What is a Role Playing Game?

Closet full of gamesWhen I talk to non-gamers about role playing, it always strikes me how mystifying role playing games (RPGs) are to them. Thinking about it from their point of view, though, RPGs really do seem pretty foreign if your current concept of a game is chess or Monopoly.

Just about every role playing game book has a brief section answering the question, "what is an RPG?" However, you're only going to be able to read that if you've already bought the book, in which case you're probably already at least gamer-curious. To everybody else, who might not even know where to find an RPG book, where do you go to learn more?

Maybe you're interested in playing an RPG. Maybe you are a mother whose child has gotten interested in them. Maybe you just heard Wizards of the Coast is putting out another version of Dungeons and Dragons, and you just want to know what the heck that is. I intend this article to answer your questions as much as I can.

A Brief Introduction to RPGs

At its most basic, a role playing game is just one in which you play a character in a story that everyone makes up together. There are a wide variety of games under that umbrella, but they all share that main concept. In this way, RPGs are kind of like cooperative improv theater.

Here are a few other aspects of RPGs that we should cover.

Game Master

While most of the group (the Players) are acting as the main characters (Player Characters or PCs) of the story, there is usually one person running the game. Depending on the game, they might be called a Game Master (GM), Narrator, Storyteller, or Dungeon Master. Her job is to guide the story, keep everybody on track, arbitrate rules and disputes between players, and make sure they're all having fun.

In addition to all that, the GM also often handles all the characters in the story not being handled by the Players. Appropriately enough, these are called Non-Player Characters (NPCs). They could be anybody from the garbage man, to a soldier, to a king, and it's the GM's job to play them all.

Finally, it usually falls to the GM to figure out how the world in general reacts to the players. For instance, if a player wants his character to jump from one roof to another, it's up to the GM to decide whether he makes it. Each game comes with a set of rules (or at least guidelines) for how to handle these questions.


A game's mechanics are how it adjudicates the characters' actions. They'll cover how to figure out what happens when a character tries to jump, fight, fast-talk another character, or just about anything the Player can come up with. Of course, the rules can't cover everything, so it falls to the GM to make a ruling when the Players inevitably go off the beaten path.

Just like even the most elite sports stars don't succeed 100% of the time, however, neither do characters in an RPG. In order to model these uncertainties of life, almost all games involve a random element. This could be cards, or rock-paper-scissors, but by-and-large it's dice.


Finally, most role playing games center around a story. I know I mentioned that above, but I'm repeating it because it's important enough to deserve its own section. Without it, you may as well be playing a strategy game.

Just like with books and movies, the stories in role playing games come in an astounding variety. They can be historic, modern, or sci-fi. They can be comedy, drama, action, or horror. An RPG story could be rich and nuanced, or it could be wafer thin, only enough to justify the action sequences. In the end, an RPG's story is just a story.

Why Play?

This is the bottom line. Why do any of us play RPGs? Why not go see a movie instead?

A role playing game isn't just acting, strategy, and story telling. It's all those things together, plus hanging out with fun people. You get to be on the stage, and in the audience simultaneously. In an RPG, you're part of the story, and nobody knows exactly how it's going to turn out, because you'll change it.


If you're looking for more information on RPGs in general, you can start over at the Wikipedia RPG page.  If you enjoy audio, the "Fear the Boot" podcast did a great series on the basics of gaming:

  1. Introduction
  2. What is a RPG?
  3. Why Play an RPG?
  4. Common Objections
  5. Getting Started
  6. The Language of RPGs
  7. It Takes All Kinds

Of course, we also recommend that you check out other posts on Intwischa.  Some of them might be considered "advanced topics", but we do our best to appeal to all experience levels.  Hopefully our ideas are useful to everybody!

If you're new to role playing games, do you have questions I haven't answered here?  If you're an experienced gamer, do you have something to add?  Let us know in the comments!