What’s An RPG? Role Playing Games for Beginners

Hi, I’m Mwangangi!  An obvious pseudonym belonging to a 42-year-old, heterosexual, Black man from New York.  I’m a gamer.  I play all types of games. I’m also old so my gaming experience ranges from 1977 (the earliest games I remember playing) to now.  Chutes and Ladders was the first game I remember playing.

If I had to give you my favorite type of game it’d be tabletop RPG and it wouldn’t even be close.

I’ve been playing various tabletop Role Playing Games since I was 10 years old.  I currently run a Pathfinder game in Northern California and am writing this because Robyn asked me to write about tabletop gaming.

I like plans and algorithms. The reason I like games is that they challenge your ability to create and execute plans and algorithms.  You’re reading this because you want to know how to play RPGs or, at least you’re interested to know what goes into playing an RPG.  If you don’t know what a Role Playing Game (RPG) is, I suggest reading this.

An RPG is a game comprised of other games. Even at it’s simplest level it is usually a set of interconnected dice games. This is why you will hear short hand for gaming systems refer to the primary die mechanic, e.g. the d20 system, d6 Star Wars, etc…  But honestly, your DM (the game organizer), or even the game system itself, can incorporate almost any type of game into an RPG.

If I had to give a stripped-down guide to someone like me on how to learn to play an RPG, this is what it would be.  (My example system is Dungeons & Dragons (better known as the Kleenex of the genre)).

#1 Have a goal.

Seriously.  Why is your character adventuring?  What does she want to achieve?  Save the world?  From what?  Feed the poor? How? Get Rich or Die Tryin’? Cool. Have a thing that you want to do that will take your character a significant amount of time and resources to accomplish.  

#2 Have a plan.

How are you going to achieve your long term goal?  Become the best fighter and raise an army to conquer the world?  Become the best fighter and become the King’s Guard only to commit regicide and usurp the throne?  Become the best fighter and spread your deity’s faith across all of the lands?

#3 Pick a profession.

This will be instrumental in how you execute your plan.  Notice how I used Fighter (I capitalize it here to denote that it is a character class in D&D) in all the examples above?  That’s because you don’t have to tie your profession to your class. The first Fighter’s professional goal was that of a general, the second was that of an assassin and the third was Warrior-Prophet.

#4 Pick a character class.

Or a set of abilities.  Sure, the second fighter could actually take the Assassin class but that’s not necessary to assassinate the King.  The first fighter could easily be a rich Wizard who specializes in tactical and/or summoning magic.

#5 Now learn your set of abilities.

If you’re like me, you’ll read and obsess over the rules and tables.  At least be aware of all of those that help you achieve your character’s goal.  Learn what they are, when they apply and what sorts of challenges your character’s abilities make easier or negligible.

#6 Learn the combat system.

How does a game handle Legolas sliding down a banister on a stolen orc shield, stabbing another orc in the eye, plucking the stabbing weapon out of that orc and then shooting yet another orc?  That’s the combat system.  Learn as much of it as you can.  This is separate from learning your character’s abilities.  That’s required.  This is you learning the general combat system so you can integrate your abilities with the rest of your party.  RPGs tend to hinge on combat so you need to be an asset for a critical portion of the game.  It makes no sense to be able to cast a spell that gives you a tactical advantage if you don’t know when to use it.

#7 Learn the noncombat game rules.

Learn how to use them to further your character’s goal.  Whether it’s crafting a love potion or starting Ye Olde Wig Shoppe.  Because while several of the game’s most pivotal moments occur in combat; combat isn’t what your character does with the majority of her time.  And your ability to successfully navigate out of combat activities can have a direct effect on the type and amount of combat activities you experience in the first place.

#8 Map out your character levels.

You will need to figure out how you’re going to probably level up from level to level.  This doesn’t need to be exact down to the skill point, but have an outline because there are usually character options you’re going to want to take advantage of that have pre-requisites.  So you’ll want to make sure you have all the things you need in place to make that killer combat trick work or generate fanatical minions at the snap of a finger.  While the mechanics will depend upon the system, the same logic applies to most of them.

#9 Finally, find people.

This is the most difficult part for some people and I can understand.  Remember I had to do this without the internet, during the D&D=Satan era, without a license… all while Black.  I have to take a special pause here to at least mention that I take risks because I am not a woman.  I do not have the ever present threat of an entire gender based power structure.  So I can sign up to an internet group, do reasonable due diligence and generally be confident in my safety when I arrive at a location.  That being said, the three things I always do when I’m trying to find a gaming group are:

  • go to my local gaming store. Even if you don’t need the bulletin board with game invites and gamer availability (many shops still have them!), gamers frequent these places and you can see someone buying a sourcebook to the game you like and strike up a conversation about it or whatever stalkery type shit you want when you’re jonesin’ for a fix. I mean… allegedly?

  • After that, the internet. I used http://www.penandpapergames.com/ and http://www.meetup.com/ to find my current group. Also, check the forums on the company site of the publisher for your game, or… Google.

  • If you’re near a College there is usually a club that covers or is entirely comprised of gamers.

Why would you do all of this work to play a game?  Think about how complex the Chinese board game Go is. The number of spaces on the board is much larger (over five times the number of spaces on a chessboard—361 vs. 64. On most turns there are countless more possible moves in Go than in chess. Throughout most of the game, the number of legal moves stays at around 150–250 per turn, and rarely falls below 100 (in chess, the average number of moves is 37). Think about how satisfying it would be to be a good Go player.  Now think about a game that was more complex than Go.  As complex as Go is, it’s played with a finite amount of physical items in a defined area.  An RPG is played with an innumerable amount of items in an area that’s only defined by the limit of your imagination.  But here’s the real kick.  Unlike Go, you can be good at an RPG [but still get that same “solved a complex puzzle” satisfaction] just by being good at being a human.  

To succeed and thrive in an RPG, you have to be a multi-faceted nerd.  You don’t have to be a full spectrum neurotypical human (Which is good, because, I’m mean really? Who the fuck is?).  You can be good at math and persuasion or good at programming and acting or argumentation and tactics; but good gamers (for the purposes of this essay, people who play RPGs) aren’t super specialized into only one form of geekdom.  They may have a primary field of excellence but it’s their secondary and tertiary skill sets that give them an edge.  So yeah, if you’re a renaissance nerd then this is where you can prove it.  And I say prove because gamers recognize talent and it’s impossible to put any significant amount of RPG time in and not know another gamer’s general skill level.  And whose intellectual approval matters more than our fellow nerds?

I like RPGs and I’ve played lots of different ones.  My favorites are 3rd edition D&D [and the d20 system in general], 5th edition Shadowrun and Old World of Darkness [White Wolf]. None of them are simpler or easier they really just have different genres and have rules that focus on different aspects of role-playing.  You can abstract this guide to apply it to any of them, there are more than enough to choose from. The important thing to remember is that the goal of RPGs is to have fun and ultimately, this guide is to help set you up to be successful in that goal. What you gain from playing RPGs is a sense of adventure, the ability to use your imagination in ways that haven’t been acceptable since childhood, and the possibility of finding great friends, in real life. Where is the downside?