Part 2: Getting Started
Dungeons and Dragons
The first and, by some distance, the most popular RPG was put together by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. It now exists in many forms, including the official D&D brand owned by Wizards of the Coast, which is currently preparing to move to a new edition. The branded rules have become progressively longer and more detailed up to and including the 4th Edition.
However, the latest version appears to be taking a step back towards a more straightforward core game – allied to optional add-ons that offer more tactical complexity. Variants include clones based around every official edition released to date, including ideas drawn from the 4th Edition.
Call of Cthulhu
The game is largely based on the works of 1920s fantastic horror author H.P. Lovecraft and focuses on dealing with the minions and manifestations of hideous, over the top evil deities. Play is not about collecting treasure or slaying monsters. Instead Call of Cthulhu emphasizes atmosphere and build-up. It’s fairly typical to adopt an investigation and revelation approach, where characters are, for the most part, concentrating on surviving against the odds.
GURPS aka General, Universal Roleplaying System
Multi-systems aim to allow players to use the same skeleton key core rules across multiple RPG genres. GURPS allows play across dozens of genres and is also known for emphasizing realism. As a result combat is often deadly and quite authentic.
This Open Gaming License based clone of Edition 3.5 of Dungeons and Dragons has made a major success of embedding the game in a rich campaign world and now rivals and at times outstrips the official Dungeons and Dragons brand.
Swords & Wizardry
Among the many clones of earlier versions of Dungeons and Dragons, Swords & Wizardry re-captures much of the essence of early, improvisational gameplay. It is also a well-supported game with whole books of extra creatures and numerous scenarios available to players. Thistle Games’ clones Corruption and Renegade use similar mechanics and are part of a much wider pool of readily or immediately compatible rules-light games.
The cut-down booklet form of the original Traveler SciFi RPG made for a dramatic change from the spells and heroics of Dungeons and Dragons. Before starting play characters went through a careers millstone, which gave them skills at the expense of numerous risks and considerable aging. Combat was also deadly and, while recent versions tend to be more forgiving, the game remains popular for most styles of SciFi RPG gameplay, e.g. Space Opera and hard SciFi.
World of Darkness
The supernatural World of Darkness titles concern vampires, werewolves and such like. Vampire: the Requiem and Mage: the Ascension are the two best known titles released under the system. The games are not everyone’s idea of fun and can be unsettling for some players. Nevertheless, WoD proved popular for a time and placed horror RPGs into a more gritty, (marginally), less over the top backdrop than Call of Cthulhu.
Dark Heresy, Deathwatch, Only War and Rogue Trader are all part of a series of related ‘space marine’ RPGs. They have a very detailed, dark, dystopian backdrop and more rules than you can shake a stick at. However, they are examples of rules-heavy RPGs that can be played in a flexible, quite improvisational manner once players have invested time in reading and playing through the rules. This is particularly true of Rogue Trader, which is all about massive, interstellar starships trading over vast stretches of extremely hazardous space. The trading angle within Rogue Trader encourages gameplay that opens up into a wide range of roleplaying options, so espionage, trade and diplomacy get a chance to shine.
This is a fairly rules-light, historical RPG with a Three Musketeers meets the dastardly Cardinal Richelieu theme, which extends into areas covering the Duelists and Napoleonic adventures. The rules invite some patching, but there’s a lot of fun in a system where characters are mortal, yet able to pull off plenty of swashbuckling heroic stunts.
It’s probably far from surprising to find Thistle Games’ own clone is put forward as an example of an Old School take on the original RPG rules by Dave Arneson and Gary E. Gygax. The idea of most clones is to revisit the rules light, improvisational gameplay found in early RPGs. For some this means re-shaping the rules; while for others – including Corruption - it’s about introducing a new emphasis, e.g. theming games and campaign design. Clones are generally an inexpensive way to play RPGs and systems such as Swords & Wizardry, Renegade and Corruption are easy to translate in and out of the Original Game.
Treasure is a rules-light fantasy RPG that plays in card game, boardgame or RPG styles. It uses an intuitive/ cognitive game design. This modular approach uses visual and semantic language, a mesh network and tuning of connections across the network. The intention is to dovetail imaginative thinking and flexible rules in a manner that encourages improvisation.
In practical terms this means that Treasure’s gameplay all translates into easily drawn graphics/ icons, which offers options for visual PC sheets, multisensory gameplay and multimedia adventure design. Equally, Treasure is easy to learn with quick turns – whether using icons or not.
Wikipedia keeps a very long list of tabletop RPGs:
Roleplaying Game Genres
There are thousands of RPGs to choose from and at least one or two for almost any genre imaginable. The genres and games listed here are just a short selection of the available options:
RPG Genres Table
Blowback or Spycraft
Dungeons and Dragons, Corruption or Swords & Wizardry
All Flesh is Eaten or Call of Cthulhu
Spycraft, Blowback or D20 Modern
Savage Worlds and GURPs
Traveler, Rogue Trader, Dark Heresy or Deathwatch
Traveler or Star Wars RPG
Marvel Roleplaying Game
Buffy RPG or Dresden Files
Aces and Eights or Deadlands
Wikipedia has an extensive list of RPGs arranged by genre:
Roleplaying Game Props
Adding a few props to a tabletop RPG game can be a lot of fun. Most are best used fairly sparingly, as props tend to lose their effect if the GM turns up looking like an extra from yet another Harry Potter movie.
Boardgame accessories, counters and pieces are an excellent source of props. Dice, wooden counters, plastic counters, casino chips, coins and plastic tokens are just some of the inexpensive extras available from specialist suppliers. Some boardgames that you already have in your games collection may even lend themselves to this, e.g. Dread Pirate is a simple introductory boardgame, which trades almost entirely on its piratical look and feel.
Jenga and Lego are the top picks here for fairly obvious reasons, i.e. very flexible, unbreakable and both are probably sitting around the house anyway. By far the cheapest way to buy lots of Lego is on eBay by the kilo or pound. It’s even cheaper still to ask around and see if anyone has a box or two stuck in the attic. In either case there’s a fair chance the whole lot will need a good clean in soapy water.
There’s candy and there’s serious candy. A few skull-shaped milk gums are OK but there’s a lot more on offer out there if you look around. Bleeding hearts, exploding jelly skulls and large edible spiders are all highly recommended. We wouldn’t advise too much at one go and it takes a bit of searching to get more interesting or unique items. Candy Warehouse, home to Candy Blood Cherry Liquid Bags and the classic Apple Flavored Green Candy Warts, is a good place to start, (with a categories search), but don’t show the kids - this is extreme candy!
It’s possible to play RPGs without maps, figures or counters. However, many players find it easier to get involved and to know what’s going on if there’s a rough ‘floor plan’ map on the table.
Spending a little extra cash to get some painted fantasy figures to show where PCs are on the map is money well spent. Some players also pay for and paint metal figures to represent NPCs, monsters and items like treasure chests. This looks great, but figure painting is a hobby in itself, and new players can be left wondering how they’ll ever get their game to look as good.
Counters, (such as colored stones, glass beads, casino chips, boardgame counters and plastic RPG counters), provide a very easy, and inexpensive, way to show what’s going on and to make the table look good.
Alea Tools magnetic counters arrive in various packs and can be placed on the table as monster, treasure and condition markers when there aren’t enough figures to go round. The markers can also be placed beneath figures to indicate their current status, e.g. stunned, confused, or fireballed! Combining Alea’s counters with magnetic boards is a further option that lets mapping move on to the wall.
Inexpensive counters such as Tracker Tokens are good for keeping track of what’s going on at the table and making the tabletop a rich source of information during play, i.e. attention grabbing.
The tokens, counters and other gadgetry made by Dapper Devil help out in much the same way as other counter collections, but they offer some unusual/ extra options.
There are many different types of colored, shaped game dice available to buy. Those shown are unusual examples:
The combinations shown on this remarkable 18-dice-in-one are easy to read and keep the dice real without having to carry a whole bunch around:
There are five Giant Foam Polyhedral Dice in this set - each about 3” across. The dice include D4, D8, D10, D12 and D20 variants in a mix of colors:
Probably not the most practical choice for the table, but good for a party gift:
Nobody really needs a garage-sized dragon, but that doesn’t stop us wanting one:
Making realistic, but not too realistic, blueprints, passports, currencies and coded messages is more about being able to access a computer and printer than needing to buy props. Homemade documents made by yourself can be specific to your campaign and offer players a hands-on slice of authenticity. Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons can be particularly helpful as sources of raw materials, as many out-of-date official documents, stamps and images are available for download.
Get the colored markers and a few large sheets of paper out and ask the kids to design parts of the RPG setting and adventures. As kids get older they may want cleaner/ more polished maps, so sketch, review, copy and link as required. The place names don’t need to be particularly clever and the drawing can be pretty ragged, so long as there’s plenty of color involved.
Adding glitter and stickers isn’t going to suit every young player, but a lot of that depends on the decoration on offer. If the glitter comes out of a gel pen and the stickers feature a bunch of monsters, chances are the kids will enjoy slowly turning a basic map into a collage.
Adults may prefer to pass on the glitter and choose from a wide selection of ready-made maps that can be bought online. For example:
Counters add visual clarity, typography and status updates at the table, but they aren’t nearly as rich a visual medium as miniature figures. It is, therefore, quite helpful to have figures to represent player characters. I.e. it doesn’t matter whether you’re positioning a character on a battle grid or simply lining-up a party of characters in marching order; figures immediately add to a tabletop game’s sense of authenticity.
Painted, metal miniatures are the standard option for most players, but younger players may enjoy playing with larger plastic figures. For example, widely available Papo, Safari and Schleich figures are not cheap, but the size, weight, sculpture and painting all add up to an eye-catching line-up for younger players. Collecting enough of these figures to line up a party of adventurers is not that expensive and counters can then help to show monsters and what’s happening on the tabletop:
Cardboard figures are an inexpensive option, which work well if you look around for high quality artwork and durable card:
Floor Plans and Card Scenery
The paper-cut scenery offered by Fat Dragon Games is known for offering good quality and decent value. For those who prefer floor plans the sets from Inked Adventures are good examples of what’s available:
A glitter jar for kids, which is more impressive than it sounds:
Serving up some ‘horrible’ or at least questionable looking food during breaks goes down a treat - so long as the food actually tastes good. The Celebrity in the Jungle Bushtucker Trial approach is not good, because making players eat mustard and chili powder isn’t really that funny. Leave the poisoning up to the celebrities and serve up a tasty Orcs’ Stew or a Devil’s Cheesecake as a mystery meal.
Floor plans and scenery are great if you can afford them and like that style of play. However, large sheets of paper and some decent marker pens can be very effective for presenting basic layouts/ building maps and then zooming in as adventurers explore by annotating and doodling on the map. Let the group jot damage taken, opponents met and similar details on the sheet and the maps will end-up like a sketch report of the session.
The Happy Puzzle Company is an excellent source of learning games for UK players. There are some gameplay gems among the candy-coated learning. For example, the Scrambled Egg Silhouette Puzzle could be used to give players who construct certain shapes a selection of optional extra powers. Perhaps not something you’d want in every session but potentially amusing if your players like occasional puzzles.
The Happy Puzzle Company also has books which specialize in particular types of puzzles. It’s generally not a good idea to make completing puzzles either central to play or ‘mission critical’, but ‘Brain Boosting Lateral Thinking Puzzles’ and ‘Brain Boosting Sequence Puzzles’ can add a bit of variety to general gameplay.
Swords and Shields
Making your own armor and weaponry is going a bit far for most adult players. However, cardboard shields, carton roll swords, adhesive darts, web sprayers, foam string blasters and a few Halloween masks can make for a pretty overexcited outdoors game session. Add a few Treasure Hunt and basic wide-game or Alternate Reality Game (ARG) elements and, so long as you keep it safe, there’s an inexpensive party or two in there.
Most players can put on temporary water-based tattoos without any problems. Sharks, serpents, pirates, monsters and legendary creatures are among the options. Kids love them and they can last a few days if you put them in the right places, e.g. the inside of a forearm. Rather obviously, any instructions need to be followed and it’s best not to stick six on one child until you’ve checked that the first one doesn’t cause a rash. Beyond two or three days it’s generally advisable to wash them off.
The iPad, recent Android phones and a swathe of touch tablets on the way from Amazon, Google and others are starting to show their worth. GM utilities and character-building apps are beginning to appear; rule sets are getting passed around the table in PDF and web browser formats; and many mobile phones already have dice apps built in.
The range of dedicated RPG apps is mixed at this stage, but access to browser features, PDFs and online services like Dropbox are already demonstrating that tablets can be more of a help than a hindrance around the table.
Handing out ‘real’ loot to players as they adventure adds an amusing touch to the entertainment. Inexpensive plastic coins, gems and ingots are available in many toy and novelty stores. For those with lots of cash there are also specialist suppliers of metal coins of various weights and emblems:
Buying an expensive remote control device to run presentations on projectors is hardy necessary for a typical group of players. However, Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) owners, clubs looking to recruit or those running games for kids’ parties and such like could use one of these wands to run gaming events, including orchestrating entire events from the comfort of the GM’s chair:
Finding a Game
Family and Friends
Friends and family may not rush to sign up for a full-blown RPG to start with, but they may be up for it if the options start out with a boardgame like Talisman or a very ‘quick start’ RPG like Risus. Special occasions can be a good time to try this, e.g. we’ve played Monopoly every year - let’s give something else a try’. It may help to go in steps, e.g. from Monopoly to Zooloretto - and then on to Dread Pirate and Dominion.
Friends and family are also sources of plenty of friends of friends. You’re going to have some background information on players from this group, so it’s well worth asking around. Online friends and online games are an option, but your local network of clubs, friends and potential friends offer a clear route to playing face-to-face on a regular basis with people you already know about.
Clubs and Societies
Established clubs and societies are a good option and UK college and university campuses in particular have a longstanding record of running active RPG clubs. It is, however, a club, so testing the water and mapping out the inevitable clan factions calls for a certain amount of caution.
As with any other remote media it’s not easy to be sure who you’re really dealing with in a RPG forum. It follows that meeting someone face-to-face for a game through an online forum carries the same concerns as any random gathering. Over time it may be possible to track signature links to RPG companies or blogs and find out more about a poster. However, that only becomes more certain if there’s a named owner and it’s a company site rather than a personal site. Forums are of more use when arranging to meet in public as part of a group of players or when looking for online games.
Friendly Local Game Stores are comparable to clubs and societies. They can provide a safe place to try out a good variety of games. Shops with enough room to run a few games at the same time, (which also run starter games and events for beginners), are likely candidates.
Traditional online RPG forums are hidden away in quiet corners of the Internet and this lack of visibility tends to encourage trolling, grandstanding and the formation of in-crowds. Larger social platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, certainly seem to present fewer concerns, as social connections linked to gaming tend to bleed over into other topics and the scale of these global platforms appears to make visitors much less likely to troll or grandstand. In addition, the transparency of social connections and the wider sharing of personal information on a platform like Facebook makes it easier to find out a bit more about other players’ backgrounds and gaming interests before any face-to-face meetings. There is still a need to be careful, as deception and identity theft can occur on any platform. That said by connecting, (and possibly playing), online before meeting up players can build up a good impression of whoever they’re planning to meet. This is not about screening or profiling other players; but is about sharing the same safe social space and forming the basis of friendships.
Using social networking sites specifically aimed at connecting people on a face-to-face level, including Meetup itself, has brought together lots of players. A large group set-up on a high profile site can be similar to a club or society, often running events that are large enough and sufficiently public to make it safe to go along.
The following Actual Plays are typical of rules light fantasy gameplay where the rules are kept in the background, i.e. the engine’s running but you can barely hear it.
They demonstrate games played with relatively low numbers, as these tend to offer the most rewarding and compelling approaches to play. It’s also significantly easier to design, to recruit and to keep the attention of players who are frequently taking an active part in the gameplay instead of waiting for their next turn to come round.
Working with groups of 8 or 10 players at the table can be fun, but is clearly harder to set up and sustain over weeks and months. It’s also difficult to run such games as anything more than straightforward, often linear, adventures - because zooming in on a particular character’s role keeps other players waiting in a queue. This effect is reinforced by the focus on an individual character’s turn resulting from the ‘social distance’ between characters and players that is created by slicing each character’s involvement into an isolated slot in a queue.
The Actual Plays shown are both quite combative and use fairly breathless pacing, but this is easily mediated by the Old School style of play used in both examples. The adventurers’ lives are in constant peril and the players have to think on their feet. However, there are solutions to the genuine threats to PCs’ lives to be found in both their skills and in the situations they encounter. Players who try to grind out ‘results’ under such circumstances will be killed more often than not, until they realize that there are times when it’s better to take to their heels and to live to fight another day.
Seven Times the Color of Fire
This is an Actual Play from a 1:1 freeform game of RPG Treasure. The game could as easily have been run with a rules-light version of Dungeons and Dragons or as a SciFi or fantasy scenario using the free version of the rules for Traveler.
The section shown below includes the rolls made during play to illustrate where the game's mechanics are stepping in and out of the gameplay:
Coco has already knocked-out a couple of goblins; then wounded, healed and befriended a timber wolf; before dueling with a goblin shaman. During interrogation one of the goblins has told her it's safe to drink from a fountain, but Coco refused the invitation and evaporated some of the water from the poisoned fountain to form a blade venom.
After tipping her arrows with poison Coco checks out three frayed tapestries with large white skull logos painted over them. She tears one down, revealing a doorway, and decides to wash the cloth in the poisoned water. The paint fades and a fleur-de-lis crest emerges. The second tapestry hides another doorway and a tapestry with twin fleur-de-lis crests.
Two goblins enter through the first doorway. They try to rush Coco as she lifts her bow. 2D6, 12, multipliers kick in, the arrow tears through the first goblin's armor and stops him dead. The second raises his mace but the (goblin-hating) wolf behind him has first roll. 2D6, 7, the wolf's fangs catch the goblin on his trailing leg. The goblin strikes at the wolf. 2D6, 7 but he's off balance. He catches the wolf a glancing blow. The wolf pins the goblin to the ground.
Coco binds and gags the surviving goblin and searches both goblins. She keeps a gem, a mace and a spare dagger. The new dagger gets a layer of poison on the blade. There's a stop to heal the wolf's bruises and teach it basic commands. It learns to follow simple gestures for sit, wait and go forward, back, left or right and attack before there's a shout from the hall beyond the first doorway.
The shout isn't in a language Coco understands. As she advances down the hall a large, heavily-armored ogre steps out of a doorway. He turns, sees her and runs towards her. Coco moves away, turns and fires her bow. 2D6, 4, the arrow only hits the familiar flaming skull design on the ogre's shield. The wolf, now known as Flame, 2D6, 6, chews on the ogre's chainmail without causing any damage.
The ogre strikes at Coco. 2D6, 11, bruises her ribs and knocks the wind out of her. Sore one! Coco lets the wolf go first and, 2D6, 8, it catches the ogre, which twists round. Coco goes for a quick backstab, 2D6, 9, the damage multiplier helps out and the ogre is badly wounded. Then the poison on the dagger kicks in.
Despite the cost Coco has to heal herself properly, as another similar injury would kill her. Poor rolls see four of the five gems carried by the ogre used up right away.
The doorway the ogre emerged from leads to a cell block with signs of just one recent prisoner. A further door leads to a large, dimly lit chamber. A fire in a grand hearth provides most of the light, but there's a musty, moldering smell in the air. Flame is reluctant to go in. The furnishings include a very long oak table cluttered with cartons, boxes, bunches of dried herbs and flowers, potion bottles, crucibles, and pestles and mortars.
When Coco moves forward the only occupants come into view at the far end of the chamber. Two figures 'stand' before a granite throne. One is hooded, cloaked, crowned and using one arm to lift the other from the ground by the throat. The second is a young, raven-haired man gasping for breath as the skeletal hand jutting from the cloak chokes him.
The hooded figure hears Coco enter and turns to investigate, without releasing the youth. Light falls across the figure's star-spangled cloak and its skeletal, hollowed-out husk of a face. Coco recognizes her enemy and looses her only enchanted arrow. 2D6, 10, the arrow catches the Lich at the wrist, sending up a shower of fragmented bone. Poison has no effect but the creature casts the youth aside.
2D6, 8, and a bolt of lightning screams through the air, catching Coco at the shoulder. The shock burns deep into her flesh and she cries out in pain. A single spell has brought her near to death.
Coco runs out of the chamber and back towards the long stairway that led to this level. She can't see the Lich when she pauses for breath. Flame tries to stop its progress. A wave of a hand and the wolf lies whimpering in a corner. Coco keeps running and gets to the stairs. The Lich can move faster than her and is gaining ground. By the time she gets close to the top of the stairs it's near to catching her.
Out of breath, Coco turns to face her attacker. He advances to within a few yards, leaving Coco with only enough time for a single action. The girl draws two daggers but doesn't strike out. Instead she throws herself straight at the Lich.
2D6, 9, she hits the Lich, knocking it and herself over and down the stone steps. Coco tries to catch both daggers between the lattice of bones and bandages forming the Lich's chest. 2D6, 11 and 3. One catches and Coco is able to use the Lich as a sledge while they both glide down the steps. The bone-jangling ride rattles the Lich's spine over half the distance of the steps.
Both Coco and the Lich roll to see if they can stop their fall. 2D6 for the Lich, 5 and Coco, 8. Coco can let go of the dagger and fall off but opts to stay on and continue the ride. The pair sledge on down the rest of the stairs, with the Lich's bones cracking and crunching all the way. There's a wretched, snapping sound just before they both tumble out into the room below.
Coco is still smoldering, badly wounded and stunned. She seems to slip in and out of consciousness. Until a warm, rasping tongue licks her full in the face. Flame's alive!
. . . and the Lich? Its broken body is twisted back on itself at the snap in its spine. Eyes that burnt like white hot coals are now cold and dim. Coco has broken Seven Times the Color of Fire.
Sure, she knows he isn't gone for good, but his soul has to seek out a new host and that buys her time. As for the beast's crown, dared she even touch it?
Coco picks herself up and listens for sounds of trouble. Everything is quiet, apart from the occasional muffled complaint from the captured goblin. She places the Lich's bones in the poisoned water in the fountain. The water fizzles and froths around the bones; then churns until the bones dissolve away. A sweet, sickly odor fills the air.
The Lich's star-sprayed robe and the jeweled crown feel unnaturally cold to the touch. Coco puts the crown in her backpack. Coco's wolf Flame, and Coco herself, need healing but the raven-haired youth stumbles through the first doorway before she gets started. He looks washed out and still blue in the face. He sees the robe on the floor and says, 'Impossible!'
[No one has triggered an alarm but there's an opportunity to turn up the heat/ roleplaying]
The second doorway opens almost immediately and a tall man with the facial tattoos of a Lich's disciple looks into the chamber. He gazes at Coco, the youth and the robes lying on the flagstones and says, “Impossible!”
Coco turns to the sorcerer and calmly states, “I came here to be your minion.”
The puzzled sorcerer replies, “My minion. Like a henchman?”
“More a henchgirl,” answers Coco.
The youth says, “You can't do that!”
The sorcerer asks, “What do we do with him?”
“Lock him up. We can find something to do with him later,” replies Coco.
2D6, 8. The sorcerer fires a successful Web spell at the young man and shouts for two goblins to take him away. The sorcerer also asks about the crown and Coco explains that it went into the water with the bones; and how everything turned frothy until the bones and the crown dissolved. She's shown to the 'apprentice's' chambers and told she'll be invited to visit the sorcerer in the throne room later.
The room is a lantern-lit, cluttered mess of scrolls, papers, books and filthy plates. One wall is completely covered with shelves containing a strange collection of dried rodents, foul-scented plants and jars full of insects. Flame goes to rest in the cot set in an alcove at the far end of the chamber but soon thinks better of the idea.
Coco checks outside and smiles briefly at two goblins guarding the entrance, before going back in. Despite the shambles she searches the room thoroughly. 2D6, 3. She finds nothing. 2D6, 2. She finds nothing and knocks over a jar of dried frogs, which smashes on the floor. The goblins look in and Coco gestures for a brush and shovel. They don't want to come in and go back to guarding the doorway.
Coco has another try. 2D6, 8. She finds a secret compartment hidden behind a stack of rotten books. 2D6, 9, there's a poisoned needle trap. Coco tries to disarm the trap, 2D6, 11, then unlock it, 2D6, 4. She can't get in.
A Shatter spell, 2D6, 8, takes the hatch off and Coco final gets her hands on two scrolls and a bag of, 2D6, ten gems. The gems fuel her spellcasting and each successive, successful casting increases her chances. 2D6, 5, 7, 10, 6. Three of the spells work and she's about to heal the wolf when the door opens.
The two goblins flank the sorcerer, who's wearing the Lich's robe and holding an ornate sacred dagger. “I'll need the crown now. I've checked the Lich's papers and it can't be dissolved!”
After casting three successful spells in a row, Coco is charged with magic (+3). She targets her only ritual at the corridor and rolls, 2D6, 7. Just enough, a Fire Storm explodes in the corridor, consuming her opponents in sheets of flame. The two goblins are toppled in the blast and the sorcerer stands smoldering. The Lich's robe is untouched but the rest of his clothes and his hair are largely gone. Flame leaps forward, 2D6, 12, the sorcerer takes a savage wound - but it's his turn now.
2D6, 7, not quite enough to get Coco! Coco is now on a +4 bonus to cast a spell or ritual and sends a Snowball shooting at the Lich. 2D6, 6, enough with her bonuses. The 2D6 damage doesn't finish him off but he's committed to a hand-to-hand attack next turn. Flame attacks, 2D6, 4, and misses.
The furious sorcerer advances with his dagger in hand and rolls 2D6, 9. The dagger tears at Coco's arm, though it's less damaging than the Meteor she might have expected. Coco considers holding off for a backstab but she's on a +5 spellcasting bonus and still has some gems left. A second Snowball, 2D6, 8 – and the sorcerer lies unconscious . . .
This is an actual play run with clone Corruption. It would have played out in the much the same way using early Dungeons and Dragons, Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry:
Frankincense - 7th Level Paladin played by Mandy
Thunderstruck - 8th Level Cleric played by Al
Kiss - 9th Level Elf Magic-User played by Jenny
Stick - 6th Level Drow Renegade aka Thief played by Rob
The player characters (PCs) agreed to be hired as neutrals to carry-out a hostage exchange in return for a generous payment of 500 gold pieces/ head. Unfortunately when they arrived at the rendezvous the emissaries acting for the neighboring nation were found lying dead on the ground. The hostage the PCs were supposed to collect has vanished and they now seem to be stuck with the prisoner they were meant to hand over.
The wounds on the bodies of the six dead escorts are identifiable as spear injuries and they appear to have been struck at high impact. Quite messy! There are no obvious signs or tracks from any kind of cavalry.
The players were instructed to keep a sack over the prisoner’s head throughout the journey, but a muffled voice wants to know what’s happening.
Frankincense: I reach over and untie the sack to see what he has to say.
Stick: Hold on. Could be a reason why the bag’s on the head.
Kiss: Yeah, like a Medusa.
Frankincense: I look away, tear the sack off and look at her reflection using the polished inside of my shield.
Kiss: I wasn’t serious.
Thunderstruck: I’m praying and looking at the sky.
GM: A young woman with red hair and a coronet of all things looks at the corpses strewn on the ground and screams.
Thunderstruck: Pop the sack back on?
Frankincense: Certainly not. I tell her she’s safe.
GM: Her expression is one of horror. But she calms down and composes herself.
Stick: I ask her what she knows about the escort - and the other prisoner. Who did this?
GM: Despite being bound she jumps from the horse and then looks around. After 10 or 15 seconds she says, ‘Here!’ and uses a foot to tease a glistening strand of spider silk out of the long grass.
Kiss: I get my wand ready. This time I’m almost serious.
Frankincense: I ask what kind of spider uses a spear and doesn’t wrap its prey.
Thunderstruck: Spiders with saddles.
Stick: The other prisoner?
GM: She spits and says, ‘He’s a war criminal called Adrack Helm.’ You know him by reputation. In the nation you are working for he’s a famed and much decorated war hero.
Frankincense: We can’t work for war criminals.
Kiss: Don’t start. She’s probably making it up and we won’t get paid – again!
Frankincense: I try to detect good in her.
GM: Good – with a twist of chaos.
Frankincense: We must find and expose the war criminal.
Stick: Is there a bounty?
Thunderstruck: How about we find out what’s going on? I pray to my god to allow me to speak with one of the dead - the one with the best armor.
GM: The leader’s body opens its eyes. She looks a mess - deep wounds to the neck and chest. There’s no spark of life in the bleak stare that comes out of her eyes.
Thunderstruck: OK – I’m sorry for waking you but I could do with help catching your killers . . . I ask if her attackers were her employers.
GM: The corpse shakes her head – a few teeth fall out.
Thunderstruck: . . . or their allies?
GM: The corpse nods its head.
Thunderstruck: . . . were there more than ten attackers?
GM: The corpse nods her head and blood starts to trickle from the mouth.
Thunderstruck: . . . did they go north?
GM: The head remains still.
Thunderstruck: Thank goodness for that. Did they arrive from the north?
GM: The head shakes. Not a lot of teeth left and the wound on her neck opens wide.
Thunderstruck: Did they arrive from the south?
GM: The head nods a bit too hard, there’s a short tearing sound and the head rolls off into his lap. The hostage shrieks!
Thunderstruck: Eh, I cover the body with my cloak. I get my spade. We’ll bury her.
GM: The hostage is not used to seeing battlefield wounds. But she’s not spineless and quickly settles down.
Kiss: If we take her to her home we might get a reward. If we take her back we still get paid.
GM: The prisoner says, ‘That thing with the guard – gross. We won’t make it halfway in either direction. The exchange may have been in the name of peace, but it’s a set-up.’
Stick: Chances are we’re being framed. That leaves ditch the girl and go northwest or head south and catch up with Adrack Whatshisname?
Thunderstruck: Why not – south it is!
Kiss: Oh go on then.
About an Hour Later
GM: Your caution is well-advised. You find plenty of cover in the shadows all the way until you’re almost at the entrance. This gives you a clear view of the large cavern. It’s dimly lit by half-a-dozen large oil lanterns set into raised alcoves and there’s a lit brazier in the center of the chamber. The place is obviously the holding area for the giant spiders.
Two spiders and their goblin guards are mounted up in the middle of the floor space, with an ogre barking out instructions they’ve to follow on patrol. There are also eight iron portcullises set into alcoves at regular intervals around the walls. Four of the large niches contain giant spiders held behind these gates.
A stock of a dozen spider wraps - silk-wrapped humanoid spider victims - lies in the far corner on the left. The casings look full and you think you can see the odd motion as living victims writhe inside the deadly cocoons. It’s hard to tell for sure as the cave is quite gloomy in the corners.
Stick: Are there enough shadows for me to hide in if I go in?
GM: The shadows aren’t as deep as in the tunnel, so you have your normal chance of hiding in the shadows.
Stick: I tug twice on the string to signal for the others to follow and try to creep into the cave.
GM: Roll under your target score.
GM: Good roll. You make it into the shadows without being detected by the goblins or the ogre. However, the spiders are sensitive to vibrations in the ground and do start to become agitated. What’s everyone else up to?
Frankincense: I make sure the armor’s locked-down, draw my sword and go to find Stick.
Thunderstruck: Shield, flail – me too.
Kiss: I give Azinth a dagger, tell her to stay on look out and advance cautiously. I stick 30’ back from the others and begin to prepare a spell.
GM: OK – the spiders’ attention turns to the bold advance of the two warriors. This gets the ogre and the goblins interested and the ogre directs them to attack the party. The ogre then turns and starts to head for an exit at the back of the cavern.
Frankincense: We’d better charge, before they get up enough speed to run us through.
Stick: The spiders are after them and the ogre’s back’s turned to me?
GM: Good opportunity – I’ll roll for surprise on the ogre. Result - you can try a backstab in a moment. The rest of you should roll for initiative.
GM: Not so great for the guys. The spiders and riders get initiative and – ouch – Thunderstruck takes 9 damage from a spear. The other one misses Frankincense, by a mile. Stick, go ahead and roll to hit – and anyone else who’s up for it.
GM: Roll damage and multiply.
GM: Wow! – the ogre crumples to his knees beneath the unexpected blow. He won’t be getting up again. He was running for a lever on the far wall.
Frankincense: I’m going for the spider. Hah! And . . . 9 and the sword and the strength.
GM: You’ve wrecked the spider and the goblin on it can’t unsaddle and gets his legs caught under the body.
Thunderstruck: 2 – uh! Have I got to change dice already?
Kiss: Magic and missile should fix it. I target the surviving spider. D4s please.
GM: It’s still alive and all but on top of Thunderstruck. Someone want to roll initiative?
GM: The spider attempts to sink its fangs into Thunderstruck. I’m afraid it nicks you - only does 3 damage, but one of the fangs has injected poison. Roll a saving throw.
Thunderstruck: 15 – no problem.
GM: The prisoner appears for a moment at the entrance you used to come in. Only to be snatched from behind by a pack of six ogres. They grab her and haul her off into the darkened tunnel.
Kiss: I knew it the minute I left her. We can’t let them get away – they’ll bring the whole place down on us.
GM: The hostage is fighting back with the dagger you gave her, but they’ll be gone in a moment.
Kiss: Can I see past them?
GM: Not really.
Stick: I light a fire arrow and send it in there.
GM: Mmm . . . it’s a bit of a rush. Roll a D20 to see if you light the arrow and a D20 for firing it.
Stick: I get more than one missile a round, so I’m fast.
GM: But your bow wasn’t ready. Let’s see what happens?
GM: That’s plenty. Arrow’s all fired up, take aim.
GM: There’s such a bundle of them that you hit. One of the ogres now has a flaming arrow stuck in his leg and Azinth is struggling to get free.
Kiss: I plant a wall of ice just behind the Ogres.
GM: Now you’re all locked in together . . .
Thunderstruck [to Frankincense]: Shall we?
GM: As you advance it’s plain to see that one of the ogres is some kind of sorceress. She’s all cloak of furs and white on black war-paint. There’s also a necklace with an elf’s bleached skull hanging from it. A couple of chunky sapphires are jammed in the skull’s eyesockets.
Where is everyone? . . . Initiative . . . You’re in luck.
Kiss: I cast Haste on Frankincense and Thunderstruck.
GM: OK – assuming they’re attacking you have just enough time to target them.
Frankincense and Thunderstruck: We’re attacking!
Stick: I go and look at the exit. What’s there?
GM: The entrance is about 25’ high. It’s not well lit, but you see a portcullis in the shadows and a metal lever.
Frankincense: I roll to hit the first ogre – 4 . . . 20 . . . I must’ve killed it!
GM: Unconscious on the floor and bleeding out.
Thunderstruck: Next . . . 16?
GM: Yes . . . damage noted and again . . . no chance.
Stick: Is the lever connected to the spiders’ cages?
GM: It’s a mechanical device. Roll for it . . . Right, the lever connects to a heavy, rusty chain inside a hollow running up the wall. You’d need all your strength to pull it. The spiders’ cages are more basic devices. Chains hanging on either side of each cage lift the portcullises by brute force.
Pull it right now or wait till next round. It’s getting into the ogres’ turn.
Stick: Why not? I pull the lever as hard as I can.
GM: Your muscles are about to give in when the lever clicks and the chain triggers a weighted mechanism that starts to raise the large portcullis.
At the other end of the cavern one of the ogres punches Azinth - knocking her out. The sorceress is muttering a spell and the remainder try to strike Thunderstruck and Frankincense with iron-banded clubs.
At which point it becomes completely dark around the entrance to a distance of 15’. Only Stick and Kiss can see what happens next, but they might want to warn the other two. A large, huge, massive spider emerges from the tunnel behind the large portcullis. You probably killed some of its young a few minutes ago. The fangs are so full with a greenish venom that it’s dripping on to the stone floor - where it kind of fizzles for a while.
Roll initiative . . . not so good . . . the immense spider gets through the gate and there’s a rising scuttling sound as thousands of younger spiders stream down the walls. The vents or tunnels they are using to get in are hidden in shadow.
The ogres sound as if they’re battering at the wall of ice, but can’t be seen. The immense spider needs to maneuver into the room to corner Stick, so it doesn’t get an attack, but has placed itself between you and the rest of the party.
Thunderstruck: How many thousands? And how young?
GM: Roll a D4 each and we’ll find out?
GM: You can only guess at the full numbers but there must be the best part of 10,000 spiders pouring down the walls. On average their bodies are a couple of feet long.
The adventurers are clearly in big trouble and the approach of battling with the enemy until they buckle - common in more rules-heavy gameplay - isn’t an option. If the players try to slug it out with these opponents their characters have no chance. The easy way out is to go back through the sheet of ice made by the party’s sorcerer and to head for the nearest stairs.
Organizing a Game
The practicalities of organizing a regular RPG session are easy to arrange with a few texts and/ or a chat.
Costs can be an important consideration for some players - for many reasons. Tabletop RPGs offer remarkable value when compared to, for example, a trip to the cinema that is over and done with inside a couple of hours.
Obviously premium RPGs with subscription fees and/ or ‘massively multi-volume’ rule sets can be expensive – especially with costs across a group. However there are many mainstream options that cost significantly less.
It’s certainly well worth comparing features and prices, e.g. at the time of writing a standard PDF of one clone system costs $24.99, while other full clones are priced as low as $3.99. On a feature for feature basis it’s not entirely clear what is gained from spending the extra £21.
Organizing Games Table
Breaks and food/ snacks
Dice rollers/ dice
GM/ s: designated or hot-seat
Limiting distractions and interruptions
Maps or grids
Ruler, paper and pencils
Setting and/ or scenarios/ adventures
Tablets, phones and netbooks
Setting Up a Game
Tabletop RPGs involve more effort and collaboration than most videogames, as players have to get to the game in the first place and then get along face-to-face. In addition, while a videogame usually has fixed rules, tabletop RPG players are constantly involved in interpreting rules and novel situations. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that disagreements can interrupt play and slow down the game.
Fortunately, there are a number of approaches to setting up play which can head off or resolve most disagreements.
It’s essential to check that any regulations and agreements that need to be sorted out are dealt with as early as possible. Parents and carers are likely to want to be told about the arrangements for games involving kids. (Transport arrangements for kids require particular care). Anyone running a youth club type game might also have to go through police checks. At the same time, players may wish to negotiate for a better playing area or peace from younger siblings.
Concerns about behavior at the gaming table can cause extra complications if players don’t raise any likely difficulties early on. For example, if some players aren’t happy about the choice of rules it’s simpler to discuss that before playing rather than struggle on with disgruntled players during games. Agreements about using mobile phones/ Internet at the table, the length of games, shared goals for the party and what happens when someone can’t turn up may be helpful.
The fewer the distractions the better the gameplay, as players can stay in-game without having to refocus repeatedly. Permissions and boundaries help to limit some interruptions, but games are often slowed down by players during the game. For instance, if players are using mobile phones at the table it may be because they’re waiting for something to happen. Other players may be rolling-up new PCs or discussing the rules in lengthy detail. Preparation before play, (such as having some ready-rolled PCs handy and clearing up interpretations of the rules between games), should keep gameplay at the heart of each session.
Agreeing how to resolve simple disputes during play often cuts out tiresome disagreements. Occasional time-outs allow players to pop out of actual play to consult the GM about the options open to them. These can be replaced or complemented by an agreed and limited number of rules challenges where the PC asks the GM to consider a particular interpretation of the rules.
Shared planning of a group’s gameplay is increasingly common, as a straightforward discussion of what players would like to get out of a series of adventures or a campaign setting helps GMs to deliver enjoyable play. For many groups this simply involves a chat about the types of environments, opponents and situations players are likely to find interesting.
Campaign Sketching or Outlining
If players are planning a long campaign they may wish to use profiles of players’ gameplay preferences and/ or short campaign planning sessions to ensure the action centers on the types of gameplay that the players are interested in pursuing. Options for player profiles and campaign planning are detailed later.
Questionnaires asking players to set out a wide range of campaign and gameplay preferences can go too far in terms of defining play to a point where it loses some of its capacity to surprise. On the other hand, if players aren’t really sure about the types of options open to them, (or one or two players are controlling a discussion), questionnaires offer a good way to give everyone a chance to have their voices heard and to contribute. A six page hand-out is, perhaps, taking player choice too far; but a page covering the setting as a whole and the types of challenges players wish to meet may be quite useful.
The same applies to meetings or chats aimed at campaign planning, where a sketch or framework can be helpful providing it doesn’t drill down into too much detail.
Feedback, either between game sessions or during play, offers opportunities to fine-tune play. Highlighting and rewarding good play, commenting on ideas that made a game run well or letting the GM know that you want more of the same can all contribute to future sessions. Negative feedback, including comments which don’t propose any alternatives, is likely to be less helpful and quite disruptive when used in-game.
Most of the points raised above concern various approaches to increasing player choice. This isn’t about letting players do entirely what they like, when they like. The GM is there to interpret the rules and to make play entertaining for players, so it’s pretty essential to negotiate with, rather than against, the GM.
When players communicate with the GM it becomes much easier for the GM to design settings and scenarios to suit everyone at the table. Put another way, giving players more choice at the planning stage works well providing players’ choices are more about adding options rather than excluding them.
Supporting New Players
Regular RPG players will arrive at games with much of the following already in mind or easily put in place. However, new players may well have a very limited awareness of what they are actually going to get up to during play:
- Players typically find it helpful to be clear of their roles in all activities. Class-based games help with this through outlining a primary role, e.g. in terms of a cluster of related combat or stealth capabilities. This can result in cardboard cut-out stereotypes, so new players may also benefit from a few words on filling out and individualizing characters on character sheets and at the table. Ambiguity of roles is often best avoided.
- Players will find it easier to concentrate on play if they have been assigned their roles, and given relevant ‘scripts’ or ‘models’, (e.g. actual plays), well in advance of the game.
- To ensure a player is going to be comfortable with a role the player’s background or prior experience can be considered when assigning the role.
- Players are likely to appreciate being given enough time for preparation.
- Players should have some basic familiarity before roles are decided to allow players to be able to recognize the player behind the character – and as common courtesy.
- Short, constructive feedback presented by the GM and players immediately after play is likely to be welcomed providing it sticks to a ‘two stars and a wish’ approach, i.e. two definite positives and one area that could have gone better/ be developed.
- The roleplaying activity needs be organized around players’ interests and readiness.
- The number of players should be reasonably manageable.
- Players tend to appreciate having a clear understanding of the criteria or rubrics for advancement and effective play in the context of the game they are playing, i.e. if the game rewards storytelling the players are going to want to know that.
Younger players are sometimes unsure about using dice to settle outcomes. They may see ‘taking chances’ as getting in the way of imaginative play and also as surrendering player choice. It is possible to make them more familiar with taking calculated risks by introducing a range of random factors through a selection of quick games.
These options can easily be introduced to and become part of play through in-game encounters. For example, an opponent may offer a PC the chance to resolve a disagreement or impasse by offering to settle the matter with a quick game of Jacks or Stone, Paper, Scissors.
Settling Outcomes Table
Card draws or coins for best of three
Roll 2D6 for the first double
Stone, Paper, Scissors