Level 1: The Brand New Role Player
Role Playing for Beginners
Role playing is a common affliction amongst humans of all ages wherein people of ‘nerdy’ subcultures with a traditional bias towards poor social skills come together to lock themselves in a room and do nothing but talk for hours on end. Common antidotes include not caring anymore and moving to a different city where you don’t know the gaming shop all that well.
Role playing games have been a mainstay of basement culture for decades, longer even than the Dungeons & Dragons™ infamy of the 1970’s. Typically fantasy based, a role playing game is a method for a number of people to collaboratively tell a story whilst they themselves play as the main characters, reacting in real time to the challenges presented by the Game Master and indeed the random chance created by the dice (or other tools). It is an incredibly social venture, and one that lends itself to team-building, friendship, and nostalgia naturally.
Of course, if you’re reading this article, you likely know that already, or at least, someone you know has clued you in to the scene – perhaps you’re humouring your partner, friend or sibling. Why you’re here doesn’t matter, what you decide to do from this point onward is.
If you don’t like people, role playing is not for you. By that, I don’t mean the “Get home from work” or “I just got my coffee spilled on me by some idiot barging past” kinds of ‘I don’t like people’. Role playing requires you to be naturally co-operative – the vast majority of role playing games sort you into a party anyway, you have to treat the fellow people around your table like compatriots before you even get talking about systems or settings or sheets. Get to know the people you’re playing with if you don’t already – find out what makes them tick, smile and what pisses them off, and then respect those boundaries and encourage those smiles. Life’s too short to have a weekly meeting – you get enough of those at work, a hobby should be something where everyone feels comfortable. Unless it’s Zorbing. Zorbing…
Got that? Good. This isn’t going to last if you’re not willing to be familiar with the inner psyche of those you’re playing with. Many seasoned gamers have had campaigns that have spanned years in real life, but they don’t happen through luck. If effort isn’t put into getting to know the player base, then things can easily fizzle out, and a little bit of respect is all you need to make sure that 30% of your sessions aren’t character generation.
This goes double for your Game Master. Game Masters, contrary to belief, are a dime a dozen. Everyone has a story that they want to run at some point, everyone fantasises about some kind of tale when listening to their Sunday playlist of Swedish Folk Metal – it’s common to us all. What aren’t common, however, are good Game Masters. Some people who give the whole ‘running a campaign’ thing a go can have a bad time of it, either finding they’re incompatible with their party, or what they’ve planned just isn’t going to work out. This is fine – it happens to everyone, but it’s your responsibility as a player to make sure they don’t regret the process. Similarly, if you do have a great Game Master, try to take into account how much work goes into the game they’re crafting for you – it’s not something you can just do, and good campaigns are like art; they look natural, but there are thousands of hours of practice behind that craft.
So, that stern telling off didn’t put you off? Good. Role playing is honestly a wholesome hobby, and if you stick with it, and build relationships through it, you’ll find it makes some of the best memories you’ll ever have.
For New GM’s
Oh dear. You’re the patsy. You’ve come together as a group to celebrate your friendship and maybe play a tabletop game, and you’re the poor sap who’s gonna run that story.
Don’t worry, nobody’ll tell you this, but Game Masters (GMs) actually have the most fun – it’s an equivalent exchange thing. It’s a lot more work but there’s also the satisfaction of watching an entire table of your peers squirm, laugh, plot and, if you’re great, crying is involved in there too. There is no more satisfying a feeling than crafting an appreciated story for your players, or watching a combat you spent a while on go off exactly how you imagined, or even being surprised by the machinations of your own setting as it starts to grow a life of its own.
We both know why you’re here though; you’ve googled “Advice for New GMs” and nothing too easy to grab a hold of has popped up for you (if you haven’t, do that now, there are some useful resources out there and nobody should do this alone for the first time).
Well, my first point of advice is to let go of that story idea you’ve had in your head, because it doesn’t belong to you anymore. The players are your children, which means that, while you will have to baby them and steer them away from obvious danger, everything you make from now on will belong to them. That includes your story – it’s their story, now. You build your setting to their specifications, what they need, want and enjoy, but you don’t let them know you’re doing it. It’s your job to foster an environment where the players can flourish and really get into the meat of their character.
“if you must railroad, railroad well”
This is where most would tell you to never, under any account, railroad. For the uninitiated, railroading is when a story is crafted in such a way that player agency is completely taken away – it is the tabletop equivalent of a walking simulator, where the player is only there to experience the Game Master’s creation. I’m going to go one better: if you must railroad, railroad well. A true plot-track cannot be detected. Of course, choice and variety should always be the focus, but sometimes the players are content to just completely avoid any modicum of adventure you had planned, and no amount of hooks is going to get them to take the bait. This is where railroading becomes a necessity, but like all forms of manipulation, for it to be successful the target must think that the result was their idea in the first place, otherwise it’s not gonna work.
My final point of advice would be something cheesy, like “have fun” or something, but if you’ve read up to here, then that seems like a redundancy. In reality, it’s more useful to tell you that you probably won’t get thanked, or at least, not directly. People rarely get up at the end of the day and shake the Game Master’s hand, it just doesn’t happen – most likely because a role playing session is enough to take everybody’s mind off of such trivial things as being awake. Sessions can be long, emotional, and even draining, don’t take it personally if people are quiet about how satisfied they are at the end – ask for advice and feedback another day, when they’ve had time to calm down.
So Where Should I Start?
Read all that and still want to get into the roleplaying scene? Good. Roleplaying communities are plentiful and can be found anywhere, you just need to know how to look. For in-person gaming, there are two central hubs that’ll suit your needs – the first is your Friendly Local Gaming Store (FLGS). The FLGS is a central nervous system of nerds of all kinds, and many people find that one hobby they pick up in these places can easily become a gateway. I’ve been part of FLGS communities that started me off on card games like Magic: the Gathering and tried to commute me over to running games for them or even become part of their weekly LARP (Live-Action Role Playing) sessions. FLGS’ are full of like-minded nerds who are always looking for a story to tell or latch on to, and if you keep your ear to the ground, or ask the store keeper, you’re sure to find a number of people who run locally.
Your second in-person hub is one that not a lot of people tend to look out for in the first instance – university societies. Every major city has a university, some have two or three. The majority of universities I’ve seen have a tabletop gaming society available, where you can get in on the ground with an established community of people who already know what they’re doing. These places are ideal for a number of reasons, but mostly because a society is just that, a living, breathing group of people looking to thrive. Even better? They often don’t require you to be a student to join. These are the kinds of places where a person’s enthusiasm for the hobby can extend well beyond the years of their studying. Some examples of great university societies I’ve known about either from personal experience or a friends include Lancaster University Role Playing Society (LURPS), the DMU Games Society at De Montfort in Leicester, and the Manchester University Roleplaying Society. Check your local city to see if there’s a similar location; I can personally guarantee you wouldn’t be disappointed, having been an enthusiastic member of LURPS myself for the past five years.
Finding it difficult to find role playing in person? Websites such as RPG.net, Roll20 and the Giant In the Playground forums are great locations for discovering people who are looking to run games over Skype, Discord or the increasingly popular Roll20 gaming client. These allow you to enjoy the hobby in the comfort of your own home, without having to travel extensive distances to be with the people you game with. Don’t let the idea of internet gaming put you off; I’ve been running for 30 months over Skype with a regular group now – there are many ways you might find the internet is a valuable tool to help you in your gaming career.
I hope this helps you to feel equipped to handle the game you’re about to run, discover or play, whether it be with new friends or old. Enjoy, I’d love to hear about it sometime.
Thank you for reading,
Timaeus Faustus, lurps.co.uk