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Good Weird, Bad Weird Pt 1: An Introduction to Tabletop Gaming

hello world!
Sam Nilsson
| July 3, 2024
hello world!

So you’ve watched Stranger Things, Shogun, or Dungeon Meshi, and you feel that a certain something is missing from your life. Perhaps it’s hanging out with your people. Communities are harder than ever to come by, and the splintering, exclusivity and cost of activities can be a barrier. Putnam’s Bowling Alone bemoans the death of bowling leagues, but a lane requires a fat 15$ a head plus other people in my neck of the woods. My archery range is cheap, but it has a 3-year waiting list to become a member. Hanging out in a bar to play darts or billiards can sometimes be too fun, especially with an expected tab on top.  In an era marked by isolation, buck the trend by joining or creating a friendly, inclusive tabletop game!  This is the first installment of a series on how to do, starting with how to find a game that works for you!

Learning Thieves Cant

Trickster Fae stole my Trade name, so now I’m just Mark

There are a handful of guidelines to follow before finding or starting a group. First up is GENERICIZED TRADEMARK! Could I pass you a Kleenex to clean up your flip phone from the Coke you spilled from your thermos while checking the App Store? Tabletop RPGs are like that. 

Generally, one would say “TTRPG Group,” but that might contain versions of Dungeons & Dragons ( D&D) or close cousins like Pathfinder (versions include Original, 2E, and 2E remastered…). It might be a group that plays Star Wars, either the D&D 3.5e-inspired Saga Edition or the Fantasy Flight Games Genesys system with special dice. It might be playing a White Wolf game like Vampire (Nu- or Classic) or Exalted (join this group now; I guarantee fun). You might find a Samurai game (L5R), a Warhammer Game (40k, Sigmar, Fantasy), or even get deep into the weeds with Lancer(Mechs via Tumblr).  

However, these all fall under the tower shield of something called D&D for people who don’t know the lingo. If you are going to join a group sight unseen, don’t have your heart set on playing Dungeons and Dragons; be open to trying a new system. There are many systems, and once you’ve played one or two, the rest will come easier.

Tip 1: Speak like an adventurer

There are also the roles in the game, which I will try to explain broadly. Each group or table will be made up of people, generally 3-8. For a given campaign (multi-session story spanning possibly years) or one-shot (definitely planned to only last one session), there will often be a Dungeon Master(DM)/Game Master(GM)/ Storyteller. The GM is the person who either runs a module (prebuilt adventure from a publisher) or homebrew (they make up the module themselves). Your group might have multiple GMs rotating back and forth on the same campaign. You are a player; your character is a character. Some terms might get fancy, as some systems have some fun with the terminology, but that is basically someone outing themselves by saying hot dish versus casserole.


Tip 2: Don’t overspend on magic beans or math rocks

The other lingos you will need to learn are dice and books. Dice systems are often based on polyhedral dice, of which you can, if you so desire, acquire a set or two. I don’t recommend splurging on dice, but it’s your money. A polyhedral set will contain a d20, a d12,  2 d10s, one marked in the tens place, one in the ones place, a d8, a d6, and a d4. You’re going to run into trouble in differentiating the d8 and the d10s, so keep an eye on that. The 2 d10s let you roll d100. Roll them together, and you take a 20 and a 3 and boom, that’s a 23. You won’t use all the dice all the time for all characters or all systems. Some use piles of d6s or d10s, but everyone everywhere has enough dice. I implore you to not overspend on math rocks when you could be buying books.

Tip 3: The Scroll, the Quill, and your Library Card will carry you far

Generally, systems have names specific enough to identify them. Something like the Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition becomes “5e”. This contrasts with D&D4E (4th edition) or Vampire: The Masquerade, 20th Anniversary edition (V20). As a player, you might need the player’s handbook/core book. Probably not all the time, so borrowing a copy or pdf should be plenty. You will need a character sheet, and I cannot recommend strongly enough printing it out and writing on it with a pencil. Even for an online game, a piece of paper with the things you need is pretty critical. An online character creator can be very useful in putting something together rapidly, but not all systems have them and some games have different rules for character creation.

Andron Hellbreaker is one of my favorite characters ever to play. Dexterity Oath of the Ancients Paladin with a Holy Avenger

Tip 4: Finding A Game in the Arcane Labyrinths

You probably already know someone who plays D&D. Their group is either full, and they will happily point you towards other resources, or it’s not full, and you will have a bit of an audition, get to know the DM, play once, and then hopefully be invited back. As I get out of my twenties and am seeing the end of my thirties, the real tricky bit is timing. Getting together with friends for 2-5 hours on a regular basis is tough, and you really gotta stick with it if you want to thrive and shine. I’ll have more on the audition in later installments; it is a two-way street!

There are subreddits for your area that will likely be good for finding a game if you can’t get invited organically. Although showing up at a stranger’s house with the expectation of staying for a few hours can seem a little scary, it’s also an opportunity to grow. There are also online games in a variety of Virtual Tabletops (VTTs), which can range from very impressive 3D dungeons with physics to a shared space for people to inspect character sheets. In the post-COVID era, getting a Discord, Zoom, or VTT call and having someone phone in is easier than ever. A nice thing about searching out games is you can choose your system first! The lingo here is “Looking for a Group” or LFG.

Tip 5: Arrive in a Tavern

Your Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) is also a great resource. They probably have one night a week for some open games or just allow people to come in and use the space on off-nights.  There is often also a bulletin board/Discord/runic puzzle of people looking for groups; just ask. A hobby store might do in a pinch as well, especially if they have a miniatures section. There is a significant overlap between the tabletop wargaming and tabletop roleplaying communities.

Leverage your existing social networks! School, Church, Fantasy Football League. These are all places you are likely to be able to make some new friends in. One of my groups I found through friends at a bar, and another I found through alcohol recovery, no doors are closed.

If none of these work, talk to some other interested friends about starting your own! DMing (or GMing, or Storytelling, system-dependent) is just as fun as playing, so feel free to jump right in! Most systems will have a section for leading a group, and there are some great resources available. Please, please, PLEASE do not think you need to be doing voices or have a billion painted miniatures or terrain or space. But hold on for the next installment; I will have some hard-earned tips on what separates the intolerable from the delightful!

Is it already your turn? Act now!

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