In the first segment of the That’s How We Role(play) series, we discussed some of the misconceptions that make role playing games mysterious and even a bit intimidating to the general public. In this segment we begin to unravel some of these misconceptions, in the hopes that we can introduce more people to this enriching and entertaining segment of our gaming hobby.
The best place to start, as they say, is at the beginning. So just what exactly is role playing? At its most basic, a role playing game is about collaborative story telling. It is a group of people getting together to have fun and create a story. The players typically have agreed on a set of rules to use in telling that story. These rules make up the role playing system (such as Dungeons & Dragons or Shadowrun), and will be discussed in more depth in a future column.
Depending on the specific game being played, one of the members of the group may take on the role of facilitator or referee. The referee or game master may have a broad outline of a story in mind, a challenge or villain to be overcome, or perhaps just the basics of a setting. They will typically control the villain(s), the environment, and a cast of characters who are there to help keep the story moving. These supporting actors are known as non-player characters, or NPCs.
The protagonists of the story are controlled by the other members of the group. Each player typically plays the role of one or more of these player characters (PCs) in the story, hence the name role playing.
Now that we know who is controlling the characters in our collaborative story, how is the game actually played? In most systems the players react to situations created by the referee. They do so by describing either an action their character takes, or dialogue that their character speaks – both in response to the actions or dialogue of the non-player characters. In this regard, a role playing game is basically a verbal, group based form of the classic “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. The analogy isn’t perfect though. Where in a Choose Your Own Adventure book the various story-line possibilities are set in stone (or ink), in a role playing game the story itself can and does evolve based on the players’ actions.
The first of the two types of activities engaged in by players, describing their character’s actions, introduces another departure from the Choose Your Own Adventure analogy. In such a book, when you “turn to page 32”, the result will be the same every time. In a role playing game, a player’s character has a chance to succeed or fail at whatever action they attempt. Depending on the system, these actions may be resolved by rolling dice, spending a limited amount of resources, or some other mechanism. Regardless of how the action is resolved, the fact that it may succeed or fail adds an element of chance and change to the story.
The second of the two types of activities undertaken by players, engaging in dialogue, introduces one of the most common misconceptions about role playing games. When many people think of role playing games, they picture players speaking in accents, saying “thee” and “thou” and using other archaic speech mannerisms. In my experience, the idea that this is necessary is perhaps the single biggest factor that keeps people from trying role playing. The truth is that while some games or groups do in fact adopt this style, it is absolutely not required. While I do not have hard data, I suspect that such games are actually in the minority. They certainly are uncommon amongst the games and groups that I personally prefer.
The reality is that there is a wide range of variation on how dialogue is handled. Some groups are big on speaking in character – meaning whatever you the player say is what your character will say. In these types of groups, you may find people saying things such as “Good Innkeep, have any rumors of ill tidings reached your ears this past fortnight?” Other groups rarely speak in character at all, preferring to just describe what their character is doing or saying. In such a group, you are far more likely to hear a player say something like “My guy asks the innkeeper if he’s heard of any trouble in town.”
The beauty of role playing is that both of these types of play are perfectly fine. Role playing as a hobby is extremely flexible, and encompasses a huge variety of play styles and inclinations. If you prefer to speak in character and act out your character’s discussion, you can find a group that plays that way. If you’d rather not speak in funny accents, you can find a group that plays that way as well.
The flexibility to support either in- or out-of-character dialogue is just one of the many types of variety that can be found amongst role playing games. Some games lean towards a “theater of the mind” style. These games tend to be light on rules and heavy on narrative, with the goal of keeping the story moving and rewarding creativity. Other games favor a more rules heavy play style. These games have rules to cover nearly all conceivable actions, and may use miniatures on a map to precisely measure movements and actions. We’ll discuss both types of play style and the systems that lend themselves to each in the next segment in this series.
In the meantime, if you would like more information about role playing games, The Malted Meeple is hosting a series of free Intro to Role Playing sessions. The first of these sessions is scheduled for this Sunday, September 27th from 2:00 to 4:00. These sessions are designed to be extremely informal. We will discuss the basics of role playing games, answer questions, and possibly run through a short introductory game.
And of course, all of our scheduled role-playing events are open to beginners as well. Check out the calendar of events on our website, or stop in and speak with any of our Game Masters. We’ll be glad to find you a system and setting that you will enjoy, and get you started in a wonderfully entertaining hobby!
Coming in the next That’s How We Role(play)…
Jim Reed is a lifelong gamer who started with the original red box Dungeons & Dragons. After spending 20 years in the corporate world, he decided it was high time that work be fun and struck out on his own. Jim now owns and operates Ravenwood Castle and The Malted Meeple, and spends his days ensuring his guests have as much fun as he does.