Welcome to Part 1 of our Beginner's Guide to Roleplaying Games. We will be discussing the premise of RPGs, some history of RPGs and also the different genres of RPGs that are available. There will also be a discussion about some of the supplies you will need to play an RPG including the different types of dice used.
Tabletop roleplaying games are very simply collaborative story telling games. There is a Game Master, or GM, and a group of players. The Game Master provides the framework of a story, location, etc. and conflicts for the players to overcome. The players create characters to act as the protagonists of the story.
The world of a tabletop RPG is open as far as the imagination of the players allows and with a well prepared GM they can explore anywhere in that world. When they encounter something in that world, such as an abandoned castle or even a monster, the players act out, or role play, what actions they would like to take. The GM decides whether that action requires a dice roll to determine success. Players are rewarded for successful actions with experience that is used to increase the level of their characters.
This may sound a lot like what you get when you play a MMORPG like World of Warcraft, but tabletop RPGs add the extra element of human contact. You can have much more fun sitting around a table with a great group of players than you can have with a random group of strangers on the internet.
Tabletop RPGs first appeared in the 1970s. They directly evolved from tabletop wargames, which were increasing in popularity through most of the 20th Century. These wargames involved using armies of miniatures to fight epic battles on a grand scale. The battles were originally fought in a historical setting such as the American Civil War or the Napoleonic Wars. That all changed in 1971 when TSR published a fantasy supplement to Chainmail, its miniature wargames rules system. The first RPGs adapted these fantasy rules to focus on the actions of small groups of individuals rather than armies. This idea was so well received that RPGs eventually overtook wargames in popularity.
It's important to note that like all evolution the offshoot of RPGs did not eliminate tabletop wargames, it only created a separate branch of games. Miniature wargames like Warhammer 40K are still very popular today.
Although many people associate RPGs with the sword and sorcery worlds of Dungeons & Dragons, there are numerous genres that have RPGs. One of the most popular and long-running games besides D&D is Shadowrun, a game that combines the genres of fantasy and cyberpunk to great effect. If you are more interested in superhero comics, Green Ronin Publishing offers Mutants & Masterminds, a game that lets players create superheroes or super villains. If pulp fiction is more your thing, there is Spirit of the Century, a game system that is set in the world of 1930s pulp novels. There are Old West adventure games like Aces & Eights and Lovecraftian detective games like Call of Cthulhu.
The point is that RPGs are available for such a wide variety of genres that there is a game for everyone's interest. There are even RPGs built around established properties such as Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, Star Wars and Star Trek.
The most important things that you need to play a tabletop RPG are a group of friends and a lot of imagination. The next thing that is needed is a rule system and an adventure. Although it is completely possible to invent your own world with your own rules and have adventures in it that is a lot of work for someone just starting out with RPGs. Buying into an established RPG system can sometimes be an expensive proposition, but there are many very reasonably priced complete game systems available that won't cause you to break the bank like D&D will. You can check out our Cheapskate's Guide for ways to save money on RPGs.
After you've decided which game system you want to use, it's time to think about what other supplies you are going to need. One tool you will definitely need is dice. The dice required by most RPGs are slightly different than your standard board game dice. RPGs make use of a variety of different sided dice from your typical six-sided all the way up to twenty-sided die that has come to define these games.
A set of dice like those pictured above includes all the different types that you will need for most RPGs. Let's go over them one by one.
This is a four-sided die, commonly referred to as a D4. These dice are mostly used to calculate damage or numbers of things like monsters encountered or gems found in a treasure chest.
This is a six-sided die, commonly referred to as a D6. In addition to being used to determine the same things as a D4, the D6 is used in many games to roll for the character's ability scores.
Fun fact: The D6 is the only die required for the Shadowrun system.
This is an eight-sided die, commonly referred to as a D8. This die is used for mostly the same purposes as the D4.
This is a ten-sided die, commonly referred to as a D10. Once again this die is used for determining some damage and the numbers of random things. More importantly, this die is used to determine rolls that require a D100 to be rolled. Notice that one of the die is numbered 00, 10, 20 etc. When determining a D100 roll, this die represents the first digit and the second die represents the second digit. The roll pictured is a 96.
Next up is the twelve-sided die or D12. This die is mostly used to determine damage and random numbers for things like monster encounters or treasure.
Finally, there is the mother of all RPG dice, the twenty-sided die or D20. This die is used for a large number of things in the games. Does your players attack hit or miss? Roll a D20. Does your player successfully hack into a computer? Roll a D20. Does your player successfully resist going insane after witnessing an Elder God? Roll a D20. The D20 is even used to determine who gets to go first during combat. This is referred to as rolling for initiative. The D20 is so important to Dungeons & Dragons that they named their most popular system the D20 System.
The set of dice pictured costs about $4.00, but physical dice aren't even necessary for playing an RPG. Technology has allowed players to use computer programs or even smart phone apps for dice rolls. To round out your supply list, you will need some pencils and paper for keeping notes, drawing maps, etc.
As you get more involved with RPGs there are many more tools available. There are rule supplements for every system, dry erase map boards for your tabletop, and even miniature figures to represent your character. None of these tools are necessary to play RPGs, but many players feel they add to the enjoyment of the game.
The next part is character building which will be covered in Part 2. Feel free to ask questions in the comments or add your thoughts.