Playing Roles: How to Get Started

April 27, 2015 - 10:50pm
d&d 5th You Say You Want a Revolution In the last edition of Playing Roles, I discussed the close knit relationship board games have with roleplaying games (RPGs). These tabletop cousins are forever bonded by shared themes, mechanism, and sometimes even designers. I made the case that board game enthusiasts that enjoy narrative social experiences owe it to themselves to give roleplaying a try. Today I want to talk about the next step, because there has arguably never better time to get started with roleplaying. It’s no exaggeration to say that RPGs are experiencing a boom time right now. Wizards of the Coast recently released Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition with a ruleset that is more welcoming to new players than ever before. Fantasy Flight Games is riding high with their recent Star Wars RPGs (Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion, with Force and Destiny coming soon) that centers around an intriguing new dice mechanism that is also new-player friendly. Other stalwarts of the genre, like The One Ring and Shadowrun have also been updated in the last few years creating convenient jumping-on points for newbies and veterans alike. Slightly more obscure than these juggernauts are several rules systems that don’t have IPs or specific settings attached to them. These so-called generic systems are perfect for applying your own unique worlds or adapting your favorite movie, book, comic, etc. Two such games are Savage Worlds and Fate Core. I’ll be talking about these and the above-mentioned mainstream systems in future editions of Playing Roles. drivethru Today We Celebrate Our Independence Day The real revolution in RPGs is happening on an even smaller scale. Independent roleplaying games (indie RPGs) have never been more numerous or popular. Thanks to the widespread adoption of tablet devices, the rise of sites such as DriveThruRPG and RPGNow, and the influence of crowdfunding, the variety and availability of small press RPGs has never been better. Why is that a good thing? The indie RPGs scene is where a lot of the most creative and innovative designs are coming from. These designers aren’t tied to licenses, established fan-bases, or any pre-conceived settings. Not only do most of these systems eschew the complexity and crunch of their mainstream brethren, but they typically ask for a minimal investment. Sometimes no investment at all. The confluence of simplicity, variety, and low cost represents, for my money, the best avenue for interested board gamers to jump on the roleplaying train. So where to begin? There are literally hundreds of perfectly legitimate first RPGs. You can certainly begin with the big dogs. Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition has a great Starter Set that simplifies the core rulebook and even provides and adventure to get the players started right away. Many other popular RPGs have free basic rules and scenarios that significantly lower the barrier to entry. That said, there’s nothing at all wrong with jumping in with both feet and buy one of those 500 page tomes full of rules and lore, as long as you’re prepared to take the time to learn these systems and are willing to make the investment. That’s a deal-breaker for many, especially those uncertain about roleplaying. For them and for all of you, I have just one word: Fiasco. fiasco book Some Men Just Want to Watch the World Burn Fiasco by Bully Pulpit Games is a Coen Brothers movie come to life. It’s a rules-light system, not much more complicated than charades, putting humor and collaborative storytelling above dice and stat sheets. Fiasco even contains a built-in cooperative world building mechanism that does all the heavy-lifting when it comes to crafting the story. It’s a quirky dark humor system that plays enough like a party game that even non-gamers will enjoy it, all in an inexpensive softbound booklet that’s easy to read and teach. For those reasons, and many others, Fiasco is a top notch beginner RPG. In Fiasco, players begin with a “playset”, which is a series of reference tables that contain setting elements unique to a specific scenario. These playsets help players define character relationships, establish locations and events, and establish other details in the scenario. Each of these elements is numbered 1-6 in their respective categories. To facilitate narrowing down the many options provided, a number of standard six-sided dice (4 per player) are then rolled and players take turns spending the dice to assign elements from the playset. As dice are spent to create wacky connections between equally wacky characters, the Coen-esque flavor of the game starts to come alive. More dice are then used to add settings, motivations, items, and other narrative hooks. It’s quick, collaborative, simple, and doesn’t require anyone to spend endless hours crafting a story ahead of time. There’s no traditional gamemaster role in Fiasco, meaning there’s no pressure or preparation required to get a game rolling (no pun intended). The actual game of Fiasco is essentially improv. Players interact in two-person scenes, letting the established relationships and their own wild imaginations dictate the flow of the narrative. It’s not about winning; it’s about telling a fun story and seeing how crazy things can get, and you don’t have to be an accomplished actor or storyteller to create really compelling scenes. All this builds to a pivotal event, the Tilt, which sets the stage for the inevitable Coen-esque everyone-loses endgame. Sometimes the best you can hope for is that your already emotionally scarred character narrowly avoids a burning building only to get hit by a car. Fiasco is devilishly funny and creates some of the most memorable group experiences you can imagine. O Players, Where Art Thou? Next time you reach for that copy of Say Anything or Cards Against Humanity, consider taking one of Fiasco’s playsets for a spin instead. It’s pressure-free roleplaying that requires little time or monetary investment from anyone involved, yet still embodies all the best parts of the hobby.  As a gateway RPG, you could hardly do better especially given then endless fan-made playsets. There’s something for everyone, and chances are you have all the elements you need to play the game in your home already: people, dice, scratch paper, and alcohol...okay that last one is more of a suggestion than a requirement. See you next time!