"And I’ll be bound, while you’re on your way,
You’ll be telling tales, and making holiday;
It makes no sense, and really it’s no fun
To ride along the road dumb as a stone.
And therefore I’ll devise a game for you,
To give you pleasure, as I said I’d do.
And if with one accord you all consent
To abide by my decision and judgment,
And if you’ll do exactly as I say,
Tomorrow, when you’re riding on your way,
Then, by my father’s soul – for he is dead –
If you don’t find it fun, why, here’s my head!"
- Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales General Prologue -
This guide has been written to provide some very basic information about roleplaying, such as what it is, what it involves, and what a person needs to do to get involved in the hobby. Most official roleplaying books just assume that readers know what roleplaying is and what roleplaying terms mean. To the new gamer, however, listening to experienced roleplayers talk about gaming is like listening to folks speaking a foreign language. What’s worse is that roleplaying books often don’t have the time or space to explain it all – but I have taken the time, and this guide is the place.
This guide gives you information so basic that you can apply it to just about any type of roleplaying game that’s out there. The concepts covered here will help you decipher games that you’re trying to learn, so that you can get away from the basics and start to learn the advanced elements. This guide also serves as a kind of introduction to the hobby for those who are curious and toying with the idea of trying it out.
When we were children, most of us played games that relied on imagination and storytelling. We imagined that our surroundings were different, and often we imagined that we were different people, and we acted out scenes together. Most children's games are sporadic and do not have much in the way of continuity; a child playing a cowboy one day might decide to play an Indian the next day. These kinds of imaginative childhood games also tend to have simple rules: if you don't move before the cowboy shoots you, you are dead.
The games of adults have roots in childhood. Roleplaying games are a lot like our earliest imaginative games - you still get a bunch of friends together and imagine yourselves in different roles. You still create scenes through your choices. The differences lie in the complexity of the matured roleplaying game.
The first and most glaring difference is that roleplaying games have rules. There are limits to what you can and cannot do, and there are certain ways to go about things. You can’t just crook your finger at a friend and say: “I shot you, you’re dead!” Roleplaying games use rules to set up limits and to try to make the game fair for everyone.
When you were a kid, you did not need a manual to learn about the world of cowboys and Indians. You used what you'd seen in movies and heard in stories. For a roleplaying game, you generally need books to learn how the game is played. The most basic rules of a game are usually found in one or two books, sometimes called “core books.” These books go over the most basic rules of the system. There are also supplement books that add to the system, showing you new rules or updating old ones. In fact, there are usually so many rules that no one could possibly remember them all – thus, they are printed in books so you can look them up if you have to.
Many roleplaying rules have to do with dice rolling. Most games use dice for randomization, chance, and equal opportunity. You may be thinking of a six-sided die (d6) such as those used in Las Vegas dice games. Roleplaying games can use many different types of dice, not just six-sided ones. Dungeons and Dragons, for example, makes common use of d4s (or four-sided dice), d6s, d8s (with eight sides), and d20s (dice with twenty sides). In contrast, Vampire only uses d10s.
When you want to do something major in a roleplaying game (like an attack), you use the rules to determine what is involved in the action and which dice to roll. If you roll a number that is deemed good enough, your character succeeds; if you don't roll well enough, your character fails the action. In this way, you can roll dice to see if your character succeeds instead of trying the action yourself. Roleplaying games are not usually meant to be acted out physically. Instead, they are designed to take place in the mind, with the help of some dice to define the boundaries of what is likely and possible.
Different roleplaying games often have different systems of rules. If we are talking about the d20 system, we are talking about a specific system of rules that mostly uses a d20 (or twenty-sided die) for actions. The d20 system is used by Dungeons and Dragons and other games. Wizards of the Coast owns Dungeons and Dragons and the d20 system, however; if other gaming companies want to use that system for their games, they have to make a deal with Wizards. Likewise, other gaming companies have made up other systems of rules for their games.
Roleplaying games can also be divided up according to genre, rather like books or movies. There are different kinds of roleplaying games you can play. There are futuristic roleplaying games that are set in centuries yet to come, when humans have begun to venture into outer space. There are fantasy roleplaying games (like Dungeons and Dragons) that are set in medieval-European style settings and are populated with fantastic creatures. There are even roleplaying games set in a world like modern day Earth, but with fantastic elements woven in (like Vampire: the Requiem). Sometimes a gaming company will pair one type of game with a particular rules system. Other times, a company will use the same basic rules system for vastly different games.
Roleplaying games are played in sessions. A session can last as long as a group desires, but most people play for several hours before stopping, the way that a game of cowboys and Indians used to last for a little while during an afternoon. You start off a game by creating a character that you will portray (like a character in a book or movie), but that doesn’t mean you have to play that character more than once. Most people like to play their characters more than once, however. Some people even play the same characters for years, using them in many different stories. In this way, roleplaying games are more flexible than our old childhood ones, giving us the option to play characters with histories and extended futures.
Similarly, roleplaying games have more options for players than most childhood imaginative games. They all have some method for combat, so you can fight against enemies with a variety of maneuvers and weapons. Roleplaying games also tend to have methods of dealing with others, so you can lie, persuade, or sneak around without being seen. You can do a lot more than fight the cowboy; using the rules you can trick him, befriend him, use friends against him, or perhaps throw him off a cliff. And you don't have to play a cowboy or an Indian - you can probably choose from different races of people or creatures.
Roleplaying games are interactive on a level that books and movies are not. You don’t just sit back and watch an actor delivering lines in a roleplaying game – you become a bit of an actor and you say what you want your character to say, and you decide what you’re going to try to get away with. Sure, there are no painted scenes or special effects, but your imagination can paint a scene for you more vividly than anything on film can. All you have to do is give yourself and your group a chance, and fun hours will pass the way they did during the best summers of childhood.
Childhood imaginative games did not always have a leader or director – but some games could have used one. How many afternoon games broke up because there was an argument about something that happened? How many games ended because no one knew what to do next?
Most roleplaying games cut these problems off at the pass by designating one person as the director of a game. The saying goes that a director “runs” the game, and to some extent this is true. The director gets to make a lot of basic decisions: what type of game is going to be played, how many players there can be, where the action is going to begin, and so on. The director sets the scene for the players and takes on all the extra parts that the story needs. If the players eat at a restaurant, the director plays the waiter. When the players decide what they want to do, the director helps them determine if they’re successful. If the story begins to lag and the players aren’t sure what to do next, the director throws a story at them to get into. The director is also able to make stories of their own to involve the players.
The director, however, also carries a lot of responsibility. The director has to keep the world vital and entertaining for the players, so they don’t get bored. This involves all sorts of creative thinking, planning and shaping. The director is the one who controls enemy characters and uses them in combat against the players – and that is by no means an easy job. While the players only worry about one character apiece, the director has to worry about the rules and actions of all other actors in the scene. These are just the basic duties a director performs each time they run a game.
Perhaps the weightiest duty of the director is to act as a judge of the rules. If there is a dispute about how a rule works or what should happen as the result of a dice roll the director steps in and makes a ruling. The director has to know a good deal about the rules of the gaming system and has to do their best to be fair in their judgments.
A player is generally responsible for creating and using one character in the story. A player takes on a starring role, while the director takes on the extra parts. Most games are designed for groups of characters to work together. This allows players to interact with one another and to get more done than they would on their own, since different characters tend to have different abilities.
While the director takes care of a lot of bigger plots in the world, the player can make any number of smaller, localized things happen for their character. With every decision a character makes, there are possibilities for the world around them to react and change. The player is expected to use their character’s abilities when faced with situations the director puts in their way, and to some extent the player is expected to generate situations on their own. In this way, the game always has something going on: if the director isn’t creating trouble for the players, then the players are creating trouble for themselves.
To participate in a roleplaying game as a player, you take on the role of a character. You get to make up your own character, based on the rules and what you are interested in playing. It is up to you to decide where they come from, how they've lived, and what their personality is like. To truly participate in a game with rules, however, you need to know more than your character's life story - you need to have an idea of what they know and what they can do.
A character sheet is a type of form that you fill out, according to various rules, to determine what your character is capable of. There are rules to make sure that everyone starts off on roughly equal footing. The rules attempt to make the process simple to complete and difficult to cheat, so that there aren't major problems later on (say, when one character is overpowered and can bully all the others into doing what he/she wants, which is rarely very fun). A character sheet is the first real step in most games, aside from learning the very basics of what the game is about. A character sheet is also a vital element - if you don't have one, you can't participate.
Most roleplaying games have similar things on their character sheets. The character sheet form provides lines for you to fill in certain information. There is a line to record the name of the character, and another line to record the name of the player. That way, everyone always knows which character belongs to them and can claim the right sheet. There are lines to record what type of character you're playing, which generally has to do with their race, profession, and level of power. Some character sheets have lines to record the age, height, weight, hair color and eye color of your character, as well as a line for gender. These details are not always necessary to game play, but they can help players envision their characters with greater ease.
Characters have natural assets that have to be described in some fashion. For instance: all folks have some sort of physical strength, even if it their bodies are very weak. For game play, you have to know how strong your character is to get an idea of what they can do. Roleplaying games always have some sort of Strength trait. In some games, the basic abilities are given numerical values between 0-20. Only a few characters will have ability scores under five, and only a few will have ability scores over 18; most will fall in the middle. A character that has a score of 17 in Strength is a lot stronger than a character with a 10 in Strength. No matter how strong or weak a character is, their Strength score is important to know and there will be a place to record it on any character sheet.
Likewise, most roleplaying characters have skills. In some games skills are not that important, but in many games they can make a big difference. Character sheets usually have a section to fill in with the skills your character has learned. Skills tend to be point based; the more points your character has in a skill, the better they are at performing it.
Character sheets also have room for recording a character's weapons, armor and valuable equipment. Some games have a lot of equipment for characters to gather; truly, in some games equipment is very important to a character’s survival. In other systems, there just isn’t as much equipment and it might not be that important.
Needless to say, there can be a lot of gear to record on a character sheet besides the fancy stuff, like food, travelling supplies, cell phones, and so on. Oftentimes character sheets will have space dedicated to recording the more mundane sorts of gear. This might not seem important at first, but you must keep in mind that a character sheet is a way to record what a character has access to. A player cannot claim that their character has anything that is not listed on their character sheet. Most directors have to approve that a character sheet is fairly made before they will let someone play. A character cannot simply sprout a super-weapon or a bundle of money out of thin air, just because the player wants it so. A character sheet helps to ensure fairness, even to the tiniest details.
A character sheet also allows you to record any special abilities your character has. Just about every system allows characters special abilities to make them each powerful in their own way, and unique. These special abilities vary from system to system. Being able to perform magic is a special ability, for example.
Character sheets also have space set aside for recording experience points. When a character goes through the events of a game, they use their abilities and wits to survive. The character learns more about themselves and about the world. Experience points reflect this learning. When a character has enough points, he or she becomes more powerful. Some games are level-based, and characters get new abilities as they gain levels. They gain levels based on experience points. Other games are point-based, and you can spend a certain number of experience points to raise your character's proficiency with an ability or a skill.
Character sheets record some kind of trait indicating the character's health and their distance from death. Some games have what are called hit points to show how much damage a character can take before dying. As the character goes up in levels, they gain more hit points and thus can take more damage. When your character is wounded, the number of hit points that are lost are recorded on the character sheet. This allows you to keep track of how damaged your character is, so you don't forget how much damage they received during the course of a fight. If they take too much damage, characters die and depending on the system, you may have to create a new character in order to keep playing in that game.
Every system has a different type of character sheet to fill out. Some games have long character sheets, with many aspects to address. Other games have rather short character sheets that don't ask for too much information. It may seem like a tedious way to start out a game, but most character sheets can be filled out without taking too much time. Once you're done, you have a better-defined character to work with and don't have to change much on your sheet (at least for a while). You will find directions on character creation and filling out the character sheet in the appropriate book for the game system you’re playing. If the directions do not yield enough information or are obscure, the director of the game should know the game well enough to help field any questions.
Character class _________ Race__________ Type___________ Level___________
Age___ Height___ Weight____ Hair color _______ Eye color________ Gender_______
Inborn attributes (such as strength, dexterity, physical beauty)
___________ ______________ ____________ ____________ _____________
Learned skills (such as those used for lying, climbing, accounting)
___________ ____________ ___________ ____________ ____________ __________
Weapons (type of weapon, amount of damage, what dice to roll for it)
_____________________ ___________________ _______________
Armor (how much it protects you, how much it weighs)___________________
Valuable items/mundane equipment ____________ ______________ ______________
__________________ _________________ __________________ _________________
Special abilities (like magical spells)______________________ _____________________
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