RPG Basics

You and your companions find yourselves in a deep forest, surrounded on all sides by darkness, with pinpricks of light playing between the trees. At first, you assume the dancing lights are fireflies, but when two close together disappear for a moment before shining once more, you realise they are eyes. You’re being watched, beyond the edge of your campfire. What do you do?

What is a Roleplaying Game?

Roleplaying games are a lot of fun — that’s why we spend so much time making them! But if you’ve never roleplayed before, they can seem daunting: large rulebooks, lots of dice, and the prospect of being able to do anything you can think of?

Don’t worry, you have absolutely nothing to fear. Roleplaying games are far simpler than they seem — they’re really just make believe with a few rules thrown in — and we can assure you that you’ve already mastered how to roleplay when you were a child.

The following explains how to play a roleplaying game, how the conversation of play works, and how to use the rulebook — regardless of which game you’ve picked up — to have fun with your friends.

Different Players, Different Roles

Once you’ve gathered a group of people to play a roleplaying game, you need to get into your roles. One player in the group becomes the Gamemaster (GM), and the others are the Players, each of which controls a single Character. The GM is typically the Player who purchased the rulebook, and who gathered the group of people to play, but not always.

The GM describes the scenes that the Player Characters (PCs) find themselves in, and present problems and obstacles for them. The Players give their Characters desires and motivations, and work together to achieve their goals and overcome the challenges presented by the GM. Both of these roles are explored further here: How to be a Gamemaster and How to be a Player

A Conversation with Dice

A roleplaying game is really just a conversation with dice: the GM says something, then one or more Players respond, and if the outcome isn’t certain, dice are rolled to determine what happens. This cycle then repeats itself. The rulebook tells each player what their duties are during the game, and where they have authority to speak.

  • The GM has authority and control over the world — including describing locations, weather, monsters, and so on — and all of the characters in the world not controlled by the Players (known as Non-Player Characters, or NPCs).
  • Each Player has authority and control over their own Character — deciding what they want, how they go about achieving those goals, and how they interact with each other and the NPCs.

Sometimes the rules will describe an instance where authority changes hands: for example, if a PC becomes terrified by a monster, control of their actions may shift to the GM, or the rules might dictate that they are unable to control their actions for a short amount of time. However, these moments are usually few and far between, so the general model described above is the norm.

Alternately, some GMs like to defer authority over a particular NPC or descriptive element to one or more Players: for example, the GM might ask a wizard Character to describe what their spells look like when they are cast, or may ask a Player whose Character isn’t in a specific scene to take control of an allied NPC. This deference allows every player at the table equal time to engage with the story, and to add their own unique elements.

It must be pointed out that no one controls the story. The story is a result of the conversation — of the GM presenting a situation, the Players responding, and the outcomes of the dice rolls. Therefore, everyone at the table is playing to find out what the story is as all of these elements collide together! And just like any conversation, so long as everyone at the table trusts and respects each other, things will flow smoothly.

Rulebook or Toolbox?

Rulebooks are often hefty tomes that require more than a single sitting to read through. Because of this length, and the nature of the conversation described above, it’s best to use a rulebook as a reference guide and a toolbox, rather than a prescriptive text. You don’t need to follow every rule to the letter every time you sit down to play!

When starting out with a new roleplaying game, it’s worthwhile learning just the basic rules first:

  • How do you make a Character? 
  • How do the Characters perform actions?
  • What things does the GM need to describe?

Once you have these three things covered, you can start to introduce more rules until everyone at the table is comfortable with how the game flows, and gets the most out of their experience. If your group seems to get stuck on a specific rule, take some time to discuss it:

  • Do you like the rule, but you keep forgetting how it works? Write up a reference card, or some other reminder.
  • Do you dislike the rule? Ignore it or change it!

The only people important to your game, and who get to have a say on how your game is played, are the people sitting around the table. Roleplaying games are just that — games— so they should be fun! If a rule isn’t fun for you, that’s nobody’s business but your own.

The Rulebook: A Guide to Judgement Calls

The rulebook is there to help the GM and Players adjudicate the action: What happens if I try to attack the Goblin? What happens when I fall off a cliff? What happens when I get detected by the enemy’s RADAR? However, no rulebook can ever cover every possible situation, so instead of trying, rulebooks provide you with a set of tools to make judgement calls.

Typically the GM has the authority to make judgement calls on the rules, and to arbitrate how they are implemented, but everyone at the table should have a say, and should feel free to ask questions. Whilst the rulebook has a lot of specifics, remember the above advice about Rulebook or Toolbox, don’t get bogged down in the nitty gritty details if you’re not having fun.

Sometimes it’s not clear what should happen in any given situation. If this happens, feel free to pause the action for a second and discuss the situation with everyone at the table. Come to a solution together, that everyone feels makes sense, and then continue playing. There are no right or wrong answers in roleplaying games!

Infinite Worlds of Fun

Each roleplaying game is different, but most of them share the same basic building blocks as described above. Armed with that knowledge, you should feel confident picking up any roleplaying game and diving straight in, because the more games you play, the more tips and tricks you’ll pick up. Furthermore, playing a roleplaying game as a GM or a Player Character, gets easier and more natural over time, so you’ll only find your enjoyment increases with each successive session of play!