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

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.

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
¡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

-J. Freels