So in a roleplaying game, you and your friends get together. You have a great rollicking conversation, one of those conversations full of bon mots and college dorm philosophical weirdness, emotional moments—but not too many, unless you like to have too many?—and laughter and sudden recognition of things you could have realized long before, only, most of the time, everybody’s pretending to be someone else.
It turns out people really like to do that.
It doesn’t matter how much they get into it. Some people, some groups, some games, it’s like, they’re barely even pretending? Some people, it’s practically mystical, how deep it cuts. It can be super-casual or super-intense, is what I’m saying, this business of pretending to be someone else in a roleplaying game … but either way, it’s pretty fun.
The defining memory I have of roleplaying games is laughter. Not different laughter than a fun meal out with a bunch of friends, just … like, 25% more often?
They’re also games in the real sense, most of the time. Like, intense games. Like, my other defining experience of roleplaying games is the rush of vicarious fear, success, and adventure. More than you can get in a movie, probably around what you can get in a good video game?
For me, because I’m a writer, because I can’t help being a writer (believe me, I’ve tried), there’s this thing where roleplaying games make a story that I get stuck on. It’s important to me and it’s important to a bunch of people on the Internet but honestly I have no idea whether it’s really close to the center of what’s going on in a roleplaying game or not.
It’s a thing they can do.
They can tell a story.
They can turn this chaos, this wild pinball machine of a bunch of people talking, and produce a story that’s genuinely enthralling.
Particularly when you’re there, living it, being participant and audience all at once in a group of other people being participant and audience all at once, making this thing that in the moment at least feels like it’s not just a roller coaster, not just a laugh, but also art.
… that’s not really the only thing they do, and it may not be the central thing, but it is a thing they do.
So, what is a roleplaying game?
A roleplaying game is a conversation that mostly focuses on a fictional or fictionalized world, with rules.
Some old games made a big deal of how rules elevated RPGs above games of pretend. “At last,” said … oh, was it Vampire? I think it was Vampire. At last, said Vampire, you can play pretend, and be free of the tyranny of “bang, bang, you’re dead!” “no, I’m not” “yeah, you are!”
And that is one thing rules do! Fixing that, I mean. Maybe even an important thing to understand that they do!
But it’s just scratching the surface.
Rules define, create, and expand a space of play. They make new ways to do this thing, this fun and fabulous thing. And, like with board and card games, where people are doing fabulously sophisticated things now, but are never going to actually get rid of chess, poker, or even (oh my land) Monopoly—
Like with board and card games, we’re never going to come up with a set of rules so amazing that it’s worth tossing out the game of pretend, or even so great that they’ll be objectively better than your average non-horrible roleplaying game from the 20th century, but we’re going to keep coming up with new cool ways to play, new cool spaces to open up, things that just amaze, and help you amaze yourself and all your friends.
That’s what a roleplaying game is.
If you want to know more, there are some free ones on the Internet—I might suggest looking at Lady Blackbird if you want a short game or Eclipse Phase if you want a long one; and if they’re both too confusing to you, because you’re a real newcomer to all this stuff? There’s a game called Fate Core that’s pretty simple, and you might try that as a beginner’s introduction!—or, of course, you can support my game, Glitch!