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

Some Patreon Updates

Manuscripts and the Transhuman Tier

I’m going to make a small change to the Transhuman Tier. So far, the only thing I’ve offered that’s exclusive to that tier are the video manuscripts. I want to make those manuscripts available to everyone, because some people prefer reading to watching a video. I don’t feel good about keeping them behind a paywall and originally did so to have something exclusive to offer at a higher tier. The manuscripts will be available to everyone from now on.

Instead, I’m going to offer an exclusive item of some sorts to that tier every month (at least try to). This could be a resource of some sorts or a preview of some content I’m working on. The first thing I’m going to post this month is a preview of an Exalted project I’m working on for the Storyteller’s Vault called Cursed But Not Bound. If anyone recalls my old necromancy homebrew from years ago, this is a derivation of that project. It’s basically rules for playable ghosts and playable deathlords with hundreds of arcanoi (and plenty of Eclipse-keyworded ones). Some of the Transhuman Tier content will be made available to others later on. Some will not. 

Patreon PDF

I also plan to make a Patreon-exclusive PDF at some point that’s a collection of material from my videos revised into a book of sorts that will include chapters on game commentary, RPG discussions, and more. The idea is to keep updating this PDF as time passes and use it as a resource filled with my combined RPG musings. The plan for now is to make this PDF available for all tiers, but more information will come down the line.

Machineborn

Machineborn is getting close to its complete draft, but work will continue to fine-tune the game and to improve the text. I’ll post a new version of the PDF soon with more setting material. As you all know, the corebook has been written and layouted at the same time. This is not the ideal way of making a book but something I did because I enjoy the layout process. I will continue to post previews of any supplement I’m working on after the corebook is done and released, but it’s possible that those previews will be text-only.

Productivity

It was easier to be productive when I was a student. Since I’ve started my professional career, there has been a lack of content. I apologize for that and I’m trying to figure out ways to crank out more content at a good pace without overworking myself. These projects are one of my true passions in life and I love working on them. Even if they slow down at times, I’m not giving up on them, and I plan to keep creating content for years to come. Please let me know what kind of content you like to see.

Website

I’ve been thinking about making a website for a while so that I have somewhere to gather all of my content in one place. I hope you like it and feel free to share it with others who may be interested in the content.

Goals for 2021

Art by Tithi Luadthong (Grandfailure) / Adobe Stock

There are a few things I want to get done in 2021. First of all, I finished my social work studies in the second week of January and worked my last day at my part-time job within rehab-focused social security. I have received a job offer as a mental health counselor on a medical clinic but don’t know yet when I’ll start or how much work there will be. A lot of things are expected to change very quickly in early 2021. My project productivity will be dependent on what I do for a living and how much time that gives me to spare.

Still, here are my goals for 2021:

Youtube Channel: I will continue to post one RPG review each month. The current list of upcoming reviews are Mörk Borg (January), Tales from the Loop (February), Things from the Flood (March), and Coriolis (April). I will no longer post regular RPG news and instead maybe make an occasional news-related video if something important happens. These were my least watched videos and even though they were fun to make, they took a lot to make, and they didn’t live up to the time spent. I’m going to primarily be focusing on system and lore related content outside of the reviews, with the occasional discussion or gm/player tip video sprinkled in. I’m no longer going to continue making my Roleplaying Journal videos either, because …

Podcast: At some point in early 2021, I will launch a podcast which will replace my Roleplaying Journals. These will be radio play-themed depictions of RPG chronicles with music, sound effects, narration, and dialogue. I will also make episodes of dramatic reads of RPG related fiction, such as chapter fiction in RPG books. Some episodes will have character voices read by guests, such as friends, other content creators, and people working on the games. I expect the occasional discussion episode as well and maybe some interviews. I hope to be able to make an episode a month and get this started quite early in the year. 

Machineborn: Machineborn will be released in 2021. The core game experience is already done and I’m making tweaks based on playtesting rather than change entire systems like I’ve done in previous revisions. I’m currently working on the setting chapter where I’ve had most of the content already finished since 2017 but that needs to be heavily revised to match the lore changes. I haven’t started writing on the narration chapter yet but it will include tips on how to run campaigns, how to drop in antagonists, and all that stuff. I’m confident that this is the year where the game is officially released and we’ll get to explore what comes after.

And of course, I have plans for that as well: There are a few tiers to possible Machineborn supplements based on whether or not there are core rules for higher tier play. As you already know, the core book lets you play Human Tier campaigns (Energy 1-5). My goal is to get started on one of these supplements in 2021 and hopefully have you all help decide which one to focus on first. 

Human Tier Supplements:

Machineborn: Academy gives more info about academies, education, and rules on how to play student campaigns.

Machineborn: Arcturus gives more info about Arcturus and Arcturus-specific progenies, professions, backgrounds, and stuff.

Machineborn: Camellia gives more info about the Camellian Dynasty and Camellia-specific progenies, professions, backgrounds, and stuff.

Machineborn: Coalition gives more info about the Coalition and Coalition-specific progenies, professions, backgrounds, and stuff.

Machineborn: Dawnlight gives more info about the Dawnlight Society and Dawnlight-specific progenies, professions, backgrounds, and stuff.

Machineborn: Deva gives more info about Deva, the Voice, and Deva-specific progenies, professions, backgrounds, and stuff.

Machineborn: Directorate gives more info about the Directorate and Directorate-specific progenies, professions, backgrounds, and stuff.

Machineborn: Medical gives more info about damage and healing, medical services, medical consumables, etc.

Machineborn: Metropolis introduces the metropolis in more detail, from everyday life to city districts and infrastructure. There will be information on the play experience for different social classes as well as rules for managing housing, as well as for being part of or leading gangs/organizations. There will be a chapter with tips on how to run city campaigns.

Machineborn: Muscovy gives more info about Muscovy and Muscovy-specific progenies, professions, backgrounds, and stuff.

Machineborn: Peacekeeper introduces more information about the Terran Consolidation and rules for how to play peacekeeper campaigns.

Machineborn: Proxima introduces an alternative setting taking place on the civilization formed around Proxima Centauri with their own unique progenies, cultures, and technologies, as well as tips on how to play games there or how to play cross-games where portals or space fares have opened up between Proxima and Sol. 

Machineborn: Solar Introduces the solar system with a chapter on each solar sector (The Sun and Mercury, Venus, Elysium and Luna, Mars and the Asteroid Belt, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and the Kuiper Belt, the Oort Cloud), new progenies and professions associated with different sectors, rules on spaceship battles as well as using a spaceship as a base of operations, as well as tips on how to run a space campaign.

Machineborn: Subnautical introduces information about deep sea setting stuff, rules for underwater and naval games, aquatic progenies and creatures, and tips on how to run underwater games.

Machineborn: Trenches introduces advanced combat rules, warfare rules, soldier variant professions, more weapons, armor, military equipment, siege weapons, martial arts, combat augmentations, combat drugs.

Machineborn: Uploaded introduces advanced system interaction and hacking rules, digital programs, nite walking rules, more information about the digital space as a setting, including the forgotten layers of the matrix crafted by old machine-gods for old machine-gods and that are filled with forgotten mysteries and alien programs, tips on how to run digital storylines or VR focused campaigns, a system for programming your own software.

Machineborn: Wasteland introduces information about the wastelands, wildlife (flora and fauna), scavenging ruins for old tech, rules on mutants, monsters, how to play as a nomad or mad max style, as well as mechanics for community building.

Machine Tier Supplements:

Machineborn: Overclocked gives rules on machine tier play (Energy 6-10) with additional augmentations and powers to fill that span, as well as improved equipment to fit higher power games, there will be playable progenies that can reach Energy 10 without being machineborn such as the infamous proxies, there will be antagonists that fit machine tier danger levels and tips on how to run campaigns suitable for that power level.

Machineborn: Ascendant gives rules on ascendant history and culture, variant ascendant progenies, more psionics, expanded hive rules, and the overmind alternative machine tier progeny.

Machineborn: Chimera gives rules on chimeran history and culture, variant chimeran progenies, info on emities and recluses, additional bioware, and the apex alternative machine tier progeny

Machineborn: Dis-Order gives information on how to use the ruins of Dis-Order as a setting and the history and culture of the people who were trapped in there when it was sealed off centuries ago, there will be rules on malfunctionaries, rules for corruption, as well as the playable defiler progeny.

Machineborn: Empyrean gives rules on empyrean history and culture, variant empyrean progenies, info on clan as well as clan backgrounds, info on gene hunters, swabbers, rules for mental degradation, as well as the sovereign alternative machine tier progeny.

Machineborn: Riftan gives rules on riftan history and culture, additional details about the elements and additional element options, variant riftan progenies, more rift algorithms, and the sunder alternative machine tier progeny.

Machineborn: Voidstar gives information on the Voidstar, void rifts, entropic powers, rules for playing kirlians, and more.

World Tier Supplements: 

Machineborn: Worldbreaker gives rules on world tier play (Energy 11-15) with additional augmentations and powers to fill that span, as well as improved equipment and all that fun stuff. There will be some kind of playable progeny that can reach this tier without being machineborn too.

Machineborn: Trojan gives rules on chaos zones as a setting, an advanced mutation system, as well as rules for how to play as a trojan. 

Cosmic Tier Supplements:

Machineborn: Cosmic gives rules on cosmic tier play (Energy 16-20) with additional augmentations and all that stuff. This will go heavy in on different machineborn codes.

Machineborn: Coder gives additional world- and cosmic coding rules, such as how to make lasting coding projects, infusing coding into constructions, and so on.

Machineborn: Godware gives additional godware protocols, additional godware options, and more godware types