I really love roleplaying games. Here’s why:
I enjoy playing board games and card games. I talked about why in this article. I also enjoy telling stories. I like creating interesting characters and engaging scenarios. Roleplaying games (RPGs) allow me to combine both.
At their heart, RPGs are an exercise in collaborative storytelling. Generally, in most games there is a Game Master (Dungeon Master, Storyteller, Narrator, etc. The exact terminology varies depending on the game.) who creates a scenario. The rest of the players each create one protagonist. These players role-play their characters and decide how they act or react in the scenario devised by the Game Master. The Game Master then reacts to their action, role-playing antagonists, supporting characters and the environment.
There is usually some kind of conflict resolution system in an RPG. For example, most of the time a player can’t just say “I pilot the spaceship through the asteroid field to escape our pursuers.” If he wanted to do that, he would probably have to roll some dice to see if he succeeded at the attempt. His character’s training and natural ability at piloting would probably come into play as a modification to his die roll. Characters’ abilities are usually recorded on a character sheet, and their abilities will likely increase periodically as the game progresses. Some conflict resolution systems are very simple, while others are far more complex. This is where a RPG is similar to a board game.
I’ve tried collaborating on a written story at least twice, and with no success. I think collaborative storytelling in an RPG works for me, because the game provides a clear-cut structure to how each participant contributes, and it provides a system for resolving any conflicts of interest. When writing a story, an author is responsible for making a lot of different things come together. They have to create appealing protagonists, and portray them in a way that is believable. They also have to create an engaging plot, antagonists, and a variety of supporting cast. In an RPG, each person only has to do a portion of this work. Most players will just create one protagonist, and really focus on bringing that character to life. The Game Master creates the scenario and works to challenge the protagonists without crushing all hope of success.
This collaboration can create some truly cool experiences. For example, right now I’m Game Master for a campaign in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. The heroes have traveled to a planet in search of a criminal who stole artifacts from a Jedi library on another planet. I had a few events planned out in preparation for their investigation. I expected them to ask the right questions, follow a few clues, and end up confronting the thief as he was planning to board his ship and leave the planet. When they arrived at the planet, someone asked if there happened to be another Jedi library here, suspecting that the culprit might be planning another hit. That actually wasn’t my intention, but I thought “why not?” and told them there was indeed another library here. Some players proceeded to hatch a plot to catch the thief by luring him in with rumors that some of the treasures from the library here would be transported off-world. Meanwhile, another player decided to have his protagonist join a gang in hopes of getting hired by the thief and being able to work against him under cover. I had not anticipated any of this, but I went with it and it ended up making for a pretty cool turn of events.