Tabletop Role Playing Games – RPGs for short – are seeing a huge resurgence in popularity at the moment. If you haven't played one before (or for a long time), then here's why you should take another look.
They are incredibly fun. Now you'd think that would be enough of a reason to give them a go, wouldn't you? Unfortunately there is an ill-deserved stigma of nerdiness surrounding games like Dungeons & Dragons. Let's take a look at that for a moment and compare it to another form of entertainment that was once tarred with the same brush. Computer games were once considered to be solely in the realm of the nerd. However, the spread of technology has put them in the hands of pretty much anyone. The stigma has lifted to the point where it's common to see people playing a game on their smartphone or handheld console without any passers by batting an eyelid. Nerds are usually classed as being socially awkward and generally unable to interact well in a group situation. This leads us to thinking about what an RPG actually is.
What is a Role Playing Game?
An RPG is a collaborative storytelling game played with a group of people. One of these people acts as an impartial referee to the rules of the game, and narrates the particular story and situations that the players' characters are in. Those players describe what they're going to do. Rinse; Repeat.
If that sounds to you like it's a fairly social situation, then you'd be right. If you've ever enjoyed reading or watching Game of Thrones, Lord or the Rings, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Firefly, Star Trek, Star Wars, one of the myriad super hero movies… basically any sci-fi or fantasy franchise that's out there, then you'll probably really enjoy playing RPGs. Fortunately for the hobby, there are also some popular evangelists such as Wil Wheaton (Geek & Sundry) who are bringing people in.
The Game Master
One of the players around the table will be the Game Master (GM), sometimes known as Dungeon Master (DM), Storyteller, Judge, Narrator… (you get the picture). This person is responsible for knowing all of the plots, encounters, monsters, and rules – or at least is able to make them up convincingly on the fly. The GM sets the scene for the players, they are the arbitrator of the rules, and they'll play the part of any non-player characters (NPCs) that the adventure might come across. The outcome of any action will be decided by a combination of the dice (or other randomiser), the rules, and the GM.
When starting an RPG, the first thing the GM might ask you is "What kind of character do you want to play?" Do you want to be a mighty fighter, a sneaky rogue, a powerful wizard, an interstellar smuggler? You could play any of these within the confines of the rules, the setting and the GM's own limitations. To help describe your character's abilities and to keep track of their attributes, you'll often have a character sheet. This will list all of the statistics that make your character who they are. When you first see one, it might appear a bit daunting. Don't worry – if you ever need one of the stats on the page, your GM will refer you to it.
When playing the game, it's up to you whether you act out the role of your character or just describe what you'll have them do. Go with whatever feels comfortable, and enjoy helping to create the story.
The fictional world in which the characters play out their story can be defined as much or as little as is needed for the game being played. It can be as simple as "Medieval Fantasy" or "Interstallar Exploration", or it could be a world with thousands of years of history and multiple planes of existence. Some settings, especially those associated with a popular culture franchise, are very specific with regards to the lore and what is possible within the game.
As for the game's story, you can think in terms of a TV show analogy. Each Encounter (a new location or group of people for example) can be thought of as a scene in a show. The Adventure would be the episode. When put all together in a Campaign, you have the whole series.
The GM will likely be the only one at the table with full knowledge of the plot, locations and encounters within a given adventure. Generally speaking the players will come in to the game knowing only the "hook" which will describe the overall goal of the adventure and, optionally, what they must do to succeed. Of course, the GM is able to modify this throughout the game either by introducing plot twists, or by frantically remodelling parts of the world because the characters took an unexpected path. There will likely be several encounters that will take the players through the course of the adventure. Most game systems have published adventure modules available which outline the plot details, the locations, and specific non-player individuals involved. However, many GMs will prefer to homebrew their own stories.
If the players are interested in continuing the game over many sessions, then a series of adventures can be linked together as a Campaign. This will often have an overarching plot, often either impending doom or a lofty goal. Some of the more popular game systems have global (as in real world) organized play programs, such as the D&D Adventurers League and the Pathfinder Society. Talk to your Friendly Local Game Store to find out if they host any games.
Most of the well known RPGs follow the basic format laid out by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in Dungeons & Dragons back in the 1970s. In recent years, there have been some excellent indepenently published RPGs which break out of that format. If you like the idea of less combat and more story, then take a look at Fiasco by Bully Pulpit Games. It's described as "A game of powerful ambition and poor impulse control", and it plays out like a Coen brothers movie.
In 2014 ConCentric Games joined forces with the venerable roleplaying convention Conformat, and we now have a dedicated RPG stream.
Games played at a convention like ConCentric Games are usually one-shot adventures with pre-generated characters. They are often really friendly to new players with very little if any experience required. If you have a grasp of the general way the game works, then that's usually enough. The GM should know the rules well enough to get you through the game and ensure you have a good time. Specifics like a minimum age or experience level can sometimes be required, but these are always outlined when you go to sign up. So, sign up, rock up, and have fun!