Roleplaying Games (RPGs) have been around since the 1970s and
unfortunately gets more attention from the negative images
painted by media reporting than for the hobby's positive aspects.
Much ink has been spilt (and many trees sacrificed for pulp) by
so-called 'objective' reporters trying to smear the hobby with
emotional allegations of demon/devil worship, teen suicide, teen
violence, and a host of other social problems. So far, nobody has
accused these games of being responsible for the depletion of the
ozone layer or the extinction of the Siberian tiger but don't be
surprised. In an attempt to de-mystify what the hobby is all
about to parents, teachers and new enthusiasts, I have tried to
explain what roleplaying games are all about in simple, layman
terms. Read, talk to some regular gamers, then make up your own
- What Are Roleplaying Games?
Roleplaying games or RPGs are essentially games of make-believe
like our childhood games of cops and robbers albeit with
a bit more complicated rules. One game designer has
called it 'interactive fiction', much like reading a
novel but with the added feature where the readers can
actively take part and their actions define the way the
There are two sides to the game: the players who take on
roles (usually called 'player characters') in this
fictional world, and the referee (usually called the 'Gamemaster')
who plays all the other inhabitants of that world and
presents challenging situations for the players to
resolve. To resolve these situations, the players in
their roles, will use their wit, ingenuity and skills. In
effect, the roleplaying group is collectively telling a
story - just that they decide on-the-fly, what happens
To provide an organized method to determine just how
successful the players' solutions are, a set of rules are
applied. These rule sets (usually called Game Systems)
are usually based on using dice to add an element of
chance. The players 'win' the game by successfully
negotiating all the challenges and puzzles presented by
the referee. But for most players, the real fun comes
from the interaction with their friends and the typical
friendly ribbing and bantering that accompanies each game
One of the oldest and most popular rule sets is Dungeons
& Dragons. In this fantasy setting, the players
take on typical 'fantasy' roles like Wizards, Warriors or
Clerics. Each role has a set of abilities that describe
exactly what the role is capable of. Wizards have spells,
Warriors are handy at hitting things, and Clerics have
healing magic. By combining their different abilities,
the players learn to work as a team to solve any
conceivable problem posed by the referee.
- Who Plays Roleplaying Games?
The traditional stereotype of a rolegamer is a teenage
misfit with problems fitting into the rest of society.
While this unflattering image will probably always be
associated with the hobby, statistics and feedback
received by game companies indicate that gamers come from
all walks of society and from all ages: from children
barely in their teens to grandparents, although the
majority are young adults of 18 - 25. My own gaming group
has over the years included an airline pilot, computer
programmers, accountants, an interior designer and a
doctor. The youngest ever member of the group was 12, and
the oldest, 45.
- What Do Gamers Get Out Of It?
From personal experience with gamers, I have found that
most people play these games for the fun generated rather
than any thrill of 'winning'. A typical game session is
pretty much like a social event: the chance to talk,
laugh, and discuss ideas with like-minded individuals.
Roleplaying games do have several other positive aspects.
They encourage teamwork, interaction, and cooperation to
achieve mutually beneficial goals. They also inspire
creativity and teach the players problem solving skills.
Since many of the games are based on historical settings
or works of popular fiction, many gamers tend to be well
read as well. My first introduction to JRR Tolkien's The
Lord if the Rings was through playing Dungeons
& Dragons. Many of the players in my group over
the years have picked up the reading habit as well, which
is comforting in this modern era of declining literacy.
While it is probably not healthy to be too obsessed
with playing a role, the player from my old gaming group
(who played a cleric) liked the idea of healing people so
much he worked his way through medical school to become a
doctor. It may just be coincidential, although I still
tease him about this.
- Where Do I Start?
For the newbie gamer, there is a bewildering selection of
hundreds of game systems and supplements. By far, the
most painless way to learn is to join a regular group of
gamers who already play. Most friendly groups take
special care to show new players the ropes (we were all
newbies at one time after all). Posting a message on some
of the gaming sites (listed here)
may help you locate a group in your area. Once you have
done a few game sessions, you should have a clearer
picture of what you want to play or whether the hobby is
By far, the most sensible advice I have ever heard
somebody give a newbie is this: play only with people you
get along with. With this golden rule, the fun part
should be easy to achieve.
- What Types of Roleplaying Games Are Available?
Traditionally, roleplaying games have been based on
fantasy settings due to the popularity of the grandfather
of all roleplaying games, Dungeons & Dragons. However
these days there is probably a game for every conceivable
genre and setting gamers would want to play. Some random
examples with the publishing companies in parenthesis:
Fantasy: Dungeons & Dragons (TSR),
Runequest (Chaosium), Elric!(Chaosium), Middle Earth Role
Playing (ICE), Rolemaster, GURPS Fantasy (SJ Games),
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (Hogshead), Legend of the Five
Sci-Fic: Traveller (GDW), Star Frontiers
(TSR), Star Wars (West End), Shadowrun, Traveller 2300AD
(GDW), Star Trek: TNG, Rifts, Alternity (TSR), Babylon 5,
Horror: Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium),
Chill, Bureau 13, Vampire: The Masquerade (White Wolf),
Werewolf: The Apocalypse (White Wolf), Wraith: The
Oblivion (White Wolf)
Contemporary: Top Secret (TSR), James
Bond 007 (Victory Games), Marvel Superheroes (TSR),
Ninjas & Superspies (Palladium), Twilight 2000 (GDW),
Hong Kong Action Theatre
- What Games Do You Recommend?
Note that these are only my personal favourites and the
relative merits of each game are always the subject of
intense discussion between longtime gamers. For the
beginner, I would recommend trying games that are based
on your areas of interest. You are likely to have a good
working knowledge of the background and would probably be
more comfortable for your first few sessions.
For the Fantasy Enthusiast
If you liked the high fantasy of Lord of the Rings (J.R.R.
Tolkien) try TSR's Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) which
is strongly based on the concepts introduced by that
series of books. While often mercilessly derided by
purists of 'roleplaying', this game probably introduced
more gamers to the hobby than any other game system and
serves well as a first step. The basic concepts are
simple and easily understood, especially to people who
have read Tolkien's classic books and know what dwarves,
elves, and halflings are. The only drawback is the
relatively high cost of the complete system - D&D has
three main rulebooks and hundreds of supplements and
Another game worth trying in the fantasy genre is
RuneQuest (RQ), an elegantly simple rule system which
unfortunately is long out of print and the only sources
are second-hand game stores. Much cleaner in design and
easier to grasp than the sometimes convoluted AD&D
rules, it would be my first choice for beginning fantasy
rolegamers if it was readily available. During its time,
versions of the game or supplements were published by
several game companies including Avalon Hill and Games
Workshop. Copies of the game regularly fetch obscene
prices on Ebay.
For the Horror Enthusiast
The one game that has defined this genre for
most of rolegaming's history is Call of Cthulhu (COC),
which is based on the works of American horror novelist
Howard P. Lovecraft. Published by Chaosium, the same
company that gave us RuneQuest, a short description does
it no justice. To read my lengthy opinion of this
bestselling game, click here.
Other games worth trying are White Wolf's World of
Darkness series of which my two favourites are Vampire:
The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse.
For the Science Fiction Enthusiast
The one game that should be an example for all publishers
of science fiction RPGs is West End Games' Star Wars.
Clean, elegant rules which never get in the way of the
story capture perfectly the space opera setting that is
familiar to most of the world. Unfortunately the game is
currently in limbo following the financial problems at
West End. And to the horror of many of the roleplaying
purists, the coveted Star Wars RPG license has been
picked up by TSR. Coincidently, another game worth trying
is TSR's Alternity which is featured on this site (Click here).
For gamers with an interest in the orient,
especially samurai and ninja, I heartily recommend AEG's
Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) which allows gamers to
play in a fantasy world based on Japanese mythology. The
quality of the writing is terrific and is one of those
rare games that is as much fun to read as to play. To
jump to the L5R section on this site, click here.
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