Roleplaying 101

April 15, 2008

A friend of mine asked me to talk about what this hobby is, as she had no clue about it.

So what is roleplaying?

Roleplaying games are games where you and a group of friends sit down and tell a story together.

The story you create can be any time period, it can be a romance, a tragedy, a comedy, an action adventure epic. It might be less of a story in the classic sense and more of a game- where the focus is on strategizing on how to win.

In any case, the activity is pretty much storytelling- you sit down and tell each other pieces of this story of imagination until you either decide to end the story or the rules of the game you’re playing bring it to an end.

A roleplaying game can be involved in any genre, from the stuff you see on tv, like lawyers and doctors and human drama, to science fiction, fantasy, or horror. As a geeky hobby, it generally favors the latter, though there are games for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Wars, or the Lord of the Rings, and other popular franchises.

(Most roleplayers prefer to create their own characters and tell their own stories set in the same “world” as such a franchise, though a few will use the characters who were featured, in which case, the game is much closer to collaborative fan fiction).


A small bit of play might look like this:

Ben: “The Nobles’ Ball has begun, and the music fills the hall…”
Chris: “The prince strides confidently across the hall, his eyes locked on the lady of the house…”
Nina: “You would dare?”
Chris: “Of course.”
Nina: “Then together the two dance until the morning star rises…”

You’ll notice that the players can switch between talking as a storyteller and speaking as a character at will. They might also switch to first person (“I stride confidently down the hall…”). In any case, though reading it seems strange, in play, it flows very seemlessly without much trouble.

Players are often assigned a single character or protagonist which they control in terms of the story. There may be a player whose job is to set the scene and describe the actions of many characters, in which case they are often acting as a director in this massive improv story. (In the example above, Ben fills that role).

Playing as a group

Roleplaying games are generally built around the structure of a long boardgame, like Monopoly- you’ll be playing 2-4 hours with a group of folks, usually 3-6 people. A single sitting is called a session”. Most games assume that the group will be telling a very long term story, over many sessions, called a run, or a campaign.

Longer term play is typically harder to organize- how often can you get all of your friends together to hang out for 4 hours regularly? For most of us, it’s actually kind of tough. For this reason a lot of newer games are intended to be played with shorter runs or even for a single session.

Game Elements

Most roleplaying games involve special rules for certain things. These rules might be used to add random elements to a story- like determining whether a character succeeds at lying to another or not, or if they get hurt in a fight. Depending on the game, these rules might be used to give plot twists and such, in other games, they might be the point of play- things to strategize over. These rules often use dice or cards to determine the outcomes.

Depending on the game you’re looking at, these game elements might be very easy to understand, or insanely complex. Roleplaying has generally favored the latter, rather than the former, though a lot more entry level games are appearing.

Getting into Roleplaying

So what if you’re interested in trying out this thing called roleplaying? Well, there’s a couple of ways to go about it.

First, you can buy a few roleplaying games, teach yourself and some friends, and play together. (If you have questions, you can usually email the author and get more help). Some games I might recommend:

– Prime Time Adventures by Matt Wilson
– Breaking the Ice by Emily Care Boss
– One Thousand and One Nights by Meguey Baker

Second, you can try going out to a roleplaying convention. You’ll get to play a lot of games with a lot of people. The quality of play can vary drastically, as conventions bring out the best and worst people around. You can also try playing one of the “organized play” games that happen around the country, which include RPGA games for stuff like Dungeons & Dragons or Star Wars.

Third, you can try to find some groups around you to play with. A lot of groups play completely differently from each other, and may expect long term commitment for play. Though you might learn something -about- roleplaying, most groups generally only play in one style and imagine it to be the best or only way. Like a convention, you’re playing the odds on what kind of play you’ll be getting.

I’m allowing comments here, but only for folks who have never roleplayed before or else are -just- getting into it. If you’re interested in knowing more about this hobby and how it works, please ask questions.

One comment

  1. nice!

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