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Roleplaying Games: What Are They?

"Imagination is more important than knowledge."
(Albert Einstein)


What is roleplaying, and what are roleplaying games? Most people have heard of these games, but many may not know, or may have misconceptions about, exactly what they are.


  • role, n. 1. the part or character which an actor presents in a play.

  • play, n. 6. the. . .carrying on, of a game. --v.t. 31. to represent or imitate in sport: to play school. --v.i. 40. to exercise or employ oneself in diversion, amusement, or recreation.

  • game, n. 1. an amusement or pastime. 3. a contest for amusement in the form of a trial of chance, skill, or endurance, according to a set of rules.

A roleplaying game (or RPG for short), therefore, is an amusement or pastime in which a player takes on a part or character of a persona, much like that which an actor presents in a play, and employs that persona in a contest, in the form of a trial of chance, skill and endurance, according to a set of rules.

Let's get less vague

Most importantly, a roleplaying game involves three things: imagination, social interaction, and rules.


While watching a movie or a play, or reading a book, there is a certain need for the ability to suspend one's disbelief, to disregard what is "real" and what is "fake." For instance, while watching a good movie a person doesn't dwell on the fact that the events in the movie are not real, but instead ignores reality for the duration of the movie and involves him or herself in the events as they unfold for the characters. This is called suspension of disbelief. So it is with role playing gamers.

To expand on this, let's look at RPG's in terms of a play, since acting of persona by the gamers is involved. An RPG is like a play because there is a "director," called the referee, and a number of "actors," who are called players. However, an RPG is unlike a play because very often neither the referee nor the players know what will happen next, since the chance of dice rolls and the unpredictability of what the players might do in certain situations often foils the best laid story plots devised by the referee. There is no script for the players or the referee to follow; however, there is, by the definition of a game, a set of rules that both the referee and players must follow.

Social Interaction

Most roleplaying game sessions are social events, pure and simple. While there are some forms of RPG games that are one (or single) player games, in most cases without the interaction of other players, the game would be much less fun. Like card games, such as poker, roleplaying games are often a great excuse for friends and/or family to gather together.


Each group's chosen set of rules is different -- in fact, even those who use rule books from the same published game have at least slightly differing rules, in the form of agreed upon house rules. Each group decides which standard rules are valid, which should be changed, which should be added, and which should be ignored.

However, the rules of a roleplaying game usually involve two major things.

roleplaying: Although different groups demand different levels of roleplaying, each requires some "acting," even if players end up using their own personality. These different levels of acting range from simple character decision making, puzzle solving, and combat, at the low extreme, to having every thing the players say be words spoken by their characters with requirements that each interaction be acted out fully. The extremity of acting is totally up to the individual group.

Use of dice: Dice bring a level of fairness between individual players and a level of chance to the abilities of characters in the game. Dice rolls represent the chance for characters in the game to either succeed or fail at given tasks. (Note, in the modern world, "dice rolls" could be done by a computer program that simulates dice rolls.)

A look at the gamers

Let's now look at the typical make-up of a group of roleplaying gamers.


The referee has probably the most involved, and perhaps most important, position in the game. It is a two-fold position.

  • First, he or she creates and/or controls the game "world," "universe," or "multiverse" in which all the characters of the game reside. This involves the responsibility to create and present the situations and encounters the player's characters will come up against. These situations can be anything from the characters coming upon a river crossing, to being caught in a snow storm, to entering a seedy tavern; encounters can be anything from being ambushed by bandits, to being attacked by a platoon of enemy troops, to meeting an emporer. In general, the referee takes on the persona of both the environment and all characters not portrayed by the players.

  • Second, the referee must make all decisions about the interpretation of the rules and how the game should be conducted. Interpretation of the rules may involve simply employing the rules during a combat sequence, deciding whether a rule is fair or useful, or creating new rules (either in advance or "on the fly") to fit a certain gaming situation. Deciding how the game should be conducted can involve anything from ending player (not character) disputes, determining who can speak and when during a combat, and deciding when to call a break for pizza.

  • -- Note: although the referee's decisions in all aspects of the game are final, a good referee must consider the players ideas, concerns, and needs. Just as in government's relation to the people, the player's power lies in their ability to "rebel"; in this case, if the players become unhappy with the attitude of a gaming referee, the result could be anywhere from the choosing of a new referee among the group at best, to the breakup of the group all together at worst.

  • In general, the referee must be both a good storyteller and good negotiator.


The player has a less involved position in the game, but must interact with the other players.

  • First, the player portrays a character in the game world who, along with the characters of the other players, helps comprise a group of characters who (usually) work toward a common set of goals. While it is highly recommended that beginners play one character at a time, on occasion some experienced players enjoy (or for various reasons sometimes feel a need for) portraying two or more.

    Generally speaking, the player portrays the character by having the character make decisions, perform actions, and speak to other characters based on the player's conception of the character's motives, personality, likes and dislikes, etc. as well as on the type of world the character lives in.

  • Second, as the game progresses the player must properly keep track of the character's physical and mental well being (or lack thereof) according to the group's chosen set of rules. For example, if the character is damaged in combat, the character must take note of the damage taken (which, depending on the rules, is usually kept track of according to a numeric tally system).

A look at characters

Characters are made up of two major elements; persona and numeric representation.


Each character in an RPG, regardless of whether it is portrayed by a player or referee, has a unique persona, or personality, which governs his or her decision making process, i.e. how the character reacts to certain situations and towards other characters in general. In general and most importantly, it involves the individual character's motives, why the character does what he or she does. Players and referee should try to step in the shoes of their characters, constantly asking the question, "what would this character do in this situation?"

Numeric representation

Characters in RPG's are usually kept track of, on a piece of paper called a character sheet, by a system of numeric scores which represent different attributes of their mental and physical state, talents, abilities, and/or skills. This can range from anything such as how much weight a character can lift, to how accurately the character can shoot a rifle or bow & arrow, to what spells the character can cast, to how well the character can play guitar, to how healthy or injured the character is at any given time during a game.

Types and Examples of roleplaying Games

There are many types of roleplaying games, many of which most people don't even realize are RPGs. Generally speaking, when people talk about roleplaying games, they are speaking about paper, pencil and dice roleplaying games (also called tabletop roleplaying games) such as Dungeons & Dragons. However, there are many kinds of rolplaying games besides these. There are MUDs, MUSHs and MOOs that use specialized online chat software to allow online gaming that is generally similar to paper and pencil RPGs. Even single- and multi-player video games such as Dragon Age and World of Warcraft or even Armed Assault are more or less bringing us the RPG experience via computer simulation.

But other types of games and pastimes at their core qualify as RPGs as well. One of the more popular at this time are fantasy sports games, such as fantasy football in which players play the role of sports team owners and/or coaches. Another that is growing in popularity are so-called murder mystery party games, that are much like a live action form of "Clue", where players dress a part and try to determine "whodunit?" There are even 'live action' RPGs, where people actually dress up as their characters and physically wander through areas set aside for such games (not to mention the various yearly renaissance festivals and fantasy/sci-fi conventions that are held in cities all over the world, where all manner of cosplayers descend). Even something like paintball or airsoft games could be considered RPGs, as players play the role of soldiers, law enforcement officers, etc.

Even traditional "table top" roleplaying games are moving into the 21st century, with online RPG mapping/collaboration tools such as Roll20.net and RP Tools, which provide shared maps and other tools for playing table top roleplaying games over the Internet.


In conclusion, I hope you come away from my little treatise understanding roleplaying games a little better... and I truly hope that, if you've never played one before, that you are intrigued enough to seek out a gaming session near you! To that end, a visit to a nearby hobby or gaming store will often yeild a bulletin board full of requests for players and referees alike, and searches on the internet will also often assist in finding other players, both experienced and beginning. Better yet, volunteer to referee a game for your friends!

Any questions? Comments? Email me at sodabob@sodabob.com