What is a Tabletop Roleplaying Game?
Any Tabletop Roleplaying Game (TTRPG) is a collaborative story where every player determines what happens, with rules to structure how you tell the story. It is called a 'Tabletop' Roleplaying Game because you usually play it sitting around a table, but you can also play in the park, on the internet, or in the backseat on a road trip. The most well known example is Dungeons & Dragons, though there are many others.
Most TTRPGs have a group of Players, a Game Master, and a bunch of weird dice which help facilitate the game rules.
The role of the Players is to play a fictional character and decide what they do in an imaginary world. As they go on adventures, the characters grow and develop.
The role of the Game Master is to create the world the player characters will act in. That world will include interesting features that prompt the player characters to act. The Game Master also makes judgement calls about rules that are unclear, and they decide how likely a character is to succeed at things they try. For example, a character who says "I want to catch the ball in my hand!" would be more likely to succeed than a character who says "I want to catch the arrow in my teeth!"
The role of the weird dice is to add the element of chance. Not every attempted action can be a success! This keeps the story exciting for everyone. It also makes the game world feel more realistic. The dice, the rules, and the Game Master all work together to determine what happens in the game.
With Players, Game Master, and Dice working together, we get The Core Loop of TTRPGs:
The Core Loop
The Game Master describes a situation → The Players describe what they want to do → Dice are rolled to determine whether the players succeed, or if there is a complication
Let's look at an example of how this plays out:
Game Master (you): You arrive after a long day's journey. The map you obtained from Pelor the Monk was accurate. You are now standing at the stone doors of the Forgotten Tomb of Ashkan in the middle of a quiet clearing in the forest. The doors of the tomb rise 30 feet above you. On either side of them stands a large statue of a monk, their faces mostly covered by their cowls.
Bayle the Paladin (played by your supportive friend Brandon): I'm wondering if these monks seem familiar to me. I may know something about their religion and the gods they worship.
Asha the Ranger (played by your adventurous friend Amanda): The silence is making me uneasy, I'd like to scout the area.
Game Master: Okay Bayle, roll a Religion Check to see if you can recall any details from your training as a Paladin. Asha, which way are you heading?
Asha the Ranger: I'll walk around the right side of the tomb entrance if I can.
Bayle the Paladin: Nice! I rolled an 18. I love being a Paladin at times like this.
Game Master: As Asha moves around to the side of the tomb, she sees that the structure does not extend very far back into the woods. Most of it must be underground. She also notices that the back side seems to be in worse condition. Thick, creeping vines climb all the way to the top of the tomb where a section of wall has crumbled.
Asha the Ranger (in her head): I am so going to climb those vines...
Game Master: Bayle, you reflect on your days training at the monastery. You recall a book you once borrowed from a mentor - I'll let you tell us who they were - that was filled with illustrations of monks that looked just like these. These monks belonged to an order called The Judged and they worshipped the god Tyr.
Bayle the Paladin: I thought those robes looked familiar. Asha, what do you see over there?
Bayle the Paladin (in his head): I wonder if I should inspect these doors more closely...
TTRPGs let you pretend to be someone else. Roleplaying is the process of acting as if you were your character. It's about asking yourself: what would my character do in this situation? As the Game Master, you will Roleplay all the Non-Player Characters (NPCs) and monsters. They will have their own personalities like the Player Characters (PCs).
The Most Important Goal of TTRPGs
Getting into TTRPGs can be confusing. You have to unlearn some of your existing assumptions about what a game is. There is no goal or end state, and no competition with clear winners and losers. There are no moves your character needs to make. This brings us to the Most Important Goal of TTRPGs:
When you play a TTRPG you are there to create a story in an imaginary world by having fun with your friends.
The big rulebooks and endless resources online can seem overwhelming at first. At some point you will likely ask yourself, "Are we doing this right?" Relax. If you are having fun with your friends making up a story, you're playing Dungeons & Dragons.
The Three Pillars of Dungeons & Dragons
Dungeons & Dragons has three major states of play: exploration, social interaction, and combat. The Core Loop happens within all three, and each one can flow into the others. Anything your players do will fall into one of these three categories. Look at the these three pillars to get an idea of the types of things you might do in a classic roleplaying game.
- Exploration is the act of travelling through the world from place to place. Exploration can happen on a small or large scale. Your players might explore a single room, looking for a secret or a clue. Or they might travel through a vast forest seeking an ancient tomb.
- Social Interaction is when Player Characters are talking, either to each other or to Non-Player Characters. Entire scenes can revolve around social interaction — imagine a tense hostage negotiation or a trading of favours at high court.
- Combat is the act of fighting monsters and other Non-Player Characters. This is where the Player Characters get to show off all the fancy maneuvers, weapons, and magic spells they can do.
The reason everyone should play TTRPGs
When you play a TTRPG, you're engaging in a special combination of social interaction, storytelling, and game. Because you and your friends can improvise anything you can think of, things can happen in TTRPGs that cannot happen in any other type of game.
In a video game, your choices are always limited. You can kill the goblin, or you can talk to it. In a TTRPG, you might bribe it to be your sidekick with a shiny gem, or it might escape into the swamp and pop up to laugh at you the next time you fall over.
In a board game, you can collect gold and trade it with other players. In a TTRPG, you could start a cheese shop that earns enough gold to boost the village's economy, leading to a prominent merchant getting upset about the new competition.
Literally anything can happen. There is nothing else like it in the world.
What do I need to play?
Unlike board games and video games, Tabletop Roleplaying Games don't always come packaged in a single unit. There's lots of books, dice, and fancy box sets out there, so it can be a struggle to figure out what you actually need to start playing.
Luckily you don't need much to try a game of Dungeons & Dragons. It costs a grand total of $0 to get basic materials. All you need is:
- the basic rules and some special dice (which you can find online)
- an adventure
- a few friends to play with
We outline all the specifics you need for your first game in our guide for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition.
By this point you should have some understanding of what Tabletop Roleplaying Games like Dungeons & Dragons are all about. Don't worry if it is not crystal clear yet. TTRPGs are something you have to experience before you fully understand the format.
You should try playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons. There is no faster way to learn! StartPlaying hosts paid games by professional Dungeon Masters. You can search for games that are specifically designed to teach rules to newcomers.
- The most important goal is to create a story in an imaginary world by having fun with your friends. If you are doing that, you are roleplaying.
- The Core Loop of TTRPGs is:
- The Game Master describes a situation
- The Players describe what they want to do
- Both parties roll dice to determine whether the Players succeed, or if there is a complication
- The three major states of play in Dungeons & Dragons are exploration, social interaction, and combat. You can expect to flow between all three of them in every adventure.
In our upcoming guide for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, we will walk you through a complete path for preparing and running your first game of Dungeons & Dragons.
The guide includes:
- links to the basic rules and supplies you actually need (it's less than you think)
- a step-by-step method to prepare for the game
- an original adventure designed for first time Game Masters
- pre-made character sheets, cheatsheets, and templates
- ways of thinking to boost your confidence and support you during the game
- suggestions for what to try after game 1
Subscribe to our email list below to get notified the day it launches.