Introduction to Tabletop RPGs

Are you just beginning with Tabletop RPGs? Have you seen some Twitch streams of people playing D&D and want to join in on the fun? This video series will guide you through all the necessary information to quickly start and join a game, or create your first RPG experience yourself.

What Is A Tabletop RPG?

RPG stands for Role Playing Game. You have probably encountered this game genre before in the computer and video game market. In a Tabletop RPG, the gaming group has more creative freedom to explore different places, meet new characters, and pursue various goals. At its core, a Tabletop RPG is about collaborative storytelling, where everyone at the table co-authors the story as they play the game. Players take on the role of a character in the story and their decisions and the plot twists that occur reflect the character they are pretending to be. In contrast to video games, there are no barriers to exploration, appearance restrictions, or behavior limitations in Tabletop RPGs.


The setting of the game can be either familiar, like a favorite TV show, or completely new and unfamiliar. The only limitations are the rules of the game and the collective creativity of the people playing it.

How Do You Play A Tabletop RPG?


What Sort Of Games Are There To Play?

Picking A Genre

Picking an RPG genre might not be that obvious a step for a newcomer to roleplaying. Dungeons and Dragons is the well-known game that originated the hobby, but you can explore more than just sword and sorcery fantasy with it. There are hundreds of RPGs in circulation nowadays and cover many different genres including scifi, cyberpunk, horror, and modern settings. 

In addition to the many different rule systems for classic fantasy beyond Dungeons and Dragons, there are also published games based on popular movie, book, and TV franchises, such as Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu, and Game of Thrones.

You can use rule systems like GURPS or FATE to play in any setting, even if your favorite fandom isn't represented.

Picking a System

A tabletop RPG is just a set of rules that determine the winner of a battle of wits or strength. Newcomers may need to experiment with different rule systems to discover the one that suits their playstyle, as every system has its unique approach to determining the winner of a contest.

Rules Heavy RPG Systems

A Rules Heavy RPG is a system where part of the roleplaying component is tied to how you build your player character. There are in-depth rules for each class type and a plethora of different abilities that a player could choose from as their character evolves over the course of a campaign.

This synergy of combining strategy and skills is what separates this system type from the other two RPG types. It’s similar to the thought process one needs to build a deck for Magic the Gathering or developing strategies against other Champions in League of Legends.

Rules Heavy RPG systems often can’t cover the breadth of the entire rule system in a single book. In these cases there are Core Rulebooks or Players Handbooks available. There can be  separate books for Game Mastering as well as multiple bestiaries, equipment, additional classes and abilities, spells, adventure campaigns and world lore books.

Some examples of Rules Heavy systems are any edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, the various editions of the Star Wars RPG, any game running under the d20 or d6 systems, Shadowrun, and GURPS.

A Note About D&D: Dungeons and Dragons has gone through several rewrites of its own rules over the years. The first edition was published back in 1974. Summer of 2014 has seen the release of the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Each edition is different from one another. If you decide you want to give Dungeon and Dragons a try, you'll want to figure out which edition you want to play.

Characteristics of Rules Heavy RPG Systems

  • You will very rarely have a situation where a player might be unsure of how to proceed with their character. Their character sheet will indicate all the actions that they are able to perform as well as display their strengths and weaknesses plainly.
  • Creating combinations of abilities for your character is a game in itself. It can be very engaging for players who love developing tactics.
  • Incorporating skills from a large list into a character sheet can aid improvisation and enhance the PC's roleplaying.
  • Every action will typically have a rule or mechanic listed for it. Conflict resolution can be resolved by flipping through the rulebook as needed.

  • Many of these games use battle maps. Figuring out where and how your player character´s positions themselves in combat adds another degree of tactics to the game. Moving characters around in a room adds to the immersion because it allows players to see and explore the surroundings.
  • Depending on how comprehensive a Rules heavy RPG system is, you might be setting yourself back quite a bit of money to gather up all the rule books required. These books are typically more expensive than an RPG adventure simply due to page count differences. The player may only need one book, but the GM often needs to buy several books to do their job well.
  • Furthermore lots of dice rolling is involved.

Rules Light RPG Systems

For players who prefer less complexity, there are rules light RPGs. These games use simplified rules systems (or which are simple to play/use. The character building sections found in Rules Heavy RPG system are not normally present in these games.

The remaining rules are there to quickly and easily determine who has control of the story. Combat conflicts often runs very fast in comparison to the Rules Heavy RPG systems. Mainly this is due for many games to have a lesser emphasis on tactical positioning in battle. Character sheets are REALLY minimalist if you compare them to those from Rules Heavy RPG systems.

Some examples of Rules Light RPG systems are Savage Worlds, Dungeon World, FATE, RISUS, Apocalypse World and Simple System.

Characteristics of Rules Light RPG Systems

  • Typically rules light systems are fairly inexpensive since there is typically only a single rulebook to buy. This rulebook often covers all information for both the player and GM roles. Other available books are often optional and provide additional features such as location lore or a complete remix of the existing RPG system.
  • Rule Light systems should allow a player or GM to run what they want with a greater deal of freedom in regard to their actions. Instead of relying on the rulebook for every action, a conflict is often negotiated between the GM, the player, and the simplified set of rules that the Rules light RPG system employs.
  • Preparation time for the GM is very brief. NPC creation takes next to no time to create. It is even shorter if you have a game system that does not require a battle map.

  • Many of these games do not rely on visuals. Often times there is no battlemap or positioning is less of a focus in combat.

  • Character evolution can be very minimal. And it can take very little time at all for a player to complete their character sheet.

  • The GM may have to spend more energy ensuring that some players do not steal the show over more pragmatic players.

  • Dice rolling can be infrequent or nearly non-existent with some of these games

One-Shot Games

Typically a roleplaying session of any system type runs three to four hours of gameplay. One-Shot games are categorized by time length. They only last a single session.

Some Rules Light RPG games designed specifically to be played in a single campaign are Fiasco, In A Wicked Age, A Quiet Year, RISUS and Call of Cthulhu. One-shots can be played with either light or Heavy Rules RPG systems, and typically involve players using pre-generated character sheets.

Characteristics of One-Shot Systems

  • One-shot games are usually very inexpensive since you only need enough content to run a game for a single session.

  • Very little preparation time is required for either the GM or the Players. These games are designed to just pick up and play. Due to this reason, it is typically a lot easier to fill a Looking For Group listing for a one shot.

  • If you are playing a one-shot for a Heavy Rules RPG system, it is a great hands-on way to teach new players how to play the game before launching into a multi-session campaign.

  • If you do go this route, most off-the-shelf adventures are designed for very low level PCs and often come with pre-generated Player characters ready to go.

  • A one-shot system can also be useful to introduce a newly formed gaming group to each other, especially when the players are not yet familiar with each other.

  • Some of the rules light systems designed specifically for one shots systems can play very quirky and typically try to squeeze out as much intense roleplaying as possible in allotted period of gameplay.

  • Because you cannot get attached to your characters, players might feel encouraged to take greater risks they wouldn't normally do in a multi-session campaign.

  • Some of these games can require some serious improv skills.

Finding A Gaming Group

Looking For Group Tool: This tool is updated hourly. Entries are searchable by rule system, time, frequency, language and whether a game is newbie friendly. Learn more from our Looking for Group wiki.

Looking For Group Forum: The forum is updated immediately. Both GMs and Players post threads here.

If you want to become a game master, check out our Roll20 Crash Course to learn how to create a campaign.

There is also a Roll20 campaign community that is dedicated to learning and improving one's ability to Game Master. This community is called The GM Academy. The GM Academy is open to everyone to join and the people there have a treasure trove of information for anyone who is interested in taking up the storyteller position.

What Should I Know About Roll20?

Moving Around the Tabletop: See Manipulating Graphics Players are not able to scale their tokens, but they are able to move and rotate their tokens. The Waypoint System in particular demonstrates how you can measure precise tactical maneuvers to figure out attacks of opportunity.

Rolling Dice: Below is an excerpt taken from the Roll20 Crash Course, details in this video is relevant to both GM and Player alike:

We also recommend reading up on the Dice Reference wiki page

Text Chat: If you plan to roleplay without using voice or video chat, you will be working entirely out of the chat panel. The Text Chat wiki page lists all the available text commands.

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