I'm Erik, and I'll be your guide to tabletop RPGs, also known as pen & paper RPGs or fantasy roleplaying games. I started playing these games over three decades ago when I was in middle school, and I've noticed that usually people are introduced to them by a friend. But how do you get involved if none of your friends has played? That situation is why this site was created. By the time you're done here, you'll be running a fantasy roleplaying game for your friends.
Before we go any further, let's dispense with the myth that you have to be a certain kind of person to play pen & paper RPGs. Over the years I've sat at the gaming table with all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds: accountants, artists, carpenters, CEOs, doctors, lawyers, marketers, real estate agents, soldiers, students, programmers, and more. I've also discovered many who express an interest but are nervous about it.
Some people figure they'll be considered too geeky if they play. Others are nervous about not having enough geek cred to play. Here's my take: MMOs are mainstream, millions play fantasy football, remixes are everywhere, and fan fiction is huge. We're moving beyond passive consumption of TV and movies. We can explore and create our own interpretations, our own stories. Fantasy roleplaying games are a very powerful means of doing that, and anyone can play.
Enough with the preamble. It's time to jump in.
Tabletop RPGs are the original fantasy roleplaying games, invented in the 1970s and still going strong. The only game known by most non-gamers is Dungeons & Dragons (aka D&D), but that is only one of dozens available. The games span every imaginable genre, from swords and sorcery to hard science fiction, Lovecraftian horror to superheroes. Players gather in person and create adventures together using their imaginations, the game rules, and dice. Using the rules as a guide, one player, usually known as the game master (GM), controls the flow of the game. Here's an example of how it works:
Jordan is running a swashbuckling sci-fi game of Basic Roleplaying for three players. This is their fifth game session, and they've already had quite a few adventures. The group has settled around the table and is ready start. Carlos is playing the role of Duster, a combat veteran who was kicked out of the space marines for "discipline problems"; Teri is playing R'hann, a shapeshifting alien private investigator; and Mitesh's cyborg character RX51 (aka Rex) considers himself the best pilot in the quadrant.
Jordan: "The trip to Orem IV was uneventful, and once Rex lands the ship at Dock 14, you all get your first breaths of unfiltered air in many weeks. It's summer weather. You don't need enviro suits, because the air is breathable, and the temperature is warm but comfortable. The sky is clear, and it's a perfect day to explore the city."
Carlos: "Hah! A perfect day to find a good bar, in other words."
Teri: "R'hann looks over at Duster. 'You know, ordinarily I'd say you're nuts to be talking about going inside on a day this gorgeous, but I've seen more than enough of your two ugly mugs, and I could do with some socializing. Uh, no offense.'"
Mitesh: "None taken. As you know, I have no need of libations, but I certainly wouldn't mind a change of pace."
Jordan: "OK, so you all start working your way through the docks area in search of a pub. It doesn't take you long to find The Rusty Spanner, a small, dark, dilapidated place that smells like a mixture of hydraulic fluid and whiskey. As you walk in, you are startled to see Vikus, with two of his goons. They're sitting at the bar drinking. As you open the door and walk in, their heads swivel, they lock eyes with you, and... what do you do?"
Teri: "Grr... I thought he was destroyed with his ship during that altercation on Wenschall Prime. I'll probably need to shapeshift, so I scan the room for the biggest, nastiest looking lifeform I can get to in three or four steps. Once I touch it, I'll be able to mimic its form."
Mitesh: "I smile. 'Vikus, you are surprisingly adept at staying alive, especially for a human.' I reach for the blaster at my hip holster."
Carlos (laughing): "Oh man, this is going to be interesting. I activate my personal force field and draw my katana, looking as menacing as possible."
Jordan: "OK. Vikus looks at each of you in turn, making no move to reach for a weapon. His goons look up from their drinks, scowling at you. Vikus tut-tuts you: 'What kind of a welcome is that? Look, I've got a deal you wont be able to resist. Why dont we all just sit down and discuss it like reasonable folks.' The scar above his left eye twists a bit as he smiles with excessive sincerity."
Jordan is using Vikus as a way to draw the player characters (PCs) into an adventure. As the action continues, the PCs will have to use their skills to do things such as negotiate with Vikus, intimidate his underlings, run away, or fight Vikus. The mechanics differ from one game to another, but pretty much any time the PCs attempt to do something difficult, they'll have to roll dice to determine whether they succeed or not.
In computer RPGs, the action is described on screen. In pen & paper RPGs it is described primarily by words and resolved by die rolls. This difference in approach means that there is no pre-defined storyline and no canned dialogue. There are no "off limits" areas of the game world, which provides flexibility that is impossible in even the most sophisticated multiplayer computer RPG. Everything from the setting to the power level of the characters to the types of adventures they pursue can be constructed and tweaked by the players to suit their needs. The GM can even modify the adventure on the fly to adapt to what the players are doing.
It is important to recognize that the combat-intensive D&D approach is not the only flavor of tabletop RPG. Games can focus on uncovering secrets, discovering the relationships between characters, exploring highly detailed worlds, navigating political intrigue, and so on. As you move through this site and examine different games, pay attention to which styles of play seem most interesting to you.
In D&D Robot Chicken, writers from the TV show play a game run by Chris Perkins of Wizards of the Coast, the company that produces D&D. This series of 10 minute videos provides an interesting glimpse of a game in progress. Note the focus on overcoming obstacles.
In Burning Wheel at GenCon 2011 Luke Crane, the creator of Burning Wheel, runs an introductory scenario for a group that has never played the game. This is a lengthy video, but watching it for a few minutes will give you a feel for the game. Note the focus on character beliefs.
If you'd like to see what these games are all about, you'll need:
The first thing you'll need to do is get your hands on a free introductory game so you can learn the basics.