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What is a Role Playing Game?

Note: This article also appears on the Microtactix Games website.

by Guy McLimore

Cowboys, Indians, and Other Roles

You don't know it, but you already know how to play a role playing game. Chances are that, unless you were raised in a barrel and fed through the bunghole, you've played one before. In some neighborhoods, it might have been "playing army" or "trip to Mars", but more often than not it was "Cowboys and Indians".

"Let's Pretend" games are the primitive cousins of role playing games. You pick out some sort of adventure situation, choose what kind of person you are within that background, then play out the situation you've set up to see what happens to you. In a "Let's Pretend" game, you are never yourself. You're always someone who leads a more adventurous life and frankly has more fun than you do. No one wanted to "play Accountants and Actuaries", at least no kids we allowed to play on our block!

Role playing, in essence, is putting yourself in someone else's place, and reacting to situations the way you think that person would react. In Cowboys and Indians, if the Apaches are waiting down the block in ambush, the sheriff's posse just didn't catch the bus to sneak by them. No, you had to get on your horse (stick horse, bicycle, what-have-you) and ride out to look for them. It's what John Wayne would have done, after all.

Sometimes role playing is compared to theater, but it's not like you'd see in a regular play on a stage. There, your role has been predefined, and your actions predetermined by a script. Your story is already written, and you tell it with costumes, props, and scenery as much as with your words.

Our sort of role playing is more like improvisational street theater. There's no script and no one to tell you exactly what to do. You start out with a basic idea of who you are and how you got here. Then, you meet situations as they arrive, making it up as you go. Like street theater, you use no costumes, no sets, and precious little in the way of props. You create the setting in the mind's eye of your audience with your words and descriptions.

Keeping it In Your Chair

The major difference between "Let's Pretend" and role playing games is that in role playing, you don't actually run around pointing your finger-gun and pretending to shoot bad guys. Instead, the action all happens in your mind (which is where most dangerous things belong, as far as we are concerned). You don't act out the things that happen. You describe them, and talk to the other players as if they were the characters they portray, having the adventures you are describing for each other.

Description and dialogue are the tools of the role playing gamer. "O.K., the Baron's personal guard is on our tail. Our horses can outrun them, but they're fresh whereas we've been riding for hours and our horses are tired. If we take the path through the woods, I think we can stay ahead of them till we get to Spider Pass. No one knows that area better than I do - it's on the fringe of the old Haldane freehold. We'll ambush them, and teach them that no pack of Baronial men-at-arms are a match for Gerald Haldane and Silvio Silverbeard!"

Gerald Haldane isn't the player's real name, of course - he's the character this player has chosen. The player himself may be five-foot-six, stocky, and more likely to use a calculator than a sword, but "Gerald Haldane" is a tough, experienced swordsman who defends the downtrodden against the evil dominion of the Black Baron. His "partner" is really a skinny, fifteen-year-old high school student, but his character, Silvio Silverbeard, is a gruff, rugged dwarf; an ex-blacksmith whose stocky frame carries muscles like forged iron bands.

Silvio's player adds his own description of his character's actions. "I'll follow Gerald into the woods, but I'm keeping an eye out behind for those men-at-arms." the player says. Then, Silvio himself speaks though the player. "I think we're outnumbered about 5 to 1 back there, Haldane. Better odds than last time, though!" These guys have never left their seats, but they are rapidly preparing to fight a battle that's sure to be filled with acts of insane heroism, which they will describe as they go. But when Gerald Haldane leaps out of the overhanging trees in the shadows of Spider Pass to unhorse two of the pursuing Baronial men-at-arms, nothing will get broken unless his player accidentally turns over his pretzel bowl in his excitement.

Beyond "Bang, You're Dead"

Every game has rules, even our earliest efforts at "Let's Pretend". After all, even a six-year-old gets tired of "I got you! - Did not! - Did too! - Did not! - Did too! -" after awhile. Rules determine the logical framework so that your characters can't just walk away with everything at the start. "I leap out of the trees, put my sword to all the Baronial goons, and ride away to my woodlands hideaway with the gold they were carrying to the Baron." Well, not yet you don't, pilgrim. First, you gotta figure out how you accomplished all that.

Rules establish how characters measure what they can and cannot do, how they go about taking turns describing their actions, and what possible consequences the actions can have. Most games have rules for describing character capabilities, turn sequences, how devices work, and - of course - fighting.

Your character's success or failure at any particular action he wants to describe is determined by comparing his described capabilities to the facts of the situation, then applying a random factor. The capabilities are usually described with numbers that measure his relative strength, speed, and so on. The situation is described according to rules for how far someone can see in the shadowy woods of Spider Pass, how tough the armor worn by Baronial men-at-arms really is, and how far Silvio Silverbeard's magical silver sling bullets will travel. The random factor is provided by dice, which you roll to see whether the sling bullet unhorsed the lead man-at-arms, or whether you are next going to use the dice to see if you can outrun the enraged fighting man.

Rules are mostly for things that you don't really have or don't really exist (like the man-at-arm's leather armor and Silvio's enchanted sling bullet) and things that might cause some sort of adult version of a "bang, you're dead" argument (like your accuracy with a sling or speed in running away). You already know how to walk across a room, pick up a sack of coins, and run like mad for the nearest exit. You just describe that part. The rules and dice come in when something you do might or might not have the result you desire.

Leadership and Schizophrenia

Something else we didn't have in "Cowboys and Indians" was someone to watch over the action, give a color commentary on the battle, and arbitrate our little "bang, you're dead" disputes. In role playing, we have a referee who is often called a gamemaster. The gamemaster is responsible for setting up the scene with a description of what is happening as the action of the game begins. Gamemasters are, in many ways, the primary authors of the ongoing "story" in a role playing game. They choose the adventure situations, present them to the players with as much description and verbal picture-painting as possible, and decide how the rules governing the action are interpreted.

Leadership is only half the job of the gamemaster, however. The other half is role playing. The gamemaster does not play a single character on the players' team. Unlike Cowboys and Indians, where your players chose up sides and competed against each other, role playing games have all the players more or less cooperating. Their characters work together toward common goals, functioning as a single team (though they may squabble among themselves, too).

The gamemaster has the most challenging job, because he plays everyone else! In the "Cowboys and Indians" framework, when the cowboys run into an old ranch hand on the trail while searching for the Apaches, the gamemaster plays the role of the crusty cowpoke, describing how he hid when all the angry Indians in the world came riding over the hill, scattered his cattle, stole his horses, and burned his barn. As the cowboys ride on, the Gamemaster trots out his best sultry southern drawl when the beautiful saloon girl tells them that no one else in town is willing to help them track down the renegade Apaches and bring them to justice. And, of course, the gamemaster speaks with the stern but fair voice of a proud leader when the Apache chief confronts the cowboys and tells them they've been tricked into pursuing his braves by the evil railroad baron, who wants the Indians driven off the land.

A gamemaster is one part writer, one part actor, and one part referee. If you have a good one, appreciate him! Bring him pretzels, pay for his share of the pizza, and remember his birthday. Good gamemasters are as rare and precious as gold.

Building Encounters, Adventures, and Campaigns

The gamemaster builds the framework around which the heroic story of the characters is told. One good way to look at the construction of a role playing campaign is as a television dramatic series. A TV drama series will have a cast of central continuing characters (the player characters) played by the series' stars (the players themselves). There will be a continuing theme and background to the series (the campaign theme and setting), and a number of secondary players (important non-player characters) who don't show up every episode, but do add continuity to the series so it isn't just a number of unconnected stories.

If the game campaign is a like a TV drama series, each adventure is like an individual episode of that series. In an episode (and in an adventure) there is likely to be a "teaser", the short dramatic scene at the beginning before the credits. The teaser is designed to get the action moving quickly and bring the viewers into the mood right away. In a like manner, the good gamemaster will start an adventure with something exciting to start the players off and put them in the right frame of mind for play.

Following the teaser (right after the opening credits) is the "establishing scene", where the characters discover what the problem or task of the episode is to be. Here, the dramatic conflict of the episode is set up and explained. This is basically a problem to be solved or obstacle to be overcome. This scene is more talking than action, as the characters need to find out what is happening before they can act.

Scenes then alternate between action scenes (often called "encounters" in role playing), where characters tackle whatever their immediate problem is, and exposition or "talk" scenes, where the characters have a break to discuss what has just happened to them, and prepare for the next task. Each encounter moves the characters toward the goal of the adventure (resolving the conflict), while each exposition scene lets the characters put together whatever information they gained from the last encounter and plan for the next.

This eventually leads to the episode (or adventure's) climax, in which the final step toward the goal is taken. This scene or encounter should present the characters with the greatest challenge of the adventure, and the successful conclusion of the encounter should resolve the conflict set up in the first scenes.

Finally, the adventure (like a TV episode) often ends with a "tag", which is a short scene in which the characters tie up the loose ends of the adventure, and find out how their resolution of the conflict will affect them and those around them. Roll credits, bring up the music, and fade out.

Unlike the writer of a TV series, however, the gamemaster doesn't know exactly what the main characters will say or do. He must prepare each encounter situation, present it to the players, and let them react to it as they wish. For that reason, the gamemaster must have some flexibility in how the plot of the adventure proceeds. If the player characters react in an unexpected manner, or fail to accomplish some critical step in the adventure, the gamemaster must be prepared to make it up as he goes. He can rework the adventure encounters on the spot to lead the characters back into the adventure plot, provide the characters with an alternate method to reach their goals, or just allow the characters to go wherever they want, creating new and different conflicts "on the fly" for them to meet and overcome.

Over the course of a number of adventures, (as in a good TV series with a long run) things may gradually change. Some characters prosper and gain wealth, fame and rewards. Some just run into more and more trouble. Some may die or leave only to be replaced with new characters. The series (campaign) only comes to an end when the director and actors (gamemaster and players) decide to wrap it all up (with a bang, no doubt) and move on to a new campaign with all new characters and adventures.

A Short Lexicon of GameSpeak

Like most hobby enthusiasts, role playing game players have their own "dictionary" of special terms and phrases to describe some of the procedures, equipment, and situations common to role playing games. Here's a short introduction to "GameSpeak", so you'll easily be able to follow the discussions in this book.

Adventure: An adventure is one short "story" involving the player characters in some sort of immediate conflict which they must resolve by adventure's end. It is like one episode of a TV series. It has a definite beginning, a plot or story to be followed or created by the characters as they go, and a definite end.

Campaign: A game campaign is a series of connected adventures involving a continuing set of characters, who cooperate together (more or less) toward common goals or working for a common cause. A campaign should have a campaign "theme", which sets a tone for the various adventures and shapes how the results of adventures move the characters toward long-term goals.

Turns: When things are normal, with no enemies about, the action can be free-wheeling, with each player openly deciding and stating what he or she will do. When there is fighting or other direct conflict to be done, things get a little more formal so there is no confusion. During conflict, action is broken down into "turns", where each player declares actions in a predetermined order. See the Turn Sequence section of the rules you are using for the specifics.

Dice: The little multi-sided pieces of plastic you roll to generate random numbers. Traditional dice are six-sided, but role playing games often use dice with four, eight, ten, twelve, or even twenty or more sides, which you can buy anywhere you buy role playing games. (These are often called "polyhedral dice" because they look like the geometric solids you played with in high school math. "Polyhedral" is a two-dollar word meaning "many-sided".) If you only have one, it's called a "die". There is a shorthand for writing down how many dice you will roll of a certain kind. When you see 2D10, for example, the number before the "D" represents how many dice you roll. The number after the "D" shows how many sides each die has. A plus or minus number after that indicates bonus points to be added or subtracted from the roll. 3D10 then means to roll three ten-sided dice. 1D6 means roll one six-sided die. 2D12+2 means to roll two twelve-sided dice, add the results together, and add two to the total to get the final result. Oh, and whenever you see a "0" on any die, it is usually counted as a 10.

Encounter: A single "scene" in an adventure, usually an action scene where characters find or are found by a problem, one or more non-player characters (friend or foe), an obstacle, or some other situation which requires that the player characters take action. A "plot encounter" has something to do with the main story of the adventure. A "random" encounter is one which just provides an action scene to keep the excitement level high. An encounter is like one scene in a TV dramatic show.

Gamemaster: The "referee" of a role playing game, who creates and maintains the game background, plays the role of all background characters not run by players, and makes the final decisions on rule interpretations. This is often abbreviated as "GM". Other common terms for the same person are "dungeonmaster" (or "DM"), "moderator", "storyteller" or just "referee". "Gamemaster" can also be used as a verb, as in "Do you want to gamemaster this adventure?"

Miniatures: Small figures of metal or plastic, usually about an inch or so tall, representing characters. These can be a big help when playing combat rounds because they can be used to show where all characters are in relation to each other for determining weapon range, lines of fire, movement ability, etc. If you don't have miniatures, chess pawns, small counters of thick cardboard, or even coins, buttons, etc. will do.

Non-Player Character: Any character who is run by the gamemaster rather than an individual player. This is often abbreviated "NPC".

Party: A group of adventuring characters, including both the characters run by players and non-player characters who accompany them on a regular basis.

Player Character: A game character who is run by a player. The player decides what the character says and does at all times. This is often abbreviated "PC".

Copyright ©1997 Plaid Rabbit Productions

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