What is a roleplaying game?

“What’s a role-playing game?”

Who among us hasn’t responded to that question posed by the uninitiated, or enjoyed a good reply put forth by other gamers?

Actually, I don’t know how many versions of the latter I’ve heard or read. “An RPG is a form of collaborative storytelling…” “It’s a kind of play-acting…” “Remember back when you played Cowboys and Indians…”

And so on – a hundred ways to start out explaining. RPG gaming is nothing overly complex, as we know, yet it’s one of those things that’s easy to demonstrate in person, hard to describe otherwise. (My gaming group started its RPG career playing D&D profoundly wrong, as the text’s “how to RPG” instructions just didn’t work for us. No matter how many times we read the instructions and examples, we had the hardest time figuring it out. “Okay, we get all that, but… how do we play?”)

I forget what spurred this topic – it was probably some comment on a gaming forum – but I’ll add my take here on what a role-playing game is, simply because I don’t think I’ve ever written it down. It’s nothing special in the least, and for all I know, has been used almost verbatim by someone(s) long before me. Still, just for fun:

A RPG is…

How many ways are there to enjoy stories? There are two ways that everyone knows of. A role-playing game is a third way.

The first way to enjoy a story: active creation

Create a story. Be an author, a filmmaker, a campfire storyteller, even a barstool bard.

The benefits: You’re in total control. Less romantic comedy, more transforming monkey ‘droids with rocket launchers. ‘Nuff said.

The drawbacks: It can be dang hard work to create a story, and lonely too, as you struggle through creation of a book or film. Plus, there are no surprises waiting. (Well, many good authors have pointed out the surprises their own plots and characters hold in store – but the lazier thrill of great surprises sprung by another master storyteller, that’s what you don’t get from yourself.)

The second way to enjoy a story: passive reception

Listen to a story. Read a book, watch a movie, lend an ear.

The benefits: It’s easy to listen to a story, and everyone enjoys it. It’s a lot faster than creating a story, there’s enough content out there to last you a lifetime of listening, you can partake by yourself or with friends, and perhaps best of all, the good stories always surprise you with character and plot twists.

The drawbacks: You have zero input in how the story develops. That leaves any creative itch unscratched, and you’ve got to passively take whatever comes your way. Are the plot developments visible from the moon? Does the novel favor insights into personal character growth over the insides of exploding zombie pirates? Did one movie expendable just say to the other, “Let’s split up and look for the killer”? All you can do is groan.

The third way to enjoy a story: role-playing gaming

Combine both of the above into something new. In a roleplaying game, each participant but one takes charge of decisions and dialogue, but only for one main character. The remaining player, as GM, gets to take charge of much more – the overall background, story, challenges, and all other characters – but doesn’t control the main characters.

With each player controlling different characters, no one person does all the work, or makes all the story decisions. The players all create the story together, each one cooperating and competing, supporting and surprising each other, initiating and responding to events. 

That’s not all of the process, though. Some outcomes, like the results of the dangerous actions characters undertake, are left to the rules and dice. With many results left to chance, and with the GM adding new challenges if things get too easy, nobody knows what’ll happen in the story.

The benefits: You get to create part of the story, but the other players (and the rules and dice) are there to provide plenty of surprises. At least one of the characters acts the way you think the character should act. The game is decidedly social. You can play it quietly, or revel in the hammiest of acting. 

The drawbacks: It’s not as much work as writing a book, but it’s more work than reading one (for the GM, a lot more). While you’ve got partial control over the story’s direction, you may or may not like what other players do with their parts. (Finding the right group solves this.) You may or may not find it easy to get a group together regularly.

Finally, let’s note that all the forms of storytelling – for good or bad – can be pretty addictive. RPGing most of all, many gamers will swear…

That’s all

Like I said, it’s nothing you haven’t heard (or said) before, but there’s the explanation I’ve used to explain roleplaying. What’s your favorite way to explain?

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