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The Saving Throw
Tabletop RPG Primer Last Updated: Nov. 21, 2005
The mysteries of tabletop role-playing--revealed!

   If you've ever been curious about games like Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, but don't really understand how they are played, then this primer is for you! Here, I shall endeavor to explain the way such games are played, and commonly used terminology and conventions used in many of these games. Be warned, however, there is a tremendous variety of these games with a nearly equally large variety of rule-sets. Fortunately, most of these games share many things in common, so once you understand the basics of one, it's isn't so hard to learn others.

This primer will focus mostly on the traditional tabletop RPG, but there are variations beyond that, such as live-action RPGs, where one actually acts out the actions of their characters. Most tabletop games do not carry it to this extreme, however.


The Gaming Materials

You don't actually need anything in order to play tabletop RPGs other than your own imagination, but there are several things that are very helpful to have. These are listed below:

  • Player's handbook: If you're playing a specific tabletop RPG, rather than just some freestyle game (explained below), the player's handbook--often referred to as the core rulebook as well--is almost necessary to have. Indeed, it is even very helpful if more than one participant owns a copy. This is typically by far the most used reference book for any tabletop RPG.

  • A set of dice: Not all tabletop RPGs use dice, but the vast majority do. You can still game without them, but that usually results in a fairly different style of play. Many games rely on nothing more than the extremely common six-sided dice, but many games rely on other kinds as well. These are often referred to as polyhedral dice to indicate that are not the typical six-siders. Common polyhedral dice are four-sided, eight-sided, ten-sided, twelve-sided, and twenty-sided. A pair of specially marked ten-siders are sometimes used to function as a 100-sided die, though, believe it or not, actual 100-sided dice do exist. Whether you need polyhedral dice depends on the rule-set of the game in question. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D), easily the most popular tabletop RPG, does use polyhedral dice.

  • Gamemaster's handbook: This goes by many different names--i.e. Dungeon Master's guide or Narrator's toolkit--depending largely on what the specific game calls the person taking the role of the gamemaster. This is not remotely essential to have, but it often contains a great deal of useful material not found in the player's handbook. These also typically offer great advice for the person taking on the role of gamemaster.

  • Sourcebooks: A player's handbook typically provides a small number of characters, settings, weapons and other equipment, and enemies to allow one to play just using that. However, that can get boring very quickly as player's handbooks tend to focus on the rule-sets. The other content is mostly a smattering of the most common elements of the gaming realm. Sourcebooks provide much more detailed and varied content. For example, using Star Wars RPG (the West End Games version) as an example, one such sourcebook is the Rebel Alliance sourcebook. While some Rebel personnel and equipment are covered in the Player's Handbook, the Rebel Alliance sourcebook is much more comprehensive, also providing detailed information on the origins, organization, tactics, history, and leadership of the Alliance. But sourcebooks aren't necessary based on an organization. They are often based on one of the following, though this isn't necessary a comprehensive list: a specific race or group of races, character classes, new settings, weapons, armor, starships, trades, deities, and magic.

  • Adventures: Often, you can purchase books or even box sets that deal with a specific campaign, or story arc, created by the designers of the game. Gamemasters are free to use these if they wish, but often, gamemasters create their own campaigns within the game world, and many times, even outside of the game world by using the rule-set of the game, but not the game's setting.

  • Pencil and paper: While tabletop RPGs are often called "pen-and-paper" RPGs, a pencil is far better for these games. Certain quantities, such as HP, change frequently, and thus a pencil is better suited to these games. Generally, the paper in question will be a character record, also commonly called a character sheet. This describes your character in great detail according to the game rules, and usually even contains elements, like HP, which relate to their current condition.


The Gaming Participants

In most gaming sessions, there will be one gamemaster (GM) and one or more players. Each of the players will have created one, or sometimes more than one, character that they will role-play throughout the gaming session. While players are limited to role-playing those characters, the gamemaster is responsible for role-playing everything and everyone else the characters interact with during the session. In essence, the gamemasters guides the flow of the story for the player characters (PCs).

There are variations on this basic idea. I have heard of sessions which have multiple gamemasters, which must carefully work together to keep the story coherent. And although I have no experience with how these work, some sessions have no gamemaster at all!

Gamemaster is a generic term; many games prefer other terms for the person occupying this role. AD&D uses the term "Dungeon Master", which has resulted in the common acronym "DM". The term "narrator" is also sometimes used, though it is only a semi-accurate description of the gamemaster's role. Generally, however, the terms "gamemaster" and "dungeon master" are understood by all tabletop gamers, who will commonly use them even when the game in question suggests another term.



Player Preparation

When a gaming session gets planned, the players involved have it relatively easy. Unless they are using an already existing character, they must simply create their character. All tabletop RPGs have rules for character creation, as well as profiles on a number of races, and sometimes classes, to use in doing so. Most player's handbook have at least one chapter dedicated almost exclusively to the creation and advancement of characters.

Most tabletop RPGs have a set of attributes that apply to every character. As an example, these are AD&D's six attributes for characters: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. These, naturally, represent the most general characteristics of the character, typically in some form of numeric score. Some games use random means to determine these, resulting in the common phrase "rolling up a character." Today, it is more common to see a point-based system, where each character begins with a certain number of development points--the terminology used here is quite varied--and attributes at some base level. Development points are spent to improve those attributes, among other things.

Beyond this, there are two very broad categories for how character abilities are handled. AD&D uses a class-based system, though the most recent versions are incorporating elements of the other common system. In this, a character's abilities are determined largely by the character's class and his or her level in that class. Many class-based systems allow a character to be multi-classed, or in other words, have levels in more than one class at a time, resulting in more varied abilities. Common classes are fighter, rogue, wizard, and priest.

The other major category is a skill-based system, where players usually use a system where points are spent to improve specific skills identified in the player's handbook. Often, these are the same points used to improve attributes. Typically, each skill is based on a particular attribute, so for example, a highly intelligent character will be better at magic, because his intelligence either provides a bonus or starts the skill out at a higher rating. Skill-based systems generally do not have levels. Instead, some sort of experience points are spent directly on improving skills. Skill-based systems tend to be more flexible, allowing a wider mix of character abilities. However, games using skill-based systems often used nearly-completed characters known as templates or archetypes which can be very roughly equated to character classes, since their abilities tend to be focused in a particular arena.

Whichever type of system is used, almost all games require characters to be approved by the gamemaster after creation. In fact, the gamemasters generally needs to have a good idea of the types of characters involved, including their specialities and their motivations, to help him design his campaign, or his story.



Gamemaster Preparation

Gamemasters are all very different in how they prepare for their gaming session. Some do very little preparation at all, preferring to "wing it", or essentialy improvise most of the story during the gaming session. Others, like me, go through detailed planning of a campaign, creating a detailed series of notes to guide me as I gamemaster a campaign.

Essentially, when a gamemaster plans a campaign for a gaming session, these are some of things he or she may be doing:

  • Outlining, or otherwise making notes on, the desired and anticipated flow of the story in the gaming session
  • Creating non-player characters (NPCs) the PCs will potentially fight, be allied with, or otherwise have significant interation with
  • Setting up planned combat encounters, if any, which mostly just involves determining who the enemies will be and where the battle will take place
  • Creating maps of the dungeons (or other places) where the player characters will be during the campaign
  • Planning out puzzles or other challenges that the player characters will face
  • Creating profiles or statistics for anything not already defined in the game universe, i.e. weapons, armor, artifacts, a new race, etc.
  • Creating the necessary details of his or her own game universe as relevant to the planned campaign

As you can see, the gamemaster's preparation can involve either very little work, or a great deal. It can range from anything between no preparation to even several straight days of it. This helps explain why pre-created campaign adventures exist--essentially, the game's creators have done the bulk of the preparation for the gamemaster, and all he or she has to do is familiarize themselves with it. This is a good way for first time gamemasters to get their feet wet, as well; it usually takes practice to be a good gamemaster.



The Gaming Session Itself

When the gamemaster and players get together to game, the gamemaster starts it out by describing the setting and situation the player characters start out in. If this is an entirely new campaign, rather than one started in a previous session, often the first step is to create the situation that brings the player characters together in the first place. (The typical scenario is having all the player characters in one party, but this is by no means the only way it happens. Sometimes, player characters are deliberately separated, or kept separate, from each other, or the player characters themselves choose to leave. It all depends on the story.)

In my experience, it is extremely common for campaigns to begin in a bar or tavern. It might just be a quirk of the genre.

From there, it becomes an exchange between the gamemaster and the players. The players describe their actions based on the situation the gamemaster describes, and the gamemaster, or the dice, determine the result and the gamemaster describes the effect. Generally, the gamemaster will try to keep the player characters on a course through his or her planned story arc, though the ability to improvise due to unexpected player character actions is an absolute must. No matter how long one gamemasters, or how familiar one becomes with a group of players, the players will always manage to totally surprise a gamemaster eventually.

Combat is usually the most dice and rules-heavy part of any gaming session, and it often is the most difficult part for the gamemaster as well. Most rule-sets set combat up in some sort of rounds. There is some system for determining initiative, or the order in which characters act, but these vary a lot. After initiative is determined, it becomes largely a series of attacks, among other actions, but attacks are by far the most common.

A basic attack sequence is a good way to demonstrate the role dice have in a tabletop game. For this example, using a Star Wars setting, we'll say we have a shootout between two dueling smugglers, Vicks and Wedge. (This example is based on the West End Games system).

  1. Vicks tries to blast Wedge.
    • The skill ratings in this system are a die code stating the number of six-sided dice to roll, and sometimes a +1 or +2 to the result, i.e. 3D or 3D+2.
    • Vicks has a Blaster skill of 3D, which he has improved over his Dexterity of 2D. The Blaster skill is based on Dexterity, so if Vicks hadn't improved it, he'd roll 2D. He rolls and gets a 4, 6, and 2--a result of 12.
    • Wedge has a Dodge skill of 3D+2, improved over his Dexterity of 3D. He rolls and gets a 3, 4, and 5. The total result is 14 when you add in Wedge's +2.
    • Wedge's result is higher, so Vicks misses, making a nice scorch mark on the wall behind Wedge.
  2. Wedge returns the favor.
    • Wedge has a Blaster skill of 4D. He gets a 6 on his "wild die", and a 4, 4, and 2. In this system, one die is designated the wild die, on which a 6 is very good, and a 1 is very bad. In this case, the result is currently 16, but Wedge gets to roll his wild die again. Every time it comes up 6, he adds that 6 in and rolls again. If it doesn't come up six, then he adds in whatever he got and stops. In this case, he gets a 3, getting a final result of 19.
    • Vicks has a Dodge skill of 2D+1. He gets a 4 and a 3, which adds up to 7, and then to 8 with his +1.
    • Vicks is hit. Time for damage.
    • A typical blaster pistol has a damage rating of 4D. Damage is resisted by Strength. Vicks' strength is 3D.
    • Wedge rolls for the damage of his blaster, getting 5, 4, 5, and 5. That's a total of 19.
    • Vicks rolls for his Strength, getting a 2, 1, and 1. That's only 4. If Vicks had rolled higher than Wedge, the hit would be been a glancing hit that would cause Vicks no damage. Instead, Vicks is in serious trouble.
    • Indeed, according to the character damage chart, with Wedge beating Vicks' roll by 15, Vicks is mortally wounded. The fight is over. (Note that it usually doesn't happen this quickly. I did this to keep the example short.)

Gameplay continues until (hopefully) the campaign is over (at least for that session), or until the player characters die. Naturally, that is an undesirable outcome. If things went well, everyone had fun and excitedly talks about what happened. If things didn't go so well, the mood will be somber and disappointed.

Assuming the characters survived, in many games, this is the time that any experience points are awarded. However, many games also have experienced awarded during the course of the game as well.

The next page of the primer cover some more specific topics.


Shawn "Yes, I know the mysteries of tabletop gaming" Bruckner



On This Page
The Gaming Materials
The Gaming Participants
Player Preparation
Gamemaster Preparation
The Gaming Session Itself

In More Detail
(on the next page)
To Die or Not to Die
Common Die Codes and Modifiers
Using Miniatures
Dice Systems Explained

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