Frequently Asked Questions About Tabletop Roleplaying

KazakhCon 3 participants enjoy a game of Dungeons & Dragons.
Tabletop roleplaying games are played around the world. This photo is from KazakhCon 3 in Kazakhstan (follow @KazakhCon for more info). Used by permission.

The Basics

What’s the best way to get started with tabletop RPGs?

The best way to start is to find someone who already plays, and have them invite you to a game session. But that’s not the only way. There are games specifically designed for beginners.

Where do I find players?

Your friends, even if they don’t already play, may be ready to try tabletop roleplaying. Fellow students, coworkers, neighbors – you’ll be surprised by who may already be playing, or would be interested in giving it a shot. The Your First Game page has additional suggestions for finding players.

Are these games difficult to learn?

Like books, movies, and video games, some tabletop RPGs are straightforward and easy to understand, while others require a bit more effort to absorb. You can start with a game tailored to beginners and move into one with more intricate rules, or you can jump right into one with a steeper learning curve – it’s up to you.

How long is a typical game session?

It depends on the game system and the player group, but sessions tend to last from two to four hours. That said, more than a few sessions have been played on lunch breaks, and it’s possible to spend an entire evening playing. You can tailor the length of game sessions to suit your needs.

Do I have to buy a bunch of books to play?

The core rules for most games fit into a short PDF, a thin paperback, a boxed set, or a larger hardbound book. Many games also incorporate expansions that add additional rules, new character types, adventures, and setting material, but they are not required.

How much do the game books cost?

There are several high-quality games available as free PDFs, a wide variety of games that cost under $10 in PDF form, and printed game books and boxed sets from $20 and up.

What are all the weird dice for?

Dice are used in tabletop RPGs to generate a range of outcomes. When players declare that their characters are going to attempt something difficult, like casting a fireball spell or deciphering an encrypted code, a roll of the dice determines if the attempt succeeds. Depending on the game system, multiple “normal” six-sided dice (d6) might be used, or a single d20, or percentile dice (two d10s). A character’s capabilities determine the numbers they need to roll in order to succeed.

Dice are often also used to determine the effects of success, for example how much damage a rapier thrust delivers, or how many people in a crowd are persuaded by a rousing speech. In such systems a four-sided die (d4) delivers less potent results than a d6 or a d8, and so on. Some games keep it simple, using only six-sided dice for example, but many use d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20. You can discover all sorts of dice on the Accessories page.

Are miniatures required?

Dungeons & Dragons, the first tabletop RPG, started as an offshoot of miniature wargaming, so small lead miniatures were part of the game from the beginning. Players quickly realized, however, that they could also play tabletop RPGs without them, an approach that is sometimes called “theater of the mind.” Some game systems are designed specifically for use with minis, but most can be used with or without them. Visit the Accessories page to learn how to get started with minis.

What’s the best game for a beginner?

If you want to generate a raging argument, ask this question in an online forum. There are as many opinions on this matter as there are games. One reason it’s so difficult to answer the question is that you can only be a beginner once; people tend to favor whatever game they played first. Also, the range of game mechanics is far broader than it was in the early days, and it’s impossible to try them all, and therefore impossible to assess which are best for beginners. Add to that the fact that just as with card games or board games, the one your friend finds easiest to learn may not be the easiest for you to learn. We’re all different. While you can start with pretty much any game, several are explicitly designed for beginners. One of these, for example, would be a good place to start.

Why do so many people refer to the hobby as “D&D” when there are so many other games?

Dungeons & Dragons is the original tabletop roleplaying game, and it’s still the most popular. To the broader public, it’s also usually the only tabletop RPG anyone knows by name. So the mass media and most non-gamers refer to all forms of tabletop roleplaying as D&D.

What’s the best tabletop RPG?

Just as there is no best RPG for a newcomer, for similar reasons there is no single best tabletop RPG. It’s like asking ten people to come to agreement on what movie is the best of all time. Do you like superhero movies? Character-driven dramas? Mind-bending science fiction? There’s as much variety in tabletop RPGs as in movies – arguably more. So your preferences will dictate which games you like best. This site provides info on dozens of games and links to free quickstart rules so you can get an idea of what you might prefer.

What’s an “OSR” game?

“OSR” is an acronym for “Old School Renaissance” or “Old School Revival,” depending on who you ask. The meaning is difficult to pin down, but broadly speaking, it’s about keeping the spirt of the early days of tabletop roleplaying alive. To some that means a particular play style, while to others it is about using variations of early game mechanics, or about a rebirth of the indie spirit that motivated the hobby in its earliest days. Beyond the Wall, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and Swords & Wizardry are games that embody an OSR ethos.

What are “retro clone” games?

In the 1990s the company that published D&D created the OGL (Open Game License), which allowed other publishers to use the core D&D mechanics to create their own games, supplements, and adventures. Many small publishers embraced the OGL and created games that bore none of the trademarked elements of D&D, but used the same mechanics. In this way they were able to essentially recreate older versions of D&D that had gone out of print. Retro clones have also been based on games other than D&D.

What are “story games”?

Some tabletop RPGs emphasize the building of narrative flow, often by using mechanics that give players more control over elements traditionally reserved for the game master. They often (but not always) have less complex rules than more traditional games. Lady Blackbird and Shooting the Moon are good examples of highly narrative-focused games. Many indie games embrace a story game approach.


Deeper Questions

If you are looking for answers to detailed questions about a specific game, game mastering techniques, and so on, head over to the Role-Playing Games Stack Exchange. There is no better source of well-curated gaming knowledge anywhere.