By Ian Croft
So with the Alberta government implementing new guidelines that prevent us from having indoor social gatherings, and combined with the continuous looming existential dread that is a global pandemic, I think now is a perfect time to engage in some escapism fantasy. And now, what if I also told you, you could also socialize with your friends while engaging in this escapism fantasy. Allow me to introduce you to the concept of online table-top role-playing games. Through the power of the Internet and help of free programs such as Discord or Zoom. With the ability to now connect with your friends — all you would need is a set of dice, the rule book, character sheet and pencil — then you’re good to go. Now if you also wanted a digital table-top to help the experience, there are many free programs out there such as Roll 20 you could use. Roll 20 even has forums that would allow you to connect with other people around the world — so even if you aren’t able to find a time to play a game with your friends you should still have ways to enjoy TTRPGs. So with this information you should be prepared to start adventuring off into a world of fantasy and wonder.
Oh — I see you’re still reading this column. So either you were the one designated to run the game making you the Dungeon Master or Game Master depending on the system you’re playing or you’re just interested in hearing the rest of my ramblings. Either way, let’s discuss what it takes to run a table-top RPG. The first step to running any TTRPG is to get your players. Ideally, this would be a group of friends, random people from around your community or people from an online forum such as the earlier mentioned Roll 20. This step is somewhat optional as the first step, but still very necessary to begin playing a TTRPG. Next, you want to figure out what system you would be playing in.
There are a large variety of systems out there and each of them offers something different or unique. For example, the two most popular systems for table-top role-playing are Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder — which are both fantasy systems. So, these two systems have your classic elves, dwarfs, wizards and dragons. However, when it comes to the system mechanics they are quite different from one another. For the ease of conversation, I will be discussing the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons and the second edition of Pathfinder. Dungeons and Dragons is a lot more simplistic and streamlined — lending itself to generally being more new player friendly. However, that also results in somewhat of a downfall in my opinion. Because, after you pick your race class and whatever your classes specializes in or sub-class, that is all the customization your players would have for their characters besides the occasional increase to their stats or a special feature called a feet players can choose from every four levels. With Dungeons and Dragons being more simplistic they also tend to be frustratingly vague in certain circumstances. Pathfinder, on the other hand, has quite a few more rules making it a little bit more daunting for a new table-top role player to get into due to the sheer amount of reading one needs to do to get a grasp of the system. Yet, Pathfinder has a lot more of a modular class system. So, where Dungeons and Dragons has basically everything set in stone for the classes, Pathfinder allows your players to pick a new class feature every other level from a pool of options that also expands every other level ensuring your players have fresh options every time they get to choose a new class feature.
Now let’s say you don’t want to have a table-top RPG set in medieval fantasy. There are also role-playing systems for that, as well. If you want to keep the system you’re playing your game in somewhat within the realm of fantasy there are the Starfinder and Shadowrun game system. Both of them combine science fiction and fantasy elements into their settings. Starfinder takes place in the far future of the Pathfinder universe — where elves, dwarfs, wizards and dragons still exists except they are joined by laser rifles, spaceships and other strange alien creatures from the vast reaches of outer space. Shadowrun, on the other hand, is a lot more down to earth — taking place in the dystopian cyberpunk future where magic has returned to the world allowing humanity to cast magical spells, as it also diverges into other races such as orcs trolls dwarves and elves. There are also systems involving less fantasies such as the Star Wars table-top RPG. Finally, there are even RPGs that have no fantasy elements in them whatsoever such as Eclipse Phase — where everything either has a scientific or pseudo-scientific explanation. And this is not even scraping the surface of the different types of table-top RPG that are out there. There are even such things as the Call of Cthulhu — where you take on the role of a paranormal investigator, as you try to cling onto your sanity — while you face the unknown ancient monsters inspired by HP Lovecraft or Blades in the Dark where you take on the role of a gang leader in a Victorian age city surrounded by a wall of lightning protecting you from the dead world outside.
But enough talk about the game system and the minute details that separate them from each other. Let’s say you and your party have figured out the system, but they want to play, so now the real work begins. The decision you must make now is if you are going to run a pre-written adventure or homebrew.
No I’m not referring to making your own alcohol, homebrew in the sense of table-top RPGs just means material made by unofficial sources usually yourself. So if you decide to run a pre-written adventure, the majority of the work is already done for you. All you have to do is read the book and make sure you understand how the monsters work. Homebrew is where this gets interesting, since you need to make everything by yourself. Now this may seem intimidating, but it’s really not, as long as you take everything step-by-step. Since I don’t want this to drag on any longer than it needs to be, I will not be talking about how to write an interesting campaign, but rather, how you can build an encounter.
The first thing you want to determine is why.
Yes, you can build any encounter with any monster in any environment, but it’s so much more interesting and engaging if there is a reason why something is there or if there’s a reason why your party is exploring this area.
The next thing you want to put together is your encounter budget.
This is normally accomplished by adding up assigned values based on the difficulty of certain monsters. Normally, you should be able to find these calculations and values either in the core rulebook or a secondary book specifically written for the individual who is running the game. However, these may not be entirely accurate for an example: if you have a creature capable of flight and making range attacks that encounter will be impossible if you have a party of all melee fighters who can’t fly.
Finally, you will construct a treasure budget. You should also be able to find this information in the same area you found your values for the encounter budget.
Since you know what everyone is playing and there’s no pre-written treasure, I would highly encourage you manipulate your treasure budget to ensure every member in your party is getting something they could use and that could be valuable to them.
One of the methods to get that information is to ask your players to write you a list of the type of treasures they would be interested in acquiring.
So, now with all this information, you should hopefully be more prepared or at least have a better grasp of what exactly is out there for table-top RPGs and what it takes to run one.