In a roleplaying game (RPG), each player takes the part of a “character” participating in a fictional adventure. A referee, called the Game Master (GM), chooses the adventure. He determines the background and plays the part of the other people the characters meet during their adventure. The adventure may have a fixed objective; save the Princess, find the treasure, stop the invasion, or it may be open-ended, with the characters moving from one escapade to the next. A roleplaying “campaign” can be open-ended, lasting for years, as characters (and players) come and go. It’s all up to the GM and the players.

No game board is necessary for a roleplaying game, although some systems, including GURPS, include optional “boardgame” rules for combat situations. Instead, the game is played verbally. The GM describes the situation and tells the players what their characters see and hear. The players then describe what they are doing to meet the challenge. The GM describes the results of these actions; and so on. Depending on the situation, the GM may determine what happens arbitrarily (for the best possible story), by referring to specific game rules (to decide what is realistically possible), or by rolling dice (to give an interesting random result).

Part of the object of a roleplaying game is to have each player meet the situation as his character would. A roleplaying game can let a player take the part of a stern Japanese samurai, a medieval jester, a wise priest, a stowaway gutter kid on her first star-trip; or absolutely anyone else. In a given situation, all those characters would react differently. And that’s what roleplaying is about. Thus, good roleplaying teaches cooperation among the players, and broadens their viewpoints.

But roleplaying is not purely educational. It’s also one of the most creative possible entertainments. Most entertainment is passive: the audience just sits and watches, without taking part in the creative process. In roleplaying, the “audience” joins in the creation. The GM is the chief storyteller, but the players are responsible for portraying their characters. If they want something to happen in the story, they make it happen, because they’re in the story. Other types of media are mass-produced to please the widest possible audience, but each roleplaying adventure is an individual gem, crafted by those who take part in it. The GM provides the raw material, but the final polish comes from the players themselves.

The other important thing about roleplaying is that it doesn’t have to be competitive. In most roleplaying situations, the party will succeed or fail as a group, depending on how well they cooperate. The greatest rewards of good roleplaying come not in “winning,” but in character development. The more successfully a player portrays his character (as judged by the GM), the more that character will gain in ability. When it’s all said and done, the GM and the players will have created a story; the story of how the characters met, learned to work together, encountered a challenge, and (we hope) triumphed.


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