Feb 7, 2013

What is a Roleplaying Game?

I've talked before about my interest in tabletop roleplaying games, but I've never really gone into very much detail about the hobby. Since one of my stated goals for the year was to look at games and their ability to tell a story, I figured I should start off by letting people see this side of my life.

In a nutshell, roleplaying games are an evolution of childhood games like "cops and robbers." You're sitting around a table with a group of friends playing "let's pretend."

A given group could be anywhere from 2 to 7 people, or even more, though larger numbers can become difficult to manage.

In a typical group of 5 people, 4 will invent characters to portray. Much like improv theatre, the players will act out their character's personality and dialogue, describing actions and reacting to events within the game.

The remaining player is typically referred to as a referee or game master. In most games, the game maser, or GM, comes up with the characters the other players will meet and plays all those roles. He is also responsible for describing, and sometimes creating, the setting in which the game takes place, as well as coming up with the story, or adventure, that the player characters, or PCs, will embark on.

In order to add a tactical and random element, dice are rolled when a PC attempts something that they may not successfully accomplish. Depending on the game, the PC will have a list of abilities and skills which make them better at certain tasks.

It used to be that roleplaying game rulebooks described an RPG as "Imagine if you could control a character in your favourite book or movie." Well these days we have an even more direct comparison. Video games.

Imagine a video game where you play the hero. Only in this game, you're not limited in how to tackle a particular problem. If you face an opponent, you can choose to talk him down instead of shooting him. If you find a locked door, you can try to break it down or pick the lock instead of needing a key. If you talk to someone, you're not limited by pre-scripted conversation choices or forced to watch a cutscene. The graphics are all in your head. The other characters are your real-life friends.

Roleplaying games got a bad reputation in the 80s, particularly in America, where they were associated with devil-worship and witchcraft. I'll do into further detail in another post, but the hobby is still recovering from this. And while geeky is the new mainstream, roleplayers are often looked down on. It doesn't help that most portrayals of roleplayers in the media and popular fiction is far from flattering.

As I talk more about roleplaying, and gaming in general, I hope to explore more of the positive sides to the hobby. It has the potential to improve social skills, problem-solving, and confidence. In a high-tech world where our interactions risk becoming more and more impersonal through text messages and social networking, gaming is still a fairly low-tech, simple form of entertainment, one which requires players to interact and bond with their friends.


  1. If you're going to do a post on the demonization of roleplaying games in the 80's, then you absolutely have to mentioned the infamous Jack Chick tract, 'Dark Dungeons'.

    No, not Black Leaf!

    -E J Miller

  2. A 4 PC game seems so small to me. I'm used to playing with at least 7 or 8 PCs. Though these days with all my usual gamers so spread out I'd be happy to get just 3 other people together.

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