December 29, 2019

The Math of Tabletop RPGs

A common lament I hear in new players is having to “deal with all the math” of tabletop role playing games. When new players first realize that a significant percentage of the most popular TTRPGs do involve more “math” than they might have otherwise assumed, in many new players, this fact can be a turn-off to the experience in general.

Now, forgetting for a moment that there are numerous TTRPG systems that are not “math”-heavy, it is important to help correct and reorient this (somewhat of) a misperception about how TTRPGs are played. Indeed, at most of their cores, there is math in TTRPGs. But of course there’s math in Yahtzee too and no one complains about the numbers in Yahtzee!

Instead, we need to reorient the conversation about the “why” of the math when we play stories. You tend to hold new players’ interest when you focus less on hitting with my great axe is measured by 2d6 + X (+/- Y) ≥ D where X is your skill in the great axe, Y is extraneous circumstances, and D is Defense of Target and instead stick to the story of what’s transpiring (“I’m trying to smash the Troll with my Great Axe.” “Okay, roll those two, six-sided dice.” “Alright, I rolled a nine.” “And what does it say there on your sheet next to “Hitting things with sharp objects”? “Hmm. It says 6.” “Great. So 9 and 6 is 15 so you, yeah, you put your axe in-between the troll’s eyes like a lumberjack swinging halfway through a tree-stump.” “Well that’s awesome. What now?”

In the above example, you’re more slowly ingratiating the new player into the idea that there’s a bedrock of “math” behind what we’re doing when we’re playing stories rather than overwhelming them with all the game theory up front. In just about every new player I’ve on-boarded into playing TTRPGs, this method has much more easily allowed the players to understand and love the process of playing stories before they delve into the “how” and “why” of what we’re doing in the rules.

You’ll have a much more invested player on your hands! And hopefully, a long time player too!