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My first tabletop RPG experience

Sometimes it’s hard to believe I’ve been playing video games for over 30 years. I’ve experienced many amazing adventures and RPGs in this time, and these have allowed me to develop a strong appreciation for interesting narratives and well-thought-out characters.

It may therefore seem a little strange that I’d never tried a tabletop RPG before this year. Perhaps this was mainly to do with having only limited exposure to them; although I’ve known several bloggers who play for a while now, my real-life friends have always focused on video games. There’s also the fact that somewhere along the way I’d made the assumption it was just a group of people telling each other fantasy stories. My interest had never been piqued enough to cause me to find out more as writing fiction was something I’d never been good at.

This changed when Kevin from The Mental Attic began looking for players for a new game to be streamed on his Twitch channel, The Lawful Geek. I didn’t immediately say no when he got in touch last summer to ask if I’d be interested in joining in, but I must admit that I didn’t jump straight in with both feet. After telling him both myself and my other-half would help out by taking part if he couldn’t find enough players to make up the numbers, we found ourselves trying to create our own characters towards the end of 2019.

The game itself was the sixth edition of Shadowrun. Instead of being the completely fantasy-orientated tabletop RPG I had in my head when I thought about the genre, this is more science-fiction focused even though it still contains magical elements and dragons. It takes place several decades ahead in a future London where megacorporations control the lives of employees and others, cyberware is common, users interact with a worldwide computer network via neural interface, and dirty-work is contracted out to shadowrunners.

If it hadn’t been for Kevin’s patience and guidance, Pete and I simply wouldn’t have made it through the character creation part. It was a horrible process and one which we almost backed out of several times. Not only did we have to come up with believable backstories, something I struggled with thanks to my lack of skill with fiction, there were so many other things to think about and choices to make. The Shadowrun Sixth World Core Rulebook does an absolutely terrible job of explaining some of these – more about that later.

We made it through though and both came out on the other side with characters we were happy with. Pete went with Grifter, a 36-year old Australian who has turned into a wetworks specialist after growing up in an unhappy orphanage. My own character was kissingthepixel, or KTP for short, a young woman who has worked on her hacking skills since losing her parents in a car-crash as a child. What she didn’t realise at the start was that she was actually a technomancer: someone who has the ability to connect to the computer network with their mind.

Shadowrun, tabletop, RPG, gunfire, drone, machine, battle, fight

Both of us felt incredibly apprehensive before going into our first session. We didn’t really know what it was going to be like or what would be expected of us and were still bruised after the painful character creation. The game was going to be streamed on Twitch so any mistakes we made would be broadcast to an audience. And on top of all that, we were going to meet the other players – people we’d never spoken to before and who had years of experience with tabletop games. What if we didn’t get along?

We had nothing to worry about though and we’ve found ourselves in a great group. Kat, also known as ClericofKord online, is a wonderful actor and I admire the way she’s able to bring her street shaman Neko to life along with her many personas. Ozzy always seem to have the best luck of with the dice and his infiltrator Sleek is the guy we send in to get the lowdown on a location before busting in. They’ve both been extremely patient with us and we can’t thank them enough for all their help with getting to grips with the game.

I mentioned acting there, and this is the thing Pete and I were most worried about when starting Shadowrun. We might mess around on the Later Levels’ Twitch channel but we’re in no way performers; would we have to pretend to be our characters and talk as though we were in their bodies? The group reassured us when they told us there was no right way to play. Over the past several months, we’ve found ourselves doing what most feels comfortable given the situation: sometimes saying ‘my character would do this’, sometimes speaking as them.

It’s hard to recap our story so far because so much has happened since the first session in April. Our team of shadowrunners were thrown together thanks to a job from a man known only as Blondie, who isn’t on any records and doesn’t actually exist. He’s now slowly taking over the city and intent on killing us, although we still have no idea what his ultimate goal is. Thankfully we have a benefactor named Malcolm on our side who has come to our aid more than once; but he recently disappeared, and information we’ve uncovered implies he may not be as legit as he first seemed. I think the only thing we’re certain of is that we can truly trust no-one.

As mentioned earlier in this post, the Core Rulebook isn’t great. It does a good job of portraying this future world and the conflicts between the groups which exist in it but that’s where my positive comments end. Information about a specific subject is frequently split across far too many sections so you find yourself jumping between pages all the time. Certain paragraphs also directly contradict each other so you’re never sure you’re playing correctly – something which is surely a massive flaw a rulebook. It’s definitely not for beginners.

Because of this our group has taken a more laidback approach and we’re finding our way as we go. Kevin frequently asks for feedback and if one of the rules doesn’t make sense or feels too restrictive, we all agree to a change and continue playing the game our own way. Working like this has totally transformed a badly-written manual and terrible character creation process, from a daunting obstacle to new players into an experience we now look forward to every fortnight.

I think the thing which has surprised Pete and I the most is how a tabletop RPG can be just as exciting as a video game. There have been some moments during our sessions so far that have genuinely shocked us, whether that’s down to a plot-twist thrown in by Kevin or surprise at how one of the player characters have reacted to a situation. Even when our own characters aren’t actively taking part in a scene, we’ll be there in the game listening because we want to know what happens next.

Does this mean I’ll now be seeking out other tabletop games? To be honest, I’m doubtful. I think we’ve been very lucky to find ourselves with a gamemaster who’s so willing to guide new players and a group who are an awful lot of fun to hang out with, and I’m not sure all experiences would be like that. Video games will always be my focus but I can’t deny that I’m enjoying Shadowrun right now. I want to find out where our story takes us next – and whether we’ll finally be able to give Blondie the beating he deserves.

Kim View All

Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.

25 thoughts on “My first tabletop RPG experience Leave a comment

  1. Genuine kudos to the both of you going in cold and being willing to give it a go. Can be daunting performing those sorts of games and roles outside the company of friends but can be fun throwing yourself in

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    • Looking back on how the character creation went and how apprehensive we felt before the first session, it’s weird comparing that to how we enjoy the sessions now. Video games will always be my focus but it’s nice to finally be able to say I’ve tried an RPG. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Its fun to watch you all when I manage to catch up. Some of the reactions have been so funny because of the twists and when you get left on a cliffhanger… I’m so glad you have been getting more into as time went on and Kevin definitely seems like the best gamesmaster for new players. Looking forward to seeing what comes next for all your characters.

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    • Well we won’t have to wait long to find out… based on how the last session ended, I have a feeling we might be in for some trouble tonight… 🤔

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  3. Glad to hear you’re enjoying your tabletop RPG experience! I have a fondness for that genre, as it is one of my earlier “ins” to much of geekdom, though I rarely have the time and opportunity for group games now. Streaming it publicly sounds stressful though, good thing you found yourself a great group!

    Important thing to remember is, as you say, there is no one right way of doing things. It’s whatever works for you and your group, and the goal is to have fun with the game. Tabletop RPGs can swerve in far more exciting and unexpected ways than video games and that is part of the fun.

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    • We were so nervous before the first stream because we didn’t really know what to expect. Tonight will be our tenth session so we’re more comfortable now, and I think we’re at the point where we’ve almost forgotten that the game is being streamed while we’re playing. There’s still a lot we need to wrap our heads around but yeah, we’re definitely having fun. 🙂

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  4. I love this piece.
    I am glad you persevered because you are both great. Both you and Pete approach a situation by describing what you want to do within the story. which is far more narrative that what some experienced roleplayers do which is describing how they want to use a game mechanic or rule.
    It’s important to note that you picked one of if not the worst RPG book I have read in 30 years to start. Most other RPGs are far more accessible for newbies. Shadowrun 6e is a book that experienced players have thrown out.
    I am looking forward to continuing our story tomorrow.

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    • Thanks Ozzy! And thanks too for being so patient with us, and for putting up with all our terrible dice rolls (ha ha). Looking forward to tonight’s game. 😀

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  5. Getting into tabletop games can be hard – a lot of the “bigger” ones have so many rules, and mechanics to learn, it’s really overwhelming/daunting in the beginning. I started playing D&D about a year ago (which took a while to learn), and I really love it. Since quarantine started, I’ve gotten into Monster of the Week with a different group, and it’s been super fun as well! Video games will always be my primary gaming hobby, as you said, but I really enjoy the tabletop games and I can’t wait for COVID to be done so I can play with friends in person again.

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    • I know what you mean about the mechanics – we’re now more comfortable with the game, but there’s still so much we have to wrap our heads around. There are so many rules! It would great to be able to play in person rather than online one day, if we can persuade Kat to take a trip over to the UK. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • If Kevin hadn’t asked us to be involved, I’m not sure we’d have found our way into giving it a go. But I’d recommend giving one a try if you ever had the opportunity – it’s turned out to be nothing like what we had in our mind, if that makes sense. 🙂

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        • I suppose the best way to start is by asking: what kind of genre do you like? Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror, etc.

          There are countless RPG systems out there and even more homebrews and spinoffs, so knowing a good genre for you might be the best starting point to give you some recommendations 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

            • Horror is a big one. Recently I got my hands on a horror themed RPG called Vaesen, which is based on Norse folklore but with a horror theme. If you ever saw the TV show Grimm, it’s got a bit of that Vibe.

              There’s Outbreak: Undead for your zombies, Vampire the Masquerade for your Vampires, Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Mage: The Ascension for your puppies and wizards, Call of Cthulhu in its many forms and systems for the eldritch cosmic horror of course.

              Ten Candles is a superb and minimalist horror RPG. You start the game with literally 10 candles, and every time someone fails a roll, you lose a candle, and with it how many dice you have. So things get harder and bleaker. It’s a game with the basic premise that no one’s making it out alive and it gets intense.

              Dread is another amazing horror RPG, very free in terms of what the plot is, you can make it up. Its unique and you’ll probably agree, insane, mechanic is that there are no dice. Instead every major action or decision that can lead to failure requires you to make a successful pull from a JENGA TOWER. The wobblier the tower, the more intense the story becomes, ’cause you don’t want it to topple, right?

              This is a good example of Dread, though of course, overly done with a set and high production values. You’d need just a table and friends as with every RPG out there. But you can see how the dread mechanics come into play

              Liked by 2 people

            • As for Science Fiction, oof, let’s get to it:

              – You of course have your Star Trek and Star Wars. There’s also a system for The Expanse TV show.

              – Battlelords of the 23rd Century offers more of a Starship Troopers kind of affair.

              – Paranoia puts you in a Colony with a psychotic computer that you need to keep happy, or they kill you and clone you. Sometimes making them happy means betraying other players. It’s a fun silly game.

              – Scum & Villainy is a cool game for space heists.

              – Warhammer 40.000 can’t be excluded, it’s a grim dark future where everything sucks but also everything is ridiculously over the top.

              – Starfinder is from the same people who made Pathfinder but set far into the future.

              And those are your spacefaring and far future sci-fis, there’s of course Cyberpunk Red (the one being adapted as Cyberpunk 2077), Mutant Year Zero is another RPG, that got a videogame treatment.

              – the Cypher system is really cool ’cause it’s a set of mechanics and rules that lend themselves to ANY GENRE. So Sci-Fi, horror, fantasy, etc. They have their science-fantasy main setting of Numenera.

              There are plenty more, but these are my main picks, really.

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  6. I think it’s great to see people giving the hobby a go and recording for posterity to boot! A note about the emphasis on rules in TTRPGs, “in the beginning” it was much more natural to do what you are doing during play and simply narrate your intentions and let the DM/GM/Referee/etc interpret what you said and resolve the action. If they needed a die roll from you or needed a stat from your character sheet they would ask and things would simply move on from there. It was really considered “bad form” for players to try to wield rules like weapons and explain how they were using this rule or that rule to the person running the game. I’ve not played or read the sixth edition of Shadowrun, I stopped at the second edition, but I do recall the setting being great fun for friends and I during college since Urban Fantasy was a new concept. The rules, even then, appeared somewhat clunky with the decker characters time in the net basically becoming a parallel game effort and high levels of wired reflexes making initiative levels become pretty unbalanced. My advice is to just enjoy the setting and story and remain blissfully ignorant of much of the detailed rules, thats the ref’s job 🙂

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    • I’ve managed to get my first few matrix battles under my belt now and can honestly say I have no interest in the rules. I’d be totally happy if we could just skip the fighting parts and get back to the story ha ha! I really like the Shadowrun setting, my character being able to use technology, and the interactions between our group’s characters; I think it’s this which is making me come back every fortnight rather than rolling the dice, if you get what I mean. 🙂

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    • I’ll jump on this one to say yes, the rules can be clunky and the matrix vs real world thing can get weird, which is why as the GM for this campaign, I do my best to abstract a lot of the clunkiness and often boil complex tasks to simpler actions and rolls based on character choices. Kim is very good and making choices based on what her character would do, even if it’s not exactly written in the book, which as a GM I really enjoy. I just take her intent, convert it to the nearest action and dice pool that will accomplish it, add some modifications if needed, some risks to make things interesting and then let her roll her stuff.

      We recently handled matrix initiative and real world initiative together, with a stealth section in the matrix and a combat scenario in “meat space.” It helped to focus the players on a finite number of actions per turn and think of the best ways to accomplish what they wanted.

      Liked by 1 person

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