What is Roleplaying

Roleplaying has been described in many ways in its time, not all of them pleasant, and it is one of the perennial problems of Role-Players everywhere to try and explain it to other people. All too often the description ends up sounding silly, and no doubt this one will to some people too, but I’ll give it a go.

The first thing to start with is a simple brief description (and a good old standby at that); have you ever read a book or seen a film where a character did something really stupid and you thought “No! Don’t do that! Do this! If it were me, that’s what I’d do…”

In Role-playing games it is you, and you have complete control over whatever that character does, rather like a play where each person writes one person’s script.

In (nearly) every Role-playing game (RPG) you create a fictional character who is placed in outlandish situations. You play the role of that character, just like an actor, but there’s no script; everything is ad-libbed according to the situation and the personality and background of the character. He or she has traits which tell you how good he or she is at doing various different things. Of course having four or five people inventing the story as they go along isn’t conducive to fine plot, complex details or planning ahead, so one player, called the Games Master (GM) (or Dungeon Master, Storyteller, Referee etc.) takes the part of the “director”. The GM sets up adventures, encounters and mysteries for the players, plays all the other people they meet; villains, witnesses, passers-by etc. and generally keeps everything running smoothly. For many people being the GM is an experience in itself; I for one enjoy creating worlds, monsters, and fiendish plots even more that playing them.

But why, ask many people, is it all about weird things like dragons, vampires, monsters and fantasy? I’m not entirely sure, but my guess is that it’s because Role-playing is an inherently escapist pastime. You forget about yourself for a while and play a heroic (or tragic) character with abilities far beyond your own. After all, if you played a perfectly normal person in a perfectly normal situation, what would be the point? You can play that role all day every day, and probably do! Roleplaying is firmly grounded in the fiction of the fantastic. Every RPG I’ve ever seen is inspired by Fantasy, Science Fiction or Horror literature, sometimes all three, or by Legends and Myths of our own pasts.

Originally RPGs certainly deserved the allegation that they were simplistic (though still fun). In the original Dungeons & Dragons each character was quite clearly a Macho Hero Beating Up The Minions Of Evil (and that applied to the women characters too!). The actual portraying of a role took a back seat to getting treasure and fighting everything in early games. Rules were of prime importance and loads of dice were used to create a random element. Even now many games are still heavily rule and dice based, and the exploration of rule-systems in and of themselves is also a subject which many Role-players find of great interest. There are few dedicated players that don’t find themselves making up their own system at some time or another. As the hobby developed however new kinds of games developed which dispensed with system in favour of in-depth characterisation. Now there are games which have no dice at all, in which your Role-playing skill, and the GM’s intuition decide whether you succeed or not in an action, while others try to balance a set of rules and a concentration on Role-playing. Roleplaying these days, accommodates many styles of play, from movie-style fantasy to those that claim that Role-playing is actually an art form. In general one can see a division between ‘System’ games, and ‘Characterisation’ games, and everything between. The important thing is that Role-playing is fun, for everyone involved. Certainly, whether as a work of art or just a bit of fun, Role-playing has grown to be a very popular pastime, with multi-million pound companies sitting alongside the home-grown games of many enthusiasts.

Unfortunately with success comes unwanted attention, and Role-playing seems to have been perfectly designed to attract criticisms of the wildest sort, from those who dismiss it as frivolous to those that claim that it is in some way ‘evil’, or even Satanic. The first objections are hardly of much concern, each to their own I say, but the second are far more serious. Role-playing has been accused of leading people into evil, murder, suicide, and who knows what else. I could lay all kinds of accusations of my own at the door of Christian fundamentalists, who seem mainly responsible for such complaints, but it seems to me to be more important to understand exactly where all this stems from. Role-playing is all about stepping outside your own character, and indulging your dreams and fantasies. Often there is the opportunity to step outside social norms and conventions, few people really walk about in plate mail wielding broadswords. The kind of behaviour that a player’s character undertakes can even seem pathological in the context of our world, but the point is that Role-playing is a tool of the imagination, the character’s behaviour does not take place in the real world, but in a place where all our desires and dreams can be safely indulged and explored. People really act in a way dangerous to society rarely understand the dividing line between reality and fantasy, but I have never met a Role-player who didn’t understand that it was just a game.

For the Record: No-one has ever committed suicide because of RPGs. Role-players, just like all sorts of people, have committed suicide, but much quoted evidence suggests that in fact Role-players are less likely to commit suicide than non-Role-players. Just the same no one has ever killed anyone because of an RPG, no one has been kidnapped into a Satanic cult, and Role-players, unlike most other groups, have never tried to blow up anything at all.

If RPGs that allow players to play characters that are ‘evil’ have become popular, along side those that expect them to be both good and heroic, it’s because, like many actors who prefer evil characters, they realise that it is cathartic. By being evil in a fictional context where no real harm is done, you can work off your frustrations, just as by being good you can indulge your better instincts. Ultimately, it’s about escapism. Like I said at the start, it’s a game and it’s supposed to be fun.

(taken from Encyclopedia Geas, a fascinating resource for RPGs in general)