Thursday, 13 November 2014

[Tabletop Musings] The RPG Wall

Back when I was in middle school I began to hear about Dungeons and dragons. Being the type of kid who likes board games and medieval fantasy, this seemed right up my alley. I looked at it and saw a board game in which characters persisted match to match.  To 12 year old me, this sounded awesome! I began to look into what was needed to play. It was tough because back then most of the TRPG products on sale at my local game store had the DnD name slapped on them, making it hard to figure out exactly what I needed. Eventually I was pointed towards the D&D red box. With the box being too expensive for my ten year old allowance, I wouldn’t get the game until my birthday.

There I was, a fresh faced 13 year old, trying to make heads or tails of Dungeons and Dragons. I was able to decipher the rules mechanically, but any time I tried to play the sessions just fell apart. There were a lot of aspects about the game that we had just never seen before. Things like Game Masters, and role-playing were completely foreign to us and after a few more attempts I gave up, letting the game gather dust in my closet.

It wasn’t until the following year that I tried an RPG again. Another student at my school tried to get a group together to play a tabletop RPG after class. Most of the kids who attended only knew about D&D through its depictions in media. The GM however, didn’t have a rules system, miniatures or a map. He ran a strictly theatre of the mind game in with a strong focus on role-play. The players were given total freedom, and whenever there was a conflict he rolled a d20 and told us if we passed or failed. This game only lasted a few sessions, as we the players weren’t exactly sure what the goal of the game was. Also with the lack of rules and total freedom, character actions began to border on the ridiculous.

By this point I had two very different experiences with tabletop RPGs, neither of them very successful. I went on for a number of years without giving the medium another chance, choosing instead to stick to my video and board games. In high school however, my interest in tabletop RPGs began to rise and I was looking to give them another shot. I downloaded the PDFs for the core D&D books and began to read through them, doing my very best to get a good understanding of how to play. After a week or so of studying the rules in my spare time, I still wasn’t sure how to run a game. So I began to ask around, to see if anyone at my school knew how to be a Game Master. Although my search for a GM was unfruitful, I did find a lot of people who had always wanted to try D&D but have never known how. Not confident enough in my own GMing ability I wasn’t willing start a group at the school. Instead I looked online, and it wasn’t too long till I found a local gaming group who played on Friday nights. I contacted them, and they were gracious enough to let me join. The group was made up of guys in their thirties who had been play tabletop RPGs since they were in high school. These guys were veterans of the medium, and even though there was a lot I didn’t know they were willing to teach me. I played with this group for many years, learning a lot of the subtle and unspoken rules of tabletop RPGs, as well as trying my hand at a large assortment of games and characters.

Now you may be asking yourself, why am I sharing this story? Well it’s to prove a point.  Tabletop RPGs are a very unapproachable as a medium. Here I was, a kid who was willing and eager to get into this hobby, but with so few resources to help me. There are a large amount of rules and nuances that are just not addressed within the majority of rulebooks. All these little techniques build up to a large wall of misunderstanding for a beginning player. This junction becomes even more apparent when we see that the majority of players were taught how to play tabletop RPGs by someone who has been playing them for many years. There is a lot added to tabletop RPGs, things beyond the basic rules that people within this hobby have developed and practiced over the past 40 years. Unless you are able to experience it first hand, or talk to someone who has, it is impossibly hard to play a tabletop RPG.

But this topic isn't all doom and gloom, with the widespread nature of YouTube, podcasts, forums and blogs there is a great well of resources available for players to see these techniques in action. The fact that I can go and watch someone play an RPG online allows me to see these techniques used in real time, providing a great educational tool for new players. But play sessions aren’t the only resource that has become available. These nuances have begun to be looked at in an academic light, allowing for a better understanding of the intuitive nature of RPGs.  Rickard on the story games forums has actually done a great job of highlighting these implicit practices as well as explaining them in depth. I strongly recommend that anyone who is looking to design games gives that thread a read. It is chalk full of great information and is updated often. I do also feel that some responsibility needs to fall onto the designers as well. We already have a brief section on how to play a role-playing game in pretty much any book, but this section merely skims the surface.  I believe that its something that should be expanded to the extent that a player, who has never played or seen an RPG before knows how to play the game. No other game medium does this, you don’t see board games that skim over the rules and expect the players to fill in the blanks, why should RPGs be any different.

The interest is there, people of all ages are exposed to the idea of tabletop RPGs through the media they consume. There interest is peaked, they want to play, we just need to let them. If we make this medium as approachable as video or board games, we could reach an audience greater than this industry could have ever imagined.

Thanks for ready,


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