[I wrote this page several years ago, for a personal gaming site that no longer exists. I present it here for posterity with only cosmetic editing. I may expand on and update this at some future date. --Tim]
This is my attempt at a brief summary of what a role-playing game is. I have tried to keep this description simple and introductory; I am writing for those of you who have never participated in this hobby. (I am also doing this to help organize my own thoughts, so that I can better present these ideas to people who ask me this question in person.) I would appreciate any feedback that you might have on this page, so that I can continue to improve my skills at introducing people to my favorite hobby.
Role-playing games are part storytelling, part psychological role-playing exercise, part improvisational acting. They are "let's pretend" with rules.
In a role-playing game (RPG), the players assume the parts of fictional or historic characters, and attempt to portray those characters' personalities and achieve those characters' goals. They speak what their characters say, and either describe or act out what their characters do. Because the outcome of some attempted actions cannot be resolved entirely through conversation with the other players, each game has a system of rules (the game mechanics) to determine whether the character succeeds or fails.
In most games, each person only plays one character (a "player character," or PC). Depending on the game, each player may be assigned a pre-written character or may create one according to the game system's rules. Each character will have a "character sheet," which summarizes the character's abilities (including the game mechanics for using them), as well as his or her motivations and background. One of the players acts as a "Game Master" (GM) instead of playing a PC. This GM runs everything else in the game: preparing the adventure/mission/scenario, describing the setting to the players, playing characters the PCs meet (the "non-player characters," or NPCs), and making rulings on the results of actions the PCs attempt.
RPGs have no prescribed script or ending. A game's story is created through the interaction between the players and the GM. A single session may last any length of time from a few hours to a full day, and a game may be continued over several sessions (a weekend, or spread over several weeks). A long game may be run as a "campaign," a series of adventures linked by using the same characters and overall setting.
This question doesn't have a simple answer, which can be a great source of confusion to newcomers. Characters "win" if they manage to accomplish their goals (stay alive, defeat enemies, save the kingdom, earn wealth or fame, improve skills, etc.). Their players "win" if they accomplish these goals, but they can also "win" by achieving their own out-of-character goals (role-play well, solve puzzles, etc.). Most importantly, RPGs are a social activity, so their primary goal is to have fun. If the players enjoyed the game, and their participation added to the enjoyment of the other players, then that game can be considered a success--even if some characters did not "win."
Most RPGs fall into the science fiction or medieval fantasy categories, but other genres are also popular: horror, military, espionage, superheroes, cartoons and a plethora of historical periods. Any genre (or combination of genres!) that you can conceive can be used for a role-playing game--and almost certainly has been.
When my gaming associates and I divide RPGs into categories other than genre, we usually identify two groups according to the game's format: "tabletop" RPGs and "live-action" RPGs.
In a "tabletop" RPG, the players describe their characters' actions rather than acting them out. The players usually sit around a table (hence the label) or a living room. This allows all players to see and hear everyone else clearly, and gives a central location for displaying props, maps and other playing aids. The typical size for a "tabletop" gaming group is 4-7 players plus a GM. This size allows a certain critical mass necessary for brainstorming but is small enough to allow the GM to give adequate time to each player. The element of chance in the game mechanics is usually represented with dice, sometimes supplemented with cards or other randomizers. Tabletop rules systems range from the simple to the complex to the truly arcane, depending on the focus of the game and desires of the gaming group. Some genres will require new subsets of rules for unusual subjects such as magic or psychic powers, which will add further complexity.
Many regular tabletop players prefer to play in campaigns, so that they can identify with an evolving character of their own creation, and most commercial systems are geared towards such progression. However, short "one-shot" adventures are also common, and are the norm for tournaments and demo games. In both cases, the PCs are usually a team of some sort, working together to complete a mission.
In a "live-action" role-playing game (or LARP), the players act out as much of the action as they can within the bounds of possibility, legality, safety and good taste. The rest is simulated by the game mechanics. Real locations represent "in-game" spaces: a ballroom serves as a great hall, a hallway as a road, a campsite as a village, etc. Because most characters in the game are run by actual players, rather than being GM-run NPCs, these games tend to be large affairs. They may have dozens to hundreds of players, though 30-40 seems to be most common size. Such large games typically involve several competing factions rather than the "one-team" model of tabletop games. Because of this size, the game is refereed by a team of GMs, led by the scenario's author or some other "head GM." The size of these games also requires them to have simpler rules systems than tabletop games. The players need to be able to learn the rules and start play quickly. A simple system also allows the players to take some of the burden of resolving the results of their actions onto themselves rather than requiring a GM to be present at all times. Game mechanics vary widely, ranging from a single die to "rock-paper-scissors" to "live combat" systems using padded weapons ("boffers") or Nerf guns.
Some LARP groups (especially the "live combat" organizations) run campaigns with "make-your-own-character" systems, which allow the chance to improve skills and status. Others run "one-shots" with characters created by the scenario's writers, which allows for a more custom-tailored web of plots and secrets. Because these "one-shots" are "pre-packaged," the more successful ones may be run again with new players with relative ease.
Lastly, one major difference between the two formats is costuming. Tabletop gamers rarely dress in character, except perhaps for special parties or conventions. In contrast, LARP players are encouraged to dress as their characters as an aid to role-playing. Such garb will range from regular street clothing to elaborate makeup and hand-made fantasy costumes, depending on the game, the character and each player's preferences and means.
If you want to find out more about this hobby, try any or all of the following:
- If you know someone who plays RPGs, ask them about their games and why they play them. Most gamers will be happy to tell you more about role-playing--new recruits are what keep this hobby alive.
- Most commercially available game systems begin their rulebooks with a short summary of the RPG concept, which will give you another perspective on the hobby. This summary will often be slanted towards that system's rules and jargon, but the better essays of this kind are applicable to any role-playing game. Most of these essays can be read in a relatively short time at a friend's house or in a bookstore, so that you don't necessarily have to buy the book to get an alternate explanation of the hobby.
- Find your local game or hobby store and ask the staff how to find games and gamers in the area. Many such businesses have a bulletin board for posting notices. Ask if there is a local venue for demonstration games, so that you can get a taste before committing a great deal of time and money to this new pursuit. (RPG books aren't exactly cheap.)
- Do a web search for the home pages of the companies that publish RPGs. Depending on the company, you will find information ranging from catalog blurbs to in-depth descriptions of products to free excerpts from the rules.
- RPG.net is an online forum for the discussion of RPGs of all types. Their website includes many articles and links to help you learn more about RPGs (both tabletop and live-action). The GAMA pamphlet, "Questions & Answers About Role-Playing Games", is one excellent example designed for the general public.
This hobby isn't for everyone. But some people who would enjoy these games had bad experiences with their first game, which turned them off from gaming. If you are one of those people, and you really want to find a situation that works for you, keep trying. Your problem may have been one of the following, which can be fixed:
- Inexperienced role-players: Everyone needs some time to learn the skills necessary to play these games well, and learning curves vary widely. Yes, this can be frustrating, but everyone has to go through this phase. Experienced players can provide invaluable examples and advice if you can find them.
- Inexperienced GM: This goes double for GMs, who are expected to know the rules thoroughly as well as be able to react quickly to the players' unexpected actions. (And all groups surprise their GMs on a regular basis.) Some novice GMs will wisely decide GMing is not for them, some will keep trying but never get better, some will achieve a decent level of skill, and some will even become legends of the gaming community. GMs of all skill levels need feedback from their players about the job they are doing.
- Problem players: Some role-players (even veterans) will debate rules, or obsess about how powerful their characters are, or argue with every party plan, or otherwise waste a lot of time that the group could have spent enjoying a fine game. Some of these obnoxious players can be reformed; some must simply be avoided at all costs.
- Incompatible group: The group dynamics of your first game may have been wrong for your needs, even if the group included no problem players. Every group has a different style, and a different mix of challenges that they like to encounter in their games. Ask to sit in on a tabletop session, or to be a LARP observer, if you're not sure that a given game or group is right for you.
- Wrong genre: You may have more fun in a different genre. Even if you are an avid fan of a certain genre, you may not be comfortable gaming in that genre. RPGs exist for nearly every conceivable genre, so keep looking for those that intrigue you.
- Wrong system: You may be more comfortable with a different set of game rules. Each system has its own emphasis and style. For example, some have a rules-heavy wargaming influence, while others are freeform storytelling games.