited to check it out, they just haven't been asked. Many have had success putting their groups together with literally just a Facebook or Twitter post:
"Anybody want to try this game out a couple times?"
Your situation could be different, however. It's entirely possible that no one around you wants to hang out in your basement and swing a pretend sword at a pretend orc. Never fear! That's what the magic of the internet is for.
Communities like Roll20.net exist to connect people looking to play roleplaying games online. Their "Join a Game" listings are like a haven of personal ads, but instead of trying to show you pictures of their junk, they want to talk to you about their Game of Thrones knock-off campaign worlds. The listings are numerous, and there are so many people lobbying to get into games that it's sometimes easy to get overlooked when trying to get into one, especially as a new player. The fix? Run your own.
Running a game of Dungeons & Dragons on a site like Roll20 immediately makes you the equivalent of the most attractive person on Tinder who is also into fun, freaky sex stuff on the first date. Everyone wants to get up in a DM's DMs.
You can be honest about the fact that you've never been a Dungeon Master before. Most players will be happy to walk you through any of the technical bits for an excuse to play in a game.
Three to four players and a Game Master is usually the ideal number of people to gather. This number lets everyone have an even amount of spotlight, and helps keep slower paced parts of the game moving along. You can certainly play with fewer, or with more, but each direction comes with its own challenges.
So now you've got a game, you've got your friends, but ... what's next?
Fall Head First Into The Community
Like most games, tabletop roleplaying has rules. You'll probably want to learn the general idea of how a game works before you start playing it. The catch? Rulebooks are often pretty boring.
Dungeons & Dragons, despite being the game I recommend jumping in with, is a bit of a drag to come into cold. The rulebooks are built more for reference than for teaching, and all games have more of a groove and an attitude than a hard-standing way to play them.
The good news is that you're pretty much never on your own. If a game exists, there's probably a video on YouTube of a group playing it. There are probably blog posts filled with advice, philosophy, and personal session recaps. There's almost definitely a subreddit or a Discord server with fans excited to talk to anyone about their favorite game. (There's also a good chance that the writer of your game of choice is on Twitter, happy to answer any questions.)
The beauty of roleplaying is that it's a social hobby. Even when you don't have your friends around a (physical or virtual) tabletop, there's always something to talk about. Fans are trading tips, sharing stories, and waxing philosophical on every street corner of the internet. We're all nerds in the biggest Twin Cities basement together.
The only question that remains is, what do you do if you don't feel ready?
Don't wait until you know all of the rules. Don't wait until you find an ideal number of friends to play. Don't wait for your schedules to all perfectly line up for a campaign. Don't wait to find the ideal playing space. (And given that this article is being published in 2020, that ideal playing space is probably Zoom or whatever.) Seriously, find a friend and start playing.
Campaign play, where you meet with your group at regular intervals and play the same characters in the same consistent world, is extremely rewarding and fun, but it isn't the only way to play.
Plenty of people treat roleplaying games like board games: they pull it off the shelf every now and again, play for a few hours, and then put it away. Roleplaying is one of the few activities you can't truly do "wrong." Even if you completely screw it up, there are no stakes here. You're sitting around shouting that you're Slagathor the Half-Orc Barbarian, here to win goblin gold. Who cares?
David Wesley invited his friends over for an experiment. He thought it was a disaster. Little did he guess that you'd be here a few decades later, asking how to play too. Start playing.
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