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About Role-Playing Games (RPGs)

What are role-playing games (RPGs)?

This is a surprisingly hard question to answer; as with any art form, any short definition is going to leave out a few things that are generally considered to be role-playing games and include a few things that aren't. We will present two definitions, one more descriptive and one more technical. The first is from CAR-PGa: "Improvised, open-ended stories in which the referee sets the stage and the players describe the actions of individual characters seeking a common goal. Playing depends on imagination and group interaction within elaborate rules." Game publisher Darwin Bromley put it even more succinctly: "quantified interactive storytelling."

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Can you be a bit more descriptive? (What goes into a role-playing game?)

Those who have never seen a role-playing game played may find that the above definitions, while fairly technically accurate, are insufficiently descriptive to allow them to picture exactly what makes up an RPG. There are four things common to most or all RPGs:

Player Characters (PCs)
Fictional characters belonging to the players. On a game-rules level, characters are usually produced by the player assigning points from a starting pool to various characteristics, commonly called "stats" (from "statistics") or "attributes"/"attribute scores." Including a selection of physical characteristics (e.g., size, strength, endurance, and dexterity) and mental characteristics (e.g., intelligence and willpower) is almost universal, with some games adding social characteristics (e.g., appearance and charisma), luck, etc. Many games have skills and abilities chosen in a similar manner. In some games, there are also secondary characteristics derived from a weighted formula from the primary characteristics and skills or chosen by the player. Thus the player has some idea, from the beginning, of what the character can or cannot do.
Game Master
A referee, generically called a Game Master ("GM") or in specific games known as a Dungeon Master ("DM"), Storyteller ("ST"), or some other title. It is the referee who sets the scene and plays the other characters whom the player characters encounter, known as "Non-Player Characters" or "NPCs." The referee also decides how difficult the characters' tasks are, including assigning any necessary modifiers for the conditions under which the tasks are attempted. Finally, the referee is the arbiter of the rules.
Randomizer (Dice)
Some sort of randomizer; most of the time this is an assortment of dice that can be used to generate both straight-line and bell-curve probability distributions. Knowing the randomization system, a player can calculate their character's general chances of success at any given task by looking at the aforementioned characteristics and situational modifiers. As in real life, a character may succeed at a minimal skill or fail despite proficiency, but it is not likely unless the task is exceedingly easy or hard. (This reduction of action to numbers is what Bromley meant by "quantitative.")
Story
A narrative that emerges from the action. The players and their characters are working together—often despite the characters' varied backgrounds, abilities, and even species—in order to accomplish some common goal. The tale of their attempt to do so is told across one or more game sessions through the description and narration of the referee and players. The resulting stories can be compelling enough that some game sessions have even been recorded, transcribed into regular prose fiction, and published!

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What's the basic play mechanic of a role-playing game?

On a technical level, that depends on the game; there are a wide variety of possible answers. On a more general level, the overall sequence of events goes like this:

  1. The referee sets the scene.
  2. The players take turns describing what their characters will attempt to do in that situation.
  3. The actions are resolved:
    1. Whether or not the attempts are successful is determined by the referee, possibly with the help of the randomizer.
    2. The referee makes any choices regarding the precise nature and effects of this success or failure and describes the results.
  4. These effects having modified the situation, the procedure repeats.

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How do you win a role-playing game?

Role-playing games are not normally "won" in the sense meant by most games. This is for three reasons:

  1. Role-playing games are open-ended. Even when the final goal is accomplished and that story finished, the characters (presumably) and the players (more likely) remain to continue playing additional games. Therefore, another goal and story will take up where the previous one left off.
  2. Role-playing games are narratives; the end is defined by when the story ends, not by a set of victory conditions specifying a player as the "winner." All players might be said to "win" if their characters survive and accomplish their goal(s), but that is a subjective judgement of the players, not a condition defined by the game.
  3. Role-playing games are what are technically known as non-zero-sum games: To be a winner does not mean that some other player must equally be a loser. In fact, a given character has a far better chance of "winning" if the others in the group also "win." The conflict, necessary for a good story of any kind, is usually between the player characters and the situation rather than between characters.

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If winning's not the point of a role-playing game, what is?

Over three decades, RPGs has grown from a set of supplementary rules for miniatures wargaming into a distinct art form that has the advantage that all its players are a significant part of the creative process and no less the "author" than the referee, the scenario writer, or the rules designer. RPGs have seen use in education and in sociotherapy and psychotherapy as well. However, their main purpose continues to be a means of having fun.

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Are console/computer "RPGs" role-playing games?

Role-playing games are not video games and video games are not role-playing games. There are a few grey areas at the edges—the internet continues to present researchers in every field with unexpected challenges, especially when it comes to classification—but for the vast majority of cases, the video game genres called "RPGs" or "MMORPGs" are not role-playing games. The video game "RPG" genre is called that because early examples had rules systems derived from the role-playing games of their day. However, the concept of the role-playing game as a basic medium or form of game is not tied to any particular set of rules.

Note: The abbreviation "cRPG" is sometimes used to distinguish console and computer "RPGs" from traditional RPGs.

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Are role-playing games all fantasy? What about other genres?

There are a wide variety of settings/genres. Possibly the most popular is indeed the generic fantasy setting with its three elements of magic, polytheism, and a large number of intelligent humanoid species, in part due to the continued popularity of \i{Dungeons & Dragons}, but it is hardly the only one. Among the more popular alternatives have been space-travel science fiction, dystopian survival, gothic horror, and alternate forms of fantasy, but trends in RPGs are never static. Less-common but not unheard-of are detective stories, spy thrillers, westerns, and even animated cartoons.

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Are role-playing games dangerous/Satanic/pagan?

No! More detailed answers to each specific question can be found on the FAQ page:

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Are there a lot of role-playing games?

There are literally hundreds of role-playing games. Naturally, most of them have gone out of print. Many others are privately published systems played by only a few fans. Still, there is a large variety published by major game publishers and played extensively over a wide area. The hobby has become international: While RPGs started in English, there are now games originally published in French, Swedish, German, Portuguese, and Japanese, with translations of many of these games into a large number of languages.

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Are role-playing games expensive?

Most game clubs are free or have a minimal dues, while less formal game groups are usually free outside of occasionally providing refreshments or the like. The price of getting equipped for the hobby ranges from $20 to $100 (depending on the game system) for the rules and another $5 to $10 for an assortment of dice, although a certain amount of sharing both books and dice among members of a gaming group is common. If one begins refereeing games, there is the cost of buying scenarios ($5 to $20 each) or else one starts writing them (usually a more interesting process). Compared to most hobbies, even the more expensive systems are quite low in cost for the amount of playing time they will provide.

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