The rise of the Actual Play form of media for tabletop games has increased the visibility of tabletop games. This means that there are a flood of people who are just discovering interest in the hobby. I have seen several folks ask for advice or how to get into the hobby. This article is an attempt for me to gather as much advice for new players as possible.
Finding a Game
This is the hardest part of this hobby. Even as someone who has been playing tabletop games for almost a decade now, I still sometimes have trouble getting into games. One of the biggest parts of this is schedules. I think this meme about sums it up.
Even if you are part of a long standing group, life can get in the way and cause time issues. For this I don’t have any perfect advice other than to keep looking. Maybe you will find luck playing an online game, as there are many games out there with a huge variety of schedules. Sites like roll20.net include Looking for Group boards. Perhaps you might try your hand at Play by Post games, games that you post to a forum and play over a longer period of time. It isn’t impossible to find a game, it might just take some time.
Every GM/Player is Different
This is an idea that sometimes is overlooked by new players. Play style is a huge factor in most groups. You can find numerous articles that attempt to break down the different archetypes of players. That is not what I will be covering here though. I bring this up for a simple reason: if you aren’t having fun, it probably isn’t you. Sometimes you aren’t having as much fun because the other people at the table have a different definition of fun, this includes the Game Master.
For a example, I am a very storytelling centric GM. I love to tell a story and include drama and intrigue along the way. I have combats but they have to have meaning behind them, they need to tell a story. Some gamers don’t want story getting in the way of having a good game. They just want to go into the dungeon and kick the crap out of some goblins and maybe fight a dragon. This is perfectly fine, their play style is no better or worse than my own. This just means that at my table they may not have near as much enjoyment as another table. Being able to recognize this will be a good skill to master as you look for groups.
Don’t Take it too Seriously
I wish this was not something I had to cover. It is a form of entertainment, not your life’s work. If your character dies, yeah it might be emotional. You might get incredibly upset and want to blame someone. Don’t. This is a game. The only time you should be upset is if the individuals you are playing with are actually antagonizing you and making the game not fun. Just because you roll bad for an evening or your character experiences something traumatic, recognize that the scenario is not real. The game should never take precedence over your life. Go to work or do your homework, no one wants to see your life fall apart because of a game.
On the flip side, the emotions you experience are real. If you feel genuinely upset at the death of a character, that just means that you are fully immersed in the experience. Treasure these moments, use them to build you up as a person. I know people who are lifelong friends because of the fictional stories they experienced together. Know that the people you play with are there for you and experiencing everything just the same. It’s okay to cry when a character dies. It’s okay to hate the villain for the horrible things they’ve done.
It’s a Game not a Test
Okay, now away from the more emotional side of the game. Let’s get into actually playing the game. A huge intimidation factor for new players is seeing the numerous rule books that are used at the table. They become concerned that they have to learn everything about the game or they won’t be accepted at the table. This is absolutely false. It’s a game, not a test. You don’t need to study the Player’s Handbook just to start your first game. Most of the time I don’t have new players even look at the rulebook their first time playing. If you WANT to read the entire book (like I have multiple times) then do so if it brings you enjoyment, not because you have to. Make sure to explain to your GM that you are a new player if they are not already aware.
Cooperation, not Competition
In a majority of games, the focus of tabletop games are on cooperation. You are in a party of adventurers, you are a team. In general, you are working together not against each other. Healthy competition is not a problem. You and the dwarf are seeing who can kill the most amount of orcs? That seems like fun! You and the dwarf are going to fight to the death because you found a +2 sword of smiting? You better rethink what you are doing.
Let every player have their moment to shine, don’t hog that spotlight. The story is not just about you, but everyone. Make sure to be self aware with how much you are speaking and make sure everyone has a chance to contribute. If you see someone hasn’t given any input, consider asking them in character what they think. It’s not just the GM’s job to give those moments, it’s everyone’s.
If you can avoid it, don’t be a dick to the other characters. Avoid creating those types of characters unless you have worked out with the other players a way to incorporate that character archetype. Who would want to team up with someone who talks down to them all the time or steals from them constantly? Just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you should.
Another subject I wish I didn’t have to cover. Communication is one of the greatest achievements in human history. It is also our greatest failing. More often than not, it is a failure to communicate, or miscommunication, that ends up creating issues. When describing what a character is doing, make sure to include what you are intending to do with your actions. This makes it so when the GM gives you the results, you don’t get something you weren’t expecting. I have run into this issue far too often.
Avoid arguing during the game while out of character. If you think a rule is being interpreted incorrectly then bring it up AFTER the game with you GM. It is your GM’s job to enforce rules and make immediate judgement calls. If you don’t agree with your GM bring it up with them after the game. The most tiring thing a GM can experience is a player trying to do their job for them. You wouldn’t want another player playing your character, so why would you do that to the GM?
If you have an issue with something going on at the table. Be it rules, or with issues that influence the game. Make sure to speak up. Find the appropriate time to discuss it, like at the end of a session or to your GM in private. If something is impacting you having fun you need to address it or nothing will happen about it. If it doesn’t get resolved, then remember that it’s just a game, you can quit when you need to. If you are having issues with conflict resolution I have an article covering that here.
My absolute favorite moments in my tabletop gaming experiences are the times that I failed. While it feels better to win, it feels even better to win after a failure. If you always win, you will get bored. Nothing feels like a challenge because everything you try you succeed at. This is why people don’t like Mary Sue’s. They are boring. In mythology there are tendencies for heros to fail several times at a heroic task before succeeding. This is because it makes the task seem incredibly difficult, and succeeding feels like that much more of an accomplishment.
A while back I played Pathfinder with a good group of friends. During that game my character, an incredibly intelligent alchemist, failed a save against a siren’s song. My GM could have taken control of my character but he let me handle it. While I could have taken his trust and fake trying to leap into the ocean doing everything I could to not actually fail, I instead went whole hog and did everything my character could to get into the ocean. I took my character’s failing and created a memorable moment when I used one of my limited resources to escape my own team in an attempt to kill my own character. It was stupid fun and I will never forget the story. By taking agency into your character’s failings, they don’t feel like failures, but a stepping stone for your character to become better.
Embrace Low Stats/Flaws
I encourage my players during character creation to keep stat numbers that are low. I do this because it creates a flawed character. As mentioned in the last section, nobody likes a perfect character. They are boring power fantasies that get old quick. Choosing to have a low strength, and then trying to do feats of strength gives opportunities for your party members to shine where you fail. Have a low wisdom and make impulsive decisions? This can be the start of an entire story arc! Low stats and chosen flaws create drama and the chance of failure. I love it when my players make the least optimal decision in a situation, not only because as a GM that magic number I came up with was high enough, but because I also get to introduce something new to the game.
The GM is not your Enemy
You see all over the media stories of the “evil GM” who is out to kill your character and cause misery wherever their gaze lies. They control the universe after all, how could they not get drunk with power? While I myself play to this very trope, it is far from the truth. Even when I joke about killing a character, I get genuinely stressed when I actually get close to having it happen. As a GM, I am there to facilitate the experience. I am crafting a story FOR my players, not a crazy power fantasy where the universe is against the party. Yes, we play the villains. Sometimes we play them so well that you hate us because of how horrible the villain is. We also play the party’s allies. We give the party the tools to overcome challenges. Many GM’s are like GLaDoS from Portal, we get a euphoric sense when player’s overcome our challenges. You discovered the solution to the puzzle? I get a nice dose of Dopamine and you get a +2 sword of badassery.
Why am I saying all this? GM’s are hard working people. They spend numerous hours outside the game prepping and building everything you come across as a player. They spend so much of their time to give you a fun experience. Does this mean I’m saying you should trust your GM? Absolutely not! I do what I can to make myself unpredictable as a GM, so you can’t figure out what to do based off of what I’ve done in the past. What it does mean is that you should appreciate the person GMing for you and trust that they have the best of intentions for your experience. Have a session where everything goes poorly? Most GM’s are more concerned about it than you are.
Fun is not always Optimized
No matter what people tell you, an optimized character is not a prerequisite for fun. This doesn’t mean an optimized character is not fun, I have fun making hyper optimized characters. Keep in mind what you enjoy. If there is a mechanic that you really enjoy and want to be the core of your character then build it for that. Care more about story than mechanics? Put more time into writing your backstory than the rest of your character. There is no right way to build a character.
Play something that interests you. You want to be an edgy assassin who has no respect for authority? Go for it! Want to play a loveable elf who likes sweets and bunny rabbits? Sounds fun! Make sure that whatever you go with, you are playing the character, not the character sheet. The sheet is there for the rules, not who your character is.
Become Invested in the Game
Sometimes it can become easy to get detached from the game you are playing. Maybe you don’t have a goal or you have no investment in the world. Sadly, we GM’s are not mind readers, if we were this wouldn’t always be an issue. Generally, it’s a good idea to create goals for your character and express those to the GM. Outline some characters from your backstory and let your GM play with them. Players have a tendency to be orphans because they don’t want their GM’s to kill them, so they do it themselves! (Hint to GM’s, Necromancy is a way to get around this.) Having an in-game family is a great way to tie yourself into the world. Work with your GM to create ties into the game world and story.
Yeah, I’m shoving my obligatory blogger alignment section here. No doubt you have seen the various charts of the D&D alignment systems and how your favorite fictional characters fall into it. Yes, there is a spot for you to fill it out on your character sheet. Personally I stopped using the alignment system entirely in my games for ONE reason only: “You can’t do that. That’s not <insert alignment here>.” As a storyteller, writer, and GM, these words piss me off. When you are making your character and pick an alignment I recommend you choose this AFTER you finish everything else about your character. I say this because alignment is actually a fluid system. A Lawful Good character can become a Chaotic Evil one. It is not a system designed to limit character decision. It exists fully because of the spell Detect Evil and Good along with a few other inconsequential mechanics that are actually designed for use against NPC’s. It is baggage from older editions of D&D. People trying to tell you what not to do based on your alignment can come fight me.
Learn the Rules for your Character
Now, I know I said earlier this article that you don’t need to know the rules to play. I still stand by that statement. But as you progress in a game, and come back each week (or however often you play) it will be important for you to learn and remember the rules that you use for the character. It doesn’t have to be an immediate process, but understanding what you have available (which usually is outlined on your character sheet) will help keep the flow of the game going and make the challenge of the game less on how to play and more on the in-game scenarios. Trust me when I say this, but learning your character’s rules will make the game more enjoyable for yourself.
Yeah, yeah, I know. The game is not a test. That’s not why I’m saying to take notes. Taking notes is an incredibly useful skill to develop early in tabletop roleplaying games because it eases the amount of mental load you have to burden when attempting to recount information. Writing down names of characters, what loot you received, what your current objective is, will make recalling information that happened weeks ago that much easier. It becomes even more important as you get into a solid group and play for YEARS. No one needs to be able to read these notes except for you, so no pressure on making them tidy. These are simply for your convenience.
Too many times we get caught up in the moment. We are thrilled to hear what our comrades have done and the descriptions the GM gives of the current situation. However, you need to be able to think ahead on what your character plans to do. While the current situation might change and mess up your plans, that is fine. It’s going to happen sooner or later anyways. For all the other times, you will want to be prepared especially if you are a spell caster. The most time consuming part of a game is when a spell caster is unprepared for what is happening, spending several minutes trying to find the appropriate spell. Make a plan, and then make a backup plan if you have less confidence that you can execute your plan. This comes up more in combat than anything.
Pay Attention/Don’t Interrupt
Humans can’t multitask, it’s scientifically proven. What our brains do is switch back and forth between various tasks and thoughts. Learning to switch between paying attention and planning ahead is a useful skill to master, although you don’t have to be perfect. Not only is paying attention keeping you up to date on current events, it is also just respectful to the GM and players. Having to repeat oneself because you weren’t paying attention is frustrating, especially if it is a long winded description. During these moments avoid interrupting unless it is story relevant. Even then, if the GM is describing a scene, shut up and pay attention. It’s annoying trying to figure out where you were in a description because a player interrupted you, or being constantly halted. Save your reactions and questions until the GM has finished their description. Don’t hold side conversations during these moments either, save that dialog until you understand what is going on.
Just in case you have already forgotten, this is a game. Have fun! As long as you accomplish this then you are doing everything right. Facilitate fun for everyone and remember that you may have off days, everyone does. We play these games to enjoy time with our friends and go on adventures. If you can sit down at the end of the session and smile looking back on what happened, then you’ve done everything right.
Hopefully these pieces of advice were helpful for you. If you have any advice that helped you when starting out and I didn’t list it here, please leave a comment or tweet at my @your1_nightmare. I love to hear all the different bits of advice and everyone’s own experiences.