Now this is just my opinion of course and there are plenty of other folks out there with more experience and probably better supported theories, but for what it’s worth here’s where my head is at.
First you need to have a basic understanding of what an RPG is. RPG’s or Roll Playing Games, are designed to take the players and the GM (or Game Master) into a fantastic realm where a story unfolds. These stories can be mystery, horror, science fiction, fantasy, or any other genre you can image. The limits are only blocked by the openness of ones mind. Each game has a set of rules based on dice rolls and pencil’s and paper. There are sometimes books, maps, and pre-written stories or histories to get your minds started. There are usually monster’s or aliens, or creatures with various stats and abilities that the players characters will get to interact and maybe fight or kill in their game. These are called encounters.
They way most of these games are played is with a group of friends around a table. The GM designs a setting with several plot hooks (possible problems that the players can solve) and NPC’s (Non-player characters). NPC’s are what you would call supporting cast in your favorite movies or television shows. They are there to help the GM drive the story forward towards possible endings and various conflicts. The players build a concept for the type of character they want to bring into the GM’s setting. These characters are your protagonist’s or the story leads, and based on the game you’re all playing you use the rules to write up your character.
You might be wondering why did I call them “possible” endings and conflict earlier instead of just stories endings? Well, thats because a good GM (in my opinion) doesn’t write the whole story and have a set ending in mind that he directs the player towards at every movement or interaction their characters make. That is called railroading your players, it takes away the need for players to make decisions, because no matter what they do, it’s always going to continue as the GM in question has designed it. Alternatively if he builds a setting and puts in several possible antagonists, or conflicts, and then lets the players explore that setting and run into various encounters. Each scene in the story is a playable encounter where the players interact with the GM’s options and they decide where to take the story from there. This kind of cooperative story building, or open world design, takes the imaginations of all the players and the game master in new and interesting directions and can change the realms we play in, in unexpected ways. These are usually the best and most memorable games for everyone involved in my experience.
Let’s take the fantasy world of Dungeons & Dragons for example. This has long been one of the most popular and strongest RPG’s around. So our GM, we’ll call him Ted, has designed a custom built world he calls Shandora. Once he has the main foundation and structure he likes in place, he invites his players to create characters that will live in his world as it’s heroes for the stories they will tell together.
Player one, Bob, decides to make a Dwarf cleric (clerics are priest’s of a particular mythological god who grants them magical abilities for their devotion and for spreading that gods word), he decides that his cleric is named Kaldro Orehammer. Kaldro is from the mountains far to the east, and he has traveled for many years in search of his families long lost heirloom hammer that was taken during a great war between the dwarves and the orcs in his lands.
Player two is Kim, and she decides she wants to play a elf. Her elf has chosen to commune with nature and live in the vast forest of the south. Her name will be Frielda Silverwind, and she is a ranger. Frielda left her home lands in pursuit of a thief that stole their tree cities greatest treasure, known as the Heart Star. It is a magical gem that is said to store the cities history through portions of every one of their elder priest’s ancestral souls that were willingly shared with it.
Player three is Steve, he decides to create Hailoden, a tiefling sorcerer who has been cast out of his order. The order was called “The Enclave of the Crystal Spire”. Hailoden now travels the world with eye’s opened to all its magical wonders. He believes that this worlds magical power is a limited pool he calls “The Source” that is drawn from by all caster types and that it is slowly dying out. Hailoden researches and seeks something that will replenish the source and save all the mystical energies and wonders he finds all around him.
Our last player is Kelly, she decides to create combat rogue who uses her skills to recover things for others. She is a halfling named Clara Thimblefoot from the small village of Bluehill in the Midwest region. She enjoys good food, good song, and strong drinks. To her life is adventure, and adventure is sweeter than the Bluehill tobacco reserve she loves to smoke in her ivory long stemmed pipe.
Now that the GM Ted has this information he can adjust his world, Shandora, and add the mountain dwarves in the east, he’ll also make a note that there are orcs in that region and that Kaldor probably doesn’t like their kind much. He can bring in Freilda’s forest home and knows there is a secret elven city in the trees there. He also knows there is an a artifact called the Heart Star that she is trying to find. That can lead to many possible plot hooks and way’s to get his players back on track if the story starts to go awry. There is also now a group of magi in his world known as “The Enclave of the Crystal Spire”, since Hailoden is outcast from this group, are they chasing him? If he runs into a group of them would they attack or avoid him? What is the Crystal Spire? Is it a tower citadel where mages go to study? or maybe its just an unexplained shard of crystal that has shot up from the ground somewhere…. possibilities lay there that are untapped. Finally there is Clara who loves to seek life through adventure and hires her rogue skills out as a recovery expert. There is now a village known as Bluehill where a special tobacco is grown that is sweet smelling and that halflings apparently love. Ted’s world of Shandora has grown dramatically with the players character stories and they haven’t even started their first game yet.
So where to begin the story? What if Ted creates an NPC who knows about a warrior general who is amassing an army to the north? This general is said to fight with a unique dwarven hammer. He has an oracle of some reputation who is using a crystal gem that augments her spells and magic. The hammer has a family crest on it. The crystal could help heal the source, and matches the description of the Heart Star. And the general has wanted posters around that offer 200 gold coins for his capture. There is a hook for each of the players to join the quest and stop the General. Now they have to come together and decide to take on the job.
So lets say they decide to do it. How will they attempt to accomplish the goals of the party? Will they just attack the general head on? Will they join the generals army and try to take him down from the inside? Maybe they’ll try to gather their own forces and defend the lands seeking to get their chance at him in the upcoming battle. Or maybe they’ll try to sneak in and take their stuff back. The story will grow however the players and the GM move it. Lot’s of adventures loom there. Maybe they need a particular key sword to deal with the general that is kept in a fortress the players will need to infiltrate. Maybe the sword was taken below the fortress into old catacombs where rumor has it the dead walk the halls.
Maybe there is a staff of power that is rumored to protect against the crystal the oracle has. Maybe it’s kept inside the Crystal Spire, and the players will have to go into “The Enclave of the Crystal Spire’s” area to retrieve it.
What if there’s a young girl who the players find out is in hiding high up the eastern mountains? She might be a relative of the general, maybe someone he cares deeply about and he put her in the care of a temple of fighting monks. The players need to get into the temple, fight past the monks, capture the girl and get her out where they can use her as leverage to get their missions done.
This is only one type of game, there are games built around superheroes, and fighter pilots, and space pirates, or airships and explorers in a steampunk empire, there are games with mercenaries, and soldiers, and spies and cops, and dragons, or dystopian futures and wastelands, or any combination of these, you name it.
Unlimited stories are available to anyone with a vivid imagination and some time to spend with friends. Now a role play varies from a roll play because some might prefer to let the GM explain the setting, then they decide what they will have their characters try to do, and then they will roll dice based on the rule set of the particular game to see if it worked. This is a perfectly viable and fun way to play. Others might show the GM their characters abilities, equipment, and knowledge, and then try to add to the story through a role play. This is where the player takes on the aspects of the characters they built for the game, maybe the character has an accent or some funny tic or habit and they themselves play the part of the character in the GM’s story. The GM might require certain things the characters are trying to do, to need dice rolls to insure a balanced game. But they might also let things happen in the story just because the player’s descriptions are so cool and add to the story.
For a roll play example, lets say Kelly playing Clara decides she is going to stealth her way past a group of orc’s the party has encountered. She could ask the GM what the difficulty of the skill is and roll dice to get through the area, failing if she rolls poorly, or succeeding if she rolls well.
Alternatively she could try role playing something like this: Kelly mimes as if she is pulling a pipe from her mouth and tamping it out on her heal. Then she says, “Clara crouches down and quietly moves to the rocks next to the path. She slips into the shadow of the mountain and carefully moves silently from boulder to boulder to skirt around the orcs as they drink and shout their stories of battle to one another. As Clara is about half way through the area, one of them struggles to his feet and staggers over to the rocks where Clara is hiding. She freezes in place and looks to the ground. The orc shuffles up next to her hiding spot and stops, swaying some with his swimming head. Clara feels a single trickle of sweat from her hairline tickling its way down the side of her face and onto her neck, she’s sure she’s been discovered. The orc drops the empty clay jug to the ground where it shatters, he adjusts his stance, and Clara is greeted with the harsh acrid smell of drunken orc urine spattering off the rock she is hiding behind. After what seems an awful long time to her, the orc finishes with a shake and stumbles back down into the group of friends where he say’s he’s just run across the biggest rock beetle he’s ever seen! Clara uses her shoulder to wipe the sweat and spattered urine from her face before slipping silently back into the shadows and out the other side of the orc camp unnoticed.”
The GM might like this description enough and knowing her character’s skills say, “that works.” Or he might say, make one stealth roll with advantage to make sure it happens. (With advantage means Kelly gets to roll the dice twice and take the better of the two rolls because the GM liked her “role playing”. Or if he is more of a roll player than a role player, he might say the distance she will need to cross through is such that with her moving in stealth, she needs to make three consecutive dice rolls beating as 14 difficulty rating, and she get’s her bonuses on each roll. Either way, the game and the story evolves and players react to the next puzzle or obstacle the GM has prepared for them.
This form of escapism is no better or worse than any other. Maybe you read books, maybe you watch movies, or television shows, maybe you do crafts or are part of a church group, maybe you go hiking, ride bikes, or what ever activity you like to do that takes your mind off your real world problems and lets you breathe easy for a few hours…
Well, welcome to one of my hobbies, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.