Role Playing Games: What Are They?
"Imagination is more important than knowledge."
What is role playing, and what are role playing games? Most people have heard of these games, but many may not know, or may have misconceptions about, exactly what they are.
A role playing game (or RPG for short), therefore, is an amusement or pastime in which a player takes on a part or character of a persona, much like that which an actor presents in a play, and employs that persona in a contest, in the form of a trial of chance, skill and endurance, according to a set of rules.
Let's get less vague
Most importantly, a role playing game involves three things: imagination, social interaction, and rules.
While watching a movie or a play, or reading a book, there is a certain need for the ability to suspend one's disbelief, to disregard what is "real" and what is "fake." For instance, while watching a good movie a person doesn't dwell on the fact that the events in the movie are not real, but instead ignores reality for the duration of the movie and involves him or herself in the events as they unfold for the characters. This is called suspension of disbelief. So it is with role playing gamers.
To expand on this, let's look at RPG's in terms of a play, since acting of persona by the gamers is involved. An RPG is like a play because there is a "director," called the referee, and a number of "actors," who are called players. However, an RPG is unlike a play because very often neither the referee nor the players know what will happen next, since the chance of dice rolls and the unpredictability of what the players might do in certain situations often foils the best laid story plots devised by the referee. There is no script for the players or the referee to follow; however, there is, by the definition of a game, a set of rules that both the referee and players must follow.
A role playing game session is a social event, pure and simple. Without the interaction of the other players, the game would be much less fun.
Each group's chosen set of rules is different -- in fact, even those who use rule books from the same published game have at least slightly differing rules, in the form of house rules. Each group decides which rules are valid, which should be changed, and which should be ignored.
However, the rules of a role playing game usually involve two major things.
Role playing: Although different groups demand different levels of role playing, each requires some "acting," even if players end up using their own personality. These different levels of acting range from simple character decision making, puzzle solving, and combat, at the low extreme, to having every thing the players say be words spoken by their characters with requirements that each interaction be acted out fully. The extremity of acting is totally up to the individual group.
Use of dice: Dice bring a level of fairness between individual players and a level of chance to the abilities of characters in the game. Dice rolls represent the chance for characters in the game to either succeed or fail at given tasks.
A look at the gamers
Let's now look at the typical makeup of a group of role playing gamers.
The referee has probably the most involved, and perhaps most important, position in the game. It is a two-fold position.
First, he or she creates and/or controls the game "world," "universe," or "multiverse" in which all the characters of the game reside. This involves the responsibility to create and present the situations and encounters the player's characters will come up against. These situations can be anything from the characters coming upon a river crossing, to being caught in a snow storm, to entering a seedy tavern; encounters can be anything from being ambushed by bandits, to being attacked by a platoon of enemy troops, to meeting an emporer. In general, the referee takes on the persona of both the environment and all characters not portrayed by the players.
Second, the referee must make all decisions about the interpretation of the rules and how the game should be conducted. Interpretation of the rules may involve simply employing the rules during a combat sequence, deciding whether a rule is fair or useful, or creating new rules (either in advance or "on the fly") to fit a certain gaming situation. Deciding how the game should be conducted can involve anything from ending player (not character) disputes, determining who can speak and when during a combat, and deciding when to call a break for pizza.
-- Note: although the referee's decisions in all aspects of the game are final, a good referee must consider the players ideas, concerns, and needs. Just as in government's relation to the people, the player's power lies in their ability to "rebel"; in this case, if the players become unhappy with the attitude of a gaming referee, the result could be anywhere from the choosing of a new referee among the group at best, to the breakup of the group all together at worst.
In general, the referee must be both a good storyteller and good negotiator.
The player has a less involved position in the game, but must interact with the other players.
First, the player portrays a character in the game world who, along with the characters of the other players, helps comprise a group of characters who (usually) work toward a common set of goals. While it is highly recommended that beginners play one character at a time, on occasion some experienced players enjoy (or for various reasons sometimes feel a need for) portraying two or more.
Generally speaking, the player protrays the character by having the character make decisions, peform actions and speak to other characters based both on the player's conception of the character's motives, personality, likes and dislikes, etc. and on the type of world the character lives in.
Second, as the game progresses the player must properly keep track of the character's physical and mental well being (or lack thereof) according to the group's chosen set of rules. For example, if the character is damaged in combat, the character must take note of the damage taken (which, depending on the rules, is usually kept track of according to a numeric tally system).
A look at characters
Characters are made up of two major elements; persona and numeric representation.
Each character in an RPG, regardless of whether it is portrayed by a player or referee, has a unique persona, or personality, which governs his or her decision making process, i.e. how the character reacts to certain situations and towards other characters in general. In general and most importantly, it involves the individual character's motives, why the character does what he or she does. Players and referee should try to step in the shoes of their characters, constantly asking the question, "what would this character do in this situation?"
Characters in RPG's are usually kept track of, on a piece of paper called a character sheet, by a system of numeric scores which represent different attributes of their mental and physical state, talents, abilities, and/or skills. This can range from anything such as how much weight a character can lift, to how accurately the character can shoot a rifle or bow & arrow, to what spells the character can cast, to how well the character can play guitar, to how healthy or injured the character is at any given time during a game.
Types and Examples of Role Playing Games
There are many types of roleplaying games, many of which most people don't even realize are RPGs. Generally speaking, when people talk about role playing games, they are speaking about paper, pencil and dice role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu and Imperium: Fifty Second Millenium. However, there are many kinds of rolplaying games besides these. There are MUDs, MUSHs and MOOs that use specialized online chat software to allow online gaming that is generally similar to paper and pencil RPGs. Similarly, there are even RPGs of all genres played using simple discussion group technology such as offered at Yahoo! eGroups. Even full fledged single- and multi-player video games such as Neverwinter Nights, World of Warcraft or Operation Flashpoint are coming closer to bringing us the RPG experience via visual computer simulation.
But other types of games and pastimes at their core qualify as RPGs as well. One of the more popular of these at this time are fantasy sports games, such as fantasy football or fantasy baseball, in which players play the role of sports team owners and/or coaches. Another that is growing in popularity are so-called murder mystery party games, that are much like a live action form of "Clue", where players dress a part and try to determine "whodunit?" There are even 'live action' RPGs, where people actually dress up as their characters and physically wander through areas set aside for such games (not to mention the various yearly Renaissance Festivals that are held in cities all over the world). Even something like paintball or airsoft games could be considered RPGs, as players play the role of soldiers, law enforcement officers, etc.
In conclusion, I hope you come away from my little treatise understanding role playing games a little better... and I truly hope that, if you've never played one before, that you are intrigued enough to seek out a gaming session near you! To that end, a visit to a nearby hobby or gaming store will often yeild a bulletin board full of requests for players and referees alike, and searches on the internet will also often assist in finding other players, both experienced and beginning. Better yet, volunteer to referee a game for your friends!
Any questions? Comments? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2013 By Bob Curtis