Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Beginner's Tabletop Game Guide

Tabletop gaming is a beloved pastime for gamers and roleplaying enthusiasts – an outlet for creative problem-solving, character development, and old fashioned monster bashing. But for someone looking to either join a tabletop party for the first time, or start a game of their own, the endeavor is overwhelming.

I remember my first foray into the possibility of playing Dungeons and Dragons. It was a late night after a cast party – a character sheet covered in a hideous spill of math and statistics, and not enough brain cells to process it from lack of sleep and sugar high. Stat after stat we tried to render, having to stop and desperately search a slim packet of rules for something we understood. In the end, we admitted defeat and went to play video games instead, and I learned a valuable lesson: tabletop is a difficult hobby to get into, or enjoy, without experienced players to take your hand and show you the way.

And so I became Professional Fangirl.

Nine years after that unfortunate evening, now with years of successful campaigns and friendships forged around the dungeon map, I have the opportunity to give back what was offered to me: the know-how to make the beginning of a tabletop adventure manageable and fun.

The first thing that any aspiring tabletop player should know about this hobby is that it is not something you can get away with doing on-the-fly. As much of the rules of tabletop gaming are ALWAYS secondary to enjoying yourselves, they exist to maintain balance, and, in many ways, enhance the challenge and storytelling possibilities of a campaign. Even the best players need to consult rule books from time to time, and even the best storytellers can continue to find inspiration in mechanics and obscure skills and feats that will challenge players and make the campaign engaging. To avoid frustration and overwhelming everyone involved, please allocate time generously to letting the rules of character creation, combat, and role-playing sink in. While this is not always the case, I usually plan to have a first session (about four hours) dedicated purely to character crafting. That way, everyone involved has access to rule books and time to iron out any kinks before the game truly begins.

Disclaimer aside, it is also important to mention that there are a wide variety of tabletop games with unique and vivid settings. If traditional fantasy ala D&D does not appeal to you, you might enjoy the cyberpunk universe known as Shadowrun. If a modern setting with a magical twist is more up your alley, try White Wolf’s Mage: The Awakening, or perhaps Werewolf, or Vampire: The Masquerade. The world of Celtic mythos opens with Changeling, and the steampunk realm of Tephra also offers options for people who are squeamish at the thought of the quintessential fantasy with dragons. These settings come with their own sets of rules, materials, and varying degrees of difficulty in learning, but, with a little doing, all offer endless options for adventures to suit anyone's tastes. This small list has only a few of the many games you could explore, but they all have a few things in common: dice, rule books, and character sheets.

When Borders was going out of business in my hometown, I took a gift card and plunged into the sales frenzy. My curiosity piqued once more as I saw a pile of D&D manuals on sale. The urge to try my hand at tabletop had emerged again since that fateful night of confusion, and as I rifled through the good nine or ten volumes, all with different titles, I had the sinking realization that, once again, I had no idea what I was looking at. Monster Manual, Players Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, all these titles meant nothing to me. Which did I need to start a game? Which were optional? They were expensive – even on sale – so once again, I gave up. I used my gift card on chocolate and manga.

So here we go. You ready?

The comprehensive guide for what a fledgling tabletop game needs, doesn't need, and where to get them!


Whatever game you have chosen to take your group into, most have different systems – which means a different set of rules and tools you use to play. Many of these systems are defined by what kind of dice they use. The more infamous system is called d20, which means, in short, it is a system that mainly utilizes a twenty-sided die. White Wolf games utilize a d10 system – 10 sided dice. Shadowrun uses a d6 system. Naturally, the first thing you want to procure will be your dice.

The average person has probably seen a d6 in their lives, whether in games of Yahtzee or Monopoly, but it is not common to run across, say, a d4, d8, or that elusive d20. You won't find them at Walmart. It's one of those little mysteries that people who are outside of the hobby run up against.

The answer: the internet.

Chessex is the largest producer of officially-weighted tabletop dice. They sell what is referred to as the “basic set,” which is the collection of 7 dice that covers most of your tabletop needs. Inside will be a d4, d6, d8, d10, percentile die, d12, and a d20. This set is designed for any d20 system, like Dungeons and Dragons, GURPS, Pathfinder, and others similar. Aside from being rather beautiful, these dice are the backbone of your campaign.

Keep in mind that, more often than not, you may need multiples of the same dice – especially if you're playing a White Wolf game. These d6 or d10 systems tend to rely solely on one kind of die. If your first game is Werewolf or Shadowrun, buy many d10 or d6. The d20 systems tend to be more conservative when it comes to how many dice are needed for each player.

While it is not necessary for every player to own their own dice, its speeds combat up, and it is more fun to have a personal set all your own rather than constantly trading around a communal pool. The most cost-effective way to get a whole party the dice they need is to buy a Chessex “Pound o’ Dice,” which will have many of each denomination in various colors, and is only $20 on Amazon. For those fortunate enough to have a comic or gaming store in their area, dice, as well as many other supplies, can be purchased (at full, painful price) there.

Rule Books:

No matter what system you're interested in, all will have a core set of rules that dictate character creation, lore, combat, and other facets of gameplay that players and storytellers alike should adhere to.

This is your table top bible: the Player’s Handbook, or PHB. It is the first book you will want to buy, and is really the only one that is necessary to run a game. Yes, there are an overwhelming number of books for alternate settings, special monsters, and even premade adventures, but these books will not have the necessary information to run the actual meat and bones of your campaign.

Now, when buying rules books, it is very important to find out what version of the game you are buying. Everyone likes to save money, and so finding rule books used online or at used book stores is easy, but if you have never purchased a tabletop manual before, you can easily buy books and supplements that do not match each other.

Tabletop has been around for a long time, and old systems have been revamped. Rules have been changed. New content has been added. Dungeons and Dragons is the best example of this. It has been through many incarnations: the original, advanced D&D, 2.0, 3.0, 3.5, Pathfinder, 4.0, and the most recent incarnation: 5.0. Picking up a rule book from 2.0, a setting from 3.5, and a monster manual from 4.0, will be not only be a headache, but downright impossible for you to use together.

So which system should you use? Well, in my experience with D&D, at least, there is a general consensus: 3.5 is beloved for not only its breadth of materials, but also its very in-depth rules. The drawback is it is complicated and has a huge amount of information to learn. It also requires many additional books and supplements if you want to get to experience that depth.

The system that shows a great deal of promise in simplification of the system, as well as incorporating unique customization in your starting books, is 5.0, the most current edition. Because it is a new addition, you are unlikely to find reasonably priced used versions of the 5.0 PHB. 3.5 has been out for years, and is much cheaper and easier to get a hold of.

In the end, which edition you choose to play is purely a matter of taste. Just keep in mind that whatever game you play, whatever edition you play, all the supplements you use must match the version that your rule book is.

Character Sheets:

The last essential for a table top game is the character sheet. Rolling a character, aka creating them with all of their statistics and gear, is a process – a long one if you haven't done it often. Having an organized place to record stats and be able to find them mid-game is essential. Most PHB’s in any system will have a character sheet in the back of them. Making copies of it for yourself and for your fellow party members is a good idea.

For the people who purchased a used book, or are playing a system that has no unique character sheet, once again the internet saves the day. There are many fans sites and source pages that have free downloads of character sheets and spell lists. Fill them up, mark them silly, and update them often. Years later, I occasionally pull out my old character sheets and enjoy the memories that come with them.

Welcome to tabletop, and to Professional Fangirl. In coming installments, I will expand upon my guide for new players, breakdown character creation, party compositions, storyteller tips, and much, much more. Happy International Tabletop Day, and may you find adventures worthy of you wherever you go.

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