From videogame RPGs to tabletop RPGs: 5 things to expect
Alright, so you've heard of this cool thing called Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). You've read the books, found a group that's friendly to newbies, and you're excited to try it out... but, at the same time, you're a little apprehensive. I mean, sure, you've been playing roleplaying games for years now - probably even played a few games based on the D&D system - but this is your first time playing it away from a PC or console. What should you do? What can you expect?
Yeah, that's right: there are no pretty graphics. Sometimes, you might find a group that uses beautifully-painted miniatures to represent their characters in battle, but more often than not you'll find yourself in a group that uses bottle caps, dice, or just random doodles to represent what's going on in a battle. The only thing graphic about a tabletop RPG is the description: everything else takes place in your mind.
But, y'know what? That's actually great, because no matter how many millions of dollars a videogame company spends on rendering that awesome cutscene where a dragon breathes fire your sword-wielding barbarian, it's still not going to be as awesome as the cutscene that you imagine for yourself in your own mind.
However, in order for those awesome moments to actually happen, you've got to be descriptive. Be the kickass barbarian that you know your character actually is. Don't just tell the gamemaster (GM), "Uh, I roll to attack the dragon"; tell the GM, "ducking beneath the talons of the dragon as it raises a claw to crush him, Grognar lets loose a scream of primal fury and stabs the dragon's underbelly with his greatsword, aiming for where the scales are soft". The game is now five times more fun for everyone at the table. You're welcome.
2. Freedom of Choice
This is the part that most newbies struggle with. See, in most videogame RPGs, you're given a rather small list of choices at each point: do you save the princess and be the good guy, stab the princess and become the bad guy, or just walk away and be a neutral-ish guy? In a tabletop RPG, though, your choices are endless. I'll repeat this again in case you didn't catch it: you can make your character do anything in a tabletop RPG.
While this is pretty cool, and is the main reason why most people still play tabletop RPGs, this absolute freedom of choice can be quite debilitating for someone new to the hobby. Being free to do everything can make you freeze and not want to do anything, because, jeez, "everything" is a pretty huge list to go through. Should you save the princess, stab the princess, turn the princess into a zombie, marry the princess, kidnap the princess, become the princess...?
This is why I usually recommend that newbies build up a short backstory for their characters and give them some in-fiction motivation. If Grognar the barbarian witnessed his family being killed by a wild clan of wolf-riding goblins, maybe Grognar has an irrational hatred of goblins and will go out of his way to kill each and every goblin he encounters? Now your character has something that he's keenly passionate about, something that he will do when there are no other pressing matters.
3. Playing with others
For the most part, if you're going to be in a tabletop RPG, you're going to be in a party with other players and their characters. This means that you'll not only have to work well with the strengths and weaknesses of their characters, but that you'll also have to learn to get along with these people in real-life.
A tabletop RPG is an inherently social activity. While you can technically just send your character gallivanting halfway across the world on his own little adventure, such behaviour is generally frowned upon because you're making the GM's life that much more difficult. Try to stick with the group, help move the plot along, listen to what your other party members are saying and doing, and don't hog the spotlight (or the GM's attention) for too long.
If you want to be your GM's favourite player, here's something small you can do to help her out: engage the more quiet members of the group in-character. If the player controlling the rogue is the quiet one, and you spot a problem that you know the rogue is perfectly suited to handle, let the rogue handle the situation. But don't just tell the rogue player, "hey, maybe you can pick the lock?"; that's boring. Turn this into a roleplaying opportunity! Make Grognar say, "ARGH! Grognar's fingers too strong to move little things inside lock. You! Sneaky man! Move little things inside lock to make lock open!"
4. Death and other consequences
That's right, every tabletop RPG is played in ironman mode. You have no save points, no Ctrl+Z to undo your past move, no way to load an earlier game state to wipe the slate clean. If you screw up and attack an elder red dragon when you're only level 2, your character - and maybe your whole party - is probably going to die.
Scary? Sure, but that's also part of the fun! Unlike many videogames, your actions in a tabletop RPG can and will have consequences. If your character insults the king of a region, don't be surprised if the next time he's back in town, he starts seeing Wanted posters of him and his fellow adventurers posted all around. Piss the head of an assassin guild off? He might let you get away, but the next time you camp, that flickering shadow lurking in the darkness might not just be a random trick of the light...
Of course, how much each individual action matters will depend largely on the scope of the game that your GM wants to run. If she wants to tell a world-spanning epic that involves divine forces and mighty planar dominions clashing with each other, what's one tiny kingdom on the mortal plane?
5. Don't be afraid to be silly
Yes, all tabletop roleplayers are all acutely aware that sitting around a table and pretending to be a barbarian with a magic sword is inherently silly. It can feel a bit awkward in the beginning, but hey! End of the day, it's just a game! Everyone's here to have fun, not to judge you. Loosen up, don't worry about looking silly, and just get into the spirit of things.
A trick I like to use with new players is to get them to describe what their character is doing instead of pretending to be that character. This means that, instead of saying, "I slam the table and demand more ale!", say, "Grognar slams the table and demands more ale!". Doing this will help you create a small amount of distance between you and your character, making it feel much less silly about describing the imaginary things that your character is doing.