Back to Basics: What is an RPG?

I was chatting with someone this week who said that they had been following my blog for some time.  They told me they found it interesting but they had no idea what an RPG was and I used a lot of words that they did not totally understand the concept of.  So this morning in a bit of quiet time I have decided to put together a quick blog post to help those out who are new to gaming or who have been reading what I write but never thought to ask “What does it all mean?”

Some of the dice you may see used in an RPG

RPG is abbreviation for the words Role Playing Game.  The style of RPG that I largely play is a pen and paper version which differentiates it from the computer or video game RPG’s that are on the market.  Pen and paper RPG’s have traditionally been played commonly by a group of 2-8 players sitting around a table with some dice, some rulebooks, a character sheet that contains the “concept” of the role you will play in the game.  I have stated here that this is the traditional style of play but with higher speed internet connections and a computer boom we are now seeing a lot more of this style game played in online video hangouts like Skype or Google Plus.

The idea of the game is that one of the players will be the Games Master (or Dungeon Master/ Storyteller/ Narrator) who acts as an impartial referee to make sure the world that you are imagining playing in operates the same for all characters.  The Games Master (here on referred to as GM) works on creating a scenario/ adventure/ campaign for the players to work their way through.  It is essentially a situation that the players find themselves in and have to decide what they do to resolve the issue.  The GM plays all the supporting cast that present this situation as Non Player Characters (called NPC’s commonly) and they use these NPC’s to help, hinder or escalate things in the game to make it dynamic and interesting for the players.

The other players generally take on the role of one character called the Player Characters (more commonly known as PC’s).  The PC that the player uses is the way they interact with the game.  They may have a class (like a job) or skills/ abilities/ powers which allow them to interact with the adventure the GM has created for them.  The character may also have a bank of statistics (often called stats) that represent what the character is like physically and mentally (e.g. Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Will are all popular stats in many games).  These stats have a numerical value that generally are a situation of the higher the better your character is in that statistic.

Some people use miniatures to help visualise the action

RPG’s have been about since the 1970’s where they were popularised by Gary Gygax’s Dungeons and Dragons.  This was definitely not the first RPG as Wikipedia suggests, but it was the one that gets referred to most when talking about this genre of game.  The RPG seeks to take the idea of a make-believe type role and give it a formal structure.  For example where two kids playing Cowboys and Indians will argue at length about “I shot you, your dead!” the rules of the RPG seek to make this black and white and both of them would know if they got “shot” or not.  These rules are managed by the GM so that the rules apply equally to all.

The application of the rules in general would require the use of some random generator.  Largely this is dice and there are many different versions of dice used in various games.  Some games use cards for the random element and there are even some games that use nothing at all (often called Diceless Systems).  The random element is normally used in combination with a skill or ability in an attempt to meet a target number which means you achieve what you were attempting.  For example I am playing a character who wants to see if he can find a hidden door in a wall.  I roll a 20 sided dice (known as d20) and add my perception skill of 3 to the roll (d20+3).  The roll comes up with a 14 plus my perception makes 17 and the GM checks their notes and tells me that I do find a door in the wall.

My favourite South American gaming group playing
Pathfinder Serpent’s Skull Adventure Path

So, what type of RPG can you play?  Since the 1970’s there have literally been hundreds, if not thousands of games available.  With the onset of computers the Independent games have flourished without the need to publish in a book and being able to distribute rules easily via PDF.  Each game may have a unique system, or a system that is common to several games just with different settings.  There are games based on fantasy worlds through to hard core science fiction.  There are horror games and games about cartoons.  There are games where you can be a vampire or a werewolf or a ghost.  There are games that cover alternate realities or games that allow you to time travel.  There generally will be many games that are based on famous movie franchises and even some that are not so famous.  There are games where you can play smart animals.  So if you haven’t got the idea yet, there are loads of different settings that you can try and you just need to find one you are interested in.

Here is an example of how play may go on in a game of Pathfinder which is a fantasy game who have their core rules up for free on their Pathfinder Reference Document (PRD) available here.  This is a rules heavy game (lots of rules) to try and maintain a nice even and balanced gameplay.  It takes a bit to learn the rules in these games but rules lite games offer a simpler mechanic but generally need an experienced GM to run so the absence of rules is not taken advantage of.

GM: You enter a dark room that looks like it may once have been a cellar for whoever lived in this ruin.
Linda (playing an Elven Thief called Cara): Cara slips in using what light she can to see if there is anything of use to us in here.
James (playing a Human Alchemist called Ralston): “Beware Cara, I have a bad feeling about this.” Ralston tests the floorboards and inspects the roof to make sure it is structurally sound.
GM: OK, Linda give Cara’s perception a roll and James, does Ralston have Knowledge(Engineering) as a skill?
James: No he doesn’t.
Linda: (checks her character sheet, picks up a d20 and rolls it) Excellent, Cara gets a 28 on the roll with a natural 20!
GM: Ralston looks to the floor and ceiling mumbling something about shoddy workmanship but really has no idea.  You can’t use that skill untrained I am sorry Ralston!  Cara however moves with the agility of an elf finding the surface solid enough to move on.  She notices something wrapped in an oil skin underneath the remains of something that looks like it may have held bottles of wine.  She also notices a hidden door further in the darkness open up a crack and a green head with black eyes and sharp teeth poke out.
Linda: Cara tells Ralston in a quiet voice that she has found something interesting but we are being watched by goblins!
James: Ralston reaches into his pack and yells “Goblins! Lets deal with that filth” and I hurl the bomb I drew from my bag where Cara told me she saw the Goblin!
GM: OK lets roll to see who goes first as Ralston alerts the goblin that he has been spotted…

My collection of Core Pathfinder books where I play

The game is one of imagination and narrating what your character does.  The early RPG’s tended to be beat up a monster gather the treasure.  These games still exist but the modern RPG may be an in depth game focussed on how the PC’s interact rather than a simple combat style game.  As far as cost goes RPG’s can be extremely cost effective to get into.  Places on the internet such as DriveThruRPG.com often have games for no cost at all that you can pick up.  Then all you need to do is buy some dice or use one of the many online free dice rollers, a pencil and some paper and you are away!  So for the grand cost of $0 you may be able to get into the game and start playing!  You can by the books though which generally is a lot more expensive but there is something nice about being able to flick through a rulebook at your leisure.  You can buy these online from a multitude of stores or your local book/ hobby/ comic store may carry them.  I buy a lot of my books from eBay second hand and make a great saving on them.  They are under the toy section and have their own category so they can be easily found.

Not to mention that there are some great online communities like in Google Plus that are dedicated to this kind of game, and there are a surprising number of people that play them and still love them!  The games in the past have been seen as “The Devil’s Work” by religious groups but this stigma has largely fallen away.  I have my daughter play in a game with me because it shows her how to interact with other people.  My teachers when I started playing (well over twenty years ago) remarked to my parents how much better my maths and reading got after beginning to play this game and I know that my creativity jumped to the next level too!  But the real reason I play these games are not because it improves my math and literacy or shows me how to cooperate with others.  I play them because they are fun and helps me release by playing fantastic roles that do things I never could in real life!  Give it a go, you may be surprised!

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