Tabletop roleplaying is a very unique kind of gaming. If you’ve never played a tabletop RPG before (or seen others play one), the terms and concepts can seem disorienting. So, to get you started, here’s a quick primer on tabletop roleplaying games—the most fulfilling and endlessly creative kind of game you’ll ever play.
Tabletop roleplaying games are open-ended, cooperative games of imagination and storytelling in which every participant has a unique role.
The gamemaster is in charge of the setting, the basic framework of the plot, and all the minor characters and extras. Everyone else takes on the role of a self-created character. These player characters are the heroes of the story; players take action for their characters in the context of the situations that the gamemaster sets up. The gamemaster, in turn, invents new situations and incidents as needed in response to player actions.
The rules of the game form an intuitive, logical framework that helps the gamemaster determine the outcome of the players’ actions. Players can have their characters attempt literally any action they want—as long as they’re willing to live with the consequences. In most roleplaying games, players will risk their characters’ lives, health, and well-being to deal with a wide range of dramatic and dangerous circumstances.
Tabletop roleplaying games have no preordained outcome, no game board, and no fixed endpoint. Playing one is like being part of a great book or a movie that you and your fellow gamers put together on the fly.
If you want to see what roleplaying looks like when it’s done well, check out the Critical Role web series.
There are hundreds of tabletop roleplaying game systems you could choose from. Most of them share a common set of terms and concepts; here are a few of the most common terms you’ll run into.
The character sheet is used to record all the essential attributes of the character you play in the game—abilities, talents, flaws, personality, motivations, goals, experience, equipment, etc.
When you want your character to do something important, you will use a die roll to help determine whether the action succeeds or fails. Most tabletop roleplaying games also use die rolls to determine character attributes like strength, speed, etc.
20-sided dice are probably the most commonly used. 12-sided, 10-sided, 8-sided, 6-sided, and 4-sided dice may also be used in various combinations, depending on the rules of the game. When a certain type of dice is required, the game will usually specify it as 1d20 (roll a single 20-sided die), 2d12 (roll two 12-sided dice), etc.
Dice in the FAR System
The FAR System uses percentile dice. Two ten-sided dice are rolled at the same time, yielding results that range from 01 to 100 (a roll of 00 is treated as 100). Some situations call for rolling a single 10-sided die, which yields a result from 1-10 (0 being treated as 10).
A die roll of 95 or more is “open-ended.” When this happens, you roll the dice again and add to the original result. This keeps going, and the results keep adding up, until you get a die roll lower than 95.
The dungeonmaster (also called a gamemaster or any number of other terms depending on the game) is a kind of cross between a narrator and referee. He or she comes up with dramatic scenarios, describes the setting, narrates events, controls non-player characters, and helps the players determine the outcome of their actions.
Non-player character (NPC)
An NPC is a secondary character that is usually controlled by the gamemaster. In movie terms, NPCs would be considered extras or supporting actors. They usually don’t have character sheets (although the gamemaster can use character sheets if desired).
Player character (PC)
A player character is entirely controlled by one of the players who sits at your gaming table. They’re the protagonists of the story. Each player keeps track of his or her character using a character sheet that tracks the character’s experience, persona, and abilities.
Sometimes characters are created beforehand by the gamemaster or as part of a prepackaged game module, but usually they’re created by the player, who chooses the character’s strengths, weaknesses, personality, and abilities.
Action in most tabletop RPGs is divided into rounds, during which each player takes one turn. Many systems use rounds that represent 6 seconds of elapsed time; some use 10-second rounds, 3-second rounds, or even 1-second rounds.
Depending on the type of action being played and the level of detail the game system goes into, it could take several minutes to play a single round. This may seem slow, but there’s actually plenty of suspense and excitement as the gamemaster determines the results of each character’s action in turn and describes the outcomes in detail (remember, life and death could hang in the balance).
In the FAR System:
- A combat round represents three seconds of intense, person-to-person conflict.
- A tactical round represents a more flexible time increment, usually from one minute to 15 minutes, during which conversation, personal interaction, or non-combat movement takes place.
- A strategic round represents a time frame of 20 minutes to an hour (depending on the scale of the action) during which intrigue plays out, plans are developed, and large groups of people (armies, wagon trains, etc.) maneuver and cross terrain.
Each player gets one turn per round. During your turn, you’ll specify what action you want your character to take, and the gamemaster will help you determine the consequences of that action (success, failure, or something in between).
Games we love
The FAR System was inspired by the great features of several other games. We highly recommend that you try them and buy them. And when FAR Western is ready, we hope you’ll buy our game too.
In no particular order, here they are:
MERP (set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth) is sadly long out of print, but Rolemaster rolls on. MERP’s campaign sourcebooks are true to Tolkien’s world, and Rolemaster’s detailed and deadly critical strikes set the bar for the gritty, every-fight-could-mean-death type of combat we enjoy in our games.
- A Song of Ice and Fire
Roleplaying in the world of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. A streamlined system that does a good job evoking the flavor of Martin’s world, especially the political intrigue and shifting alliances.
- The Riddle of Steel
Sets the highest standard for realistic (and brutal) medieval combat, which it combines with strong character-based game-play; characters have “spiritual attributes” which are just as important in the game as skills and physical abilities. Sadly, no longer being produced (Wikipedia).
- Band of Bastards
A refined scion of The Riddle of Steel, currently in beta release. Intensely realistic and bloody medieval combat combined with immersive character roleplaying. A major inspiration for our “social combat” mechanics.
A highly flexible game that focuses on narrative play and doesn’t involve a ton of numbers. If you’re looking for something that gives you maximum scope to invent your own setting, this could be a great system for you.
- Dogs in the Vineyard
A narrative game with a unique premise, fun die-rolling mechanics, and an alternate-history Old West feel. A real gem.
Not a roleplaying game as such, but a great sourcebook for anyone who wants to add medically informed realism to their game-play.