If you’re new to table top role playing games (TTRPG) it’s likely that you will start with Dungeons & Dragons. It is certainly the most popular TTRPG system and the easiest to find a group of players but you might be starting out with Pathfinder, Call of C’thulu or any other and this advice applies no matter which system you use.

Before we discuss how to get started in a later article, let’s run through what these games are, how they work and why they are so much fun. The term roleplaying game is often used to describe some video games like Baldur’s Gate III, Skyrim, World of Warcraft and the Final Fantasy and Zelda series and whilst there are similarities, TTRPGs offer far more freedom and choice for the player; something we often refer to as ‘Player Agency’. TTRPGs are also far more, creative, social and immersive.


Player Agency – Limitless Options

In a video roleplaying game, such as Baldur’s Gate III or Skyrim you can design your own character, choose their strengths and weaknesses and play them as virtuous or amoral. Your character increases in power and abilities as you explore the world in the order and manner that you choose. You fight monsters and people, use magic, stealth and a choice of weapons as you make allies and enemies in a compelling story that you shape by your game play choices. In these ways it might seem similar to a TTRPG at first glance.

However, you cannot dig a hole. You cannot decide to dig a pit across the path, cover it with branches to make a trap for enemies that pursue you. You cannot choose what to say to people you meet except from a limited list of options. You might not be able to attempt to befriend the hungry wolf that attacks you. You might not climb up a tree to get a better view or scale the outside of a ruined keep with a rope and grappling hook. The newer gmes provide greater options and flexibility but they all have their limitations (in Baldurs Gate III you can’t look up!)

In a TTRPG you can attempt all these things and more; the options available to you are limitless.

When a video game presents you with a challenge you can only resolve it with the limited interface of the game controls. The designers programmed a set number of responses into the game and you can only interact with the game world using these. A video game has a complete and finished design.

In a TTRPG one person takes on the role of the Games Master or Dungeon Master. The GM or DM. These terms mean the same thing. DM is a trademarked term used in Dungeons & Dragons whilst GM is a neutral term but there’s no distinction in the meaning. The other participants are usually called the ‘Players’ as the GM/DM isn’t really playing the game, they are running it, in much the same way as a games console or computer runs a video game. But the GM/DM is also a game designer and continually redesigns the game content and interface to the players’ needs.

The GM/DM will describe the situation the players face and ask them what they do. They might provide some options but ultimately it will be up to the players to decide their course of action (as a group or individually). The GM/DM then determines the outcome and consequences of their actions using the rules if needed. If there’s no chance of failure, there’s no need to use any rules. If a player is talking to a shopkeeper selling farming tools, asks to buy a shovel and hands over the asking price, there’s usually no real chance that can go wrong!

Some courses of actions will be well described by the game rules; such as attempting to kill an opponent with a sword. But a player can attempt anything they can reasonably think of and might decide to do something not explicitly covered in the written rules. There is just no way to tell a video game you want to dig a pit trap if it hasn’t been specifically programmed with this in mind but TTRPGs are designed to facilitate and encourage this creative thinking. The GM/DM doesn’t have to completely re-write the rules if a player asks to dig a hole or tries to ride a dragon, make a battering ram, tame a wolf or anything else. TTRPGs have an open game design.

Creativity – Limitless Content

Video games have a set and defined content. There are lots of game objectives in video games to choose between, from saving the world from dragons to finding a lost dog, but it is possible to complete all of them and finish the game. Likewise, a player can explore the entire available world and even reach the dreaded ‘end of the map’, an invisible boundary that cannot be crossed. A GM/DM can create whatever new content for the game they choose and the players require. They can invent new lands and fresh adventures either by writing this content in between game sessions or just winging it on the fly and again, the game design encourages this.

It could be as simple as creating a single challenge, perhaps bandits attack in the night or maybe a monster breaks free from a town circus (will the players kill it? Capture it? Free it from the town so it can live in the wilds or just leave town and ignore the issue?)

New content could be as ambitious as designing an entire new country with its own problems and wonders. At some point every GM/DM will have to act ‘on the fly’ to some extent but for many the chance to try creating their own material is part of the intoxicating attraction of the role.

A lot of the time, the GM/DM does this without even consciously ‘designing’ it. You and I might run the same scenario of an owlbear attack as the team of players cross a forest. If you decide that the owlbear is hungry and hunting and I decide it is defending territory or a nest of young, then we have made different design choices.

Creativity isn’t limited to just adding more places, adventures and challenges. A GM/DM might design new weapons, spells, monsters or even rule systems. This open design concept is linked to the limitless player agency as mentioned above. For example, a player might decide that their character wants to try their hand at gambling in a tavern card game. The GM/DM could resolve this simply, with a single roll of a dice or they might design or improvise their own special structure allowing the player to choose to bluff, cheat or read their opponents’ tells. It’s all up to the GM/DM and the type of game play that the players want and enjoy.

A social activity – Limitless engagement

Some RPG video games offer multiplayer experiences (massive multiplayer online roleplaying games or MMORPG) and I have to admit that I have never had any interest in them so my basis of comparison is limited. However, I do think that online RPG video games have evolved from what was once, and primarily still is, a solo pastime. TTRPGs are impossible to play on your own. There are many ways to play TTRPGs online using ‘virtual table top’ platforms (VTT) with video conferencing functions and these are developing in exciting ways. But this mode of play is still a world apart from online multi-player RPGs like World of Warcraft or playing Baldurs Gate III with a small group of friends. In these games, a player’s avatar is their primary representation in the game world, perhaps with an audio chat function enabled. Yet in VTT gaming of a TTRPG it is usual for the players to have a video conferencing enabled and their avatar is often a mere token or marker. Fundamentally, a player engages with a MMORPG via the controls on the control pad, keyboard or mouse whilst a TTRPG relies upon human speech as a control medium and so is inherently more social.

I have played online (mostly during the Covid lockdowns) but overwhelmingly I play in person, sat with friends around a table. Whatever can be said of playing a TTRPG in person or via a VTT, either option provides far more human interaction than a multi-player video game. You may be familiar with ‘Wheaton’s Law’ from the sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Simply put, the key rule of how to play acceptably is ‘Don’t be a dick’. TTRPGs build friendships and very few people want to be a dick to their friends or gaming group. TTRPGs are designed as inherently co-operative and there is far less sense of trying to ‘beat the game’ as the GM/DM is likely a friend, and their role isn’t adversarial in any event.

An adventuring party have truly shared experiences and the human element transcends even the best game design, it supports the game and flows through it … I suppose it’s sort of like the Force! When the game you play isn’t contained in graphics and code but exists in the imaginations of your fellow players and your interactions with them then the game you play is as infinite as human relations can be. It becomes real, because you are playing with real people.

Immersion – Limitless Characterisation

No matter what customisation options or levels of realism a video game provides the player avatar feels stale and one dimensional compared to a TTRPG character. This cannot be stated highly enough and I feel confident that any TTRPG player would agree. I could try to analyse why but I’m no expert in psychology so hopefully it will serve to say it as I see it.

The unlimited nature of TTRPGS (as discussed above) makes the characters seem real. When they speak, it has the undefinable quality of humanity. Even the best of AI systems cannot replicate the infinite non-verbal communication of voice intonation and facial expression. It doesn’t require accents or acting; a human controlled a character, whether it’s a player or the GM/DM running an NPC (non-player character), feels real. When they act, it isn’t limited by software design or proscribed options and we react to them as if they were real. The choices open to a character in Baldurs Gate III to shape the game, as impressive as they are for a video game, are nothing compared to a TTRPG. Every interaction, every choice, every description shapes a picture in the minds of the players at the table that carries on from game session to game session until the character feels apart from the player controlling them. And because that mental picture is shared by the gaming group as a whole it becomes more valid and real.

Two Skyrim characters, played by different people, with similar fighting styles will feel similar, even if they carry different weapons and equipment, choose different goals and have different attributes. On the other hand, two TTRPG characters could share identical values in pure gameplay mechanics but feel utterly apart based upon the personality of the players and the personality they have given their characters. I could pick up your game of Skyrim and play with your character but I could never run your D&D character as I don’t even know who they are. Video games feel like games but a well-run TTRPG feels like an adventure!

So how do you get started?