I remember being only about twelve years old, staring at a column of books in my local comics and other nerdy-stuff shop, completely aghast at the sheer number of things staring back at me. Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, Firefly, D20 modern, and Star Wars... just to name a few. These books held a world of possibilities and potential, and I was so overwhelmed with the thought of having to read so much source material that I didn’t end up trying tabletop gaming until I was nearly twenty. So many years, so much time wasted.
There are so many things I know now that I wish someone had told me back then. That there’s nothing to be intimidated about, and no, you don’t have to read every book in 3.5e in order to play. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. So in this article I’m going to lay out a few simple steps to get your dice rolling and your story started.
Tip #1: Keep it simple.
So you’ve got an awesome concept for a character. They’re going to be epic. A super powered super badass, half-dragon vampire knight with a flying horse and- and- and...
Listen, I get it, we’ve all had this idea. We all want to be a superhero (or villain) right off the bat but trust me when I say that you should start a little smaller. I’m not saying never but I am saying wait. Characters like this are incredibly hard to build and even harder to balance, the last thing you want is to slog through a bunch of rules you barely understand to make an unplayable character. Give it time, get used to your world, build a solid foundation before you go to crazy. In the end, it will be worth it to be able to actually play you’re over the top concept.
This goes for your storytelling as well. I understand all too well the temptation to head down the road of one upping your last session and creating bigger, badder, world ending encounters for your players. When you’re just getting started, take it easy okay? A group of low level players shouldn’t be saving the world, at least not right away.
Tip #2: Don’t be afraid to ask questions
No matter what system you choose, things can very quickly get confusing. Don’t panic. There are so many resources out there to help you. With online forums like Roll20 popping up, we now have the luxury of being able to ask more experienced players if we’re going about things the right way. Every table-top system is a little bit different, and the rules can get confusing and convoluted pretty quickly if you’re not familiar with the particular way a particular system words things. It’s okay to ask for help from other sources, either a friend who’s played for ages (and I do recommend starting with at least one experienced player on hand) or an online resource. But be cautious, online wikis aren’t always as reliable as we’d like. Many groups and players tweak rules to better suit their personal campaigns, this is commonly known as ‘house rules’ and often these addendums are published online. I have nothing against ‘house rules’ and we often use them in my own play group, but when you’re just starting out they’re way more confusing than anything. Which brings me to my next tip.
Tip #3: Trust your books. The books know all.
Every table-top system has a core rulebook. Some only have the one book and some have hundreds and hundreds of titles full of different source material, settings and rules. Whichever one you chose to start with you should be able to create a character and start playing with nothing but the player’s guide or core rulebook.
For example, my group mostly plays in the 3.5 edition of Dungeons and Dragons. This particular setting has thousands of books covering all sorts of different rules, but to sit down and play a basic game the only thing you really need is the Player’s Handbook. After nearly ten years of playing in this system it’s still often the only book that gets used.
Thankfully since we live in the modern age, most of these books are available online in pdf format. Those pdf’s (unlike online wiki’s) are just as good as a physical book and can be held to the same standard. So you can try out a system before committing to purchasing books which can often be $60+. That said, I highly encourage you to go out and purchase at least the core book once you’ve found a system you like. Not only because having a physical book to reference is always handy, but because you should support any game that you’re a fan of.
Tip #4: Everyone gets stuff wrong, don’t beat yourself up over it
You know that part where I said I’ve been playing for nearly ten years? Yeah, I still make mistakes. All the time. So does everyone else in my group. It’s totally normal, tabletop games can be confusing and a lot of rules contradict each other or overrule each other. It’s really no big deal, no one is expected to be perfect. There’s a reason you keep the books on hand during a session, it’s okay to check and reference things during a game. In fact, it’s expected.
We recently found out we’ve been using a very basic, very simple rule wrong the entire time we’ve been playing. I’m pretty sure this is how house rules come into existence. These things happen and it’s nothing to lose your head over. The only thing I’d suggest is if you’re getting into the nitty-gritty and you’ve spent more than five or so minutes debating how a rule should work, vs how it could work, vs how it’s supposed to work, it’s fine to just make a call and carry on with your game. Rules debates can very quickly derail a session to the point where you don’t actually get to play at all. Remember that the rules sets are a framework for building fun, if you’re not having fun and are just arguing about the framework then it’s okay to put aside the debate until after your game is done.
Tip #5: The essentials to a first session
So what do you actually need to get started? I’ve given all this advice and here we are still staring at that column of books going “but… how?” perhaps more confused now than when we started. I promise it’s simpler than it sounds, and you’re almost ready to begin.
First, you’ll need people. At least three willing (or at the very least mildly begrudging) people is the bare minimum you’ll need to start a game. Two players (at least) and one ‘Game Master’ (GM) who’ll be in charge of the story, the bad guys, the enemies etc. For a beginner game I don’t recommend any more than six people: One GM, and up to five players, but if you’ve got a solid group of gaming friends already feel free to pull in as many people as you’d like. Second, you’ll need to pick a system. There are so many to choose from it borders on ridiculous, so I suggest trying to find something you’re familiar with. If you and all your buddy’s are super into cyberpunk there’s a system for that. Maybe you’re more into the medieval fantasy genre, in which case you can’t go wrong with D&D. There are games based on all sorts of familiar source material, from Firefly to Marvel comics, there’s something out there that will suit your style, don’t be afraid to try and find it.
Then let’s get into the physical stuff. Pencils, paper, notebooks, and definitely erasers. Every system has it’s own character sheet (It’ll be somewhere in the core rulebook I mentioned above), and then, of course, you’ll need dice. Some games use a d20 set of dice, some only use d10’s or d6’s, this probably doesn’t make much sense to you yet. Don’t worry, you don’t need to go buy a hundred dice before you play. Online dice rollers exist for a reason and they’re both free and easily accessible. There may even be an online roller built specifically for the system you’ve picked up!
If you want to start playing right away, you’ll need to build your character before sitting down for your first game. This can be a bit daunting to jump into with no experience so a good way to approach it is to have a session with all your players and your GM before your first game where you make your characters together. Trust me when I say making your party will take as long as a normal game session (3-6 hours, give or take).
Am I ready yet? Can I play now?
Yeah friend, you’re good to go! Just remember to stay cool and have fun with it. There’s some amazing stories and incredible people waiting to meet you over dice and dragons. You’ll be amazed at what teaming up with your friends to kill a bad guy (who’s also one of your friends) can lead to.