Explaining What Role-playing Games Are

Last Thursday, Wittenberg University had their annual Student Activities Fair. In this event, each of the university student organizations has a table to present their organization and get interested students (mostly Freshmen) to sign up on their mailing lists. I was at the table for the Wittenberg Role-playing Guild, which plays role-playing games, has board game nights every Saturday, and has a loyal group of Magic: The Gathering players. Explaining board game nights to Freshmen was easy enough and Magic players already know if they are Magic players. But I ran into a recurring problem that I’ve never been able to resolve: I couldn’t find a good way of trying to succinctly explain to the Freshmen what exactly a tabletop role-playing game is.

First, let’s look at the Wikipedia definition of a tabletop role-playing game:

A tabletop role-playing game or pen-and-paper role-playing game is a form of role-playing game (RPG) in which the participants describe their characters’ actions through speech. Participants determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, players have the freedom to improvise; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the game.

Everything about that definition is true, but it’s rather technical and can still be confusing to someone who has never heard of an RPG before. The core of the problem seems to be that people don’t really have a good frame of reference for what an RPG is, and thus it’s difficult to succinctly describe to someone unfamiliar with it.

I’ve seen explanations that try to create a frame of reference by expanding on the definition of board games. For instance, a tabletop RPG could be described as Clue where players give Miss Scarlet and Colonel Mustard personalities and have discussions as they are completing their objective. I’ve also heard recently that “it’s like Inception” where one person is creating the dream world and other people are going inside of it (and no, I still haven’t actually seen that movie yet). Both of these can be good definitions, but I don’t think they’re perfect because they focus on one aspect of an RPG while ignoring others, thus not giving a full picture.

Another problem is that sometimes they have the wrong frame of reference. I’ve met people who think it’s like World of Warcraft (which is technically a computer RPG). I’ve also had people think that when I say “role-playing game,” I mean dressing up in a costume, wielding a foam sword, and heading out to a forest to beat up similarly dressed people (that would be a Live Action Role-playing Game, or LARP). Unfortunately, these preconceived notions can be a barrier when trying to explain what a tabletop RPG is.

During the Student Activities Fair, I kind of sidestepped the problem by talking about the different RPGs that are out there (i.e. not just Dungeons & Dragons!) in the hopes that they would be interested in playing a game involving a genre they might be interested in. Still, I really want to find a great elevator pitch explanation of what a tabletop role-playing game is. It needs to be short, doesn’t require prior knowledge, and can clearly and accurately describe what a tabletop role-playing game is. Bonus points if it doesn’t leave the listener wondering if it’s like a computer RPG or a LARP.

If any of you have one, I’d love to hear it!


Posted on August 28, 2011, in RPG Thoughts and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. One of the classic descriptions I’ve seen is the old 2e D&D version, centered on Chutes and Ladders as a reference point. It works well for D&D, but not as well for other games.

    Inception makes for a good example. If you like, I’ll lend you our copy. It’s a really fantastic film…

    Above all, though, the most universal idea I could think of is “Cowboys and Indians”. Everyone’s played that, in some sense or another, when they were little. Plus, it can switch easily to “Jedi vs. Sith” or any other suitable archetype…

  2. JG,
    I think you are right. Its really difficult to come up with a single metaphor for all games, but I think that is because they have different inspirations. White Wolf has traditionally used theater terms and metaphors, and they have a large live action contigent of their fan base. Dungeons and Dragons is based on a war game, and they are still publishing special rules for minature only battle. Systems like Gurps focus on creating a universal system, where almost anything goes. Mutants and Masterminds is focused on bringing a superhero to life. Each system is best explained in its own way, and it is difficult to explain games as a whole.

    “Fear the Boot” created a series of short podcasts that can be burned to CD and used to introduce the concept of role playing. Its something you can consider handing out. I find it better to sell a specific system or even a specific game. We will likely try to tackle the topic eventually with a different take.

  3. JG,
    This stuff is notoriously difficult to explain. The problem is that different systems have different inspirations, and those inspirations are the best way to explain the way the game works. I usually find that selling specific systems or games works to get people into the hobby, but explaining the hobby overall is still a problem.

    The RP podcast Fear the Boot does a good job, and they divided their explanation into minicasts. They allow people to distribute them on CD’s. We haven’t covered this on No ordinary obsession yet, but I am sure we will with time.

    Here is the fear the boot link. http://www.feartheboot.com/ftb/index.php/archives/359

  4. My bad, the first mini episode is located at http://www.feartheboot.com/ftb/index.php/archives/363

  1. Pingback: So How Do You Win? Explaining Roleplaying to Non-GamersEvil Machinations

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