Recently it was pointed out to me (not specifically to me – it was mentioned on a favorite podcast) that there is not a simple written explanation of RPGs and how to play them. So I think I’m going to kick it around for a while and see what comes out of it. Hopefully you won’t run screaming from the things that run around inside my head.
The first thing that popped into my head about it was the simply the word “game.” Games have a certain set of connotations and I don’t think RPGs meet all of them. For starters, most people think of a game as having winners and losers. Competition is a big part of the game industry, as it’s the simplest form of conflict to generate. The players can see each other and interact with each other, and they can do so with a minimal amount of thought or imagination, so they’re the natural way to build that conflict. Pit the players against each other, build a rule set which will allow each of them to have a chance of success, and you’ve got yourself a board game. If you happen to have a cool board and some nifty minis to go with it, so much the better.
But RPGs don’t work that way, or at least they don’t have to. The most successful RPG games and campaigns (I’m sure I’ll get around to what that means at some point, but I don’t want to lose my place) encourage cooperation, allowing everyone to gain rather than forcing one player to be the loser. The main difference seems to be that in an RPG, conflict can be generated through story (the complexity of said story can vary widely, of course, and that also returns to the imagination I mentioned before). We can have a problem, or a bad guy or however you choose to construct it, to work against rather than your fellow players. We can work together to achieve some goal, be it taking out the bad guy or attaining a certain level of training or experience so that we can take on more responsibility in the world we’ve created.
Oh, and I suppose that brings up another point – we can have much more control over the setting than a board game gives us. The more we can imagine, the more we can exert our influence and build what we want to build. Or destroy what we want to destroy; it’s all about perspective. And another choice we get to make is how much control we want to give the Gamemaster to lead the story.
But now it seems like my thoughts are starting to fracture, so I’ll stop for now. That gives me a couple of choices for where to start next time.