What Is Role-Playing, and Why Are We Talking about it?

So this might seem like a bit of an odd topic, given the other things I’ve been writing about so far on this blog. But it’s my blog, dangit, so if you don’t like it, get off my lawn! In seriousness, though, I started this blog mainly to write about things that I think about, and I’ve put a lot of time and effort into thinking about role-playing games. But before I start writing any of those things down, I want to bring everybody up to speed on exactly what we’re talking about. Because, let’s face it, role-playing is pretty smack-dab in the middle of “YOU’RE A SUPER-DORK” camp right now. But that’s ok. I can own my super-dork-ness.

Ok, so let’s start at the beginning. What the heck is a role-playing game (abbreviated RPG for shortsies)? Well, the most iconic RPG in existence is Dungeons and Dragons. This is a game that’s been around in some form or another since 1974, and has slowly made inroads into popular culture. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a polarizing term; in the mid-80s, DnD was blamed for a whole host of deviant behaviors—suicides, occultism, Satan-worship, etc.—particularly among teenagers, and particularly in religious circles. There was a series of incredibly cringe-inducing comics put out that demonstrated definitively that people who played Dungeons and Dragons lost all touch with reality and used magic spells to manipulate and harm people who got in their way and were all going to hell.

So let’s get one thing out of the way first: role-playing games don’t have anything to do with Satanism or the occult, any more than Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or the Chronicles of Narnia do. They don’t cause teens to become morally corrupt people. They don’t cause people to lose touch with reality, or commit suicide when their characters die. These facts have been scientifically and empirically demonstrated. (See this article at BBC for more info).

Whew. Ok. Let’s move on. Now that we’ve established what an RPG isn’t, what is it? At the most simple, basic level, an RPG is a collaborative story-telling endeavour. A group of friends gets together and makes up a story; it could be a high fantasy story (like Lord of the Rings), it could be science fiction (Star Wars), it could even be a story set in the real world, or something very close to it. It’s actually not that much different from the games of make-believe or house that people often play as children, with the exception that most RPGs have a set of rules that codify how the make-believe world works. Often, but not always, these rules involve the rolling of dice to see how events in the fictional world are resolved.

That’s it. That’s all role-playing is. Pretty simple, huh? Well, yes and no. It turns out that there are hundreds upon hundreds of different rule sets (called systems) for role-playing games. Dungeons and Dragons, for instance, has at least 6 different versions (and possibly more, depending on how you count). Pathfinder is a system that’s loosely based off one particular version of Dungeons and Dragons. GURPS is another completely different system. White Wolf makes another system. There’s a system called Fate. And on and on. And while all of these systems fit broadly into the simple definition I gave above, actually learning to play a game using any of these systems is a complicated, time-consuming endeavour—which brings us to the second definition of RPGs:

A role-playing game is a system of rules that allows a group of players to fairly simulate a fictional world. One of the things you might remember from playing childhood make-believe (or maybe this is just me) is the arguments about what happens in the make-believe land (“My guy is bigger than your guy!” “No, MY guy is bigger!” “No he’s not!” “Yes he is!” “Well I don’t care, my guy still stomps on your guy!” “No he doesn’t!”). The rules in a role-playing system are there precisely because these arguments aren’t any fun, even when you’re a grown-up. So we write down rules about how the fictional world behaves so that everyone who’s playing the game can know what to expect. And, because the most interesting stories are often about human beings (or maybe just because we’re a ridiculously ego-centric species), it’s helpful if the rules we play by are sortof representative of the world we live in, with magic or dragons or laser blasters thrown in for fun.

But here’s the catch—the reason role-playing games can be so complicated and intimidating: the rules of a role-playing system are usually trying to simulate an alternate reality that (mostly) obeys laws of physics. And reality is really complicated to simulate! There’s a reason why we can’t predict the weather very well, or figure out how more than 2 large gravitational masses will affect each other, or any host of other problems we don’t understand. So RPGs find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place: either they use easy rules which provide a really coarse approximation of reality (which leads to arguments) or they use extremely complicated rules which provide a slightly less-coarse approximation of reality (which still leads to arguments).

So now we’ve naturally arrived at the third defintion of role-playing games: an RPG is a social contract between a group of players and an arbitrator who can interpret and respond to actions taken by the players. You can see that as we go along, I’m using bigger and bigger words to define this RPG thing, but that’s OK. Big words are good for you.

But let’s break that down: when you play in most role-playing games, there will be one person who is “special”—this person, sometimes called the dungeon master (DM), game master (GM), storyteller, or narrator, is responsible for making sure that the alternate reality of the fictional world makes sense. In effect, the GM is a window for the other players into the alternate, fictional reality. All events that take place in the fictional world have to pass through the filter of the game master. This is precisely to address the problem of coarse simulation. If something doesn’t make sense in the fictional world, it’s the GM’s obligation to correct it, and to convey that correction to the other players. Ok, that’s a little abstract, so in practice what does this look like? Well, most role-playing games have the following structure:

  • GM: You arrive at a large, castle that appears to have been abandoned for many years. What do you do?
  • Players: We want treasure! Let’s explore the castle!
  • GM: Unfortunately, your way into the castle is blocked by a large portcullis. What do you do?
  • Players: We look for an alternate way in. A secret entrance, perhaps?
  • GM: Ok, you’ll need to roll some dice to see if you are able to find a secret door or passageway

And so on. The entire game is run in this call-and-response structure, where the GM describes the world, the players describe some actions that they want to take in the world, and the GM describes the results of those actions. It’s the GM’s job to make sure that the actions and their results make sense, and the GM is nominally supposed to use the rules to help make that decision. And that’s the “social contract” part of the definition above—when people get together to play an RPG, they are all agreeing that the GM is in a position of power, at least with respect to the story being told. The players are agreeing to respect the decisions that the GM makes about the fictional world, and the GM is agreeing not to abuse the position of power that has been granted. In fact, I would argue that most (or maybe all) of the horror stories that get spread about role-playing stem from the fact that this unspoken social contract was violated.

It turns out, though, that the GM has a second responsibility. Not only is the GM supposed to make the fictional world make sense, the GM is also responsible for making sure that the alternate reality is interesting. And here we’ve come full circle back to the original definition. Remember, our goal is to tell stories together. And as a group, we’ve decided that we need a special person to help make the stories make sense, and as a consequence the GM has an incredible amount of influence over the type of story that gets told. In fact, that’s primarily what I’m going to be writing about in future posts—how can a GM most effectively use this influence to facilitate really strong, compelling stories?

See, I believe that RPGs are a type of literature, just in the same way that books, movies, TV shows, campfire stories, radio broadcasts, and other story-telling media are. Collectively as a human species, we find literature compelling, because it allows us to look at ourselves critically. It provides us with a safe place to ask “What if?” questions. It lets us relive joyful times, and remember painful ones. And role-playing games occupy a unique place in literature precisely because they allow people to be active participants in the literature, as opposed to passive observers.

(Ok, that last paragraph has a lot in it, which we’ll be unpacking more in the future. Consider it a sneak peek!)

So, to summarize: what is a role-playing game? It is a means for a group of people to collaboratively tell a story. It is a system of rules that allows that story to make sense, and it is a social contract between the players and the GM to use those rules in a fair way to tell the story the group wants to tell. Maybe this is something that sounds interesting and fun to you, or maybe not—I was hoping to also use this post to talk about why I personally play RPGs, but I’ve already blathered on about the “What?” question for 1500 words, so I think we’ll save the “Why?” question for a follow-up post.

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