What Is a Role-Playing Game?
For those of you who are already immersed in the hobby, you should be very familiar with this question. Open up any of your favorite games and you will likely see this question discussed within the first few pages. Usually it will be compared to playing “Cops and Robbers” or “Cowboys and Indians” as children, but with someone (the gamemaster/storyteller) there to act as mediator and with dice used to represent chance. While this explanation works to give first-time gamers a general idea of what to expect, I have always felt that this definition fails to capture what a tabletop role-playing game really is.
Personally, rather than comparing tabletop games to “Cops and Robbers,” I would describe it as an improvisational collaborative storytelling. Does that sound like an overly complex definition? It isn’t. A tabletop role-playing game is a game in which you and a group of friends gather together to tell a story, much like actors in a play with the one running the game – the gamemaster – acts as the director. The actors/players each have a character, one that they create themselves, and must act out that part in order to advance the story. There is no script. Each player is responsible for their own character, with these characters acting as the main protagonists of the story, and the gamemaster being responsible for the setting, plot, extras, and antagonists. The gamemaster presents challenges to the players who must overcome them while remaining in-character, acting as their characters would act and describing what their characters do. These challenges can be anything from a skirmish with goblins in a haunted wood, defending a city against a rampaging dragon, trying to find out why the spirit of a departed loved one will not pass on, negotiating with a vampire Prince for territory, or any other imaginable scenario. Everyone at the table has a role that they play (hence the term “role-playing”) and all of those individual parts come together to create the story. Dice are used to represent the element of chance and the rules are there to create structure.
When describing this hobby to others, I have found that describing it as improvisational collaborative storytelling draws much more interest than “Cops and Robbers with dice.” After all, who doesn’t love a good story? Isn’t that why we watch movies and television? Why we read books or play narrative-heavy video games? Why we still tell our children bedtime stories? Tabletop role-playing games allow us to be a part of a collaborative story, where each individual shares in the telling rather than simply being defined as either the teller or the audience. In tabletop games, you are both. The story is yours. The characters are yours. The hardships they must struggle through and the victories they attain are yours to share in. Their success depends on the choices that you make – well, that and the roll of a dice.
That is what a role-playing game is.
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