5 Reasons Why You Should Get Into Tabletop Role-Playing

~ my take on listicle-style content writing with a topic of my own choice, Part 1. I played Dungeons & Dragons for the first time in 2013 and have played it intermittently with various groups of people since then, as both a Game Manager and a Player. With my article, I wanted to articulate what I think makes the game powerful, creatively and socially – focusing on what separates it from typical “games” in and of themselves.

Tabletop role-playing games {“TTRPGs”} have become something of a phenomenon over the past few years. The face of such games, Dungeons & Dragons, reentered mainstream consciousness through its prime placement in the plot of the TV show Stranger Things (2016). In other online channels, awareness of TTRPGs has grown with the popularity and record-breaking Kickstarter from live-play streaming show Critical Role (2015), as well as from other big podcasts and streams centering tabletop RPGs in their content.

TTRPGs are the analog — “pen-and-paper” — counterpart to modern role-playing video games like World of Warcraft and The Elder Scrolls. They predate them — the original heyday of TTRPGs was in the 1970s — and they certainly influenced video games from there. But tabletop gaming fell away as technology offered an alternative, more photorealistic outlet for such recreations. Their fantastical worlds of sword and sorcery, with adventuring heroes battling villainous monsters, were replaced by digital incarnations of the same thing for new generations of gamers in the 1980s, 90s, and up to now. I’d be willing to bet the venn diagram between would-be tabletop gamers and video gamers is almost a circle.

~ World of Warcraft — photo source
~ The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim — photo source

However, since around 2014 and the launch of D&D’s 5th Edition — TTRPGs have become resurgent in the lives of gamers and non-gamers both. As of 2019, the number of active D&D players worldwide rose to 13.7 million; though D&D still claims the vast majority of the player base, alternatives do exist, and original settings and systems are growing all the time. 2020’s lockdowns due to COVID, as a silver lining to its woe, seemed to contribute to continued interest in such inside-based, social game(s) of fantasy and role-play.

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Role-Playing Games Market

Some popular alternative, non-D&D TTRPG worlds and systems:

~ Call of Cthulhu (since 1981) — https://www.chaosium.com/call-of-cthulhu-rpg/

~ Cyberpunk (since 1988) — https://rtalsoriangames.com/cyberpunk/

~ Vampire: The Masquerade (since 1991) — https://www.worldofdarkness.com/products/tabletop-games

~ Starfinder (since 2017) — https://paizo.com/starfinder

~ Into the Motherlands (since 2021) — https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/cypheroftyr/into-the-mother-lands-rpg

Tabletop role-playing gaming, to be clear to the uninitiated, includes a small group of typically 3–5 players — playing ‘characters’ of their own making in a customizable fantasy world — and 1 DM, or GM. That is, “Dungeon Master,” or “Game Manager.” They are the one tasked with describing the world, perhaps even creating it, presenting places and persons before the players — often obstacles and enemies — for their in-world characters to deal with.

Depending on the game system being used, the players roll various dice (from the classic six-sided, to eight, ten, twelve, and up to twenty-sided die), those chance numbers pairing with their character’s unique skills and abilities to fight or otherwise reconcile with the world’s monsters, threats, and challenges.

The DM officiates the rules, answers questions, and mediates the player’s interactions against the world by controlling the non-player characters (NPCs), as well as the various creatures, environmental conditions and traps… and just about everything else within the world, from its history to its technology. The characters travel the world in a form of “choose-your-own-adventure” – interacting with each other, the world’s civilization and its monstrous wilderness. Continuous TTRPG “campaigns” will often include the characters as heroes set to save the world. Or maybe just themselves.

Every TTRPG, no matter the system, negotiates a combination of imagination, improvisation, and chance within the flows of its gameplay. The roles and responsibilities of player and DM differ considerably, offering two disparate yet concurrent experiences within the very same game. Whether your campaign lasts for a month or many years, whether your party of characters is a troupe of gallant monster slayers or just goofy, roaming “murder hobos” – any TTRPG experience makes for imaginative group worldbuilding.

In all, TTRPGs promise cooperative and interactive gaming in the realm of make-believe, alongside friends around a table (be they physical or digital), rolling dice and talking through an adventure together.

And here, I will list 5 reasons why I think YOU — whoever you are, wherever you are reading from, in life or locale — should get into tabletop role-playing gaming.

I wanted to write this not because these styles of game have become more popular, as outlined above (and I want you to conform!), but instead because I enjoy TTRPGs myself. I find playing them alongside friends to be immensely enjoyable. And in today’s world of creeping social alienation and a lack of creative drive or output from regular folks like me, I see TTRPGs as an invaluable source of gratifying social and imaginative experience.

Note: This transmission is coming from the standpoint of engaging as either a player or a GM, each equally fun for different reasons in my opinion.

Here are some things to consider, the key joys and boons from my own experiences playing TTRPGs over the years.

~ art from the “Lost Mine of PhandelverDungeons & Dragons adventure — D&D Starter Set | Dungeons & Dragons

1. Imagination!

Tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons are the only game in the world where anything is possible. Really. Anything! Outside of your own daydreams (and your potential next “Great American Novel”-to-be), there is nothing else so open-ended and filled with possibility in the realm of casual recreation.

Go anywhere, do anything. As a player, choose to climb that wall, or jump down into that abyss. No one can stop you. (Maybe they should!) As a DM, whether you are managing your game from out of an existing fantasy world — like Middle Earth, or the Forgotten Realms, Exandria, or even a future world near or far — or are crafting a ‘homebrew’ realm of your own making, it is up to you to lay down the landscapes and shape the philosophies of this place your players will be running around in.

Improvisation, from both player and GM, is the core component of any TTRPG experience.

What better way to use your imagination! With TTRPGs, flex your (perhaps long-dormant) creative gene and make the type of characters and worlds, heroes and villains, that you want to make. Make your Dragonborn sorcerer who just broke out of a mage’s prison, or your down-on-her-luck elven barbarian bounty hunter, or your human cleric who is trying to summon their dead deity back into existence. As DM, handcraft your skull-faced mountaintop fortress guarded by a flying dragon, that can detach from the mount and float about the world, the castle tower where the master wizard works centered now in the eye of an eternally-thrashing, multiverse-shaping hurricane…

You get the picture.

2. Unleash your inner child, and actor. 

I find when playing RPGs around a table with friends, your inhibitions tend to come down. The world around your real life disappears as a new one comes into view. In imagining this other realm, nerves fall away before the potential possibilities before you. You can just… perform. Play.

There is no better way, in my experience, to activate some of your latent, wondrous, childlike energy than through playing modern make-believe in realms of sword and sorcery, in fantasies of action and adventure. D&D can become something like playing “pretend” again out in the garden with your brother. But it’s more vivid, much more detailed, and with rules you can’t cheat.

“No, I shot you!

TTRPGs allow for worlds where “anything is possible” — but also where restrictions inevitably fall upon the initial power and prosperity of the character that you create. You may be the star of the show, but you are not invincible. Your character will progress and gain in power over time, wield magic swords or fire, but you will never be immortal. In any circumstance, ‘you may not defeat this. In fact, you may die.’ {Just like real life! just like real life…} And while nerves and inhibitions may fall away in the boots of your wacky character, that certainly does not preclude a certain level of in-game paranoia.

For the sake of either the spirit of challenge or storytelling, you will actually find your limitations and paranoia to be the most satisfying drivers of the entire experience.

You see, in TTRPGs, unlike in competitive video gaming for example, it is never about winning. Well, sometimes it is. It’s certainly not as fun to lose. But in general, within this style of game — the art and joy of role-playing becomes paramount. That is, truly performing your character, attempting to become them. A strange kind of enjoyment comes in inhabiting their fears and desires as they navigate their world. Finding intrigue in the world of your fellow players’ characters and the lore that your DM is laying out before you is the goal. Immersing yourself in the creation of the world and its conflicts draws your focus.

In my experience, the action of combat and the results of your party’s negotiations within the world — win, lose or draw — pale in comparison to the prospect of sincere self-expression. That kind of thing is its own reward.

3. Become a hero. Or someone else.

To my eye, high fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, despite all their war and adversity, symbolize a positive vision of the future. They envision a harsh world, but also one capable of fighting back within, to consequential and hopeful results. “We CAN slay the demon or emperor or dragon or vampire or system ruling at the heart of our world — We can revolutionize the world!

Similarly in D&D and many other TTRPG universes, they set the scene of their fantastical elsewhere with heroes dotting its confines, able to effectively act. Your characters will be pitched into a complex world of perhaps esoteric interests and preternatural, monstrous conflicts, with unreal spikes of “magic” but also forces of human-on-human violence and class oppression and greed. By the mere act of us imagining them, every fantasy world is a bridge to our world.

In a TTRPG, and unlike in film, the player characters assume a consequential role in this other world. As a character with agency. Often, as a hero. Maybe not someone that does ‘good’, per say. But they will be someone that is strong, that is able to make a difference in their world. {unless you are playing Call of Cthulhu…}

The characters may or may not be the center of the world’s power structures or popularity, that’s up to you as players. But you and your character will definitely be at the center of the story to be told at your table.

In my experience, this setup offers tremendous mental and emotional opportunities to expand your consciousness. In addition to such strictly enriching qualities of this playing make-believe with a couple of friends over drinks and snacks, TTRPGs can transport your mind and your conscience.

How your character makes their way through the world allows for the players to explore existential kinds of questions through the lens of their creation — Who am I? What do I fight for? For why do I want to be remembered? These imagined intrigues can positively affect people’s lives on and off the table.

4. Communication, leadership, and conflict resolution skills

An untold yet material aftereffect of consistent and serious TTRPG play is an enhancement of one’s ability to communicate.

What better way to try out the leadership skills or attributes you just read about in some self-help book? As your character, try to be a leader. Better yet, work out your comedy routine. As your character, try to be funny. In temporarily being someone you are not, communication — and the meaning and consequences behind your words — suffers from less pressure. With the social stakes lower, reluctance falls away, and you can be bold with your words and actions.

At the table, go unconventional with the way you communicate yourself to the world. Maybe instead of painstakingly trying to solve every problem, you create some for others. Maybe instead of repressing your emotions, you release them, full bore, no words missing, etc. D&D has a set of alignments, as well as traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws, to help you craft your character’s persona — both their style and their moral compass.

It’s “choose-your-own-adventure”, but also — “choose-your-own-words.”

~ ^ my custom TTRPG character personality generator, built over time, primarily for brainstorming my NPCs, replete with randomizers on every attribute you could think of and more… [LINK]

This is not to say that when playing your character, be an a**hole because “who cares?” Being annoying is annoying, no matter if it’s in a game, in an infinite fantasy world, or not. Instead, role-play just allows one the opportunity to speak differently, both literally sounding different {do an accent!} and figuratively toward wayward intentions {*what if I was someone that lied to get what they wanted?*}. Your character’s persona and volume can be “more” or “less” versus yourself. Either way, a change of pace. Inevitably, in such experimental communication, always with eventual conflict resolution at the heart of every game and story, a player or GM may learn a few valuable things at their table.

5. Cooperative Companionship and Community

Community is something I think has partially gone away in recent times. It is something you can read about practically anywhere news is sold, and it’s something I have personally experienced in my own life. After our school era is through — where constant attendance and interaction is ever present among many peers — we grow up into a world without social definition. The campfire, the village square, a common place to show up to — a defined community — can fade away.

This isn’t true for everyone, obviously. There are still communities and their centers. But it is true for many people out there. And I find the consistent play of TTRPGs to be something like a community. Somewhere I am expected to be at and that I enjoy being at. {I expect the alignment of these two aspects of being are becoming rarer and rarer for many modern laborers…} Somewhere to talk and laugh and discuss and just be, to just have a good time without expectations. This type of space is invaluable to me, something that I cherish. {Isn’t it to everyone?}

And through its many combat trials and conversing tribulations and hours of defined fantasy world experiences, tabletop role-playing is also a cooperative game. As mentioned before, TTRPG’ing is never a competitive challenge where there is someone eventually named as “winner,” with bragging rights and accolades to be bestowed. This is unlike practically every other board or card game and other tabletop games like Warhammer, which have their players walking away every time defined as winners and losers.

In a TTRPG, you are in a space where your characters all work together toward a common goal. Maybe not in-world — maybe the characters hate each other’s guts! — but to everyone at the table, the goal is the same. Fun. This is your common purpose, whether you know it or not, in choosing to do this at all in between work and family and the rest of your life.

The main competition between players, aside from character micro-conflicts and the nuances of all good storytelling, may become primarily who will save who. From their mistakes, from the jaws of monsters, as long as you keep playing, while on their adventure the players will continuously save each other’s characters. And inevitably, bond over such death-defying experiences.

What better way, over time, to build a little community of good friends?

I feel as though video games, in this respect, no matter how many multiplayer matches or tournaments you play, do not really do the same thing for people as TTRPGs do.

The outcome of every TTRPG game, with a conscientious GM and committed players, is a fun-first atmosphere of cooperative discovery, action, and imagination. In the judicious hands of the GM, the rules and systems of any TTRPG game always matter less than one simple question needing its truth:

Is everyone having fun?

I think it is a question that *YOU* {yes, you!} should answer for yourself. And these are my five reasons why I think so. ~