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© 1998-2001 Dru Pagliassotti
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What is Roleplaying?

Roleplaying, Role Playing: The process of acting out an assumed character. Often abbreviated RP.
So, you've run across this site because you've heard about this roleplaying thing but you don't know a polyhedral from a power roll and those boxes of colorful dice and rows of lead miniatures and shelves of books make your head swim. Never fear; this and subsequent articles will help introduce you to roleplaying. This week I'll describe, in general terms, what roleplaying is; its history, what a roleplaying game is, and what to expect if you sat down to watch a bunch of roleplayers interact.

Player: The real, live person participating in the game.
Character: The make-believe persona that the player is acting out.

HISTORY: The earliest forms of roleplaying probably took place in children's games or in ritual activities. The word comes from "playing a role," that is, acting like somebody else. Children roleplay when they engage in "make-believe" or "let's-pretend" games such as the U.S. classics of "Cowboys and Indians" and "House." They act out characters of cowboys, indians, fathers, mothers, and so forth. As they do so, they exhibit and test behaviors that help socialize them into their culture. This type of play, once spontaneous, is now being encouraged by certain groups that believe dramatic play and creative drama help children develop into creative and mature adults. This kind of creative drama is even encouraged in some schools. Why must it be encouraged today? In part because this kind of active dramatic play has been preempted by relatively passive entertainment through television, computers, and video games.

Roleplaying Games, Role Playing Games: Structured systems of rules in which players assume the parts of different people and work together to complete a goal. Often abbreviated RPG.

Not only children benefit from roleplaying, however. Some psychotherapists today use a form of roleplaying called psychodrama to help both children and adults work through their problems or to learn new skills. For example, an argument might be re-enacted so that the subject can experiment with better ways of negotiating a problem with a significant other or a workplace boss. Psychodrama can help people recover from trauma, understand dreams' relationships to real life, teach ethics, learn job skills and much more.
When roleplaying is used in ritual, it also works to affirm cultural beliefs and values. Early forms of roleplaying probably included wearing masks or costumes to depict spirits—perhaps animal, elemental, or ancestral—who could heal, curse, bless, or work other forms of magic.

Dungeons & Dragons: The first published fantasy roleplaying game. Often abbreviated D&D or AD&D (for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons).

Elements of roleplaying are still evident in many traditional tribal dances or ceremonies, but it also exists whenever somebody dresses up as Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas, for example, thus personifying a set of cultural values very dear to many Americans and Europeans by ritually donning a certain costume, mask, and set of behaviors. The person "becomes" Santa Claus, delighting children and reaffirming cultural values such as gift-giving, good humor, kindness, and so forth.

 

 

ROLEPLAYING GAMES: In 1973, Tactical Studies Rules established a wargame called "Dungeons & Dragons." By 1975, TSR had incorporated and D&D became established as the first published roleplaying game. The idea was relatively simple. The game provided rules for taking on a persona (a "character") that regulated what powers that character would possess, how good that character was in combat, and so forth. Remember playing shoot'em'up games as a kid and pretending those bullets just kept missing and missing? Or simply bounced off your impenetrable flesh? The D&D rules regulated make-believe to prevent such abuses. One person, the Dungeonmaster, was responsible for enforcing the rules, creating the "script" of the game (the "adventure"), acting out all the characters and monsters who weren't being played by other players, and making up new rules whenever there was a disagreement or problem with the existing rules. Almost every RPG on the market today still requires one person to take responsibility for running the game, just like almost every play in the theater still requires one person to take responsibility for directing the action.

Gamemaster: A generic term for the person who runs an RPG; writes an adventure, enforces the rules, acts out other characters, and so forth. Often abbreviated GM. Game-specific terms for this function include Dungeonmaster (DM), Guide, Marshall, Storyteller, Referee, and Weaver. "Master" is not feminized to "Mistress," even when a woman is the GM or DM.

There are two basic types of RPG—"tabletop" games and "live-action roleplaying" games (or LARPS). A third category, computer roleplaying, is arguably not real roleplaying, as I'll argue below.
D&D was a tabletop game. Simply put, a tabletop game means that a group of players and the GM sit together face-to-face around a table (or lounging in a living room, or wherever) and play the game. The players may have nothing but a sheet of paper, pencils and perhaps some dice to play, or they may choose to use props such as costumes, battlemats (large gridded plastic sheets that can be drawn on with water-soluble pens), lead miniatures (small three-dimensional representations of each character or monster), plastic terrain, and so forth. That choice is entirely up to the players. The main idea is that the players are sitting down as they play.
The category of table-top gaming has been expanded to encompass mail, computers and the Internet. Because the games are based around action rounds or turns—a defined time within which only a certain number of activities can be undertaken by the characters—an action round or turn can be written as a letter or email message and sent out to other players, who respond by mailing (or emailing) their turns back. A faster way to play on the Internet is to join a chat room, where all the players enter the room at the same time and type out their actions and words just as they'd describe their actions and words aloud in a face-to-face tabletop game.

PBM: Play-by-Mail, running an RPG through the postal mail system.
PBEM: Play-by-Email, running an RPG through the electronic mail system.

If table-top gaming implies that the players are sitting down in some sort of static position, LARPing implies that the players are moving around. LARPing is more like actual theater drama. Players dress up like their characters and actually act out scenes, moving around a designated area building or destroying coalitions with each other, sometimes "casting spells" or "engaging in combat" (most LARPS don't allow people to really hit each other, of course! Those that do, Live Combat games, have special rules to make sure everyone stays safe). LARPS tend to emphasize conversation and politics, precisely because combat is too dangerous to handle. LARPing cannot be run over the Internet; it must be face-to-face.
Computer roleplaying is a relatively new category. These games can be Computer Action games. I don't consider these real roleplaying games because the players' actions are constrained by the relatively narrow parameters of the computer program. True, all RPGs have some rules that regulate player actions, but they are far more flexible than those of a computer program, and they allow unlimited interaction between characters. Computer games just aren't there yet. Give them another ten years and I may have to change my opinion!
So, why roleplay? Take a look at my list of 12 reaons to roleplay!

 

EXAMPLE OF PLAY: Okay, so now you have a basic idea of how roleplaying evolved into a game. But what is it? What does it look like? I'll attempt to explain it to you by describing a typical Saturday afternoon game at my apartment.
As you'd walk into my apartment you'd see the dining-room table pulled out into the center of the apartment (what can I say, it's small) and six chairs pulled around it because I have six players. Since you're just watching, you can go over and sit on the couch. We used to play on the couch and sprawled around the living room, but with most of us in our 30s now, we've found that chairs are just more comfortable for our old aching bones.
Today I'm the GM, so I'm sitting at one end of the table. I always choose the end that the fewest people will walk past (that is, the end away from the bathroom and kitchen). My rulebooks are stacked around me. Everybody else sits around the table with rulebooks by them and dice and sheets of paper that describe their characters on the table. My group has two more women and three men in it, so we're a 50-50 gender split. I play with props, so in the middle of the table will be a large white vinyl-coated mat and a bunch of small lead miniatures of men and women and maybe even monsters. There are also some water-soluble color markers on the table so I can draw in terrain or walls. Oh, yeah, there are also lots of sodas and snacks, because gamers seem to need to eat a lot when they play. Let's not forget the music in the background, either; the CD player is filled with soundtracks like Conan and Armaggeddon and Space Troopers and Xena, all shuffling through, and there's a stack of CDs on the floor that we'll gradually feed through the player as the day goes on. Because today I'm running a fantasy RPG, the above-mentioned Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the miniaturs are all wearing armor or robes and carrying swords or magic staffs, and the music is pretty action-adventure oriented. If I were running, say, a cyberpunk RPG, we'd choose miniatures carrying guns and play heavy metal or techno or alternative.
At some point when everyone has finished chatting with each other and stuffing my refrigerator full of food and drinks, I'll say, "Okay, folks, let's get started." The five players' attention turns to me and papers shuffle. Now we're ready to begin.
The first thing I have to do is remind the players what happened last time. We only get to play about once a month, so sometimes memories fail. Most of my players keep notes, but a quick synopsis helps. It might go like this:

Dru (the DM): "Okay, when we last saw Our Heroes, they were investigating two mysteries. The first was the mystery of the girl whose brother vanished, apparently kidnapped and taken into the sewers. The second was the mystery of the cult that's sprung up in Dockside. You captured the cult leader but haven't gotten much information from him yet. You ran around a lot doing a lot of looking before finally venturing into the sewers, a really unpleasant journey that ended with you fighting a monster surrounded by corpses. One of the corpses had a copy of the cult's pamphlet. It took a long time to kill the creature and destroy the stone that seemed to provide it with its powers"or maybe control it"and you finally dragged yourselves out, dirty and tired. That's where we stopped."

Catherine (playing the character Elianora): "Yuck. DuBaton, is there anything else we need to do here, or can you handle the police?"

Dru (now playing DuBaton, a police mage): [gruffly] "I can handle it. We'll want you for questioning later. Don't skip town, huh?"

All of the players grumble and ask rhetorically where they'd go, since they live in town.

Jaime (playing the character Pip): "I don't know, Nora. I think we should find out if they've learned anything from that cultist, first. There's some kind of link between him and that thing down there!"

Jo (playing the character Eyvan): [groans] "Pip, we've been up all night! Let's get some sleep first!"

Catherine (Elianora): "No, he's right. And I'm not certain I trust the police chief—no offense, DuBaton."

Dru (as DuBaton again): "The chief's a good guy. I don't know why you're so bloody suspicious of him."

Notice that the players are talking among themselves "in character"—that is, they are now pretending they really are Pip the fighter, Elianora the leader of the group, and Eyvan the priest. I am currently playing the part of a non-player character (NPC), a police mage named DuBaton. If the group goes to talk to the captured cult leader, I will take the cult leader's character. If they go talk to the police chief, I will take the police chief's character. When they fought the monster during the last session, I was the monster, trying to kill them. If the players are the main characters in this drama, I, as the GM, am all of the supporting cast and walk-ons.
Now you'll see the players discuss what to do among themselves. Sometimes they will be in character, and sometimes they will be out of character (OOC), or just themselves talking. Eventually they decide to go talk to the cultist, first.

Catherine (OOC): "Okay, Dru, we're going to see the cultist."

Jo (Eyvan): "He's probably asleep. And so are his guards."

Jaime (Pip): "Not for long!"

Dru (DM): Okay, you walk through the dark streets of Cislunar. It's late and getting cold, so you don't see too many others around....

Rob (playing Sascha): "I light a torch!"

Catherine (Elianora): "With a match, please, not a fireball!"

Rob (Sascha): "Aw, you take all the fun out of life."

Victor (playing Halkem): "Yeah, she always does. Let's go to a bar."

All Players: "No, Halkem!"

Catherine (Elianora): "Try to stay sober tonight, please!"

Rob (Sascha): "Maybe I should light Halkem up. He'd probably burn pretty well, with all that booze in his body."

Victor (Halkem): "You have to catch me first."

Rob (Sascha): "That should be easy. You're old and slow. [OOC] I reach out and try to grab him by the arm."

Victor (OOC): "I dodge! Roll those dice."

At this point an action has occurred that requires dice to be rolled. Sascha makes a playful grab for Halkem, who tries to avoid being touched. It's just a little in-character joking around, but Rob rolls a die anyway. This time, the number indicates that Sascha failed to grab Halkem.

Catherine (Elianora): [annoyed] "Will you two stop that?"

Victor (Halkem): "You're no fun."

Dru (DM): "Ahem. Okay, you get to the prison and it looks like Eyvan was right. It's all dark and closed up." [I then proceed to quickly sketch out the front wall and door of the prison on the battlemat, and the players group their figures around the front door to indicate where they're standing. This may be important if they try to force their way into the prison and the guards mistake them for somebody else!)

Now the players begin to discuss whether they should knock on the door, try to force their way in, go home and get some sleep, or hit the bars again. By now you should have a pretty good idea of what roleplaying is like. It's constant conversational interaction. When the characters talk among themselves, I, as GM, can sit back and watch. But when they talk to an NPC or need information about the surroundings, they address me, and I provide them with the information they need. You see, I know the answers to all the mysteries; I know what's going on with the cultist and the sewers. Their job is to find out for themselves by searching the right areas and talking to the right people. I'll dole out the clues whenever they do something that should lead to their getting more information.

How long does roleplaying go on? Hours, at least. Our group tends to plan for long sessions that start around noon and end around midnight or later ... depending on when people begin yawning and we decide it's time to break and get everyone home before they're too tired to drive safely. Some groups play for shorter periods of time; maybe three hours in the evening or five on a weekday afternoon. There's no set period for play, but because roleplaying is conversation-intensive, it's best to plan to spend a fairly long time at the game. Naturally, this can cause some problems with parents or significant others or friends who don't game, and that's something you need to work out on your own. In my group, Catherine and Rob are married, so they needn't worry about why the other one is playing that blasted game all day.
During the course of the game at my house, you'd probably see us eating lunch at the start of the game, then breaking around 6 or 7 p.m. to go out and get dinner—at the grocery store or local fast-food joints, usually. When I'm a player, not the GM, I've been known to cook for the gaming group, but I'm the only one in our gaming group who enjoys cooking big meals, so when I GM, we scrounge for ourselves. The dinner hunt and eating takes about an hour, during which we chat about other things or maybe interact in character with each other, and then it's back to the game. I might put on a pot of coffee around 10 p.m. for the one or two players in our group who drink caffeine, or everybody may just sip sodas and juice they've bought for themselves.
So, if we're playing from noon to midnight, have the players won by the end? Well, there is no real winning or losing in a roleplaying game. I'll discuss this at greater length later, but the short answer is to think of roleplaying like a soap opera or an evening prime-time drama, not a movie or play. The characters go through adventures, succeeding or losing depending on their actions, but never need to stop at "the end." In my Cislunar campaign characters have moved to town, been arrested, become heroes, lost their children to kidnappers, lost loved ones to enemies, cured insane relatives, helped the poor, fallen in love, gotten married, saved the world at least once, and one character (Pip) has a wife expecting their newborn. (And if you don't think there's an adventure involving that baby someplace in the future, you don't know what a conniving GM I can be!) A long-term campaign is a process, not an event! Now, that doesn't sound too scary, does it?

originally written December 3, 1999

 

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