“What IS all this?” An Introduction to Roleplaying


I expect most readers who have found this page did so through the historical RPG Yahoo group, the RPGnet forums, or some other Surgeon General-approved RPG link. But maybe you found your way here through an interest in history, or you got really lost Googling for cheese log recipes. What's all this "roleplaying game" stuff I'm talking about? Isn't that like the Dungeons & Dragons games back in junior high?

Sure—in the same way a junior high production of Annie is like a well-rehearsed community production of Twelfth Night. (My thanks to Frank J. Perricone for this analogy.) Good roleplaying campaigns feature ongoing plots, fidelity to the characters' personalities, non-zero-sum outcomes, and a consistent game world. They're a form of collaborative storytelling where dice, pen and paper, and imagination define what happens. It's a game of make-believe with grown-up rules where one person (the Game Master) acts as a combination referee, storyteller, and manager.

Still confused? Here's an example. You're playing Theo, a hard-boiled detective on the trail of a gang of kidnappers. The GM tells you that Theo spots Joey the Squid duck out of a bar and leg it down the street. You decide to have Theo give chase; Joey spots the gumshoe and makes a break for it. How do you determine whether or not Theo catches Joey? Well, you and the GM might roll dice against the characters’ respective Running skills. The GM might need Joey to get away—the plot would be too damaged otherwise—so he declares that Joey jumps into a car and speeds off, but Theo gets the plate number. The GM might need Joey to get caught and have him run down a blind alley, necessitating a fight for Theo to get the info he needs.

RPGs were born out of a passionate interest in history. By the early 1960s, the wargaming hobby claimed hundreds of thousands of players in the U.S. alone. Wargamers use miniature figurines or boardgames to recreate historical battles. Roleplaying has its roots in the St. Paul, Minnesota wargaming scene of the 1960s; players who a) were maturing and looking for something different to try and b) read a lot of J.R.R. Tolkien. Dungeons & Dragons was (and is) the most popular game by far; there's obviously something basically appealing in the thought of vicariously killing monsters, taking their stuff, and getting stronger in the process. That’s all well and good, but to me it's just the bare beginning in the possibilities of roleplaying games. It seems fitting to me that gaming return to its historical roots to find joy in the exciting panorama of history.