As the name indicates, the player’s task is to take on the role of a fictitious character and play out his or her adventures in an equally fictitious setting. In the traditional variety (of which we are speaking here), it’s all done with the aid of your imagination – well, as well as a few dice and a couple of sheets of paper. The traditional RPG is more like a novel that the players act out through the characters they assume.
RPGs can take place in pretty much any kind of setting, but their primary playing fields are the phantastical genres, i.e. fantasy, science fiction, or horror. Predominantly among those is the fantasy field, transferring the players into a world where magic is abundant, as well as wizards, monstrous creatures – such as dragons – and the like.
Whereas most games present a rather general world concept, some limit themselves to a specific subset of the genre, such as a RPG on vampires, or one based on a specific movie that had garnered a notable following, or on a familiar and popular legend (you need only think of King Arthur or Robin of Sherwood, for instance.)
The plots presented typically posit a group of heroes – i.e. the players – who have to fight the Forces Of Darkness (for instance dragons, dictators, lawyers) with their wit and weapons.
A game commonly starts with each of the players creating their own characters (also called PCs, which is short for Player Characters). First off, the game always offers a certain range of available characters – sticking with the general fantasy genre, you have to decide whether to play a human (such as the player quite probably is herself as well), a dwarf, an elf, or some other race. Then you decide on some other factors, for instance the occupation of your character – is she a fighter, a wizard or a cleric?
(The details of the offered choices vary, of course, from game to game.)
Well, this only gives you a rough framework of what the character is like. There also have to be some specific characteristics unique of this fictitious person. To define those, you always need to roll dice to let good ol’ Lady Luck decide for instance how strong the character is, how agile, and so on. (It really would diminish the fun of such a game if the player could just make up values for this, right? How entertaining would a game be if everyone is a superman or superwoman?)
The finishing touches are still missing on the character – most importantly a name. Add to that a personal history, a hometown, a few past adventures; and you’re starting to have an interesting companion (or alter ego) for the game session.
Other than the players, there is one more person at the table who is vitally important in a RPG: the game master (GM). Think of the GM as the writer of the story that the players act in.
The GM provides the players with all the information their characters receive – for instance what they see, what they smell or hear. This includes any other persons they meet during their adventure, who are voiced by the GM. (These persons are called Non-Player Characters – NPCs – who are run by the GM. Depending on the importance of a NPC, the GM will also have a character sheet for her, just as the players have for their own characters.)
The GM needs to know the game rules by heart, as she has to decide whether any action by a player succeeds – not to mention what will ensue. How does a NPC react when he notices one of the players trying to steal his wallet? That’s up to the game master.
A RPG tells a story through the interactions of the players and the game master. But that requires a plotline to be strung through the fictitious world – which is the task of the GM. She has to prepare an adventure that ought to fire the players’ imagination, involve them in the world and – most importantly – make every participant in the RPG have a lot of fun!
The GM begins by telling the party about the setting they find themselves in. Let’s say they are in the middle of the road in a town.
Then the players announce what each of their characters is going to do. One says that his character is looking for the next inn, to quench his thirst. Another says that she wants to find a place to sleep, wherefore she will accompany the first character.
Now the GM will inform them how they walk through the town and whether they find an inn.
If that takes a while – let’s say it’s a big town -, one character might decide to ask a passerby for the right directions. Ideally the player will now address one of the persons in the street (previously mentioned by the GM) as if she were her character.
The GM, in turn, now responds as the NPC.
That is the basic sequence of any RPG. The players can of course converse with each other, decide on some strategies, swap items, etc.
It gets a bit different when specific actions are taken by the characters. Let’s say one needs to cross a river, but instead of a bridge there is only a tree that has fallen across the stream. The PC wishes to try to clamber over the tree, and now it has to be seen whether she is successful. Each character has a specific value for agility, while the tree has a specific value for its difficulty.
The player now rolls a die to check whether her character’s agility suffices to get to the other side. If she fails, the GM has to explain to her what happens, i.e. she falls into the river. (But it might be a stream with a strong current so she could be whisked away, perhaps hurt her head.)
Combat is handled by both the players and the GM; commonly, the GM takes the opposing side.
A very important element in a RPG are the experience points (EP). These points are awarded by the GM to the players, for successful actions or role-playing. They are meant to indicate that the characters of the players garner more knowledge during each game session, more experience. Just as you learn new things every day in real life, so do your characters in the RPG.
Experience points also have a direct influence on the characters since they help to improve a character. Think of many movies that have the young farmer boy go off on an adventure. At first he’s quite helpless, unaware of oh so many things that go on around him, but at the end he has become an experienced hero, a better fighter, a – hopefully – wiser man.
In the same way experience points help a player improve her character, e.g. enhance the character’s strength or endurance.
Simply said, they tell you how fit your character is. A healthy, uninjured person has a certain amount of hit points, according to his physical constitution.
Also, during combat, you can – and will – lose hit points. That indicates that your character is taking damage, i.e. injured. If you lose all your hit points, your character is, well, dead.
Fortunately, you can restore hit points – as in real life, wounds heal. (Or you have a handy cleric in your party who can magically heal your wounds.)
Time has to be measured in the game. There is the limit to the actions you can possibly take in any given time; to represent this, there are game rounds.
For an example, think of the turn-based games you are familiar with: Pretty much every board game proceeds by each of the players taking her turn and moving her token. The same applies to a RPG, only that here there is no fixed sequence as to who does what when. You announce your actions, and they usually create a sequence of their own.
(There are also so-called combat rounds. They are much quicker, and they have a pre-determined sequence. For the GRPG, you can find out more in Chapter 8.1.6. Range or Who gets to attack first.)