An Introduction to Role Playing Games
What are role playing games all about?
Since the early seventies, role playing games have been a dark topic of conversation that remains generally unknown, misunderstood or feared. Still, a few imaginative souls banded into small enclaves of gamers filling spare moments with wisps of dragons and whispers of adventure. Spotting these ponderous wallflowers required only to notice a flock of characteristically plaid and/or flannel shirts huddled around stacks of indecipherable papers, mysterious books and the sounds of rattling dice. Other than the unusually social nature of gaming, the most mysterious barrier faced by interested onlookers was a decent explanation of exactly what was going on in the game...from a point of view other than a “geek”. If role players were approached with questions about a game, the answers most often served up were, "you just have to play" or "it's kind of tough to explain." When faced with volumes of rule books, odd dice and no one willing to go out of their way to explain the game, the typical response was to walk away
from the whole confusing mess. Those who stuck with the game had an acquired taste because they were such a mystery. Game play was a journey of new social ventures and mental puzzlers that had defined boundaries and rules yet allowed fantastic tales to take shape in the form of conversation. The adventurous few who joined in the game simply muddled through with what they have and floundered their way to a workable understanding.
As this gaming phenomenon took shape, the game suffered attacks of bad publicity. Since the inception and subsequent growth of the role playing industry, a few rare and isolated cases of extreme fanaticism has had some tragic results. Deaths of friends and family members caused a wave of fear that turned interested onlookers into frightened citizens. In the aftermath of these events, the idea that role playing games acted as the inspirational source of such lethal mental discontent fueled a heated and sustained backlash of negative publicity and propaganda. The idea that role playing games are "evil" has permeated our society and in some cases has been used as a social weapon against people involved in gaming. So it goes.
Against the seemingly insurmountable tide of continuing guilt-by-association, the desire to play role playing games has grown, creating a noticeable market share within the entertainment industry. Video games, choose-your-own-ending books and even some parlor games have grown in popularity because of their interactive elements. As gaming continues to grow and penetrate new levels of our society, a structured explanation is necessary to set aside further alienation and resentment by going over the basics. Dramatis Arcanum will take you through the gamut of the role playing experience so that any individual, curious or otherwise, may make an educated opinion about role playing games rather than consent to mob rule. If you then decide to play, use this book as a guide to answer all the new questions needed to get things into play without seeming so scary.
From cover to cover, Dramatis Arcanum is meant to educate and entertain. Its not meant as the singularly definitive guide to play but a helpful road map to take you to new place you might not have been before. Hopefully, it will serve to demystify weekend cabals of gamers and maybe the interested onlookers of the world will join in and play.
The best way to start explaining what role playing games are and how they work is by answering the usual questions:
What is a role playing game?
An RPG, or Role Playing Game, is a system of rules designed to quantify the imagination to a degree of multiple participant interaction. The "game system" is a combination of math and words and all the definitions of the game. Game play in a role playing game is a cooperative story; all the players have a hand in how the story develops, how the characters are affected and how the story ends by using rules and probabilities. This gives players the means to imagine fantastic characters on fictional adventures for a few hours with friends in the comfortable setting of a home or favorite hangout. The manner in which that game occurs and the rules that it uses to manage the dynamics of play is what makes role playing games unique as it offers a level playing field that exists only as a mental exercise...but don’t let that scare you.
How do you play a role playing game?
Much of player interaction is akin to a theatrical troupe and accounts for the odd costumes and goofy accents. Just as a play or script is read by the actors with guiding instruction from a director, a game troupe plays much the same way. The distinguishing difference between acting and role playing is the lack of a written script. Instead, players improvise the script as a game master (troupe leader) presents them with a situation or scene and the players role play the scene. This allows a free form discovery of a game or campaign setting from the viewpoint of a character. Game play is a conversational exchange directed by the game master's ability to describe a scene, create a story drama and handle math. Doing this eliminates characters from having pre-set, pre-printed destinies which is the purpose of most role playing games: character development and exploration. Other types of RPG’s have a higher tactical content which depend more on typical types of game rules and have a turn-by-turn player action with even more dice and charts needed to play.
Game play begins at a prearranged time, agreed upon by all the players and can go on for several hours. Usually, the game is played during the early evening or on weekends to accommodate the game’s somewhat unpredictable time length. Players are most likely a group of friends or acquaintances gathering at a local watering hole. A session starts as the game master recounts the last game session or a gives a description of the current adventure. The game evolves with a series of scene descriptions followed by questions and answers that motivate characterization and story drama or sets up a strategic puzzle. The players describe and illustrate how their characters react to the story drama and cultivate their character destinies as they see fit.
Just as in literature or film, characters mature through a story with a beginning, climax, and end. To the game's advantage, RPG's break the bonds of money and time, going beyond TV and movies because they can have unimaginably lavish “sets” and span longer periods of time for the benefit of more interesting play. Because of this luxury, the game is a great medium for telling fantastic stories.
When does the game end?
Role playing games have a variable length due to the nature of the content and its inherent complexity. RPG’s with a higher “role playing” content (rather than strategic) do not end in the same manner as a sporting event or board game. The goal of the game is to build a story and the challenge comes with plot development and mental puzzles. Strategy is a strong part of the game, but it is not the totality of the goal. Player characters function within an adventure story, as per the game rules, until the plot has been resolved. Adventures themselves can last anywhere from a few hours during a single evening to a series of events over many evenings. That same player's character may be used in any number of successive adventures called campaigns. A campaign is defined as a series of organized actions for a particular purpose. In the role playing milieu, the term campaign is used to define a series of adventure stories that promote long term character development. Campaigns consist of successive adventures and can last anywhere from months to years if play groups themselves so choose. The longevity of any game episode - - session, adventure, or campaign - - becomes a group decision. Since a character may have many incarnations, that same character may exist in different adventures and campaigns benefiting from a wider range of experience. An adventure or campaign ends when the story drama is complete, but characters may then move on to another story adventure. There always seems to be a sequel and role playing games are no different.
What is a game system?
A game system is an amalgam of semantic rules and mathematical formulas that facilitates the structured thinking of a role-playing game format. Its purpose is to define an intellectual discipline of thought that represents the mental playing field. Within this realm, players can experience anything they can imagine and then accurately communicate it to other players as it relates to the game system. By doing so, the playing field becomes a shared, but unique internal story vision that may be altered as the game progresses.
There are many types of role-playing games and the various story genres can justify stressing different needs for a game. To accommodate these needs, many game systems have evolved. Each game system is centered on a specific set of relevant variables and mechanics that sets the tone of the game. For example, the character needs of a cartoon character differ in interaction than a mythological hero or a sci-fi buccaneer. Each requires a different complex of ideas and development that are germane to the genre and need special rules for it not only stand apart, but correctly represent the genre as a worthy fictional expression. While the thickness of gaming rulebooks tends to startle new players, much of it is never even looked at. The responsibility of the bulk reading goes to the game master, who must understand all levels of play and how they interact. Players on the other hand, need only read the basic rules pertaining to their character (most of the time, if an individual shows interest, a playing troupe will go out of it’s way to help new players join in).
What is a game master?
A game master is both host and referee. As host, the game master, or GM, finds a place to play, provides the essentials (such as paper and pencils) and tells the story. As referee, the game master manages player interaction, negotiates fictional material and resolves story action.
What is a game character?
Within any game system, there are two different types of characters; player characters (PC’s), and non-player characters (NPC’s). Player characters are mental constructs of a player's own design and will be used in the adventure story as protagonists or “main character”. NPC's are created and played by the game master to interact with players as the story antagonists and supporting roles of for stories and whole game/campaign settings They are the town's people and Nottingham Sheriff acting with and against a player character’s Robin Hood.
How is a game character created?
All game systems have a method of defining the statistics and semantics of a character's innate abilities, learned skills, and driving motivations. The rules of the system dictate the design specifics as well as the rest of the information to be filled in by the player's imagination. The hard data is recorded on a character sheet for use during game play. Character sheets are usually included within the pages of a game system's rule books and act as a ledger that player’s reference during the game to maintain accuracy. A variety of support information such as background and biographical information can also be recorded to enhance game play, but is accounted for in a less official format.
What is an adventure?
An adventure is a story. They are often referred to as adventures because the story material is usually oriented around action and high-adventure. They are stirring and unusual representations of exciting experiences like the Wild West, Fantasy or Science Fiction.
What is an adventure party?
An adventure party is a fictional grouping. A group of players and their characters that experience the story adventure and in turn learn to interact like a team. The player characters in a party usually differ in many ways possessing various strengths and weaknesses that come into play during the adventure. The cooperation of these characters during the game creates a unique social interaction between the players based on the motivations of the characters. The interaction is partly a communication of raw data for calculating probabilities and answering questions and part fictional conversation. Players are the troupe and are separate from their characters representation. The group of characters that represents the adventure party is simply a bunch of characters brought together by unusual fictional circumstances to overcome plot conflict. Their choice to remain together, as a troupe or as a party, is part of the game’s dynamics.
What is a campaign?
A game group may string together a series of adventures forming a campaign. A campaign is the weekly gathering that throws off most onlookers because of its seemingly nonexistent ending when actually; it is only a brief happening along a lengthy time line. Story development is akin to that of a TV series or a film sequel. In a more strategic oriented game, a campaign represents a series of battles with a particular objective or even an entire tabletop war spanning years and continents.
What is the purpose of all strange the dice?
Mathematical systems of measurement and probability are used to determine the outcomes of hypothetical fictional situations. Just as there are probabilities and odds used by sports fans to compare statistics of players and seasonal performance, RPG characters uses the odds on the front end of a situation instead of the back end. Rather than figure out how well a character has done, probabilities and statistics determine how well a character might perform in a given situation.
The various types of dice correspond with the mathematical systems of the particular game system being used. Dice can vary from the traditional six-sider up to twenty and thirty sided die and correspond to an appropriate probability equation. During the game, a character's ability will be tested as part of the game challenge. This challenge experience must be fairly executed and done with a bit of fun. Following along the actor's troupe analogy, a dice roll represents an occurrence when one of the cast members does something skillful or extraordinary within the story and is expressed by a mathematical probability. Without the presence of a script, dice rolls are used to determine the possibility of success or fail situations. The type of dice used to justify the situation corresponds with the mathematical scales that define a character's ability within the parameters of a game system. This lets a player apply their character's skills against the game master's drama without pre-determining a success or fail scenario. The randomness of dice rolls adds the spice of a cliffhanger to the event. Neither the player nor the game master knows what will happen. In the end, it all comes down to a roll of the dice, and an interesting story.
Who wins the game?
The purpose of the game relies on character development and individual interpretation. The tangible victories and losses occur on many levels: when characters try to perform difficult feats, solve puzzles and riddles and overcome the challenge of a plot. RPG's focus on player interaction and must resolve conflict with their wits and a spirit of cooperation rather than pitting teams of, or individual players, against each other as opponents. The idea that it is a "game"
relates to this genre of entertainment due to the familiar concepts of players, strategy, and dice that are associated with gaming in general. This, like many other descriptions, depends on some basic game elements that can differ from group to group. For instance, tabletop warfare with models does necessitate stricter rules and offers a more defined win/lose scenario while an adventure story may be more plot driven depending on gray areas of etiquette and protocol.
Why do people play role-playing games?
We tell stories and play games because hidden underneath the dice, pencils and reams of paper lies a genuine love of learning. A driving curiosity representing the inner-six-year-old that won’t stop asking, “why?” There is no better way to express that insatiable curiosity than to explore imagination. Role playing games make it possible for many people to explore a unified imaginative experience which keeps that aspiring inner six-year-old alive and well.
Perhaps role-playing games also represents a greater need to understand the human condition and the infinite facets encompassed by that desire. The framework of role-playing games parallels an older need seen in myths and fairy tales - - stories woven from the same thread as the human condition to experience and understand the unknown. Today, myths are passed on through many facets of multimedia, bombarding an individual's state of being with seemingly limitless possibilities and directions. Possibilities that could neither be understood without an arena in which to explore them nor an innocuous way in which to ponder them.
A common denominator in all storytelling can be found in the roots of analytical psychology. As we grow, experience and our environment build personality constructs that affect our behavior. This and the traits we are born with is our personality and it defines how we deal with the world. As change affects us, we alter those constructs developmentally to adapt to new situations. Our innate human desire to explore exposes us to the infinite variables of the universe - - life and death, dimension and quantum mechanics, the human condition and each other - - we all need a way to express our need to cope and hone our ability adapt. The dynamics of role-playing makes it all a little easier to understand and practice. Each character, each adventure, each game is all part of an eternal human quest: self-realization. We need to understand who we are and how we relate to the world around us.
This is not to say that the game itself represents a template, but rather the intrinsic processing of information. On its most basic level RPG's increase math and vocabulary skills, problem solving, and communication simply by engaging the experience. Gaming also allows players to view and experience situations from an external point of view, enabling the exploration of a vast myriad of self-expressive avenues in a pure form. In essence, the "why" of role-playing games is up to each and every individual and the choice to play is to answer the call of the curious child that resides within us all.
We need a type of theatre which not only releases the feelings, insights and impulses possible within the particular historical field of human relations in which the action takes place, but employs and encourages those thoughts and feelings which help transform the field itself.
Bertolt Brecht 1949
A basic example might use a grouping of three six-sided dice to determine the outcome of any given story "situation". The character's stats (also referred to as statistics, attributes or characteristics) define a number by using it to quantify a corresponding character ability. The game master calculates the difficulty of the situation against the ability of the character to determine the number needed on the dice for success. The dice are then rolled to find out whether or not the character's action succeeded. Tied to a roll of the dice, a moment of story development will be based on the outcome of a dice roll. This has the added effect of fateful surprise and coincidence effecting the character's position in the story. Imagination creates the story, and game rules keep it from running-on uncontrolled while at the same time preventing it from being predictable