Never played a TTRPG before? Now’s a great time to try

a set of dice
image by Seamus Allen / the Watchdog

I don’t know about the rest of you, but lockdown is driving me a little insane. Just the other day I tried to talk to the vacuum cleaner about it, but he just told me to suck it up.…

Sorry. Puns aren’t my strong suit.

The point is, lockdown has been in place for almost two months now, and classes for Bellevue College have been held online for even longer. Finding ways to connect with friends can be difficult—going out for most activities isn’t possible, and with everyone locked at home there isn’t all that much to talk about.

            If you haven’t tried a Tabletop Roleplaying Game (TTRPG) before, it might be just the perfect way to connect. Never heard of it? Don’t worry. We’ll get you up to speed.

            In a TTRPG, you and three to six of your friends create a story by taking on the roles of characters and describing what your characters do, the outcomes of which are determined by the rules of the game and one player called the “Game Master,” who acts as a judge or referee, describes the setting for the game, and plays the bad guys and minor characters. It’s a bit like the “pretend games” you probably played as a child, except you have rules and a Game Master to guide you and dice to roll when the outcome of an action is uncertain.

Because of their freeform and oft-cooperative nature, TTRPGs are highly social games, and provide lots of opportunities to laugh and talk with your friends, both as yourself and as your character. They’re also perfect for lockdown because the game is played with words and descriptions—no need for a board. You could even hold one over a phone call, through if possible, video conferencing is best so that you can see when others are speaking and read facial expressions.

            One of the best qualities of a TTRPG is that, unlike a video or board game, there are no limits on what your character can or cannot do except those naturally imposed by the setting, like gravity. This is because unlike a board game, which is limited by its ruleset, or a video game, which is limited by its programming, the Game Master that runs a TTRPG can interpret anything you can imagine. Want to cut down a tree to cross a chasm, set up a chandelier to fall on your foes, or jury-rig your ship’s deflector to prevent the aliens from scanning you? Anything you can imagine, your character can attempt. If it is uncertain whether or not it will work, roll the dice. What result you’re looking for on that die or dice varies from system to system, but almost all incorporate some variation of a skill system that makes your character more likely to succeed on dice rolls for things they are more adept at. This inclusion of randomness is a crucial component of the TTRPG formula. It frees up the Game Master from having to decide the results of every action, allowing them to leave it up to chance when they don’t know what the outcome will be. Even more importantly, it adds an important level of uncertainty and risk to the game, where no one knows exactly how the story will end.

            While different TTRPGs can provide a wide range of different styles, settings, and experiences, there are a few broad strokes they all share. As a player, you’ll first create a character. Depending on the system, these can be fairly straightforward or highly-in depth, but generally your character will be a description of their skills and abilities used to determine the outcome of actions in the game, and a backstory and personality, which will influence the decisions you choose to make as that character. This is important because in a Roleplaying Game you are Playing a Role, that is, putting yourself in your character’s shoes and making decisions as though you were them.

If you are the Game Master, your job will be to construct the circumstances for the game: the setting, the important people, and things for the characters to do alongside the obstacles that will stand in their way. It is a daunting task, but it isn’t as hard as it sounds. For a fantasy game, the starting scenario could be as simple as a village and a local orc tribe that frequently raids it. Come up with names for a couple people in the village and a couple orcs, figure out what they each want, and let it develop naturally from there. Over time, your game can expand outwards to the neighboring villages, the wilderness, a kingdom and maybe even the whole world. But in the beginning, you can start small.

            If that isn’t your cup of tea, most games have prebuilt scenarios available for the Game Master to pick up and run, or settings for the Game Master’s plots to take place in. If you can, though, see if you can find someone who has been the Game Master a few times before to play with—it makes your first go a lot easier, and being a Game Master is a lot easier once you have a few games as a player under your belt.

In most games, play will then follow a simple pattern:

  1. The Game Master describes the setting. (i.e. You drop out of lightspeed a few hundred meters from the distress signal. The ship appears abandoned, tumbling slowly through space, engines gone. By the blast marks on the port side, you can see that this vessel was attacked, but by whom?)
  2. The players describe what their characters do (i.e. Let’s send a shuttle to the wreck, see if we can figure out who did this.)
  3. The Game Master calls for a die roll if necessary and describes the outcome. (i.e. Sure, give me an Investigation check. Player: 17. GM: Not bad. These look like Kalorian disruptors to you, and they are pretty fresh. They could still be around.)

            You won’t need much in the way of equipment: dice rollers, character sheets and introductory rules for most systems are available for free online. Once you’ve found a system you like, you can look into buying rulebooks or appropriate dice for that system.

The choice of game system is totally up to you, but the massive variety of games available can be overwhelming, so I’ll call out a couple of the highlights here.

  • Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition is one of the most popular on the market today. The game is designed for a fantasy Lord of the Rings-esque setting and its rules are in the easy-to medium level of complexity—easy to understand, but complex enough to provide variety and depth.
  • Pathfinder 2nd Edition is the new kid on the block for fantasy RPGs, and it is similar to Dungeons and Dragons in many ways but is significantly more complex. That can be daunting for newer players, and I wouldn’t recommend it for a first game unless you have an experienced player to help guide you through it. That said, if you’re up to the challenge, the more in-depth rules provide for a lot of options to customize your character and a more tactical experience if your characters get into a fight.
  • Starfinder is made by the same company, Paizo, that makes Pathfinder 2E, but is set in the future and in outer space. It possesses many of the same strengths and weaknesses as Pathfinder 2E.
  • Stars Without Number is another science fiction RPG, but much simpler. The character creation process is a bit lackluster, but the system is easy and streamlined, and the game provides a wealth of tools for Game Masters to randomly generate whole systems and planets with ease.
  • Call of Cthulhu. Set on earth in the early twentieth century, this game details the plight of a group of detectives uncovering the secrets of the ancient, incomprehensible creatures that secretly control our world. The system is fairly easy to learn, but don’t get too attached to your character—eventually they will either die horribly, go insane, or both.
  • FATE Core. A TTRPG stripped down to bare bones, FATE Core is a streamlined system that can work for any setting. The game focuses on getting out of your way and letting you tell your story with a simple skill list and a system of descriptive attributes for your character that can be invoked by you or the Game Master to give your character an advantage or disadvantage depending on the situation at a critical moment.

            Regardless of which game you choose, there is a plentiful supply of online resources to help you get started, especially on YouTube, where you can find helpful guides and videos of others playing to give you an idea for how it works. Critical Role’s Handbooker Helper and Mighty Nein (both D&D 5e) are particularly good.

            My advice? Let yourself go a little. Don’t worry about feeling silly. The first hour or so of your first RPG can feel a little awkward as you find the rhythm, but it is well worth it. In no time, the hours will be flying by. You’ll have found what is, hands down, one of the best activities you can still enjoy with friends despite the virus.

            Good luck and have fun!