What is roleplaying?

[How they got together] is a reasonable question, but it forces them to explain the entire concept of fantasy roleplaying games. If Randy had known this would happen, he would have thrown himself bodily through a window instead of taking a seat.
- Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon

Roleplaying games (rpgs) are notoriously difficult to explain. People either think you mean a nun costume and a bullwhip kind of roleplaying or just stare at you blankly. This is mostly because roleplaying in the game context (and not the nun-bullwhip context) actually covers such an enormous variety of games. It's also because they are two seperate concepts - roleplaying and gaming - jammed together in what can seem a rather non-intuitive match.

Roleplaying involves being immersed in a fictional world, like reading a book, or watching a film (how fictional the world is can vary a lot, just like in a book or watching a film). And like those two other past-times, you can roleplay for a variety of reasons - escapism, enjoyment of the genre or style, just something to do, or because of a desire to encounter new thoughts and ideas (there should be a word for "the desire to be made to think").

However, roleplaying is interactive, unlike a book or filim. You play one of the lead characters in the story, and can often create the character in first place. Fundamentally, its like improvisational acting - based on your character ("what's my motivation?") and the situation, you decide what your character will do in the story and act out how they feel and behave. You are playing that role, or character.

'Everyone knows' what a game is. You play a game with an aim to win. Tactical games, games of chance, games for fun, whatever, its pretty much understood what you mean when you say game. Some games are played by physical methods, like sports, some games are played by intellectual methods, like chess. Some games are played one on one, some with four or more players, age 8 and up. So, rpgs are a game, and its just a matter of knowing how to play.

Now comes the tricky part - a roleplaying game is a game where you take part by roleplaying a character.

"How the hell do you do that?" is the normal follow up reaction.

First of all, part of the confusion seems to arise out of trying to mentally picture something like Antonio Banderas being scored out of 10 for a particularly difficult scene in a play. That's not exactly how the game side of it works.

All games have a set of rules for doing things in the game. For example, snakes and ladders - you roll a dice, move forward that many places, can go up ladders, but if you stop on a snake you slide back to the start. Other games have lots of complex rules, some games have simple rules with many complex outcomes. Rpgs also have rules for when you're playing, usually called the system.

For instance, the character you are playing needs to jump off a roof and onto his horse - the system will have a method of deciding whether you suceed in doing this. Many rpgs have dice as part of their system (likes snakes and ladders) - you have a chance of suceeding at your action, and you roll the dice to see whether that chance comes off.

Ok, the other part of a game is the goal of the game - how you win. Now, because each game is run as a story, with the players being the main characters, the goal is often to sucessfully complete the story - rescue the princess, defeat the terrorists, send the goobly things from beyond time and space back to their own horrible dimension, whatever. To be sucessful, you need to play the character - take those actions and say those things that you think your character should take in the story - along with the other players and play out the story to its end.

That's a basic metadescription of roleplaying games. Really, the only way to understand how this works in practice is to get involved in a game.

Frequently Assumed Questions

So it's like acting then?
In some ways yes, but not exactly - unlike a play you usually decide what your character is like, defining him or her before the game and basing your actions on what that character would do in the situation.

Is that like Theatresports?
In many ways, rpgs have a lot in common with theatresports in that they are both acting-based games. However, rpgs have a script of sorts, even if its only the referee who knows what is coming.

Who's this referee then?
Roleplaying games, like sports, have a referee to run the game and keep things fair. They also provide the framework of the story that you are playing. The referee is, for historical reasons, usually called the GM.

Do all games use a system?
As I said, the tag "roleplaying games" covers a huge number of different sorts of games. One of the ways in which rpgs can vary is in how much they use a system. Some games use a system very heavily - for your character to do anything much beyond getting up and brushing their teeth, you need to use the game's system to check to see if you suceed. Other games effectively don't have any system at all - everything that the players of the game want to do is arbitrated by the referee.

Many games sit somewhere between these two extremes. There is a system there to resolve actions, but the referee decides how it is used in any given situation. Sometimes they might want a player to use the system to see if they can do something, other times they might decide that the character is capable of doing something automatically (or not able to do it at all).

Does it matter how well you play the character?
Well, yeah, it does. Roleplaying the character is as much fun as collecting widgets or finding out new bits of the story. The closest that rpgs have to a win condition is finishing the story well. Normally the process of finishing the story depends as much on you interacting with the other people in your fictional world as by making the right dice rolls at the right time.

Er, other people?
One of the things the GM does is plays all the other people in the world that aren't being played by your fellow players. So the GM is the shopkeeper on the corner, the evil supervillain plotting to take over the world, the love interest, the cockney shoeshine thief... and so on. The GM is as involved in the story as the players are.

What about computer RPGS? Are they roleplaying?
Well... sort of, but not really. They exist at the very far end of that system-nosystem spectrum, where the system is absolute. They might have some characteresque nature to them, but its pretty much hardcoded, with maybe a couple of chances to react one way or another. They're getting better though.

So how do you make a character?
That varies a lot between systems, games and genres. The usual method is to think of a concept, a main idea that the character can be based around. The GM might constrain you as to what sort of people you can play (no ex-SAS assasins, etc), and you might be constained by the genre (no Tolkein elves in a science fiction game), but usually the choice of who you take on as a character is up to you.

Some people put a lot of work into their characters, writing page after page of background information (eg: Kelly Morgan), while others might have some scribbled notes about a history.

The other component to your character is the system. Normally a RPG has a series of attributes and abilities which can be used to describe your character in a quantified way which are usually written down on a character sheet. What these are varies strongly from game to game, and you can usually work it out on the fly.

What's this genre thing? I thought it was all fantasy games?
Not all roleplaying games are based on the "get some friends together and beat on a dragon" concept. Nearly any genre has a roleplaying game for it: Fantasy games include D&D, AD&D, Elric, Runequest, Middle Earth Roleplaying; Science Fiction games have Cyberpunk, Star Trek, Star Wars and Traveller under their belt; there are Espionage/Conspiracy games like Ars Magica, Pendragon, 7th Sea and Castle Falkenstein; whilst Horror games include Deadlands, Call of Cthulhu, Vampire, Kult, Werewolf, Nephilim and Wraith. Many of these games have more than one genre as part of the publication - Deadlands for instance, is a horror game, but also a historical game, set in the Wild West.

Er, its all starting to look a bit too much for me.
Like any hobby, there is an ever-increasing body of detailed knowledge. But that's really for the enthused only - you don't need to know anything about systems and genres and settings unless you want to. If you haven't roleplayed before, you're best off finding some friends who do and getting them to start you off, or if that's not an option, find a game where the genre behind it is one that you really like and know, so you have less to learn.

Aren't all roleplayers geeks?
Rash generalisation time. Many roleplayers seem to be drawn from the same group of people who read science fiction and fantasy, like computers and other traditionally geek pasttimes. A generous number of roleplayers are independant thinkers, and don't fit in with normal society. The popular (read: clueless) opinion of roleplayers is that they are (usually male) socially inept people by day, but evil charismatic cult members by the light of a gibbous moon.

Is roleplaying dangerous?
Well, I've fallen off chairs sometimes and hurt myself laughing, but apart from that, not really. Its acting - but without the physical action. How can that be dangerous?
It has been said though, that roleplaying is addictive. I've found that its no worse than computer games and stuff like that. Some people carry fun to an obsession, but there's nothing about roleplaying that makes that habit particularily dangerous.

I've heard that roleplaying is Satanism...
That's Evil Levitating Satanism thank you. For some reason some of the more conservative (inbred and stupid) churches seem to think that roleplaying is somehow a religious thing. Some of the fantasy games have gods and godesses in them, and characters that worship them... but they have trees in them too, that doesn't make the players gardeners.
The main problem that most of the churches have is that roleplayers aren't usually very devout even if they believe... therefore they must be satanic! To give you an idea of the mentality we're talking about, here's the Dark Dungeons Jack Chick publication on the chick site, and just in case it goes away, here it is again on rpg.net

Why would you put all this effort into a game?
Complex enough question to need its own answer.