Table Reflection: So You Want to Play 1 (Etiquette and Basics)

I can still remember a good deal of my formative tabletop roleplaying experiences, and since I essentially self-discovered the hobby they were pretty bumpy, and it wasn’t until much later that I actually read the sort of things that help with getting started playing. Today marks the beginning of my So You Want to Play series, intended to help beginners break into tabletop roleplaying with a minimum of inconvenience for both you and the group you join, primarily focusing on starting out as a player.

One of the first things I learned as a gamer transitioning from digital to tabletop is that there’s a whole different set of etiquette. Some of this is pretty basic for all human interactions; if everyone else brings food, bring some too, or set up turns so that people don’t bear too much of a burden. It’s polite to thank your host (and the GM, since he almost certainly put the most effort into making sure everyone had a good time). Obviously, don’t speak out of turn-often this is viewed as less rude in context, because people can get pretty excited, but you’ll still interrupt the game; if you’re a player you can also make it harder for the GM to figure out what everyone’s trying to say, and if you’re a GM you’ll run the risk of frustrating players or missing out on something that you interrupted.

However, gamers themselves have their own etiquette conventions. Obviously, if you’re transitioning from the digital, you need to stop thinking of the player character as the protagonist, as most video game player characters are, and think of them as part of a group; it may be cool to be Gordon Freeman, but you’ll have to communicate more and step back at the appropriate times in the tabletop sphere or else you’ll run the risk of both shutting down other people’s characters and getting your own killed off by trying to do something that they can’t. If you’re a digital gamer already, think about a MMORPG (or even some of the Drakensang/Dragon Age/Baldur’s Gate/Neverwinter Nights sort of games); no one character will be capable of doing everything, and even if they could the game is built to have people in certain roles-you may be multiclassed in barbarian and wizard and be able to take on any one challenge, but you still need to cooperate with your party members to win against great adversity.

In addition, basically every game has a narrator, game master, dungeon master, or otherwise person in charge of running it. I typically use the term “Game Master” by default, since it’s the most common. Most games include a “rule zero”, which states that the Game Master (or GM) has the final say, and since they’re in charge of telling you a story, and entertaining you, it’s usually a good idea to roll with things. This isn’t to say that you can’t have autonomy, but if the dragon doesn’t die when you expect it to or when you’ve understand the mechanics and they just got nudged, it’s usually something the GM is trying to make more awesome, not something just to disadvantage you. If you have a gripe with your GM, talk to him or her about it. Remember the things I said about conventional social etiquette? It’s not nice to gossip about your GM either; the one appropriate time to do this would be if you’re an outsider to the group and you ask a player who knows the GM better about certain things, and even then state your concerns objectively rather than saying “The GM hates me!”. Remember that they’re human, and in all the groups I’ve played with I have yet to find two with the same style.

There’s also a few things to learn about tabletop gaming conventions that will really help. First, there’s a pretty much universal dice notation scheme that refers to the number of dice and the sides on them. This short hand is XdY, with the X being the number of dice and the Y being the number of sides on each; 5d6 would be five six-sided dice. If this confuses you, you can get a random number generating software that adheres to dice rules, like those found at donjon.bin.sh or Roll20, and just try out a number of rolls until you figure out what’s going on (alternatively, get some real dice and toss them, but high-quality gaming dice can run at least $4.50, and I’ve seen people pay $20 for six dice, so if you’re still noncommittal you may want to hold off on that). I’m not going to try to describe each of the dice here, but know that larger dice typically have smaller face sizes; a d20 (or, heavens forbid, d100) will typically have tiny faces, while a d4 “caltrop” or d6 will have large faces.

I find it helpful to break games down into a few mechanical categories; roll and compare, pool successes, roll and keep, and bidding. “Roll and compare” games are the most common, and include such classics as Dungeon & Dragons itself, in which the core mechanic is to roll a die (or in some occasions a few dice), ask the GM or consult the rules for a target number, and then check against it. “Pool successes” games are like Shadowrun or Vampire: The Masquerade, and typically have players roll from a “pool” of dice and compare how many successes they get against a set target number, with successes being more important than the total result. “Roll and keep” games, like Legend of the Five Rings, have players roll many dice, choose the ones that will actually count using some metric (such as “choose five of seven”), and then (usually) add these dice together to find the result. Finally, there are games that eschew dice at all, and just use a “bidding” system, but these tend to be heavily narrative driven, like Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple.

Of course, there are variations on all of these games-I reviewed 44 just the other day, and it’s a roll and compare d6-based game in which you only keep your best result out of a pool of dice you roll. In addition, these categories are general, not literal design concepts, so you’ll see a game that mostly uses one of these, and then integrates another component, like some games where you can spend (essentially bidding) a point of what is essentially a character’s luck to roll another time and keep the best result or add to your successes, something that falls into not only two but three of these mechanic categories within a game that normally doesn’t use more than one or two.

In addition, your GM may advise you to read through the rules or create a rules summary for you; I highly recommend taking a nice long look at the books during the interludes; ask any questions you have immediately so that your GM can help you. The old adage that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is true on the tabletop, and I can’t count the number of times that I’ve stopped one of my sessions to ask a player what exactly he thought he was doing or made an epic rules goof-up during an important scene. Fortunately, thanks to the flexible nature of tabletop play, these things can usually be resolved, and you won’t ruin a game simply due to a rules mess-up; during some of my early games (and unofficially during some of my more recent ones as well) I’ve had the rules change several times during the course of play as we figured out their proper interpretation, a site like the Roleplaying Games section of Stack Exchange can be helpful to get an expert opinion or clarification on something you just can’t wrap your head around.

I hope that you found this all helpful; join us next week when I write about finding a group.

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