Role-Playing: What Is It, Why Does It Matter?

“What is a role-playing game?” they ask tentatively. And I feel the need to preface the answer with a story.

Though I didn’t get into role-playing games fully until after the turn of the century, my gamer stepbrother had introduced me to the concept with war games in my parents’ garage a good decade and change ago. So for me, RPG has always had one meaning, and I’ve stuck to it pretty much constantly. Ditto with gamer and logically gaming—for me, it always had to do with people who knew what the dice was for and the ways in which they used them.

Since then video games have taken off, rather spectacularly, and between console RPGs and MMOs, the meaning of the term has fuzzed out. Academically, I’d known this might be a problem, but it’d never really seemed like something I’d need to worry about personally. After all, it hasn’t been that long since my audience was just the RPG Blog Network, the members of my game group, and visitors from Giant in the Playground, with the occasional Today blogger for variety. Granted, I should have expected more of a problem after the difficulties I had finding a category on networking sites.

Then it became more personal. When an Entrecard blog that rather clearly had RPG on the image rejected me for being “Not Relevant”, despite my very clearly being in the same category, I figured it was just MMOer snobbishness. When Hindleyite dropped his Mario non sequitur not long ago, my response was a slightly snappish correction followed by an in-retrospect “It’s Hindley; he’s probably joking.” It’s amazing how stubbornly people will stick to their definitions. But then I had two other people, both of whom knew I wasn’t talking about video games but weren’t sure what I was talking about. I knew then that I couldn’t take the term for granted any longer.

So what is a role-playing game, as I describe it, and why is it so important to the writing process?

A role-playing game, or RPG, is a game in which each of the players takes on the role of one or more characters in a world created for the purpose of the game, where questions of whether an action is possible or successful are resolved in a way agreed upon by all participants, usually involving dice of various shapes. While people often play these in styles ranging from two steps short of a dedicated tactical war game to a story so thoroughly pre-scripted that you might as well be playing a console RPG, the style I favor, and the one I write for, is halfway between a simulation and a narrative. The focus is on the decisions, actions and behavior of the characters in a highly detailed world: in short, it carries elements of both collaborative fiction and improvisational acting, as well following the definition above.

So why do I push the idea that every writer should run one?

During my senior year of college, I took two sections of a creative writing class and found myself irritated with my classmates’ writing for two reasons. One, many struggled with understanding and implementing “show, don’t tell”. Two, many of their characters either weren’t alive or were and forced into plots they didn’t belong in; I even had one exchange with a girl for whom a self-motivated character was a foreign concept. I wondered why I was so frustrated by these weaknesses and where my advantage was, but then I understood: it was my gaming. Three years of having to get across world and emotion through words alone, of having to adapt plots so they would interest the characters, to change them to accommodate their decisions, had given me my strengths as a writer. I felt that others could find a similar benefit.

This blog is where I share what I’ve learned.

Still a little lost? Check through How to Use this Blog, and feel free to let me know if there are any terms or situations that require clarification.

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