Getting the Non-Geeks in Your Life to Try (and Have Fun!) Playing a Tabletop RPG

In our family, holidays often mean gathering around the table twice: once to eat (duh!) and once to play board games. As our daughter has gotten older, this has become more fun; we’re no longer confined to the excitement of Candy Land and have instead moved onto Scrabble, Monopoly or Apples to Apples. But as our daughter has gotten older, she’s also gotten geekier… and it didn’t take long for my husband to recruit her to try a tabletop RPG.

The problem? Those games require at least two players plus a game master. Great. Dad’s the game master. Kid’s one of the players. That leaves Mom for the second player, and Mom has absolutely no experience or interest in playing. What are a geeky dad and daughter to do? Well, they convinced me… and we all learned a few things along the way.

We chose Pathfinder for our family’s foray into tabletop RPGs. My husband, though he grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends, had never been a GM, and the Pathfinder Beginner Box came with lots of great resources to help us all get started. He has, since our first quest, gotten much deeper into his GM role and accumulated a lot more “stuff,” none of which I’m qualified to write about, but all of which seem to help him create and manage stories. What we all learned pretty quickly is that a reluctant new player and a 4th- or 5th-grader have a lot in common: namely, a short attention span, a thirst for action, and no understanding whatsoever of the rules or procedures. This presented an interesting challenge for our new GM. Based on our experiences, here are our four best tips for convincing the non-geeks and newbies in your life to try–and have fun–playing a tabletop RPG:

  1. Create an uncomplicated character. My character is a fighter named Sasha. She is perfect for me because she’s insanely strong and kind of dumb, so I don’t have to think very hard about what she’s going to do in any given situation. Are we being attacked? Rush in first and knock some heads together–or chop them off. Is there a chest that needs to be opened? Break it. Is there a nuanced conversation to be had or a riddle to solve? Let someone else do it. My motto for Sasha is essentially, “Hulk smash!” and that works really well for me because I just don’t have the interest or patience to learn all the things a more developed and evolved character would need to know.
  2. Keep the story moving. Our first quest was the out-of-the-box adventure to find the dragon, Black Fang. I really, really wanted to find Black Fang. I did not care about looking in chests or exploring caves or any of that. Fighting goblins = good. Examining scrolls = snooze. Our GM learned to keep things moving briskly, and in subsequent adventures, he has cut out entire planned encounters on the fly when he sees I’m tuning out.
  3. Be willing to play a little fast and loose with the rules. In other words, do not make a big deal out of it if the fighter forgets to unsheath her sword, and give her lots of reminders about stuff like “looting the bodies” and “looking at things.” Go easy on the role-playing requirements and don’t worry about it if people don’t stay in character the whole time (because particularly if you have a very social non-geek playing, she may be prone to talking about things that don’t involve the game at hand).
  4. Provide good snacks. You may laugh, but I really can’t overstate this point. In fact, beyond tabletop RPGs, this is probably just a good tip for life. Even if you’re not that interested in something, you’ll be more likely to stick it out if you have something really good to eat and drink. In my case, this has ranged from buffalo wings (they make it hard to roll the dice, but who cares?) to cheese and crackers, and cream soda to hard cider. Find the food motivator for your particular non-geek and exploit it.

In the end, we’ve all had a wonderful time playing the game. My husband and daughter (and the other friends and family they’ve since recruited) enjoy the story, getting deeper into their characters and each adventure. Frankly, since I’m usually the odd one out for these types of things, I just like being included. 

If you’re interested in getting started with an RPG, Rory Bristol’s excellent GeekMom series, “D&D for Young Players and New Dungeon Masters,” is the perfect place to start for beginner tips. Go read Part 1 and Part 2 now. Just don’t forget the snacks.

Jessie Atchison is proudly geek-adjacent. She does a lot of geeky stuff with her husband and daughter where she feels like a poser, but always has fun. Her priority is raising an empowered girl geek in the most geek-friendly time in history. Her favorite place to be is on her bicycle. She wants to be Wonder Woman when she grows up.