It’s not easy to explain role-playing to someone. It’s as simple as it is woolly, as complex as it is comprehensive. But there are a few simple criteria: Do you like stories, do you like to play, do you like to have fun?
Role-playing is like reading a book, watching a movie, but not only accompanying the heroes, but taking on the role of the protagonist. As the protagonist, I get to interact, act and decide. The outcome, or at least the course of the story, is shaped and influenced by me as the player.
The memories that arise from this usually only exist in the minds of those who play along. The events experienced never took place in the real world, and yet the adventurers will still remember extraordinary moments of happiness, sadness, surprise and victory years later.
Role-playing is the collaborative advancement of a story that has not (yet) been written. It can be based on a pre-written narrative or story framework, or it can be created entirely in the moment.
The roles in role play
In traditional role-playing games, there are two roles: the players and the game director. The role of the players is to move around in a fictional world and experience things. Depending on the game, they are also called adventurers, characters, investigators or heroes. They act out their character and can do whatever they want as long as it conforms to the group’s intent and agreements.
The game director, SL for short, is also called narrator, master, game master, dungeon master, game master or keeper, depending on the game system. The role of the game master is to set the rules, the world, the people in the virtual world, and the hooks of the story. The characters represented by the game master are called non-player characters or NPCs for short.
There are also non-player role-playing games or completely free games, where the players can do whatever they want without any rules at all. It is important to distinguish between the characters (in game, in time, in role) and the players (out game, out time, out of role) who play the characters.
How does roleplaying work?
To explain how to play, there are rulebooks, background volumes, monster manuals, magic manuals, region volumes, weapon volumes, and adventure volumes. Many of them contain several hundred pages of content in the smallest font size. I don’t need to have all of these, although it is very helpful because then I don’t have to make everything up myself.
An example of a roleplaying scene
Game Master: You are on a path in a forest. It is cold and wet. No one wants to stay here any longer. The trees are large and ensure that hardly any daylight falls on the ground. Behind you, you hear strange noises, a kind of shuffling that you noticed twenty minutes ago. Suddenly you come to a fork in the road. Here the path splits. On the left, you’ll come to a small stream. There a little more light seems to penetrate into the thicket. On the right, on the other hand, you’re heading straight for a small log cabin with smoke coming out of it. What do you want to do?
Player1: I tighten my luggage a bit because the straps have been rubbing my shoulders the whole trip. Then I squat down to rest for a moment. Finally I say, “Well, I vote we go to the hut and knock. Maybe someone can show us the way.”
Player 2: I make a startled face, “No way! Who knows what’s dwelling in that hovel? I suggest we take the lighter path and see that we get out of this forest as soon as possible.”
Player 3: I pull out my club just in case and listen for the shuffling that was behind us. Is it still there? Has it gotten louder?
Game Master: The shuffling stopped when you stopped. You can’t make out any unfamiliar sounds or movement in the forest. You seem to be alone. Which way do you want to go? Etc.
There is a saying in roleplaying: the game master always has the last word. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way, although it often is. The game management does not play against the players, but with them, in order to get the best possible experience out of the adventure. Which is the best possible experience depends on the group.
Some are absorbed in the drama and hardly need any action because they interact ideally with their characters, others want to play extended battles and above all get their money’s worth tactically. Some players are content to listen and hardly participate actively because they enjoy the story that unfolds in their heads. And still others want to be constantly in the spotlight, acting and celebrating success with the most creative ideas, because in role-playing anything is possible; even things that are inconceivable in real life.
What are dice for?
In order for the game leader not to be biased, or for the players not to feel unfairly treated, it helps to have a random principle in the game: The dice.
Each player character has values for how good she or he is at one thing. For example: climbing, persuasion, biology, disguise, etc. These values make a die roll easier or harder. Whether the requested action succeeds, however, is decided by the dice and thus by chance. Which brings additional excitement and usually fun to the game. Those who also find fun in failing and not only in winning have it especially good.
Activities that are performed in a normal, everyday setting should succeed without a dice roll. If everyone in this world can ride a horse, this should not be a problem for my character either. However, if I want to jump over a ravine with a horse, then the dice are rolled for riding. If this roll fails, I as a character have to live with the result (or even die).
What’s so great about role-playing?
For some people, just the thought of acting in front of others and having to be creative, invent a story, show initiative, fight and suffer is horror. It’s not always easy for me either, but just the fact that I can not only watch or read Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, the Avengers or Sherlock Holmes, but be them, fascinates me. The stories that are experienced, the evenings spent around a table with friends, shivering, laughing and triumphing, are irreplaceable.
And the best part is when you recall it with a friend years later, “Remember when we solved the mystery of the missing crown together in the most unconventional way?” Then those are real experiences. Experiences that aren’t possible in real life, or that we’re glad we didn’t have to take the risk of in real life: jumping over canyons, fighting dragons, and putting a stop to the mafia. But we, we have experienced it. Incredibly, we managed to do all that with just pen, paper, and a few dice.