Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What is roleplaying?

It's been a month since I blogged. That's because I've been steadily researching and writing This Favored Land, an American Civil War supplement for Arc Dream's Wild Talents roleplaying game. My writing output has dropped considerably on the project this past week, but that's because I've been doing an awful lot of research. I now know more about the antebellum South, the Civil War in Missouri, 19th century ghosts, and the Spiritualism movement than I ever thought possible! I'm taking tomorrow off work to do some writing. By this weekend I should be back on track. (By "on track", I mean that I'll have the first draft of the 80,000 word manuscript done by September 1. This will give me a month to polish it and reorganize it before it is ready for submission.)

In the meantime, John mentioned in a response to one of my blogs that he wasn't sure what I meant by a "roleplaying game". So, I thought I'd take a short break and explain roleplaying.


A roleplaying game is make believe for teens and adults (kids can roleplay too, but most child activities are already essentially unstructured roleplaying games). Since "make believe" is child stuff, adults have to add complicated rules to make it "mature" and acceptable. Then, they strip out those complicated rules and give it a fancy label like "diceless" or "rules light", bringing it back to make believe but with an adult label.

Roleplaying consists of people pretending to be somebody else. It's acting, essentially, but usually without all the body movement of acting. You'll sometimes hear about roleplaying in the work place. Corporate consultants started using the idea in the 90s, about a decade after psychologists discovered it, but gamers were there first. (At least I think so; this is all subjective based on my own experience.)

In a roleplaying game, one person takes the part of the gamemaster, or GM. She (the convention in roleplaying books is to refer to gamemasters as "she" and players as "he") acts as a combination referee, story writer, and movie director. The GM's job is to create a world — or use one that's already been published — where the game takes place, come up with a story — or use a published story — for the players to play, and then adjudicate what happens based on the players actions. The story is also called an "advenure" or a "scenario". A gamemaster is also called a referee, a storyteller, and a host of other game-specific names (from Dungeon & Dragons' Dungeon Master, to Spycraft's Game Control, to Call of Cthulhu's Keeper of Arcane Lore &mndash; Keeper, for short). "Game Master", or GM, is widely used as the generic name for this participant in the game. Wild Talents uses the term "GM".

The other participants in the game are the players. They take on the persona of a character within the game. A character might be a 1920s Sam Spade-like detective, or he might be an Elven warrior from Middle Earth. He could be captain of a starship, or sailor on a World War II submarine, or a superhero, or just an average guy walking down the street. The universe where the game is set will dictate the kinds of characters a player can create. There are roleplaying games licenses for literary and movie fiction. Yes, you can play a Jedi in the Star Wars universe, a starship commander from Star Trek, or a "double-O" agent from the James Bond films. These are all popular, but games based on deeper background universes tend to be more popular.

The GM invents a story in whatever universe the game is set. For instance, if the game is Spycraft the universe is a world very similar to the James Bond movies (and if the game is the James Bond Roleplaying Game, the universe is exactly like the movies). The players are going to take on the role of spies, and the GM's adventure will be a story about what happens to those spies. If the game is Sidewinder, the universe is the American Wild West of the 19th century. In a game of Sidewinder, the characters are likely to stop gun-toting bank robbers, or thwart the plans of evil cattle barons.

The universe doesn't have to be based on reality, though it often is. Call of Cthulhu is set in the 1920s, but where the monsters of H.P. Lovecraft's fiction are alive. Dungeons & Dragons is often set in fantasy worlds not unlike Tolkien's Middle Earth (and, yes, there are roleplaying games actually set in the world of The Lord of the Rings). There's a Star Wars roleplaying game, a Matrix roleplaying game, and roleplaying games based on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Conan the Barbarian, Sherlock Holmes, the Second World War, DC and Marvel comics, and Hong Kong action movies.

The GM's story moves the game along. The GM might invent a murder mystery and the players' characters have to solve the mystery. The GM might send the characters on a quest to save a kidnapped princess. The characters may have to stop a terrible monster in the wilds of New Jersey, or the wilds of Mordor. The GM puts together the story, complete with clues and a cast of characters. Usually the GM figures out a way for the characters to get through the story, too, but that's just in case the players get stumped.

How much direction is required by the GM depends on the type of story. Some games are essentially miniatures wargames. The GM creates a map of an area, writes down where the monsters appear, and then the players move through the area killing evil things. After the set up, there's very little for the GM to do but move monsters and roll the dice to see if they hit and damage the characters. Other games require more GM control. In these games the players interact with the non-player characters (called NPCs) of the universe, asking questions, befriending them, or making enemies. The GM has to take on the persona of each NPC. Some games feature players competing against each other in big political or conspiratorial games. In these settings the players run the whole thing pretty much by themselves, with the GM acting as referee and the source of plot complications.

The players "generate" their characters. This is where the adult rules come in. It usually involves dice, and most often it involves dice of more — or less — than six sides. Four, eight, ten, twelve, and twenty-sided dice are all common. The rules use dice to come up with various attributes for the characters, depending on the game system. Some game systems don't use dice to generate characters, but give players points that they spend on various attributes. Some games even use a combination of points and dice rolls.

The attributes might indicate the character's strength, how clumsy he is, how smart, or how good looking. Some games go so far as to generate eye and hair colour, and the character's exact height and weight (but this sort of detail is usually left to the player to invent). Most modern games also have some sort of skill list. These are things the character can do. The player might not be able to repair a computer or speak Chinese, but his character could. The game rules give every player a fair shot at creating a character they like, with enough abilities to be interesting but with room for growth.

After the characters are created, it's off to play the game. The GM will describe the setting of the game. At some point the GM will ask each player what they are doing. The player tells the GM, and the GM lets them do what they said they were doing, or tells them they can't do it, or uses the rules to figure out whether or not they can do it.

For instance, if the game was set in the Wild West, the players might all be cowboys. The GM would describe the saloon where they are congregating. The GM would then say something like, "The local sheriff runs into the saloon and yells, 'The afternoon stage coach has been held up! I need a posse!'" The players would then have to decide what they are going to do. Are they law-abiding citizens who will get their horses and help the sheriff? Or are they bank robbers who will take the opportunity to rob the bank while the posse is gone? Or perhaps they'll just sit in the saloon, minding their own business, until something else happens. Let's say they all go to help the sheriff. While riding out to the stage coach they are shot at by bandits. One player wants his character to jump off his horse and crawl for cover. Another wants to shoot a bandit while remaining on his horse. Can the characters do these actions? Can the first player jump off his horse without hurting himself? And if he is hurt, how badly? Can the second character shoot the bandit? This is where the rules and the dice come in.

The GM's job is to make sure everyone has fun. Except for a rare number of games that have competition as a premise, the other players do not compete against the GM (although there is a great deal of pleasure taken from outsmarting the GM's story). The players pretend to be their characters and participate in the story as though they were actors in a play. It's like reading a book or watching a movie, but with the players participating. It's like make believe, except that the GM tells the others whether or not they can do a stated action, and how well, using the game system's rules as guide.

The GM might dictate that the character on horseback can't shoot at the bandit because it's too hard to hit while riding. Usually the game rules will cover this situation, but if they don't the GM has to figure it out by herself. She may even "cheat" for the sake of the story. Perhaps the bandit is Black Bart, who has to make it to the next town in order for the story to work. The character shoots at Black Bart, hitting him. The GM might roll the damage herself, so that Black Bart will miraculously survive. Or she might have Bart duck at the last second. Or, she might just let the player roll the dice and if Black Bart dies, he dies. Then she might have to change her story altogether, on the fly. Perhaps Black Bart was going to ride to the next town to hole up with his brother. Now her story changes, and Black Bart's brother is going to want revenge on the man who shot Bart.

The fun in roleplaying games comes from pretending to be a character and doing things that are impossible in real life. Players are encouraged to talk like their characters. A player playing a cowboy could tell the GM, "I walk up to the sheriff and ask him if there's any reward for joining the posse," but he's encouraged to do something like, "I'm going to walk up to the sheriff. 'Say, sheriff, there any reward for capturing this here Black Bart gang?'" The GM would then interact with the player by pretending to be the sheriff. This is where NPCs come in. The GM plays the part of every NPC in the game, acting like that NPC and dictating what the NPC does. The GM will take on the role of the Sheriff, Black Bart, and that cute saloon girl the cowboys have their eyes on. The GM tries to make them feel like individual characters.

Because the GM runs the NPCs, the players never know what's happening behind the scenes. Maybe the sheriff has been bribed by Black Bart. Maybe Black Bart is a Pinkerton agent under cover. The players will never know unless they dig into the story.

Another key aspect of roleplaying is the ability to dictate the direction of the story. There are roleplaying games for computers and game consoles, but they tend to be "linear". The player usually has to follow the script to get through the story. So called "pen and paper" RPGs have a human deciding the outcome, but that human can change the direction of the story at any time. Often a better story comes along when the players do something the GM hadn't thought about. For instance, one player might say, "Hey, what if we found out where Black Bart's girlfriend lived and wait for him to appear!" In a video game the designers likely wouldn't give the players this sort of freedom (not yet, anyway). In a pen and paper game, this sort of alteration on the fly happens all the time.

The style of play is different from one game group to another. One group may use miniature figures and a dry erase board for a map so that they can tell where any player is at a given time. They can glance at the board and see that one character is standing by the piano while another is near the stairs when Black Bart enters the saloon. Other groups might not bother with miniatures and just keep the action straight in their imaginations. Some groups like murder mystery stories, whether they are straight detective stories or based around some kind of horror element. Other groups just want to be heroes, like Conan or Captain Kirk. Some groups want intense realism (if they shoot someone they want to know what organs and bones are hit), while others emphasize speed and flexibility. A lot of game groups jump from style to style, wanting a realistic game set in World War II but a fast paced, heroic game when playing games set in Hong Kong action movies, as an example.

After an adventure is completed, the characters are usually rewarded for the way their players ran them during the game. This is usually in the form of experience. Characters will improve at skills, and sometimes attributes, as the game (known as a "campaign") continues. This gives players incentive to keep playing the same character. It also gives players an incentive not to just throw the character away doing stupid things. If a character dies, the player will usually have to create a new character from scratch, losing all those hard won experience points or skill increases. Players usually develop a fondness for their characters, which also helps mitigate against doing stupid things. The game does not prevent you from doing stupid things. If you want to try and dismantle a bomb by shooting it from five feet away, there's nothing in the rules stopping you...

In roleplaying there truly is no winning or losing. It really is all about how you play the game. (Okay, there are competitive roleplaying games. Rune, a Viking game that's actually based on a console game has the players actively compete against each other, but it is the rare exception rather than the rule.) Sure, an entire party might be killed off by some monster in Victorian London, but if it was exciting and heroic, and the players killed the monster too, then they could very well feel like they "won". The idea isn't to win like in a conventional game, but to enjoy the story that the players and the GM mutually create.

As I said, it's make believe. With rules. And usually dice.

So far I've written about what you can do in a game, but I haven't explained how the game is actually played. How do you tell if you shot Black Bart, or how do you determine how badly hurt you were jumping out of a window? That's where the rules come in.

Roleplaying games have two main parts to them: the game mechanics and the game universe.

The game mechanics control how the game is played. These are rules that tell you how to create a character, how long a "game turn" represents, how far a character can move in a turn, whether or not a character can shoot a target with a gun, whether or not a character can cast a magic spell, etc., etc. These are the rules that dictate if a character can do something and how well they succeeded at doing it.

Game mechanics come in many forms. Some games have "character levels", where characters don't rise in ability until they've accumulated enough experience points, and then *poof* they suddenly jump up to the next level. Often in these games, every character of the same type (or "class") at the same level has roughly the same ability. This was how D&D worked.

Some games give characters skills, with each skill representing the character's ability in one area. Each character can have a unique combination of skills and skill abilities. One character could have a high score in the Read Chinese skill but a poor score in their Pistol skill, while another character could have a high Pistol score but no ability in reading Chinese. In these games, characters increase abilities in the skills a little at a time. T

There are also games that use both character levels and skills, and games that don't use skills at all.

Even when games have a similar method of handling character abilities, like having a list of skills, the actual method of determining outcomes is different. The game company Chaosium calls their rule system (or, rather, their primary rule system, as they've had several over the years) BRP for Basic Role Play. Characters have skills rated from 0 to 100. To attempt a skill you roll two 10-sided dice. One is usually numbered from 0 to 9, and the other is numbered 00 to 90 by tens. You roll both dice and read the 00 to 90 dice as the tens digit, and the 0 to 9 as the ones digit. This gives you a number from 1 to 100 (actually 00 to 99, but 00 is treated as 100). To succeed at a skill you have to roll less than or equal to your skill rating. If I have 60% in my handgun skill, I will have to roll 01 to 60 in order to shoot Black Bart. If I roll 61 to 100, I missed.

This is only one type of rule system. The most popular system in the world is the D20 system ("D20" standing for "20-sided die"). It's popular because it was based on the first major roleplaying game, Dungeons and Dragons. To succeed at anything you roll a twenty-sided die. The specific situation results in a target number. You want to roll equal to or greater than the target number. Skills and special abilities add bonuses to what you roll, raising the number.

Steve Jackson Games' GURPS (Generic Universal RolePlaying System) gives characters skills of 0 to 18 (roughly). The player rolls three six-sided dice, adds them up, and compares the result to their skill. Like Chaosium's system, rolling low is good and rolling high is bad. Arc Dream's Wild Talents is entirely different. Characters have "skill levels" from 0 to 10, and they have attributes (Body for physical ability, Mind for intelligence, etc) in the 1 to 10 range (with normal humans between 1 and 5). A player rolls a number of 10-sided dice equal to the sum of the character's skill and the attribute associated with it. They succeed if at least two of the dice roll the same number. The more dice tat match, the quicker the character succeeded at what he was doing, but the higher the number on the matching dice the better the result. (Yes, this may seem a little odd, but it works!)

The game universe is the background in which the game is played. If it is a Star Wars game, then the game is set in the Star Wars universe. If the game is Call of Cthulhu, the game is set in world as it was in the 1920s, with H.P. Lovecraft's monsters running loose. The universe can be a published roleplaying product, it could be a world taken from a book the GM read, or it could be something the GM made up all by herself.

Sometimes the game universe and the game mechanics are strongly connected, other times they are weakly connected. This is a difficult concept for a layman to get their head around, because if all you've ever played are board games you are used to the whole thing coming in one package. Here is an example that will hopefully help.

Most folks have heard of (even played) Monopoly. You can buy standard, every day Monopoly based on the streets of Atlantic City, New Jersey. You can also buy, believe it or not, Star Wars Monopoly. The rules are pretty much the same, but the board and pieces are different and are based on the planets in Star Wars. You are still playing Monopoly, it's just that the setting is different.

Let's look at the board game Risk. You have regular Risk, set in the 19th century, and you have... you guessed it... Star Wars Risk. Same rules, but a different setting.

Now let's look at both Star Wars Monopoly and Star Wars Risk. Both games have the same Star Wars setting, the same characters, and many of the same kinds of pieces. However, the rules are quite a bit different, because one is Monopoly and the other is Risk.

This is how roleplaying games work. Different rules can be used with the same setting, and different settings can be used with the same set of rules. You can play a Lovecraftian horror game using Chaosium's BRP rules. The same rules can be used to play a Wild West game. You can play a superhero game using Arc Dream's Wild Talents, but you can also play a Lovecraftian horror game using the same set of rules.

Originally there was a strong connection between a game's rules and the game's universe. If you played D&D you played a fantasy game, period. Fairly early on, though, game companies realized that they could reuse the same rules in different universes to come up with entirely different games. As an example, the basic D&D rules were modified for a post-apocalypse game called Gamma World. Call of Cthulhu is actually a variation of the older fantasy game RuneQuest.

Usually the game rules are published in the same book as the game universe, so you have everything in one book. Game companies usually produce "sourcebooks" with additional universe information (expanding on what's in the main book), and "supplements" with additional game rules options. Supplements and sourcebooks keep the game fresh while generating new sales. Companies also sell adventure books which are almost exclusively adventures, to help the poor beleaguered GM.

Some rule books are all rules , with no universe information at all. GURPS, for instance, has no game universe information in its core rulebooks. For that you have to buy one of their sourcebooks, or make up your own universe. Sometimes a game company will give the game mechanics away for free so that you'll buy the sourcebooks. ACTION does this. Usually the sourcebooks are made to work with a particular set of mechanics. GURPS books reference the GURPS rules. D20 sourcebooks reference the Dungeons & Dragons rule books, or the D20 Modern book, etc. On the other hand, many universe source books are almost entirely generic. Transhuman Space, a science fiction game set 100 years in the future, is made for GURPS but is generic enough to be used with D20 Future or any number of sci-fi games.

It used to be that most games came with most of the rules and at least some of the universe information in them. The explosion of the D20 rules has produced a ton of games consisting entirely of universe information and setting-specific rules. You have to buy a D20 or OGL (Open Gaming License; essentially an unofficial D20 game) book with the core rules in order to play the game. GURPS has done it this way since its inception. White Wolf has gone this route with their World of Darkness games (Vampire: The Requiem being the most famous). Chaosium is planning to do the same thing with the release of Chaosium's BRP, a compendium of three decades worth of BRP rules.

This is just a broad overview of roleplaying and roleplaying games, and a fairly stereotypical one at that. I haven't discussed things like diceless roleplaying, troupe style games, or live action roleplaying. Let me know if you'd like me to go even further.