Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Basics: Roleplaying

I love telling stories.

I tell stories through conversations with people. I tell stories through my writing. For several years, I told stories through acting on a stage. Telling stories is only part of the fun, though; I love being involved in the events that make up my stories.

I love being creative.

Whether I'm jotting down a haiku or drawing up blueprints of the high-tech future home I'll never have the resources to build, it is deeply satisfying to me when I loose my imagination and create things.

Tabletop roleplaying games incorporate storytelling and creativity.

I love roleplaying games.

To clarify, I mean tabletop roleplaying games, A.K.A. pen-and-paper roleplaying games. Not that you necessarily need to play at the table (I've played on the floor plenty of times), nor is it a requirement to use a pen and paper (some people use their laptops to record all their information); "tabletop" and "pen-and-paper" simply mean "not a video game," as in, "played with real people."

I know, there's this misconception that gamer geeks don't have any friends, so the notion of a geeky game played with other geeky people seems counterintuitive.

The person running the game, often known as the GM or Game Master, is essentially a storyteller, describing the setting and the events of the game, as if he or she were the narrator of a book. A player takes on the role of a character in the interactive story the GM is telling; not only do they usually have free reign over designing their characters, but they make every decision and speak every line of dialogue for their characters, influencing the direction of the story.

Players will often say that the process of creating a character is one of the most rewarding parts of playing an RPG. In a way, creating a character is like designing your own superhero: you get to choose his or her (or its!) strengths, weaknesses, quirks, opinions, pet peeves, religious views, political affiliations, breakfast food preferences (I suggest Scotch n' Bacon--sorry, in-joke), etc. When characters first start out, they're usually somewhat-above-average commoners, but with enough looting and experience under their belts, characters really can become superheroes... or gods, even.

Most player characters (also known as PCs) in a roleplaying game can do things that would be impossible for the players to do in real life. Depending on the game, characters might be able to survive a fall into an active volcano, shoot the wings off a fly, or turn a person's underwear inside-out with their minds. PCs can be anything a player wants them to be, from burly brawler to elegant spokesperson to ace detective. Though RPGs have rules that govern character creation, a character is only truly limited by the player's creativity (or by the demands of the GM).

During the design phase, players also have an opportunity to develop a backstory for their characters. Sometimes players write a few sentences to give the GM a basic idea of the character's personality and history. Sometimes players write a veritable novella, complete with geneaologies and esoteric details that will never, ever, come up during a game session. Ever. Still, creating a character backstory is like writing a short story, and putting that backstory into use during a game is like self-publishing.

Character creation is an excuse for artistically inclined players to sketch their characters and present their artwork when prompted for a physical description of who they're playing as. Theatrical players get to play around with different accents and speech patterns they might use while speaking as their characters. Strategy-oriented players might plan not just the creation of their characters but their long-term development as well, crafting their characters so that they start out on a direct path to obtain all the powers and abilities the players want their characters to have as they grow stronger.

Then there's the matter of playing as the characters; otherwise, we'd call it tabletop rolemakingbutnotactuallyplaying. Just imagine all the history and power and personality of the character you've created and then becoming that character, then interacting with other characters and creatures in a place that is driven by imagination and held together by whatever rules the GM sees fit. At this point, you'd almost certainly have a bigger say in what happens in your character's life than in your own life. Limitless choices. Freedom.

But that's nothing compared to the benefits of being a GM.

Whereas players generally only get to create and play as one character at a time, the GM has an entire universe filled with characters to build and roleplay. Let me back up a moment: the GM has an entire universe. Period. Just as there are rules to guide the creation of a character, there are rules to guide the creation of a game universe... the only difference is that the GM gets to decide whether or not to follow the rules. Limitless choices. Ultimate freedom.

There are plenty of preexisting game universes and campaign settings for GMs to use, but, realistically, anything a GM can imagine is fair game to incorporate into a game universe. Granted, there's an art to going bonkers with your creativity without disrupting the experience of the players, but there's nothing that says you can't have a world governed by talking shoelaces that live in a purple mushroom on the gold-plated elbow of a zombie hedgehog.

See? This is why I don't write horror novels.

There's also something tremendously satisfying about watching how players interact with your world. Few geek joys compare to the feeling you get when your players gasp in utter surprise or grin from ear to ear about something you, the GM, have poured your heart and soul into creating. No matter how many rules you have to memorize or how many hours you've dedicated to pulling everything together, that feeling makes it all worthwhile.

Perhaps you're interested in giving this whole roleplaying thing a shot. Roleplaying is a bit trickier to get into than some other hobbies because real people are among the required materials, and, speaking from experience here, attempts to purchase them in the store are rarely successful.

Things You Need:

First and foremost: A group of people who are willing to play. No experience necessary. Unless you're just staging battles between PCs, somebody is going to need to be the GM, even if they have to learn everything on the fly. I have found that an ideal group size is between 3 and 6 players (plus the GM); games with fewer players need to be custom-tailored to the characters' (or character's) skill sets for them to have a chance to succeed, and games with more players quickly become unmanageable.

Second and secondmost: A game to play. Yes, the GM could make everything up on the spot, but it's usually in the best interest of the players to use the rules and ideas of an established, playtested game that provides the GM with all the tools he or she will need to run a successful session.

Popular roleplaying games include (but are certainly not limited to) Dungeons & Dragons, a sword-and-sorcery fantasy game; Vampire: The Masquerade, a dark game where vampires are far more than just cheap movie villains; Shadowrun, a game that blends futuristic technology with magic; The Star Wars Roleplaying Game, which is exactly what it sounds like; GURPS (Generic Universal Roleplaying System), which is actually a set of rules that is adaptable to any number of genres and settings; and a slew of other games that are far too numerous to mention, except for Adventure!, which is a '20s pulp fiction game that's loads of fun.

Now, in order to play the game you've chosen, you'll need the sourcebook(s). Every RPG that I can think of (though there may be exceptions) has at least one book that explains all the rules and outlines everything you, the player, will need to know.

If you're the GM, chances are good that you'll need additional books that cover things the players really don't need to know. Furthermore, there are usually supplemental books that cover things the players and GMs really don't need to know unless they're trying to break away from the core rules and concepts, which you may wish to do to help keep the game fresh after a long while. (Side note: Sometimes you can find source material online. Sometimes it's free. Sometimes it's illegal.)

Third and thricemost: Playing materials. You'll probably need writing utensils and some way to keep track of the status and abilities of your characters; a "character sheet" for your game of choice is usually easy to photocopy from the sourcebook or find online.

Also, it's almost a guarantee that you'll need polyhedral dice. "Polyhedral" is Latin for "Not available in normal stores." Many results are determined by the roll of a die; don't assume that you can automatically set the mayor on fire just because you said so. Standard six-sided dice are good enough for some games, but others will require at least one twenty-sided die (which we call a "d20") plus a few others, or simply an inordinate amount of ten-sided dice.

Also, you'll probably need Mountain Dew.

Indeed, feeding a group of gamers is often as important as giving them pens and pencils with which they can grudgingly write how much damage you are doing to their defenseless, inept wizard wannabes. Pro tip: If you're the GM, make the players bring the food. Unless they bring lousy food.

Case in point: If I have my facts straight, I once had a group of five players each bring salsa and chips to a session. They knew I didn't like salsa. They knew I can't stand to throw things out. For the next several weeks, I had three containers of progressively moldier salsa in my fridge.

...But I digress.

Fourth and frostmouth: A good playing location. Secluded room with comfy chairs, a big table, and mood music is preferable. McDonald's Playplace Ball Pit is not. Though it would be fun for about three minutes. Make sure you've either got a group of people who aren't bothered by confused and offended stares from passersby (should you be forced to play in a public location, such as a Denny's), or else you should play in a location where agitated neighbors will not call you out for shouting "I'M THE KING!!!" at around midnight on a school night. Especially when you're the RA and should know better than to make so much noise so late.

Not that I would know anything about that.

So those are the major things. There's plenty more advice to be had about how to run a good game session, how to play your characters more effectively, which kinds of food are not offensive to bring to my sessions, etc., but this post is all about the basics. And, basically, that's about it.

1 comment:

Scott said...

Hero Quest was a fun game and a neat introduction to the idea of D&D without the overwhelming need for sitting and reading a huge guide about races, classes, and skills... and when you decided you'd had enough of the simple game, it was also a great resource to use in making your own D&D adventures, what with the great gridded board and figures/props.

I've always wished that I could find an online version of Hero Quest.