“The Sky King requests for you to leave your weapons with his guards while in his presence.”
“I bring my +4 greatsword anyway.”
“If you anger the Sky King, he’ll have his dragon attack you.”
“Well then it’s a good thing I brought my +4 greatsword.”
Hi everyone, my name’s Josh, but you can call me Josh. I want to talk to you about something very important to me. And if the name of this post didn’t give it away, that something is tabletop RPGs. Tabletop gaming used to be such a huge thing and in the present day, while there’s still plenty of it going on and more and more tabletops being created, the genre still just isn’t what it used to be. So, before I delve on to the finer points of this style of game, let me brush a bit of dust off of tabletops themselves. Get it? Like, actually brushing dust off of the top of- forget it, never mind.
So what is a tabletop RPG exactly? Is it a long, drawn out conversation between friends where they make things up as they go along? Is it endless dice rolling and arguing about what numbers mean what things? Is it placing mini-figures in front of you and ramming them into each other so hard that the glue holding them together gives way and they shatter into dozens of tiny plastic pieces?
Yes. Tabletop RPGs can be all of that, and more. The cool thing about tabletopping is that there’s not necessarily one way to do it. Without the carefully guided structure of computer coding and specific graphics and animation, playing a tabletop RPG is different every time, based on which one you’re playing, and who you’re playing with.
For those who don’t know (which I’m assuming is few or none of you, because honestly look at the type of people that visit this site. Look at the domain name of this site. I know you. I know what you’ve done), a tabletop RPG is guided by two sides. The first, the players. Usually 3-6 people who each have a character of their own that they can control. Then, the Game Master (originally Dungeon Master, but changed when not every Tabletop involved dungeons anymore), who gets to say what happens to all the characters the players are controlling.
CLICHÉ BUT NECESSARY FACT TIME: The first commercially available tabletop RPG was Dungeons & Dragons. D&D started back before we could simulate sprawling fantasy adventures on our computers and game consoles. It brought people together to share in epic tales that they would spin themselves, and opened the door to the entire tabletop RPG industry.
But now, we have video games. So why bother wading into the unclear and confusing waters of something like D&D, when you could just boot up Skyrim on Steam and go deal with beautiful HD dungeons and well rendered 3D models of dragons? (okay, I know all these years later they may not seem that beautiful, but slap enough mods on that game and you can fix anything)
I’ll tell you why. Because tabletop RPGs have something that remains relevant, fun, and unique to this day. Aside from bringing players together, ideally in the same actual, physical space- tabletops are truly created by the players themselves. Forget the dozens of rulebooks, forget the dice and stats and character sheets and confusion, and let’s focus on what matters: the freedom.
Have you ever seen a mountain in a video game and gone, “Gosh, I would like to climb this mountain.” And then as you climb said mountain, you get maybe a few steps up and are unable to proceed. Sometimes a helpful little message even pops up and says “you’ve reached the end of the world.” What if that didn’t have to happen? What if you could do anything? That’s what makes tabletops so interesting. Sure, if you kill one of the main quest-holding NPCs the game might be ruined, but gosh, you just want to do it anyway! And the game won’t let you. In tabletop gaming, you can. And it doesn’t stop there.
Maybe this is the wrong way of explaining what I’m trying to explain. Let’s try this. I haven’t played too many tabletop RPGs, for reasons I’ll explain later with another key point of this article, but I’ve played enough to learn a lot. Now, it is my pleasure to present to you, the super-advanced, highly-intricate guides to succeeding at tabletop RPGs.
If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.
Game Master’s Guide:
If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.
You can slap as many rulebooks onto a game as you want, but like in the Pirates of the Caribbean, they’re really more like guidelines. And THAT’S what makes a tabletop RPG fun. Sure, you can spend days and days pouring over a rulebook to understand EVERY mechanic of the game, and make sure your character is PERFECT. Or you can call yourself a one-eyed orc mercenary with nothing to lose and everything to gain, and dive right in with no understanding or regard for the rules at all. As a Game Master, sure, you can spend the same amount of time carefully planning out a campaign, making sure there’s a good difficulty scale and an interesting plot… but you could also just drop your players into a dungeon filled with skeletons and let the chaos ensue. There’s no computer telling you that what you’re doing is wrong. If you’re all having a jolly good time playing, then that is literally all that matters. Do most players want a good story, and to eventually ‘beat’ said story? Sure. But like any good adventure, it’s still the journey, not the destination. And if my journey doesn’t involve climbing that mountain that has an invisible wall in the video game, then I don’t want to go on that journey at all!
Phew, okay. I think I got the point across. But a few more little things, if you’ll allow me.
Actual Player’s Guide:
Don’t be afraid to throw a wrench into everything, ever. If you strictly do exactly what is planned and plotted out for you, you’re missing the point of tabletops. Sure, you’re welcome to follow the story because that’s what you want to do, but if the Game Master introduces a character or object that he didn’t intend to be a big deal, and you want to MAKE it a big deal then don’t feel like you can’t because you’re not supposed to. Say your Game Master introduces a boss who is undefeatable until you get the Wings of Glashnesh (screw it, I don’t know how names work), because his weak point is too high up to hit. Sure, you could go on the quest to slay Glashnesh and steal his wings, or you could build a ballistae out of objects in your inventory, and take him down mechanically. You can literally do anything. It won’t always work, and more often than not you’ll fall flat on your face, but there will be a smile on the face you just fell on because you know that you did something that was unexpected. In a video game, if you walk repeatedly into a wall, you will be constantly met with failure. In a tabletop, if you walk repeatedly into a wall, eventually the Game Master is going to get the hint, and something’s going to happen. Maybe the wall will move out of your way. Maybe you’ll fall unconscious. Maybe you’ll be kidnapped by Glashnesh and flown off to his sky palace. But that’s what makes it fun. There are no strategy guides, no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and most importantly, no limits. So do what you want to do. And have fun doing it.
Actual Game Master’s Guide:
When (not if) the players throw a wrench into your plot, change it. I don’t give a flying flip if you spent sixteen hours carefully crafting an intricate dungeon full of deadly monsters and clever puzzles, if the players decide not to go into that dungeon, you scrap the whole thing. “But Josh,” I hear your cry, “what if that dungeon held the magical weapon that the players needed to defeat the final boss?” Prepare to have your mind blown: The magical weapon totally wasn’t there at all. And later on the journey, when the players bump into a random druid who they decide not to overlook, and instead to aid with whatever he needs, they’ll find out that the very same druid delved into that dungeon years ago, and retrieved the weapon. And if they want the weapon, they’ll have to pry it from his cold dead fingers. Which they won’t mind doing, because he’s not a druid at all, he’s actually a demon- the same demon that killed all of their families.
Actual Game Master’s Guide (cont):
The absolute coolest part (in my mind) of tabletop RPGs is the storytelling. So why would you limit yourself to one single path and one single outcome, when you’re telling the story in a medium that is flexible and limitless? Don’t try to jam the players into a tunnel. Let them wander in a maze that you’re building as you go, and when the time comes that they take a turn you weren’t expecting, just draw in that direction instead. If you’re clever, you’ll get them to the same ending anyway, and they’ll feel like the coolest cats on the patio for finding their own way there, instead of following yours. Nothing makes a player feel better than to see you crumple up campaign notes because they broke the game, and then watch as you make new information up as you go. Don’t worry- they’ll forgive you for pulling details out of your backside, because they’ll understand that they’re the ones keeping you guessing – not visa-versa. The players should always feel like they’re the main character in their own fantasy adventure epic. So let them feel like it.
So how do I start?
Somehow, my inane ramblings about tabletop RPGs have made you want to play, but none of your friends want to play with you. This is the reason, mentioned earlier, that I haven’t played many tabletops. It’s hard to get a group of people together consistently to run any kind of campaign. But don’t let the difficulty stop you- the rewards far outweigh the cost. Sometimes, it comes when you least expect it. Maybe it won’t be your nerdy friends who spend free time coding C++, but instead it’ll be the captain of the football team, or your annoying little sibling, or a co-worker at Starbucks.
Try this: Ask them if they’re interested, and egg them on to create a concept for a character. ANY character. Tell them there are no limits. Tell them they can do ANYTHING. Then watch as your previously uninterested friends come up with a ridiculous demi-god of character, who fights with a sword that is actually a snake, and has five eyes. Then tell them that’s completely fine, because it is, and watch as they realize how cool the game they’re about to play is.
Hope you all got pumped for some tabletops today. If not, it’s okay- Skyrim’s graphics are still sort of relevant.
“I use my high charisma score to persuade the Orc Captain to let us go.”
“You don’t speak Orcish.”
“Don’t need to speak. I give him the eyes, he gets it.”
“The Orc Captain agrees to let your party go, if you stay to be his husband.”