All Content © J. Freels, 2008-2012, All Rights Reserved
If you’ve ever been watching a movie or reading a book and thought about how you would do things
if you were the character in that story, then you’ve imagined yourself playing the role of a character
in a story. This is what Role Playing Games (RPGs) are all about. Without some kind of rules system,
Players could spend all day saying things like “I win because I’m big” or “I win because I’m smart” or “
I can do anything cos I’m the Hero!”…you get the idea. Every RPG system has created its own way
to determine what can and can’t happen, and to what degree things can and can’t happen, settle
disputes, and so on. Most game mechanics
use dice rolls to simulate the randomness of events in the game. If a Player’s Character (PC) wants
to attempt an action in the game they might roll certain dice and compare the result with a target
number on a sliding scale based on the difficulty of that action, that PC’s skill, knowledge, luck,
climate, etc. This may sound complicated here, but a well designed game system allows players to
resolve these issues quickly (and without a lot of math) so they can
spend more time on the stories.

Character driven stories are the center of RPGs. The game referee, often called the Game Master
(GM) or Storyteller depending upon which game you’re playing, and players will
decide what setting they’re going to play in. This might be a standard “swords and sorcery” fantasy
setting, a futuristic Sci-fi setting or even a retro-future scene with ray guns and rocketmen, gothic
horror, cartoon drama, manga, and so on –there’s really no limit to what a creative group can come
up with.

The GM works on a basic storyline and will describe what the PCs see and hear as well as play the
NonPlayer Characters in the story. Players create appropriate Player Characters according to the
game system being used. Soon the story
begins to unfold as shaped by the participation of everyone involved. There’s something truly
magical about a group of friends getting together to create a story just for the sake of
adventure!

What about the rumors of people going crazy from playing these games? If there’s already
something wrong with a person then they’re going to get into trouble sooner or later, that’s just how it
is. If you can’t distinguish between the reality of your everyday life, and a game played on a table top
than you really do need help, and I’ll venture to guess that if you didn’t have a game to focus your
attention on than you’d be exploring psychotic fantasies with some other medium. When you walk by
a group of people talking about the amazing game they played the night before and you hear
something like, “-so then the troll came after me, but I jumped off the building and turned into a bird
and flew away!” well, ok, these folks might sound a bit unbalanced, I’ll give you that...BUT It’s
important to note that a lot of maladjusted kids benefit in immeasurable ways from RPGs. Many
schools have used different RPG techniques in the classroom to help students learn to think about
problem solving in different ways. Whatever genre you’re playing in, you have to find ways to solve
the problems you’re faced with using only what you’re character knows or has access to. These kids
develop
critical reasoning skills, learn to communicate and cooperate with others, pick up some practical
math, and often become inspired to study real world history and politics to learn how
things work and might make for good story elements in their games. Once the creative juices are
flowing they often find themselves writing and drawing and creating all kinds of things that were jump-
started by playing a game that just said “what if”. Those are two of the most powerful words you’ll
ever know, and they are the core of RPGs: “What if?”.

What makes a role playing game a role playing game? The answer is: role playing. Classic RPGs
are played with paper and pencils and usually some kind of dice, but what sets them
apart from most computer games and Collectible Card Games (CCGs) is the real role playing
component.

Many computer games allow players to customize certain details (from a pre-programmed selection)
and CCGs encourage you to use strategy as you stack the deck in your favor, but the story of the
game won’t be influenced by a character’s odious personal habits, the fact that they collect ceramic
figures, or their claustrophobia, or any of the other details that come in really developing a
character. A role playing game needs players to role play. PCs' special
quirks and insights change the story and save the day –or ruin it, which might end up being more fun
if it’s played well!

So how did RPGs come to be? RPGs have their heritage in Classic War Gaming, picture a bunch of
military strategists pushing armies of lead figures around re-enacting historical
battles. In 1974,  Gary Gygax worked out a set of rules where you could play the role of a single
warrior. Dave Arneson had the idea that you should be able to play fantasy characters and that
these characters should be able to grow and develop as you play.  The merger of these two ideas
was a VERY detailed, and convoluted rule system that pioneered the idea of playing a single
character in a fantasy setting.

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was the first Role Playing game and is still around today although it's
been greatly streamlined since its first publication. They had the biggest budget to get their product
out there and this is the game most people think of first when they think of RPGs. The downside of
D&D is that it has a long-standing history of publishing material slightly before the bugs are all
worked out, with the expectation that players will buy new hardcover books every time a few details
are revised.

The great thing about RPGs though is that they encourage people to draw from their own
imaginations to create their own adventures. Once you have the basic game system, you
really don't need to keep buying every little product because you should be able to make up your
own adventures.

Ken St. Andre spent a few hours reading the D&D rules before putting the book down saying there’s
got to be an easier, better way to do this! His answer was “Tunnels & Trolls” (T&T). This is the
second oldest RPG system. It pioneered the idea of Attribute based checks that are fairly standard
today, as well as the “solo adventure” structure which inspired the basic framework of the “Choose
Your Own Adventure, and Pick-A-Path books (although these spin-offs lack the role playing
element). The T&T solo adventures are still popular today and great when you need your fix of
fantasy gaming but don’t have a group to get a game going. T&T has been described as "the
buckets of dice" system because you roll a whole lot of dice as you play, but there's something very
satisfying about throwing a handful of dice at the things attacking you..

I think the greatest thing about T&T is that players are encouraged to adapt and create their own
elements of the game for what they need. The volume of “by players, for players” contributions is
amazing, and really exemplifies a living gaming system.

GURPS, The Generic Universal Role Playing System is an amazing game that was play tested for
years to work out the bugs before being published. This system allows you to play
as simply or as complex as you want, in any genre and with any kind of character. They have many
very scholarly books of settings and adventure ideas, but you really only need the
basic book to play. I love these guys. It’s also interesting to note that every time D&D makes
revisions, their game looks more and more like GURPS. Hmmm…

Call of Cthulu, set in the dark and moody world of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos, this is a great
gaming system that is quick to learn and adaptable enough for all kinds of game
settings. The mechanics were crafted so that players spend more time immersed in the story and
less time crunching numbers, looking up detailed charts, and memorizing obscure rules. The result is
that you have more time to actually play the game! This game introduced the means to simulate
characters experiencing things that would slowly chip away at their sanity. If a PC’s sanity is reduced
far enough they become the kind of gibbering madman so
prevalent in Lovecraft’s work. Because the settings are period pieces set in the “real world” there is
a great deal of attention to historical details. If you aren’t familiar with the dark and moody writings of
H.P. Lovecraft well, you’ve got some reading to do.

TWERPS, The World's Easiest Role Playing System began as a kind of spoof of GURPS, but people
actually found that the incredibly simple rules actually made for good role playing. Challenges are
resolved quickly and you can get on with the story. This is probably one of the best introductions to
RPGs if you want to have a quick taste, especially if you want to bring younger kids into the fold.

RISUS: The Anything Role Playing System is a great game that allows you to create characters in
about 30 seconds and is a very serious contender for the "easiest rpg" title. You can download a
free copy of the rules and begin the goofiness right away. RISUS’ creator, S. John Ross is also a
great guy and runs a website with all kinds of tools for gamers
including The Big List of RPG Plots, Font Toys for creating printable maps and stand-up characters,
and many other free downloads. Check out his work at Cumberland Games.

The Fabled Worlds RPG System has drawn from my favorite RPGs to create a versatile and easy to
play system that is quick and easy to adapt to any genre. Fabled Worlds Games offers stand-alone
(all the necessary rules of play in each book) games that were all created from the same basic rules
mechanics whether it's
Z-Town (modern zombie horror survival solo-adventures), ¡Uncle Cucuy's
Lucha Libre!
(a dice game of Mexican wrestling), or BEAN! The D2 RPG  .

Whatever world or setting you’d like to explore, there’s an RPG system for it. If there’s not one that’s
exactly to your liking, than make one that suits you!

                                                                                                                                                                                                          --J.
Freels
ROLE-PLAYING GAMES:
THE BASICS