One more rulebook
While on tabletop gaming adventures, the actions we take and the way we resolve encounters, conflicts or other situations requires the use of directives that help us determine their outcome. Depending on the game or the way we play, they can be interpreted loosely, as guidelines, or strictly, to the letter.
Regardless of how they are applied, the word we use to describe them feels constrictive and stiff: rules. As you may well know, this means they can, or are meant to, be broken. But before you do that, you should always make sure you learn said rules and fortunately, this can actually prove to be tons of fun!
The very thing that often intimidates newcomers to tabletop games is that, in order to play, you have to learn how. Boardgames can have simple and quick instructions or require the study of a set of rules. Thankfully, there are many, many videos to be found online that make sure we can grasp the key concepts and learn how to play. Some publishers will even add QR codes on the back of the box that, after being scanned, redirect your mobile device straight to an instructional video. I do find them quite useful myself and use them whenever they are available and if the complexity of the game is a bit higher than usual.
What about role-playing games? Well, for them there is also a plethora of video content available but thankfully, nothing that will hold your hand and teach you their rules. As handy as it would be, it is indeed a good thing that you have to read the books to be able to run the game of your choice. Why is that? Because reading tabletop role-playing game books is fun!
Rules that aren’t boring
You do not need to read an entire rulebook if you just want to play a character in a game of D&D, Pathfinder, Tales from the Loop, Call of Cthulhuor any other RPG. You can technically only focus on the bits that refer to character creation. As for the mechanics of the game, your Game Master will teach them to you as you play your first adventures. You will quickly find, however, that the books intended for players are quite interesting once you start playing and familiarize yourself with what pen & paper role-playing implies. You will learn about what character players are able to do and how; about the gear you can purchase; the tools you can use as well as how to use skills and aptitudes. You will also find out more about the world your alter ego lives in and what rules govern it: do conventional physics apply? Does magic exist and, if so, who can wield it and how.
Most games have their own version of a player’s handbook. It contains all the information a character player would want - and to an extend needs - to know when playing. The other core rulebooks should be only for the eyes of the Game Master but that shouldn’t stop you from digging deeper if you want to do so. Depending on your group’s play style, this can occasionally cause issues, especially if the GM follows the rules to the letter and every situation is a point of contention between all involved. Personally, this isn’t how I play but if that were the case, I would turn to another system to satisfy my curiosity and my thirst for knowledge. If you are wanting to run games as a GM, then don’t hesitate to pick a game and setting you enjoy. If it’s the same game you play in, talk to your Game Master and ask them for advice on how to become one!
Go to the core
The meat of a game’s rules can be found at its core: the rulebook. If you want to play Dungeons & Dragons, read the Dungeon Master’s Guide; for Call of Cthulhu, the Keeper Rulebook; Adventures in Middle Earth, the Loremaster’s Guide; and so on. Not all publishers choose to break the rules up into different books. While selling a starter set (like most games), Edge of Empire has the rules compiled into one book. Degenesis: Rebirth is entirely contained in two volumes. One describes the setting in detail and the other contains all you need to learn about character creations, game mechanics, combat rules, equipment, etc.
Regardless of the recipe, modern games all have one thing in common: you can get all you need to start playing with one or two books. Even the behemoth of tabletop RPGs, Dungeons and Dragons, in its latest iteration, has focused completely on creating quality over quantity. This is all for our benefit and it does mean that games have never been as good as they are now. To be fair, it is the 5th Edition D&D Player’s Handbook that brought me back to the hobby. While reading it, I felt drawn back into the world of tabletop heroic fantasy gaming but I also quickly realized how much fun I was having simply reading the book. It was fascinating to see how situations were resolved in what feels like a much more streamlined experience. The examples given to put the rules in context are fun and entertaining while also clarifying any possible misconceptions. I couldn’t wait to start playing again and this led me to eventually introduce my kids to the game. It also pushed me to look for other games and I enjoyed rediscovering my old ones, such as Ghostbusters RPG, Star Wars and the Dark Eye.
Making the most of the setting
What makes a game special often comes down to how the authors make creative use of the setting to craft awesome rules and guidelines. D&D wouldn’t be what it is without its slick combat rules and magic system, doused in a colourful high fantasy flavour. Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars games come in three versions that each focus on different aspects of that universe. This gives Edge of Empire, Age of Rebellion and Force & Destiny each a distinct flavour while still being strongly rooted in the mythology created by George Lucas. The One Ring and Adventures in Middle Earth have strong mechanics that take into account how the spread of Sauron’s shadow affects Middle Earth and its denizens, including the players. They also have very creative rules to handle journeys which, as in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, are an important and impactful part of adventuring.
Great and well written rules have the power to trigger your imagination and make you want to get together with friends and play. Some games do that better than others and in very different ways. I’m not a huge fan of examples of play sequences, they always feel too scripted. Just like actual play videos, they can give you a good overview of what it’s like, but it never feels as though you are taking part in it. Depending on your play style, it can also feel alienating or restrictive. So don’t worry if you don’t feel inspired by these, showing someone what it’s like to play tabletop RPGs is very tricky. Playing your first game and discovering how it all works is part of what makes this hobby amazing and each one of us will experience it differently. I would advise against rehearsing it by watching others play, just trust your own storytelling instincts and see what happens! If you feel you’d be more confident if you did indeed see how others play then, by all means, check out the numerous actual play channels available online.
Reading a great rulebook is like diving right into a new world where your imagination contributes and adds all the bits and pieces that will make playing that much more special. You will quickly find yourself craving more information and looking for other publications relating to that game’s universe.
While core rulebooks are essential to get a good understanding of how the game works, a good insight into the mythology, or history, of the setting makes for a way more immersive experience. In fantasy and science-fiction it is often that aspect of storytelling that draws us in. Think about the first time you read about Harry walking into the Great Hall at Hogwarts and all the things you discovered as he makes his way into, what is for him as well, a new fantastical world. Many details are often found in tabletop RPG rulebooks but those with extensive worlds and deep lore benefit from the publication of sourcebooks that explore many aspects of their mythology.
Two excellent examples are the Aventuria Almanac for The Dark Eye and The Realm of Sommerlund for The Lone Wolf Adventure Game. While they are primarily intended for use with their respective game, they are really solely focusing on describing their worlds to the reader. Nothing is referred to in game terms. You will not find NPC statistics but rather clues on how to include the information in your campaign or how certain places and situations can serve as adventure seeds. These books are organized in chapters that will tell you all about the setting’s geography, political landscape and government hierarchy, races and cultures, flora and fauna, deities, magic, history and myths, etc. Anyone with an interest in fantasy and world-building will relish in reading through the pages of these volumes. And if you have creative aspirations of your own, publications like these are definitely fuel for the imagination!
Many games benefit from their authors giving them a strong mythos and compiling this into sourcebooks. If you are a D&D player, there is “The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide”; for Call of Cthulhu, we have “S. Petersen's Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors: A Field Observer's Handbook of Preternatural Entities and Beings from Beyond the Wall of Sleep” and “The Grand Grimoire of Cthulhu Mythos Magic”; for Runequest, “The Glorantha Sourcebook”; for Numenera, “The Ninth World Guidebook”; for Shadowrun RPG, the “Neo-Anarchist`s Streetpedia”, and so on. As I pointed out, all these systemless books can be read on their own, with no need to get rulebooks or play. But you’ll want to, I can almost guarantee it!
Reading for fun
The biggest drawback from being a GM, or simply enjoying tabletop role-playing, is that your collection will eventually grow to the point that you will be wanting a new book while 5 others you already own are still waiting to be read! Personally, I enjoy putting my phone aside and reading a physical book in a comfortable chair. But if you start, like myself and many, many other tabletop role-players, to purchase multiple rulebooks and sourcebooks, there is also the PDF option. It is cheaper and you can very easily search and annotate them. They also take considerably less space and they are extremely handy when travelling. If you own a tablet, it’s definitely something to consider. Either way, you will find that game books offer a fun and different way of reading about fantastical worlds which, combined with novels and other publications, can only make your gaming life more interesting.
Until next time, happy reading!