Role-playing games, what are they?


You play role-playing games? Like the video games?’ I’ve been asked this a lot, or the even worse, ‘That’s what you do in the bedroom, right?’ I’ve been playing role-playing games for twenty years now and had this a lot. How do you explain a role-playing game to people without them thinking you’re acting out scenes from Fifty Shades of Grey? Or, alternatively, if you’ve never heard of role-playing games, what the hell am I talking about? Read on and find out.

What are role-playing games?

Have you ever read a book and imagined yourself in that world? Being in class with Harry Potter, or travelling with the fellowship of the Lord of the Rings. Two guys, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, were imagining the same thing, and they created rules to play that out in a game back in the seventies. They called it Dungeons & Dragons.

Because they wanted to play out a story, and there is no way to describe an entire world in game rules, they came up with the concept of a Dungeon Master (often called Games Master by other games, for copyright reasons). Instead of a normal game, where all players are pitted against each other, they came up with a system where one of the players is the story-teller, and the others are story-characters. Then they added rules to gamefy playing those characters.

When playing, this means that normal play consists of three steps:

  1. The dungeon master describes to the players what is happening.
  2. The players respond and say what actions their characters take.
  3. The dungeon master describes what the result of the actions is. Go back to 1.

In practice this leads to a dynamic story with the dungeon master changing the tale based on the input from the players. If a player character and a non-player character talk, that’s acted out by that player and the Dungeon Master.

An example

So let’s have a look what a typical session looks like. Let’s assume there’s one Dungeon Master, and  three characters named Alice, Ben, and Claire.

DM: As you march through the dark forest, you come upon a clearing. In its centre stands an ancient rune-encrusted obelisk. A lone figure in dark robes stands next to it.

Ben: I call out a greeting.

Alice: What? No, you idiot. He could be dangerous.

DM: You want to change your mind?

Ben: No, I call out a greeting.

DM: The figure raises his hand. ‘Greeting travellers, what brings you to this holy place?’

Claire: I don’t trust him. Do I see weapons?

DM: No, you don’t, but he could be hiding anything under those robes.

Claire: I keep my hand on my sword.

I hope this gives you a better idea of how Role-playing games work. If you need more examples, this one by the Dead Ale Wives is hilarious.

Other offshoots

Dungeons & Dragons quickly became very popular, spawning several editions and video game tie-ins, like Pool of Radiance. Roleplaying video games such as Skyrim and DragonAge are descendants of those tie-ins. Of course, the core idea of a story-teller and a group of players didn’t translate to the video game world, making the video games vastly different from the pen-and-paper roleplaying game.

Video games are one spawn of Dungeons & Dragons, but there are also a lot of other pen-and-paper games. There’s Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Pathfinder, and more. Aside from different core rulesets, there are many different settings, ranging from fantasy worlds to science fiction universes.

So, yeah, hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions, sit around a table with a group of friends every now and then, pretending to be a character in a make-belief world.

For those wanting a more active game, there’s Live-Action-Role-Playing, usually called LARP. Here people don’t sit around a table, but they dress up in costumes and play out a story outside. I’ve never done that, but it’s apparently great fun.

And of course, even though I don’t really want to admit it, there is the Dungeons & Dragons movie.

What does this have to do with writing?

I wrote a blog post on that already, so I won’t go in to it here. Suffice it to say: they don’t call the Dungeon Master a story-teller for nothing.

How to explain this briefly?

Back to the original problem. How do you explain this in one sentence? The short answer: you can’t. What you can do, and which is also an important skill for anything you want to explain, is find a one-sentence pitch. This pitch doesn’t need to tell everything, but only the basics, and it should peek people’s interest.

For role-playing games, I use a variation of the following: “it’s a game where a group of players play a character in a story, except for one of them who is the referee-slash-storyteller.”

That sentence doesn’t cover all of it, but it does explain the basics, and hopefully, it is understandable for people who’ve never heard about it before. It’s the best I’ve been able to come up with. That, or you can refer people to this blog post.

Of course, if you want an interesting conversation, you can always say that you are acting out scenes from Fifty Shades of Grey.


Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands