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Dylan’s back today. Today, he’s talking about how to start playing a roleplaying game. For those of you who haven’t read one of his posts already, Dylan, @vanhelsquirrel on Twitter, runs Vanhelsquirrel’s Maps and Modules as well as being an active part of Voyage of the Mind. After this post (his third!), I’ll probably stop giving him an introduction. — Laura


art from Dungeons and Dragons, a roleplaying game

How to Start Playing a Roleplaying Game

Decided to take the plunge after reading my post 5 Reasons to Play Roleplaying Games? Or maybe you’ve always wanted to play a roleplaying game but didn’t know how to start? Roleplaying games (RPGs) can seem challenging to get into for several reasons. Today I’m going to talk about how to start playing a roleplaying game, the quick and easy way. Bear in mind that I’ve kept this advice generalized. Depending on what game you pick and other factors, some parts may not apply to you. At the end of the article, I’ll invite you to ask me anything that’ll help you get started on your roleplaying journey!

What’s my history with roleplaying games?

I think I should share my own path before we continue. I’m giving you advice, so you should know where it’s coming from.

The first time I played a roleplaying game (it was Dungeons and Dragons 3E) was on a family vacation. My cousins had started playing with their father that year, and they convinced many of us to give it a go. I was hooked. When I got home, I immediately recruited my friends to play. We played as a group for the entirety of high school and a bit into college.

Distance and a lack of free time ended that game, unfortunately. I eventually started playing this past year with Laura, some of her family, and a few of our friends. We have had a game going periodically throughout the past year. Between those two, I played in a local Adventurer’s League once, and participated in two online games. I’ve been playing for nearly 18 years. In my current game, I’m the dungeon master (DM) — the one who manages the game. But I’ve also played as a player character many times before.

All right, let’s dive into how to start playing a roleplaying game.

Your first steps into playing: Meeting fellow adventurers!

adventuring party
Let’s hope your fellow adventurers won’t be quite this unruly… at least at first!

There are plenty of ways to start playing a roleplaying game. The advent of online roleplaying has brought even more!

Still, a fairly common path is to head down to a local hobby shop (brick and mortar board game store or model emporium) to see if they offer any sessions. Many of these stores host Adventurer’s League (D&D 5E) and other games, open to the public. The store may charge for the seat, but it’s still an easy way to get going, especially if you only intend to play once or twice there before forming your own party. In addition, there are often groups playing in these stores who may be willing to let someone join up for a day. Never be afraid to ask. If they say no, just politely thank them for their time.

An alternative to the hobby shop approach is to use an app to find local games. They’re pretty similar to dating apps. People post “hosting” and “looking to join” ads. My recommendation would be to see if everyone would be willing to play a first session in a conference room at the local library, just so you have a chance to meet everyone on neutral ground. Safety first!

Online games are also an option. Websites such as Roll20 have hundreds (if not thousands) of games open to join most hours of the day.

Personally, I don’t like playing in random games with strangers online. I find that these types of groups often dissolve quickly, or suffering from festering drama. But online play is still a valid way to get started, since you just need a crash course. Be open, talk to the person hosting the game (the DM), and if possible talk to some of the players before joining. Even though the online format isn’t my favorite — it leads to the loss of that old-school D&D in-person feel — it might be your preference. At the end of the day, choose the method that works best for you.

A Great Method: Muster Your Own Adventurers!

Which brings me to a final and great method for starting to play a roleplaying game like D&D — recruiting a party of adventurers. Jokes aside, you are very likely to find friends, family, or coworkers who are at least willing to give D&D or any other roleplaying game a go with you. Pinning a flyer on the break-room fridge or asking people in conversation are valid strategies.

I find this to be the best method, mostly because you already have an established connection with these people that will make gameplay more fun. If you’re all newbies, I’d take some time to watch a couple YouTube videos of people roleplaying, so you get the gist of what’ll be going on. But if at least one of you has played before, that person can help others catch on. You’d be surprised by how many people want to give playing a try.

You’ve gathered your party. It’s time to gather your equipment.

Choosing an RPG to Play

Finding players to adventure with is the hardest part of starting, in my opinion.

Once you’ve crossed that hurdle, things get easier. And way more fun, too. Now it’s time to decide what roleplaying game you want to play. Take time to consider your setting and the type of game everyone wants to play. Do you want high magic fantasy? Maybe you want a more gritty, realistic fantasy? Perhaps you want Game of Thrones. Talk to your fellow players and come to an equitable agreement. And don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Fantasy isn’t the limit. There are plenty of sci-fi RPGs out there as well as survival and post-apocalyptic. There is even a Lovecraftian RPG should you wish to tangle with Cthulhu.

The RPGs out there are incredibly varied in their content and focus. Some have combat-heavy gameplay, while others stress interpersonal interaction or political intrigue. Still others have a broad scope that lets the DM and the group decide what kind of game they want to play. I’d recommend starting out with an open-ended RPG like Dungeons and Dragons, because you’ll have a chance to explore what you and your group like in an RPG.

D&D is a good starting point for most people. It’s the best known roleplaying game, and in the past years it’s gotten some love in mass media — Stranger Things, anyone? As a result, it’s become more mainstream and its “onboarding” process tends to be more streamlined than that of most RPGs. D&D is now in its 5th edition (that’s why I’ve referred to it as D&D 5E).

Purchasing Materials

Whatever the game you’re playing, there’s going to be some upfront cost. In gold! Just kidding, but the rulebooks unfortunately don’t come cheap.

In addition to a couple sets of player’s rules, you’ll also need at least one copy of your game’s “monster manual” or bestiary and possibly a copy of the game’s dungeon master’s guide, for your DM. (That last one is typically optional, though encouraged.)

A fun part: Everyone will also need a couple sets of dice. Dice come pretty cheap on Amazon — check out this deal, which gives you six sets, seven dice apiece, for just $11! There are also plenty of vanity dice makers, if you’re looking to spend slightly more money for a more cool and quality produce. Check out Die Hard Dice and Norse Foundry, the latter of which sells gemstone dice. You can get a set of amethyst dice for around $15, which isn’t too bad. You can also buy dice at most hobby shops or game stores, often at the checkout counter. Buying dice is a fun part of the process and lets each player customize their materials.

Lastly and especially if your DM is new to roleplaying, you may want to purchase a premade adventure module. D&D and most other games have a good variety of official adventures to use, each complete with maps, monsters, and stats for non-player characters (NPCs). You’ll save yourself some time at the beginning of your campaign and help your DM learn how to craft and run an adventure.

My Suggestions for Starting D&D

Let’s say you’ve decided to play D&D. If your group is new to roleplaying, I’d suggest checking out this helpful list of free (and legal) PDFs for 5E D&D. The full D&D 5E Player’s Handbook isn’t available in PDF form, but once you go through using the basic rules and play a couple sessions, you’ll have an idea of whether you want to invest the money to buy the expanded rules on Amazon.

If you decide it’s time to invest, I’d suggest splitting the cost of the Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual (and Dungeon Master’s Guide, if you decide to get it) between all of the players. Each of these books will run you about $50. So if you have six people involved, that’s $150/6, which means each player will have to contribute $25. If one player can’t pay, the others can create a repayment plan for them or just cover the cost. Don’t hesitate to help your fellow players buy the needed materials if they’re having trouble affording them. Dice are a great gift for a new player. And if you’re going to stick with the game, buying some of the hardcovers is worth it.

Here are the Player’s Handbook and the Monster Manual on Amazon.

Scheduling

The only challenging part left is scheduling. This, especially if you’re playing with adults, rarely goes perfectly smoothly. Everyone has responsibilities and jobs they need to attend to, and free time might come at a premium for many in your group. This tends to get worse as you get older.

My best strategy is to pick a date and time, check availability, and call it a go. If someone can’t make it, they can propose an alternative. Try to have everyone present for the first session or two. After that, depending on your group’s size, it’ll be okay to play with a member or two absent as long as you make sure it’s fine with them.

Also pick a place to play, uninhibited. Someone’s house is usually a safe bet. Renting a table at a hobby shop is an option too. My friends and I first played in our local library’s group study room. Playing online together could work too if everyone is willing. I think it’s best to try to have each session at the same place whenever possible. So keep availability in mind when choosing your play space.

Session “zero” to session one: Adventure awaits!

Quick point on terminology before we continue. Players usually refer to each individual get-together as a “session.” Completed or self-contained story arcs are known as “campaigns.”

Usually, at the start of a campaign, players have a “session zero.” Session zeroes are about getting to know the campaign you’ll be playing, getting to know the other players, and making sure everyone’s needs are heard. If there’s a subject you’re not comfortable with, voice that during session zero. Want to lean more into heroic fantasy than horror? Session zero is the time to say that. Make your wants known, but keep in mind that others will do the same. Your DM will listen to everyone and start crafting an adventure to fit your group.

You can also make characters during the session zero as a group. I personally prefer doing this as you’ll get a good group make up. In D&D, for example, you’ll want some characters who can hit hard and stand strong on the front lines, and other characters who can stand behind and fling magic or shoot arrows, plus you’ll want someone who can heal fellow party members. By creating characters together, people will better integrate their characters. Character backgrounds might be intertwined, creating a story. This is a chance to engage in group creativity.

Time to play! Ready to battle a dragon?

people playing Dungeons and Dragons, a roleplaying game
Some people playing Dungeons and Dragons. Look how intense they’re getting!

By this point you, and your party, should be ready to play. Keep in mind that you’re new. Your fellow players might be new too. If your whole group is new, your DM likely has little to no idea what they are doing. That’s okay. It’s okay to be a novice. Just stick with it, and you’ll learn. Be patient with each other and accept that session one might be a bit of a mess. Keep your willingness to have a session two, and you’ll be fine.

I recommend trying to stay as close as possible to official content when you start. It’s certainly tempting to build your own monster, your own setting, maybe even your own class or race. There will be time for that down the road. Learn the game as it was designed and balanced when you start. Still add flavor to your character, but don’t change the mechanics yet.

A lot falls on the DM’s shoulders, so do what you can to ease the burden by being an “easy” player, at least at first while your DM is learning. If you’re the DM… Well, that’s a story for another day.

If you enjoyed “How to Start Playing a Roleplaying Game,” read more on Voyage of the Mind!

Definitely read about why you should start playing a roleplaying game. If you’re a writer, you might also be interested in how playing Dungeons and Dragons can help you improve your writing. Check out five reasons you should start gardening and five reasons you should learn to cook.

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