What Is Role-Playing?

What is a role-playing game, you ask? The best answer I've been able to give is it's like the play Our Town.

Our Town has a character called the Stage Manager and the actors that play on a minimalist set. The Stage Manager comes out before the show is perceived to start and sets the tone. He points out on an empty stage where things are, tells about the morning -- mentioning that there is a train coming, and then places the actors in the setting. The characters interact with each other and with the Stage Manager who plays various incidental characters. During the course of the play, the characters interact with each other, people live, people die, and at the end of the play, the characters retire and the Stage Manager comes out, delivers a few lines, and Our Town is completed.

Playing a role-playing game (RPG) is very similar to acting in this play. All of the characters in Our Town are portrayed by actors, including the Stage Manager. All of the characters in a RPG are portrayed by the players, including one player we'll call the Game Master.

The game session begins with the Game Master (GM). He (or she) has come up with the adventure idea for this night's game. The GM begins the adventure by describing the character's setting and the different things that are going on in the character's world. Like the Stage Manager, the GM uses very few props, if any at all. The GM places the characters in the game world. The players, like the actors in Our Town, portray their characters -- they interact with each other and with the GM, who plays various other characters in the adventure. During the course of the game session, characters interact with each other, people may live, people may die, and at the end of the adventure, the characters retire and the GM determines the aftermath -- the awarding of experience points, karma, or brownie points. The adventure is completed.

When you take Thorton Wilder's Our Town as a base, you see that the RPG experience is more of an improvised version of the play. The plot and story of Our Town is scripted. With the different people contributing to the story of a RPG adventure, anything can happen. In Our Town, the character Emily has to do and say everything that Emily is supposed to do or say. In the RPG game session, the character Tuck determines what to do as the events transpire. Emily's actor knows how the character Emily will end up. She knows the twists and turns the plotline will take, she knows when Emily will speak and what she'll say.

However, Tuck's player doesn't know what's going to happen next. Tuck's player will have to react to the various twists and turns in the plotline and determine Tuck's reactions to the changes. Tuck's player determines what Tuck says and when she'll say it. This affects the relationship between the Stage Manager and the Game Master. The Stage Manager's actor knows what's going to happen, like Emily's actor -- the plotline stays the same, show after show. The Game Master knows what's going to happen, but the events that the characters take may (and usually do) change the plotline. One RPG adventure played with one group may be radically different when played with another group.

Later in this same spot I'll have an example of a role-playing game session. You'll be able to see a snippet of a game session as it's played out. When this article is archived in the More Shadowrants section, a link to the example page will be here. Next week, a bit about Conflict.

For another take on an introduction to role playing games, activate this link. The author of that piece uses "Editor" in place of "Game Master" and the terms in the glossary are good for the beginning player just getting a grasp of role-playing games, but keep in mind that the terminology might be different depending on what game system you decide to use.