What even is ‘table-top role-playing’?

So, an rpg (role-playing game) is basically any game where you play as a particular character and make decisions for them that affect the outcome of the story. There are loads of video game rpgs you might be familiar with, like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, World of Warcraft, The Witcher – pretty much anything where your choices as the player character impact the plot.

Table-top rpgs are similar in principle, except that they’re played as a group and the plot is created by the players. Basically, about five people sit around a table with dice, pens and paper and a rule book, and speak and act as their imaginary characters having adventures in an imaginary setting for a few hours. They use dice to determine whether they succeed or fail in whatever they want to do (so there’s always a chance of failure and/or death) and paper to keep track of character progression, equipment, statistics, wounds etc. The most famous table-top rpg is Dungeons and Dragons, which is set in a fantasy world with dwarves, elves and dragons, but there are loads and loads of other systems and settings to choose from.

One person around the table is the GM (Game Master, or Dungeon Master, or sometimes Master of Ceremonies), and their role is a bit different.

The Game Master

The role of the GM is to be the interface of the game and to manage the players. They don’t have a character to play, but instead control basically everything else. Everything that happens, apart from the actions of the player characters, is up to them, including the setting, plot and the actions of all NPCs (non-playable characters – every other character in the story that isn’t a player). They also look after the rule book and make decisions on the mechanics of gameplay, based on the guidelines there.

Their job is to make sure the game runs smoothly, kind of like being the Chairperson or referee but with more creative license. Often the GM will design the plot/adventure that the PCs are part of, though this can also be co-created with players or they can follow a pre-written adventure book, depending on preference.

The PCs

Everyone other than the GM will be a PC (player character). Each player creates and controls a character. There are a couple of restrictions on that control: firstly, while the GM can’t take charge of your character, they can make decisions about what is and isn’t allowed within the rules of the game, and secondly, whether or not a PC is able to do what they want will sometimes be subject to a successful dice role.

To create a character, players fill out a character sheet using the rule book, which defines what kind of person the character is, their personality, appearance, as well as their talents, skills and traits, and weaknesses. They will also determine their ‘characteristics’ or stats, which will tell you know how well or badly PCs can do certain things. For example, if you have high Dexterity, your character will probably be faster, better at using bows and sneaking, while if they have high Strength, they will be better at lifting things and may do extra damage when they hit stuff.

The D.

There are a number of different systems that dictate success or failure of actions, but they’re usually based around dice. Typically, if a player wants to perform an action where there is a chance of failure, they will roll a dice to see if they succeed or not – they might get to add to or subtract from the role, depending on their stats, environment, or how good their character is at the action.

The most famous dice system is probably the d20 system of Dungeons and Dragons which revolves around using twenty-sided dice (which Big Nerds call a d20). However, there are systems that use d100s, standard d6s, or pools of different sized dice.

There are a couple of games that use playing cards or a jenga set to determine whether an action is successful instead of dice.

The Setting

You can pretty much set an rpg anywhere you like, since the GM has complete creative control of the game. For example, I’ve played in the following settings:
• Middle earth
• Viking Age Iceland (because of course I have)
• Generic high fantasy
• Warhammer 40k
• Post-apocalyptic dystopia
• 90s-teen-high-school-supernatural-romance (á la Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Why would anyone do such a weird thing?

For me, because it’s really fun and its super creative. The lack of a board or computer interface means that you rely on imagination to create the story, so the possibilities are unlimited. You get to make up and star in awesome stories with your friends – some of these stories may last years and follow the characters through major arcs. Frankly, it’s also really great to get to pretend to be someone else, living in a different world for a while. It’s easy to get attached to your character when you’ve been playing them for some time, and I may have cried once or twice when a PC has died…

Why do you play table-top rpgs? Would you consider trying it out? Let me know in the comments!


9 thoughts on “What even is ‘table-top role-playing’?

    1. I can appreciate that – GM-ing can definitely be a bit stressful at times, and takes quite a lot of prep. You can be really creative as a player too though!


  1. Good post, and looks like you have everything covered that someone who has never played before would want to know. I roleplayed when I was younger because I liked to play makebelieve and rpg is structured playing makebelieve. Now, I write creatively for a living and rpg is a fun outlet that happens to exercise the creative parrs of my brain, helping me achieve that. I have also noticed that when you have a good group, barriers between players drop and conversations during game can be unpredictable and sometimes chaotic. I don’t drink alcohol, but I believe this reduction in barriers can be equated to the reduced inhibition of drunken behaviour which leads to really silly and funny encounters in and out of game. That’s the way I see it. Though from reading posts in the DnD 5e facebook group, I begin to wonder how many folks out there actually have good groups, or who simply settle for what is available

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, John 🙂 Definitely just trying to cover the basics here. It’s great to hear that you see rpgs as a creative outlet – I do think some people think of it more like a complicated board game with stock characters

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the vocabulary! I’ve been trying to find a group to play D&D but it’s ridiculously difficult T_T It seems that getting a master is almost impossible here… T_T


    1. I know! Finding the right group/GM can be quite hard depending on where you are. A way around that is to play online using something like roll20 – there are normally quite a few GMs looking for players on there


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