The simplest description I’ve ever heard of roleplaying games is this: It’s basically Cops & Robbers like you may have played as a child, but with rules and structure so the game doesn’t devolve into “I got you!” “No you didn’t.” “Yes I did.” shouting matches.
Basically, you spend a few hours at a time hanging out with friends and imagining you are someone else, whether it’s one of Arthur’s knights, or a space pirate, or a cowboy conquering the Wild West, or anything else you can imagine.
If that sounds like fun (and it is!), then here’s what you’ll need to know to get started.
First, you need some friends to play with, and hopefully someone to teach you (as is true of many hobbies, it’s much easier to figure out if you have a mentor). With luck, you can ask around at work, school, church, or anywhere else you spend a lot of time, and find someone you know who roleplays that can teach you. If not, check out your friendly local gaming store (FLGS) and see if any players there are willing to help out. Failing that, there are tons of places online where you can look for other players. One of the best is RPGnet.
Second, or simultaneously even, you’ll need to pick a game (like GURPS, D&D, or Savage Worlds, for instance). Ask any three gamers and you’ll get at least four recommendations of favorite games, but look around and find something you’re really going to like. If you’re like most of us, you’ll try out a bunch of games your first year or so until you find one or two that you really like.
Some games, like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and HackMaster, are fairly focused on what they do. In their case, you are an adventurer like those you see in fantasy fiction, ranging from the mundane like Robin Hood, to the super-powered like Gandalf. They, like many other games, were originally inspired by works like Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
There are also tons of licensed games, so you can probably find a game based on one of your favorite licenses. I’ve seen games ranging from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, to Doctor Who: Adventures in Time in Space, to Sword of Ice and Fire to Firefly.
There are also games that allow you to play any kind of game you like. GURPS (Generic Universal RolePlaying System) is one of the biggest (and has been my home group’s go-to game since 4th edition released in 2004). With it you can play anything from an accountant to a dinosaur starship captain with laser eyes.
My recommendation is to try out at least one or two of each type and go with whichever you enjoy most.
Fortunately for you, quite a few companies have have free downloads that let you try out their games before making an investment. Check out my Links page for examples.
Finally, it will help if you can speak some of the language. Like any activity that lasts as many decades as roleplaying games have, the hobby has some developed some standard terminology that may sound like a foreign language to those unfamiliar with it. These will get you started:
Gamemaster (GM) – The player who organizes and runs a campaign. The other players are simply “Players”. Many games have another name for the GM, but “Gamemaster” seems to be the most common one.
Player Character (PC) – Characters created by players at the table. They are generally the heroes of the story.
Non-Player Character (NPC) – Characters that are most often controlled by the GM, and with whom the PCs interact.
XdY – Standard dice notation. X = the number of dice to roll. Y = the number of faces on the die. For example, “3d6” means three six-sided dice like come with many board games.
HP – Most commonly “Hit Points”, but called lots of other names as well. HP is basically a measure of how much damage your character can take. In most games, when you are reduced to 0 HP you are unconscious or dying. If you play a lot of video games, you are probably well-acquainted with HP.
Encounter, Session, Campaign – An encounter is like a single scene in a movie or book. A session is the time from when the group sits down to play until everyone goes home. You can think of it like an episode of a TV show or chapter of a book. A campaign is a series of sessions featuring the same PCs as they go on adventures, like a TV series or novel. Like GM, some games use different terms, but they all mean the same thing.