It’s About Playing YOUR Game
In the world of tabletop gaming, there is a lot to choose from. Contrary to popular belief, there’s more to modern boardgames than Catan or Monopoly, and role-playing games are not just Dungeons & Dragons. The analog gaming hobby is as vast as it is diverse, which is why it might look intimidating to the uninitiated or the occasional player.
Many kinds of games fit under the giant tabletop umbrella. Some are played with dice, pen & paper while others use pawns, meeples, miniatures, boards, terrain or cards. Yet, not all are equal, and that’s perfectly okay! In fact, this diversity is what makes analog tabletop gaming so frigging cool!
Today, I am not going to give you a primer on why I think everyone should play tabletop games. This was already discussed in a few other posts, namely this one, that one and this other one. No, what I would like to bring up on this occasion is how you can (and should) find the games that are worth investing in, for you specifically.
What boardgames to play?
When it comes to board games, you will find that there is a lot to choose from and that while some games share similar concepts or mechanics ideas, the variety is just mind-boggling. I’d like to invite you to read this article about that very subject. The majority of board games are easy to get into. Their mainstream appeal has always made them very easy to discover and practice.
Pen and paper
Tabletop role-playing games are a whole different matter. Although the RPG hobby has been enjoying a widespread embrace in recent years, it is still not as mainstream as most forms of gaming. Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition has certainly played a big role in that rise in popularity and, for many, it serves as a fantastic gateway to pen & paper games. There are also many other systems to discover. So, how does a player, or game master, who is keen to wander off the beaten path of the Forgotten Realms, go about finding games that strike the right cord and offer playgrounds for amazing adventures?
The current edition of D&D is praised for its adaptability. You can just as easily resolve encounters by using miniatures and a battle grid or by playing in the theatre of the mind. Many other games also offer that flexibilty.
Before I go any further, I would like to take a minute to point out what makes, in my opinion, D&D 5E such a good stepping stone. In terms of rules, it is extremely malleable. It is versatile and also does not suffer from customization. Groups can easily interpret and/or adapt the game to fit their needs and sensibilities. You can easily focus more on mystery and storytelling or do lots of dungeon crawling with plenty of exciting encounters. The balance is there for you to strike as a group in this universal high fantasy setting.
Wizards of the Coast also had the good sense of publishing the current edition of Dungeons and Dragons with an Open Game License. It allows anyone to use the framework of the rules to create and distribute their own, 5E compatible, setting and customized rules. This has been leading the way for many, many supplements. It gives players the opportunity to play the game in a massive variety of styles.
Once you realize that there is more to TTRPGs than just D&D, one thing will become clear: not only is the sky the limit but more variety is an awesome opportunity to behold! And you don’t have to ditch D&D either. It’s perfectly normal (and definitely acceptable) for gaming groups to play a rotation of games and campaigns simultaneously or alternatively.
Make it yours
Whether you decide to jump in and try other games or find new ways to tell stories that are more meaningful to you and yours, the rules should always be there to support role-playing and the narrative that develops during a session. Some games use their rules to create a more immersive setting or introduce mechanics that enable you to experience what makes it unique.
In Call of Cthulhu, your character’s sanity is measured to increase the feelings of dread and menace that are triggered by the unnamable cosmic horror you are slowly discovering. It reminds you that the decisions you make and the mysteries you unravel have a direct psychological impact on your investigator. In Adventures in Middle Earth, a 5th Edition setting and rules set, journeys and audiences have resolution mechanics that bring real consequences to your choices. They can alter the development of an adventure in a big way. They do not only make the game more fun but they add elements that truly make the setting feel like Tolkien’s fantasy world. In Cyberpunk Red, the mechanics for Netrunning, or hacking a digital mainframe, bring a secondary field of play into the game that builds on the uniqueness of its cyberpunk setting. Tales from the Loop makes the most of its high concept sci-fi setting, an alternate version of the 80s. The rules are simple but do a great job at creating a unique atmosphere as you play kids from ages 11 to 15, solving all sorts of mysteries relating to the Loop.
The idea of a tabletop role-playing system that accommodates any setting, time period or level of technological advancement is not something new. Way back in the day, Chaosium’s Runequest led to the development of their Basic Role-Playing system which in turned served as the basis for Call of Cthulhu and the Stormbringer RPG. Iron Crown Enterprises used a similar approach with their generic rules set, Rolemaster, and used that to design Middle Earth Role-Playing (MERP).
The most well known setting-independent game is GURPS (Generic Universal RolePlaying System) but it is not the only contemporary option for those very creative game masters who are looking for a rules framework to build their own setting. The Byte Roleplaying Game comes to you as “a new d8-based system and 20 mix-and-match thematic modules to tailor your game to any setting”. It’s a hefty read at 400 pages but it definitely looks to fit the bill as a fully customizable system. Other alternatives that I am aware of in this category are Fate, Unbound and the very intriguing Cortex Prime.
Same but different
In many ways, game mechanics are what differentiate one game from another. Yet they still only exist to serve you and facilitate role-playing. The rules are guidelines, not constrictive laws. It’s up to the players and game master to interpret them in a way that makes sense in your adventure, as long as you agree on everything beforehand or decide to modify them for future instances. Ask yourself this question: who is running the game? The players and the GM or the system?
TTRPGs are not video games (those are great as well, just very different; I’ve elaborated on that topic in this article). They are not designed with ultra tight combat rules and are not all about levelling up, unlocking feats and gaining additional powers. They are about storytelling and their guiding rules are there to support that. Experiencing great adventures is not intended to be achieved by following strict mathematical formulas. Sure, some games are crunchier than others in terms of how situations are resolved. But even then, more granular games are built that way to help both players and game masters. They are rarely designed to promote a mindset where everyone is trying to exploit the system for some sort of advantage or gain. Role-playing is not about “beating the game”.
Granularity is how we can measure a ruleset's complexity and crunchyness. Some can be more akin to simulations while others have simpler, but not simplistic, mechanics.
Some tabletop gamers will try as hard as they can to exploit cracks in an RPG’s mechanics to obtain an advantage in a given situation, be it combat or resolving their ability to achieve a feat, losing all notion of context in the process. They will keep on trying and trying until they find a way to break the system so that they can declare they were right and therefore the game is rubbish! If it sounds weird, it’s because it absolutely is and sadly, it happens a lot, just like in any other hobby.
In the end, if you lose your way, or if you are trying to find it, simply stop and ask yourself what brought you to this pastime in the first place. Ask yourself what kind of adventures you want to spend hours playing, experiencing and sharing with your group.
Knowing why you play a given game defines your enjoyment of it.
It’s as simple as that. Rules-heavy games can be just as great as light systems. Personally, I have a fascination with simulation concepts and how they are resolved. I love reading rulesets that elaborate on those principles. In terms of pure gaming, I prefer games that are less crunchy, or even simple ones, such as Ghostbusters RPG, Tales from the Loop or The Lone Wolf Adventure Game. Variety in games is fun and changing things up keeps everyone interested. Despite all this, D&D and Call of Cthulhu are still two of my favourites. Regardless of your game and its complexity, the rules are only guides and, as long as everyone around the table agrees on how to interpret them, they will never get in the way of your fun.
Playing many games
To finish off, I will tell you something I don’t hear often enough:
Nobody needs to have ONE game that rules them all!
Loyalty towards a system or publisher should not limit you from trying other propositions. There are so many games, supplements, setting sourcebooks and resources available, in hard copy or digital and at varying prices fitting all budgets. Having fun is the ONLY rule you should obey. If you do that, everybody wins: game publishers big and small, creators, artists, reviewers and, most importantly, us, the players.
Wouter F. Goedkoop is a multi-faceted designer, artist and storyteller who, after living across Europe decided to find his home in Nova Scotia where he lives with his wife and kids. He helps people and companies connect with their audience in meaningful ways by telling relevant and impactful stories. For commissions and freelance inquiries, please use the form on the contact page.