This question stumped me for longer than I’d care to admit. When you’ve lived and breathed roleplaying games for years, it can be hard to articulate why you enjoy them so much. “They’re just fun!” I was tempted to say, but that’s not going to persuade anyone who doesn’t already own a bag of plastic polyhedrals. With the rise of shows like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone, more people than ever have been exposed to tabletop roleplaying, so it behooves veterans like myself to represent the hobby as best we can. If you’re considering your first campaign, or know someone who is, here are some reasons to take the plunge.
1. To Dive Into a Story You Can Shape
Roleplaying is, at its heart, a storytelling medium. Sometimes, roleplaying games tell tales of crawling through dungeons and claiming treasure; sometimes, they spin stories of political intrigue in the depths of space. No matter which story is being told, what separates RPGs from other mediums is the level of interactivity.
In a traditional roleplaying game, each player takes on the role of one character, with a single game master controlling the rest of the world.* The GM crafts plot hooks, villains, monsters, and everything else a good story needs, but the players decide how their characters will react. Have you ever been watching a movie and wanted to shout “don’t go in there, it’s obviously a trap!” at the main character? Now it’s up to you whether to proceed into a spooky room or look for another way around.
Beyond controlling your character’s immediate actions, roleplaying games also let you pursue whatever plot interests you most. Even the most freeform video games can’t account for more than a fraction of potential player choices, but tabletop RPGs are controlled by a human who can react in real time. Maybe you’re not interested in defeating the main villain in mortal combat; maybe you’d rather date them instead. As long as your actions make sense in the context of the story, most game masters will welcome whatever curve balls you throw at them.
And you can take the interactivity further! Players are in a unique position that’s part audience, part co-writer. If you’re in a campaign that’s mostly social drama, and you’d like some bloody combat to mix things up, you can talk to the GM about it. A good GM will do their best to accommodate you, since player enjoyment is their ultimate goal. Soon you’ll have a midnight assassination attempt on your life, giving you an excuse to draw your sword after months of negotiations and talk. It’s like reading a novel and having a direct line to the author for what you’d like to see next.
2. To Become Your Favorite Character
While the larger story is certainly a vital aspect of roleplaying games, the character you play might be even more important. RPGs have the thinnest separation between audience and character of any storytelling medium, as you control the character’s actions in real time. This lets you develop a close connection with your characters, until you feel their triumphs as your own.
Even the most restrictive systems offer a lot of options for making your character. Do you like hotshot pilots or meditative mystics? Maybe cunning operatives are more your speed, or perhaps you’d just like to play yourself but with superpowers. Systems exist to fulfill any of these desires. You can model your character off the protagonist in your favorite prose story or create something from the depths of your imagination.
Once you’ve decided on what kind of character you want to play, the fun has only just started. From there, you take on your character’s persona and safely experience things you’d never do in real life. This can range from big flashy stuff, like fighting dragons, to much smaller scale stuff. Maybe your character just needs to put their life savings on the line in order to win the day. That’s something none of us would want to do in real life, but roleplaying games let you explore the idea in a space where you know everything will okay.
Over the course of a good campaign, you will bond with your character, until you understand them like a best friend. You will experience bone-chilling fear and heart-pounding success through their eyes. At the story’s climax, you will experience the satisfaction of saving the day. And the best part is if you find you’re not into the character you’ve created, that’s okay! You can retire them and make a new one.
3. To Explore Your Favorite Settings
Collaborative storytelling and deep character-roleplaying are great, but maybe they’re a bit abstract for you. That’s fine, RPGs have another tool with which to tempt you: the setting of your favorite stories. Have you ever wanted to pilot a Firefly through the Verse, or skim the sands of Tatooine in your T-16?* Perhaps you’d prefer a trek through the primal forests of Middle-earth or a stint in the Night’s Watch atop the Wall?
No matter what your favorite story is, there’s probably an RPG for it. At first, this is just an opportunity to continue the stories you love. Perhaps you’ve just binge-watched all of Popular TV Show, and you’re not ready to let that world go. So you pick up the Popular TV Show roleplaying game, and the adventure continues. While you probably aren’t playing the canon characters,* you can have the same kinds of adventures and tour the same locations they did.
But wait, there’s more! No matter how much you love a favorite novel or film, there’s probably something you thought wasn’t fully explored. Are you curious about hobbits who live their lives in the world of tall folk, or do you dream of knowing how exactly the Federation manages its internal affairs? RPGs are the perfect medium to explore these questions. You can explore a setting’s undeveloped ideas, or subvert those ideas entirely. Maybe it’s time to play a Firefly game where you’re an Alliance officer or a Song of Ice and Fire campaign about a peasant commune. No one can stop you from turning your beloved setting on its head and seeing what falls out.
The best part is that you’re not limited to big name settings like Star Wars or the Cthulhu Mythos. If a story has achieved even a modicum of popularity, it’s likely someone has made a roleplaying system for it. On the rare chance that your favorite setting doesn’t have its own RPG, or the more likely chance that its RPG is bad, there are plenty of other systems that can be adapted. Is your favorite story a detective novel no one else has ever heard of? Gumshoe has you covered. What if you want play in the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, which doesn’t even have its own system? In that case, I shall direct you to Primetime Adventures, a roleplaying game so flexible it can accommodate nearly any TV show ever made.*
4. To Laugh at Wacky Hijinks
There’s a lot of serious fun to be had in roleplaying games. You’ll launch into dramatic speeches just before avenging the tragic death of your family, and that’s just for starters. But on the other side of the coin, RPGs can be really funny. In fact, sometimes it’s the funny stories you’ll find yourself retelling years later.
One source of comedy in RPGs is the rules themselves. Many systems, especially big sprawling ones like D&D, try to have rules for everything. This leads to hilarity. You might find yourself locked in life or death combat with an iron golem, only to remember that a feat you took several levels ago gives you a headbutt attack, and suddenly you’ve defeated the boss by bonking it with your forehead.
That’s a fairly tame example. Some rules create truly bizarre situations. In the first edition of 7th Sea, it was possible to make a character so ugly that looking upon them was enough to freeze enemies in their tracks, which meant you were basically playing Medusa in a swashbuckling pirate game. These situations are rarely intended by the designers, but that doesn’t make them any less funny.
As amusing as the rules may be, the greatest source of hilarity will always be your fellow players. Even players who aren’t natural jokesters will find it easy to crack wise at the table. That’s because everyone in an RPG is in roughly the same headspace. You’re all thinking of the tropes and conventions around the game’s genre, so when those tropes are subverted, it’s funny to everyone. Trust me; you’ll be consumed with giggles when the main bad guy gives their evil speech, only to have a fellow player nitpick the villain’s grammar.
5. To Spend Quality Time With Friends and Family
If you’re anything like me, it can be really awkward to gather people together in a room with the ambiguous goal of “socializing.” And yet, you still want to socialize with your friends, either because it recharges your batteries or just to maintain important relationships. You need something to do, an activity around which to focus your socializing.
Roleplaying games are a great way to do this. They give you the perfect excuse to get together with the important people in your life. Most RPGs assume a default schedule of one session per week,* which allows you to set up a recurring event with little effort. That way you’re not always scrambling to find a new date; it’s something everyone agrees on in advance.
Delving dungeons and rolling dice is a great way to carve out low-pressure social time. RPGs are entertaining in their own right, so no one gets bored. But RPGs don’t require everyone’s attention all the time, so there’s plenty of time to chat and catch up too. For a really serious game, you might want to save the small talk for when the GM is getting set up, but in more casual games you can trade anecdotes between rolls, then get back to fighting the dragon.
While RPGs are usually played face-to-face, there are other options. If the people you want to hang with are halfway across the country,* it’s perfectly viable to play via voice chat. Entire sites and services have sprung up around this idea, and most of them are free.
A final advantage roleplaying games have for socializing is cost. While most RPG core books run in the $60 dollar range, you usually only need one for the entire group. After that, you just need a few dollars for dice and you’re good to go.* Few other hobbies can match roleplaying games when it comes to dollars spent per hour of entertainment.
Roleplaying games have brought an immeasurable amount of joy to my life, and I hope I’ve convinced you to give them a try. I’ve laid out some benefits that stretch across the hobby as a whole, but every player’s experience is unique, and I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface of why people play. If you happen to be an RPG veteran, I’d love to hear about your own reasons for playing in the comments.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.