What is a Tabletop Role Playing Game?

photo credit:  via photopin (license)

photo credit: via photopin (license)

The Role Playing Game (or RPG for short) has been around since the early ’70s, and although many people have heard of popular RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, Pathfinder, or GURPS, I still frequently encounter people who don’t have a good idea of how such a game works, what players actually do, or if it’s an activity that might interest them.  This post is for you.

At its core, an RPG is a group storytelling and imagination experience.  It’s really kind of similar to when kids play Cops & Robbers or other “make believe” games, but usually with less physical activity.  As adults (or teens, or older children), we can all come together to play make believe, and by working together we can create deeper, more complex stories and imagine whole worlds we can all play in together.  A group of people typically picks a specific game to play at any given time so that their story can be cohesive, like choosing whether we want to play Cops & Robbers, Superheroes, or Space Pirates.

So who wins the game?

It’s important to remember that RPGs are a group activity, and are (usually) not a competition.  If you all have fun, typically through telling an engaging story together, everybody wins.  Yes, even if your character dies a terrible death in a dragon’s gullet, if you enjoyed the time you spent playing, you won.

If for some reason somebody isn’t “winning”, it’s important for the group to talk about it.  When you’re playing an RPG, if the other people at the table aren’t your friends when you start playing, they likely will be soon, so be open about any issues that you’re having or anything that’s keeping you from enjoying yourself.  Then, the group can discuss the issues and figure out how best to adjust so that everyone can win next time.

What do the players actually do?

Mostly, the players talk.  One player is usually the Game Master (GM for short) (also referred to as the Dungeon Master, Storyteller, or other titles depending on the specific game being played).  The GM describes the environment, such as the run-down tavern filled with the smell of smoke from torches and the sound of a minstrel playing in the corner, and also describes the various characters in the environment, such as the fat barkeep with a dirty apron giving you a glare from behind the counter.

The other players (the term “players” usually doesn’t include the GM) each control a specific character, collectively referred to as the Player Characters (PCs).  (The various inhabitants of the world controlled by the GM, such as the barkeep, are referred to as Non-Player Characters, or NPCs.)  Each player has control of one PC that they have helped to design, and describe all the actions taken by that character.

Once the GM has described the environment in which the PCs find themselves, the players describe what their characters do, whether it be smiling apologetically at the barkeep or walking up and punching him in the nose.  After the players describe their actions, the GM tells them how the environment (including the NPCs) react to their actions, such as the barkeep pulling a club out from under the bar and rallying other patrons for a fight.  Then the players describe what their characters do next, and so on.

Each time all the players get together to play the game is called a “session”.  Often, the GM will use the environment and NPCs to guide the PCs into some long-term plot or event, stringing the sessions together into a continuous overarching story called a “campaign”.  The campaign is like a novel or a series of books (depending on length), and the sessions are like chapters in a book.  A long campaign might have a number of smaller plots, similar to individual books in a series, called “adventures”.  So if the GM has designed a campaign about an evil king trying to build an army to take over the world, the first adventure might be about capturing agents of the king to figure out his plans, and that adventure might play out over several different sessions (depending on how long the players meet for a session, how long the adventure is, and what course the players have the PCs take).

Who are these “Player Characters”?

Before play begins, each of the players (working with the GM) creates a character whose actions they will control during the game.  The PC should fit with the setting and tone of the game the group has chosen to play–a game about masked superheroes fighting crime is generally no place for an elven wizard!  There are two important parts to any character:  the story and the mechanics.

The character’s story tells us about who he is, what his past is like, and what’s important to him (or her, or occasionally it).  Is the character a princess exiled from a faraway country?  A bounty hunter with a spaceship looking to chase down the scum of the universe?  Or a country bumpkin who found his father’s sword in the back of a closet and set out seeking adventure?  The player can work with the GM to make sure the character fits into the game’s setting and fill in any details (“What’s an appropriate faraway country that’s into exiling princesses?”).  Some details of the character’s story might be filled in later, and the player usually defines the character’s personality better over the course of playing the game.

The character’s mechanics define what they are capable of doing, usually in a numerical way.  These numbers should help to support the character’s story.  Is the character strong?  Then let’s have a number that defines exactly how much (s)he can lift and how hard their punches hit.  Are they charming?  Then we need to know exactly how hard it will be for NPCs to resist being convinced by their arguments.  Can the character cast spells?  Then it’s important to determine which spells can be cast, how often the character can cast them, and exactly what those spells do.  The specific game being played will have rules for character creation that define which numbers are needed and how to get them.  Often, being really good at one thing means being weak at something else–flaws and challenges make for much more interesting stories than characters who can do everything easily.

Often, players will write up a “character sheet” that lists all the character’s numbers and abilities, as well as story elements such as name, race, and background.

What’s up with the funny-looking dice?

Sometimes, the outcome of an action is uncertain or needs to be random.  To go back to the Cops & Robbers example, we need a way to adjudicate situations where one player goes “Ha! I got you!” and another one says “No you didn’t!”

Many RPGs use dice to add a random element and determine the success or failure of an action.  This is most frequent in combat (“Did I hit the orc with my sword?”), but often shows up elsewhere (“I try to climb up the crumbling wall of the fortress.  Do I make it to the top without falling?”).  Often, the results of the die roll are adjusted to reflect circumstances or the character’s skills and equipment (“You’re using a grappling hook, which will help, so add a +5 to whatever number you roll on the die and let’s see if you have a high enough number to climb all the way up the wall.”)  Different games use different dice and methods to determine success or failure, often to create the kinds of statistical outcomes that best suit that game (a game with consistently predictable results plays differently from one where astounding success or crushing failure is more frequent).

I played a video game like this once…

Many modern video games are billed as RPGs, where you create or are given a character and control that character while playing through a story.  Examples include Skyrim, Mass Effect, the Fallout series, Final Fantasy games, and online games like World of Warcraft.  These games borrowed a lot of features and concepts from earlier RPGs played on a tabletop with pencil and paper.

One crucial difference between video game RPGs and those played on a tabletop with friends is action limitation.  In a video game, you can only take actions the developers specifically designed for you to do.  If a tavern has a coil of rope in a corner, it may be just a picture of a coil of rope, which the character can’t interact with in any way.  In a tabletop game, the character can attempt any action the player cares to describe within the bound of common sense, such as taking that coil of rope to tie up that surly barkeep and make sure he doesn’t cause any more trouble.  The range of actions is limited only by the players’ imaginations.

Similarly, the story outcome can be significantly affected by players’ actions.  Some video games feature several different possible outcomes, but these are always from a list of options created by the developer.  A tabletop RPG can have any ending the players and GM can envision together, such as usurping the evil king’s nascent army to become a world power in their own right.

A video game also draws all of the environment and NPCs for you.  While it is more work, some players find it more rewarding to imagine an environment richly populated with every detail they can conceive and unlimited by graphics budget, polygon counts, or processing power.


The RPG genre has grown incredibly diverse over the years, and almost everything I’ve said above has some sort of exception somewhere.  There are games where the role of GM rotates between the players or there is no GM, games that are specifically designed as a competition between the players with defined winners and losers, and games that don’t use any dice at all.

Because of this diversity, many tastes are catered to, so don’t give up if the first RPG you see or try doesn’t spark your interest.  Take a broader look around, think about what you really want out of your entertainment time, and consider whether there is something out there that could bring you hours of enrichment and enjoyment.

How to start playing

If all of this sounds interesting to you, you’re in luck!  Thanks to the internet and recent cultural trends, there are more ways than ever before to start playing.  The basic idea is to get a group of people together, decide on a game to play, and start meeting regularly to play it.

There are many avenues to find a group of players.  Announce your interest to real life friends and on social media.  Check for established groups that meet at local comic book shops or hobby stores.  Use internet sites such as Meetup.com, RPG Game Find, or the LFG subreddit (LFG means “Looking for Group”).  If you can’t find people to play with in real life, there are online games you can play, whether play-by-post in various forums or using virtual tabletops such as Roll20.net or Fantasy Grounds.

If you find any of the above confusing, please feel free to ask questions in the comments.  Good luck, and happy gaming!

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