Pen and Paper Roleplaying Games: the hardest thing to explain ever.

I’ve been playing pen and paper roleplaying games, of various sorts, since I was about 14 years old. By my reckoning that’s about 10 years of indulging in this particular hobby. In that entire time I’ve not found an easy way to explain what precisely a roleplaying game is to anyone who’s never participated in one themselves. The only way I’ve ever managed to explain how these games work is by inviting someone along to one and getting them to play. In short, it’s an abstract, alienating and strange pastime and every time I try to explain with my words, I done fail. So, once and for all, I’m going to try to explain what it is that roleplaying games are.

What Pen and Paper Roleplaying Games are not.

Before we start, I just want to clear up a few misconceptions about what pen and paper roleplaying games are not.

1. These are not the games played by consenting adults who like to drape themselves in vinyl and pretend to be the Archduke of Buggery while a small midget flails them with a rabid  hamster.

2. These are not (exclusively) satanic seances in which a group of numbskull satanists drop acid and invoke the devil (I can’t deny the existence of some Scandinavian morons who ruin it for the rest of us).

3. These games are not the enemy of all good Christians/Muslims/7th day Adventists.

I couldn’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with morons who believe one of the above. It’s tough, you know, because roleplaying games tend to come in the form of books. Lots and lots and lots of books. I’m a book lover. I collect books and I read books everywhere. This means that quite often I end up, in public, with a roleplaying related book. Roleplaying books tend to be large, often hardcover and look more like a text book than a casual novel. Quite often, in a workplace lunchroom for example, I am asked “what are you studying?” or “say, that’s a big book you’ve got there”. And then, the unpleasant and pathetic attempt at explaining what I’m reading begins. So often, after such conversations, I vow I will never try to explain to people what I’m reading, ever again. But I always fall for it. Take for example this book:

demon the fallen

Demon: the Fallen

Demon: the Fallen is a lovely little game by White Wolf publishing. Players take on the roles of fallen angels and plumb the philosophical depths of redemption and the nature of the human spirit. It’s also filled with hella cool artwork of towering demons and shiny pentagrams. Immediately after buying this game I found myself on a train, sitting next to an old man who looked nervously at the demonic text I was reading. The conversation went a little like this:

Old Man: That’s dangerous stuff, you know.

Me: Don’t worry, it’s just a game.

Old Man: Oh, so you think it’s a game, do you?!

Suffice to say, most conversations about roleplaying games go along these lines. Other common questions/comments I get are:

“So you think you’re a Wizard?”

“So you dress up like an Elf?”

“Would you like to join my bible reading group?”

What pen and paper roleplaying games are.

O.K. Relax for a second. Take a deep breath. Good, good. I think you’re ready. Simply put, a roleplaying session involves a bunch of friends, a mountain of snacks and (often) beer (or your chemical enhancement of choice). The group sits together, for hours on end, telling a shared story and getting progressively fuller and drunker as the session goes on. Each player in the game takes the role of a character in the story.

Now. I need to make this very clear. For 90% of people who participate in roleplaying games, the character they play is generally expressed vocally. We don’t dress up with pointy ears and capes, whilst gallivanting about the forest and hitting each other with swords. That’s Live Action Role Play (or LARP) and it is best left to isolated German weirdos. Generally, in Pen and Paper Roleplaying Games a person will simply describe what they’re character is doing and (often) speak on their behalf (sometimes in a silly voice). Rather than hitting one another with swords, each character is summarized with a series of numbers and descriptors, which are written down on a character sheet. This describes (in general terms) what the character can and can’t do. Actions with an unclear outcome (such as shooting a pistol or engaging in a car chase) are resolved with dice rolls. It should be noted that the math and random number generation aren’t the focus of the game, rather, they keep it fair and streamlined. It would pretty boring if you had to roll a dice every time you wanted your character to take a bite of a hamburger without choking.

There is one final thing you need to understand about Pen and Paper Roleplaying Games. In order for the game to run smoothly and coherently one player (generally referred to as a ‘GM’ or ‘gamemaster’) takes the responsibility of ‘running’ the game. This involves preparing a loose idea for the story and plot of the session (in which the player characters will star), acting as a mediator for the rules and playing the supporting cast of Non-Player Characters (or supporting cast) which the Player Characters will encounter.

That’s it.

Nerds, 4 to 6 of them generally, sitting around, drinking beer and telling a shared story. Nary a demon in sight. One of them takes the responsibility of running and shaping the narrative of the game and the rest take the roles of dynamic characters.

I should also mention that there are a HUGE variety of systems and genres of roleplaying games. Anything you’ve seen, read or heard in ANY media is likely to be represented or reproducible in a Pen and Paper Roleplaying game. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Western and even Film Noir are represented in Roleplaying Game form.

So get to it! Get some friends, grab a roleplaying book and engage in one of the best value forms of entertainment that exists for mankind! Don’t know where to start? Don’t worry, this article will be follwed with a number of reviews for roleplaying games….


~ by Morgan on June 30, 2009.

3 Responses to “Pen and Paper Roleplaying Games: the hardest thing to explain ever.”

  1. I thought it was a nice write up of what a role playing game is.

    It is amazing the number of misconceptions there are about the hobby. Apparently fantasy football is ok but fantasy gaming is the first step on the road to ruin…

  2. It’s a good summary of the social function of it all, man, but I think you should do a follow up regarding the concept of RPG worlds and Source Books. I don’t think it’s quite clear from what you’ve written how one goes about creating the story and from where the inspiration and rules are to be derived.

    It will also be good establishment for your future reviews of specific games. 🙂

  3. I’m a gamer, I dig video games, pen and paper, board games, and I just want to say that LARPing is the greatest experience any pen and paper geek will love. I started LARPing before I play dungeons and dragons, but I had a group of friends that only played D&D and they thought LARPing was stupid, ridiculous, ludicrous, and any other word for wierd you can think of…Until they tried it. LARPing isn’t for wierdos. If anything D&D is worse(Wierd-wise) than LARPing. We get out run around get excercise hang out with good friends and amass a group of 40-70 people instead of 4-6 to create an amazing cinematic like experience. Whereas pen and paper nerds(Which again I am one, I just prefer LARPing) sit around a table make goofy star wars jokes and get fat off mountain dew and doritos. All I’m sayin is, I have never met anyone who has gone to a LARP and at the end of it said, “Wow I had a terrible time, this is stupid. Why the hell would I come back?” Everyone has loved it, so give it a fair shake g nizzles. I’m sure you’ll love it…that is all.

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