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What is a Role Playing Game?


Posted June 13, 2013 by

Of all of the incarnations of geekery, the one dearest to my heart is that of the role playing game. I would also argue that it is the most arcane; the most alien to the outside observer whether it is played around a table or out in a field with costumes. Truly the idea that being a nerd means embracing your passions without the worry of social stigma is epitomized in the strange world of dice, paper, and imagination.

So what is a role playing game? At it’s heart it is simply a structured game of pretend. Each player is an ‘actor’, playing the role of a character, except for the referee, generally called a Game Master. They use a set of rules, like Dungeons and Dragons or GURPS (generic universal role playing system) to act out and tell a story. The rules provide means to resolve situations and provide a challenge to the players, while also allowing the Game Master to create a dynamic world or setting for the players to live and play in. The players control only their character, their actions and reactions to the setting. The Game Master controls all else.

The Game Master is arguably the most important piece to the role playing puzzle. He is not an enemy; the point of a role playing game isn’t to have a winner. It’s to tell a story. So the Game Master has many hats. He must challenge the players with enemies and encounters, he must narrate the story and the setting, and he must most of all make sure that everyone at the table is at the same time having fun and observing the rules.

So a role playing game is much different than a board game. A board game has strict rules and an ending, and someone wins. A role playing game has rules, but these rules are secondary to the arbitration of the Game Master, who can bend or break the rules in order to keep the game and story fun and smooth. A role playing game also ends only when you want it too. Generally people will keep the same story going for months or even years, meeting weekly or biweekly to continue their adventures.

In all reality, a role playing game is a way to get adults to act as children. To let go of inhibitions and to live out a shared fantasy with other adults. It might seem daunting at first, but you don’t need a abnormal imagination to play and enjoy it. It’s also social play, allowing you to interact with people in a different way, perhaps even gaining a depth to your relationship that you’d not otherwise get talking over coffee.

For players, the great pleasures of role playing come from overcoming tasks using a character that they have designed. Putting yourself in the role of a hero or unique character and living a story is an experience that few outside of roleplaying ever get to have. Even the tragedies provide fun, for they propel the story and give your character development and scars, physically or mentally.

For Game Masters, the fun comes from building the world. The creation of an entire place is a beautiful challenge, and from it you get the same euphoria that writers or directors get from making their works. Seeing then people play in your world, and most of all have fun, is an ego boost of epic proportions.

So why should you play an RPG? For fun, most of all. But also because it’s a unique way to have that fun. It utilizes an imagination that is perhaps feeling neglected from the hand-fed entertainment of television and video games. It allows you to let go of some of your more ‘mature’ inhibitions. Also, it allows you to do these things in the company of people just like you, comfortably enjoying a shared experience that is quite unlike anything else you can do together.

In general Role Playing has always been difficult to get into dry. You’d have to know someone with an established group, a little like joining the Masons. In this modern era, however, many RPG publishers have created products targeted at people who want to play but don’t know how. Starter Kits or Beginner Game supplements that provide easy to understand rules and premade adventures. So right now is the best time to start. Many of these products run about twenty dollars and come with everything you need, except friends.

Such products include:

Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game: An Essential D&D Starter

This is the current incarnation of the popular role playing game originally designed by Gary Gygax. On it’s 4th edition, the game focuses on tactical combat and it’s iconic Class system, meaning each character takes on the mantle of a popular fantasy trope; be it wizard, paladin, or ranger.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game

This is the newest Star Wars roleplaying game, and so far this is the only product out for the system. It uses a unique dice mechanic to help tell the stories you want to tell. Look for a review of this Beginner’s Kit soon from me.


GURPS is a universal system, meaning the rules can be used to create a narrative in any possible setting. GURPS Lite is a 32 page free PDF with some basic character creation and gameplay rules for beginning roleplayers.

World of Darkness Starter Bundle

The World of Darkness is the classic setting of popular games such as Vampire: The Masquerade and Mage: The Ascension. Featuring a dark and gritty neo/noir setting filled with dark beings, this is a setting less about combat and tactics and more about drama. This bundle actually includes the full core book as well as starter characters and an adventure for ease of play. The book itself details how to make human characters and build stories. (World of Darkness stuff is only available through DriveThruRPG.)

Many hobby stores also run weekly events, like the Dungeons and Dragons Encounters, that are perfect to jump right into. Or you can simply ask around; there are many people always willing to take a new person under their wing. One of the small pleasures of role playing is teaching it to someone new, and remembering with nostalgia those first times that we’ve played and opened our eyes to new possibilities.

So I hope from this you can at least understand why role playing games excite me, and what’s more I hope that you have been intrigued by these games. I’ll continue writing about them, reviews and tips and advice for players new and old, and I’ll definitely continue playing them. If you do decide to take those first steps into this most humble and arcane of nerdy pursuits, then I welcome you and your imagination to this great order of storytellers. You’re going to like it here.

Patrick McGill

I'm an Ashland, KY native living in Lexington, KY with my beautiful wife and silly dog. I am obsessed with role playing games, and you will be too if I have anything to do with it.


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