What is Roleplaying?


If you’ve never been exposed to roleplaying, it can be hard to understand exactly what it is. Thankfully, pop culture knowledge has progressed from the point where roleplaying is no longer linked with satanic ritual, and is instead linked with socially awkward nerds:

The first thing you notice immediately about the video is the stilted speech; it sounds like it’s being read from a script. The characters all have light speech impediments. Then of course, there are the Cheetos and the Mountain Dew! We are finally introduced to the game itself, with our first character, Gandalf the White Wizard (oh, sorry, Galstaff, Sorcerer of Light), and how cool is he, casting spells and stuff! And cool spells, too, Magic Missile! Let’s add a bit of ‘geeks don’t understand women’ in there by making one of the characters creepily focused on sex. Finally, roleplaying isn’t roleplaying without numbers and magic weapons, so make sure somebody has a + X weapon of something or other!

I have picked this video because I think it (about) sums up popular opinion of what roleplaying is. According to this trope, roleplaying is an escapist fantasy of socially awkward, friendless nerds concerned with racking up cooler spells and weapons, with ever growing numbers, allowing them to feel ‘cool’ because, hey, not everybody has a + 9 ogre slaying knife!

Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that SOME replaying isn’t like that. I’ve spectated D&D games which were all about that, and I’ve played computer RPGs, which definitely lend themselves to that mindset.

But ultimately, a roleplaying game has two main elements.

The first one is very obvious. A roleplaying game is about playing a role. Roleplaying is a lot like acting, in that way, it is about adopting a character and fleshing them out. Vin Diesel talks about how role playing contributed to his developing both as an actor as a person:

The second one is less obvious, but you find out all too soon that it is quite necessary, and that is storytelling. A good RPG tells a story. In that way, running an RPG is a lot like writing a book.

This number-crunching (the system of mechanics) is actually just a mediation tool. You know when, as a kid, you played pretend with other kids? What happened when two kids disagreed? Whose imagination won out? Maybe it was the kid other kids liked most, or the kid who painted the coolest picture. In roleplaying games, all of the numbers are supposed to represent a semi-objective way of determining what happens when there is disagreement.

Each participant has a different role, of course, but there are two main TYPES of roles, players and GMs.

Players are largely focused on the roleplaying side of the game, although they can have some storytelling influence. They tend to play one character. If we’re taking the movie/book metaphor farther, they are the main characters.

The GM, on the other hand, is largely focused on the storytelling side of the game, although he also serves as a sort of mediating authority; if a dispute cannot be resolved any other way, it falls to him.

Remember when I said that (running an RPG) GMing was a lot like writing a book? Well, at first glance, that’s not really accurate. It’s more like establishing the basics of a book, and letting the players write it for you. But is this so foreign? How many authors have said something like ‘I thought the book was going one way, but my characters surprised me’?

So in a sentence, what is a roleplaying game? An RPG is an exercise in mediating different storytelling and roleplaying motives via a system of mechanics. More vaguely, an RPG is the art of telling a story with a group of friends.

From this, we can see why the video I linked presents such a bad picture: the roleplayers have mistaken dispute resolution for the actual role playing, as opposed to a sort of necessary evil. Varying roleplaying systems have different ways of dealing with these three elements, so keep these concepts in mind when reading future articles of mine!


4 responses to “What is Roleplaying?

  1. Pingback: Why Roll Dice? Two Misconceptions | Fistful of Wits

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  3. Pingback: New D&D Sneakily Poaches Inclusivity, Narrative | Fistful of Wits

  4. Pingback: Define Your Terms! Talking about RPGs | Fistful of Wits

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