As stated in the introduction, these instructions assume a working X Windows system.
To launch ratpoison as your default window manager you need to edit the file ~/.xinitrc in your homedir; this might already have been done for you by a package manager. The file should just contain the command "ratpoison", without the quotes. Now start your X server:
Within a second or two, you'll see a cursor in the middle of the screen superimposed on a dappled grey background, and a small welcome text in the upper right corner that welcomes you to ratpoison- this welcome manager instructs you to type in "C-t ?" if you have any questions. Now is where the fun starts, but first some background on how to interact with and control ratpoison.
The almighty escape keyEdit
Ratpoison is only controlled by the keyboard; no matter what you click with your mouse on the root window, nothing will happen. Instead, you give it a keyboard command. All ratpoison commands are initiated by typing the escape key sequence. By default, this is Control-t (in Emacs notation, which is preferentially used by ratpoison documentation and users: "C-t"). Try typing C-t, and you'll see that the mouse changes into a white square. This means that ratpoison has taken over the keyboard and is ready to interpret any letter typed as a command (as opposed to normal operation where anything typed is sent to an application to deal with). After typing C-t, try hit the "c" key (note that this is a lowercase key; capital C does not currently do anything). Immediately an X terminal opens up and takes over the screen (assuming xterm is installed as it usually is); in other words, the command c creates a console window. Now you can do anything you could do on the command line, and you can even run your graphical programs like Firefox (the command for starting firefox from a terminal is "mozilla-firefox")- ratpoison will automatically switch to the newest windows.
Note that if constantly pressing C-t to prefix all commands is uncomfortable (if you, for example are using the Dvorak keyboard layout) you can change it dynamically or in the configuration file. Please see one of the advanced chapters for more information on adjusting key bindings.
Try a few different key strokes- you can find the command list in the ratpoison manual or info documentation, or you can type C-t ?, which will give a brief list of sequences. Remember, all key strokes are preceded with C-t.
A useful pair of commands are C-t n (shifts your view to the next window; like conventional alt-tab) and its inverse C-t p (shifts your view to the previous window; if you just C-t n'ed, for example, a C-t p will take you back to the original window).