Two Ways to Explain (Concept vs. Learn By Doing)
There are two ways to learn what pen & paper role playing games are:
First, by traditional explanation of the concept, what happens and what the goals are. Because pen & paper role playing games are so different in concept than any other game however, this is quite often quite hard to grasp by people who never played. It seems complex and weird and the goals and challenges do not become readily apparent, which is confusing. A major part in that has the fact, that in pen & paper role playing games there is no competition. That's very confusing and most people trying to understand a game look for what the competition is, how do you win and beat the other players? Well, in pen & paper role playing games, you don't and you're not supposed to. To the contrary.
That's why another, second approach to explaining what pen & paper role playing games are has proven much more successful and much faster. And that's simply by letting people watch a game in progress, or better yet, to just throw them in the water and have them join a game and learn by doing.
But people who don't know pen & paper role playing games don't know that they are fundamentally different from almost any other, competitive game. So naturally, they don't want to watch a game that they feel they won't understand because they don't know the rules or what's going on, but instead insist that the game be described to them in simple, abstract terms, describing the game concept. So, although learn-by-doing or by watching might be fastest, or just as fast, it still makes sense to try to explain the concept. So I'll start with that all the same.
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First off, Pen & Paper Role Playing Games, sometimes also called "Fantasy Role Playing Games" or "Table-Top Role Playing Games" are *not* theatrical role plays or theatrical performances (in the stricter sense). Nor are they the same thing as "Live Role Playing Games", where people dress up in medieval costumes and play-fight with plastic swords. Those are completely different and in general unrelated things.
In Pen & Paper Role Playing Games, you always have one Dungeon- or Game Master who runs the game, and 1 - 8 players, usually and best 4 - 6. The Dungeon- or Game Master in general is responsible for the game, a bit perhaps like the guy at the roulette table in a big casino. You know, the guy who spins the wheel, pays out the players and collects their bets, etc. Only in fantasy role playing games, the Dungeon- or Game Master is responsible not for a roulette table, but for an entire fantasy world, that, although populated with fantastic creatures, monsters and magic, must still adhere to strict rules, just like the roulette table in the casino. Or like the laws of physics in our world. That's what all the books for most pen & paper role playing games are for, rules to make the fantastic seem plausible. That's why there are so many rules. But don't worry about that right now, as a player, you don't need to know them, especially not when you start. That's the Dungeon- or Game Master's job. Without (strict) rules to make a fantasy world realistic, and adherence to them, plausibility, and thus believability suffer, and then so does the fun in experiencing that fantasy world, and thus the game.
Dungeon Master is a term formed by the first, most widely known and commercially most successful pen & paper role playing game, infamous "Dungeons & Dragons". In other pen & paper role playing games (RPGs), or "systems" as RPG geeks call them, the Dungeon Master is called "Game Master" or other names.
Now, a pen & paper role playing game is basically a turn-based iteration between the Dungeon- or Game Master, and the players. The Dungeon- or Game Master is responsible for simulating the fantasy world. He has notes, plans, and maps describing what is happening where and why in the fantasy world that he needs to simulate for the players. The Dungeon- or Game Master then describes what happens in the fantasy world to the players.
The players in turn each play one fantasy character in that fantasy world. Usually fighters, magic-users, thieves, rangers, clerics, paladins, elves, dwarves, or whatever. Each player plays one such character, and in turn to the Dungeon- or Game Master's description of what happens in the fantasy world, the player must say what his or her character does in response to that. For instance, the Dungeon- or Game Master might say "You see a large monster running toward you, it looks very threatening and like it wants to eat you!". To which the player might say "Ok, my character draws his sword and prepares for a fight!". This is where watching an actual game in progress really helps. Go ahead and watch the videos supplied below in: Learn By Doing (or Watching).
Just a few more words in regards to the concept of pen & paper role playing games: From what is described so far, you see that both the Dungeon- and Game Master and the players together create a common "fiction" so to say, a common fantasy world which they experience and "believe in" (or pretend to believe in, and interact with).
I believe the idea and concept for this formed in the mind by Gary Gygax (the inventor of the first role playing game, Dungeons & Dragons) in a time before television:
In 1938 there was an infamous radio play narrated by Orson Wells, "The War of the Worlds". People back then didn't have television, so they listened to the radio and read books. In this radio play Orson Wells very realistically narrates an invasion from aliens from Mars, based on the book "The War of The Worlds" by H.G. Wells (same last name, different guy). The events of the story were described so realistically, as if a live-reporter was experiencing them live, that many people listening to the narration believed there actually really was an invasion form Mars in progress. There are several rumors of large-scale panics ensuing among listeners because of the play.
Although Gygax was born in the same year as this play, the play was repeated several times in later years, and re-enacted in 1968, with similar results (for instance, the Canadian army was deployed to respond to the fictional invasion form Mars!). Gagax was influenced strongly by turn-based miniature war gaming, as well as by J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and what Gygax did, was to create an interactive "radio play", where people could not only experience seemingly real-like stories like this famous radio play, which surely must have influenced him, but interact with them: Just like players at the game table in miniature war gaming. And he put all that in a fantasy setting, like in Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings". That was Dungeons & Dragons.
Here's a good 10-minute video from Youtube describing the concept:
Concept of Dungeons and Dragons explained
A good 10 minute introduction to pen & paper role playing games with the example of Dungeons & Dragons "D&D":
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Learn By Doing (or Watching)
As said previously, a really good, and perhaps the fastest way to learn what pen & paper role playing games are, is to simply jump in and start playing with other, more experienced people who will fill you in as you go along. Or, to watch them.
Here are two videos showing a pen & paper role playing game in progress.
These are both professional productions showing a current 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons game in progress from the "Critical Role" series. This series of videos was produced and sponsored by a major supplier of game accessories and the players are not normal people like you and me, but voice-actors. So don't be surprised if things don't look very home-made and the background is a studio, and not a private living-room or a gaming room in someone's basement.
Role playing and story-telling example
Critical Role: Campaign 2, Episode 2
This is a good example of the general mechanics of pen & paper role playing games, but doesn't feature a lot of action.
--> Jump-start at minute 8:30, with a 2:20 minute recollection of the last session by the Dungeon Master. Then quite clearly shows the mechanics or iterative story-telling, a.k.a. "role playing" switching between the Dungeon Master and players.
Encounter and combat example
Critical Role: Campaign 2, Episode 3
This is an example for an encounter (fight) with some action.
--> Jump-start at minute 6:55, with some laughter while rolling initiative for the fight. Then at minute 11 the fight starts, but the Dungeon Master makes a big mistake and rolls back time at minute 14 (which is a pretty bad mistake). Features strong use of miniatures (which I am not a big fan of) to symbolize positions during fight (not mandatory).
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Role Playing Games are not Ego-Trips
There is one more thing I would like to explain about pen & paper role playing games, because I feel it is important and because I believe many people struggle with this and have difficulties with it, even if they are not fully aware of it. They are thereby involuntarily diminishing their and everyone else's fun with pen & paper role playing games.
What I am talking about is the biggest stepping stone for people who have never experienced true team-work and collaboration, and unfortunately, in today's western society, sadly, that seems to be the case with a lot of people: In role-playing games being an egoist and self-focused on your own interests only will usually not get you very far, and most of all, certainly not as a Dungeon- or Game Master.
I think many Dungeon- and Game Masters, normal everyday people like you an me, falter and struggle with this problem. If, like in the rest of our society and almost every other game, you are focused on your own, personal benefit and fun only, and you put that in front of true team-work, you will not be successful as a Dungeon- or Game Master. You will frustrate your players, and that will come back at you, and will frustrate you as a Dungeon- or Game Master. This is one of the reasons why not everyone has what it takes to be a Dungeon- or Game Master. You will either dictate to your players the style of play that you like, without considering their preferences, or worse, you will kill them and be too hard or unfair. And even as a player, in the long run, you will not be very popular among other players if you keep on pushing yourself and your character in the foreground, at the expense of other players, their fun and other characters. - That is, if you have an inexperienced or young or insecure Dungeon Master who will even except your behavior at the expense of other players.
Role playing games are one of the only truly non-competitive activities for people in western societies like us, who otherwise are unable or even utterly incapable of being non-competitive. Most people agree that role playing games are very creative. But, unlike the rest of our current society, role playing games are not a creative ego-trip. They are not about self-fulfillment, at least, not in disregard of others at the game table, or even at the expense of others.
Current western societies are extremely competitive, where everyone is pitted against everyone to compete for the job, for the girl, the house, the car, the bigger watch, etc. People who never experienced anything else than this, who never lived among natives or in a fundamentally different culture, take this competition for granted, and know only this. It is in their blood and in their system and they are so used to it that they are not even aware of it anymore. And thus, they take this same attitude to the game table. This is probably the most common beginner mistake. And in some, it can persist for many years, and some might even never learn that there are better ways to play. Often such people believe role playing games are a great chance for their own, personal creative ego-trip. To be as egoistic, selfish, and self-centered at the game table as you are at the job, when you compete with others for a raise, a girl, or for a bigger house, etc. And many new or young Dungeon- and Game Masters unfortunately don't fully understand this, or are aware of it in themselves either. How should they, if they grew up in this society and never had a chance to experience anything different? Who can blame them?
For me, role playing games are about team-effort and collaboration, not about ego-trips, and I feel that's (very) important. For me, it spells the difference between fun, and mediocre, or even bad experiences at the game table. Sure, everyone can and should have fun, but in a pen & paper game people should never compete among each other for fun. Role playing games, at the game table, should never, ever be about who gets to have more fun, more of the Dungeon- or Game Master's time, possibly even at the expense of others who are pushed to the side or even excluded. This kind of behavior does not sit well at the game table, is unacceptable in a Dungeon- or Game Master, and, because leaders of role playing game groups largely set the tone and mood for a role playing game group, it is also a bad omen for a role playing game group. Leaders of such groups should be an example, and when they are not, that isn't a great service to role playing games.
This is actually the reason why I saw the need that I have to step up and be a leader of a role playing game group myself. Because I am aware of this and it's clear to me that others are not, or not as much as they should.
Role playing games are not just about being creative and being able to improvise, that too, yes, but they are also about being able to collaborate with others, to work together, to not compete. For many people who grew up as single children in western societies, pampered if you like, raised to be ambitious and competitive, especially in materialistic Switzerland, this I feel is the biggest stepping stone to overcome for successful pen & paper role playing for most people.
A good dungeon master must understand much more about this than just about the rules and the game, or how to role play or act well, or entice players with good descriptions and good stories, because what fun is the best adventure, if players are being assholes to each other and trying to exclude others, just so they can have more attention and fun for themselves?
In this sense, I believe because of their anti-competitive requirement to have fun, pen & paper role playing games actually have a very healthy educational psychological, and social value. Not just a cultural one. But that won't interest most RPG fans and is probably far beyond the scope of this little text.
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