It all seems very intimidating at first. Sitting around the table are a bunch of rabid fans talking in code about things that make no sense in the real world. “Just roll the d20 for initiative” they say, as if it’s some call to action that makes sense. Worst still, apparently it’s your ‘turn’ and all eyes are on you, but you have no idea what that means.
I’m lucky, I got into RPGs on the ground level, starting with the rulebook in hand and having to work it out from scratch. However, I’ve helped a lot of players learn a lot of systems, so I’ve seen many of the expert errors made when teaching people to play. I should know, I made most of those errors myself at first. So here’s what I hope is a simpler way to start in the hobby which I also hope will help prospective players and Game Masters alike.
There are no easy systems
One of the biggest sins I’ve seen in gaming is the idea that some systems are ‘easy’ to play, while others are not. It’s true that the complexity differs between systems, but less complex does not mean simpler. You have probably heard the phrase, “As easy as riding a bike.” Now, remember the hours of practice and the grazed knees from when you actually learnt how to ride a bike? Once you have learnt to ride a bike, it’s easy to recall the skills should you need them again, but you needed the base knowledge first, and that took time and effort.
Role Playing is a lot like riding a bike, in that once you have the core skills down, it’s easy to transition those skills to similar things. Bicycle is to motor bike as Dungeons & Dragons is to Rolemaster. One more complex than the other, but both requiring the learning of core skills.
What I’m saying is that it is expert error to say a game is ‘easy’ to learn. When you say that to a new player it carries the implication that, “You must be a bit dumb if you don’t get this quickly.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Role Playing requires a way of thinking, just like riding a bike requires learning a way to balance yourself.
If you are new into the hobby, forget what people say about how easy they think a game should be. Focus on the other elements I’m going to discuss, and try to put aside any anxiety you might have about looking silly in front of your friends. Trust me, being able to look silly in front of your friends is practically a Role Playing skill.
The secret is in the term RPG
The secret to learning how to play lies in the phrase Role Playing Game. It’s good to learn each of the three skills indicated by the phrase in the order they are listed – Role – Playing – Game.
First and most important is to learn about the Role you will be taking on. Try to see the entire game through the lens of the character you are playing. If you think your character should behave in a certain way, then declare those actions and let the Game Master work out the details. Your job as a player is to to embody the Role you have taken on. Do that and you’re most of the way there.
Next you have to remember that the point of all of this is to Play. That means being able to laugh at others as well as yourself. It shouldn’t feel like a chore to do. Nor should you feel pressured. It should feel light and playful. Of course, initially getting into the hobby will be stressful to start, but work at your own pace to find the fun and relaxation, then add more and more of the Game part to the equation. Fun and relaxation is probably the two main reasons most people Role Play.
Finally, you should learn the Game. In this case I mean the technical aspects of the Game system. The more you learn about how the mechanics of the Game work, the more you can manipulate those mechanics (not in a cheating manner) to enhance the previous two steps. The more you learn about the game world, the more you can immerse yourself into it. Some people suggest you forget the rules and just play. I’ve also known people who refuse to read the rules for reasons I fail to grasp. My suggestion is to learn how to play your Role while having fun and relaxing, then be sure to learn the rules as an extension and enhancement of the previous two.
The Dice don’t really decide everything
I’m including this section because I was recently watching a video of a gaming session where all the players at the table were new. It reminded me of one error many new players make, and they make the error because the game hasn’t been explained correctly.
Many new players are told that, “The dice will decide everything,” or words to that effect. This is tragically misleading. The Game Master will decide everything about the game with the notable exception of the player’s actions. As a player, you decide what actions your character will take. The dice only come into things when a choice made has a chance of failure.
For example, the Game Master decides that you have been attacked by bandits. You decide that your character will defend herself by drawing her sword and stabbing one (or more) of the bandits. Only now do you roll dice to see if you stabbed the bandit and if so, how much did it hurt him. Alternatively, as the bandits attack you might decide to not attacked them, but to try to parley with them. In this case the GM decides if that’s possible and if it is, the dice are rolled to resolve the choice you made.
You don’t need any dice to make choices for you, and you don’t usually roll dice in social interactions between characters. For example, it’s terrible GMing to allow the following:
Player 1 – “I roll to seduce Player 2’s character”
GM – “Okay, roll Charisma.”
Player 1 – Rolls dice “Woohoo! Natural 20.”
Player 2 – “Hang on, my character would never be interested in him.”
GM – “Doesn’t matter, he got a critical success, you’ll do anything for him.”
Player 1 – With an evil grin, “Yes, anything!”
Game Mastery like that is just awful and should be punished by having the GM perform whatever ‘anything’ turns out to be so they know how stupid their GMing is.
The key line in the sand here is that you can decide what your character chooses to attempt, but not what the result of that attempt might be. So you cannot say, “I cut the head off the dragon,” but you can certainly say, “I try to cut the head off the dragon.” That’s the dividing point where dice decide.
It’s not about you
One last divide I’d like to make is that Roleplay should never be about the players, it should always be about the characters and the story the Game Master is telling. I make this point because it does take time to learn how to separate the actions of a character from that of the player.
Here is where things get murky though, because I’m being an idealist. Some players are bad players because they don’t know how to make the separation or they are just bad people. Every Game Master will have stories where real life issues crept into gaming sessions and ruined the game for everyone. Also, when new players meet evil characters, they can sometimes mistake the vitriol from the character as being from the player. Even more often, I’ve seen charming players use their wiles to affect the game.
A good player always makes the game about their character, not themselves. If you ever think that someone is acting out of character for personal reasons, take it up with them or with the Game Master. A good Game Master should never be afraid of talking directly to players about changes in their behaviour, because one niggling issue can poison an entire group.
If you’re a new player and you’re feeling out of your depth, that’s actually pretty natural, and the other players at the table have probably just forgotten when it was overwhelming for them as well. Don’t let the dice and the rules scare you. If people ask you to roll things or do things you don’t understand, just ask for clarity. If people roll their eyes at you then maybe find better players because those people are probably just arseholes.
Remember to put yourself in your character’s mind and make decisions in game you think your character would make. That’s the Role part of RPG. Have fun with it, and if it feels like something you’d like to do a lot more of, then try to borrow a player’s book to read so you can learn the rules for yourself. You’d be surprised how often groups will diverge from the core rules, so if you see it, question it, but quite likely it’s a change to the rules made by the GM. These ‘house rules’ are common in many games.
One last note. If you like the concept of Role Play but didn’t have fun with the people you tried playing it with, please consider trying with another group. There are countless ways to enjoy the hobby but not all play styles will suit everyone. I know for myself that I’ve found many players I just don’t enjoy gaming with. There is a right group out there for you, and if you cannot find one, you can always learn how to run the game and start a group yourself!