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  • Writer's picturePawn and Pint

DMs Corner: A Beginner's Guide to Role Playing Games

Updated: Aug 6, 2018

Role Playing Games, in many regards, are like some more illicit experiences. If you really want to get into the good stuff, you have to know someone.

Fortunately, we live in a golden age for nerds and geeks alike, and never has it been easier or more accessible to dive headlong into a roleplaying system of your choice. In this article, we’ll go over a brief comparison of some current and popular systems, and what you need to dive into the experience.


First, there are some groundwork basics that you’ll need. Regardless of the system you choose to explore, you will need a stock of very basic supplies. Several of these are likely already available to you or can be easily acquired.

1) Role Call!

The first one may be obvious, but it takes some consideration. You will need a group of players! Ideally, your group should consist of a minimum of four and a maximum of seven individuals. It is possible to run a solid RPG with smaller or larger groups, though you should aim for the Golden Number of Five participants.

Further, one of these individuals must be willing to take up the mantle of Story Teller. This role is also known as the Dungeon Master or Game Master, and sometimes the Referee. Whichever title is on the hat, there has to be someone who takes the reigns of telling the story for the other players to engage as the antagonist. Ideally, this is something players take turns at between stories.

Your group will undoubtedly have to schedule game times. It is not uncommon for a group to play once or twice a month at a specific time and day. Some groups meet more frequently or less frequently, as their schedules allow. However, it works out, you will need around four hours or more to play a session, and somewhere to play at.

2) Paper and Plastic

The bare minimum you need for most rule sets include what effectively amount to office supplies. Everyone should have a stack of scratch paper for character sheets, maps, and notes. Right along with this comes writing utensils. Pencils with good erasers should be preferred over pens, though it should be noted pens and markers have their place in marking permanent effects in a game.

You will also need Dice, or at minimum a digital Dice Roller. There are a plethora of applications that can be freely downloaded on a mobile device that allows complex dice rolling and well-programmed randomization. If you prefer more concrete rolling, a set of polyhedral dice is recommended. Each player will need a set of seven dice. Each dice is referred to by the number of sides it has. For example, a six-sided dice, the so-called Monopoly Dice, is often abbreviated as a D6. When rolling multiple dice, like two six-sided dice, it would be abbreviated 2d6.

The standard set has 1d20, 1d12, 1d10, 1d8, 1d6, 1d4, and 1d00. For clarification, a 1d00 is a ten-sided dice that specifically rolls the ten’s place on a simulated 1d100. Effectively, you roll 2d10 to generate a number between 1 and 100. If the 00 number is a 3, and the d10 number is a 5, the roll is a 35.

Regardless of how you use your dice, the key is to have a way to randomize events. Even flipping coins may be used if dice are absent. The important thing is to be able to reliably simulate random events and chance.

3) Once Upon A Time

You’re going to need a story! No matter which rule set you ultimately choose to run, you’re not going to get far without a story to play.

Stories can be as simple or complex and you build them, but there are some important notes and guidelines to bear in mind. Firstly, the story belongs to everyone! No one will enjoy a game very much if they don’t have a say in the telling. So let the actions the players take change the story! Maybe that means a villain being bested at an unexpected or unplanned moment, or even a certain item falling into the wrong hands at the wrong times. The key is to keep the story going, even when it turns and morphs in unexpected ways!

For the storyteller, the best advice you can ever receive is to be flexible! Let your story be affected by the players, even if it means a certain degree of derailment. You will need to strike a balance between the player’s freedom of choice and consequence with your story you wish to tell, but ultimately your rule of thumb should be whether or not the players are enjoying themselves.

If there’s an idea you missed a chance to implement, slip it in elsewhere. If there’s a moment when a certain event must happen you can create an Illusion of Choice. Ask the player to roll a dice or pick a door. No matter the result, play out what you wanted to have happened, and have ready a list of what “could” have happened. Do NOT abuse this ability! This method should never be the norm, but merely a way to force a key event to play out uninterrupted. Whenever possible, the game should flex and have give around player actions.

4) Bells and Whistles

Now that you have the basics, you’ll have the option for some add-ons. Having a hard copy of the rule set you are playing, or multiple copies are of course ideal. Other common additions include miniatures, modules of stories, printed maps, and reference materials.

The bottom line with add-ons is, use what enhances the game and what is at your disposal. Like all things in life your hobbies should be budgeted, so don’t feel you must buy an additional piece of game gear when what you currently have will suffice.

That being said, choosing what to add to your collection can significantly help the gaming experience and add to an overall higher quality game. Just don’t fall into the trap of being overwhelmed by all these new bells and whistles. A game can bog down when you dig for a specific miniature or map. This is easily fixed with some advanced preparation time, yet the point remains. Add-ons should enhance your story, not detract from it.

When and where you can, imagination should suffice and be at minimum the jumping off point. Clarify what needs clarify, and accentuate what needs accentuating. Lastly, any good gaming experience should include some snacks and drinks. Suggest that each player brings an item or two to share, and throw it in a pile. This will help everyone remain full, focused and relaxed.

5) So What Should I Play?

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of rule sets that you can get your hands on to tell your story. Ultimately you may even decide to create your own home-brew of rules to get started. The key is to use trial and error to find what works for your unique group. Find what mechanics flow well, and try to heavily incorporate those aspects. When it comes to choosing a rule set, also keep in mind that the rules should never be more than guidelines.

If there’s a rule that you don’t like or doesn’t work, ditch it. That being said, the agreed upon rules are the law of the game. When it comes to disputes, the word of the rules exists for this reason. When in doubt, the Game Master should make a decision and press forward. It can be discussed at length by all sides after the game, and not at the expense of play time or player enjoyment.

The following list is by no means definitive, and there are certainly a wealth of additional options to choose from. These games, though, have proven themselves to be of quality substance and are current in the market, with many available supplements.

A) Pathfinder

Pathfinder is in every way the spiritual successor to the Golden Age of Dungeons and Dragons. Compiled by Paizo, the system is as complex as it is intricate. Pathfinder is admittedly not the easiest rule set to learn or play, nor is it the fastest. However, it is without peer when it comes to customization, resource material, expanded content and player customization. If you have any question about Pathfinder, there IS an answer for it in one of the appendices. This may not be the best start point, as Pathfinder can be an unforgiving game to inexperienced players. However, to the experienced or veteran player, or the player wishing a deeper gaming experience, Pathfinder is the top of the line, the highest quality, and truly without peer in what it does. Bonus, the entire rule set is FREE online, making for easy reference on the go!

B) Edge of the Empire

Edge of the Empire is a Star Wars rule set produced by Fantasy Flight Games. This set does require the use of special dice mechanics, and the rule set does feel somewhat lacking when it comes to deeper complexity. While it gives basic rules for the world, it leaves much to player and game master interpretation. On the one hand, this allows the game to be molded to the story much more easily, allowing players to make the game their own. On the other hand, sometimes too much is left to interpretation, leaving the players wanting. That being said, the Destiny System and level of player involvement in telling the story is the best there is. This system is well worth the look, even if you ultimately choose another system. There’s a lot to like here, and the game can easily be adapted to any space or sci-fi genre and setting.

C) The End of the World

How often have we each asked ourselves, what would happen if I were in this situation? Fantasy Flight’s The End of the World gaming system answers this question, and answers it well! This rule set is centered entirely around making You into your own character. Though a relatively simple system, there’s enough structure and room for you to make yourself and your friends into the heroes of your own survival story. Be it aliens, zombies, robots or Greek gods, now you can answer the question of how your friends would do in the apocalypse! While the game excels in this regard, the mechanics are very lacking for structured game events and mechanics, choosing instead to make the game almost entirely narrative driven. For some, this can be cumbersome, as it becomes a game of almost pure storytelling and personal interpretation. Yet, there’s enough structure there that the players can together make the world that they feel is a fair and fun representation of their own homes in a survival scenario. Not particularly complex, but it doesn’t need to be.

D) Dungeons and Dragons, 5th Edition

The first, and arguably the best, among RPGs. Dungeons and Dragons have long worn the crown of King among games. Currently run by Wizards of the Coast, the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons borrows heavily from lessons learned from online RPGs and previous editions of the franchise. Fifth Edition chooses to focus on building the hero characters in extreme detail and breathing life into the world through these characters. Rather than simply picking class and race, you choose backgrounds, upbringings, past work experience, ideologies, characteristics and even flaws. The game excels in making your character very real and tangible, and not at the expense of gameplay. The combat and skill systems have been simplified from the days of 3.0 and 3.5, but not to the point that they’ve lost their complexity. D&D5 straddles the sheer volume of customization and depth Pathfinder provides while tempered by the freedom of storytelling Edge of the Empire and End of the World provide. This is the definition of a balanced experience. Jack of all trades, master of none, 5th Edition is a safe, if simpler, starting point for any gamer.

Be sure to comment below with your preferred rule sets for RPGs, and what makes them enjoyable for your group! How have you made your worlds work within the confines of an RPG? And certainly, share your favorite story experience from an RPG!

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Originally published by Donald

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