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What is a Role-playing Game?

Below is my personal opinion of what a role-playing game is. There have been many interpretations, definitions and essays over the years which cover the same topic, so please bear in mind that this is simply what I believe. Though I reserve the right to revise my opinion over time, I hope that this helps you to understand most of what is commonly believed… Mark McPherson

What is a Role-playing game?

A role-playing game is a story-telling game where players pretend to be characters in a fictional group narrative.

In most role-playing games, one player is the Games Master and the other players play the main characters (aka player characters) in the story. The ‘Games Master’ starts the narrative off with a premise for why the ‘player characters’ have come together and what their goals might be, and from then-on continues to ‘narrate’ the overall storyline by providing additional plot elements, interactions with incidental characters (aka non-player characters), and by adjudicating the success or failure of the ‘player characters’ attempted actions using the rules provided in the game. The rules for most role-playing games act as a guideline for resolving attempted actions, and the emphasis is placed on telling an enjoyable story, rather than the letter of the rules.  For this reason, the Games Masters can choose to ‘ignore’ what the rules say in favour of making the story and/or game play more enjoyable for all.

The ‘Games Master’ of a role-playing game is intended to be an impartial judge (or referee) during the game, and is not in competition with the other players. Similarly, the other players usually work as a team for a common purpose and are not in direct competition with each other.

It is for this reason that role-playing games have a more social focus, than other games of a competitive nature. In a role-playing game there are no ‘losers’ and everyone ‘wins’ by participating in a rewarding, fun experience. 

Role-playing games are usually played for an agreed amount of time known commonly as a game ‘session’. At a end of role-playing game session, the players (including the ‘Games Master’) will have woven part of a unique story together, and that is one of their rewards for playing.

Most ‘classic’ role-playing games pit the ‘player characters’ against some challenging obstacle, puzzle, nemesis or a combination of several of these story elements.  In a role-playing game a classic ‘heroic adventure story’ is often told; where the exploits of the ‘player characters’ become the stuff that legends are made of. Many fantasy fiction novels have both inspired and been inspired by the stories woven during role-playing games.

The most common examples of a ‘classic’ role-playing game take place in the pseudo-medieval fantasy worlds of wizards and dragons; where the player’s characters often fit the mould of ‘bold warrior knight’, ‘mysterious sorcerer’ or ‘stealthy cutpurse’. Each character type (there are usually different types in the one team) contributes to the overall ability of the team to solve problems using their own unique skills and powers.  Skills and powers in a pseudo-medieval fantasy setting range from superb skill at arms to the ability to cast magical spells or to pick open locked doors or treasure chests.

In a pseudo-medieval fantasy setting, the exciting episodes of the player characters lives might include:

  1. embarking on a quests into dark a cave-complex to battle fearsome a monster such as a dragon.
  2. the exploration of castle’s dungeons to retrieve some priceless treasure. 

These episodes or quests are commonly known as ‘adventures’ and can last anywhere from one to several game sessions.

Several adventures linked together (where the same team of player characters progress from one adventure to the next) is known as a ‘campaign’ (a term carried over from role-playing games ‘wargaming’ origins).

Many other genres are the subject matter of role-playing games including adventures set in outer space, dark-future cyberpunk worlds, Arthurian Brittan, the comic book worlds of super-heroes, and the modern worlds of spies, espionage and intrigue to name but a few...