What is role-playing?

Role-playing is getting together with some friends to write a story. It’s joining around a campfire or a dining room to spin some tall tales. Role-playing is being creative and having fun with friends.

Role-playing games are stories. You create one of the main characters, and you create a story around your character. The rest of the players also create stories around their characters. And there’s an editor who brings those stories together.

In most role-playing games, one person plays the “referee,” who can be thought of as the “Editor” of the story. The Editor will, with input from you if you desire to give any, describe a world or setting. You and your friends, as Players, will take a character and protagonist in this world. You will guide your character through the story that you and your friends are creating.

Each player takes a different character, and each character interacts with each other character. Role-playing, in this sense, is very much play-acting in the mind. You imagine what the Editor describes. Then, you imagine your character’s response to this situation, and describe that to the Editor and the other Players. They, in turn, each do the same with their characters.

In most games—board games, card games, and dice games—there is a clearly defined way to win, and a clearly defined way to lose, and winning is the goal of the game. In role-playing games, the concepts of “winning” and “losing” do not exist. Your goal as a Player is to help create a story and to have fun. You may give your character other goals, but the success of your character does not determine any sense of “winning” or “losing.” Like life, it’s not so much whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.

That’s all well and good, you say, but what actually goes on? What do these “characters” do?

Most of the time, characters are involved in adventures, adventures of the type that are immortalized in adventure movies and serial novels. In one game, the characters might be a group of secret agents trying to save the world from nuclear destruction. In another, you might play a rebel force, trying to overthrow an evil star-spanning empire. You might play a group of warriors in elleventh century Europe, or King Arthur’s knights, or Superman, or Batman, or an original character you create, in any world you choose.

How Can I Become Involved With Role-Playing?

The same way you’d get involved with any other game. You either find some people who are already playing, or you start a game yourself. The former is recommended, but either way is fun. The first thing is to figure out what you want to play. What kind of movies or books do you want to copy? That’s what you want to play. There are games that deal with H.P. Lovecraft’s novels, Michael Moorcock’s novels, the middle-earth of J.R.R. Tolkien, among many others. There are also generic games that cover whole genres—espionage, detective, super-hero, swords and sorcery, space opera, and the old west, for example.

Next, find a store that sells role-playing games. You can find them in the yellow pages under “games.” Visit the store and tell them you don’t know much about role-playing games, but you’d like a game that can play (insert your choice here—detective, Tolkien, whatever). Ask if they know of any groups that are already playing that type of game. Many stores keep a list or bulletin board of gamers looking for new gamers. Chances are the store’s salespeople will be able to help you find just what you’re looking for.

What Should I Look Out For When I’m Playing?

Cecil Adams (author of the newspaper column, The Straight Dope) said with regards to role-playing games: “a lifetime of Parcheesi does not adequately prepare you for this.” He’s right. Your biggest problem will be breaking out of the straightjacket that games like Parcheesi, Chess, and Poker have put you in. There are no “moves” in role-playing games, nor are you confined to any specific actions. You make choices for your character as creatively as if you were writing a book. You don’t need to be worried about whether or not you are “allowed” to do something. The only thing restricting what your character can do is the situation your character is in.

It is also sometimes easy to get into an adversarial relationship with your Editor. Why? Because you are playing the “hero” and the Editor will be portraying all of the “villains” that the hero meets. It helps sometimes to stop and remember that this is not a competition between the Players and the Editor. The goal is to have fun, creatively, together. If you want an adversarial competition, you can always play hockey.

Once you realize that role-playing games have rules you might fall into one of two “rules-lawyer” traps. Games have rules that explain what happens when, for example, your character is attacked by a dragon, or what happens when two space vessels race to the same destination. But these rules are almost always there as guidelines. They describe what normally should happen, not what always must happen. The first rules-lawyer trap is to always insist on following the rules, even when there’s an obvious discrepancy between how all of the Players (including the Editor) want the game to proceed, and how a certain game rule says an event should turn out. The overall game should be more important than any specific rule.

Many times, games will not have a specific rule to cover a rare or odd situation. The second rules-lawyer trap is to believe that there should always be a rule to cover every situation. In this case, you waste time and interrupt the flow of the story by searching through the rule-book for rules that aren’t there.

A related trap is to consider the Editor to be some sort of omnipotent being in relation to the game, and to consider the game world to be the Editor’s world alone. The game is for all the Players, not just the Editor. The Editor is, however, the final arbiter of game disputes and game questions. There’s no need to waste time arguing when you could be playing!

A Role-Playing Glossary

If you decide to find a role-playing group to create with, you’ll probably run into some strange terminology. Every group has its own terminology, and “gamers” are no exception. Here is a quick guide to the most common jargon in role-playing.

I’ll bet you thought you knew what dice were, didn’t you? Well, you’ll never see so many different kinds of dice than when you meet up with role-playing gamers. The kind of dice that most people use (for Yahtzee or gambling) are “six-sided” dice. They’ve got six sides. There are also four-sided dice, eight-sided dice, ten-sided dice, twelve-sided dice, and twenty-sided dice. Some companies are even making thirty-sided dice and hundred-sided dice. Don’t worry at first, though. Most games use either six-sided dice (the normal, cube things) or ten-sided dice. You can borrow the latter from someone else while you’re still new. Some veteran gamers do the same thing.
How do you use the dice? You’ll hear lots of strange terminology, like “roll a three-dee-six,” “roll a percentile die,” or “roll dee-one-hundred.” The best way to deal with this, if you don’t understand, is to look confused and say “huh? Show me.” Gamers (like any other group) sometimes forget that newcomers aren’t privy to the jargon they use. However, if you want some idea of what’s going on, here’s the dope:
  • three-dee-six: This is written 3d6. This means take three 6-siders and roll them. Add them all up. If you roll 3 on one die, 4 on another, and 1 on the last, that’s 3 plus 4 plus 1, or 8. In general, when someone says “roll anumber dee anothernumber”, they want you to take “anumber” dice with “anothernumber” sides, roll them, and add them together. “Two-dee-ten” (or 2d10) means roll two ten-sided dice and add them, for example.
  • dee-one-hundred: This is a special kind of roll, designed just to confuse people who think they understand the previous paragraph. When you are asked to roll dee-one-hundred (written d100), you’ll need a ten-sided die. Roll it, and remember the number. This is the “tens.” Then, roll it again. This is the “ones.” If you rolled a 1 and a 5, the result is 15. If you rolled a 6 and a 3, the result is 63. If you rolled a 0 and a 2, the result is 2 (02), etc. If you rolled a 0 and a 0, the result is 100. Don’t ask, it’s tradition. You want a number from 1 to 100, not 0 to 99.
Dungeon Master
In the first role-playing game, the characters usually had their adventures in deserted castles and the dungeons below them. The Editor in these games was called by the incredibly kinky name Dungeon Master. From this came the equally pretentious Game Master, used by other games to denote the Editor. I prefer the family of names that includes Referee, Supervisor, and, of course, Editor.
Hack and Slash
Hack and Slash is a form of role-playing where the character’s goal is to fight. Often, “hack and slash” characters will get in a fight with every non-player character (q.v.) that they meet. Hack and Slash involves very little character interaction.
Hit Points
Your character can interact with all sorts of things in a role-playing game. Sometimes, your character will interact with fists, broken bottles, guns, or swords. When you interact with a gun, you’re likely to either die or be seriously injured. Not so with your character. In the serial adventures which role-playing games most commonly emulate, the heroes rarely have to hobble along with punctured lungs or gangrenous wounds. So, in most role-playing games, your character will have a certain number of “hit points.” When your character is attacked with a weapon, the weapon will cause your character to lose some of these hit points. This is much easier to play with than wounds, broken bones, cranial injuries, and infections.
Hit points are called different things by different games (Body Pips, Wound Level, Energy Level, Damage Points, etc.), but they’re still hit points. You lose them (or gain them) when you get hit.
Some games use cute little miniature figurines, about an inch high, to show where the characters are in relation to each other.
Non-Player Character
All of the characters played by you and your friends (except the Editor) are Player Characters. That’s because a Player is playing them. Characters created by the Editor for your character to meet are Non-Player Characters. Player Characters are the stars of the story, and Non-Player Characters are the supporting cast and the extras.
Saving Throws
Saving Throw is an archaic term that basically refers to “saving” your character with the “throw” of the dice. In the beginning of role-playing games, “saving throw” often meant just that. If your character was bitten by a snake, and you failed your “saving throw,” your character died, and you started playing a new character. Nowadays, this sort of instant death is frowned on in games, but saving throws still exist to help your character avoid other dangers in the game. You might roll a saving throw to avoid your character falling off a cliff when pushed, or to realize that someone has picked your character’s pocket.
How do you make or fail a saving throw? You roll dice (q.v.). If the dice are above (or below, in some games) a certain number, you have succeeded, and whatever dire fate could have happened has been avoided. Otherwise, you have failed the saving throw, and your character is subject to whatever was about to happen.


Well, that’s the end of this introduction to role-playing. I hope it helped. If you’d like to talk to me, you can write me below. There are also electronic forums for gamers. On Usenet, there is Rec.Games.FRP.Misc, as well as a whole slew of groups for specific games. The forums are not for playing games, but for discussing games.