Tabletop RPGs: Where do you start?

So you want to be a game master. Or maybe you feel you don’t have a choice, because you want to play TTRPGs* and you don’t know anyone else willing to take on the responsibilities for running it. The good news is that there’s no one, right way to begin.

There are plenty of reasons you may want to start playing TTRPGs. Maybe you’ve got an idea for the coolest storyline, or characters that you want to bring to life, or a world that you think other people would have fun exploring. Maybe you’ve seen other people run or play games online, or listened to an Actual Play podcast. Or perhaps you’ve bought one of the many TTRPG products available and you’re wondering how to go about convincing your friends to play it.

TTRPGs are a huge hobby and there is room for all kinds of games. But it can be daunting if you don’t know where to begin. To help you get started, I tried to break it down into five elements that every game needs – or at least, needs to consider. I want to explore each of these ideas in more detail in their own posts, because all of them are complicated enough to deserve discussing at length. So this post only aims to give a broad outline of what you need to think about.

To start a TTRPG group, you generally need five elements:

  • A rule system
  • A storyteller, game master (GM), or dungeon master (DM)
  • Players
  • A storyline
  • A place to play

If you need help figuring out how to play or run a game, you can start with any of those. If you’re willing to be flexible, you would be surprised at how little you need in order to tick any of those boxes. You don’t even need to tick all five.

To start with, you can either begin a new group of your own or join one that already exists. If you are lucky enough to have a bunch of friends who are as keen to play as you are, you don’t need to look for extra players. But you can start a group with as few as two people or as many as eight. If you decide that running the game or creating the story is too much work or doesn’t sound like fun, there are GM-less systems you could try out. Likewise, if you don’t have a place that is big enough to run a game, you could try running them online.

I plan to write about all of these issues separately in future, since they can each play an important part in running a successful game. But the key is to be flexible. If you need to play games online, you may need to play with people you don’t know. Or, if you’re running an online game, your players will need to work within your bandwidth and technical limits. (Frankly, if they aren’t willing to work with you, you would probably do better finding other players.) Alternatively, if you don’t have a venue yourself, you may need to find a player who could host, or find a gaming club or group who have a regular venue.

As a GM/DM/storyteller, flexibility is an invaluable attitude to cultivate. Even if you decide to run a the game, find 3-4 players who want to play regularly, and have a regular venue, people’s plans change all the time. The person who was the keenest yesterday may not be available tomorrow, and then you might have fewer people than expected and/or a venue. You will soon find ways to cope with any number of changes, but only if you are willing to adapt.

There is really only one thing you absolutely need to run a game – and that is the game itself. But even here, flexibility is your greatest asset. Sure, there are several popular, well-known RPG systems that you could play. But there are also many others that lend themselves to different playstyles. So before you can start running for other people, you need to ask yourself: what kind of game do you want to play? What most appeals to you about playing in or running an RPG?

Remember: even if you end up running the game for only one or two sessions, you will need to spend a lot of time and effort (and varying amounts of money) to make that happen. So you may as well make it fun for yourself. Once you have figured out what you want from the game, you can start to find answers to the rest of the questions outlined above.

Maybe you really want to run a fantasy game, with wizards and orcs and elves and magic. Maybe you prefer a science fiction setting, or an adventure story featuring pirates or explorers, or any other range or combination of settings. There are plenty of options to choose from, and any of them could end up suiting your playstyle and your interests.

Before you buy anything, or get too fixed on one idea, ask yourself:

  • What kind of world do I want to play in?
  • What kind of stories do I like to tell? Which genres appeal to me?
  • What do I want to do between games? Do I want to create puzzles for my players to solve, or mysteries for them to investigate, or epic battles to fight, or personal obstacles to overcome?
  • How much reading do I want to do?
  • How much reading can I expect my potential players to do?
  • How much time am I willing to spend doing maths?
  • What kind of tone do I want to create?
  • Do I want to do a lot of acting or roleplaying, and do I want my players to do the same?
  • Do I want to work with my players, or be the person who puts challenges in their way that they need to overcome?

Once you have answers to some of these questions, you will be ready to start choosing a game system that will work for you. And that will be the next post in this series!

(*TTRPG is short for tabletop roleplaying games, or tabletop RPGs. The tabletop bit is to distinguish it from RGPs that you play on PC or on consoles.)

To see the sheer variety of games that are possible, check out last week’s post about the San Jenaro Co-op Short Games Digest Vol. 1.