So you’ve decided to get started with RPGs! Congratulations! Whether you’re getting ready to play your first session, or you’ve played a bit and you’d like some tips to feel more comfortable at the table, look no further. We’re going to give you a few basic suggestions to get you feeling more comfortable, and then one for those overachieving, extra credit types (like me).
1. Get familiar with the rules
There are a LOT of RPGs out there, and each one has different specifics. Dungeons and Dragonsa nd Pathfinder both use the same 5 attributes, but D&D uses different ability checks than Pathfinder. Vampire: the Masquerade uses a D10 base system. Overlight uses “tests” instead of ability checks. Whatever system you choose, when you decide you’re ready to start a new RPG system, make sure you take the time to familiarize yourself with the rules, game mechanics, and your character sheet. You should always feel comfortable asking questions at the table, and the people you play with should be willing to help you out, but the game will flow better, and you’ll feel more comfortable the more you prep. That doesn’t mean you have to read the entire rulebook cover to cover (Pathfinder 2E’s is 640 pages), but you should definitely check out specific chapters, chat with your game master (aka your GM), or watch some helpful videos to get you started.
2. Use the phrase “yes, and”
“Yes, and” is the very basis of improvisation, which is what RPGs essentially are: a very structured, longform improv. The idea is that when someone says something, you agree and then add to it.
The GM may say something like, “The local guard approaches your party. ‘Where were you all last night when the mayor’s daughter went missing?”
One player at the table thinks fast and replies, “We were at the pub, having a pint with friends!”
You can then add to that by yes, anding: “We won the drinking competition! That we invented, but that’s not the point. We are champions!”
Think about how many choices you’ve now given your team. They can now talk about how they did in the contest, who they competed against, what the contest was, and more. Now players have more to talk about to make your story believable (whether or not you’re lying to the guard). You’re saying “yes, we were at the pub, and here are some things we did”. It helps move the story forward faster than simply agreeing with your teammate, and it encourages you to make on-the-spot decisions that can lead to something funny, exciting, or influential about your character. You don’t have to literally say “yes, and,” but keep that phrase in mind as you play.
3. If you don’t say it, no one else knows
It’s easy to think of RPGs as a book you’re all writing together. But while in a book you get insight into a character’s thoughts and motivations that the rest of the characters don’t have, at the RPG table there is no way for the other players to know something about your character unless you tell them. Sure, in a book the normally timid character hauling off and punching the leader of a dogfighting ring made sense because we knew that he had a beloved pet as a child. Or perhaps that’s the moment in the book where we’re treated to the flashback. But if your character does that and then offers no explanation for it (maybe your character doesn’t trust their party with that information yet), the other players are just going to be left confused. It’s totally okay if you’re not ready to reveal parts of your backstory. But again, think about the clues a book will give you that a character is hiding something. Maybe afterwards you point out that your character clenches his fists, or tries to wipe his eyes without being noticed, or stares off into the distance when someone tries to talk to him. Show, don’t tell. It will make for a more interesting story. Remember, if you don’t let the players know your intention, there’s no other way for them to know.
4. It’s ok to mess up
Not only is it okay for you to mess up, you’re going to mess up. You’re going to flub a rule, or forget an ability, or make a choice you regret. It’s 100% okay. Everyone has done it. Literally. I feel pretty confident saying literally everyone who has played an RPG has messed up at some point. Join the club! The best thing to do is acknowledge it, fix it if you can, and move on. Don’t harp on it, don’t beat yourself up over it, and please don’t stop playing!
The Extra Credit
Take an improv class
This one sounds pretty intimidating to a lot of people. Isn’t improv just for actors? Not at all! Improv at its core is just practicing how to “yes, and”. Some people at the class will be actors, some may be people trying to get comfortable with public speaking, some may be teachers practicing thinking on the fly; there are a lot of reasons to take an improv class. Practicing for a role-playing game is an absolutely valid reason. You’ll probably play a lot of games that help you practice making big choices, listening to your scene partners, and thinking quickly. These are all skills that are indispensable for RPGs.
We say this is extra credit because it’s certainly not necessary in order to play an RPG. You’re already spending money on a rulebook, and dice (shiny dice!), and maybe minis, or playmats, or other accessories. But if you find that this is something you love, and you want to get better, definitely consider it. Then let us know how it went!