If you know absolutely nothing about roleplaying games then this is where to start. Eh? explains what roleplaying is and gives a basic overview of the world of the RPG.
What does RPG mean?
RPG means Roleplaying Game and it is a term which is widely and generally misused and misunderstood. The first roleplaying game – certainly the first as we have come to understand the genre – was Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) developed by Tactical Systems Rules (TSR) who had previously developed rules to allow the simulation of large-scale combats known as war games. That first RPG was a paper and dice game – I’ll explain in a moment – while the term RPG is today most commonly applied, often incorrectly, to computer games.
What is an RPG?
An RPG is a game where the player takes on the role of a character in a fantasy world, deciding on every action that character takes in any given scenario. The character controlled in this way by the player is called, simply, a player character (PC). The PC in this fantasy world interacts with other PCs, non-player characters (NPCs), monsters, traps and the fantasy world itself. The last four of those, NPCs, monsters, traps and the fantasy world, are controlled by an arbiter who sets the parameters of the world and ultimately decides what is and isn’t possible and what is and is not achieved by PC actions. The arbiter has several names which were traditionally dependant on which RPG you were playing, but which today are more or less a matter of taste; the most common name is Dungeon Master (DM) followed by Games Master (GM). The two most important factors in determining whether something is an RPG are that players have complete freedom of action and there is no way to “win”.
What isn’t an RPG?
Board games are not RPGs because they are designed to be won or lost. Nothing played against your computer is a roleplaying game because even the best computers can only accept a limited number of inputs and can only provide the responses it has been programmed to give, so there is not complete freedom of action. Massively Multi-Player Online Roleplaying Games (MMPORGs) are one step closer to being true RPGs because they allow PCs to interact to a degree. Everquest 2 promises to expand on the number of possible interactions a PC can have with the fantasy world, but will still not be a true RPG. Neverwinter Nights, based on a descendant of D&D, is available now and allows both human PCs and a human DM. However, a true RPG where parameters are defined by a computer remains, for the moment, a technological impossibility. Besides which, very few MMPORG players actually roleplay anyway. The box may say RPG, but the box is wrong.
What kinds of RPGs are there?
The number of different types of RPG has expanded due to the Internet. Originally RPGs were paper and dice games – and a very large number are still played this way and hopefully always will be – in this type of game PCs have their abilities recorded on paper and these abilities are matched against those of NPCs, monsters, traps and the fantasy world with the outcome being decided by dice rolls and the DM. In paper and dice games the players meet up and gather around a table to play the game and a game session usually lasts several hours. In recent years it has become possible to play in exactly the same way over the Internet using virtual tabletops, the only difference is that players are often hundreds or thousands of miles apart. The first kind of RPG to deviate from the face to face game sessions was play-by-mail (PBM) where the players posted character actions to a DM who correlated then posted replies to each player. PBM is now pretty much gone, but the format has been transplanted to e-mail to form play-by-e-mail (PBEM). In both cases the rules are similar to those used in paper and dice games. The next format was message board also known as play-by-post (PBP), where instead of posting to a DM posts were made to a communal message board. Message board games are either arbitrated by a DM, usually using custom rules, or played as free-from RPGs (FFRPGs) in which there is no arbiter and the game continues according a kind of communal storytelling. FFRPGs are notorious for the common appearance of supra-god PCs who are capable of doing anything. In character chat (ICC) is a format which can function in the same way as PBEM, PBP or FFRPG according to the wishes of the participants. In ICC, as with virtual tabletops, the players meet in a virtual room on the Internet and talk. The most radical form of RPG is live action roleplay (LARP) where players physically act out all of their characters actions. LARP is often used as an adjunct to face-to-face games when physically complex tasks are required, but can be used, with the correct rules, as a complete style of roleplaying in itself.
What RPGs are there?
There are innumerable RPG games and a huge number of companies which produce them. Epic Adventures focuses on second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) and third edition Dungeons & Dragons (3e), both of which are games produced by Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) which bought TSR some years ago and has itself been purchased by Hasbro. Most LARP games are small companies, while almost all PBP, ICC and FFRPG websites you find will be entirely stand-alone, using their own rules not those developed by a company. 3e is run using the d20 system – called such as it relies largely on twenty-sided dice – which is open licence, meaning anyone can create games around it without a fee being charged. D20 games companies have become very common as it is easier to develop a skin for a system than a complete system in itself and players find it easier to cope with movement between games as there is only one fundamental set of rules. www.rpggateway.com is an excellent site if you want to browse the official games producer sites.
Are RPGs dangerous?
Not as silly a question as it first seems, but the answer is no. Certain fanatics from the US Christian right have said that D&D and its successors encourage devil worship and these people have been joined by extremists of all faiths. I have neither seen nor heard of any instance of occult activity sparked by any RPG and I believe that people who are inclined to worship devils will do so whether they play an RPG or not. The more serious suggestion has been made against MMPORGs that they cause dedicated players to commit suicide when their characters suffer irreparable harm or great setbacks. MMPORGs do lead to obsessive behaviour because of the way they operate (it is simply not possible to advance to higher levels without a commitment of thousands of hours of monotony) and psychological damage is done to players by these games, however people who become obsessed by MMPORGs or any computer games are usually deeply unhappy or lonely people already. While roleplayers as a group are as mocked as Star Trek fans and comic book collectors (and there is overlap between those areas) most dedicated roleplayers are intelligent, erudite and outgoing.
Are all roleplayers nice people?
Everyone is different. That said, there are elements within the roleplaying community – if such a thing can be said to exist – which are less desirable to play with than others. Roleplayers broadly fall into two categories, those who believe in freedom of action and understand that there is no way to win as such, and those who play an RPG like a board or computer game which can be won. The distinction is not one which is immediately apparent, but the latter group are generally referred to as power-gamers or munchkins. The term munchkin has a variety of possible sources, but it appears that its current use originated in 1983 in the Dunfey Hotel, San Mateo at a gaming convention called Pacificon – why munchkin is a mystery, but one suspects there was alcohol in the room at the time. Numerous attempts have been made to describe munchkins; what they come down to is that munchkins have no interest in being Frank the stable-boy who aspires to be Sir Rodney the gallant knight. The don’t even want to be Sir Rodney who aspires to be King Gregor the dragon slayer. Your typical munchkin would be reasonably happy being God’s dad’s older brother who is so fantastically powerful that there is nothing in this or any other universe which challenges him. These people could not begin to understand that ultimate power is as much fun as no power at all; they make awful players and even worse DMs.
How old should I be to play an RPG?
You can be any age, providing you pick the correct one. Games such as Vampire: The Masquerade and the Call of Cthulu are unsuitable for children, in the same way that some videos are unsuitable for children, but also because to be played properly they require an adult level of roleplay. AD&D and 3e are suitable for younger players as they can be morally simple with good and evil clearly defined – rules complexity isn’t really an age problem in my experience. The best advice is to play with a group your own age. If you’re under twenty don’t ever play with a group that’s over twenty; they’ll probably end up hating you for behaving childishly. Typically your own peer group are also much more likely to want the same things out of a game as you.
How do I get into roleplaying?
Good question! If you are blessed enough to live near a hobby store – a place which sells RPG materials – then you’re set. Hobby stores will usually have message boards of people looking for players or sometimes run in-store games. In-store games are usually tradition dungeon crawls – the party of PCs will investigate a dungeon with the intent of finding treasure, killing things and becoming local heroes – which are the best way of getting a party bonded and familiar with the rules. These games will naturally contain a number of newbies – people who like yourself, newbie, have never played before – and you can learn a lot here, but you’ll probably become irritated by the same old questions after a while. If you can’t find a link to roleplaying locally – and if you don’t live in a city, chances are it will be more difficult – then the Internet is good resource. Not only can you play games online as explained earlier, but there are several listings websites which will allow you to make contact with other players in your area. If the people in your area are also playing the games you are interested in, even better, but don’t count on it.
Don’t buy all the rules books and learn them by heart before you play. You’re not the DM and you don’t have to know a lot of the stuff. Most games have a Players’ Hand Book (PHB) which will take you through everything you need to know sequentially, don’t buy anything more than that. I would encourage you to buy your own copy as soon as you’ve decided to play a fall campaign – a long series of thematically linked games – as you will need it and, although this might not be your immediate concern, it benefits game companies and the industry as a whole. It’s a good investment; some players have PHBs which they still refer to decades after buying them. Some players have superstitions about their dice, a DM will usually have dice you can roll, but don’t roll the dice of anyone you don’t know without asking. Yes, of course that’s ridiculous, but you will be pretending to be a fantasy hero fighting imaginary evils. There are different personalities of roleplayer which will gravitate towards your basic fantasy archetypes; some will play warriors, some will play wizards, some will play thieves. Chances are that you will be one of these. There are also different types of DM, ranging from the killer DM – who enjoys bumping players off – the traditional DM – who plays exactly according to the rules – and the roleplaying DM – who doesn’t generally speaking allow players to die because they value the long term development of a campaign. Which you want is a matter of preference, some people enjoy fast-paced one or two sessions campaigns where everyone dies spectacularly, while others want to develop their characters over a period of several years of real time.