If you're reading this, that means you've decided to consider participating in the ancient and venerable art of tabletop roleplaying. Congratulations! Infinite worlds of adventure await you, full of adventures to tackle alongside trusty companions. However, that rather large prospect can be quite daunting to those unfamiliar with tabletop RPGs. I promise that with this guide you will be able to stand proudly alongside your nerdy brothers and sisters when the time comes to roll initiative.
Now, before you pull a Magnus and rush in, take some time to consider what, exactly, you'd like to do in a roleplaying setting. Are you the kind of person who loses themselves in fictional worlds within your own mind? Do you stand in the shower until it runs cold while dreaming about an epic adventure? Maybe you don't want to play just one character and want to take on a wide array of different roles? If those describe you, you might want to consider becoming a Game Master or GM.
GMs act as a kind of author and arbiter of the world within the game. A GM typically brings the game to life at the table. They are the ones who craft the world in which the game takes place and breathe life into its various denizens. They also weave an evolving story that changes over time in response to the actions of other players in the group. The GM enforces the rules and attempts to give fair judgments that help everyone at the table have a good time.
The flipside of the GM is the PC, the Player Character. Everyone in the game who is not the GM controls an avatar in the game, their own player character. PCs typically bring their own characters to life and then respond to the world and inhabitants that the GM conjures into being. By inquiring about the world and interacting with different characters, the PC forces the GM to expand the setting in new and interesting ways that the GM might never have expected. It is best to think of the GM and PCs as collaborators working to build a fun and interesting world that becomes more alive and reactive with each choice the players make while advancing through what the GM has created.
Once you have decided which role you think might be good for you, it’s a really good idea to talk about boundaries. In a world of infinite possibilities, what some might think dramatic or funny might be deeply traumatizing or offensive to others. If a player has a phobia and requests that it not come up in-game, respect their wishes. Other players might be uncomfortable with torture or sex scenes. Have an open conversation with your group about what everyone’s boundaries are and then respect those limits. Remember: The goal is for everyone to have fun.
That brings us t- wait, have you read the rules of the game you’re playing? Whether you’re going to be a GM or a PC, you need to know the most basic rules. It will still be a bit bumpy your first time playing even if you do read the rules, but it helps to have some understanding of what’s going on before you’re thrown to the wolves (sometimes literally thrown to wolves). If you are acting as the GM, you should absolutely have a firm grasp on the fundamentals. PCs have a lot more leeway on rules, but know your character well enough to be able to look at your character sheet and understand about 80% of it. Knowing your PC’s abilities will help the GM quite a bit; it is unlikely they have memorized every rule for every class in the entire game.
Now comes one of the best parts about tabletop roleplaying games: Creation. Once you know the rules, you can get to work making the building blocks of the world and the people who inhabit it. This is where the GM and the PC really diverge.
A lot depends on what the GM wants to achieve with the game. Is it meant to be a sweeping tale of adventure with a party of heroes and/or villains? Or is it a smaller, more intimate tale meant for only a session or two? Both approaches necessitate different amounts of planning. For example, if it is intended to be a sprawling campaign that takes place over vast geographical areas with varied peoples and cultures, it is worth thinking about the histories, religions, and conflicts that have sprouted up between the various groups. Having broad ideas regarding those subjects will help you to think on your feet if you need to improvise and plan out potential courses your campaign could take.
A shorter campaign or a one-shot don’t necessarily need the same level of planning since it is unlikely the players will deviate far from the smaller scope of the GM’s planned and prepared content. It doesn’t hurt, certainly, but less of a necessity. However, put some thought into the non-player characters. Your NPCs should all relate to different things in the world. What does each character care about? What are they willing to do to obtain or protect what they care about? Having those motivations in place will help make your NPCs feel more like real people when the PCs interact with them.
Or perhaps you aren’t super interested in using the rules to create a new setting and world on your own. It’s certainly a daunting task, even for experienced tabletop aficionados. A great option to gain some experience or save time is to grab a pre-made adventure. Most game systems have years of stories and quests drawn up in either physical or digital forms. For five dollars (and often less than that) you can find yourself a whole new adventure to run made by another player. Or you could jump into a more expensive and polished journey created by the company behind the system. There’s a definite upside to having all the information readily available and organized. The only catch is that there can be a lot of reading and remembering to do that can get overwhelming for the inexperienced. These pre-fabricated settings and adventures usually come with pre-made characters for PCs, too, making them great introductions to the game system.
For players, once the GM gives you the basic parameters of the world, ask questions with the goal of finding out how your character concept might fit best into their world. It might, for example, profoundly change the adventure if your character is an elf if most people in the GM’s world haven’t seen an elf for a thousand years. You should also consider making a second character to keep in your back pocket in case the worst happens. The GM shouldn't be actively trying to kill your characters, but sometimes things happen; the die rolls poorly or goofs are goofed. And when your character dies, as painful as that might sometimes be, it helps to be able to slap down a new character sheet and introduce them. It's your opportunity to be someone completely different, so run with it and have fun.
Once all of that has been settled, it's time to actually show up to the sessions and play! Some general points of courtesy if you have never been to a table before. First, if you disagree with the GM's ruling, bring it up for discussion after the session concludes so the two of you can share your respective points of view without stalling the game and making everyone uncomfortable. Second, be respectful of everyone's time. Most people came to play, so try to give all of your attention to what's going on. Chances are your GM or your players put a lot of effort into making the adventure you're participating in, so value them. Finally, Not everyone gels well with every group. Some tabletop players are more involved in the tactical and mechanical aspects of combat while others live for the story or puzzles. Different groups will have different dynamics, so don't feel bad if the group you initially join up with doesn't quite click with you. There are players out there for you!
If you can't wrangle some friends to play and are still interested, keep an eye out for local comics or games stores. These will often have weekly or monthly tabletop events that welcome newcomers. If all else fails, you can always find games played in various forms online (forums, voice chat, voice and tools like Roll20, and more). You've got options!
With that, you are ready to hop into the wild world of... well, any one of an infinite number of wild worlds, really. Have fun and happy questing, you crazy kids!
Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games!