Tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons are more popular now than they have ever been. The rise of actual plays like Critical Role have brought a higher degree of visibility to the hobby than ever in its 40+ year history. Tabletop RPGs are even beginning to see use as a therapeutic tool as demonstrated by organizations like Game To Grow and the Bodhana Group. With geek culture ascending and the worst of the Satanic Panic of the 80s and 90s in the rearview mirror (though far from over), the world can finally see the hobby for what it is: a wonderful creative outlet, source of fellowship, and just plain fun.Most veteran advice to new players consists mostly of “Just show up and have fun!” This isn’t bad advice, but it’s also not the only advice that’s relevant to someone new to the hobby.
Even for those with a session or two under their belt, TTRPGs can be daunting to approach. Veteran roleplayers often have shelves upon shelves of hardcover books, collections of dice and boxes of miniatures. The player roster of Critical Role is made up entirely of professional voice actors who all give unique voices to their characters, and the TTRPG community boasts a small army of dedicated bloggers and podcasters with wildly different opinions about the “right” way to enjoy the hobby. All of this can make it seem more than a little intimidating.
Furthermore, most veteran advice to new players consists mostly of “Just show up and have fun!” This isn’t bad advice, but it’s also not the only advice that’s relevant to someone new to the hobby.
Note: this article assumes that you know what a tabletop RPG is. If you’re completely unfamiliar with them, it’s good to watch or listen to an episode or two of an actual play first. For production value, Critical Role is hard to beat, but sometimes NSFW. If you want something more family-friendly, check out City on a Hill.
Before we get into the advice, a quick aside to address two common misconceptions:
The first, older misconception is that tabletop RPGS and/or D&D specifically are an occult recruiting tool or gateway.
They are not.
The creators of D&D and inventors of the hobby (Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson) were both Christians. Everything that happens in the game is a form of collaborative storytelling, often combined with some tactical gameplay elements. Furthermore, some tabletop RPGs are completely without any magical or supernatural elements. A detailed refutation of this misconception is significantly beyond the scope of this article.One critical thing to keep in mind at all times: the people playing the game are more important than anything in or about the game itself.
The second, newer misconception is that some kind of public, performative aspect such as streaming or recording is an inherent part of the hobby.
It is not.
For decades, people have played tabletop RPGs around their kitchen tables, in their basements, and online with nary a spectator or camera in sight. That is the default. You don’t need to record or stream to participate in the hobby! In fact, it’s probably a better idea not to. Actual plays are a lot of extra work.
Etiquette and Priorities
One critical thing to keep in mind at all times: the people playing the game are more important than anything in or about the game itself. Any other priority structure is a red flag.
It’s good to view the game as a commitment and cancel as infrequently as possible. Having characters come and go at random intervals can make the game feel disjointed, and scheduling conflicts are the number one reason for the cancellation of ongoing games. If you have to miss a session, it’s polite to let everyone (or at least the person running the game or hosting it) know as early as possible so they can plan for you not to be there.
Also, while the game is going on, do your best to give it your full attention, even when it’s not your turn to talk or act. This helps make a better experience for everyone. Games can easily grind to a halt if people don’t know what’s going on or constantly need to be “caught up” on events they missed while their attention was elsewhere. And that isn’t even taking into account that watching stuff happen in real time is often much more fun and exciting than having it explained after the fact.
Game sessions typically run from 2-4 hours once a week, but some groups have longer or shorter sessions or meet more or less frequently. If a group imposes some kind of penalty on your character for player absence, that’s a bad sign.
Generally speaking, groups where most of the members are over the age of 30 will have shorter and/or less frequent sessions because of life demands.
Like most hobbies, tabletop RPGs have their own lexicon. It’s good to learn some basic terms ahead of time, but don’t feel obligated to commit everything to memory. You can find a good basic guide to RPG terminology on Wikipedia and a much more extensive guide at RPG Ready.
Finding a Group
The ideal gaming group is made up of close friends and meets in person, in that order, if at all possible. If you can only meet online, so be it. There are a number of useful utilities that make online play very doable. Later in your gaming career you may feel more comfortable and desire to branch out, but friends are generally more patient with newcomer questions and mutual trust tends to make for higher-quality play.
If gaming with friends isn’t doable, ask around the local hobby game stores. In particular, if you’re interested in playing Dungeon & Dragons or Pathfinder, both have active organized play scenes. (Organized play is just what it sounds like – games facilitated by the companies that publish them in an organized manner. They provide official resources to those running the games at low or no cost and hobby stores generally give them space because it tends to sell merchandise.)
Look for a group that is patient and friendly. The hobby has made some big strides in terms of inclusiveness in recent years, but exceptions do exist, and can be bad. While most gaming groups are warm and welcoming (if a little awkward at times), if you wind up in one that’s making you feel abused or unsafe, get out of there. If they’re merely impatient or difficult, it’s probably worth having a conversation with the GM before giving up. Sometimes there are some growing pains. Stay safe, but don’t get discouraged!
Speaking of safety, it’s also good to become at least passingly familiar with safety techniques. These are tools that help ensure nobody gets genuinely upset by in-game events. They’re generally pretty unobtrusive, but using them is as good of an idea as the seatbelt in your car.
Your First Character
Depending on what game you’re playing, your character might be anything from a fantasy wizard to a starfighter pilot to a 1930s pulp investigator. However, a few basic principles cut across almost all games:
- Create a character that works well in a group. Tabletop RPGs are usually the story of a group of heroes, not just one. In addition, you want a character that will let you participate, even if the character is miserable and scared out of their mind.
- Create a character that fits within the setting. If the game is 1930s pulp detectives in Chicago, don’t demand to play a ninja.
- It’s often good to stick with simpler mechanical concepts (like a fighter or rogue in D&D) but if you’re set on something more complex, go for it and put in the work, including asking for help if needed.
- Don’t copy directly from another work. You can take some elements of other fictional characters, but it’s better for everyone if the characters are all unique to the game.
- It’s okay to put pieces of yourself into a character. Not everyone has a huge dramatic “range,” so if you and your PC have very similar values and mannerisms, that’s fine, especially at first. Along the same lines, don’t worry about doing voices or coming up with snappy dialogue. If you decide you want to try those things, they can always come later.
Your First Session
The first time you meet to actually game will probably be one of two common scenarios.
The first is that you’ll be in on a “session zero.” If the group you’ve joined is starting a new game and has one of these, it’s a good sign! Session zeroes are basically a combination of character creation and onboarding before a new game begins. During a session zero, you’ll typically do character creation together, set some ground rules for what kind of content will be in the game, determine how serious or lighthearted the tone will be, and so on. Though it sounds kind of dry and boring on paper, a session zero is usually an enjoyable and fun experience.
It’s also possible that you’ll be joining an existing game. In that case, usually the person running the game will talk with you and help you make a character that will fit in the world. A lack of willingness to do this is a potential red flag as the person in charge of running the game should want to set you up for success.
The first time you play, it’s acceptable (and even wise) to borrow some dice and ask to borrow another player’s rulebook to look things up if needed. Bring your own character sheet and writing utensils and find out ahead of time if you’re expected to chip in for a shared meal or bring a dish to share (many groups do pot luck on a regular basis).
If you do decide that you enjoy the hobby and want to do it regularly, it’s polite to invest in the player reference book for the game you’re playing and your own set of dice. Congratulations and welcome! It’s a wonderful, fulfilling hobby. May it provide you with many hours of enjoyment.