Tabletop Roleplaying Games

What is a “pen and paper RPG”
or “tabletop RPG”?

Tabletop roleplaying games are social storytelling games, played at a table or online via video call with a group of 3 to 6 people. Roleplaying games are an amazing blend of board game, storytelling and improv theater. One of the players takes on the role of the game master (“GM”), who is preparing and narrating big parts of the story. The other players take on the roles of the story’s main characters. While they don’t know what is going to happen in the story (only the GM does), their actions and group decision shape the progress and outcome of the story.

The term “pen and paper roleplaying game” combines these two aspects: (a) You only need a pen, some paper and a few dice to play the game. And (b), you take on the role of fictional characters to interact with the story. A synonym for this term is “tabletop RPG”, with “RPG” as the abbreviation for “roleplaying game”. Many people also call it Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), which has been the most popular roleplaying game over the last 40 years. Still, D&D is only one out of a thousand different available RPG systems.

tabletop roleplaying dice

How does a tabletop RPG work?

Once the GM and the players have decided which setting they want to play their story in (e.g. medieval fantasy, cyberpunk, science fiction, etc.), the players create the characters they will play within this story. They choose looks, characteristics, strengths, weaknesses and motives. After this step, the GM prepares the story that spans a single or multiple game sessions. The GM can either purchase a pre-written story or design her/his own.
Once the setting, main characters and the story are ready, the game can start. The GM will then gradually reveal parts of the story to the players. In turn, the players will narrate the actions of their characters to define the progress and eventually the outcome of the story. To add a bit of tension to the game, whenever a main character needs to solve a tricky problem, players role dice to determine how the situation will be resolved.

Sounds pretty abstract, eh? Here’s a short example: The GM prepared a story about a mysterious murder, in which the players take on the roles of federal agents, who investigate the case. The GM knows all the details of the case, the players don’t. It’s for them to decide, how they conduct the investigation, which clues to follow up and which witnesses to question. The GM will narrate the story based on the actions and the decisions of the players in their roles as FBI agents.

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Which kind of settings
and stories are there?

In tabletop roleplaying games you can choose from as many different settings and story genres as in literature, movies and TV shows. By far the most popular setting is medieval fantasy, in which a group of adventurers (knights, wizards, clerics, etc.) sets out to protect the land from roaming monsters and the machinations of evil sorcerers. Other popular RPG genres include supernatural horror stories set in the modern world, heist fiction in a dystopian future cyberpunk setting, or stories about superheroes.

Here are the most popular roleplaying game settings, based on how often people google them.

In addition to those very popular settings, there are thousands of niche roleplaying games covering any genre you can think of. To give you a taste of this incredible diversity of available RPGs, here’s a list of some more unusual settings:

  • post-apocalypse / endzeit
  • animal-character stories (e.g. My Little Pony)
  • space exploration in a steampunk setting
  • vampire clan politics in our urban world
  • fairy tales
  • swashbuckling in the 17th century
  • telenovela dramas
  • murder investigation in the gaslight era
  • urban fantasy teenage high school drama
  • survival horror in space
tabletop roleplaying game dice

What are the most popular roleplaying games?

Dungeons & Dragons is the most played tabletop RPG out there. It’s the oldest roleplaying game and has a massive community behind it. It also has a strong marketing machine to back it up and maintain its no. 1 spot. 99% of all retail game stores on the planet with a tabletop RPG section have D&D on their shelves. But there’s more more to roleplaying than just D&D. Here are the top 5 roleplaying games, based on how often they are searched for on Google.

most played tabletop roleplaying games

What makes tabletop RPGs so special?

In pen and paper roleplaying games you can be who you want. You can do what you want. And you can tell your story how you want it to be told. Your imagination is the only limit. No other gaming hobby offers so many choices and so much freedom to express your creativity. Let’s take a closer look at the strengths of tabletop RPGs.

1. Be who you want to be

Want to play a muscular axe-wielding barbarian in a medieval fantasy world? Or maybe a fearless larger-than-life pirate queen, who leads her crew into dangerous journeys across the seven seas? Or a shy but incredibly witty student of the arcane arts at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? As long as it fits the setting, you can take on any role you want. And you can also customize every single aspect of your character: Appearance, strengths, weaknesses, motivations, friends and foes, you name it.

2. Freedom of choice

No other game offers you so many choices for what to do and how to act within the given story. Imagine this scene: your goal is to meet an informant at a local tavern. A mean and heavy-set bouncer guards the entrance and won’t let you in.
The good board games and computer games out there offer you a set of choices. Usually these are using violence, trying to bribe the bouncer or maybe trick him into letting you in. With a tabletop RPG, there is no fixed set of options. You can try anything you can think of. Sure, you could try to bribe the guard, knock him unconscious, and so on. But you could also try to find another entrance, or wait for the informant to leave the tavern, or ask one of the other patrons to vouch for you. With pen and paper RPGs, the options you have are limitless. You decide how the story is going to progress.

3. Make it your story

Together with your group you can design the setting and story exactly the way you want it to be. You can choose from thousands of ready-made scenarios and settings. Or you can develop your own world and the stories in it yourself. Additionally, by combining your GM’s way of telling the story with the actions the players in your group take, you’ll end up with your own unique story.

monster hunt high fantasy setting

Games related to tabletop RPGs

Within the nerd cosmos, there are four games which are closely linked to tabletop RPGs. Somebody who is into tabletop RPGs is usually playing one or two of these games as well.

skyrim pc roleplaying game

1. Computer roleplaying games

PC or video game RPGs are digital versions of tabletop RPGs. They are ideal for solo players. No preparation is needed, and these games have amazing graphics nowadays. Unfortunately, 95% of all computer roleplaying games focus on tactical combat and lack the variety of choices you have in a pen and paper RPG.

larp live action roleplaying

2. Live action roleplaying games (LARP)

Larps are roleplaying games played live at an outdoor location such as a forest or castle. Players wear costumes, armor and weapons made of foam. Getting the gear together and organizing larps can be expensive and takes a lot of time. And of course, some fantasy story aspects are impossible to show in a live game (e.g. magic, dragons). Still, larps are an incredible experience that every tabletop RPG gamer should enjoy at least once.

tabletop wargames warhammer

3. Tabletop wargames / Tabletop miniature games

Tabletop wargames are tactical battles with miniature armies for usually two players. They actually combine two hobbies: painting miniatures, crafting terrains and playing competitive battles. While tabletop miniature games have a strong focus on combat action, they lack the narrative storytelling aspect of tabletop RPGs. Note that tabletop RPGs have developed from tabletop wargames in the 1970s.

board games like roleplaying-games

4. Board games

Board games are the mother of all tabletop games. They provide an incredible variety of rules and themes ranging from the classic “Settler of Catan” to the 200+ hours dungeon crawl game “Gloomhaven”. Some of them provide a pretty good tabletop-RPG-like experience. Still, compared to pen and paper RPGs, choices for players are limited and the stories are often rather straightforward.

tabletop rpg character dungeons dragons

Where can I try out pen and paper RPGs?

So, now that you know what tabletop RPGs are about, are you ready to play your first session? There are two ways to do so:

1. Find an online RPG session

Roll20 and the Gauntlet forum are two great tabletop RPG communities to look for online. Newbies are highly welcome there. Just search their list of game sessions with open player slots and ask if you may join. At Roll20 you need to tick the boxes for “new players welcome” and “free to play”. Make sure to tell the GM that you are new to pen and paper RPGs, so they’ll give you a decent introduction to the rules.

2. Play at your local game store

Want the full experience? Then try out a game session at a table. Many games stores regularly host tabletop RPG sessions for new players. Just ask the shop owner for details. Tell them which kind of game or setting you’re interested in, so they can organise a session that’s interesting for you. Make sure to bring a friend if you’re not comfortable playing a game with a group of strangers.

What if your first tabletop RPG session sucks?

Your first tabletop RPG game will probably be different from the games you’ve been watching on Youtube. That’s because every GM and every group of players have a specific style of play. Some people focus on the story, some enjoy playing tactical combats and some might prefer in-game conflicts and drama between the player characters. Don’t give up after your first round. We really recommend trying at least two other GMs, before you make a final decision. Tabletop RPGs really are a great hobby. But it might take some time to find a group you feel comfortable playing with.

tabletop rpg game session

What do I need to play a tabletop RPG?

As the name “pen and paper roleplaying game” suggests, you really only need a pencil and a piece of paper. A pair of dice will be useful too, but you can borrow them from someone at your first session. The most important thing you’ll need is a group of players and a GM to host the game. Check out the above mentioned online communities or your local game store, to help you with your search. And you’ll be needing a space to play at. But that’s it. No fancy equipment necessary, no special skills or talents needed.

roleplaying game session

Further reading

Still not quite sure how tabletop roleplaying games work or if you should try them out?
Check out these videos from vox.com and roll20.net.

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