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Tabletop Role-Playing Games Are Cool Now–Here’s How to Start Playing

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We’ve come a long way since games like Dungeons & Dragons were the exclusive territory of mega-nerds. Tabletop role-playing games, or RPGs, are more popular than ever. If you’ve considered trying it out, there’s never been a better time than now.

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Moral Panic, Gary Gygax, and Tom Hanks

First, a bit of lore. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson published the rules for the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons (DnD) in 1974. The game was especially appealing to nerds and other outcasts, who could enjoy heroic adventures with a party of their closest friends.

If you haven’t tried it, then it’s impossible to describe how thrilling it is to defeat a monster together–or to roll a “nat 20” at just the right moment.

But in 1979, a young man named James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from his dorm room at Michigan State University. A private detective hired by his family publicly speculated that Egbert, who was a gamer, and his friends had been playing a live-action role-playing game in the steam tunnels beneath the college, where he was either injured or accidentally killed.

The press ran with the idea that DnD had caused a nice young man to go crazy and lose touch with reality. Combined with the swelling moral panic of era, the idea that RPGs were linked to mental illness, satanism, and other horrors gained traction.

Egbert’s story inspired a novel called Mazes and Monsters. The made-for-TV adaptation of the book starred a young Tom Hanks, and let’s just say that it would not be his finest hour.

So, during the 80s and 90s, playing DnD wasn’t just uncool. It was potentially evil! Yet 2019 was the biggest year ever for tabletop gaming. How did things turn around?

‘Stranger Things,’ Celebrities, and 5e

The impact of Stranger Things can’t be ignored when talking about the resurgence of tabletop gaming. Yes, the kids are nerdy–but they’re also obviously having a lot of fun.

Wizards of the Coast, the company that now owns Dungeons & Dragons, even released a Stranger Things starter pack for the game because so many new players were interested in trying it out.

It helps that Wizards of the Coast released the 5th edition, or 5e, in 2014. This is by far the most accessible edition of the game. It also recentered the focus on collaborative storytelling instead of war games.

That makes DnD (as well as lots of other games we’ll get to in just a minute) so much fun to play with friends. You’re telling a story together, building a world.

The best part is that you can run a great game over Zoom. It’s not quite as fun as hanging out together at the same table, but in these socially distant times, a tabletop RPG might just be the shared activity that keeps your social group from drifting apart. Grab some snacks and roll the dice!

If you’re still worried that DnD is uncool, rest assured that plenty of people are into tabletop gaming now. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that some very famous celebrities are also proud gamers.

Joe Mangeniello
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Vin Diesel plays Dungeons & Dragons as well as World of Warcraft, the video game equivalent of DnD. Mila Kunis and Henry Cavill are also rumored WoW players. Joe Manganiello, the hunky fella pictured above and former True Blood star? Huge DnD geek.

How to Get into Tabletop Gaming

If you don’t know anything about tabletop RPGs, your first stop might be YouTube or iTunes. Wait, what? There are a bunch of amazing podcasts and webseries where professional voice actors, podcasters, and comedians play DnD or other role-playing games to tell epic stories together.

Critical Role is a great starting point. It’s probably the most polished and professional of the bunch because they are literally pros. If you’re looking for a strictly audio medium, then The Adventure Zone or Not Another D&D Podcast are both fantastic.

They feature real groups of friends and family playing the game together. As you listen, you’ll get a sense of the rules while being totally engrossed in the story. It’s a surprisingly good way to learn the game and be entertained for hours. Fire up the first episode of NADDPOD while you’re doing chores this weekend and see what you think.

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Dungeons & Dragons isn’t the only game in town. Pathfinder has seen a major increase in popularity. It’s more similar to an older version of D&D and is best for players who are into stats and tactics.

It can be a little intimidating for a new player, or noob, but many game shops run regular open sessions that welcome new players. They’ll give you a pre-made character sheet, and you can join in a short adventure with other players without having to invest too much time and energy.

With both DnD and Pathfinder, it’s a good idea to find an experienced leader to run the game. While you can DM (that’s “dungeon master”) if you’re new, it’s a challenge. If you’re determined, however, then tell your party to buy a copy of the D&D Starter Set. It comes with pre-made characters, all the info you need for your first adventure, and a set of the six dice you’ll need to play.

Fair warning: If you get into DnD, you will start collecting dice. There are countless different styles out there, and inevitably you’ll need to have a couple sets on hand in case one is unlucky that day. There are also dice apps for your phone, as well as an entire game management system that includes stats and maps available through Roll20.

Non-DnD Games to Try

If dungeons and/or dragons aren’t your thing, never fear! There are a lot of other games out there. For example, yours truly is running a Monster of the Week game this weekend for a group of friends over Zoom. That game also involves rolling dice and telling stories together, but the rules are simpler and the lore is inspired by Buffy and Supernatural.

Other beginner-friendly games include Fiasco, which was inspired by the darkly funny crime capers of the Coen Brothers and Guy Ritchie. If your group wants to get really dark, then Call of Cthulhu might be your best bet. This is a good choice for fans of H.P. Lovecraft or Lovecraft Country on HBO.

Want a simple game that’s free to play? Then the steampunk airship adventure Lady Blackbird could be perfect for your group. Finally, if you’re in search of a family-friendly adventure, Mice and Mystics is a great option. It’s rated 7+ and the game sessions are more bite-sized than other RPGs.