An Introduction to Tabletop RPGs

An Introduction to Tabletop RPGs

Tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs) are becoming more and more popular these days. That means that you, the reader, might have heard of them without ever having played one, a state of affairs almost unthinkable twenty years ago. If that’s the case, you might have only a vague idea what they actually are. They seem to involve a group of grown adults pretending to be magical elves; if that’s your evaluation of them, you’re not wrong, that does happen. But there’s more to it than that.

The first thing to be aware of is that it’s not just Dungeons and Dragons! It’s common for people to refer to D&D as a catch-all for tabletop RPGs at large. It was the first, and it’s still the biggest name, but this is like expecting that Monopoly is the same game as Go. Tabletop RPGs are as varied as board games, although they do all share a few of the same basic concepts.

First and foremost, tabletop RPGs are a social experience. It’s about hanging out with your friends (or people who are likely to soon become your friends, if you didn’t know them beforehand) and having a good time. If the idea of spending a few hours (or longer) hanging out with your friends sounds like fun, then there exists, somewhere, a tabletop RPG that you would like. I might not know the game myself, but it exists. There exist games where the gameplay is as light and casual as sitting around a campfire telling stories, or as hardcore and involved as cutting-edge MMO raiding and everything in between.

This guy is someone’s character.

The second trait that all tabletop RPGs share is the idea of a character, avatar, or other representation of the player in the game world. Those who have played MMOs will be familiar with this, which is not surprising, given that MMOs can trace their lineage in an unbroken line back to Dungeons and Dragons. The specifics of what your character is—and what you can do with them—will vary based on the game you’re playing, but what’s universal is that they represent you in the game world. You make their decisions, you dictate their actions. Their abilities may limit you (most characters cannot, for example, pick up the sun and throw it into a planet) but in general, you can take any action that your character has any chance at even attempting. This freedom of action is one of the things that separates tabletop RPGs from computer RPGs; everyone who has ever played a CRPG or JRPG has been frustrated by wanting to do something that the game does not support, whether that’s something as simple as ‘I want to smash that table’ or as complicated as ‘I want to offer Duke Welladay my support in overthrowing the armies of Emperor Badface, but I’m actually planning to betray him and hand the rebellion to the Emperor all wrapped up in a neat little package’. In a tabletop RPG, all these options and more are available to you, through the lens of your character.

Common perception: An average amount of RPG rules.

Common perception: An average amount of RPG rules.

The third trait all tabletop RPGs have are rules. This is likely not a surprise if you’ve ever heard anything about them; the tomes of complicated rules belonging to systems of yore are legendary. They are not the only kind of rules available, but all tabletop RPGs must have some method of resolving character actions, and finding out whether or not your character succeeds at the task at hand.  The vast majority of tabletop RPGs use dice for this; some use standard dice (six-sided cubes like you’d see at any casino worldwide), most use polyhedral dice (ranging from four sides to twenty sides in the most common configurations), and some use their own unique dice (with numbers or symbols as appropriate for the game in question).

Finally, there’s the actual sequence of play! Some tabletop RPGs will make modifications to this, some minor and some major, but there’s a core pattern of play that runs through all tabletop RPGs. One player is the game master (or Dungeon Master, or Referee, or some other title). Every player has their own character or avatar; these are called player characters or PCs, except the game master. The game master controls everything about the world that is not a PC. When there’s weather, game master.  When there’s monsters, game master. When there’s a dungeon to find, game master. It is important to keep in mind that while the game master (GM) has a different title and plays a different role than the players, the GM is still playing the game. A guard and a quarterback have a different role, but they’re still both playing football; so it is with the GM and the other players. Everyone is there to play the game and have fun, and this is a team effort. When playing the game, the GM will describe a situation for the other players, and then the players will declare what their characters do in response. Sometimes dice will be involved. Sometimes they won’t. At its core, the players are thrown into situations by the GM and then they decide what to do about it. Then, the GM decides how good their solution was and resolves it using the specific game’s rules.

Dr Wily from the Megaman series.

The original inspiration for Tom.

Almost every RPG book ever published contains an example of play. If you’re bothering to read this article instead of just skimming it, you probably haven’t read one! So here’s an example of play from one recent Star Wars: Edge of the Empire session I played. I won’t be mentioning specific mechanics, just the general flow of play.
Our wacky cast of characters features:
-Tom:  A mechanic and doctor, Tom is obsessed with cybernetics.
-Pipes: A buff Rodian mercenary bodyguard.
-Haskit: A Bothan spy (aren’t they all?)
-Noah: A former Imperial intelligence agent, now a Rebel.
-Connor: A young potential Jedi.

When our scene begins, our heroes have just moments ago defeated an ambush of bounty hunters trying to cash in on the enormous Imperial bounty on the party members (mostly Noah and Connor, though there was that one misunderstanding with Tom and an exploding Imperial base). The ambush had interrupted some delicate negotiations (and by ‘delicate negotiations’ I mean ‘the PCs were threatening murder and property damage’) with the bar’s owner.

Noah’s player: I’m going to go walk back into the bar and say “Sorry about that interruption.” I want to really impress him with how cool I am about delivering it.
[The GM asks Noah to roll some dice to determine how cool he was.  Noah aces it.]
GM: The bar owner does a double-take.  He just watched you dive for cover from a rocket launcher, shoot someone in the face, brush yourself off, and come back to negotiate like nothing happened. He’s clearly impressed.
(Noah continues to negotiate with the bar owner.  Meanwhile, outside…)
Tom’s player: I’m going to examine the corpses of the bounty hunters. You said they had cybernetic implants, right?
GM: Yes, each of them had at least one implant.
Tom’s player: I’m going to take them out.
Everyone: ….what?
Tom’s player: I want to cut out the cybernetics and take them with me.
Everyone: … the **** is wrong with you?
[The GM, after adjusting to his surprise at Tom’s actions, asks for some dice rolls for Tom to perform surgery on corpses in the middle of the street. Tom succeeds, but it will take him a while.]
Pipes’ player: I guess I’ll stand out here and guard him.
(Meanwhile, inside…)
Haskit’s player: While Noah’s negotiating with the bar owner, I want to hack into his computers. Noah, can you just stall him instead of negotiating for real?
Noah’s player: I can do that.
(The GM asks for dice rolls from each of them.  Following the pattern of this session, both have no problem with it. The PCs have been rolling incredibly well.)
GM: You’re able to find a floor plan, and after a little bit of work, you realize there’s a secret elevator in a private room in the back.
Haskit’s player: Awesome. I’m going to quietly walk over to it.
GM: Ok, you can do that easily. The bar owner is involved in his negotiations with Noah and isn’t paying attention to you.
Haskit’s player: Once I get there, I’ll call Pipes on the com and ask for him and Tom to come in for backup. I’ve got a plan.

The session continued on from there! (As it turned out, Haskit’s plan didn’t work at all, but the players were able to improvise something from the ruins and get what they wanted anyway.)

Now that I’ve told you a few things about the very basics, it’s time for some examples.



Dungeons and Dragons
The inn was on fire.

The party gathered their items and rushed out into the clean night air, breathing deeply. After catching their breath, they realized that the inn was not the only thing on fire; the town was burning. Suddenly, a group of hobgoblins rounded the street corner carrying lit torches! The clash of weapons against shields and cleaving into flesh resounded from the street for a short time, then fell to nothing. The party stood victorious over the bodies of the defeated hobgoblins.

“We have to find a defensive location and start getting people there. We don’t know how many hobgoblins there are, so be careful, everyone. We can’t let them kill all these defenseless people. Let’s go!”

The fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons (the newest, and current, edition) is the most versatile it has ever been, and possibly the most versatile fantasy RPG on the market in terms of playstyle. You can play it on a boat; you can play it behind a moat. You can learn the rules by rote; you can ignore them and float. You could play it while rhyming, but most people don’t. Whether you delve into ancient dungeons in search of artifacts from a forgotten age, defend your homeland from a hobgoblin invasion, seek the Artificer to learn his secrets, or just want to find a pink nerve-gas breathing dragon, D&D 5E can handle it. If you don’t have a specific kind of game to play in mind, or if they all sound good, D&D 5E is worth looking into. If the specific kind of game you want to play is a genre-shifting tour de force that will ask the players to defend their homeland one session, require them to survive a night in a village fallen to a zombie plague another session, and slay a dragon in honorable combat a third session, D&D 5E is the game for you.



Adventurer Conqueror King System
“We have a choice to make, friends. We only have two days more of supplies. Should we continue delving or return to town?” The party leader stood in front of the fire, requesting opinions. They all knew that greater rewards awaited them the deeper they delved, and they had thus far only managed to explore most of the second level. If someone suffered an injury, they would not have enough supplies to get back to town at their reduced pace. In the end, the party chose to delve deeper; a decision that would not be without consequences, although it did allow them to reap great rewards.

Ten years later
“My friends, we have a choice to make. This upstart Duke demands greater taxes, when the taxes we already pay are ruining us.” The same party leader, bearing more scars than when he was a young dungeon delver, addressed a group of mostly the same adventurers, though a few were replaced. His speech was interrupted by a diplomat – “Sir, this is treason!”  The diplomat looked around for support, but found none. The party once again looked at their leader and nodded at him. “Treason?  No, sir.  This is freedom. We are in agreement; the Duke no longer has any claim to our lands, and we will fight to prove it to him.”

In the Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS), your character will grow from a young adventurer to a world-shaking political force. Beginning with humble roots of dungeon delving in a simple resolution system, you can reinvest your wealth into merchant expeditions, building a stronghold, taking and ruling land, building a guild, or any other such venture. While the resolution for character actions is simple and easy, the economic ventures can involve a great deal of math. If the idea of growing from almost nothing to a great force in the world appeals to you, and you’re not afraid of some math, check out ACKS. If the specific kind of game you want to play is one where political boundaries are fluid and armies clash on the stage of history as the players grow from nothing into being competitors into being the force behind the great march of time, then ACKS is the game for you.



The mage gasped and wheezed as he fell back behind the fighters for protection. “Don’t let those goblins through!” he choked out. The fighters raised their shields and stood in front. Motion to the left caught their eye. “More goblins to the left; handle it!” one of them called to the other as she repositioned to block their access, slashing at a goblin on the way. Suddenly, all the goblins started falling back as a low rumble echoed through the passages.

“We’re in trouble.”

Hackmaster is a fantasy tabletop RPG which specializes in two things; the journey from zero to hero and detailed tactical combat. Characters start off as only barely more powerful than an ordinary human, and grow in power slowly. Everything they do, all victories and trophies they claim, they must earn after hard-fought battle, struggling and clawing against their opponents. Even a lowly goblin can remain dangerous to an advanced and powerful character, just as in history, even the most skilled and dangerous warrior could have been defeated by a lucky sword to the neck. The combat rules provide a great level of detail and realism, filled out with optional rules so that each group can select their own level of complexity. However, even at the simplest option, Hackmaster will not be the simplest or easiest system to play. If the idea of a game where the players must earn everything they are given and all combat carries the risk of death appeals to you, and you’re not afraid of learning some rules, check out Hackmaster. If the specific kind of game you want to play is a brutal challenge against impossible odds where the characters survive only by their tactical acumen and skill at teamwork, Hackmaster is the game for you.



“I do not fear you, foul beast!  Taste my steel!” the fighter cried as his sword burst into flame. Drinking down a potion after speaking, he charged into combat. In the background, magic exploded all around him, as rays of energy seared into the creature while bursts of divine power healed him and his allies against the attacks of the creature’s minions, pathetic beasts that he and his allies cleaved through with ease.

“We shall not falter! The beast dies here!”

Pathfinder is, in general, a high-magic game where powerful characters defeat epic enemies and save the world. Like most RPGs, there are many ways to play it, but that is the most common. It is also one of the most intensive in terms of character design and customization; players can build their character they way they envision, gaining powers and abilities from an extremely wide selection to allow the player to have exactly the character they want. All these choices comes with a cost in complexity, but that’s not something that can be avoided; whenever anyone is asked to make a choice, it’s simply easier to choose between two things than between twenty things. If you like the idea of carefully designing your character to be a crusading monster-slayer, consider checking out Pathfinder. If you want to play a game where acumen in planning and character design is rewarded as much as tactical skill, and characters begin powerful and grow to menace gods and immortals, Pathfinder is the game you want. Pathfinder also has the entire core ruleset available for free online.



Shadowrun 5E
“Can you get in or not?” the heavily armed troll growled at the human, who bent down before a door.
“Of course I can get in, choomba.  Give me a minute here and buzz.” the human replied, plugging a wire extending from the side of her head into the door. Her face went slack as she began subverting the door’s protections.
The elf raised her head. “Astral forms to the left. We’ve got incoming.”
“Of course we do. None of this drek ever goes to plan.” grunted the troll as he drew out his assault cannon. “Let’s get to it, squishies.”

The world of Shadowrun is a dark cyberpunk future in which magic has returned to the world. Players play as shadowrunners, semi-legal freelance troubleshooters. (When there’s trouble, they shoot it.)  Operating in the shadows, performing jobs that the corporations who control the world can’t freely admit that they need done, shadowrunning is a dangerous job. Those who succeed will gain fame and fortune. Those who succeed by skill instead of luck will only gain fortune. If you like the idea of a cyberpunk fantasy game, check out Shadowrun. If you want to play shades of grey in a dark world where technology and magic combine to crush the human spirit, or to free it, Shadowrun is the game for you.



Star Wars: Edge of the Empire
The smuggler tossed his money on the cantina table and got up to leave.  As he stands there, a slimy green-faced alien with a short trunk-nose pokes a blaster pistol into his side.  Speaking in his own language, he said, “Going somewhere, Solo?”
The smuggler replied “Yes, Greedo.  As a matter of fact, I was just going to see your boss.  Tell Jabba that I’ve got his money.”
The smuggler slowly sits back down as the alien sits down in the seat across from him, the blaster still pointed at the smuggler.
“It’s too late.  You should have paid him when you had the chance.  Jabba’s put a price on your head so large that every bounty hunter in the galaxy will be looking for you.  I’m lucky I found you first.”
“Is that so?”
“I’ve been looking forward to killing you for a long time.”
“Yes, I’ll bet you have.”
The sound of a blaster rang out as the slimy alien collapsed over the table.  The smuggler got up and began walking out of the cantina, flipping some credits to the bartender as he left.
“Sorry about the mess.”

For those paying attention, yes, that example of play was a slight rewriting/condensing of the classic scene between Han and Greedo in A New Hope. That’s because that’s one of the things you can do with Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, a system which focuses on the adventures of smugglers and similar characters operating on the Outer Rim of the galaxy in the Star Wars universe. Edge of the Empire, like Dungeon World, is a system with a strong narrative element to it; instead of focusing on realism, it instead focuses on telling a good story, although it does not go as far as Dungeon World in giving players direct control. Edge of the Empire instead uses its own unique dice, which tell you when rolled in vague terms what happens, and players then interpret the dice results into the story. As a Star Wars game, the setting is, in many ways, more important than the specific details of the system. You can retell classic stories, or create your own. If the idea of playing in the Star Wars universe sounds good to you, check out Edge of the Empire. If you love the idea of dice giving you narrative cues for you to work into the story, and also you want to play in the Star Wars universe, then Edge of the Empire is right up your alley.



Dungeon World
The heroes emerged from the dungeon, bruised and battered but successful.  After having plumbed the depths of The Labyrinth of Terror, they were ready for a visit to their cleric’s temple, where he had recently been blessed with a visitation of his deity. First, though, the warrior had to reclaim his weapon, thrice-sanctified in the blood of his enemies, which he had lost negotiating the Chasm of the Fire-Wyrm; he had been forced to drop it to catch the wizard and save him from falling into the Depths of No Return.

Dungeon World is a game which functions differently from most of the other games on this list. In Dungeon World, players are able to modify the story directly, without needing to pass through the lens of their characters. Being entirely larger-than-life, epic worlds are encouraged, with great adventures around every corner and characters making great sacrifices to perform fantastic deeds. Instead of creating a world and playing within it like most of these games listed, Dungeon World focuses on having everyone at the table work together to weave a story. If the idea of a game focused on cooperative storytelling as the goal of play (instead of the more traditional game-focused playstyle) sounds good to you, check out Dungeon World. If you want to weave an epic story with your friends and don’t want to concerns about realism or gameplay to get in the way, Dungeon World is what you’re looking for.

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