Monday, July 31, 2006

What is roleplaying?

This question has been asked and answered countless times. The best way I can explain is by referencing games of "Let's pretend" when we were children. Remember "You be the robber and I'll be the cop?" From there we expanded the game to include the scenario of bank robbing, getaway and catching the crook. Invariably there were rules, mostly arbitrary. Roleplaying expands and refines this childhood game, allowing both children and adults to engage in "Let's pretend".

Following is the Wikipedia definition of roleplaying:

A role-playing game is a type of game in which the participants assume the roles of characters and collaboratively create stories. Participants determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, they may improvise freely; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the games.

A role-playing game rarely has winners or losers. This makes role-playing games fundamentally different from board games, card games, sports and most other types of games. Like novels or films, roleplaying games appeal because they engage the imagination. Role-playing games are typically more collaborative and social than competitive. A typical role-playing game unites its participants into a single team, known as a "party", that plays as a group.

Most role-playing games are conducted like radio drama: only the spoken component is acted, and players step out of character to describe action and discuss game mechanics. The genre of role-playing games in which players do perform their characters' physical actions is known as live-action roleplaying games (LARP).


The assumption of roles was a central theme in some early 20th century activities such as the game Jury Box, mock trials, model legislatures, and "Theatre Games". In the 1960s, historical reenactment groups such as The Sealed Knot and the Society for Creative Anachronism began to perform "creative history" reenactments introducing fantasy elements, and in the 1970s fantasy wargames were developed, inspired by sword and sorcery fiction, in which each player controlled only a single unit, or "character". The earlier role-playing tradition was combined with the wargames' rule-based character representation to form the first role-playing games

The first commercially available role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, was published in 1974 by E. Gary Gygax's TSR. TSR marketed the game as a niche product. Gygax expected to sell about 50,000 copies After establishing itself in boutique stores it developed a cult following.

Dungeons & Dragons was a subject of controversy in the 1980s when well-publicized opponents claimed it caused negative spiritual and psychological effects. Academic research has discredited these claims. Some educators support role-playing games as a healthy way to hone reading and arithmetic skills. Though role-playing has been accepted by some, a few religious conservatives continue to object.

Games such as GURPS and Champions also served to introduce to role-playing games game balance between player characters; later, Vampire: The Masquerade and similar games served to emphasise storytelling and plot and character development over rules and combat.

Competition from computer role-playing games and collectible card games led to a decline in the role-playing game industry. The financially troubled market leader TSR, Inc. was eventually purchased by Wizards of the Coast. To better cope with the economics of role-playing games, and to combat growing bootlegging problems, they introduced a new regime of open gaming, allowing other companies to publish D&D-compatible supplements. Meanwhile, self-defined "Indie roleplaying" communities arose on the internet, studying roleplaying and developing several forms of role-playing game theory such as GNS Theory, and critical reflection on role-playing games has become popular in Scandinavia leading even to a yearly academic conference.

In thirty years the genre has grown from a few hobbyists and boutique publishers to an economically significant part of the games industry. Grass-roots and small business involvement remains substantial while larger projects have attracted several million players worldwide. Games industry leader Hasbro purchased Wizards of the Coast in 1998 for an estimated $325 million.


In traditional roleplaying games, participants usually sit around a table and conduct the game as a small social gathering. One participant, the "gamemaster", describes the setting and the actions of the inhabitants, while the others describe their characters' actions and responses. The game system typically requires players to roll dice to determine the outcome of some of their actions, most typically in combat or other stressful situations. Games that emphasize plot and character interaction over game mechanics and combat sometimes prefer the name storytelling game.

Game mechanics

The rules of role-playing games are known as game mechanics. Almost all roleplaying games require the participation of a gamemaster (GM), who creates a setting for the game session, portrays most of its inhabitants and acts as the moderator and rules arbitrator for the players. The rest of the participants create and play inhabitants of the game setting, known as player characters (PCs). The player characters collectively are known as a "party".

During a typical game session, the gamemaster will introduce a story goal for the players to achieve through the actions of their characters. Frequently, this involves interacting with non-player characters, other denizens of the game world, which are played by the gamemaster. Many game sessions contain moments of puzzle solving, negotiation, chases, and combat. The goal may be made clear to the players at the outset, or may become clear to them during the course of a game.

Games rules determine the success or failure of a character's actions. Many game systems use weighted statistics and dice rolls or other random elements. In most systems, the gamemaster uses the rules to determine a target number. The player rolls dice, trying to get a result either more than or less than the target number, depending on the game system. Not all games determine successes randomly, however; an early and popular game without random elements is Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game by Erick Wujcik (1990).


Characters in roleplaying games are usually represented by a number of statistics. Many game systems make distinctions between two key types of statistic: attributes and skills.

Attributes are statistics all characters possess: strength, agility, and intelligence are common examples. These are ranked, often on a numeric scale, so that a player can gauge the character's capabilities. For example, a character's strength rating could be used to determine the likelihood that the character can lift a certain weight.

Skills are abilities that only some characters possess, such as negotiation, horseback riding, and marksmanship. Game systems often define skills that are genre-appropriate. For example, Asian adventures commonly emphasize martial arts. Fantasy settings include magic. Science-fiction settings may contain psionics. However, some skills are found in several genres: a medieval rogue and a Wild West outlaw may both be very proficient at throwing knives.

Character creation

Before play begins, players develop a concept of the role they would like to play in the game. They then use the game system's character creation rules to form a representation of their characters, in terms of game mechanics. The character's statistics are recorded on a special-purpose form called a character sheet. Some systems, like the d20 System, use character classes to define character concepts, while others, such as GURPS, allow the player to create unique character concepts by freely assigning statistics.

Game mechanics are not a substitute for a character concept. For example, one Wild West gunfighter may become a quick drawing revolver marksman, whereas another with similar game statistics could be a mounted rifle expert.


Roleplaying games can also be divided into genres by the fictional setting where they take place.


Fantasy roleplaying games draw their inspiration almost exclusively from fantasy literature, such as the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. The setting in these games is usually a world with a level of technology similar to that of medieval Europe. Fantasy elements include magic and supernatural/mythological creatures, such as dragons, elves, and orcs. The genre can be subdivided into high fantasy where supernatural events are commonplace, and low fantasy where there are few or no supernatural aspects. When the main setting of the game is not taken directly from the history of our world (as in games set in feudal Europe or Japan) they still tend to draw heavily on historical models, though distorted by the presence of magic; also, as gods often have direct and tangible interations with the world, religion tends to be very unlike our world.

Because the world's most popular roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons, is part of the fantasy genre, fantasy is also the most played roleplaying genre. RPGs of the fantasy genre are sometimes collectivelly called "Fantasy roleplaying games" ("FRP").

Science Fiction

Science fiction roleplaying games are inspired by science fiction literature. The setting is generally in the future, sometimes near future but also quite often in the far future, though in many cases the setting bears no connection to the world we live in, e.g. Star Wars. Common elements involve futuristic technology, contact with alien life forms, experimental societies, and space travel. Psionic abilities (i.e. ESP and telekinesis) often take the place of magic. The genre can be divided similarly with science fiction literature into sub-genres, such as cyberpunk or space opera. SF is the second most played genre after fantasy. Cooperative roleplaying can be a seed for the culture of international cooperation too. The experience of virtual "classical" roleplaying in 2050 helps the main hero of "Otherland", a book by Tad Williams, to gather partners and to solve a major challenge for the future of humankind.


Historical games take place in the past. Because historical games often overlap the fantasy genre, a distinguishing mark is that fantasy games are set on a "fantasy world" similar to but distinct from Earth, while historical games are set in the past of Earth. Settings that have been explored in roleplaying games include Pendragon (Arthurian), Sengoku (Japanese warring states), Recon (Vietnam War), Tibet (historical Tibet), and Fantasy Imperium (historical Europe).


Horror games take their inspiration from horror literature. Horror Roleplaying can be divided into two major groups. The first are those in which generally normal people fight against malevolent supernatural entities. Such games often are structured as a straightforward "monster hunt", though the leading game of this style, Call of Cthulhu, also involves a great deal of investigation and clue-finding. The second style of horror game reverses the roles, with the player characters being such supernatural creatures as vampires and werewolves. This second style was popularized by White Wolf's Vampire: the Masquerade. A series of games by the same company followed, sharing a setting called the World of Darkness.

The setting in both these styles of horror games is often contemporary, between the 19th century and the current day. Creating the correct mood and air of suspense is very important in these games.

Comic Book superhero

Superhero roleplaying games are inspired by superhero comic books and graphic novels. The setting is generally the present, sometimes near future or past, though in many cases the setting is significantly different from the real world. Rubber science, viable mutants, and space aliens are all common in the genre. The RPG games themselves usually have the players as super heroes, saving the common people from crime and supervillains. The genre can be divided into sub-genres that mirror comic book genres and time periods: for example, Golden Age where the heroes are always virtuous and morality is black and white, and Silver Age where the distinctions are less clear.


Humor games are based on creating situations which are funny or have a funny premise. Humor is not usually a genre in itself (although it can be), but a modifier added to other genres.


Multi-genre games that mix elements of different genres together. For example, Deadlands presents a Wild West in which elements of horror and magic are prevalent, and Castle Falkenstein presents a Victorian-era world with Jules Verne- and H.G. Wells-inspired technology alongside fantasy elements like magics and the denizens of Faerie.


Universal or Generic games are based on creating a generic system that can be adapted to any genre. In practice, universal games are often biased toward a specific style or genre and adaptable to others.


Indie games are published independently of the larger publishing houses. Free from the pressure of having to create games with broad appeal, the Indie roleplaying game community often produces games with a very specific setting and rules tuned to that setting. Not all Indie games follow this concept though and games can go from being within the category of Indie into that of the larger commercial market if they become popular or find a sponsoring publishing house. Fudge is an example of an Indie game that became more widely distributed and was designed with a more universal or multi-genre usage.


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