But recently, I've been in the middle of buying a home, moving, quitting my job and searching for new employment. It doesn't take many words to say all that, but it has been an ordeal. As a result, I haven't had much time to spare for gaming. Hopefully, this entry will signal a return to form.
Game books seem to be obliged to have some blurb at at the beginning which explain what a roleplaying game is. This is strange. Monopoly doesn't bother to explain what a board game is. Yet as fundamental as roleplaying is, we feel some need to explain ourselves.
Anyways, If I were to create my own system (which is the ultimate purpose of this blog) and write a book for it, this is how I would explain roleplaying games and how they are different:
Most people who pick up this book will already be familiar with traditional "pen and paper" roleplaying games and how they work. However, authors are nonetheless obligated to explain roleplaying games, on the off chance that a reader is unfamilar with the concept, or perhaps learning about traditional roleplaying for the first time.
Traditional roleplaying games have an ancestor in miniatures-wargaming. Their most prominent descendents are certain genres of videogames which emphasize adventures, tactical combat or narrative. These electronic derivatives are also called RPGs. Yet traditional RPGs have a potential and an appeal which war-gaming and videogames cannot really duplicate. The appeal of traditional RPGs can perhaps be explained by telling how they developed.
Before electronic gaming, people played tactical war games with tin soldiers and rules for how to move the miniature troops and resolve combat between opposing forces. In the late 1960s in Wisconsin, a few men created rules for medieval-fantasy wargames so that they could play out battles in the style of the fantasy authors who they admired. A few years later, in the early 1970s, the same group of men had the idea that instead of controlling whole armies and large groups of soldiers, they would control only one or two or three combatants.
When they made this switch, the war-game took a strange turn. They played a scenario where their combatants were to storm a fictional castle which had been invented and mapped out soley for the game. The players found they could be very specific and creative about what they wanted their characters to "do" in the scenario. The tin soldiers took on aspects of character. The players named them. The players described what the characters would say, and they spoke as their characters. They used funny voices and it was loads of fun. The lives of these fictional characters were short and violent. Allies and enemies appeared and reappeared. There was a sense of drama and narrative about these small-scale wargames which had not previously been a factor. The game had become about playing the role of a character and spontaneously creating a narrative with the cooperation of the other players.
They had invented a new kind of game and published the rules for it. But oddly, the term "roleplaying game" would not be invented for another few years yet to come. The concept proliferated. The game which the gentlemen in Wisconsin published emphasized roleplaying in medieval fantasy settings. But people quickly developed games which featured all sorts of milieus; from futuristic science fiction to gritty pulp and horror and contemporary settings. The medium of roleplaying begged to be tweaked to suit the fancies of the players. The open-endedness of the medium was the main source of its appeal.
As home computers became more powerful in the late 1970s and 1980s and the video-game was invented, game makers set to imitating pen-and-paper RPGs in a digital format. The numerically-based rules of the standard RPG were easily translated into digital programs. These games still bear the marks of their ancestry. Any electronic game which utilizes notions of hit-points, character class, character level, or uses numerical values to describe the power of a character or object is showing its roots. The electronic RPGs allowed the users to play roles within a fictional scenario and to explore and interact with a game-world. They were very successful at this. Yet electronic games are limited by their programming: They lacked the true open-ended freedom of analog RPGs. Videogames are limited by their programming. A player in an electronic RPG can only interact with the game world in the ways which the game designer has anticipated and allowed for: Certain characters are unkillable because they will be important later. Some objects are visible, but are merely part of the background and cannot be interacted with. Mountains are visible in the distance, but cannot be visited. There are dialog options, but only a limited selection. Videogames are largely judged by the extent to which they offer broad or interesting new options in their gameplay. But ultimately they can offer only so much freedom and room for creativity. Certainly in the future, as programming and atifical intelligence become more advanced and video games will be able to offer truly open-ended scenarios. Until then, only traditional RPGs have a mechanism which makes them truly open-ended.
Traditional roleplaying games are played by groups of people, usually sitting at a table or possibly chatting over an internet connection. Typically, most of the players in the group control a character in the scenario. But one player will be responsible for describing the world and all the people and things in the scenario. This player is usually called a Game Master, referee, or story teller. This special player serves as the eyes and ears for the characters which the other players control. The other players ask questions and tell the Game Master what they wish their characters to do. The Game Master then describes the consequences of the players actions. This process continues and the game progresses. If a player wants their character to do something unexpected, like put an innocuous object to some ingenious use, turn against an important quest-giver, or write and deliver an impromptu speech in hope of rallying the local populous, then it is the Game Master's responsibility to invent some reasonable means of determining whether the character succeeded, and what the results of their actions will be.
At first glance it may seem that the Game Master has too much control over the game. But it is important to note that the Game Master is not the opponent of the other players. The Game Master's responsibility is to present interesting, reasonable challenges and to serve as a sort of referee; ensuring that the rules of the game are practiced consistently and fairly. A good Game Master knows that there is no game at all if the rest of the players cannot trust the Game Master. This is the mechanism by which traditional RPGs allow for novelty and creativity within the game.
btw, when I find myself having to explain traditional rpgs to people in person, I use a much shorter and more informal version of this speech. Usually, I gauge whether the other person is more likely to know about tin-soldier wargames or be familiar with videogames, and I use a similar explanation-from-historical-context from whichever side the subject is more familiar with. I am generally satisfied with the results as it doesn't take more than a few sentences to describe and heads off any social awkwardness. But I haven't had any enthusiastic questioning and interest either.