Tobold's Blog
Saturday, May 24, 2014
New player guide to role-playing: The basics

Pen & paper role-playing rules systems like the upcoming 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons are frequently made by veteran gamers for veteran gamers. You learn them by playing with somebody who has played before. But if for some reason you don't have anybody to teach you how to play, and just got the rules and friends to play with, starting role-playing is far from obvious. Thus I decided to write a new player guide to pen & paper role-playing in multiple chapters, starting with this chapter of the very basics.

The very first thing you need to know about role-playing is that there are no rules. This is why I can talk about role-playing without limiting myself to a specific system. I have played many different editions of Dungeons & Dragons, but also many other rules systems, fantasy, horror, and science fiction. And what I'll say here applies to all of them, even if I might use fantasy game examples and D&D terms. Unfortunately there being no rules doesn't mean you can't go wrong. Ultimately the purpose is for you and your friends to have fun together. That does require some degree of mutual respect and consideration: You have the freedom to role-play as you like, but so does everybody else at the table; and at the end the overall result should be an interactive story, not a cacophony of voices each trying to impose their vision on the other.

Most pen & paper role-playing systems manage to impose some degree of order by appointing one of the player to be the game master, or dungeon master (DM). Every other player plays usually a single character, with all the characters together forming a group of adventurers. The DM plays everything else. The whole world. He plays every character that the players meet (so-called non-player characters or NPCs), every monster, and he even represents the world itself: He describes what you see, and he will answer you if you ask for a detail he didn't mention in his description.

Thus at its most basic form, role-playing is a sort of dialogue between the group of players and the DM. The DM describes a situation, like a temple with a statue with ruby eyes and a big bronze gong next to it. And the players describe what their characters do in this temple. Do they want to climb up the statue and steal the rubies? Do they want to ring the gong? Do they want to tip-toe through the temple to get somewhere else? While the description of the DM gives the players some obvious hooks for possible actions, the creativity and imagination of the players and DM are the only limits. Sure, you can ring the gong. But if that temple is on top of a snowy mountain, maybe at some later point in the game the adventurers will use it as a sled to slide down the slope of that mountain, fleeing from the temple inhabitants angry about them stealing those rubies.

The DM usually prepares the game. He will have a plan of the different rooms of the temple, he will know what monsters or NPCs lurk in there, and he will have thought about what happens if the players try the most obvious things. Thus he will know who will come running if the players ring the gong, and he'll know the details of the deadly trap protecting the ruby eyes. But as the players are allowed to use their creativity and try anything they like, the DM must be ready to improvise when they come up with something less obvious. If the temple inhabitants are supposed to come running through a door, what happens if the players use the big bronze gong to block that door? Usually the DM should reward any good idea from the players with some positive outcome, so in this case the players should at least gain some time before the natives are able to remove the blockage.

There are two goals to the actions of the players and the reactions of the DM. The first one is to create a story, together, interactively. The second is that most pen & paper role-playing game systems do not only have a role-playing part, but also a game part. Characters are represented by a piece of paper with various numbers on them, the character sheet. The character sheet tells you how strong your character is, what skills he has, what magic spells he can cast (if any), what weapon he wields. And there are systems in place where by successful adventuring the characters earn gold and experience points, which improve the numbers on the character sheet and make the characters stronger.

The two goals are sometimes at odds with each other. You want your character to earn gold and experience, but if there are no obstacles and challenges in the way, that will make for a rather boring story. One of the main roles of the DM is to put those obstacles and challenges in the way of the players to create a better story. That doesn't mean that the DM plays *against* the players. As the DM has unlimited resources, he could easily kill the player characters, which wouldn't be much fun for anybody. The DM plays the attacking monsters and dangerous traps so as to make the story more interesting. That temple wouldn't be much fun if there were no natives and traps guarding those ruby eyes. Sometimes even players create challenges and dangers. Sounding that gong is probably a bad idea, but a player might do it just for the fun of it and to see what happens. But there needs to be some sort of agreement between the players in how far any one of them is allowed to endanger everybody. If the players agreed to not ring that gong, everybody should stick to that agreement.

If there are no rules to role-playing, how do you know if you did it right? Well, if you had fun at the end of the session, you did it right. Regardless of how a different group of people would have played through the same situation, what counts is the fun that you and your friends are having. If you still remember years later that time when Bob's character tried to climb the statue to the ruby eyes, fumbled his dice roll, slipped and banged against the gong, alerting the whole temple and starting a frantic escape, the session probably was a success.

Good post.

To have a good role-playing session, what you need first and foremost is a good DM but also players need to be collaborative and accept rulings both for an against them.

In your example, the player have the (good) idea or using the gong to block the door but they may as well have a bad idea to throw the gong through the window and make it fall loudly in the troll lair just before. In such case, the DM is facing the difficult choice of apply the consequence of the players' mistake by making them face an unexpectedly hard encounter with both the trolls and the orcs next door or "manipulate" the situation to give them a way to avoid the encounter. If you go with the first option and one of the character happens to die, that can botch the whole adventuring session and make some not-very-fair-play players unhappy/angry. If you "save" them it can lead to the perception they can do whatever they want and the DM safety net will always be there.
I would recommend that people new to pen & paper, start with something simple. A game that through its mechanics encourages roleplay. It can be a bit daunting at start to "just roleplay" when you are not even aware of the frame you work in. Apocalypse World does that marvelously, through the creation of the world that involves the players and the DM both, down to the way you gain experience.
I think this is one of the harder barriers to break as a new player. To actually recognize your options within the game. Most of the new players have played RPG games on PC. And on PC, the game makes it obvious who is freind, who foe. Who you can attack and who you cannot. This is something that needs to be relearned, that not every NPC that says NO is your enemy, and not everyone carrying golden chain a loot pinata.
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