What Is Tabletop Roleplaying?

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This is the first article of what I hope to be a helpful series for those who desire to embark on a journey of roleplaying adventure. My idea is to tackle different topics related to tabletop roleplaying in such a way that will offer something to newcomers and veteran players alike.

I have decided to start with something that may seem fairly straightforward – the definition on what tabletop roleplaying actually is. If you are a person untouched by the concept, this could serve you as basic introduction, but my intention is to bring up certain points that may let also more experienced players think about their gameplay in a different light, or make them realise things that could help them further enrich their experience.

What is a roleplaying game?

The answer is really simple. It’s a game in which you take on a role you play. In most “traditional” cases, the role is that of an Elven mage, Dwarven warrior or a similar “adventurer”. As that character, you navigate the setting – traditionally a fantasy world, but again, it can be anything from a futuristic cyberpunk dystopia to the historically accurate court of third-century Chinese Emperor – and you try to deal with challenges, interact with the world and its inhabitants, and solve problems as that character would.

On the simplest level, this kind of “taking on a role” is in no way different from the games all of us played as children. I mean the kind of games like “now I am a thief and you are the cop” or “now I am Leonardo the Ninja Turtle and you are Shredder”. You probably note that the latter is already very close to what we perceive as “classic” roleplaying.

The thing that makes the five-year-olds-playing-Ninja-Turtles different from tabletop roleplaying is in fact… the word game in “roleplaying game”. Usually, the kids’ “roleplaying games” don’t really have the rules (and thus, shouldn’t really be called “games” in that sense of the word). Tabletop roleplaying games tend to have their own rules (neatly written down in one, or two, and sometimes also fifty plus different handbooks). These rules make it clear what does a player need to do to find out whether a character actually manages to climb a fence, strike a killing blow to an Orc, or find out whether this funny-looking mushroom she just found in the middle of a forest is poisonous or not.

Therein lies the difference between the kids’ game and actual roleplaying game (RPG for short). Imagine: a child would usually say “and now I eat this mushroom and I don’t become poisoned, instead, I become super-powerful!” In the case of tabletop RPGs, whether the character will or won’t become poisoned after eating a poisonous mushroom is usually solved by rolling dice and adding their constitution, poison resistance, or similar score to see if they get high enough number to beat the difficulty set by the rules. However, if it’s about finding out whether an unknown mushroom is actually poisionous, or other sort of “hidden information” – information the character would not normally have access to – for that, there is the instance of the Gamemaster.

The Gamemaster’s Job

The Gamemaster is one important function the kids in their games usually don’t have. Gamemasters are often called also by other names, depending on the game – Dungeon Master is one common term, others can vary depending on the setting, there are also names such as the Storyteller or Narrator, both of which hint at some of the functions the person has for the game. The Gamemaster (GM for short) is in some ways the referee, the narrator, the world-creator and the one who takes on the role of not just one character like the rest of the players, but all and any of the non-player characters that appear in the game.

The Gamemaster is the one who prepares the adventure (or, if the party is playing a pre-made adventure written by somebody else, oversees it), and therefore knows all the behind-the-scenes details. The GM knows whether the mushroom is poisonous, because she’s the one who decided the mushroom is there in the first place. The GM knows what happens if the warrior puts on the magical ring they just found, because it’s she who has the notes to the story – knows that it’s the cursed ring that was left here on purpose by a powerful necromancer, or that it’s the ring of invisibility accidentally dropped by an exploring halfling when he was ambushed by Orcs. The GM has notes about (most of) the details of the setting the characters are passing through: where is the artifact they seek, what monster is guarding it, in the ideal (but desirable) case also why does the monster guard it, where is it possible to learn about all this, what does the local innkeep think about it, and why does the nice old duchess want the characters to bring her the artifact in the first place.

It’s probably clear now that the Gamemaster has the biggest job of all. Even preparing a simple, linear adventure – say, let the characters go to the ruins of an old tower to pick up the lost Dragon Chalice and bring it back to the duchess – requires a lot of planning. The GM needs to have the map of the ruined tower, but preferably also that of the surroundings (at least vaguely) and maybe also of the castle of the duchess, if for instance the duchess transforms into a vampire after drinking from the chalice and chases them down through her castle’s corridors. The GM also needs to have the notes about the monsters living in the tower, about the artifact’s history, about the duchess, her personality and her motivation (and her abilities, in case the characters decide to bluff her or attack her – is she intelligent enough to see through their lies, is she quick enough to call for her guards or is she actually a former fighter who can take on the ruffians by herself?). And all that even if the players are never going to learn half of it!

A starting Gamemaster, of course, should not be daunted by those tasks and just do as much as she can without making it an annoying chore – and a veteran Gamemaster would know that no amount of preparation can cover everything the players are inevitably going to come up with, and that improvisation is always the key skill of a good GM. But the more thorough the preparation, the easier it is to improvise and just fill in the gaps, rather than try to come up with the entire history of the local noble family if one of the characters decides to ask the duchess about it in the opening dialogue.

Imagination Is The Limit

The unpredictability is the last aspect I would like to remark on today – as it is one of the key elements of what makes roleplaying games more than just linear slash-and-kill games, or even more than what is usually labeled “RPG” in video game field. Because unlike in video games, the choices of what a character can do in a tabletop RPG are essentially limitless. In a linear computer game, you accept the quest, you go, search the tower, kill the dragon guarding the Chalice, pick up the Chalice and bring it back to the duchess. In a better game, you have the chance to keep the Chalice for yourself, or maybe even to talk the dragon into letting you have it without fighting. But in a tabletop RPG, there is so much more that can happen. The characters can get stuck arguing for half an hour whether they should keep the Chalice or whether they should sell it using their black market contacts. The Dwarf may insist on killing the dragon even if the halfling claims he can steal the artifact without noticing, because this Dwarf holds a grudge over her grandparents’ death by dragonfire a couple of years ago.

And that is the essence of role-playing. Roleplaying offers, among other things, the possibility to flesh-out the characters (and for the GM, the world) in ways limited only by their own imagination. These should (to a certain extent) be also prepared and consulted with the GM beforehand (so that one player doesn’t conveniently come up with that their character happens to be related to a noble family as the duchess ponders how to treat such peasants), but figuring out more details about the characters’ past and personality traits is one of the beautiful things the players can do as the game goes on (as most games aren’t about one adventure, but an ongoing campaign). “Getting to know” one’s character deeper in terms of roleplaying is more than just marking how their abilities increase as they level up – which is another thing you could do just as well in a video game.

There is much more that could be said about these topics. This is, however, where I am going to stop for today. In the future, I would like to focus on some of the aspects of roleplaying and gaming more in detail – and provide more food for thought even for more experienced players and Gamemasters.

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Rostislav Kurka
Rostislav is a Protestant theologian and a self-trained Sith, counting Jan Hus, Darth Revan and Darth Traya among his main influences. He hails from the hundred-towered city of Prague, where he had spent a large part of his life creating worlds and inspiring young generations to roleplay. His involvement in organising children's camps led him to accidentally writing a Lord of the Rings musical, which made him temporarily famous, and a Three Musketeer-Jedi fanfilm, which didn't. He has recently moved to the frozen waste of Finland, because that's it, the Rebels are there.