This article provides an overview of roleplaying games, covering the basic ideas and terms. This is a good starting point if you're new to roleplaying or just curious about it.
A hooded shape moves through the shadows of labyrinthine streets, avoiding the patrol blimps passing above. Their searchlights pierce deep into the red autumn fog.
The dark figure scrambles over a garden wall, sneaks across a well-kept rose garden, up to a back door. Without a sound, the five lock mechanisms of the merchant palace slides open, one after the other. The dark-clad thief slips in, closes the door carefully and keeps still for a moment to listen. Nothing disturbs the silent interior.
Starting down the hallway, the burglar brushes back the hood, revealing a young woman's pale face, her eyes peering into the darkness ahead. The library, containing the lost prophecy of Eirik Sejdoun, should be behind the last door to the left, next to the staircase.
But the moment her hand touches the door handle, a voice speaks out of the darkness.
"Welcome Ms Gaventhorpe. I've been waiting for you."
A blacklight is flicked open, blinding her. She drops to her left, away from the light, and behind a slim pillar before the light catches up.
"I am detective Fairborough," the voice continues, the lantern casting a pool of light on the pillar. "No need to hide Ms Gaventhorpe, I'm here to offer my help. You are about to walk into a trap."
– Excerpt from The Red Fogs of Mars
The story above is a snippet from a roleplaying session, with the thief and the detective run by two players. How can you create stories like this with your friends, using nothing but a rulebook and some dice?
This article will tell you the basics of roleplaying and how collaborative storytelling works.
First, some of the basics and a few common acronyms. In a roleplaying game (RPG), you and your friends come together to create a story. The Game Master (GM), who is responsible for guiding the other players through the story, is the keeper of a fictional world (often referred to as a secondary world). The other players act as heroes or gifted individuals who solve problems together in that world.
Every player - aside from the Game Master - controls a single character, known as a player character (PC). The players describe their PCs' actions in the secondary world, deciding where to go, what to do, and whom to talk to. The Game Master describes the world, its non-player characters (NPCs) and their activities.
In the example above, both Ms Gaventhorpe and Detective Fairborough are PCs. The GM has read the scenario beforehand and describes the dark streets, the garden and the rooms inside the palace. Ms Gaventhorpe’s player tells the others how she avoids the searchlights from the blimps and keeps to the shadows most of the time.
When she encounters the locked door, the GM asks for a skill roll (Lockpicking) and once inside another one (Stealth) to move quietly.
When Fairborough enters the story, his player has been briefed about the situation during a pre-session and speaks up to save Gaventhorpe from walking into a trap in the library. From this point, the two players join forces to track down the manuscript.
As you can see, even a simple setup like this generates a lot of opportunities for roleplaying, dialogue and surprises.
Now, let’s see what the rules in an RPG cover.
The rules in an RPG set the standards for what is possible in the world. Do magic spells work, can you pilot an airship or are there dragons to ride? (In The Red Fogs of Mars above, the answer is yes to all three). All characters - both player characters and NPCs - must adhere to the same rules.
The rules also tell you about your character's strength, size, speed and any other important characteristics like hit points and what skills your character know. Can your character pick locks, climb walls or hide in the shadows, for example?
In addition, the rulebook defines common facts about the world. It might be how much damage fire causes, what happens if someone falls while climbing a wall or how far a PC can walk in a single night. Most players learn the game's fundamental principles by playing, rather than by reading the rulebook. But it's suggested that the GM reads the rules in their entirety before a game begins.
Dice. Many RPGs use various dice to introduce some randomness to the game. Common dice include d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20 and d100. The “d” stands for dice, followed by the number of sides. If you see a number before the “d” - like 3d6, it means you should roll three six-sided dice. Sometimes you will also see 2d8+4, telling you to roll two eight-sided dice, then add four to the result. As a sidenote, a d100 does not have one hundred sides. Instead, you roll two d10 and combine the results to get a percentage (if you roll 3 and 7, it means 37 for example).
A scenario is a single tale set in a secondary world. In The Red Fogs of Mars, the characters must retrieve an ancient manuscript and return it to its rightful owner. A mission like this might sound simple at first, but complications and plot twists often turn them into messy - and exciting - affairs.
Scenarios are skeletal manuscripts that describe locations, characters and other story elements. These tidbits guide the Game Master as the tale develops. Whenever the PCs move or act, the scenario's text will tell the Game Master what they see, what NPCs do and say and any other important details.
In the example above, the scenario has a map of the merchant’s palace, for example, with short descriptions of the various rooms. The text also states that any loud noises the PCs make will awaken the merchant’s valet, leading to complications.
If the scenario doesn't cover every possible angle or detail, the GM will have to come up with plausible responses based on the texts. Improvisation is common in most RPGs. (If that sounds scary, don’t worry. It might feel awkward to begin with but gets easier as you get into it).
Character Sheets. Most roleplaying games use character sheets to help players keep track of their PC. They contain all the game stats - like strength, intelligence, hit points and skills - needed to play the character. Blank character sheets are often printed before the first game session and players fill them out in pencil. In addition to stats, they might contain some background, personal notes and a portrait.
Scenarios are made up of a string of situations - often called scenes - much like a movie. Some scenes are filled with action, while others might require the PCs to speak with locals or search for hidden clues.
A scene is first described by the Game Master, and the players then describe their actions. If the players need more information, they ask the Game Master to be more specific. Whenever the scene changes - if the merchant’s valet comes down the stairs, for example - the GM announces the change and lets the players react to it.
As Ms Gaventhorpe and detective Fairborough leave the palace through the garden, the Game Master asks the players to roll for Awareness. Fairborough's roll succeeds and the GM tells the players that they hear footsteps on the street outside, asking them what they do. The PCs decide to stay hidden, peeking through a crack in the wall. Within a minute, they see a small company of the feared Nighthawks - stormtroopers commanded by the secret police - marching by. As soon as their footsteps fade, the PCs sneak away in the opposite direction.
Moving from one scene to the next is easy. When the players feel that nothing more seems to happen in a scene or they need to leave, they tell the Game Master where the PCs go next - perhaps acting on information they just gained. The new scene is then introduced by the Game Master, moving the story forward. The players might tell the GM they want to visit an underground club, for example, where the merchant sometimes hangs out, to ask around for more clues about the manuscript.
Commonly, the time between scenes is compressed to just a sentence or two by the GM. So, if the PCs go from the merchant’s palace to the club without much happening, the GM can simply say “You walk to the old docks and nothing special happens.” The players, however, are free to insert actions in these transitions (“No wait, I need to visit a pawn shop on the way!”), perhaps spawning a new scene.
Scenes often revolve around - or at least include - one or several conflicts. The PCs might need to persuade an NPC to tell them a secret, a clue must be found or an NPC picks a fight. These events will often require the PCs to use their skills, talents and some creative problem solving in order to succeed.
Whenever a character tries to do something difficult, risking negative consequences, a set of dice are rolled. In some cases, a single roll is enough to determine if an action is successful or not. Sometimes, several rolls are needed.
Both the players and the Game Master can ask for a dice roll. But the GM commonly has the final word on what a roll concerns, what will happen if it’s successful (or not) and what result the dice must beat.
Successful rolls allow the characters to handle a difficult situation or overcome an obstacle. Failed rolls mean the PC’s attempt did not go as planned - it might fail entirely or lead to a partial success with new complications added on top.
Characters might also suffer physical damage from falling, common wounds, combat and any other dangerous endeavours. This is often summarised in Hit Points (HP) or multiple stress tracks, representing a character’s health. If Hit Points drop too low, the character might even die and the player will have to create a new character.
Whenever the PCs interact with inhabitants of the secondary world, the Game Master rolls any dice for the NPCs involved. Just as PCs, they might fail or succeed in their actions, affecting how conflicts and scenes develop.
Ending a Scenario
When, or if, the player characters solve the main problem in a scenario, the story ends. They may have found out where the hidden manuscript was stored and managed to retrieve it, maybe they learnt who stole it in the first place and have been given a glimpse of the manuscript’s terrible magic powers.
Often, the tale has taken quite a toll on the PCs. They might be hurt, exhausted and their equipment lost or broken. But despite the hardships, they pushed through and solved the problems - just like in a thrilling book or movie. And with a bit of luck, they got some reward for their hard work. It can be a treasure, a well-earned cash payment or perhaps a new valuable contact.
But sometimes a scenario ends without the problem being solved. The antagonist might be too powerful for the PCs, some important clues were missed or the team was too late. Don’t worry, these things do happen. In fact, partial success might even be more common than complete victory. Commonly, the GM finds a way to reintroduce old failures in later scenarios, making the setting much more plausible.
After the scenario, PCs often improve in some way, increasing or gaining new skills from their experiences. In time, after going through a lot of scenarios, they might become very powerful - even among the best in their respective fields.
Roleplaying games have been around for 40 years. With this introduction, you have a good overview of how they work. If you think it sounds fun, grab any RPG you find interesting, start reading and get some first-hand experience.
If you want to know more about the early games that shaped the entire RPG scene in the 1970s and 1980s, you can check out this article.
My name is Clarence Redd, a Swedish illustrator and writer. I run FrostByte Books and have published RPGs for about a decade. To read more about my bestselling games – M-SPACE, Odd Soot and Comae Engine – visit www.frostbytebooks.com.