Sunday, October 2, 2011

Role Playing: The Basics

Do you remember what the word "playing" meant as a child? You took your G.I. Joe, or your Barbie, or your Hotwheels, or even just the stick you found, and you made it real in your mind. Anything could happen. The bush in your front lawn was an immense forest for your smaller toys, or if you were partial to the stick, then trees, signposts, or even just the air around you became a band of ninjas intent on releasing their real ultimate power all over you.

Of course, they were never really good enough to overcome your masterful, flailing swordsmanship. And much as we prided ourselves on being the greatest swordsman in the back yard, we inevitably grew bored with the lack of challenge involved.

And that's where traditional pen and paper role playing games come in. They take everything which we loved about playing as children, and give it the structure and guidance it needs to remain fun through our entire adult lives.

For the most part, this blog has assumed that readers of the RPG related posts are, themselves, role players. I haven't bothered to explain the more basic concepts, because I assumed nobody interested in those posts would need them explained. However, a twitter-friend of mine, Mocharaid, recently requested that I write a "D&D for Newbs" blogpost. I don't get a lot of requests, so just asking was flattery enough for me to oblige.

In this post I will try to put the essence of my beloved hobby into words. Though books could, and have, been written on the subject, I think it worthwhile to say things in my own way. Of course, nothing I write here could be a complete distillation of everything there is, (the most basic rulebook for Pathfinder alone is over 500 pages long!) I hope only to provide outsiders with a glimpse of what life is like around the game table.

A quick disclaimer before I move forward: I am not setting out to do research for this post. I'll fact-check, of course, but this will be a tale told through the lens of my personal experience, focusing on the games I've played.

A (Very) Brief History

I know History isn't very interesting unless you're already interested, so you can skip this if you like. However, a basic history can be helpful, so here we go.

Wargames had already been around a very long while when, in 1974, a pair of fellows named Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson struck upon an idea for a game. In this game, the players would take control of individual characters in a fantasy world, and guide those characters as they worked together to face danger and seek out treasure. They called this game Dungeons and Dragons, and it took off, selling 1,000 copies the first year, and 4,000 copies the next.

It didn't take long for innumerable games with their own take on the basic concept to spring up. Some focused on Science Fiction, while others focused on realistic modern-day adventuring, and still others take place in the realm of Lovecraftian horrors. Some of these games are good, some of them are great, and some of them are downright awful, but nobody can complain about lack of variety.

Meanwhile, the two founders of the genre created a second edition of their game, and went on releasing supplements and improvements to Dungeons and Dragons until the late 90s. In 1997, Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR (the company founded by Gygax and Arneson). And in the year 2000 Wizards release Dungeons and Dragons third edition, which was followed in 2003 by the release of D&D 3.5. 2003. These two systems took the interesting step of implementing the open gaming license, or "OGL." To put that in software terms, many parts of Dungeons and Dragons were now considered "Open Source." Incidentally, is where I came in.

In 2008, WotC released Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition. And, while beloved by many, many others felt that 4th edition betrayed the history of the D&D franchise. For these displaced multitudes who now found themselves clinging to the sinking ship of D&D 3.5, a savior came. A company called Paizo took advantage of the OGL used by D&D 3.5 to release Pathfinder.

Pathfinder is the game which I currently champion. It is Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, updated and polished. I look forward to many years of playing and enjoying this game. And, if this post inspires you to look into the hobby further, I encourage you to buy the absolutely gorgeous hardcover copy of the book. Aside from buying it online, you should be able to find it at any gaming store, or bookstore which sells RPGs. And if the price tag is too high for you, Paizo offers the entire set of rules for free online.

The Absolute Basics

Here's what an RPG is, distilled to a single sentence:
In a group of two or more players, all but one player take control of characters, while the remaining player controls the environment, any non-player characters, and determines the difficulty and success of any tasks the other players would like their characters to perform.

That single player, often referred to as the "Game Master," or GM, is the facilitator. In the imaginary world which everyone is engaged with, the GM is not only god, but the tavernkeeper, the king, the farmer, the monster, or even the inconvenient wall. It is the GM's job to construct a game for the other players to play, his or her job to determine the outcome of any actions taken by the characters, and most importantly, to make sure that everyone is having fun.

Everyone else at the table, often referred to as the players (in contrast to the Game Master), controls only a single actor in the world the GM has created. This player character, or PC, has free reign to explore the GM's world, but are powerless beyond whatever abilities their character possesses.

At this point someone skeptical about the value of these games might point out that all I've described above is a video game, with the electronics being replaced by a person. A person who will not only need to do a lot of work, but one who might not be as good at game design as a professional game designer. Or, worse yet, one who might be biased to favor one player over others at the table. And all of this is true, but it ignores the greatest strength of RPGs. The one thing that elevates them, in my mind, above any video game ever made.

You can do anything.

Remember that time in a video game when the zombies were closing in on you, and you wanted to get into the next room to escape, but the door was boarded shut? In the game, you had to stop, kill the zombie with your weapon, then try to find another entrance to the room.

In that same scenario in D&D, here's just a few of the alternatives you would have:

-Attempt to kick in the door.
-Attempt to climb up into the rafters, out of the Zombie's reach.
-Climb out of the nearby window onto the ledge outside and see about finding another window to climb back into.
-Attempt to throw the zombie out of aforementioned window.
-Climb up into the rafters, dangle yourself in front of the window, then pull yourself up just in time for the charging zombie to fall out of the window.

Of course, a video game might include functions to replicate one, two, or even all of the options mentioned above. And that's fine. But no time in the near future will video games be able to allow a player to respond to challenges in the sheer variety of ways that a pen and paper RPG does.

And as for the amount of work the GM needs to do? Well, while some of us mumble and grouse about it, the truth is we love every second of it. We spent our childhoods making maps and inventing imaginary lands. Nothing makes us quite as happy as sharing those places with people who appreciate them. A kind word here, and a compliment there, is more than enough to make me eager to keep going.

The Role of Dice

Players of RPGs use a lot of unusually shaped dice. Most people are familiar by now with the existence of twenty-sided dice, but in my gaming career I've used dice with 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 20, and even 100 sides. And that's hardly the extent of the dice which are used by the gaming community.

Dice are the means by which success and failure are determined. I think my favorite explanation of how dice interact with the game comes from a line of Game Master advice in superb Star Wars RPG, published by West End Games.

Pick a difficulty number. If the character's skill roll is equal or higher, she succeeds.

Dice serve as the one element of the game which is out of everyone's control. They are the great equalizer. The Goblin King may be 100 feet away, and the fighter may only have the broken hilt of a sword left to her, but if she decides to take that shot and rolls a 20, then against all odds she might just be able to turn a losing battle around. Of course, in the very next scene, while walking across the relatively sturdy (but somewhat narrow) bridge, a roll of 1 could leave the mighty slayer of the goblin king tumbling to an ignoble death.

Of course, most games don't leave everything to chance. Many actions have no chance of failure (such as eating or walking through normal terrain). Still other actions are blatantly impossible, or have skill checks only a god could make. Even everything in between isn't left completely up to the dice, as players have the opportunity to be better or worse at specific types of tasks.

Lets say, for example, that your character is good at climbing. Depending on what game you're playing this might be represented a number of different ways, but the end result is that you have a better chance to succeed at climbing than another character would. This might take the form of allowing you to roll additional dice, or simply giving you a static number which you can add to any die result you get.

The number you have to roll is normally determined by the Game Master, and is higher or lower based on the difficulty or ease of the task at hand. To continue with the climbing analogy, making your way up a steep slope might require a moderately high roll. Perhaps a 15 on a 20-sided die. Whereas climbing a cliff face which slopes outwards might require a roll of 25--meaning you damned well better have a bonus of at least +5 if you're going to attempt it.

How to Stop Wishing and Start Playing

So you like what you hear, you want to play, but you don't know anybody, right? Almost every gamer I've ever known has had this problem at some point. It's frustrating, the hobby really isn't all that wide spread these days. So here's my advice:

Just fucking do it.

I know that seems ridiculous, but I'm trying to make a point: there are gamers out there. And, if there aren't, then there are potential gamers out there. Ask around, browse the Internet, you've probably got a comic shop, or better yet, a friendly local game store. The store owners might even allow a few groups to play in the shop, or at least let you post a "looking for group" announcement on their bulletin board.

If you're willing to take on the mantle of GM, then talk to your friends or your coworkers or anyone who will listen. Odds are at least some of them will be interested enough to come over to your place for an evening of pizza, beer, and fun. Some of them will decide that role playing isn't really their kind of thing, and won't want to do it again. But that's okay--finding your group is an ongoing process.

And if all else fails, turn to the Internet. There are resources like The Pathfinder Society to help you find people. And if even that fails you, lots of people play online.

There are games and gamers out there--you just need to find them.

Anything More?

If anybody enjoyed this or found it useful and would like me to write more on this topic, let me know what you want to know, I will try to oblige.


  1. Wow, what an awesome post! :D It has brought my desire to play waaaaaay up (yay for the useful links too :3)

    - Mocharaid

  2. @Lesir,

    I'm glad this is what you were looking for, I wasn't sure just how basic I should go with things, so I decided to just go as basic as I could and figured I could work my way up from there in future posts or in private if there's anything more you wanted to know.

  3. Haha, it was basic enough that even I understood it, so, mission accomplished, good sir! ;) The only experience I had with D&D prior to this was a few hours played in Planescape: Torment and Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance (awesome games by the way!)


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