How to Play an RPG for the First Time

I love D&D, but there are tons of itches that it just doesn’t scratch compared to other RPGs out there. So when I want to play in a way that D&D is bad or even terrible at providing, I’ll gravitate to a system that was made for just that style of play.

There are countless benefits to stepping outside of your comfort zone. For example, I learned a new method of campaign planning/prep that I’ll probably use for everything else going forward.

Other systems also have mechanics that can be translated to your game system of choice to further enhance it. Or, as I said, some systems just do stuff flat-out better. Taking inspiration from those systems’ mechanics to improve the mechanics of your preferred game is also a possibility.

Recently I’ve been running a Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign. I had never played it before so I’m sure my campaign has some weak spots. For starters, I think the adventures and dungeons have been pretty basic.

Part of this feeling is because well, they’re low-level adventurers and making things too interesting will flat-out demolish them. However, I’m sure part of this feeling is because of how I run/play new RPG systems. It’s very different from how I would play a system I’m super familiar with like D&D 5e.

shadow of the demon lord cover art
By the way, the artwork in this book compliments the system perfectly. Credit: Schwalb Entertainment.

First Steps to Learning a New RPG System

Read the Book

I know, homework sucks, but sorry, there’s no way you’re getting around this. Someone at your table needs to have at least a general idea about the rules when you go to play a new game system. Ideally, everyone will learn the rules and read the book, but for starters let’s just focus on you for the time being.

Spend some time reading the sourcebook(s) for the game. You don’t need to read every single book for the system. Just start with the most important one. Generally, it’s the one labeled something like the “core rulebook”.

Give it a solid read-through and make notes about what you learn as you go. Label where the important information can be found in the book, or pin-point confusing mechanics that you’ll come back to later on.

There are two reasons why you should read the book before your first time playing an RPG. The first is, of course, learning the rules. The second, though, is that you may find that after a full read-through you don’t actually find it all that interesting.

It’s good to find out now that this game isn’t a good fit for you rather than when you and your friends are committed to the system. For the record, it’s ok to dislike a game that other people love.

Seek Out People Who Know What They’re Doing

Obviously, I’m a bit biased about this, but for many of us, it’s important to hear other peoples’ perspectives. How they handle problems, how they use the mechanics, and of course, any tips they have about the game.

Sure, you can learn all of this from a sourcebook, provided it’s well-written, but I always find value in having ideas presented in different ways or formats.

For example, this beginner’s guide for Shadow of the Demon Lord by Black Candle Games was a fantastic starting point for me. I had an understanding of what I was going into when I read the sourcebook so everything “clicked” together effortlessly.

It’s by no means a necessity to go and scour blogs, videos, and social media to properly learn a new system. However, I can attest to this being a valuable part of my process for learning a new RPG system.

How to Play a New RPG System

As I said previously, the way I play a game for the first time is way different from how I play a system I’m comfortable with.

It’s not a whole lot different from when I usually run a game, but there are two rules that I stick to; no homebrew or tweaking the game and start at the very beginning of the game.

One way to make all of this really easy to accomplish is to play a prewritten adventure module for the new RPG system your group is trying. While you can absolutely still tweak and homebrew an adventure module, I at least have much less of a desire to do so when it’s not needed. It saves me time and keeps my games from going off the rails with potentially unbalanced homebrew.

I’m not usually one to play a lot of premade adventure modules, but this is absolutely a selling point of theirs. Being able to have a full campaign or adventure already written and balanced for you is a huge convenience for your GM’s first foray into a new RPG system.

DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING (yet)

I love homebrewing stuff. I’ve made races, items, mechanics, and creatures in D&D 5e. And that’s just the stuff I’ve put on here! Most of my D&D campaigns are full of homebrew that I’ve made or that other people have made.

However, when I go to play a new system for the first time I ban any and all homebrew at least for a little while. Even if it makes the game “better”.

My primary reasoning for doing this is to give myself and the table a baseline for the system. How are we supposed to do that if we keep throwing homebrew around and changing the rules?

starwars age of rebellion rulebook cover art
For example, we learned to never let one of our friends be in charge of our vehicles from playing the Star Wars RPG. Credit: FFG.

It’s also difficult to determine the quality of homebrew you’re looking at if you barely have a grasp of the system. Same goes for creating your own homebrew content. If you don’t have much experience with a game, you should take some time to familiarize yourself with it before creating anything.

Doing a playthrough of a game without any added features gives us an unbiased look at the game. We’ll learn what it does well and what it falls flat, and once we know that we can determine whether or not the system is worth playing again with some fixes, or if this isn’t something we’re interested in returning to.

In my opinion, it’s also considerably easier to learn a system if all the mechanics come from the official sources. Especially if there’s only a single sourcebook.

Start from the Beginning

Whenever I play an RPG for the first time I like to start from the very beginning. Sure in games like D&D 5e playing at level 1 can be dangerous due to how squishy the characters are, but I feel that it’s good to learn that firsthand.

Not every system starts at level 1 either, but for the purposes of this discussion let’s just assume that level 1 means “a character starting their adventure at the lowest level in the game”.

Starting from level 1 aids your players in learning the system. It’s way easier only having to learn the basics at the beginning and then adding onto their characters as they progress. If your players are catching on quickly then you’re free to accelerate their characters’ progress through the game.

Dropping your players into a new RPG with level 3 characters may be the better way to play, but it can be a lot of extra variables to throw at people who don’t have a grasp on the material.

Try Before You Commit

Most of the time when my table plays through a new system we play shorter games. This could mean a one-shot or a short adventure, or it could be a mini-campaign that’s played over the course of a few months.

I tend not to commit to a full campaign with a new system unless the system is geared for shorter campaigns. For example, our intentions are to play our Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign through to the end, but the end is simply level 1-10 and the leveling system pushes you through those levels quickly.

If you’re all really enjoying the campaign then it’s easy enough to simply continue playing. Giving yourselves a stopping point gives you all a set point to abandon ship if you all find that after a few sessions this game system just isn’t for you!

Again, all of this circles back to giving you a way to try out the game, find out what you do and don’t like, and then deciding on if your group wants to commit more of your time to this system or not.

Conclusions

Playing a new RPG system for the first time is fun. It’s the best part of RPGs for some groups! They love trying new games and rarely settle on just one or two systems.

I have some ground rules for trying out a new system, but they’re not much different from how many people play any RPG. I simply learn the system, don’t introduce homebrew or tweak the rules right off the bat, don’t commit to a long campaign, and start from the beginning of the game.

Personally, I like learning new systems, even though it does take a lot of time and energy out of me. But overall, I always find myself better for having spent this time. Even on the games that my group ends up permanently shelving. Learning what you don’t like is just as important as learning what you love.

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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