I see people all over the geekosphere coming to the hobby of RPGs lately. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll define RPGs simply as: interactive games in which you play the role of a person in an imaginary environment.
So, like this:
RPGs are a style of gaming that came about in the 1970s, and have had relative levels of success and popularity since then.
Maybe you have fond memories of playing D&D with your pals as a kid and have thought about getting back into them. Maybe you’ve heard about these games from friends and want to give them a shot. In any case, the options can be overwhelming for someone either entering the hobby, or coming back to it.
Going to a dedicated RPG forum, and asking for a simple game to get you started can be frustrating. Most experienced gamers know what they like, and want you to like it, too. You might just want to dip your toes in, and give it a shot before shelling out tons of dough on expensive books and play materials.
I’m writing this as a quick primer to getting you set up with a game ASAP. Also, I’m presenting materials you can use to play these games with minimal or no cost. For the most part, the items I’m presenting below are free as PDFs; some have the option to pay for hardcopies.
To begin, here’s a quick list of the things you will absolutely need to play an RPG:
- Imagination, and a willingness to have fun
- A group of friends to share in the adventure
- Dice, or another randomizer
- Common office supplies for record keeping (paper and pencil at the most basic)
Optional items include:
- Miniature figurines to represent your characters, and the characters/monsters they will meet.
- Some sort of play surface to represent areas of adventure.
- Pre-written adventures to get started.
- A pre-written ‘world’ in which to set your adventures.
All that being said, here’s how to get yourself started:
To start with, of course you’ll need a set of rules, the framework for how your characters will interact with the world. There are any number of RPG systems out right now, giving you the ability to choose a level of complexity that’s right for you.
However, I’m going to recommend you take a look at the “Labyrinth Lord” system. Labyrinth Lord is a clone of the early edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game. If you played the D&D “Basic Set” back in the early 80s, you’ll recognize what’s going on in LL. If you want to add some options and complexity, get the “Advanced Edition Companion” for the game. Both of these are free to download as PDFs in an ‘art-free’ version. You can also order hardcopies from Lulu.com, or pick them up at your local game store.
If you like Labyrinth Lord, I also encourage you to check out the publisher’s forums. The folks there are very welcoming, and happy to help new players of the game.
Most RPGs (and Labyrinth Lord, especially) use some sort of dice to help you determine the outcome of your actions in the game. You can find packets of these dice in dedicated hobby shops, as well as places like Target ant Toys R' Us.
There are also a number of ‘virtual dice’ applications you can find. Here’s a good one. It’ll work for you until you find a better solution for your needs.
During the course of your adventures, your characters will inevitably come into conflict with brigands, bandits, monsters, and all sorts of strange opposition. While most of these conflicts can be played out in your imagination, it’s often useful to have some sort of physical representation of the battlefield.
Anything can be used to represent the participants in an RPG battle. Dice, glass beads, small candies (keep an eye on these – they may wind up in your players’ gullets), etc. However, for something a little more thematic, One Monk miniatures has a tremendous selection of free paper miniatures. You can just print out a few sheets of these, glue them together and you’ve got enough to keep you going for a while.
If you use miniatures, you’ll want some way to represent the ‘battlefield’ on which the conflicts are taking place. The simplest way to do this is just with sheets of paper and pen or pencil. Sketch out the battlfield, or area in which the conflict is ocurring. The miniatures from One Monk above (as well as most gaming miniatures) are designed at a scale of approximately 1” = 5 ft.
However, if you want something a little fancier, consider printing out some '”dungeon tiles”. Some good free ones can be found here:
The “Adventure” is the framework through which you (as Game Master) will lead your players. Imagine them as the outline for a novel or film. An adventure can be anything as simple as a few notes on index cards, lists of characters to interact with, and places to explore. As with anything in this hobby, you can add as much complexity as you want.
Some people prefer to create their own adventures, while others like to use pre-made ones. And often, it’s just a matter of time (not having enough), or needing a decent example of how to put your own adventures together.
There are any number of great free adventures online if you care to look for them. However, you could do far worse than starting with the altogether excellent, free, “Dyson’s Delve”. This is a fully-detailed 11-level underground complex, stocked full of awful monsters, glittering treasures, and marvelous adventures to be had. It’s designed specifically for Labyrinth Lord, and will take your adventurers from the beginning of their careers, to the heights of awesomeness. Unless it kills them first…
While unrelated picaresque adventures are all fine and good, many players find their games to be more satisfying if played out in the context of a detailed fantasy world. There are many of these available for sale or download, if you care to look for them.
One of my favorites for beginners, however, is “Blackmarsh”, by Robert Conley. Blackmarsh has enough detail to give you lots of room for adventuring in, but isn’t so complex it becomes overwhelming. Again, it’s free in PDF format, and you can buy it in hardcopy if you’re so inclined.
The hex-based map of the setting makes it very easy for beginning game masters to track the travels of their adventurers, as well as dropping adventures into the setting as needed.
That’s enough to get you started, and provide many hours of fun with your friends. Grab the rules, make a few characters, and begin your adventures!
However, once you’ve gotten the RPG bug, you might find yourself wanting to know more about these games. There are numerous resources online to help you out, but here are a few of the ones I feel are really worth your attention:
- Dragonsfoot is a great site with resources and discussion about ‘old school’ RPGs such as Labyrinth Lord.
- RPG.net is the premier forum for the discussion of all sorts of RPGs.
- The Obsidian Portal site is a great free service for hosting information about your game online. It also has a page to help you find existing gaming groups near you. If you’re interested in playing an RPG of some sort, but aren’t ready to go it on your own, check here and see if there’s a group near you open to new players.
Finally, the RPG hobby wouldn’t survive without the Friendly Local Game Store. Check your phone directory, Yelp.com, or whatever you use. Look for “Games”, “Hobbies”, or Comic Shops in your area (many Comic shops carry games, too).
Here’s an attempt to create a worldwide directory of game stores. Give it a peek and see if you can find something near you.
A Final Note
Games are meant to be fun. The RPG hobby can be a ton of fun if you let it be. You get to sit around with your friends, pretend to be a hero in a fantasy world, and tell stories of heroism and escapism. The rules to these games are meant to be guidelines, not laws. If something comes up and you don’t know the rule for it, make something up and move on.
Don’t take the game too seriously, and just have a good time.
If you have any questions about this silliness, please post them below, and I’ll do my best to help out.