What exactly is… tabletop roleplay gaming?

Abstract: Roleplay gaming has multiple natures. Youngsters know them as multiplayer games, like World of Warcraft. Very nerdy guys and gals know that there are LARP-groups (Live Action RolePlaying), where you have to slip into your medieval clothing and embody some character by yourself. I guess, there are even some grown-up interpretations. 😉 Today, I want to give you some very basic introduction to tabletop roleplaying, one of my favourite hobbies. What is it? What do you need? How do you get a group? And why am I spending so much money and time into it?

Roleplaying – can you eat that?

Daily life can be stressful – we all know that. Roleplaying is the solution. Roleplaying is escapism. The try to step into another, a fictional world where you can be whoever and whatever you want. A world where you are the hero. Worlds full of magic and technique, cruel monsters, brutal gangster, dangerous conspiracies, angry gods and handsome princes to rescue. Roleplaying can help you to forget your daily problems – and make new friends.

Tabletop roleplaying is the perfect combination of fictional storytelling, game mechanisms and social interaction. The basic principle is always the same: a bunch of people gathers, sitting around a table. One of them (the “Game Master”) will tell the story, all the others will participate as heroes. And “hero”, by the way, is a very vague description of what can happen – you don’t have to be good! Each character is defined by his or her character sheet – quite often a sheet of paper with a lot of numbers on it. Values for all the character attributes, the skill levels, the current inventory. Suddenly, enemies show up. The group will have to fight. A brutal battle begins, axes fly, swords cut into flesh, the sound of arrows fills the air. There is blood, but the heroes stay strong and bravely defend their position. Suddenly, the enemy is running – and another day saved. Time to get back and be celebrated by the normal people – those, who are dependant on glorious figures like you are.


Whom do you need? And where to find those people?

Roleplay groups quite often consist of 4 to 6 people. One of my current groups has 8 members, which is quite a lot. Just think about it: only one of them can tell the story, so 7 people have to split the action between them. In our case, things seem to work pretty smoothly, but having too little action might be boring, too.

I myself started serious tabletop roleplaying 2 or 3 years ago, when a friend of mine asked me if I would be interested to have a look and join in. “Why not have a look?”, I asked myself. Roleplayers are known to be nerdy, but I’m nerdy, too, so what could possibly go wrong? Well, I went there – and got stuck. Why that? I guess, it was the beautiful mixture of the fantastic stories (I love fantasy worlds), the social interaction and knowing that all those people are here just to do the same thing: play the story. It was a fascinating thing to experience, even though my first steps may have been very rookie-like. At least, I have to say, none of my characters got killed so far. During my active time we have played “The Dark Eye” and “Shadowrun”.

My second group is rather new. It was initiated by our game master, who advertised at our local uni market (a website for students) that he would be looking for guys and gals interested in playing Dungeons&Dragons with him. A friend and fellow student of mine read the ad, informed me – and we were aboard. There we go – 8 people playing “Dungeon&Dragons” (3rd edition).

As you can see, there are multiple ways to get to other dedicated people following this best-of-all-hobby. Maybe you have friends already playing. Ask them if you could join. Or you ask at a local roleplay shop – I hope your town has more than Munich, quite a desert lacking any locations. Look around the internet, maybe you find some ads – or create one on your own. Actually, I have been very surprised that so many people were looking for roleplaying in Basel, which is quite a small town. But there we are!

However, in best case you should have at least one person with some fundamental knowledge about roleplaying. It makes things a lot easier. He/she can start being the first game master (before you rotate the job) and explain what you all should know: the basic game rules, the current environment and situation, the story. The game master will lead you, so you all will have enough time and fun to learn the whole business by doing. If you do not have any experienced game master, don’t worry! Maybe there are some videos on the web you can watch, just to see how things shall happen. And carefully read your player books, which do not only contain the background information for the universe you’ll be playing in. They also contain the basic rules and often some starting adventures for the very first gaming experience.


What do you need? Page, where is my sword?

Actually, you don’t need that much. First of all, you and your group will have to decide which roleplay game you want to use. There are rather simple ones (I myself love Dungeons&Dragons or The Dark Eye, which grant huge and detailed worlds without being too complicated), but also pretty complex ones (e.g. Shadowrun, which is definitely hard to master). At least the game master does need a lot of background information, so he or she should have the player’s guide. There is no need to learn every single page by heart – some of those books can become pretty extensive. Consider them as useful tools to look things up whenever you encounter them during your fantastic adventure. Also keep in mind that there are often many more books to buy, additional information about certain aspects of the world, including new spells, new items, new enemies. That’s certainly a thing “nice to have”, but not necessary. Go for it if you want to dig deeper into the world, but the basics are absolutely enough.

Second thing you need: your materials. Including your dice, a pen and some paper. Now, which kind of dice you need, and how many of them, that really depends on the roleplay system you are using. Shadowrun, for example, uses a lot of “D6”, that is short for a dice with 6 sides. I myself bought 64 of them, but that was clearly an overkill. 😉 Other games quite often use “D20” and/or “D8”. Just browse your manual. If you see things like “use 4D20”, then you know that you would need at least four D20s. It is better to have enough dice, but you can roll one of them multiple times as well.

Please be aware: many roleplayers tend to be superstitious. They won’t let you use their dice. Buy your own!

The paper will be good for multiple things. First, you need some space to create your character on. However, many systems provide empty templates for their players you could print. Do that! It’ll make things so much easier, especially in the beginning. Later on you can try to design your own character sheets – if you get as crazy about roleplaying as I do. 😉 Second, you will need your paper to write down some information on the gameplay. Write down whom you have met. Or what somebody told you about the story. Maybe some hints towards a hidden treasure? Write down if you took some precious gems or a magic wand. Maybe write down important milestones of the story. You will not be able to meet your group every week – and you will forget a lot about what had happened. Taking some notes is a life saver.

Third, you might need some figures. That really depends on the roleplay system and the game master. For our Black Eye and Shadowrun stories, for example, we did not use any boards. We simply talked about what the environment might look like, that was enough. Or we had some very rudimentary maps so that everybody knew the basic layout of the setting. In our Dungeons&Dragons group, however, we have a (hand-drawn) board, and each one of us is represented by a little figure. Which is important, because we need to know who is where, how far to move each battle round, whom to attack. So many things to take care of! Talk about that in the beginning!

Fourth thing you need: some space. The larger the group, the more difficult it can become to find some room to play at. The best thing is to play at some group member’s home. If anyone can provide the space, go for it – it’ll make things much cozier. But please don’t forget to give your host something good for it! For example, bring the sweets, the drinks, the food, and leave the rests at his/hers. And don’t trash the place! Roleplayers are friendly people, even if they embody chaotic characters! If nobody has a proper place, ask around if there is some other room you could use. Students could ask their university, for example!

By the way – never forget that you are a group! To ensure a pleasant gaming evening, you will need multiple things, like some food, some sweets, some soft drinks, maybe a bottle of wine. Just distribute the expenses and the work over all your group. Believe me – it’ll make your adventure times unforgetable. 😉


So how does roleplaying work? Can you give us some insights?

Well, let’s see. Imagine, there is a group of four heros. One of them is a mighty paladin, a knight of the sungod, mighty warrior with a longsword. A human fighter. And there is this elvish priest, who loves the woods, the forest, the nature, follows the elvish gods – and has quite some prejudices against humans. Oh, there is another elf, a swordmaster and rogue who has long and agile fingers, perfect to pick some locks. And – believe it or not – there is a dwarf. A dwarfen mage. They are super seldom. Some people even say, dwarfs don’t do magic at all – but he is a dwarf, he can pollute the air out of nowhere!

Those four guys meet at some tavern in the middle of the town. Each character is played by one person around the table. The fifth one is the game master. She is telling the story. Following her story book, she develops a little bit further: suddenly, the church bell starts ringing, and somewhere outside people are screaming. It sounds like there is some grave danger! What will the players do?

It is now up to the players to decide. The dwarf keeps cool – danger is no problem for a mage, so he orders some new beer. The paladin though remembers himself about his codex, so he jumps up and runs outside, drawing his sword. “WHERE ARE THE ENEMIES OF THE SUNGOD!”, the player yells. Because, it is much funnier if you really embody your character and say what the character would say.

The elvish rogue has a quick look outside the door. Suddenly, the game master decides: do a detection trial. The rogue player reads her character sheet. Somewhere on that, there is a detection skill, showing a skill level of 4. She grabs her D20, as the rules require, and throws it. She gets a 12. So her final result is 12 plus 4, a pretty good 16. The game master looks into her notes. There was some threshold given: 13. Everything above 13 will succeed. Lucky players! Thanks to the dice gods the rogue realises that the whole ground is shivering, trembling. He asks everybody to come back inside – just in time! Out of nowhere a huge worm-like creature breaks through the ground, eating some townfolks on its way. If the paladin would have moved on, he would now be worm food!

The battle starts, and even the dwarfen mage is now awake and has drawn his battle axe. All the players start by rolling their initiative values – and for some reasons, maybe for the beer, the dwarf has the highest values. He is about to start! Thankfully, he has prepared a mighty spell. While the player is murmuring some strange words like the dwarf would do, he is rolling the dice. Unfortunately, the player has no luck – a result of 2 won’t work! The spell fizzles, and the dwarf is annoyed.

Next is the paladin. He storms towards the worm and swings his sword. His player rolls the dice – an 18! Pretty good! The worm has an evasion value of 4, not very much – well, obviously it is too big to miss. However, just hitting it is not enough. Next, the paladin’s player has to roll the damage. She takes two D8 and rolls them – 11. The worm’s hard skin is able to absorb 6 damage points, so the worm will take 5 damage. A first and important hit! Unfortunately, none of the players knows about the worm’s full health points – except for the game master.

Now, it is the worm’s turn. The game master will cover its actions. She claims to attack the paladin, who is clearly the closest person – and rolls the dice. A 10! That was close, the paladin has an armor value of 8. So he gets hit. The next roll will determine the damage, and the worm is powerful – 5D8 will determine its damage! Ouch. And it hurts. 22 is the number, and the paladin’s armor can only absorb 10 of them. 12 damage points – and the paladin is going dark. Damn. This enemy seems to be way too strong for our heroes. Will this be the end for them?

Some more rounds happen, and our heroes try there very best. One of the elves tries to rescue the human paladin, while the others defend the tavern. Some townfolks join in the fight, all embodied by the game master. Suddenly – and by the story book – something happens. A silver lighting appears at the Western horizon, and a single man in white robes runs towards the town. In his one hand, there is a long staff, just like wizards have them. Is that a mighty blue lighting shooting towards the gigantic worm? …

Some rounds later, the enemy is slain and the whole town is delighted. Celebrate our heroes, celebrate our saviours! They bring food and drinks and money to spend it all on our brave warriors, who at the same time try to heal themselves. They know: this worm is not a natural happening. Just some miles to the north, there is a gigantic black castle, reigned by a powerful wizard. It seems like he has to be the evil guy who tried to extinguish these people’s lives. He has to be brought to justice. And our group is getting ready for the next adventure – a path towards an old castle full of traps and horrific monsters…

This is how an adventure could be like. Some adventures are short, others take forever. Basic rules: don’t die, be creative, stay in character. After your survived adventure, you will receive some experience or karma points you can spend on new skills, new attributes, to become even more powerful. Maybe you found some treasures – go ahead, sell them at the next town, buy some new armor, some magic sword, some new spells! And please, never forget: preparation is the most important part of any adventure. Never stumble into a dragon fight without proper preparation!


Shall I try it?

Gosh, stop asking, start playing! I am serious. There are so many people out there loving video games. Have you ever played the cult game “Baldur’s Gate”? It is based on the rules of Dungeons&Dragons! Drakensang was created on top of (simplified) rules for The Black Eye. There are even some Shadowrun Games out there. Did you like them? Now think of a game where you do not just have the chance to play with other friends, but can create the story just as you want! These games are not linear! You can go wherever you want, you can talk to whoever you want, you can die, you can live, it is all about you. Well – and the game master’s mood. Roleplaying is the ultimate version of gaming. I love video games – but this is better. Go for it. And please let me know if you became a fan! 😉

Last, but very important note: always keep your game master happy. Feed him, give her drinks. Make sure she is cozy and happy. Otherwise, your characters will fall like goblins. And never forget: stay in character!

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