How do you play RPGs? Putting tribal knowledge in one place

That’s why you need advice. But I don’t think you need a text to tell you the basics of how roleplaying is done.

That’s a good point. One of the things I see sometimes (and perhaps have been guilty of from time to time) is a claim the TTRPGs, or sometimes just refereeing, game mastering them is a difficult and skilled task, and to me there’s something unproductively elitist in this. I remember playing D&D at the age of 8 and enjoying myself. Was it the game I’d play 30 years later? Nah.

Was I an objectively good player or GM? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter - I was playing a game and me and my friends were enjoying it. Apparently it was a good enough experience that I’m still at it.

I think emphasis on the hidden rules, norms and ethics of play - anything beyond the basic gist of tell stories and roll dice sometimes when stuff is hard to figure out - and any emphasis on the mastery of it as a complex and important discipline misses something. Playing TTRPGs is simple enough, and mystifying it with too much theorizing (which might seem odd given that I really enjoy over-thinking play) and too many rules of comportment (this is not a dig at safety techniques - which are important especially in public settings), best practices and instructions may drive people off.

For some reason contemporary TTRPG culture seems to be moving in a direction of holding up expertise (odd given how little our society respects it elsewhere), insisting that the experience is best enjoyed with a highly skilled practitioners, creating GM celebrities, and generally making it into something that 8 year old me would not have thought of as a fun activity on rainy weekend days. In this environment it seems helpful to counter that with the message that “This is easy, just use your imagination, you can’t really screw it up as long as you’re having fun and being decent to your friends. If you want more ideas there’s places to seek them out.”

I think that gets lost sometimes in the discourse. Anyway, just being nostalgic and a cranky old man I guess.


I like that a lot, Gus! Absolutely. It’s easy to lose the simple joy, sometimes. A much needed counterpoint!

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That wasn’t quite the point I was making.

I think understanding the basics of roleplaying games is pretty simple. As you point out, kids can do it, and I don’t think anyone needs to watch more than a couple of minutes of an actual play video to grasp what’s going on.

However, I think there are a couple of points that can easily get lost there.

The first is that children actually have a big advantage over adults in that they’re used to negotiating how to play. Kids change the rules of their games all the time, whether it’s a game they just made up or something they’ve played a dozen times before. Adults aren’t as used to this, at least not in my experience, and tend to rely much more on established rules or external authority on how things are supposed to be done.

The second is that while the basics of roleplaying are easy to grasp, there are a lot of particulars that get negotiated in various ways and that can differ wildly from group to group - character vs. player knowledge, player vs. GM authority, rulings vs. rules, character death and so on. And since most people tend to stick with the same group, in their minds the way they play becomes the way to play.

So while I think it’s very easy to get up and running with a roleplaying game even for complete beginners, I also think that having advice available is a huge boon for players at all levels of experience. I don’t think we should portray being a GM as some kind of mystical ability that requires decades of experience, but being any kind of player in a roleplaying game, GM or otherwise, definitely is a skill that can be improved.

Similarly, developing the theories and vocabulary around roleplaying games can only be beneficial, but that doesn’t mean it should all be thrown at beginners as essential knowledge for how to play.


I agree with that but with a personal nuance I want to add : important as they are, there are not so many things to set before play and Bankuei has already laid solid foundations for that.

Same page (to prevent one-true-way-ism), safe fun seem consensual enough.

@Paul_T Regarding sharing spotlight and stuff, isn’t it already a bit storygamey, taking for granted “TTRPG as a conversation” perspective ?

Various styles, different leaflets is what I propose. Which is already a certain perspective. Argh, I cornered myself !

I can’t be the only person here who got into near-friendship-ending arguments in middle school BECAUSE we didn’t have any understanding of the finer points of the unstated parts of RPGs, can I?


I’d suggest that the friendship ending arguments might have been more “about” being in middle school then about TTRPGs?

There’s absolutely a space for TTRPG theory – hell I’ve written a hundred of pages of it in the last year – but I also think it’s important not to focus on that theory or get cocky about it when offering the hobby to newcomers. There’s a real tendency towards gate-keeping and snobbishness in some parts of the TTRPG community and often it coalesces around perceptions that one needs specific esoteric knowledge to play or that choosing one playstyle or another is a sign of degeneracy or mental unfitness. Whether it’s laughing at someone’s “improper” character build or insisting that games with character builds are for soulless robot children - none of that’s helpful.

It’s all a game, and it’s a game of make-believe so really anyone can play, and I think that may be what I still like about TTRPGs after so many years.


It might be useful to disentangle various conflict sources so that we can better discuss which we have power to teach and/or enforce

  • Interpersonal skills and social power dynamics (think two players dating) can’t be fixed with a game and games shouldn’t be written assuming they can mediate these things

  • RPG “philosophy” is bespoke to individual groups, cultures, and systems, so we shouldn’t presume to find one true way, but we should also encourage people to explain and discuss their own preferences

  • RPG play “techniques” may fall under the “philosophy” category depending on how broadly you define it but there surely must be some kinds of practices that can agreed upon as the “best” way to do things; for example using safety tools, even if there is disagreement on which tools are best.


That’s really interesting, Gus!

I don’t disagree with anything you wrote there, but, at the same time, I wanted to share that my experience has been quite the opposite.

I have found that RPG circles which do not deal with “theory” tend to become quite specifically entrenched in their familiar patterns of thinking and playing. That’s where I’ve seen something like “insisting that games with character builds are for soulless robot children” and similar behaviours. That’s a statement that’s based in a sense of tribal identity, and to distinguish the in-group (“we play good games!”) from the out-group (“those idiots don’t know how to have fun properly!”).

What drew me to RPG theory was precisely the idea that there are different preferences and reasons for ways to design and ways to play - that there is not “one best way” - that was the main “revelation” of RPG theory which struck me and changed gaming quite dramatically for me. From a theory standpoint, it makes absolutely no sense to say “character builds are for [something negative]”, after all. Rather, you’d be looking for the purpose of “character building”, and what role it plays in the game and the play culture.

My experience has very much been that people who are interested in and aware of RPG theory tend to be more open-minded, easier to talk to, and easier to play with. It’s similar to how it can often be more fun to play games with people who all GM games, as well - a broader scope of understanding tends to be present.

You’re absolutely right that groups discussing theory online, on the other hand, do often, whether intentionally or inadvertently, “tend towards gate-keeping or snobbishness in some parts of the TTRPG community”. I suppose it’s hard to for groups avoid some of those human tendencies!

Anyway, I’m not disagreeing with you in any way. Just sharing my experience. It may be that different schools of thought in RPG theory land may have different tendencies, too. I have a feeling some groups actually develop theory in order to justify their play preferences (e.g. by giving derogatory names to ways of playing they don’t like). The theory I’ve always been drawn to, instead, is that which allows us to better understand a variety of game styles and modes.

Indeed! So true.


I don’t know! What do you see as the danger in treating “TTRPGs as conversation”? It seems like a pretty foolproof assertion, to me (although I suppose there are forms of roleplaying which extend in different directions these days, like LARP play which has no dialogue - I participated in a LARP like this once [not sure I’d consider that “roleplaying”, really, but if someone feels otherwise I would happily concede to them]).

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