“Almost everybody plays games.” Jason Carl, Brand Marketing Manager for the World of Darkness.
Tabletop games are all the rage right now (some things never change) but gamers are so spoiled for choice that it can be daunting for newcomers to get started.
This guide’s meant to take you from zero knowledge (what is Dungeons and Dragons?) to ready to roll some dice without wasting any of your time or money.
Tabletop RPGs can be an expensive hobby. While you can usually find a free sample rulebook or an inexpensive new player’s guide, core rulebooks usually cost $15-50. Even most “starter kits” run about $20.
So the idea is to figure out what you want to play, find a way to check it out for as little money as possible, and make an informed decision before you commit to purchasing, learning, and playing in a new RPG system.
Step one: Know your role
You can easily search Google for “the most popular” tabletop games, but it’s probably better to think of TTRPGs like you would a series of books.
Just because everyone likes The Lord of The Rings doesn’t mean you will. In this case, the big dog in the TTRPG world is Dungeons and Dragons. But if fighting goblins with swords and magic isn’t your thing that world might not appeal to you. Maybe you’d prefer the sci-fi world of Cyberpunk 2020 or the modern horror of Vampire: The Masquerade.
Every gaming universe has it’s own flavor and settings. And, chances are, if there’s a world you’ve been entranced by in other media – books, comics, TV, and movies – it probably exists as a TTRPG game.
Everything from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to the world of Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise, George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, and even Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly have been made into tabletop roleplaying games.
The biggest consideration for me, when it comes to a TTRGP, is its setting. And, since this article is aimed at people hoping to dive in for the first time, I think it’s the best place to start. There are hundreds of different rules systems, each one with their own nuances, but the core consideration is how much fun it’ll be for you to “live” in the world you’re playing.
Here are my favorite TTRPG games based on setting:
Of all the games I play, this one is the most difficult to to get into because of its cumbersome rules, outlandish scale, and sheer gonzo factor. But the world is amazing.
Earth, in the future, is plagued by innumerable inter-dimensional two-way portals that can potentially lead to anywhere in space and time. The bulk of the game’s materials are focused on fleshing out the state of the future Earth, its nations, and its denizens both human and otherworldly. It’s a unique take that makes it possible to play a game where you might have a robot pilot, a drug-addled superhuman, a shape-shifting dragon, and a sharpshooting cyborg sheriff in your party.
2: Vampire: The Masquerade
This one’s much easier to play than Rifts (and, I’d argue, Dungeons and Dragons) thanks to its simplified but robust rules system and focus on storytelling over dice-rolling. It’s set in the World of Darkness, a monster-filled reflection of the real world.
Related: Watching people pretend to be vampires got me through 2020
Rather than be the hero, Vampire: The Masquerade asks players to step into the shoes of a monster. You won’t spend much time fighting goblins and hunting down +1 swords of destruction in this game. Instead, you’ll likely become embroiled in vampire politics and the internal struggle for your own humanity.
3: Dungeons and Dragons
This one’s a given. But D&D doesn’t have one specific setting. It’s actually comprised of several “campaign settings,” that players and Dungeon Masters can choose from. For the most part, they exist separately due to different types of rules and scope of adventure.
The “Forgotten Realms,” for example is a more traditional fantasy setting for D&D where you’ll find the typical humans, elves, dwarves, dragons, goblins, and such. But then there’s “Ravenloft,” a gothic horror setting and “Darksun” a low-magic science fiction setting, and still others with more to offer. The D&D rules system is also among the simpler to play while still being robust enough to handle complex combat and skills challenges.
If none of those strike your fancy, I’d suggest heading over to DriveThruRPG and checking out this page. It’s the landing spot for “Core Rule Books.” You can scroll through these titles (without having to wade through thousands of add-ons and accessory books) to see what kind of games are out there.
However, I recommend against impulse purchases until you’ve finished this article. Because our next step, once we’ve decided on a setting, is to figure out if we’re even going to like the game.
Step Two: But is it fun?
Before you spend $15-50 on a starter kit or cool rulebook, you should see if you can get a sample or preview for free. Or, better yet, you can watch other people play the game and get an idea of whether it’s something that’d be fun for you.
Just like video gamers stream their games, these days TTRPGers often stream theirs. Basically, you can watch a YouTube video of a group of people playing a game and see how it’s done. Some of these shows are incredibly popular, with many boasting thousands of fans who don’t even play the games themselves: they just like the shows.
My favorite TTRPG streams are the ones that teach you how to play as they go while also telling a great story. Not only does it work as a great preview for the games rules if you’re unsure whether you’ll enjoy it or not, but it also shows newcomers what these games can look like when they get rolling.
LA By Night for Vampire: The Masquerade and Critical Role for Dungeons and Dragons are among the most popular (with the former being my personal favorite) but there are hundreds more out there. Both are linked above in YouTube videos.
If the game you’re interested in doesn’t have a stream or streaming isn’t your thing, the next best thing you can do is check out a sample.
I suggest searching DriveThruRPG for the setting or system, Rifts or Vampire: The Masquerade for example, and then arranging all the results by price. This will show you if the company has any freebies, and you’re looking for anything that indicates it’s a quick-start or new player’s guide. These typically give you enough information to determine if you’ll enjoy trying a product before you spend more than a few bucks.
Rifts Primer on DriveThruRPG
Vampire: The Masquerade New Blood Starter Pack on DriveThruRPG
Dungeons & Dragons basic rules on Wizards
The next step depends on you. Let’s say you want to try Dungeons and Dragons for the first time, you don’t want to spend more than a few dollars, and you have no friends to play with. I got you covered.
First, you need to get the free D&D Basic Rule Set. Next you need a dice-rolling app. My favorite is www.google.com. Yep, that’s right: you can roll RPG dice right in the Google Search box. Just type “Roll a 6 sided die” or “Roll 2D20 + 3” and you’ll be treated to an animation and the results.
Next you need character sheets. If those don’t come in the starter kit you’ve obtained, you can usually find them on Google. You can search for “printable D&D character sheets,” for example, and you should be able to find everything you need. Also, keep in mind, most RPG makers have these kinds of resources available directly on their website.
Next you need people to play with. Which, all things considered, isn’t as hard as you might think. If you know people who want to play in person: great. But if you don’t, there are thousands (if not millions) of people who play online using tools such as “Roll 20” or even just Zoom. You can either invite people you know for online sessions or try to link up with a new group online via a “looking for group” or LFG post. Again, Google’s your friend, but you can also find groups on social media.
And that’s basically it. You can get pretty far with just your imagination, a free PDF, and Google’s dice-roller.
Step Three: Play time?
Inevitably, those of us destined to fall in love with TTRPGs will find ourselves in the common position of being the first person in our peer group to discover the joy that is tabletop gaming. And that means you’ll be the one convincing everyone else to give these games a try.
I’ve found that “you get to pretend to be a wizard and kill goblins” doesn’t always work on everyone. So I’ve taken to starting the conversation by asking what kind of video games, movies, and books they enjoy.
The low-hanging fruit is always great. If someone says they love True Blood or Game of Thrones it’s a pretty easy walk from there to Vampire: The Masquerade or Dungeons and Dragons. But what if they’re just really into sports, or they only read non-fiction books? Well, there’s a game for them too.
My favorite RPGs of 2020 aren’t listed above because they aren’t TTRPGs. They’re video games, and they aren’t even in the “RPG” genre. I’m talking about Madden 2021 and UFC 4.
Last year my favorite RPG was NBA2K20. But 2K dropped the ball (pun intended) this year so I instead quenched my superstar athlete fantasy thirst with American football and MMA games. Modern sports games tend to focus around having players create a doppelganger of themselves for use in tailored game modes. In other words: You roll up a character and control their lives on and off the field.
Madden 2021 has a full story that takes you from high school to the pros, with plenty of drama along the way. And UFC 4 is among the most cathartic roleplaying games around: you train hard, gain experience, level up, and then get to kick your enemies in the mouth.
Either one of these games could easily be represented in tabletop rules. And, if they were, you could really find out who your athlete was. In my version of Madden 2021 you’d be able to decide how to deal with COVID-19 or choose whether you wanted to take a knee. But in your version, maybe everyone would have cybernetic legs or telescopic vision.
There are TTRPGs and tabletop wargames that approximate sports and gladiatorial combat – Bloodbowl comes to mind – or just about anything at all.
If you ask me, a TTRPG is to a video game what a book is to a movie. Most of the time you get a much deeper and memorable experience when you “live out” a story through the lens of your own imagination than you could by watching on a screen. And that’s especially true when it’s a collaborative social experience.
The bottom line is: everyone plays games and there’s a game out there for everyone. You don’t have to spend a bunch of money to get started in TTRPGs but the potential rewards include a lifetime of stories and inspiration. And, in the middle of a pandemic, it’s a great way to connect and play with people when you can’t be together in person.