How I started playing (and running) TTRPGs

The first time I played a tabletop RPG, I was in my early 20s. Like most people, I started as a player, but it wasn’t long before I was the one running the story. BWAHAHAHA! The power! The admin! Also, I was hooked. I haven’t stopped or looked back since.

TL;DR More than you really needed to know about games I’ve played or run.

A screenshot of the final episode of Critical Role, campaign 1

I wrote about my first games as a player and GM before, briefly, when Critical Role ended its first season-slash-campaign. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the different systems I’ve played in, and run, and the systems I still want to try.

This is partly because I’m planning an article about choosing a system for your own group. I’ve also gone from running a monthly D&D game to running a weekly Call of Cthulhu game. This got me thinking about all the TTRPGs I’ve been involved with, and how each of them got started, and about my favourite and least favourite gaming experiences.

I was introduced to TTRPGs by a friend named Francis. Their group was looking for extra players, and I had never played, but it sounded like a blast. We were using a homebrew system based on a combination of White Wolf games. I think it may have been Werewolf the Apocalypse and Vampire the Masquerade, but it was highly simplified so it’s hard to tell.

Playing it was great, though! The GM, Gavin, had an epic storyline, which involved a group of vampires and werewolves working together to stop an elder vampire from bringing about the apocalypse. (The vamp made a deal with God for entry into heaven in return for bringing about the End Times.) There were sinkholes, and zombies, and it kicked ass. I have judged every campaign afterwards by these standards. Including those I run myself. It’s a high bar, but I’ll take it!

After our group stopped the apocalypse (my character ended up getting angel wings), the GM asked if I wanted to take over. He seemed confident that I would do a good job, which helped. And the group was still small – three players in total, plus the GM – so it felt quite manageable. Also, I was inspired by watching a really great GM at work. (Hello, Matt!)

My own game involved the group travelling to Europe, under the protection of another elder vampire, who knew about their reputation as “useful troublemakers” and who wanted to use them in his own struggle for power. There was a train and a transcontinental journey, werewolf-vampire hybrids, ex-Nazi scientists (who all died horribly), and my fantastically unspecific “Vaguely Slavic but Supposedly Russian” accent. I apologise for nothing. I also created my first, and probably still my favourite “dungeon”, set in the basement of an old movie theatre.

I still consider writing and running that campaign as one of the highlights of my life. The players, including my first GM, really enjoyed it, which was a great boost of confidence. I really loved the collaborative storytelling of creating a world for the players to explore, and then just – letting them loose.

I had probably been running that game between six or nine months when the same guy who introduced me to that group invited me to join a concurrent D&D campaign. The DM was running a series of 3.5 edition scenarios set in Eberron. This was a pretty great introduction to D&D, because you had a lot of options about what you wanted to play. I ended up creating a hobgoblin bard who multiclassed as an artificer. During fights, he would swing a spiked chain in one hand while banging away at a drum with the other. He was also searching for lost lore and artefacts of the goblinoids, and used to spend a lot of time before fights trying to find out what was going on. He is still my favourite character I ever created for a game.

After about a year, that group’s DM decided to take a break and play for a change and I thought, why not? That … was a bad idea. This time, the group and I had serious conflicts pretty much from the start. We had completely opposite ideas of how we wanted the game to work. It didn’t take long before they became confused and antagonistic and I became defensive and sulky. Not a good time for anyone.

Looking back, I can see a lot of ways I could have remedied the situation. But one of part of the problem was that D&D is not the best match for my skillset or my inclinations as a storyteller. (More about that next time.) Likewise, the players weren’t prepared for or interested in a slow-burn mystery; they wanted to punch evil! right away! in the face!

Lesson learned. Too late for that group, but it sure stuck with me.

After that game, I took a break from running games – if you can call a decade a mere “break”. I kept playing, though. The next game I joined was started by a GM who wanted to run an Arcana Evolved game. He was looking for 3-4 players and I was one of the first to join. That particular group stayed together for quite some time, although we did change players now and then.

This was also the first time I introduced someone to TTRPGs for the first time. When Valkyrion and I started our relationship, he kept asking about what I was doing every Sunday afternoon. So eventually he joined the group. I think he’s been in every group I’ve played with since, if only for a short time.

That group eventually switched over to Pathfinder. I have to admit that playing a pirate-themed campaign run by an actual ship captain was an absolute blast. Soon after that game ended, I played in my first Savage World game, which was being run by someone who published Deadlands modules and wanted to introduce people to the system.

I also ran my first TTRPGs in years, after watching too much Critical Role and getting excited about the idea of creating a vivid and intriguing world. I started slow, though, running a one-shot (that turned into 16 hours of gaming, more or less) before diving into a three year long campaign.

That D&D group was my most regular source of DM kicks – at least until I met the Call of Cthulhu group. We experimented with other systems, including Call of Cthulhu and Star Trek Adventures (one of my favourites), but D&D was the general preference.

Overall there are advantages and drawbacks to every system I’ve played, but the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that every group is different. Fortunately, I’ve also realised that there are a lot more options than I initially expected.

I suppose my point is this: you never know what you’ll discover about yourself by trying out a new system, or joining a new group, or changing the way you approach TTRPGs. So live a little and try something new. You might love it.