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So You Want To Play An RPG, eh?: The Most Important Question

April 23, 2013

I’ve been playing tabletop roleplaying games for roughly the past decade, and I’ve been running games for about that same amount of time. Despite the fact that I mostly champion the Hero System and make references to lots of Dungeons and Dragons games in high school, I actually have played in a lot of different systems and have seen a lot of different rulebooks.

 

It might be hard for someone who has little to no interest in table top gaming to imagine but there are a lot of small companies and the like that are out there making games for this community. It’s important to remember though that these aren’t “games,” in the traditional sense of a set of rules with a clear win/lose condition and an adversarial nature. The best way to explain them are sets of rules for adjudicating collective storytelling experiences.

Now despite what the media might portray, or a handful of people who were touched in a bad spot by Game Masters, the term “Game Master,” doesn’t imply complete control or mean that person is the “best player,” or anything like that. Game Masters are just people with the time or creativity to think up worlds and adventures for the other players to have fun in. They also serve as the other characters who populate that world they created. They’re both the peasants being attacked by orcs and the orcs doing the attacking. Some people might take this too far and think their goal is to kill the players, or something like that, but it’s really to provide the tension of a story. They’re the threat that the “main characters,” might die or the obstacle of a love interest being engaged to some petty villainous lord. GM-ing is a lot like writing a novel, except that you’re relinquishing control of the story to about three or four other people.

 

If you’re thinking about running a game because you want to tell your story your way, then please save everyone the trouble and just write a novel. While I’ve seen authors use this phrase derisively, I think it’s an important one for Game Masters to keep in mind, “If you make a detailed world and there’s no story, you didn’t write a novel, you made a roleplaying game.” Guess what? That’s not a bad thing because highly detailed settings are awesome and can help everyone get a feel for what’s going on. Sure, you’ll need an adventure sooner or later, but the players might help start that creative process by making some characters to populate your world for you.

 

Anyway, I’m getting way way ahead of myself in what I wanted to talk about today. I’m here because over the past decade or so of gaming, and introducing people to gaming, I’ve had lots of friends ask me or come to me saying that they want to run a game. In other words, they have their own ideas and they want to GM a game for their friends or whatever. Sometimes, they’re looking for advice, other times they’re looking for help gathering up a group of players. It’s people looking for advice that I want to talk to today.

 

Particularly people who really have no experience with gaming, and whose friends have no experience with gaming.

 

 

 

So, you want to play a tabletop RPG, eh?

 

Before we get into world building theories, GM suggestions, how to deal with problem players, and how to avoid touching a Player’s No-No Zone*, we should talk about the importance of choosing a system. Like I said, there is a lot of material out there to choose from, so much in fact that you might very quickly become paralyzed by choice if you just walk into a gaming store’s RPG section and look around.

 

The old standby of advice is that you should just start with Dungeons and Dragons because it has the largest market share and most people that game started playing D&D when they were in middle school. Sure, some of them haven’t touched D&D for two editions but they’ll still say, “You should play D&D first,” in some sort of knee-jerk reaction. Other people might try to push their favorite system on you, or some D&D variant that they think is better because they really like it.

 

I think there are plenty of reasons not to start with Dungeons and Dragons. Namely that it isn’t really a fantasy game as much as it is a fantasy game the Dungeons and Dragons way, with a lot of assumptions regarding how you want the world to work from the get go. There’s also the fact that like any gaming system, D&D has nuances, some of which can be counter-intuitive or just plain whacky. Granted, the latest editions are a lot more user-friendly but they still come with their share of issues.

 

Now, you might think that if I’m telling you to stay away from D&D because of its genre conventions that the first question that I might ask you is: What do you want to run? But no, while that’s definitely in the top three, it’s not the first question I’m going to ask you.

 

What I ask myself when I start new campaigns is, “Why are we playing this?” or “Why do we play?” Are we looking for a quick escape, are we looking for catharsis, or are we looking for complex narrative? There are tons of answers to this question and they can change from player to player in a game. I’ve run games that were, ‘follow this standard storyline and kill monsters along it,’ and I’ve run games where players spent more time trying to win the heart of an NPC than fighting bad guys. It depends on the group, the genre, and yourself.

 

However, working under the assumption that none of you have ever really gamed before, we need to focus on the other question in the top three. This question is one that might not seem important at first, because of how we think of other kinds of gaming, but is immensely important to tabletop rpgs. That question is: how much time can you all actually devote to this game?

 

See, when you break out a board game, you know it might last a couple of hours or maybe only an hour or two depending on the game. For example, you know that when you sit down to play Risk, you’re going to be there awhile. With a video game you might just play for thirty minutes or an hour, or maybe twelve if you don’t have to work tomorrow or something. With an RPG, you guys are setting the time constraints, and they’re based around your lives.

 

How often can you guys meet? Is it once a week, or once every two weeks? Maybe it’s only once a month, or a few weeks on and a few weeks off. How long can you meet, when you can meet? Is this going to be a lunch-hour dungeon crawl, or can you guys spend five or six hours gaming on a weekend?

 

Time becomes doubly important for a GM. All systems at the beginning are going to take time to build characters in because you’re not used to the system. You’ll also have to learn what characters need builds and what don’t. For example, you might not know your players enough to be able to answer whether they’re just going to assault the King’s Guards as soon as they walk through the doors. So, you might want to sketch out some vague stats for the King’s Guards.

 

Furthermore, there’s a lot of time to devote to learning all the things that players can do in and out of combat. You’re going to have to learn how a skill system works, or how to build powers, and offer suggestions to your players. Plenty of games have options in combat to grapple with other characters, or disarm each other, or sometimes break their arms and armor. Sometimes these rules are simple, sometimes they’re things you’ll have to really study and remember (or build a nifty chart for). As a GM, there’s a lot more about the game that you might need to know than your players. Of course, your players are still going to have to devote some time to learning the rules, which will take them time as well.

 

As you learn the game though, it might become easier and easier to build adventures (and the NPCs that populate them). However, some systems do just take more time to build adventures in. I always found myself poring over books whenever I ran a D&D 3.5 game, searching for the perfect spell or just the right trap. Compare that to D&D 4e where things are already pre-built, and nearly everything (traps, hazards, etc) are actually some variant of monster, and it can get a bit easier. On the other hand, if you really dedicate yourself to a point-buy system (ie GURPS, Hero), you might be able to get to the point where you can build characters on the train ride home from work.

 

Now, I realize I’m throwing a lot of words and references out here that you may or may not be understanding but the important point to get out of this is: How much time you have will inevitably affect the complexity of the game you can run, which can but not always affect what systems you should be choosing from. Also, if you want to GM, you need to have the extra hours in the week to work on adventures.

 

 

Alright, so you have gotten a sense of the time for your group. What system should you choose?!

 

Well, for that, dear readers, I think we’ll have to come back next week.

 

 

 

 

 

*: Players who have been touched in a bad place by shitty GM’s are the ones who most likely believe that all Game Masters are power mad novel writing rejects that want to kill their players. They also may become problem players themselves because of the bad touching in their No-No Zone. **
**: I use phrases like ‘bad touch,’ and ‘No-No Zone,’ because I am a super-mature person.

on.

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