My fellow gamer Benoit has a very interesting post here on Stuffer Shack called ‘How to Teach Someone a Boardgame in Six Easy Steps‘. Due to popular demand I now bring you it’s sister article – all about the joys of Tabeltop RPGs.
I should start by saying that Tabletop RPGs are incredibly diverse. They can be diceless, make use of D6’s you scrounge from monopoly or have custom dice used only for that game. They often mix combat, discovery, and role playing elements, but may not have all three. I will be using examples from several different games along the way to try and keep things clear, based on the game, different steps will be more important.
Step 1: Choose the Game
This may seem like a no-brainer. Why would you even be reading this if you didn’t have a game to teach? You may want to find a good introductory game, assuming once your students get a taste they’ll play all sorts of games (including the one you really want to play).
I actually think this is less than an ideal way to go about it. You might find a fun looking game that’s easy to learn and uses a setting/genre that you know your student is already into. If it’s not a system you already know and love, you’re going to be stumbling, and you won’t be nearly as passionate as if you picked one of your favorite games.
That being said if you know and love several games, picking one that is fun and easy to learn can take some of the stress off of things. Getting into RPGs can be intimidating, especially if you friends has seen your collection of GURPS books that might kill them should the bookcase ever topple. Games like Dungeon World that have all the rules right in the character sheets, so people don’t feel like they’re pestering you with questions.
Step 2: Explain the Core Concept of the Game
Generally in an RPG, it’s not about winning, it’s about telling a story. This can be very different to someone who is used to playing video games or board games. Its generally not about getting the most points but rather ‘exploring the dungeon’, ‘Uncovering the mystery of the Madame LaSauce’ or ‘to try to tell a story about your character’s poor impulse control’. You don’t need to dig into the rules here, just the broad concept. Try to find the big idea to keep in mind throughout the game. It shouldn’t be about the dice.
Step 3: Explain the Core Mechanic
Most tabletop games have one action that the players do more than anything else. Explain this at the beginning and worry about the rest later. In Dungeons & Dragons (and many systems based on it) you ‘Roll a d20 and add a number from your sheet’. In Pulp! it’s ‘Roll a D6 and add one Attribute and one Trait’. In some story games the mechanics are so secondary that you can ignore this. When I teach Fiasco I skip this step because the whole point is telling the story. You don’t need rules for the majority of the game.
Step 4: Play!
Start playing right away. Show your enthusiasm. Make eye contact with the new people to show them they’re involved even when they’re not speaking. Have fun now!
Step 5: Explain What You Need To, When You Need To
When someone declares an action that needs a new rule you can stop the action and explain it. Sometimes an established mechanic can work in the situation, even if there’s a specialized rule for it. If you’re goal is to teach the game, then you might want to stop someone when they start to make an incorrect assumption. Remember that the real goal is fun. If someone is in the moment and having a blast, its ok to do let them keep going. You can always point out after that there is a special rule for that, that you’ll explain when you do session 2.
When you go to do something, that hasn’t been done yet, explain what you’re doing mechanically so people can see the new option. It also helps level the playing field when you’re coaching yourself through a new action instead of just explaining things when someone doesn’t know what to do.
The classic example is Grappling in a game. These rules tend to be something with a sequence of rolls that need to be referenced and can really take the story out of a fight. If it comes up at the table and the player assumes its just a Strength check, you can go with it. It’s a great example of what you want from Step 6. If they ask how do you do it? Go ahead and look up the rule. They came to learn to play after all. Sometimes looking things up is part of that,
Step 6: Get them to stop looking at the sheet!
This can be really hard. People are used to having a limited number of options even in really open ended games. Even in Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim, eventually you reach the end of the map, the wall that can’t be climbed or the object that has no interactions. People look to their sheet to see what options they have but most RPGs don’t really work like that. Get them to describe their actions, then look at their sheet to see how they can accomplish that. Sometimes your sheet has cool things that you might never think to do, but you want it to be a tool and/or an inspiration, not a concrete set of options.
This is the most important step. You can say ‘You can try anything’ all you like, but at one point it will just click for them that the possibilities are endless in a tabletop game. That’s when people realize that this is different. Why this is fun. You can generally see the realization on people’s faces when it happens. When you see this, you have achieved your goal.
This is, of course, not the only way to teach a Tabletop RPG, but just my recommended steps. Your mileage may vary, and you will likely make changes based on the rule system. Remember to have fun, and show your passion!