“What is a role-playing game?”
An informal genre survey.
Pen-and-paper roleplaying games are a fascinating genre, hovering somewhere between storytelling, board games, gambling, genre fiction, and statistics. And thanks to their topsy-turvy status in mainstream culture, they are a genre that must continually revise and redefine themselves. A game played largely through conversation, with few visual aids beyond a character sheet and (maybe) a map and figurines, pales in comparison to the virtual vistas, decorative customization, and orgiastic statistical management of World of Warcraft, despite the latter’s indebtedness to its RPG forbears.
Despite this need, the structure of RPG rulebooks are remarkably codified. Most have an introduction followed by rules for character creation, class types, skills, equipment, combat, magic, setting notes, and a range of appendixes. Decades have proven that this formula works for fantasy-driven RPGs like D&D, whether written and printed by large corporations or distributed online by a single writer. The introduction is particularly interesting because it nearly always includes an Introduction to Roleplaying—a quick summation of what the game is about and how it’s played—targeting the novice reader who might have never tried an RPG before. Many of these introductions ask, ‘What is a role-playing game?’
I thought it’d be interesting to collect some answers from the books in my collection, as well as a few I scraped together online. This is an unscientific survey, limited to a few major players, but even a small sample provides a look at how the genre has changed over time. I’ve added commentary to a few and let others speak for themselves. I’ve also included the section heading when provided; some newer books did not have clearcut introduction sections, so I grabbed the most appropriate quote.
From Dungeons & Dragons [Volume 1: Men and Magic] (1974):
ONCE UPON A TIME, long, long ago there was a little group known as the Castle and Crusade Society. Their fantasy rules were published, and to this writer’s knowledge, brought about much of the current interest in fantasy wargaming. For a time the group grew and prospered, and Dave Arneson decided to begin a medieval fantasy campaign game for his active Twin Cities club…From the CHAINMAIL fantasy rules he drew ideas for a far more complex and exciting game, and thus began a campaign which still thrives as of this writing! In due course the news reached my ears, and the result is what you have in your hands at this moment. While the C & C Society is no longer, its spirit lives on, and we believe that all wargamers who are interested in the medieval period, not just fantasy buffs, will enjoy playing DUNGEONS and DRAGONS. Its possibilities go far beyond any previous offerings anywhere!
While it is possible to play a single game, unrelated to any other game events past or future, it is the campaign for which these rules are designed. It is relatively simple to set up a fantasy campaign, and better still, it will cost almost nothing. In fact you will not even need miniature figures, although their occasional employment is recommended for real spectacle when battles are fought.
These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS and DRAGONS to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find that these rules are the answer to their prayers. With this last bit of advice we invite you to read on and enjoy a “world” where the fantastic is fact and magic really works!
The original ‘white box’ Dungeons & Dragons rules, co-authored by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, has no introduction to roleplaying, but I’ve included excerpts from Gygax’s introduction to show how the game was really an expansion to a prior set of wargaming rules. D&D’s initial readers were hailing from an established tradition of tabletop gaming, so Gygax did not play up the roleplaying aspect in light of the game’s tactical heritage. Still, he emphasizes that wargamers without lacking imagination need not apply.
From Dungeons & Dragons [‘Blue Box’ Basic Set] (1977):
This book is based upon the original work published in 1974 and three supplementary booklets published in the two year period after the initial release of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. It is aimed solely at introducing the reader to the concepts of fantasy role playing and the basic play of this game. To this end it limits itself to basics. The rules contained herein allow only for the first three levels of player progression, and instructions for the game referee, the “Dungeon Master,” are kept to the minimum necessary to allow him to conduct basic games. This is absolutely necessary because the game is completely open-ended, is subject to modification, expansion, and interpretation according to the desires of the group participating, and is in general not bounded by the conventional limitations of other types of games. This work is far more detailed and more easily understood than were the original booklets nonetheless, for with it, and the other basic components of the game, any intelligent and imaginative person can speedily understand and play DUNGEONS & DRAGONS as it was meant to be played.
The ‘Blue Box’ set was D&D’s graduation from hobbyist expansion to mainstream product and the preface indicates as much. The emphasis on open-ended, house rule-style play is noteworthy since later games would emphasize the players’ ability to do as they wished within the rules, rather than with the rules. D&D’s subsequent deluge of adventure modules, supplementary rulebooks, figurines, and other merchandise indicate that it made more market sense to feed players additional rules rather than letting them invent their own.
From Dungeons & Dragons Players Manual (1983):
What is “role playing”?
This is a role-playing game. That means that you will be like an actor, imagining that you are someone else, and pretending to be that character. You won’t need a stage, though, and you won’t need costumes or scripts. You only need to imagine.
This game doesn’t have a board, because you won’t need one. Besides, no board could have all the dungeons, dragons, monsters, and characters you will need!
Mentzer’s revision of the D&D rules, largely regarded as one of the best versions, keeps ‘role playing’ in quotes (with no hyphen) since it was still a niche hobby wedded to the wargaming community. The stage metaphor reappears frequently in these introductions, along with the appeal to players using their imaginations. The differentiation from board games, however, is one that disappears in subsequent years, presumably once D&D catches mainstream attention. At this point, Mentzer still had to tell players what the hell this weird boxed game with no board or playing pieces was.
From Vampire: The Masquerade (1991):
In a storytelling game, players create characters using the rules in this book, then take those characters through dramas and adventured, called (appropriately enough) stories. Stories are told through a combination of the wishes of the players and the directives of the Storyteller.
In a lot of ways, storytelling resembles games such as How to Host a Murder. Each player takes the role of a character—in this case, a vampire—and engages in a form of improvisational theatre, saying what the vampire would say and describing what the vampire would do. Most of this process is freeform—players can have their characters say or do whatever they like, so long as the dialogue or actions are consistent with the character’s personality and abilities. However, certain actions are best adjudicated through the use of dice and the rules presented in this book.
Whenever rules and story conflict, the story wins. Use the rules only as much—or preferably as little—as you need to tell thrilling stories of terror, action and romance.
Though D&D competitors existed since its inception, publisher White Wolf was one of the first significant challengers to TSR’s market hegemony. Their gothic settings were not only intended for ‘mature minds,’ but their innovative Storyteller System offered a departure from the D&D mold. Vampire’s description makes no bones about its theatrical nature, nor its fidelity to story above game mechanics. White Wolf elevated the role in roleplaying to its narrative extreme—players were expected to inhabit their characters as much as possible, ushering in a new era of live-action roleplaying.
From Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia (1991):
What Is Role-Playing?
Role-playing games are much like radio adventures, except for one important detail: they’re interactive. One player provides the narrative and some of the dialogue, but the other players, instead of just sitting and envisioning what’s going on, actually participate. Each player controls the actions of a character in the story, decides on his actions, supplies his character’s dialogue, and makes decisions based on the character’s personality and his current game options.
The appeal to both an anachronistic genre (‘radio adventures’) and the buzzword of the ascendent videogame generation (‘interactivity’) is strange. Perhaps an appeal to both older and younger players alike?
From Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game (1994):
What Is A Storytelling Game?
Storytelling games are like imaginary movies that you create with your friends. These games allow you and your friends to become larger-than-life heroes and to have adventures impossible in the real world. Games like Street Fighter are shared stories; each player creates part of a single, ongoing tale.
From The Wheel of Time Roleplaying Game (2001):
This Is A Roleplaying Game
A roleplaying game is a game of your imagination, in which you use the rules and your own creativity to tell stories and have adventures. You take on the role of a character you create—not a character from one of the novels, but one of your own devising. The game resembles a movie, except that the action and adventure takes place in your imagination, not on a screen. There isn’t even a script, other than the notes or rough outline used by one of the people involved, the Gamemaster. The Gamemaster serves as the director and special effects designer. He decides what sort of story to tell…By working together, the players and the Gamemaster create a story, and everybody has a great time.
Continuing the trend of comparing roleplaying to other familiar media, Street Fighter and Wheel of Time opt for cinema over radio plays.
From Ars Magica [5th edition] (2004):
In many ways, Ars Magica is very similar to most other pen-and-paper roleplaying games. Players have characters, who are defined by a set of numbers, and control their characters’ actions by telling the other players what they do. One player, called the “storyguide” in Ars Magica, handles most of the world, deciding what antagonists and extras do. Conflicts, or tasks that might be beyond a character’s capabilities, are resolved according to the rules described in this book, and a die roll.
Notice that twenty-first century rulebooks begin to reference the history of roleplaying as a guide.
From Call of Cthulhu [6th edition] (2005):
The Roots of Play
The game is an evolving interaction between players (in the guise of characters unraveling a mystery) and the keeper, who presents the world in which the mystery occurs. Play is mostly talking: some situation or encounter is outlined, and then the players tell the keeper what they, in the guise of their investigators, intend to do. Using the rules to keep matters consistent and fair, the keeper then tells them if they can do what they proposed, and the steps they must follow. If the proposal is impossible, the keeper narrates what happens instead. Roll dice to resolve encounters. Dice keep everybody honest, add drama, and promote surprises, dismal defeats, and hair’s-breadth escapes.
The game rules make the game world understandable, define what can and cannot be done, and offer an objective determination of success and failure.
Cthulhu, like Vampire, focuses on storytelling, but emphasizes how mechanics reinforce narrative.
From Dogs in the Vineyard (2005):
If You’ve Never Roleplayed Before
You and your friends sit around a table or the living room, talking. You’re collaborating on a story about these characters…their adventures and the challenges they face. Each of your friends acts for one of the characters, making decisions and taking action and speaking pretty much for that character alone. Anybody can suggest anything to anybody, but when it comes to that character, the buck stops with that player.
An interesting twist on ‘authorial control’ from an independent game designer. In most explanations, the DM/GM/Storyteller/whatever is the ultimate arbiter. Here, the player reigns.
From Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook [4th edition] (2008):
A Roleplaying Game
The Dungeons & Dragons game is a roleplaying game. In fact, D&D invented the roleplaying game and started an industry.
A roleplaying game is a storytelling game that has elements of the games of make-believe that many of us played as children. However, a roleplaying game such as D&D provides form and structure, with robust gameplay and endless possibilities.
D&D is a fantasy-adventure game. You create a character, team up with other characters (your friends), explore a world, and battle monsters. While the D&D game uses dice and miniatures, the action takes place in your imagination. There, you have the freedom to create anything you can imagine, with an unlimited special effects budget and the technology to make anything happen.
As market leader and genre originator, D&D has the blessing/burden of history behind it. 4th edition was a controversial release. Its detractors claimed Wizards of the Coast were catering to videogame players—complex, rule-heavy combat, inspired by console/computer RPGs, took center stage in favor of storytelling and social interaction. Those who liked 4th edition praised its depth and balance. Whichever side you agree with depends on your gaming tastes. I thought the system was fine, but combat trudged on forever.
What’s interesting in 4th edition’s introduction is its immediate recognition of its own history. The second sentence establishes D&D’s legacy as the industry originator, and that fact is repeated further along. Also note the number of times ‘D&D’ is repeated, giving the text a hint of marketing-speak. They also couch the use of miniatures—a necessity with this edition—with reassurance that your imagination still plays a part. And finally, we see an interesting repetition of the ‘special effects’ metaphor from the Wheel of Time RPG.
From Mouse Guard (2008):
This is a roleplaying game. Roleplaying games are peculiar and unique. They require a lot of imagination and investment from the players. This creative input is also what makes roleplaying games great. We get to wrap our imaginations around a variety of interesting situations and explore them.
Each player takes on a role in this game—the players have their characters, the GM has his antagonists and supporting characters. In play, you decide what your character is doing and who he is talking to. It’s sort of like acting out a part in a play or movie, except there’s no script. Between takes, we roll dice and make a few notes rather than sitting in our trailers or waiting off stage.
Another throwback to the Basic Set rules, referencing a play with no script. But the subtle jab at the end differentiates roleplaying from mere acting. You’re not just waiting to read a line; you’re doing something.
From The Burning Wheel (2009):
It Revolves on This
Unlike many other rpgs, there is no fixed or predetermined “setting” to play in. Burning Wheel is an heir to a long legacy of fantasy roleplaying games, most of which contain far better worlds and settings than could be provided here. Also, it is my strong belief that players of these games are adept at manufacturing their own imagined spaces for game play; my own world would just pale in comparison to what resides in your imagination.
In the game, players take on the roles of characters inspired by history and works of fantasy fiction. These characters are represented by a series of numbers, designating their abilities, and a list of player-determined priorities. The synergy of inspiration, imagination, numbers and priorities is the most fundamental element of Burning Wheel. Manipulating these numbers and priorities within situations presented by the game master (GM) is what the game is all about.
Burning Wheel’s ‘setting-less’ rule system is a departure from D&D of yore and makes good on the promise to let the players’ imaginations guide the story. (And incidentally, Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard share the same system/author. Luke Crane originally released Burning Wheel in 2002.)
From Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook [4th printing] (2010):
The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is a tabletop fantasy game in which the players take on the roles of heroes who form a group (or party) to set out on dangerous adventures. Helping them tell this story is the Game Master (or GM), who decides what threats the player characters (or PCs) face and what sorts of rewards they earn for succeeding at their quest. Think of it as a cooperative storytelling game, where the players play the protagonists and the Game Master acts as the narrator, controlling the rest of the world.
Part of the fallout from D&D 4th edition was the independent continuation of the revised 3rd edition rules (i.e., D&D 3.5) by companies like Paizo. Players frustrated to sacrifice their hundreds of dollars of expensive rulebooks and adventures for a new system opted instead to support a new competitor. In subsequent years, Pathfinder has challenged D&D’s market lead, apparently outselling the reigning champ.
Paizo’s mass market position explains their bog-standard introductory text. When new players are likely to thumb through your book at Barnes & Noble, it pays to explain your game as clearly and succinctly as possible. Paizo does a good job at this, with no burden of historical legacy.
From Sword Noir (2010):
You Know What I Mean
There are a few terms used through the text that are general and are not specifically discussed within the rules, but really need to be understood before embarking on learning the system itself. Some of these terms may be understood by those who already play role-playing games (RPG), which—I’m going to go out on a limb here—likely includes most or all of the readers.
Another independent RPG, Sword Noir knows its audience. If you’re reading the rules, you probably already know what a roleplaying game is.
From Dungeon Crawl Classics (2012):
Abandon all presumptions, ye who enter here. Turn the pages of this tome only should you meet these qualifications:
That you are a fantasy enthusiast of imaginative mind, familiar with the customs of role playing, understanding the history and significance of the Elder Gods Gygax and Arneson and their cohorts Bledsaw, Holmes, Kask, Kuntz, Mentzer, and Moldvay, and knowledgeable of the role of “judge” and the practice of “adventure.”
DCC is one of many independent RPGs leading a renaissance in ‘old school’ roleplaying. These clones of prior systems (primarily D&D) are yet another reaction to the cruft and complexity of modern D&D. And like Sword Noir, DCC knows its audience likely respects the heritage of roleplaying games. So ironically, returning to the roots of D&D presumes one already has an answer to ‘What is a role-playing game?’