The ABCs of RPGs or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the D20.

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By: Renee Hecht

There is a sort of unspoken fear that many people have when they pick up a new hobby, and that fear is “I don’t fit in with these people”. In response, I will say this: The day my cousin David found out I was playing RPGs, his face lit up like a Christmas tree. He asked if I wanted any of his old D&D books, he asked if I’d been playing long, he asked what systems I was playing, and if I was having fun. He was so excited that someone else he knew had taken an interest in the hobby that he was beaming.

Suffice it to say, my personal experience with the gaming community has been extremely positive. In the four years I’ve been playing, I have never once felt like I wasn’t welcome. I came out as FTM to my gaming group, and the immediate reaction was “Oh wow, okay. Thank you for telling me. I’ll try to start using the right pronouns”.

I’ve made a lot of very good friends through tabletop-games. So long as good stories and good company exist, these games will retain their charm. This article (essay?) is my open invitation to anyone who thinks they may be interested in picking up a table-top RPG.

So, let’s start at the beginning. What is an RPG?

RPG stands for ‘role-playing game’ – a game in which a player takes on the role of a character. Players then act out their role within a story, either through making structured decisions (like in a videogame), or by acting out their choices (like in D&D).

A table-top RPG is, as you might have guessed, a role-playing game that is traditionally played at a table. These games typically involve all sorts of funny-shaped dice, paper, pencils, and rulebooks. Unlike videogames, a table-top RPG has the benefit of allowed players to create their own characters. It is up to the player whether their character is male or female, tall or short… human or rat-monster.

A ‘standard’ gaming-group involves about 4 players, but these games also require one person who is responsible for keeping track of the rules of the game, and for helping players progress through a story. This person has complete control over non-player aspects of the world: from monsters to allies to environments. As with most positions of power, this comes with a fancy title. “Dungeon Master” is the most popular, but “Game Master” and “Storyteller” are also used depending upon the game.

Most table-top games are also cooperative, meaning that all the players work together towards a single goal, instead of working against each other. It’s tempting to assume, then, that the players are somehow “fighting” the Dungeon Master, but that’s not really accurate. The Dungeon Master’s job is to make sure everything is running smoothly. They put obstacles in the player’s paths so that the players have something to do. A Dungeon Master is fully capable of saying “Rocks fall, everyone dies”, but that defeats the purpose of the game. You can’t play through a story without the heroes.

The first ‘modern’ RPG was published by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974, and goes by the now-familiar name of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D for short). While D&D’s initial rules began as a variant of an existing game (Chainmail, developed by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren), the system put players in control of individual characters instead of military formations.

D&D has come a very long way since 1974. Several editions of the game exist, with the most recent being 5th edition – published in 2014. In the years since its introduction, the game has grown to be much more diverse and inclusive. While the ‘random harlot encounter table’ from 1st edition did technically allow players to encounter a “Sly Pimp” in addition to your standard “Brazen Strumpet”, the idea of a hooker-chart doesn’t exactly scream equality. The table disappeared rather quickly from the game rules, and now, years later, the 5th edition rulebook encourages players to carefully examine gender and the role of gender in society. It even reminds players that their characters can identify outside of the gender binary.

The more people who pick up these games and play, the more likely we are to see that push towards equality continue.

Now that you have some background, let’s move into some specific games. There are a lot to choose from, and this list is by no means comprehensive, but it should give you a quick overview of some different options.

D&D itself has, as I mentioned, multiple sets of rules. Some people loved 3.5, some are hopping in the 5th-ed bandwagon. Either way, all editions of D&D are more-or-less separate games. All of the editions include multiple different races and classes that determine character statistics and abilities.

Races include elves, Dwarves, Humans, and Gnomes, and the list gets longer and longer as more content is released. Then there are classes – fighter, paladin, rogue, bard, etc. – which give your character a defined role in their party, not to mention that names and backstories are entirely customizable. You could spend days building different characters for a D&D game and still find something new that you’d like to incorporate. The game is old, but it still remains one of the most popular choices on the market. It’s a tried-and-true fantasy game.

The Pathfinder RPG is a direct relative of D&D – a game derived from the rules of D&D 3.5, with expanded abilities for classes and races, and with a new setting called ‘Golarion’. Pathfinder has its own pantheon of deities, its own flavor-text about magic and spells, and its own unique adventure paths. Pathfinder exists mainly because the people who created it liked 3.5. They liked the rules and skills and classes and races… they just thought they needed some tweaking and some updating.

From personal experience, I can say that Pathfinder’s skill system strikes a decent balance between simple and comprehensive, whereas D&D’s 5th edition tends to downplay the importance of skills.

In the same fantasy vein, there is Sword Noir, a game with a very simplified rule set. The tone of Sword Noir is fairly grim, giving players a world of shadowy alleys and corrupting influences to explore. Sword Noir provides a good mashup of old-school detective fiction and high-fantasy adventure where combat is deadly and betrayal is a real threat.

If you like the gritty detective part of that description better than the high-fantasy idea, then you might be interested in Shadowrun. In Shadowrun, players take on individual jobs with their teams, weighing their goals against their guts. You get paid for every mission, but if you’re too rigid in your contracts, you might find yourself with a lot of money and no karma.

The setting of the game is also incredibly futuristic. The rules are built to include things like virtual reality, the internet, guns (so many guns), cybernetic limbs, and biological implants that mimic or ‘improve upon’ human organs. There is still magic in Shadowrun, but the longer you play, the more you realize that your mages need guns and armor just as badly as everyone else on your team. Characters are urged to also “Take Cover”, because getting shot hurts a whole hell of a lot, unless you’re a troll.

There’s also World of Darkness – a game which is more focused on story than rules. It is set in a more modern-day timeline, and includes its myths and magic in the form of creatures who exist alongside humans, just out of sight. World of Darkness has multiple expansions, most of which incorporate a new supernatural being into the world. There are vampires, werewolves, changelings, mages, hunters, and ‘prometheans’ expansions for the game, but the rules are such that a storyteller can include or exclude as much of the setting as he or she desires.

The game has a lot of dark themes, but overall it tends to push players toward some sort of cathartic resolution. You just might have to suffer a bit to get where you’re going.

If you like suffering, you could also slip your eldritch appendages into the Call of Cthulhu role playing game. Call of Cthulhu has multiple versions of the standard ‘character sheet’, designed to fit characters for different time-periods. The modularity of the game is far-reaching and incredibly inviting.

Regardless of how the games are set up, Call of Cthulhu characters have a very high likelihood of sustaining mental or physical harm. It’s standard fare for Lovecraft-themed games, but it does present an interesting puzzle for role-players. If your character is expendable, then they are not necessarily interesting. If your character goes crazy, you can’t control them, and you don’t get to play. More than some other systems, Call of Cthulhu is a balancing act between story-driven-sensibilities and player frustrations. It’s a game that rewards you for being cautious, certainly, and it has a very interesting style about it that fits well with the horror/suspense genre. Enemies are sometimes impossibly strong, and characters might sometimes sacrifice themselves to accomplish otherwise impossible tasks.

If you’d rather delve into worlds that are more familiar, there are also RPGs based on existing fantasy. Fantasy Flight Games has released a series of books for their Star Wars RPG. “Edge of the Empire”, “Age of Rebellion”, and “Force and Destiny”, the rules and classes presented are inter-compatible, but contain unique details based on their setting within the Star Wars timeline.

There’s also the Firefly RPG, based on Joss Whedon’s Firefly. The Firefly RPG is produced by Margaret Weis Productions Ltd and uses a system developed by that company referred to as “Cortex Plus” rules. The same company has also produced a Leverage RPG, and a Marvel-Superhero-themed RPG using the same system.

For those who prefer Miyazaki movies, there are also games like Golden Sky Stories:  a game in which characters take on the roles of henge – magical animals who can take on human form. The game has a heavy focus on building connections with other people, and on non-violent conflict resolution. Characters are awarded ‘Wonder’ and “Feelings’ points based on the depth of their connections to others, and they may spend these points to accomplish tasks. It’s not a terribly complex system, but it is unique in its marked disdain for combat. The rule book repeatedly stresses the importance of not picking fights to solve problems.

For other options, I recommend looking at websites like drivethrurpg.com or rpgnow.com. You’re bound to find something interesting if you poke around for a bit.

Finally, there are a few last notes I can give you.

A friend of mine recently told me, “Don’t try to build up to a system. Pick one you think you will enjoy, and stick to it”. That’s excellent advice. Different games may seem more or less complex, but they are still different games. You wouldn’t play go-fish and hoping to ‘move up’ to poker. In the time you spent playing go-fish, you could have learned the rules of poker and started a weekly game on your own. If you want to play both that’s completely fine, just don’t make the mistake of seeing all RPGs as one-in-the-same thing.

And of course: Don’t be afraid to try something new. These games are designed to be fun, not stressful. If you try out an rpg and you don’t like it, there are hundreds of others waiting for you to test them out. As long as everyone is having a good time, you don’t even need to follow all the rules of a game. In fact, the Pathfinder core rulebook literally encourages people to ‘throw away’ rules that get in the way of a game.

One comment

  1. […] The ABCs of RPGs or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the D20 @ Clash Cultures – I love this article.  It starts out describing that common reluctance among tabletop gamers to be too open about their hobby for fear of… I don’t even really know.  Rejection?  Ridicule?  Indifference?  The writer goes on to give a really good explanation of rpgs and then goes through example systems.  I can see myself linking people to this article when explaining what RPGs are. […]

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