Thursday, August 15, 2013

RPGs: Where to Start? Play on Target Podcast Ep. 16

This week Play on Target hits our first actual requested topic: how to actually start in rpgs? I suspect we come at it from more of a GM than player perspective, but there's some useful advice for players as well. We live in the golden age of gaming, but that can be more than a little overwhelming. I wonder how many actual new people get added to the hobby each year? Do things like Wil Wheaton's Tabletop episodes on Fiasco and Dragon Age drive traffic? Does a new edition of D&D? I should also mention another great resource for people thinking about getting into gaming, Reddit's RPG subreddit has a very cool Beginners' Guide to RPGs

I’ve still been turning the question around in my head since we recorded the podcast. I’ve been playing for a long time and the industry’s vastly different from when I started out. That makes it hard to reference that experience. I was very young, and we only had a handful of systems and genres available to us. I’m a gamer, though, because people were patient enough to teach me games. And not kids games, but a particular brand of D&D with dungeon-crawling and then later superheroes and then still later Call of Cthulhu. Over the years I’ve introduced a number of new players: some well and some badly.

But the majority of people I’ve played with came to the table knowing games. They’d played something else a few years before- perhaps a failed D&D campaign, some sessions of Rifts, a Vampire LARP, or even an MMO. They get the basic idea of rpgs and the system. What they don’t necessarily know is the genre. For example superheroes requires a certain mindset- and an appreciation for tropes. The player who had come to play in a supers game after mostly fantasy ended up torturing and brutalizing bad guys because that was the mode she’d operated in for the previous campaign. There’s a big difference between people who’ve read comic books and those who’ve picked it up through movies or television. That’s not a bad thing, but it means the GM needs to be aware of their own reliance on references and conventions. Some people don’t know swashbuckling, Hong Kong Action flix, or even Fiasco-style tropes. That means the GM has to make room to teach those- and not laugh or be shocked at a player’s genre mastery.

To give an example, I had a couple of players I’d run a short fantasy game for. They loved it and really wanted me to run a Vampire the Masquerade game. They’d played in one before and loved it. I warned them that it might not be what they wanted. I’ve always seen VtM as a darker game about consequences and choices. But they convinced me to run. And it wasn’t what they expected, or perhaps even wanted. Eventually they bought in, but it took some time and we had plenty of miscommunications. Their previous VtM game had made them powerful pseudo-superheroes, kicking ass and taking down names. Mine didn’t do that. Should I have shifted the campaign tone? Should I have been clearer about what the game would be like? I suspect the latter would have helped. But it took me some time to realize the gap between how they saw the genre and how I did.

I have another, potentially unfeasible suggestion. If you’re a new player trying to join an existing or experienced group, make sure you’re not alone. By that I mean: don’t be the only newbie. There’s a certain isolation that comes from being the only one who doesn’t yet have buy in to the game, genre, or setting. And I’m not saying that the other players will isolate or mock you- far from it. Instead, they may be overly helpful: flooding you with options, making suggestions, offering advice, crushing you with info dump. Having more than one new player will a) spread that helpfulness around and b) generally reduce the ratio of experts to beginners. The side effect of this is also that it’s easier to extricate yourself from a bad game if you have a buddy with you. GMs should also take this into consideration when bringing new players in.

Finally, if you can, I suggest new players/gamers who want to get into the hobby try it out with a group. IMHO experience playing at a table’s the best way to get a sense for how a game operates. You’ll pick up all of the basics you need to then read and figure out most games. You don’t even need to play a session of the game you really want to start with- any will do. See if you can go to a game store demo, find a convention, or look for a chance to drop in on a group with posted openings. Online gaming can also serve this function, but a little less well. At the very least, you can watch some actual play videos online. In that case, I’d recommend watching a game which is being played online over watching a taped f2f session. 

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at