Thursday, April 21, 2011

R is for Roleplaying

What constitutes a role-playing game? Wikipedia defines them like so:

A role-playing game (RPG) is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting, or through a process of structured decision-making or character development. Actions taken within the game succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines...

...Role-playing games are fundamentally different from most other types of games in that they stress social interaction and collaboration, whereas board gamescard games, and sports emphasize competition.

In my opinion, the three concepts that make up the heart of this definition are:
  • Narrative
  • Character Development
  • Collaboration
To me, this definition sounds a lot like unscripted acting, or the sort of imaginative storytelling we all used to engage in while playing as children and that is exactly why roleplaying games appeal to me in the first place.

"Okay, we're playing house and I'll be the mommy and you can be the half-orc barbarian baby!"

For me, the cooperative aspect of RPGs is highly appealing. Though I participated in sports as a kid and enjoy the occasional board game or poker night, if given the choice between competing against my friends or working towards a shared goal, I will always gravitate towards the latter.

When I first began my current gaming group over two years ago, most of my players had no experience with non-video game RPGs. Several were wary about the idea, either because of the prevalent cultural stereotype of roleplayers as anti-social nerds who drive everyone around them crazy with incessant talk of their imaginary character's +5 vorpal sword, or just because of a lack of familiarity with what a table-top rpg was. When my girlfriend and I broached the subject to our friends, we described it as "interactive storytelling" which I think nicely sums up the appeal of tabletop RPGs for me.

Roleplaying games are the cooperative experience of interactive storytelling.

Though there is a great deal of variety from game system to game system and group to group, the most common structure for an RPG to take -in terms of the division of "roles"- is for one person to take on the role of game master (or dungeon master in the case of D&D) and the others to take on the role of the player characters. The game master largely develops the story structure, plays the supporting characters and introduces the obstacles which stand in the way of the characters completing their goals, while the other players take on the roles of the protagonists in the imaginative story.

However, though the GM's role often casts him/her as the antagonist, his/her role is actually more that of a facilitator. Deep down, I think most every GM wants his/her players to succeed. After all, without protagonists, there is no story. On the flip-side, without obstacles and risk of failure, there is no story either, so it is a delicate balance the GM must strike. Constantly threatening the players just enough to keep things exciting, but never letting them lose hope at their chance of success.

I should further qualify this description, as it makes the players sound like largely passive observers or tourists in the world of the GM's creation. With some groups, that may be the case. However, it is very important that players feel their character choices matter within the world of the game. In gaming terms, a GM who forces players to follow a preset storyline is said to be "railroading" them, because no matter how they twist and turn, they're stuck going to the GM's destination. For a game to provide a satisfying player experience, their choices should matter, and should affect the outcome of a given scenario. In many groups, mine included, player input even goes beyond the immediate change wrought upon the GM's scenario. I encourage my players to make contributions to the greater context of the world through their characters' backstories, or even things like the histories of their character's culture, or really anything about which they are inspired to write.

In the two years I have run my game, I believe I... but not really "I"... more like "we" have fostered individual creative sparks among us. In addition to the history linked above, our game has inspired one of my players to start a game of his own. Another told the stories of our group's adventures to the kids she teaches at school. Every member of the group has created pictures of their character, developed histories and backstories that add to their character's depth and continue to expand and deepen our shared experience of imaginative play.


  1. This is the heart of why I love D&D! Our campaign is by far the most engaging I've ever played in. :)

  2. I thought this was a really great post. I don't game, but I like the idea of role playing, inventing characters, creating backstory. Sounds like you all really get into the story. Cool.


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