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What is roleplaying?
"[Asking how they got together] is a reasonable question, but it forces them to explain the entire concept of fantasy role-playing games. If Randy had known this was going to happen, he would have thrown himself bodily through the window instead of taking a seat."
Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon
Roleplaying games are, very simply, games you play by assuming a role.
You define, or sometimes get given, a character and act the part of that character as part of a game. The game itself usually a story, and you 'win' by having the story finish in the way your character would like it to. This is why roleplaying is sometimes called co-operative storytelling.
There's no audience - the story is told for the entertainment of the people in the game, and the sorts of stories that get told vary as much as the sorts of stories people watch on tv, or read in books, or see at plays - and the ways to tell those stories vary from a short once-off game to an ongoing saga that span years.
Usually one person runs the game for a group of players. They provide the background to the story - the physical location, the people who your character meets and at least the structure of the story plot. For historical reasons, at MURP this person is usually refered to as the GM (originally Game Master, pronounced gee-em).
The role you play is usually called your character. If you are playing a short game, you might be given a character to play, but if you are joining or starting a game that is intended to go for more than a few hours, its usual to make up your character.
The sort of character you create and define is usually one that fits in the type of story that is being run. The GM will give you a rough idea of the sort of story they'd like to run before you join - there's no point wanting to play a science fiction story and joining a group that are playing a fantasy setting. The GM might also limit the sorts of characters they would like in their story in some fashion, or suggest that a specific type of person might do best in the story. For instance, they might say that they want to run a fantasy game where the character the players make are mercenaries working for the King; or be planning a horror game with a lot of investigation, so characters who are good at poking their noses into other people's business will fit in well.
So, how do you make up a character? Well, it can help to have a basic idea of the sort of character you want to play - do you want to play someone sneaky or honest? Someone physical or someone intellectual? Or even something as basic as someone male or female is a place to start. Perhaps you want to base your character roughly off a character from the movies or a book you've read.
A lot of games have a set of archetypes as part of their background that can be a place to start - things such as professions, races, nationalities, religions or education that provide a basic structure to start hanging ideas off.
For example, Dungeons & Dragons, still the most well known roleplaying game, has at its core the idea of "character classes". They are a way of defining the skills and abilities your character may have, and develop, as the game progress. These archetypes are things like "Mage" or "Warrior", and although there is a lot of scope within each class for making your character unique, they give you a basis from which to start working on your ideas.
Given that you'll be playing alongside a group of other folks, its often a good idea to compare your starting points - if everyone else wants to play pirates, then you might find it hard to fit in if you are playing an upstanding, honest judge. That doesn't mean everyone has to get on perfectly, but it does help the progress of the game if the characters that the are central to the plot at least have some reason to work together.
In most games, the characters you play are someone special compared to the inhabitants of the world around them. They are the focus of the story that is being told, and often their qualities stand out from the crowd. This is not to say that all characters in roleplaying games are free from imperfection - that would be kind of dull - but that something about the characters you and your fellow players are creating makes them integral to the tale.
Once you've got a rough idea of what sort of character you want to play when the game starts, its good to work out how they got there. The history of your character can provide some depth when you want to work out his or her reactions to situations that they encounter when the game begins - did they lose a favoured pet when they were younger, and thus have a soft spot for that particular type of animal - and it can also provide story hooks for the GM. These hooks help the GM weave your character into the weft and warp of the plot - maybe someone that has been an enemy in your past will return in the future, or maybe friends and allies will ask you for help in return for past favours.
And from there, where does your character want to go in the future? What are their goals, their ideals, their long term plans? If you have a rough idea where you think your character wants to go, and what they want to do, it can help you make decisions on what you want to do as the plot unfolds around you.
Roleplaying and Dice
Roleplaying Games are traditionally associated with a large number of strange dice. Rather than just the usual cube 6 sided dice, some games also use a 4, 8, 10, 12 and 20 sided dice.
Because they are so used so commonly, and because "N-sided dice" is a mouthful, roleplayers normally refer to them as d-N: d4, d8, d20 and so on.
All games have rules - they explain how to play the game ("roll a dice and move that many squares around the board"), how the game is scored ("1 point for the letter A"), and act as a way of resolving conflicts between the players ("you owe me $300 for landing on that property"). In a roleplaying game, the rules also explain how to define your character's abilities and resolve how well your character accomplishes their actions.
In some games the rules are simple (rock beats scissors, etc) and for others they are fiendishly complicated (bridge, for instance). Because there are literally hundreds of roleplaying games with many different sets of rules, they span the whole spectrum from simple to complex. A roleplaying game rule set might also have to cover any situation that might come up in the game, from whether your character can start a fire, to whether they can pilot a starship. Learning all the rules is obviously not practical - no one has the time to sit down and read thousands of pages of rules.
Fortunately, for a number of reasons, you don't have to. First of all, most people can quickly learn the basic rules for the game they are playing currently. At MURP, games tend to be played in sessions of about 3 hours a time (about an evening's worth), and a game might only run for 10 sessions - so that's an entire semester for just a short game. So, learning the rules for one game covers a lot of time before you even have to consider the possibility of needing to learn another.
The second reason is that most roleplaying games have one basic method for resolving any situation that might come up. This is usually referred to as the "system", and it gives you the most frequent way of resolving any actions or conflicts that might come up in a game - leaping chasms, attacking people, persuading a small child to give you their candy, etc.
For instance, Dungeons & Dragons uses the "D20 System". For most actions that your character wants to accomplish, you roll a 20-sided dice and add your character's skill - depending how how the task is, you might want to end up with a result over 10, or 15, or even over 20. For instance, if you were trying to sing for your supper, you would take your character's Perform skill (say its 3), roll a 20-sided dice (say you rolled 10) and add the two together (13). If the GM thinks that the people in the hostel you're staying in are relatively benevolent, they might say that you only have to roll over 10 (Success! You eat tonight), but if you were busking outside an opera house, you might need to roll 15 or more. So once you know the basic system, its easy enough to extrapolate.
And the third reason is that the GM often knows the rules, and can either tell you what to do ("roll this") or just fudge it to make the story better. Ultimately, the GM is the person who decides what rules get applied, when, and how hard - they may simply let you suceed at what you are trying to do because its better for the story, or make you roll to give random chance a say in what happens.
Most people learn the basic system when they start wanting to fully define their character. By getting a rough idea of the rules, you can work out how to translate statements like "I'm excellent at flying light planes" into the appropriate skills and abilities. Games tend to have a way of rating your skills (from 1 to 10 or 1 to 20, or whatever works in the system) and some way of determing how many points you get to distribute around your character. Depending on the game, sometimes the character generation has a random component (roll a dice to see how many skills you get), and sometimes you get a set of points to distribute to your abilities (13 points for intellectual skills, 9 for physical, etc).
How do you keep track of all of this detail? Each game has its own sheet of skills and attributes that you can assign points to, and usually provides an easy sheet to record them on. All this details is used during the game, and often goes up and down as the story rolls on and your character improves or changes during the whole tale.
So, how do these two fairly different things - a prose description of a character and a pile of rules with Yahtzee-like sheets of paper - come together to form a game?
A typical game session is centered around a table. At the head of the table is the GM, with what notes they've made on the events of the story - what will happen, who are the people the players will interact with in character and whatever else (maps, props, whatever) they find necessary to tell their story.
Sitting around the rest of the table are the players - somewhere between 3 and 7 people, with their character sheet and small pile of dice in front of them. Add munchies and drink to taste. Each of the players has their own character, not just as a sheet of numbers and stats, but also as an idea in their mind's eye, with a backstory and motivations.
RPGs are different from normal games in one important way - they really aren't about winning.
This isn't a sickly sweet sentiment of "its good that everyone wins", but just a consequence of the way that the games run and why. They are more about having fun and telling an interesting story rather than owning Park Lane or getting to 100 first points.
The closest that you can come to winning is finishing a story in a way that suits your character - you defeat the evil, find the jade monkey, rescue the princess or whatever. At the end of the story you have reached some of your character's goals, however ephemeral they might be.
Players interact in character with each other, and with the rest of the characters in the world (the extras if you will, normally referred to as non-player characters or npcs). The GM describes what's going on around the characters - they might be in a forest, underground, in a nightclub or in a spaceship - and who is around them and what those people are doing. The players react accordingly, and the GM reacts to their plans. There are no turns like you might find in a boardgame, and the GM has to run the story so that each of the players gets a fair turn of attention. Some weeks you might be the focus along with another player, but the week after your character doesn't have as much time in the limelight.
The GM may have a set plot in mind and the plans and goals of the characters thusly only feature as sort of a side-line to the main story. Alternatively, the story they have in mind may revolve solely around the motivations of the characters that their players provide. They may have a lot of notes, and details about what will happen, or they could wing it from week to week.
They may not even have a conclusion in mind, but instead be interested in telling a type of story and be willing to work with the players to see where they want to take it. The players might find the jade monkey and decide to return it to the rightful owner, or sell it and escape with cash. What about the one-eyed man they betrayed to the police as a distraction? And so on - the aim is to tell an interesting story, rather than necessarily have things go exactly where the GM thinks the plot will end up.
Often the flow of the game and the genre are linked. A horror game is more likely to end in the death of all the characters than a fantasy game where the characters perhaps have some great destiny to fulfill. Space opera games easily lend themselves to a chapter-by-chapter sequence of miniclimaxes before the final crescendo.
There are certain styles of games that are cross genre that also affect how the story is told, and therefore how it will end - a GM might be running a very cinematic tale, where the slow boring bits are skipped over in favour of climaxes, or a gritty urban chronicle where the consequences of each action are explored in detail.
Complications and Variations
Astute readers will have noticed a lot of qualifications in the above description - a lot of "maybe", "sometime", "often" and "usually"s. That's because there are as many different ways that games pan out as the people running and playing them, and what is described above is an amalgum of the average sort of game run at MURP.
Some games don't use any rules at all - the GM decides how things unfold. Players ask if they can do something, and the GM rules yes or no - these systemless games require a sense of fair play both from the players and the GMs. These games are about the Role part of the game, and are played less as a game, and more a sort of theatrical entertainment.
Some styles of games do something similar, but go that extra step and don't have a table. Freeforms, often run at conventions, are larger games, with up to 40 or so players mingling in a large room. These games feature more than one GM to make sure that the story unfolds neatly during the game. Freeforms don't tend towards being long term games, but single or double sessions of 3 or 6 hours respectively.
At the other end of the extreme, some games are run with stickling for the rules and a desire for accuracy. You might see some roleplaying games run where the characters are represented by figurines on a map so that they can keep track of the flow of play more accurately. At the far end of this extreme, the Game becomes all important, and the role part is of very minor issue. These styles of games bleed gently across into wargaming games, such as WarHammer. The key is to find a style that you like and spend an evening using your imagination to tell a story, have an adventure and a laugh with some friends.