The Tabletop RPG, sometimes also referred to as “Pen and Paper” RPG, has long been considered the pinnacle of geekiness. It seems that for some reason, once you have rolled initiative, you have crossed a threshold of terrible geek proportions in the eyes of many. Though the Tabletop RPG has long been the whipping boy of much of the geek subculture, the abuse it gets is mostly undeserved.
If you haven’t played a Tabletop RPG, you owe it to yourself to do so, and here’s why.
What is a Tabletop RPG?
A Tabletop RPG is a form of roleplaying game where players describe what they want to do and then use the rules to determine whether or not it is successful, usually by rolling dice. The GM, a player responsible for describing and running the game, adjudicates the outcome of the action. The choices made by the players shape the outcome of the game, and they normally have the ability to improvise and use problem-solving, subject to the GM’s approval.
I’ll refer hereafter to Tabletop RPGs as “RPGs”.
There’s an RPG for everyone
There is a vast selection of RPGs. In fact, I’d wager that if you are a geek of some kind, there is likely an RPG regarding the topic, or at least an RPG where you can live out that geeky fantasy in some respect. Like Star Wars? There are several RPGs for that. Battlestar Galactica? Ditto. More of a Sword and Sorcery kind of geek? There are boatloads of RPGs for you. Comics more your speed? There are many fantastic superhero RPGs out there. Horror? Dozens.
On top of the myriad themes available, there are also different game systems to select from. The game system provides the regulatory framework for the game: for example, how strong a player has to be to lift a car, or the player’s chance of hitting a chandelier chain with an arrow. Some systems tend towards in-depth, tactical combat (like Dungeons and Dragons: 4th Edition), while others focus more on plot, character development and co-operative storytelling (like Cortex/Cortex+ and FUDGE/FATE).
That’s not to say that you can’t have storytelling in a system that has a tactical combat focus, for example; it just means the system is predisposed to cater to particular types of playstyle. Some systems have mechanics built in to encourage roleplaying. For example, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying’s Milestone system rewards players for accurately portraying their hero. However, regardless of system, you’ll be able to make sure that your needs as a player are addressed, with your GM’s help.
Imagining is not a crime
Imagination is a strange sort of thing. We revere it when it is possessed by filmmakers, authors, game designers, artists, and children. Yet, it so often happens that when someone who enjoys imagining is not one of these first four things, they are assumed to be the fifth.
For whatever reason, society has taught us that being an adult involves sacrificing your imagination on the altar of maturity. If someone enjoys imagining, they are presumed to be immature or insane. Yet the fact is that our imagination only dies if we let it. Human beings are inquisitive creatures, and we love to ask “what if?”.
RPGs give you an outlet for this. The descriptions of the scene and the action are yours to visualize. Visual aids can assist, but not entirely replace this process. There is also the roleplaying aspect of the game. Your character is your own, and if roleplaying is your thing, you can ask yourself “what would my character do in this situation” and see how the situation develops.
If roleplaying is new or strange to you, just take it slow and look to the veterans in your group for examples. A lot of people get flustered when it comes to roleplay in RPGs, but I honestly look at it like this: it’s like we’re all actors, except we’re all bad at it and thankfully we never have to be criticized. No one at your table is going to laugh at you, so go for it when you feel comfortable!
Combining both these elements can create unbelievable gaming sessions where you are so engrossed in the game that you lose track of time.
RPGs are different from MMORPGs or other video games in that the possibilities are truly limited only by your imagination. I know that’s a really common phrase to hear, but in this case it is true.
The game system provides a framework so that everyone is working under the same assumptions when it comes to things like combat, skills, and exploration. However, many RPG groups have custom rules called “house rules” in place to further modify the system. For example, when I was running Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, I gave each of my players a custom feat that evolved as the story progressed.
Along with house rules, a lot of game systems encourage improvisation. For example, the Dresden Files RPG (a modified version of the FATE system) allows players to spend a currency called “fate points” to basically fill in the blanks of a scene, among other things. For example, a player could spend a plot point to find something to take cover behind. Even if the game system you are playing is not built to be improvisational, your GM may be willing to reward your cleverness.
Personally, I’ve always been of the opinion that you should reward players for being intelligent and bold (when it is warranted). When one of my players wants to do something awesome, I encourage it–so long as it makes sense.
In addition to just modifying the game’s rule framework, you have the possibility of creating entire settings. This is probably best saved for experienced GMs, but the idea of a custom world appeals to a lot of players and could result in a very unique and memorable playing experience.
Gaming is social again
There is something to be said about sitting down a table with your friends, breaking out the snacks and drinks and then rolling some dice together. It’s an experience that you need to try at least once.
Almost two years after being laid off, I continue to game with a number of friends from my previous job. Some have drifted in and out of the game at times based on shifting schedules or other obligations, but we all look forward to our weekly gaming sessions.
While the social aspect applies to other types of media as well (like board games), it is still an important part of the RPG experience. Though RPGs are sometimes played over the internet or on forum boards, the gathering of friends around a table remains the common method of play for most RPG players.
A shared heritage
The RPG community has long been one of the most helpful I’ve been a part of. Websites like CriticalHits offer great advice on GMing and world building, and they also review new products. Robust fan communities tend to spring up around each individual game system as well, offering advice on anything from rules adjudication to character development and optimization.
Put succinctly, anywhere you find an RPG, you will find a supportive community of fans willing to help you squeeze every ounce of entertainment out of that RPG that you possibly can. Geeks tend to be passionate about their hobbies, and the Tabletop RPG community is no exception.
If you’re looking to a join an RPG game but don’t have access to a group, you can use the internet to search for games near you. You could consult your friends and see if they would be interested in starting up a game. Failing that, checking out your local hobby store is a good idea. A lot of these stores have weekly games, or may be able to point you in the right direction in terms of finding you a game.
In the future, I’ll be writing about specific game systems, so you can see in advance if you think you’d prefer one system over another. I’ll highlight the pros, cons, and unique elements of each system so you get a good handle on whether or not it would fit your personal style.
Here’s hoping you’ll be rolling some dice soon!