What’s a tabletop roleplaying game (RPG)?

Category : How We Roleplay
Date : October 3, 2016

Roleplaying is a uniquely intimate and powerful way to play. It lets us make stories that are personal yet universal. It’s a way to sit together with friends and explore strange worlds and epic histories that never were.

What is a tabletop roleplaying game?

Maybe you’ve heard of the more famous roleplaying games (RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons or Call of Cthulhu or Vampire: The Masquerade. Or perhaps you’ve played computer games inspired by the original RPGs. Or you’re completely new to this – skip down to How does tabletop roleplaying work?


I know about computer RPGs. How are they different from tabletop RPGs?

Computer roleplaying games (CRPGs) like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy let you explore fantastic worlds and improve a character’s skills and abilities as you progress. Traditional or tabletop RPGs are similar to their CRPG counterparts, except that these games truly come alive through the conversations and interactions between the players. While computer games present players with a limited degree of interaction and input, tabletop RPGs are more participatory. Anything you say, anything you imagine, anything you describe to the other players can go into the story of a tabletop roleplaying session.


How does tabletop roleplaying work?

Tabletop roleplaying games are like improvisational radio theatre.*

Theatre, because you play characters in a story. You will usually build up the same character over a series of stories, making them deeper and more interesting with each game session. And you and your fellow players are also the audience.

Radio theatre, because you and your friends explore the story as a conversation, seated at a table or around a room (or even an online group call or chatroom). You don’t have to walk around and act things out physically, just describe what your character is doing, or feeling, or saying.

Improvisational radio theatre, because there is no set script. The ending is not written yet; it’s for you to create. Each game will have an overall premise: heroes of swords and sorcery exploring dungeons and overcoming dragons; or spacefaring rogues and rebels struggling to defeat a cruel empire in a galaxy far, far away. But each game session is uniquely different because it is improvised, even if two sessions use the same story outline. As a player you will react to events in the game with your own choices, contributing to the shape of the story that the gaming group creates together.


There are many different ways to play.


What makes each RPG different from the others?

Each RPG has different kinds of rules and story elements that can lead to very distinct experiences. RPG rules help to guide your game experience by suggesting interesting choices and twists to keep the story fresh and exciting.

Most of these games, like Dungeons & Dragons, have a game master (or storyteller, narrator, dungeon master, facilitator…) who sets the scenes and describes the overall game events to the other players by incorporating their input and interpreting the rules. Some games are more collaborative, like Fiasco, with all players sharing the task of describing the events in each scene of the story.

Often, games will provide complex rules covering certain kinds of activities by the characters (social interactions, combat, travel, equipment management) to add a feeling of authenticity or increase the level of detail. To help keep track, most games will have some form of record-keeping on a form called a character sheet or playbook.

Many RPGs have a very detailed set of combat rules, like a game within a game. Other RPGs might have few or no combat rules at all. Some games have rules that place a lot of emphasis on your character’s feelings or dramatic relationships. The majority of tabletop RPGs use dice or other random methods to represent risk and uncertainty in different activities, but you can also find some RPGs that are diceless!


Dungeon World, by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel.


How do I start playing?

You can get a set of RPG rules online right now, for free! Dungeon World SRD teaches you and your friends to play the complete Dungeon World game. All you need is some pencils, paper (to keep track), and six-sided dice.

Dungeons & Dragons, the most well-known roleplaying game of all, is also available in a free Basic Rules version which you can download, read and play. There’s a tremendous amount of advice about playing D&D located online, some of which is actually quite useful. And because D&D is a ubiquitous game, it’s easier to find other D&D players.

But there’s a lot more out there than just dungeon-crawling fantasy roleplaying. Unpossible Journeys does a great job of explaining RPGs to new roleplayers and lists even more games and resources to help find other roleplayers in your area.

And if you live in Malaysia, you’ll be happy to learn that we have a thriving RPG community. Get in touch with your fellow roleplayers on Facebook today!

* From John Tynes in Unknown Armies (1998), who in turn credited Greg Stafford with the analogy.


~ Kai