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How to work through your backlog of tabletop RPGs

Hosts from One Shot Network on how to get more social gaming into your life

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Fiasco, a one-shot tabletop role-playing game by the award-winning game designer Jason Morningstar.
Charlie Hall/Polygon
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

While some people collect great games on Steam, GoG and Humble, vowing one day to put aside the time to experience them all, others have an even bigger problem — collecting tabletop role-playing games.

Sitting here in my office I have no fewer than six full systems and at least a dozen related campaign modules just begging to be played. Making matters worse, I have no firm idea on how to carve out more time for them, or sound strategies to find other human beings willing to come along for the ride.

To help me through the problem, I invited a handful of members of the One Shot Network onto Quality Control to talk about how to get started with tabletop RPGs.

One Shot is network dedicated to exposing people to as many different kinds of RPGs as possible, which it often packages in the form of one-off “actual play” experiences. Panelists included not only James D’Amato, host of the original One Shot Podcast, but other Network members Meghan Dornbrock, David “DC” Collins, and Daniel Kwan.

If you have a backlog of RPGs, or just want to get more of them into your life, this is the place to start. We cover topics such as popular systems, where to find players, and how to keep them happy and healthy at the table. We also recorded a podcast, which we’re releasing as a bonus episode of Polygon’s Quality Control.

Finding a group

Asking your friends is obviously a good place to start, but sometimes social anxieties can get in the way. Maybe it might be easier for you to start playing with people outside your normal social circles. In that regard, fans of video games may actually have an advantage since Discord servers are a popular place to gather communities around pen-and-paper RPGs right now.

Your friendly local game store is another option. Many run organized play sessions, sanctioned events designed by the teams behind D&D or Pathfinder. Some will host events for smaller, independent RPGs as well.

As far as digital toolsets go, Roll20 has become the go-to solution for sharing a virtual tabletop. But, as D’Amato explained it, it’s also an excellent place to find a group or even just a pick-up game. The community message board includes lots of folks who are looking for a group, with many opportunities to play every day.

Finally, fans of actual-play experiences should think about getting together with fans of those shows, either through social media or on Discord. Some, like the team at Critical Role, even publish their own sourcebooks.

A session of Ten Candles. In the center of the ring of tea lights sits a bucket of water, for obvious reasons.
Cavalry Games

Introductory games

Sometimes the most popular commercial RPGs are also the most complicated, so the team from One Shot recommended a few low-impact games that you can get running in a hurry.

Dread is a dice-less game played with a Jenga tower, which provides its own kind of tension at the table. Ten Candles is a storytelling game that’s played in the dark with tea lights, while Fiasco uses Hollywood tropes to create brisk and compelling two-hour sessions from a menu of potential settings, locations and character motivations.

The Apocalypse World game was also called out as a good choice for newbies. It uses the Powered By The Apocalypse game system, which has been applied to literally hundred of spin-off titles. What makes it so good for getting started is that it encourages players to create alongside with the game master. Describing situations, locations and characters on the fly is a great way to groom players at the table to become game masters themselves one day. Another game with a similarly collaborative approach is called Questlandia.

Finally, a great place to find new, avant garde games that are completely free is the 200 Word RPG Challenge. The annual competition brings out some of the wildest examples of creativity, but also brevity, and draws in both amateur and professional game designers alike. This year’s finalists include a faction-based fight over clippings from fashion magazines and an RPG set inside a Victorian novel.

Keeping people comfortable

Any RPG can put people in a situation that they’re not comfortable with so, in the last few years especially, the One Shot team explained how the independent role-playing community has gathered around a few key safeguards.

One commonly used trick is called the X-Card, and it was first standardized by John Stavropoulos. Basically, it’s a card with an X drawn on it. Players use the card to literally tap out of a given situation. Many games, including the upcoming Star Crossed, incorporate this tool under its Creative Commons license.

Yet another common adaptation is the concept of lines and veils. Lines are just that, hard lines that players discuss ahead of time and vow not to cross during a gameplay session. That could be as simple as not including spiders in the game, or avoiding scenes of torture. Veils, on the other hand, are situations that players would prefer happen off-stage.

Two characters from Star Crossed. They’re probably playing Dread.
Jess Fink/Bully Pulpit Games

The One Shot team emphasized that it’s important to make sure that your game is accessible to everyone. That can be as simple as making sure you have comfy chairs for people to sit in for long periods of time, or taking into account whatever disabilities your players might have. Simply increasing the font size on your hand-outs can make someone’s experience infinitely better.

The most important part, everyone agreed, was to simply get started. And, once you do, keep meeting to move the story forward.

“The pithy answer I always give,” D’Amato said, “is to start a podcast! It’s actually a great way to do it, because one thing about RPGs and most hobbies is it’s one of the first things that’s easiest to talk yourself out of. So finding a way to make a social commitment to it, to make the experience a little deeper, actually helped them stick together more.”

The next level of puzzles.

Take a break from your day by playing a puzzle or two! We’ve got SpellTower, Typeshift, crosswords, and more.