About Roleplaying Games
What Is Roleplaying?
Most roleplaying game have at least a short paragraph (and sometimes an entire section) in the front titled "What is a Roleplaying Game?", I guess on the assumption that a certain number of people picking up the book will have never heard of roleplaying.
Nonetheless, I'm going to repeat essentially the same information here!
A roleplaying game is make believe for adults. Since "make believe" is child stuff, adults have to add complicated rules to make it "mature" and acceptable. Then, they strip out those complicated rules and give it a fancy label like "diceless", going back to make believe but with an adult label.
Roleplaying consists of people pretending to be somebody else. It's acting, essentially, but usually without most of the body movements of acting. You'll sometimes hear about roleplaying in the work place. Corporate consultants started using the idea in the 90s, about a decade after psychologists discovered it, but gamers were there first a decade before that.
In a roleplaying game, one person takes the part of the gamemaster. She (the convention in a number of roleplaying books is to refer to gamemasters as "she" and players as "he") acts as a combination referee, story writer, and movie director. The gamemaster's job is to create a world — or use one that's already been published — where the game takes place. The gamemaster comes up with a story — or uses a published story — called a scenario or an adventure for the players to play. Then she adjudicates what happens based on the players actions. A gamemaster is also called a referee, a storyteller, or a host of other game-specific names: Dungeons & Dragons' term is Dungeon Master, Spycraft calls the gamemaster a Game Control, Call of Cthulhu uses the name Keeper of Arcane Lore — Keeper, for short — and Nobilis' gamemaster is a Hollyhock God. "Game Master", or GM, is widely used as the generic term.
The other participants in the game are called players. They each take on the persona of a character within the game. A character might be a 1920s Sam Spade-like detective, or he might be an Elven warrior from Middle Earth. He could be captain of a starship, or sailor on a World War II submarine, or a superhero, or just an average guy walking down the street. The universe where the game is set will dictate the kinds of characters a player can create.
The players "generate" their characters. This is where the adult rules come in. It usually involves dice, and most often it involves dice of more — or less — than six sides. Four, eight, ten, twelve, and twenty-sided dice are all common. They use dice to come up with various attributes of the character, depending on the game system. Some game systems don't use dice but give players points that they spend on various attributes. Some games use a combination of points and dice rolls.
The attributes might indicate the character's strength, how clumsy he is, how smart, or how good looking. Some games go so far as to generate eye and hair colour, and exact height and weight. Most modern games also have some sort of skill list. These are things the character can do. The player might not be able to repair a computer or speak Chinese, but his character could. The game rules give every player a fair shot at creating a character they like, with enough abilities to be interesting, but with room for growth.
After the characters are created, it's off to play the game. The GM invents a story in whatever game universe the game is set. For instance, if the game is Spycraft the universe is a world very similar to the James Bond movies. If the game is Sidewinder, the universe is the American Wild West of the 19th century. The universe doesn't have to be based on reality, though it often is. Call of Cthulhu is set in the 1920s, but where the monsters of H.P. Lovecraft's fiction are alive. Dungeons & Dragons is often set in fantasy worlds not unlike Tolkien's Middle Earth (and, yes, there are roleplaying games set in Middle Earth). There's a Star Wars roleplaying game, a Matrix roleplaying game, and roleplaying games based on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Conan the Barbarian, Sherlock Holmes, the Second World War, and Hong Kong action movies. My own game, This Favored Land, is set during the American Civil War, but in a universe where some people have supernatural abilities.
The GM's story moves the game along. The GM might invent a murder mystery; some rich guy is killed in his house, and the players' characters have to solve the mystery. The GM might send the characters on a quest to save a kidnapped princess. The characters may have to stop a terrible monster in the wilds of New Jersey, or the wilds of Mordor. The GM puts together the story, complete with clues and a cast of characters. Usually the GM figures out a way for the characters to get through the story, too, but that's just in case the players get stumped.
How much direction is required by the GM depends on the type of story. Some games are essentially miniatures wargames. The GM creates a map of an area, writes down where the monsters appear, and then the players move through the area killing things. After the set up, there's very little for the GM to do but move monsters and roll the dice for them. Other games (the majority, actually) require more GM control, usually a lot more control. The players interact with the non-player characters (called NPCs) of the universe, asking questions, befriending them, or making enemies. The GM has to take on the persona of each NPC. Some games feature players competing against each other in big political or conspiratorial conflicts. In these settings the players run the whole thing pretty much by themselves, with the GM acting as referee and the source of plot complications.
The GM will describe the setting of the game. The GM will ask each player what they are doing. The player tells the GM, and the GM lets them do what they said they were doing, or tells them they can't do it, or uses the rules to figure out whether or not they can do it. For instance, if the game was set in the Wild West, the players might all be cowboys. The GM would describe the saloon where they were resting. The GM would then say something like, "The local sheriff runs into the saloon and yells, 'The afternoon stage coach has been held up! I need a posse!'" The players would then have to decide what they are going to do. Are they law-abiding citizens who will get their horses and help the sheriff? Or are they bank robbers who will take the opportunity to rob the bank while the posse is gone? Or perhaps they'll just sit in the saloon, minding their own business playing cards, until something else happens. Let's say they all go to help the sheriff. While riding out to the stage coach they are shot at by bandits. One player wants his character to jump off his horse and crawl for cover. Another wants to shoot a bandit while remaining on his horse. Can the characters do these actions? Can the first player jump off his horse without hurting himself? And if he is hurt, how badly? Can the second character hit the bandit from a galloping horse? This is where the rules and the dice come in.
The GM's job is to make sure everyone has fun. Except for a rare number of games that have competition as a premise, the other players do not compete against the GM. The players pretend to be their characters. It's like reading a book or watching a movie, but with the players participating in the story. It's like make believe, except that the GM tells the others whether or not they can do a stated action, and how well, using the game system's rules as guide. The GM might dictate that the character on horseback can't shoot at the bandit because it's too hard to hit while riding. Usually the game rules will cover this situation, but if they don't the GM has to figure it out by herself.
Players are encouraged to talk like their characters. A player playing a cowboy could tell the GM, "I walk up to the sheriff and ask him if there's any reward for joining the posse," but he's encouraged to do something like, "I'm going to walk up to the sheriff. 'Say, sheriff, there any reward for capturing this here Black Bart gang?'" The GM would then interact with the player by pretending to be the sheriff. This is where NPCs come in. The GM plays the part of every NPC in the game, acting like that NPC and dictating what the NPC does. The GM tries to make them feel like individual characters. This is the hardest part of being a GM, since not all GMs have the same acting ability; not every GM can pull it off. Because the GM runs the NPCs, the players never know what's happening behind the scenes. Maybe the sheriff has been bribed by Black Bart. Maybe Black Bart is a Pinkerton agent under cover. The players will never know unless they dig into the story.
Another key aspect of roleplaying is the ability to dictate the direction of the story. There are roleplaying games for computers and game consoles, but they tend to be "linear". The player usually has to follow the script to get through the story. So called "pen and paper" RPGs have a human deciding the outcome, but that human can change the direction of the story at any time. Often a better story comes along when the players do something the GM hadn't thought about. For instance, a western computer game typically doesn't allow the players to join Black Bart's gang the moment the shooting starts. Pen and paper RPGs can handle this, as the players have greater freedom in what they do and the human GM can alter the story as needed. The fun in roleplaying games comes not only from pretending to be a character, but also from creating an enjoyable story.
The style of play is different from one game group to another. One group may use miniature figures to show where their characters are at any moment. Their games might be more like a tactical wargame. Other groups might like murder mystery stories, whether they are straight detective stories or based around some kind of horror element. Other groups don't want a lot of realism, they just want to be heroes, like Conan or Captain Kirk.
After a scenario is completed, the characters are usually rewarded in the form of experience. Characters will improve at skills, and sometimes attributes, as the long term story arc (known as a "campaign") continues. This gives players incentive to keep playing the same character. It also gives players an incentive not to just throw the character away doing stupid things. If a character dies, the player will have to create a new character from scratch, losing all those hard won experience points or skill increases.
In roleplaying there truly is no winning or losing. It really is all about how you play the game. Sure, an entire party might be killed off by some monster in Victorian London, but if it was exciting and heroic, and the players killed the monster too, then they could very well feel like they "won". The idea isn't to win like in a conventional game, but to enjoy the story that the players and the GM mutually create.
As I said, it's make believe. With rules. And usually dice.
What Are Roleplaying Games?
Roleplaying games are the books and accessories used to facilitate roleplaying. You have a pretty good idea, from above, how roleplaying works. Roleplaying games allow all of that stuff to happen.
Roleplaying games have two main parts to them: the game mechanics and the game universe.
The game mechanics control how the game is played. These are rules that tell you how to create a character, how long a "game turn" represents, how far a character can move in a game turn, whether or not a character can shoot a target with a gun, whether or not a character can cast a spell, etc., etc. These are the rules that dictate if a character can do something and how well they succeeded at doing it.
Game mechanics come in many forms. Some games have "character levels", where characters accumulate enough "experience points", and then *poof* they suddenly jump up to the next level. Often in these games, every character of the same type (or "class") at the same level has pretty much the same abilities. In the original Dungeons & Dragons, every fighter at the same level had the same chance to hit an opponent, the same chance of surviving magic, and the same chance of dying from poison. In later versions, players can customize their abilities by adding skills and feats from a list. If you play console games (Xbox, Playstation) or computer games, this "levelling up" concept is likely familiar. Plenty of console roleplaying games use it, but it was invented in Dungeons & Dragons.
By contrast, some games dispense with "levels" and give each character a unique combination of skills and skill abilities. One "fighter" might be good at hand-to-hand combat, while another might be a crack sniper. One character could have a high score in the Read Chinese score but a poor score in their Pistol skill, and another character could have a high pistol score but no ability in reading any language other than English. In these games, characters increase abilities in the skills. There is no "levelling up".
There are also games that use both character levels and skills, and games that don't use skills at all.
Even when games have a similar method of handling character abilities, like using a list of skills, the actual method of determining outcomes is different. Chaosium's BRP (Basic RolePlay) system gives characters a skill value from 0 to 100. The player rolls dice that generate numbers from 1 to 100. If they roll their skill level or below, they succeed. If they roll greater, they fail. Steve Jackson Games' GURPS (Generic Universal RolePlaying System) gives characters skills of 0 to 18 (or more). The player rolls three six-sided dice, adds them up, and compares the result to their skill. Again, rolling over their skill is bad, rolling under is good. Arc Dream's Godlike is entirely different. Characters have "dice pools" from 0 to 10. The pool indicates the number of ten sided dice they roll. The player succeeds if at least two of their dice roll the same number. The more dice that match, the quicker the character succeeded at what he was doing, but the higher the number on the dice, the better the result.
The game universe is the background in which the game is played. If it is a Star Wars game, then the game is set in the Star Wars universe. If the game is Call of Cthulhu, the game is set in world as it was in the 1920s, with H.P. Lovecraft's monsters running loose. The universe can be a published roleplaying product, it could be a world taken from a book the GM read, or it could be something the GM made up out of whole cloth.
The original Dungeons & Dragons included game mechanics and a basic setting. It also included all the information needed for the GM to build their own setting. One of the first supplemental books, called a supplement, was the setting for a game universe called Greyhawk. This Greyhawk supplement became the first "sourcebook", a book with "source material" that extended the game beyond what was in the original books.
From the beginning game companies realized that they could use the same mechanics in different universes to come up with entirely different games. That was, after all, the reason D&D included rules for a GM to make her own setting. It wasn't long before they started to publish new games in new settings. The first roleplaying game was high fantasy. Next came science fiction games, horror games, and superhero games. The first settings were built specifically for the game, though they were often strongly influenced by books, comics, and movies. Later came licensed properties for games set in a universe from another media. Call of Cthulhu was one of the first, but it wasn't long before there were games for Star Trek, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, and a particularly poor game for Indiana Jones.
In some games, the mechanics are published in the same book as the game universe information, so you have one book to get you started. Call of Cthulhu is like this, as is Greg Stolze's Reign, and Star Wars Saga Edition. Some rule books are all game mechanics, with no universe information at all. GURPS, for instance, has no game universe information in its core rulebooks. For that you have to buy one of their sourcebooks, build a setting yourself, or create your own adaptation of another universe. Usually the sourcebooks are made to work with a particular set of mechanics. GURPS books reference the GURPS rules. D20 sourcebooks reference the Dungeons & Dragons rule books, or the D20 Modern book, etc. Some game companies produce products with no mechanics. These are generic sourcebooks that can work with a number of game mechanics. This lets the player play in a particular universe while using their favourite rules. The original Hârn material was systemless.
It used to be that most games came with most of the game mechanics and at least some of the universe information in them. The explosion of the D20 rules (descended from the original Dungeons & Dragons) has produced a ton of games with virtually no mechanics in them. You have to buy a D20 or OGL (Open Gaming License; essentially an unofficial D20 game) book with the core rules in order to play the game. GURPS has done it this way since its inception. White Wolf has gone this route with their World of Darkness games. Chaosium continues to bundle complete game and setting information with its Call of Cthulhu book, but their Basic RolePlay book is all mechanics. Wild Talents comes with rules, campaign information, and a background universe, but the Wild Talents Essential Edition contains only the rules.
Sourcebooks come in different flavours. My own This Favored Land book is a good example. It includes a historical timeline for the American Civil War, a guide to what life was like in the 19th Century, and rules for adapting the Wild Talents game to the Civil War. It also includes a fictional setting element, ideas for running superhero games during the time period, and a complete adventure. Not all sourcebooks are this wide ranging. Some books focus solely on the setting, or a small part of the setting. White Wolf produces books that deal with single vampire clans for their Vampire: The Requiem game. Other books focus entirely on an aspect of the rules, like Dungeons & Dragons' Monster Manual, or the GURPS High Tech supplement. Other books are a collection of rules and options, like Call of Cthulhu's Keeper's Compendium I. The breadth of game supplements is quite staggering, and differs for each game.
The preceding is just a broad overview of roleplaying and roleplaying games. I haven't discussed things like diceless roleplaying, troupe style games, or live action roleplaying. I'm sure if you're still interested you could discover these things through Google.