It’s an exciting time in the world of tabletop RPGs, with an upswing in popularity and the new edition of D&D garnering fresh interest.
I’ve had the fortune of playing with a number of people over the past few years for whom it was their first foray into the world of RPGs. I’ve gotten to see them grapple with something that is second nature to me: the role playing aspect of an RPG. For those new players (and us old timers as well!) I’d like to supplement the material in the new PHB (and, oddly, the DMG) with some succinct additions to help through those floundering first sessions, because it is really a big question:
What is Role Playing, and how does it make RPGs such a different game?
If you’re coming into the world of tabletop RPGs from the online world of MMORPGs, you might be familiar with the idea that each character in a party has a role: the healer stands back and buffs, the tank rushes in and grabs aggro, the DPS classes pile on the D (heh) without stealing the aggro from the tank. While this is somewhat in play in a tabletop game, it is much less rigid (combats are more fluid affairs and often are not the prime focus of a gaming session) and that is not the prime meaning of role when used around a tabletop.
The main conceit of a role playing game is that you are not playing just a collection of statistics and some combat abilities with a few amusing behavioural traits, instead you are playing a person* enveloped in and engaging with the world and the events taking place in the game. The actions you choose for your character – their actions, how they speak, what they focus on, how they behave in conflict, and etc – come from considering the game world from that person’s perspective.
Like you, the person you are playing (called a Player Character) has a personality, a world view, things that they know, things that they don’t know, aspirations, and a bag of cultural, societal, and family ways of seeing and interacting with the world around them. And for many of these characters, they live in a world quite different from ours, be it in a fantasy world with dragons and magic and a king, or a future world with spaceships and psychic powers and a galactic democracy.
The fun comes from trying to inhabit that person’s world, and be that person. To us sitting around the dinner table, a dragon might seem like a mighty challenge. To your character, that person, a dragon is a known behemoth of destruction, a creature of legend and renown. For them, the first time they meet a dragon, they are likely to cack their pants.
Like you (and others), this person does things on occasion that are not the most efficient or logical thing to do, influenced by those hidden biases, emotions, and world views. To break societal norms may entail some emotional turmoil and thought. They have their confidences and over-confidences, their fears and their superstitions, and their competencies that may not match yours.
Again the fun comes from inhabiting that person’s world and playing that person as a whole person, living their adventure. As are the challenges of the adventure itself – figuring out how to succeed, applying your character’s skills and sword and magic to the tasks, interacting with the other people in your group and those they encounter. Putting together both these fun elements are what make RPGs the special type of game that they are.
The main thing to note is that how you bring these people (your character) to life at the table is much less important. There is a spectrum of ways, with method actors at one end who adopt a unique voice for their character, gesticulate with unique mannerisms, and even use props, and with third-person narrators at the other end who speak calmly and describe what their character is saying and doing. Players of all stripes will play somewhere along that spectrum, and there’s no correct or better way to do it. If you’re not comfortable acting at the table, not a problem. If describing what your character is saying rather than just saying it is jarring for you, not a problem.
The exact way you play it out is not the thing. The key and beauty of the role playing game is, no matter how you choose to express it, the actions of your character spring from that person’s position in and how they relate to their world.
(As an aside this is where the notion and discussion (and the frowning upon) of metagaming comes from – when the character’s actions do not spring from the fictional world but from the player knowledge of this being a game, with an omniscient view that there are rules that govern things, how the GM might lay things out, and etc.)
* Person here is used broadly, and could easily be an alien, a dwarf, a sentient mouse, or any other manner of character that is possible in the myriad of RPGs out there. Another beautiful thing about RPGs!