Ok, so maybe you’re one of those people who have friends who play Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) from Wizards of the Coast. Perhaps it’s White Wolf’s Vampire: the Masquerade in their World of Darkness from Crow Enterprises (ICE). Have you tried Shadowrun from Catalyst Game labs, or the Generic Universal Role Playing System, better known as GURPS, from Steve Jackson Games? There are more games than you could shake a rule book at, but when you watch them play you don’t get it. Your friends all sit around a table with books and crazy polyhedra dice talking about demons and dragons, deckers and street samurai, Sorcerors, Mages and Wizards (Oh My!). There’s no board, or if there is (sorry, but you D&D’ers really are just playing a boardgame now), it makes no sense.
Even worse, your friends pull out the Marvel cards but do more talking than card play. Then there’s the Erick Wujciks Amber system, which uses no dice or cards or anything else. What’s going on?
Fear not. This article, heavily laden with references and buzzwords as it may be, is for you.
What’s it all about?
Role playing games are just that: games designed to provide rules for the players to take on a role, a personality other than their own. They help guide that persona through adventures. This is the same thing you do in video games, especially the ones where you get to develop the character as the game progresses. The rules give the players a uniform(-ish) system by which to create diverse characters who are all theoretically comparable in ability, even if their talents are very dissimilar. Those characters can then hang out and go on their adventures together. Everyone can contribute, as opposed to just following the hero around and watching him do all the work. That would get boring pretty quickly, as many players with bad GM’s have found.
How does it work? (The icky part.)
First, this stuff is all technical. With any luck, you’ll have someone in charge who will just handle that for you. More on that at in the next section.
Each system has a set of standard attributes that are used to define a character, such as strength and intelligence. The warrior is probably strong enough to carry a fallen comrade with a broken leg, but the pickpocket thief or the wizard probably isn’t. Each attribute has a rating, depending on the system. Usually, a higher number means that ability is more capable.
The characters live their lives in a predefined imaginary world, usually described by the rulebooks. This may or may not be a world that exists in popular fiction, such as the Middle Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”. They are the main characters in a story the players are creating as they go, much the way an author would write a book.
There is usually a referee, or Game Master (called a Dungeon Master in D&D) who guides the flow of the tale. A good GM (Game master) should set up the plot line and play the parts of all the NPC’s (non-player characters) who interact with the PC’s (player characters). He should let the players choose their own actions. Think of the GM as the author. The players are writing the behavior of all the important characters. It’s effectively a set of rules for adventurous collaborative fiction.
When the player says the character is trying to do something, the Game Master tells her what happens. If it’s just “I open the door,” then the GM should describe the next room – unless there’s some reason the door wouldn’t open, such as being locked. If the door is locked, the player now has to decide what to do about it. Options may be pick the lock, or rip it off its hinges, depending on the character’s abilities.
If she attempts something that might fail, it’s time for the GM to get busy. Most games define some sort of random system to decide success or failure based on the attributes. That’s what’s happening when you see your friends rolling dice. The character’s attributes have been compared to the difficulty of the attempted task to determine the odds of success. A random number is being generated to see if it works. This keeps the GM fair, and the story flow dynamic.
A Good GM Makes the Game. (So Can Good Players.)
While it’s not the only contributing factor, nor is it an absolute requirement for some serious fun, a creative, flexible, and experienced GM makes a world of difference, and here’s why.
I’ve played games where the GM had to keep referencing the script. Usually a sadly dull evening. On the other hand, our long-running Game Master has run games for us in every system mentioned in this article and several more, including one he made up off the cuff just for a group that didn’t know him as well. He lets the players that really enjoy the game mechanics get into the gears, explains the odds and the system quirks, and lets them roll their own dice. For people like me who know and just don’t care, or who don’t even want to know, he just keeps the dice in his pocket and consults them when he needs them. I’ve played whole games without ever picking up dice, and hardly a pencil. He lets me keep my attention in the story, and does all the calculations behind the scenes. I’ve also heard him laughing when someone told him what a great game we’d had for the evening, and saying that he’s glad because his carefully laid plans went out the window about fifteen minutes after we started. He’d completely fabricated the entire evening from whole cloth as he went.
His comment was always that the players run the game, and he just runs the dice. It’s a modest lie, but close enough to the truth to make the point. Good players can have a good game with no GM at all. If you play, just play. Have fun.
Why is it fun?
Ok, this is really a judgement call. Some people like to read books, others don’t. Some like video games, some don’t. Some enjoy acting, others don’t. Some people love board games, while some people despise them. RPG’s (role playing games) have elements of all these. If you really love any of these activities, you might enjoy role playing games. If you really hate any of them, you might still enjoy RP’ing. You never know until you try.
If you do try it, be aware that there are a lot of variable factors.
First, you need a good group. This may be harder to find than you think. A lot of what people call role-playing these days is just ego masturbation, guys running from monster to monster trying to score the big loot. If that’s your thing then that’s fine. There’s much more potential to the activity for people willing to really bring characters to life. Finding a group of fun, witty folk willing to compromise so that everyone gets a chance to enjoy their own favorite play style is not always easy. If you can manage it, the rewards can be outstanding.
Second, consider the genre. Some people adore classic swords-and-sorcery, hack-n-slash high fantasy where every game has dragons and demons and save-the-world magic; others call it tripe. You might hate fantasy and have a ball playing the engineer on the Federation’s ISS Intrepid. There are rules out there for playing Star Trek if that’s what you want. There’s a version from FASA and a set of rules for Steve Jackson’s GURPS. If you’re a fan of Twilight by Stephanie Meyers or the Anita Blake books of Laurell K. Hamilton, Vampire: the Masquerade might be for you — also available in a GURPS version if you prefer. The point is, don’t blow off the whole RPG concept just because you think D&D looks and sounds and feels kinda stupid.
It’s Cost Effective.
One video game can easily run $50, and some, like World of Warcraft from Blizzard, require a monthly subscription fee. You need periodic expansions to keep up with the Jones’s, each of which costs as much as the original game. Role playing books, on the other hand, might cost that much, but seldom do. You usually need one book for the players, and they can all share one copy if the group can act like grownups. The GM might need one of his own. Of course, every system generates additional content in endless expansion books. You don’t need those to play, and if you have a group, you can all share the cost of any you want. Once you have a book, you can use it for as long as you like — endless hours of fun, and nobody’s making better graphics than your own imagination.
I’ve played thousands of hours of just D&D, never mind all the time on real games like many of the ones mentioned above. For an original investment of $45 as a kid, we got three rulebooks and played D&D an average of 60 hours a week for years. Yes, we eventually bought thousands of dollars more in books, but those came later when there was cash lying around to spend. The initial investment was all we really needed.
See for yourself.
There’s a reason the sex toy industry makes so much money on costumes for nurses and police officers. Sometimes it’s great to be somebody else for a little while, especially when their problems are so much different from your own. Stressed over trying to make the mortgage? Take a couple of hours to try and stay alive. Get some catharsis by kicking the crap out of a big, bad dragon and taking his horde.
Hey, it might not be real money, but it was fun to get.