Those Funny-Looking Dice: An Introduction to Gaming

Gamers get a lot of these questions: What exactly is Dungeons and Dragons?  How do you play it?  How about Pathfinder or Savage Worlds or Dungeon World? From the outside, these games seem weird or confusing.  I can help with that.  Whether you’re trying to introduce your girlfriend to the world of pants-on roleplaying or trying to figure out what your kids are doing in your basement, you’ve come to the right place.

Games like Dungeons and Dragons are called roleplaying games (RPGs).  If you want to get really specific, they’re called tabletop roleplaying games, since video games have kind of hijacked the gernre.  If I had to give you an elevator pitch, it would sound like this:

Roleplaying games are games of make-believe that use game rules (like dice) to determine the outcomes of actions.

If you already play, this definition probably seems simplistic.  After all, roleplaying games encompass many different elements: storytelling, reading, writing, imagination, play-acting, tactical miniatures, creative problem solving, socialization. These games rest in a specialized limbo between choose-your-own adventure stories, play acting, and board games.

But What Do You Actually Do?
The first step in most of these games is to make up a character through which you’ll experience the game world. That’s my pretentious way of saying that you pretend to be somebody else. This is where that roleplaying comes in. You try to imagine the world from your character’s perspective and act accordingly. In some games, like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, you’ll get a list of character types to pick from. In others, you have to come up with your own ideas based on what you know about the setting.

Now, some people like to play these games as a kind of “what if I had magic powers and fought dragons” wish fulfillment wherein they pretty much just play themselves. And that’s cool. But the best characters are markedly different from the people playing them.

"Why yes ladies, I AM a level-five roleplayer" (note: does not depict actual events)

“Why yes ladies, I AM a level-five roleplayer”
(note: does not depict actual events)

A typical game might look something like this: one person, who runs the game (more on that later), tells me what kind of scenario my character has wandered into. I might be in a tavern surrounded by goons or spelunking in a pit of nasty monsters. Good roleplaying scenarios are exciting or interesting, like a well-crafted television show.

If my character talks, I will voice him (or her), as if I’m voicing a cartoon. It’s possible to describe conversations abstractly, e.g. “I attempt to reason with them” rather than actually reasoning with them, but players tend to frown on it.  Some groups won’t even accept it because it breaks your immersion in the game and reduces the entertainment value your friends will get from watching you have a ridiculous imaginary conversation.  Remember to both play nice and be a good sport.  Roleplaying can feel a bit awkward at first.

The Game Master
While it sounds like the final boss for Katniss to pelt with arrows, the Game Master more or less acts like a referee and a narrator. Game Masters go by many names: Storyteller, Narrator, Dungeon Master (the Red Room of Pain is optional). They plan the story, or, if they don’t suck, change the story to fit the actions of your characters.  They play all of the monsters, good guys, and bad guys that the players don’t play.

But the Game Master isn’t just a storyteller. They also adjudicate the game rules.  That means they figure out what your dice rolls mean.  It’s important to remember that, in roleplaying games, it is both normal and widely practiced for a Game Master to change rules to fit his or her specific game. Unlike a board game, the rules don’t serve as a protection for players against one another so much as they serve as a framework of suggestions.  Some groups will take this game to heart, readily changing rules at a moment’s notice, while others take a stricter, by-the-book interpretation.

"Ack! I said master, not mistress!" (1)

“Ack! I said master, not mistress!” (2)

You might question why it is that one player gets to have so much power over the others.  Remember, this isn’t monopoly.  The Game Master isn’t “playing” against you so much as they are helping you play, like they’re directing a play or narrating a story. They want to create the most exciting experience for you.  Of course, dickbags do exist, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have horror stories of guys giving their girlfriends special treatment or f*cking with people rather than creating a fun experience. But these are few and far between.  Most GMs just really really like gaming.

The GM gives me the details, describing the what and where of my situation. If they know what they’re doing, they’ll give me enough smells and sounds to immerse me in their imagination without overwhelming me in a kaleidoscope of adjectives. Then, based on this description, I figure out what my character is thinking and feeling (I can’t go wrong here, I made the damned thing) and decide to act accordingly. Will I talk the goons down? Trick the monsters into abandoning their treasure? Or will I get stabby?

Dice and Outcomes
It’s important to note that I only play my character. I can control whatever he or she attempts to do, but I can’t determine the outcome. I don’t get to save my game. I select my actions and hope that I’m successful, though I’ve had plenty of entertaining failures. This is where all those crazy looking dice come into play.

The dice usually determine whether you succeed and how well you succeed. They give you a sense of common ground and fairness so your Game Master doesn’t have to arbitrarily decide what happens. They can, of course, but, in most situations, they let the dice decide. Note that its still up to the GM to determine how to interpret the dice.  The GM looking at their charts and dice is a bit like a fortune teller poking around at entrails: they get a rough outline, but they have to be the ones to flesh it out.  They can make your failures hilarious or tragic. They can make your success minor or brutal.  It all depends how they want the narration to go.  I should note that many many, many GMs (all of them) find themselves bullsh*tting the numbers at one point or another.

Of course, the dice and Game Master aren’t the only things that determine success. My character’s abilities determine how difficult or easy it is for me to perform a specific action. It’s hard for a scrawny intellectual to win a sword fight the same as it is for grubby back-alley urchin to charm a noblewoman. That isn’t to say it’s impossible though, as most roleplaying games provide a slim margin for ridiculous (and hilarious) successes.

Settings and Characters
Now, role-playing games come in all flavors from zombie apocalypse to Pony Princess (no, not really…actually, yes they probably do, but I urge not to play them). But the most common setting is what we call a dungeon crawl.  Basically, this is a medieval fantasy world with wizards and weird monsters lurking in subterranean caverns.  It’s like a low-rent Lord of the Rings. In these types of games, you’ll find yourself playing treasure hunters or hometown heroes who defeat evil and rescue princesses. In more progressive settings, you might find yourself rescuing princes or saving monsters, but we’ll save that for another blogpost.

"I thought this was a whimsical fairy tale game! Why the hell is frank playing a robot!"

“I thought this was a whimsical fairy tale game! Why the hell is frank playing a robot!”

Once you know what kind of character you’re playing, you start “making” that character.   That means you start figuring out what you’re good at, and what you’re bad at.    Better men than us have written (contradictory) guides on how you shouldmake your character. We could write a whole series of posts on that topic and just scratch the surface.   So, let me summarize any advice I could give you like this:

  • Be Good At Your Job. D&D characters fit together like puzzle pieces. You aren’t solo characters, you’re a group, like the Fellowship of the Ring, or the A-Team (for you older kids).  You need to agree on what you’re role is, and do it well enough to support your team.  It could be as general as “magic guy” or as specific as “the chick whose job it is to sneak up on dragons and stab them in the eyes with salad forks.”  Just make sure you can do it. Beyond that….
  • Do What You Want. No, really. RPG nerds, for all our pluck and wit, have a lot of know-it-alls in our ranks.  Don’t let the group’s D&D “experts” tell you that you have to play the game perfectly or you’re playing it wrong.  They should be giving you just enough info to make educated choices and then set you loose to make those choices.

Beyond those basics, character creation can vary a lot from one group of geeks to another. Sometimes the characters will know each other in advance.  Sometimes they’ll be strangers press-ganged aboard a pirate galley.   That’s what makes these games fun.  You can have any kind of scenario you want. Roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons don’t start a specific way or end a specific way, it’s all up to the person running the game.

Why Do You Play?
It’s a complicated question, but I can give you a few reasons:

  • Freedom. Freedom appeals roleplaying gamers more than any other aspect of gaming. The ability to flip the script and make the game go in whatever direction you’d like is completely unique to the genre.   Ever wish you could tell Gandalf to stop being a d*ck or smack Morrigan in the face?  Roleplaying games let do take those (ill-advised) things.  They have no script, or, if your GM is any good, it can be flipped at a moment’s notice.
  • Immersion. Now bear with me on this one.  Admittedly, tabletop games don’t have the kind of visuals that a film or video game do because you rarely have more than an illustration or a cleverly-constructed paragraph to figure out what your world looks like. For some of us, having to use our imaginations makes gaming that much deeper.  When I play Skyrim or Fallout, I know what I see and hear, but I don’t have to imagine the cold nipping at my ears or smell of scorched flesh.  Speaking as my character (something I’m unlikely to do outside of community theater or a psychotic break) puts me in my character’s mindset in a way I’d never get to experience otherwise.
  • Social Interaction. Contrary to stereotype, geeks love to socialize, and few activities promote active socialization the way roleplaying games do.  Unlike sporting events or video games, tabletop gaming rewards people for sitting around with their friends, face-to-face and having a conversation.  Sure, they’re imaginary conversations about unicorn assassins and ogre princesses, but they’re conversations nonetheless.

But Won’t I Go Crazy, Summon the Devil, or Become a Loser?
No.   No you will not.

Were you crazy before you started playing roleplaying games?   If not, you’re pretty much fine.  Much like video games, the internet, or automobiles, responsible, grown-up use of roleplaying games is not dangerous and won’t have any detrimental effect on your psyche.  Yes, there are cases of people who’ve taken roleplaying games to crazy-town, but they were headed there anyway.

If you think throwing dice and talking in a funny voice will conjure the devil, this is not the site for you. No, really. Take your tinfoil crucifix and get out.  See the above paragraph about being crazy already…

"I just need one more dice roll to tide me over, man."

“I just need one more dice roll to tide me over, man.”

The state of loser-dom is both elusive and subjective. Personally, I have a decent full-time job, a college education, and a grown-up relationship. I take care of myself, I have a good relationship with my family, and I am financially independent.  Until they add being bossy to the DSM-VI, I am a functional contributing member of society.  Hopefully, I’m not setting off anybody’s loser radar.  Some of the people I game with are doing better, some worse.  None of them have become lamer or less functional as a result of Dungeons and Dragons, I promise you.

Would I Like Playing?
I can’t answer that for you without knowing you personally. There are some guidelines to finding decent players, but that’s a topic for another time. What I will ask is this: does the game I’ve described sound fun to you?  If so, you should probably give them a try.  If not, you may not have a good time. I think roleplaying games are pretty spiffy myself, which is why I write about them ad nauseum.


1.”Dice (typical role playing game dice)” by Diacritica – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –
2. By Terri-Jean Bedford (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons