An Introduction to Roleplaying Games

23:56 Sun 21 Mar 2010. Updated: 21:32 19 Jul 2010
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Today I ran for the second time the roleplaying one-shot I did in December, with a completely different group of players. Last time the new:experienced ratio among the players was 1:4, while this time it was 3:1 (also, last time the female:male ratio among the players was 2:3, while this time it was 3:1).

Because of the number of new players, I prepared a little introduction to roleplaying to give before starting play, and I thought that it was worth sharing more widely.

(This clearly applies to “pen-and-paper” roleplaying games and not other kinds; my personal preference for naming this style is “sit around the table”, SATT.)

What is Roleplaying?

At its core, roleleplaying is a mixture of three things: acting, storytelling, and problem-solving. All of these aspects are wrapped up in a game, and the fundamental mechanic of this game is the communication between you, the players, and me, the gamemaster. I describe to you the world as your characters experience it, and you tell me what choices your characters make.

Broadly speaking, the world, and your characters, could be anything and anyone. Today, the genre of roleplaying game we’re playing is fantasy, in particular a gritty style of “swords and sorcery”. Your characters are all part of a seasoned ex-mercenary band trying to find a quicker route to riches, “adventurers” in the senses of both “a seeker of fortune in daring enterprises” and “a seeker after power and wealth by unscrupulous means”.

Returning to the three core elements, let’s start with acting. You literally act the part when you speak in-character. In addition, you seek to inhabit your character in the sense of trying to understand what they would do, how they would react to their circumstances. Today, concentrate on that, on trying to figure out what choices they would make.

By determining their choices, you are in effect telling their story: overall the narrative of tonight’s story is jointly woven by all of us.

In the course of that narrative, you will naturally encounter obstacles for your characters to overcome. This the is the problem-solving part of the experience. You will need to act collectively as both players and characters to succeed.

You will also need some luck. Luck resides in the gap between player choice and character action: whether or not your characters succeed in executing the actions you have chosen for them. Although I’m always the final arbiter of any outcome, the game just isn’t as much fun if I simply decide what happens at every juncture. Instead, the bulk of the rules of this game—a variant of the venerable Dungeons & Dragons—and the bulk of the stuff on your character sheets is concerned with defining the capabilities of your characters and judging the likelihood of their successes at various specific endeavors. Rather than spend much time going through all that now, I’m going to try to shield you from most of the rules matter and take care of as much of it as possible myself.

The largest area where these rules are applied is combat. You’re in a violent realm, in a violent occupation, and it’s a violent game. Combat is like a subgame, with some similarities to boardgaming but a lot more possibilities—rather than the rules supplying all your possible options, you decide what you want your character to do and we try to come up with the closest fit in the rules to judge its effectiveness.

Which is also what we do outside of combat.

The preceding “What is Roleplaying?” section of this post is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike License, cc by-nc-sa. Please attribute using my name (Tadhg O’Higgins) and a link to this post.

4 Responses to “An Introduction to Roleplaying Games”

  1. Seth Milliken Says:

    I cast Magic Missile!

  2. Steve C Says:

    I flirt with the guard and steal his battlesuit. Just to illustrate the point.

  3. Kevin Teljeur Says:

    We’ve had some lengthy discussions about this in the past, I’m still very interested in role-playing game theory, and particularly in the removal of luck as an element in guiding the story (or indeed any sort of formalised game mechanics), and mechanics of running a game or campaign. Two gamesmasters? Semi-autonomous playing-groups which interact at certain points? Information dissemination? Reward systems, which may be predicated on self-destructive behaviour?

    I still need to get around to setting up a Wiki or WordPress site in which to offload those ideas in a semi-public domain for discussion.

  4. Kevin Teljeur Says:

    Oh, and let’s not forget the blurring between the played character and the player, which isn’t as difficult as it sounds in an intense playing environment. It’s a small step from there to rampaging around the local mall with a sword and a leather jerkin.

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