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Written by: Attic Arcana Dice

For Game Masters and Players Alike

So you have been invited to a tabletop gaming campaign. Or, perhaps, you’ve been itching to run one, and have finally found a crew of friends ready to undergo that with you. In any case, there is a breadth of information available online for both interested parties, so much so that reading it all can leave one feeling overwhelmed! With so much advice on where to start, how can you be sure you know where to start?

Fear not! While there are many beasts to slay on your coming adventures, one beast you shouldn’t have to worry about is knowing where to get started. As a perpetual game master, that is, someone who typically runs games for her friends, I aim to give you my advice for starting out in a no-cliche, no-nonsense fashion. Rather than giving you a list of supplies or the things you need to buy, I’m here to give you my experience with tabletop management, beginner’s worldbuilding, and how to navigate table dynamics. Instead of getting a checklist, you’ll be given some wisdom to go ahead and forge your own path. This is all made to dispel worries, not add to them, so remember from the get-go: Take the first step on your campaign and gaming adventure. As you keep walking, you’ll once turn around and look back at where you came from.

Welcome to the Table, Players.

As someone who has been an extensive player and game master, my belief is that players tend to get the majority of the support from the larger tabletop gaming community, as well as tabletop gaming publishers. In the recent years of the gaming genre’s popularity explosion, so much onus has been put on the game master to craft an experience for the players to simply come in and do whatever they want. If you could not tell, my extensive support is for the game master, but that does not mean that players and game masters are enemies, with one side vying to constantly derail the other’s efforts. You may have seen that I referred to tabletop gaming as collaborative storytelling, and the effort can hardly be collaborative if the game master and the players are at each other’s throats.

That being said: players, the plot is technically yours. You are responsible for the choices you make when your character interacts with the world set forth by your game master. While the game master has a lot of power and a lot of responsibility, the collaborative effort you put in makes the game fun for everyone. Game masters are often accused of being wannabe novelists, in which they grip the reigns of the story very tightly to the point where players can’t have fun. This shouldn’t be the case. On the flip side, I can assure you: that constantly wanting to break immersion, “do something crazy”, or simply playing to frustrate your game master, is not collaborative, nor is it funny. In order for everyone to enjoy themselves, all players and the game master must make an effort to play together.

So You Need To Make A Character

Tabletop roleplaying games are often a chance to express ourselves through characters that are both a lot like us, and nothing like us at all. There is a welcome challenge in figuring out who that character is, what that character wants, and how they behave when met with conflict when getting what they want. That's plot, in essence, and it leads to creating characters with depth. As the plot progresses, characters change in regards to their surroundings, when learning new information and discovering novel ways to respond to situations.

You want to create a character that you enjoy, but also one that your party enjoys. The essence of “collaborative” is that your character is not the main character, unless you happen to be doing solo play. Even if your character does not “play nice” with others, you the player should. It is a game, after all.

Take the proposed setting of the game in mind (typically set forth by your game master). Does the character fit into the world? What gives them motivation in the world? If they are an outcast, what about the rules of the world make them an outcast? What happened to them in the world that made them embark on adventuring?

As mentioned in Session Zero, work with your party to not only make a character that varies in attributes and class, but also in personality. Sure, everyone can be a mopey rogue, but decide that that’s what you want to do (more in “What’s Stopping You” later).

Your Character Sheet, and What’s On It

When you finish your character sheet, that’s the bare minimum of what you physically bring to the table (plus a pencil and some dice, or other gaming component). However, that’s not all that you should bring to the table.

It can often be the impetus on the game master to teach everyone the rules. As someone who is a seasoned D&D player, and often teaches D&D to new players, I love being the person who helps guide the players on their journey through learning a system. However, since this a campaign, you’ll probably be playing more than once at a semi-frequent pace. The Game Master already has so much on their plate, that your homework should be to crack open your rule book before the next game and to look at that sheet you made. Familiarizing yourself with the basic rules, and how your character sheet functions, can help alleviate stress off the game master to be a teacher, especially if they are learning the rule system themselves.

This does not mean you have to memorize the rule book cover to cover. Much like I suggested to the Game Master, keep the rules on hand, or print out a cheat sheet. I placed bookmarks near the races and classes of my characters across books, that way I had easy access to the rules if I needed to check them.

Learning your character’s attributes is not simply a matter of saving time. It allows you to creatively use those attributes during gameplay to accomplish your character’s goals. It’s meant as a tool for you to expand your creativity, not be constrained by it.

Cooperation and Respect

Much of the online tabletop zeitgeist revolves around players who unintentionally “ruin” their game master’s plans. This tends to happen, and seasoned game masters grow used to it and learn how to account for the changes made to their plans. However, you may be tempted, when you start, to be as chaotic as possible. Especially if your exposure to tabletop gaming is through the notion of chaos. As a seasoned player, I can tell you, that chaos has its time and place when it is consensual and organic.

If you are coming to the table with the intention of “ruining something”, that may not be the best place to start. This does not mean that you should feel guilt for making unpopular choices. Rather, not taking into account the situation, or the other players’ plans, can make you public enemy number one very quickly. Players are given a lot of power in tabletop gaming, more so that people often think, as a good game master will often give them the flexibility to make decisions.

Having a mutual respect for the game master and other players is a must, and should begin to be established at session zero. As a beginner, you will learn to find your footing in your group. Perhaps you’re the player who does not talk very often, or you’re the player who talks too much. Perhaps you’re the player who makes up all the plans, or you’re the support character. Either way, none of this is inherently bad. If it gets in the way of the rest of the party, there is a discussion to be had whether your individual enjoyment is coming at the expense of other people at the table.

This rule goes for the Game Master as well, of course. The Game Master obviously controls the environment. Never rewarding players, always punishing them regardless of decisions, or favoring certain characters over others, are pretty easy ways to make you an unpopular person.

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As The Campaign Picks Up Steam, Find Out How To Stay On Board

You’ve heard of the handy dandy notebook I recommended for the game master? Well, you should probably have one too. Campaigns span over the course of months, perhaps even years. As the plot expands, as your characters travel to new locations, meet new people, and undergo new quests, you’re going to want to log that from session to session. It is not simply on the game master to keep notes as the game goes on, but each player should have a way of tracking the campaign as well.

If you have a wonderful super brain that remembers every detail ever, oh how I envy you. For the rest of us, my advice is that keeping campaign notes somewhere not only increases your immersion, but can be incredibly satisfying when, many sessions from now, you’re piecing together clues and solving a puzzle, all because you remembered to take that note somewhere!

Taking notes is also a great way to display to the game master that you’re immersed in their world and you play off of their effort. Their efforts, as well as the efforts of your fellow players, are immersive enough for you to put the extra effort into remember what happened in a game.

Your Characters Will Change, and They Should

When you start with a character premise, be open to the fact that they will be exposed to new situations which will cause them to react and change and grow. Just like yourself as a person, you are most likely not the same person you were years ago, perhaps even months or weeks ago. You change and adapt due to your situation. You should allow your character to do the same.

A character who comes off as cold and isolated may learn to open up. A character who is overly optimistic at the start may respond to the harshness of the real world by undergoing a change of heart. Wanting to keep playing the same character you started with over the course of the whole campaign is typically possible, and my opinion is that, if you do so, you’re probably forcing it. Allow the character to unravel, don’t stay simply within archetypes, even though they’re not a bad place to start.

“A Wizard Is Never Late”… Except You’re Not Gandalf

Some people give the advice that, in order to alleviate some stress of the game master, players should take onus of scheduling sessions. As a game master, I would not enjoy anything less. This is not to say don’t offer, perhaps your game master may appreciate it, but many of us need to figure out our availability based off of the need to prepare a session.

For scheduling, I recommend a When2Meet for the whole party. Time is precious, and scheduling a D&D session can be difficult, given that an average session is usually three hours or more. So once that session is scheduled, please show up.

It is a given that emergencies happen. Work shifts, sicknesses, cars breaking down, and so much more can be difficult to account for. However, chronic lateness to a game, especially if you agreed that the time scheduled is good for you, is unfair to any member of the party. Chronically backing out as well shows that the game may simply not be a priority for you. This on the surface is not the problem: other things may be more important in life. However, a failure to communicate can leave the other players and the game master feeling disrespected or cast aside.

Be sure to respect your friends’ time. The chances are that a lot of hard work went into the session, and you don’t want to be that person who comes over and just makes the session difficult.

Campaigns and Compatibility: How to Know It’s Going Well

The previous sections were riddled with setting expectations, creating themes, and overall, navigating the genesis of a gaming environment . Boundaries and respect are a key element of collaborative storytelling. However, sometimes expectations and boundaries do not match up. It is here where we learn to shift, pivot, and sometimes, know how to maturely call it quits.

Different people play tabletop games for different reasons. Those reasons are as numerous as the players that have them. Not only are choosing a setting and a system a question of compatibility, but so are play styles, themes, and boundaries.

Boundaries can be a difficult discussion to be had, especially in online discourse. A very popular example, one that is difficult to talk about, is one I have been lucky to encounter and navigate very successfully. One player may have a character that has a very sensual and sexual side to them, and they may want to use the game to explore that side of the character. A game master may put up a boundary that they do not want to role play that with NPCs, and the other players may put up boundaries around character romance or sexual encounters. For this player, these boundaries may prevent them from exploring what that character wants in the way they want.

A healthy way to navigate this can be several: discuss with the party if there is any way to explore this. If the party can come to a healthy consensus, then the player adjusts. If the party does not want this boundary crossed, the player may have to shift characters. The player breaking the boundary in order to get what they want is unacceptable.

However, this character for this player may simply be incompatible with this game. This player may take that same character to a different table, where such content is welcome, perhaps even encouraged, amongst the other table members. There may be other boundaries at this table, but those boundaries and expectations are more compatible with what this player wants to do.

The same can be said for game styles. If the whole party wants to play a high fantasy, lighthearted game, the game master may find themselves constantly fighting the party if they choose to run a dark horror game. It is up to the group of friends to have a discussion on the game they want to play or what the game master wants to do, and how much they are willing to give and take on the issue. If you are simply playing with your friends, is it worth it to lose them all because they don’t feel like playing in your very dark and desolate world? If your primary goal is to play with your friends, work on establishing a game mode together. If your primary goal is to test out your gritty world building, perhaps search out a group online that want to do such a thing.

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Polite Quitting and Retaining Friendships

A sad but true rule is that “No D&D is better than bad D&D”, and I find that this remains true. There are plenty of people I don’t play D&D with because our play styles don’t match, or they’re simply not interested in my fantasy interests. This doesn’t mean I’m not friends with them outside. For a long time, I had specific interest groups that played D&D with me in a certain setting, simply because we enjoyed the setting. Both of these scenarios are okay.

If you don’t happen to be vibing with your character, or you’re not feeling it in the campaign, maturely ask your friends to discuss this with you. Maybe all you need is a change of character, or maybe you find that being in the game isn’t your thing. Maybe you find that tabletop gaming isn’t for you to begin with. All of this is fine. Handling these issues maturely is the goal.

Hopefully, your friend group is mature enough to handle differences and even leaving. It may be difficult, but not taking it personally is a good way to go. This is for both the person leaving, and the rest of the table. Life is never that simple, of course, but it is the smoothest advice I can give.

Don’t Bring Real World Problems to the Table

For most of us, tabletop gaming is a way to have fun outside of our real world responsibilities. The chances of your game master being a licensed clinical therapist are probably very slim, and even so, they probably don’t want to constantly have to play mental health worker off the clock. If you have a problem with someone at the table, I would highly not recommend using the game to punish people, either as game master or as a player. While tabletop games often help with relieving stress, letting off steam, and more, using the game to trauma dump without other’s consent is a very fast way to drain the game.

As per usual, exercise caution and consent with what you bring to the table. If you play with a partner or a spouse, for example, don’t be dishing out your domestic issues in front of your friends. Always deal with intense emotions in a healthier way, and even if that proves difficult, your fellow table mates can be understanding and not consent in the moment.

TL:DR, tabletop gaming comes with a level of emotional maturity that the table as a whole must agree upon. It’s the basic building blocks of being a good friend.

What’s Stopping You?

By now, you may be tired of reading this. Understandable. As a first time campaign player or game master, you may still find that you’re overwhelmed by all this information, or that the mountain of tabletop gaming is even steeper to climb. My biggest piece of advise: take the first step.

My first campaign ever was Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, and my dungeon master was one of my most patient, immersive, and kind dungeon masters I’ve ever had. She taught me how to play, what to do with my character, and put up healthy boundaries. For the first three months, I was forgetting to add my skill modifiers to my dice rolls. I had to consistently be reminded about how to roll for attack and when to add modifiers or not. Basically, I wish I had this article (that I’m now writing) in the past to help me take some of the weight off of her shoulders.

However, I had to learn by doing. I continued to play, I ended up picking up Curse of Strahd to run for a group of friends (believe me, I made many mistakes as a dungeon master in that one too). I exposed myself to different game master styles, and I have a lot of friends I’ve played under and played with that I learned techniques from. I’ve discovered over time what was fun for me when playing games, when running them, and when writing them. That’s been going on over the course of four years, and I’m still learning.

The more you play, the less there is to stop you. The more exposed to the rules you get, the more time you spend in game, the more you learn about the possibilities. Perhaps you will spend time practicing voices in the bathroom mirror, hoping to hone in your voice acting skills. Perhaps you get very much into painting miniatures, so much so that you buy a 3D printer and a HeroForge subscription (like yours truly). Maybe you go on to really enjoy narrative design and start creating your own modules for publication. You won’t know if you don’t try.

Game Styles

I wrote about avoiding certain game tropes above, or falling into certain traps. However, the real rule is game consent. If your whole party wants to be rogues, and the game master allows it, why not? If the whole party wants to be elves, sure. In reality, the only thing that is “stopping you” is table rules. Unless you’re explicitly starting a gaming podcast or show, then the game is really between the game master and the players, those who sit at the table. The rules there are the ones you make, as long as everyone is participating in that process.

When you start a campaign, you might not fully get your table’s rules, whether you’re the dungeon master or the player. Overtime, you learn and adapt. But that’s why it’s good to start with a few base settings, and to use the game rules, as well as the etiquette, advised by many. Overtime, the student becomes the master.

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And that's all!

Starting a campaign, regardless of your role in it, can be exciting and overwhelming at the same time. As I was writing this, I embarked on a retrospective of my own experience with tabletop gaming, and I was thinking of all the mistakes I made and lessons I learned. I think about my current campaign, and how much I have improved since my first one. All this advice is paired with the following moniker: “Perfect is the enemy of good”. Tabletop gaming is meant to be “good”, not perfect. When you mess up, hopefully you have a group of friends who will laugh with you, as opposed to at you.

After you begin, you’ll adjust as a player and a game master, and you’ll eventually find your groove. Over time, that groove will change, especially as you branch out to new challenges, new systems, new play styles. Many of these fundamental basics remain true no matter if you just started or if you evolve into a tabletop master. Even the current tabletop gurus that many in the space idolize adhere to basics, as they make the foundations of any hobby or craft.

Best of luck, whether game master or player, on your newly embarked adventure.

To read part I for Game Masters; click here!

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