Odds are that most people reading this already know what a role-playing game is but, as this game is intended to reach out to new gamers as well as old ones, I’m going to take a little more time than usual to explain what a role-playing game is, how they are played and – most importantly – why they’re such good fun.
Role-playing, as a hobby-game, has been around since the mid-seventies and grew out of wargaming. A hobby that is represented in most people’s eyes by Games Workshop and their Warhammer game these days. Role-playing is a little different though. Rather than commanding an army each player takes control of a single character and guides their actions through a story created and refereed by another player called the ‘Games Master’.
This is a lot like playing games of imagination when you’re children. Maybe you shouted out ‘Let’s play Star Wars!’ and then people would take on roles: “I’m Han!” “I’m Chewie!” etc, and then – as kids – you would play out battles or re-play the stories of the film. There are three important differences when it comes to role-playing games.
1: We’re grown-ups now, so we have to justify creative play to ourselves with all sorts of adult structure and waffle.
2: Role-playing games have rules. This helps prevent the sort of “Bang, you’re dead!”, “No I’m not!”, “Yes you are!”, “Nuh huh, I have a forcefield” type arguments we had as children.
3: The characters and stories are our own and, hopefully, somewhat original.
So, how do you play one of these games? That’s actually pretty easy to do, but a lot harder to explain in any meaningful way. If you know anybody who already plays these kind of games then your best bet is to ask to sit in on a game or to get them to explain it to you in person. I’ll do my best to explain below, but one of the main barriers to spreading the hobby is the problem of explaining it.
The Games Master is one of the players. He comes up with the story, the challenges, the opposition that the players who are taking the part of the characters have to face. The Games Master sets the scene, looks after the rules and describes the action. It’s a demanding but rewarding role to take in a game.
The players create and describe their characters. These characters are made according to the rules – given later – and these descriptions determine the bounds of who a character is, what they can do and how good they are at it.
The advantage to The Description System is that so long as you can describe something, you can put it into the game rules. This makes it very easy to pick up and play with very little preparation or number crunching.
Here is how a little bit of one game session might go, we join the game already in progress…
The Games Master Sets the Scene: You emerge from the underground station into the light. You think this must be King’s Cross station – or rather what’s left of it. The station is overgrown, the floors cracked. Vines and creepers sprawl over everything and are festooned with brightly lit and sweetly perfumed flowers. Butterflies and other insects flutter and buzz from flower to flower and vine to vine. It makes the floor hard-going to walk through and here and there knots of thick vegetation block the path.
Kerr (Played by Kyan): “Damn, I’m glad to be out of there. Who knew so many people were afraid of rats on the underground?” Now we’re in the light I brush the dirt off my clothing and check myself for rat bites.
Juliet (Played by Karen): “Don’t relax yet Kerr. Rats make sense at least. We knew what to do about rats. Even giant ones. What’re all these plants about though?” I’ll move to the nearest one and take a closer look.
Games Master: You don’t find any bites you’ve missed but the ones you did take look a bit nasty, angry and red. The flower looks a bit like a bluebell or a snowdrop, but bigger and glowing with a honeyed, inner light. Each flower seems to be a subtly different shade, covering the whole rainbow throughout the station.
Kerr: “I don’t trust it. Pretty things always hide something nasty.” I’ll sit down on the steps and use my first aid kit on my wounds. I don’t want them getting infected.
Games Master: OK, I won’t make you roll for that. Daubing on some iodine or TCP isn’t exactly taxing. It’s probably a good idea though. What about you Karen?
Juliet: “Pretty things always hide something nasty eh? Should I take that personally?” I laugh at Kerr but I know he’s probably right. I’ll keep my hand on my pistol and move a short distance deeper into the station, looking out for trouble.
Games Master: Alright. I’m going to ask you to make a roll to see if you spot anything. Give me a moment. *He tots up the appropriate words and skills from a description of ‘something’ lurking in the station and rolls a dice, getting a four* OK, roll and tell me what you get. You need to beat seven (the roll, plus the opponent’s total).
Juliet: I’m paranoid, that’s usually a bad thing but I want to use it here. I also have a good eye and in our time off between missions I trained up in observation. So that gives me a total of three before I roll. If you’re OK with all of that?
Games Master: Sounds kosher to me.
Juliet: And I roll a five, giving me a total of eight. That beats seven.
Games Master: Distantly, behind the overgrown tangle that used to be the automatic gates, you briefly catch sight of a wild-haired, naked woman carrying a spear. Naked save for three strategically placed fig leaves that is. She ducks back down again, out of sight.
Juliet: What… the… hell… Kerr. Hurry up with what you’re doing. We might have more trouble.
And so the adventure continues…