What’s the deal with tabletop roleplaying games?

What are tabletop roleplaying games?

What is a roleplaying game really? Everyone has their own ideas and frames of reference when it comes to roleplaying games and what that term means to them. There are tabletop roleplaying games, live-action roleplaying games, massively multiplayer online roleplaying games; all of these are roleplaying games but they are also very different types of roleplaying games. Here, I will go through the basics of what tabletop roleplaying is, what misconceptions there are, and what to expect or not to expect from a session. I am also going to briefly talk about the history of tabletop roleplaying to give some context to what led up to where we are today.

In general terms, a tabletop roleplaying game is a game in which the players assume the roles of characters within a fictional setting. The players act out these characters’ roles within a narrative, and there is typically a formal system of rules and guidelines that dictate the outcome of these character actions. The exact nature of these guidelines is determined by the type of roleplaying game it is. 

A tabletop roleplaying game is a form of interactive and collaborative storytelling conducted in a small social gathering, usually by a small group of friends around a table, and often with snacks and drinks as well as the accessories you need for the game you are playing. These games tend to follow a pre-determined ruleset that varies from game to game. Traditionally, one participant takes the role of Game Master (or GM), though different games can use different terms to describe this role. The GM presents fictional scenes for the remaining participants who determine how the characters they portray interact with this scene. Each player controls a single character – the protagonists of the story – while the GM controls every other character that inhabits the scene. Traditionally, the GM’s characters are called Non-Player Characters, or NPCs, but some modern games have moved away from this term because, in essence, the GM is also a player of sorts. The Fifth Edition of Vampire the Masquerade uses the phrase SPC, from Storyteller-Played Character, with Storyteller being their definition of a GM. The players’ characters have traits derived from how the game’s narrative interacts with its ruleset. It is the sophisticated rules that make these games stand apart from improvisational theater or children’s games of make-believe. These rules determine consistency and structure in the experience, as well as uncertainty in the outcome.

In a traditional tabletop roleplaying game, levels of uncertainty are added and tested both to help guide the narrative, but also to add a chance of risk and reward. Whereas a children’s game of make-believe can create arguments between the participants – perhaps one child claims to have won something over another, and the other child refuses to admit it – tabletop games often use dice to give meaning to contests as well as to generate random outcomes when necessary. There are diceless games as well, and these may work differently from game to game. Some rely on player agreement, but like children’s games of more competitive make-believe, disputes may arise without a clear guideline on how to resolve outcomes. There are games that incorporate mini games or other games as a tool for resolution instead of dice; one example is Dread which uses a Jenga tower in order to resolve outcomes. The more fragile the tower becomes, the more fragile your psyche is, represented by the character’s dread. Should it fall, your psyche crumbles, and you are dead.

The history of tabletop roleplaying games

The first commercially available tabletop roleplaying game was Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), first created by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax back in 1974. This was an effort to combine inspirational fantasy literature with the popular wargaming hobby. It was not as much made to be a roleplaying game as it was a complicated combat simulation game. People took this game and turned it into a roleplaying game. D&D was first published under Gary Gygax’s company TSR and, since it was a niche product, it wasn’t expected to sell too many copies. However, this game gave rise to the tabletop roleplaying game industry, and it is still the most popular tabletop roleplaying game even to this day, several decades and editions later. The same year as D&D came out, a less talked about roleplaying game called Empire of the Petal Throne came out. While this would not rise to the same level of fame as D&D did, it helped to inspire the direction of roleplaying games going forward as well, since it inspired Gary Gygax enough to purchase the rights to it and publish it under his own company the following year. What this game had that D&D would incorporate later was rules for critical successes – that extra meaning you give to rolling 20 on a die; the vital strike that deals more damage.  

Countless games would come out after D&D, most of them forgotten, but some standing out from the rest. Call of Cthulhu came out in 1981 and Paranoia in 1984, Cyberpunk in 1988 and Vampire the Masquerade in 1991. These games explored new genres and moved away from the wargaming roots towards a more narrative approach. Vampire the Masquerade, for example, emphasized storytelling more than combat simulations, and this widening of the tabletop roleplaying hobby helped it reach a broader audience as well. There were games for everyone.  

The 1980s was an interesting decade for tabletop roleplaying games. This was during the so called “Satanic Panic” where D&D was accused of causing negative spiritual and psychological effects on children. Though preachers scared parents into taking their children’s games away, academic research since have proven that there are no such negative effects to D&D or other tabletop roleplaying games. In fact, there is a lot of research indicating that roleplaying games can have an incredibly positive effect.

The tabletop roleplaying game hobby did decline in the 2000s, most likely because of competition from video games and collectible card games. This led more publishers to move online and to fewer books in stores. While it is still a fairly niche hobby even to this day, I think the 2010s and now going into the 2020s have been a period where the hobby has been moving mainstream. Much to this, I think, is thanks to Critical Role‘s success and the popularity in general for live action plays online. D&D is bigger today than it has ever been, and people getting into D&D leads to more people exploring other games than D&D as well, such as Cyberpunk, or my own favorite game Exalted.

Playing a tabletop roleplaying game

Tabletop roleplaying games are played like radio dramas, but the level of actual acting and immersion will vary from table to table and player to player. Many newcomers to the hobby have been introduced to it through live play shows such as Critical Role, but these shows are often focusing more on entertaining an audience than on portraying the game as it is played by the average group. There are groups who play or attempt to play like they do on the shows, but it is not the norm, and it is wrong to expect that to be the norm. When the shows are performed by professional actors, this further skews people’s impressions of what is expected of them as players.

My personal preferences are that I prefer when people speak in character, but I don’t generally like when people do “voices.” When I roleplay, I want to focus primarily on the theater of the mind (what you and your players visualize as the story unfolds) but this is different from actual theater. While I love watching shows like Critical Role or LA by Night, I don’t want to play like that myself, and I don’t want a newcomer to the hobby to assume that is the way the games are played.

There has been a lot of discussions about gatekeeping within the gaming community in recent years, and I want to highlight these, let us call them Critical Role Expectations, as a new type of gatekeeping. Tabletop roleplaying should be open and inviting to everyone, even those who are not comfortable with those levels of performance and immersion. I think that everyone can find something enjoyable in roleplaying, but what these things are vary from people to people. As for how I play the game, well, I can only share my own experience. If I am the GM for a game, I try to prepare a few scenes based on some story goals I want to reach in the session. If my players have already prepared their characters, I add in some details about things I expect from certain characters or things I want certain characters to have a chance to experience. This could be a few puzzles aimed towards a certain character’s skill set or perhaps a scene where an NPC with a connection to one of the player characters may partake. While I try to add as much as I can to cover as many possibilities as I can, my ultimate goal is to let the players guide the action with a few nudges by me here and there to try to keep things from derailing too much from certain pre-established story goals. I tend to have a few pages of notes as prepared material, but I often find myself looking at them only a handful of times in a session. Some Game Masters can easily improvise entire sessions without effort while others need a plan for every scene. I consider myself to be somewhere in the middle. I can improvise scenes well, but I am not good at improvising key story goals.

The GM’s role is much more complicated than the player’s role, and it is a much more daunting task to pick up this role. But if you are playing with friends who are actually respectful of each other’s experience, you will find that the players will often help you along when you stumble. One of my main tips for Game Masters is to not be afraid of failure. By realizing in the moment that you do not have a contingency in mind, you are forced to improvise, and even if you nervously stumble through a scene, players usually do not actually notice this even if you yourself feel like it is obvious that you do not know what you are doing. It is often in scenes like this when the most memorable moments are; those moments that surprise everyone at the table.

After I have prepared my notes for the session, I invite the players. We usually play on weekends when everyone is having off time, and we often meet up for lunch before the game, before heading to my place or to someone else’s. We start up the game slow, more jovial and social with a lot of casual chatter. We make coffee, hand out some snacks, and ease ourselves from social mode into game mode. Here is where different groups tend to have some different expectations, and it is good to communicate with each other what your own expectations should be. I see roleplaying night as being the same as social night, and I want everyone to have the freedom to speak when they want, take breaks when they want, use their phones when they want, refill their drinks when they want, and even drink what they want. If someone is not disrupting the game, I don’t mind if people drink alcohol or briefly want to mention something fun that happened to them the other day. A game session does not have to be formal. It must be fun. And sometimes just being social with friends is what is fun. However, when I feel that someone is interrupting an active and engaging scene, or when I feel that someone is getting annoyed by being interrupted as they are playing the game, then I will speak up and ask everyone to focus. I do not want the social chatter to take up more time than the game itself. I think a respectful player should read the atmosphere in the moment and then decide if them interrupting the game for an anecdote is appropriate in that moment. Sometimes this is easier said than done, though, and the interruptions are rarely mean-spirited.

I have some triggers at the table, though, and that is when too much time is spent arguing over rules. If there is something that cannot be resolved by taking a minute to confirm it in a book, then the GM makes a ruling, and the debate about whether it was a good or bad ruling can wait until after the session. There is a difference between interrupting a scene to make a joke that makes everyone laugh and interrupting another player who is currently immersed in the game. If you wait for the right moments, the social jabs here and there will make the evening more casual and fun. Some Game Masters run their games like a prison, with strict rules on how to behave, when to take breaks, when to speak up, and how to speak up. If that is what you like, go for it, but that is not fun for me. I think there are moments when that is necessary, but too much in either direction takes away from the fun. I think the best games have found a happy medium.

When the game is under way, what I expect from my players is nothing really too demanding than engagement and interest. They do not even need to know the rules very well. You can easily tell when a player is bored because they will start looking at their phone. I do not tell my players how to play their characters, to always speak in character, or how to resolve certain situations. I may have opinions about that, and I may prefer certain ways of doing things, but every player should get to decide for themselves how to play the game. They may ask for advice and I will give it to them. It is only when a player is disruptive in some way that I step in. What constitutes as being disruptive is something only you and your group can decide.

But how much roleplay is expected and how much is required? Some players will never be comfortable taking the role of the character, but they still enjoy the game just as much as someone who never leaves character. The difference is that a player who do not want to “play the role” can still guide their character’s actions through the game. Instead of speaking the line “Could you show me the way to the inn?” they’re guiding their character’s action by stating that “I ask someone where the inn is.” They still did the same thing and drew the same conclusions, but they could keep themselves separated from the character. Most players will do a mixture of both. Sometimes they speak in character and sometimes they suggest what their character speaks about without saying the words. Never enforce one way or the other. Always do what you are personally comfortable with. Often, players may want to get comfortable speaking in character, but they are not used to the social environment yet. If that is the case, I have found that it is helpful to get them to open up and immerse themselves more by using NPCs to help them practice. If you have an introverted player sitting quietly amidst extroverts, a good GM should take note of this and initiate some roleplay with them so that they do not feel the pressure to initiate it themselves. I started roleplaying when I was only eight years old, but there was a time during my high school years when I did not roleplay at all, and this made roleplaying as an adult feel super cringey at first. But that was mainly because I had not gotten a feel for the social environment yet and what attitudes the other players at the table had. If people remain engaged and respectful, I find that things relax fairly quickly. And if they do not, like I said, do not force it. People are different.  

The length of a session varies. When I was younger and had more free time, we often played throughout the night. I think the longest session I have had without rest was 26 hours. This was when we played the Daughter of Nexus story for Exalted 2nd Edition. I have also had a few sessions where we have played most of the day, slept for the night, and then continued playing in the morning. Nowadays, my sessions tend to be around six hours on a weekend, which is still a pretty long session, but we sometimes have breaks in between and we do not get together as often as we would like, so we try to make the most out of the time we do.  I do not think a new player should come in expecting sessions that last for that long, though. You will get a feel for what works for your group. I think that between three and five hours is an ideal length for most sessions. Time flies fast when you roleplay, and a session shorter than three hours will feel like it just went by. There is a special feeling to having those eight plus hour sessions, though, but they are not necessarily healthy, even though they can be a lot of fun. One session does not have to mean a finished game, either. Many groups play campaigns that sometimes last for years, with every session just being a brief progression within a never-ending story arc. My Dawn of the Chosen campaign for Exalted 3rd Edition took place from 2015 to 2021, the player characters got to visit almost every part of Creation, and it involved more than ten different players (though never more than five at the time) with different characters.

If you are interested in roleplaying and want to get into the hobby, whatever you do, do not feel intimidated. Start as a player if you can, since then you will have a GM who can show you the ropes, and do not hesitate to ask your GM questions when you are unsure what to do. As a player in a roleplaying game, you have the agency over your character’s actions. Some things are good to know about portraying characters in game, such as matters of consent, meta-gaming, and more, but for now, just try to take that first step into getting a chance at an actual game and remember that roleplaying is a social experience where everyone should have fun together.

Art by Firn / Adobe Stock

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