The Real Basics

This section is intended for novice role-players. If you have played role-playing games before, don't be surprised if what you read here sounds familiar.

Games come in a wide assortment of types: board games, card games, word games, picture games, miniatures games. Even within these categories are subcategories. Board games, for example, can be divided into path games, real estate games, military simulation games, abstract strategy games, mystery games, and a host of others.

Still, in all this mass of games, role-playing games are unique. They form a category all their own that doesn't overlap any other category.

For that reason, role-playing games are hard to describe. Comparisons don't work because there isn't anything similar to compare them to. At least, not without stretching your imagination well beyond its normal, everyday extension.

But then, stretching your imagination is what role-playing is all about. So let's try an analogy.

Imagine that you are playing a simple board game, called Snakes and Ladders. Your goal is to get from the bottom to the top of the board before all the other players. Along the way are traps that can send you sliding back toward your starting position. There are also ladders that can let you jump ahead, closer to the finish space. So far, it's pretty simple and pretty standard.

Now let's change a few things. Instead of a flat, featureless board with a path winding from side to side, let's have a maze. You are standing at the entrance, and you know that there's an exit somewhere, but you don't know where. You have to find it.

Instead of snakes and ladders, we'll put in hidden doors and secret passages. Don't roll a die to see how far you move; you can move as far as you want. Move down the corridor to the intersection. You can turn right, or left, or go straight ahead, or go back the way you came. Or, as long as you're here, you can look for a hidden door. If you find one, it will open into another stretch of corridor. That corridor might take you straight to the exit or lead you into a blind alley. The only way to find out is to step in and start walking.

Of course, given enough time, eventually you'll find the exit. To keep the game interesting, let's put some other things in the maze with you. Nasty things. Things like vampire bats and hobgoblins and zombies and ogres. Of course, we'll give you a sword and a shield, so if you meet one of these things you can defend yourself. You do know how to use a sword, don't you?

And there are other players in the maze as well. They have swords and shields, too. How do you suppose another player would react if you chance to meet? He might attack, but he also might offer to team up. After all, even an ogre might think twice about attacking two people carrying sharp swords and stout shields.

Finally, let's put the board somewhere you can't see it. Let's give it to one of the players and make that player the referee. Instead of looking at the board, you listen to the referee as he describes what you can see from your position on the board. You tell the referee what you want to do and he moves your piece accordingly. As the referee describes your surroundings, try to picture them mentally. Close your eyes and construct the walls of the maze around yourself. Imagine the hobgoblin as the referee describes it whooping and gamboling down the corridor toward you. Now imagine how you would react in that situation and tell the referee what you are going to do about it.

We have just constructed a simple role-playing game. It is not a sophisticated game, but it has the essential element that makes a role-playing game: The player is placed in the midst of an unknown or dangerous situation created by a referee and must work his way through it.

This is the heart of role-playing. The player adopts the role of a character and then guides that character through an adventure. The player makes decisions, interacts with other characters and players, and, essentially, “pretends” to be his character during the course of the game. That doesn't mean that the player must jump up and down, dash around, and act like his character. It means that whenever the character is called on to do something or make a decision, the player pretends that he is in that situation and chooses an appropriate course of action.

Physically, the players and referee (the DM) should be seated comfortably around a table with the referee at the head. Players need plenty of room for papers, pencils, dice, rule books, drinks, and snacks. The referee needs extra space for his maps, dice, rule books, and assorted notes.

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