Pen and paper role-playing game

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A pen and paper role-playing game, often abbreviated to "RPG" and sometimes called a tabletop RPG to differentiate it from other types of role-playing game, is a form of interactive storytelling game where the players each control a created "player character" (PC). Home-based pen and paper RPGs are played in a comfortable setting, with friends gathering around a kitchen, living room or dormitory table, and they are also very popular at game conventions.

In a role-playing game, the players are not in complete control of events, but must react to situations described by a referee, or "game master" (GM). An analogy would be that role-playing games are "playing pretend". But whereas every child has played such games as "cops and robbers" or "cowboys and Indians", the pre-defined cause-and-effect rules of RPGs provide a coherent set of conditions which will determine the characters' success or failure. For example, a child playing "cops and robbers" may argue back and forth with his friends about whether he has "killed" one of the other players - a player in a role-playing game knows that if she rolls a certain number or better on a dice roll, then her character will successfully strike her target.

In a typical session of a role-playing game, the game master will introduce the players to an adventure. He will describe what the player characters can see and hear, and play the role of anyone the characters interact with. The players decide on what their characters would do in the situation described, and react accordingly. Where the success of a character's desired action would not be guaranteed, the rules will determine if the action taken was or wasn't successful. Over a series of such encounters, the adventure will unfold and come to a conclusion.

The vast majority of role-playing games take place in fictional settings. The fantasy genre is the most popular, but almost every fictional genre is catered for by games publishers, including science fiction, horror, superhero, crime and mystery, conspiracy, historical and "real world" adventure. The fictional world the players' characters adventure in may be based on a published work, either licensed or created specifically for that game, or may be created from scratch by the game master.

Ultimately, the goal of RPGs is for the players to have fun, often emphasized by a "golden rule" displayed prominently in the beginning of the main rulebook. The secondary goals of a game are either to accomplish some goal of the player characters (PC) within the story world, or to "win" the game by either constantly improving a PC's abilities and equipment, eliminating all opposition, or merely surviving. All of this is mediated by a "game master" (GM). In most RPGs, co-operative play is emphasised - the players (and their characters) must work as a team to accomplish their goals.

Basic RPG terminology

  • The game master (GM) fulfills several roles in a game. He is the referee where rules are concerned, but a more important function is to involve the players in the game by describing what their characters can see, hear and experience. He must also play the role of every other character in the game world, other than the players' characters, and must ensure that everything reacts appropriately to the PCs' actions.
  • A player character (PC), is a character controlled by, but different from, a player in the game. Depending on the game and the genre it is set in, a PC may be a valiant knight, evil vampire, or a bold explorer. While the player may describe the actions his character is taking, the "role-playing" aspect is expressed when the character speaks - a player is generally expected to speak in the first person as if they were the character they are playing.
  • Conversely, a non-player character (NPC) is a character controlled by the GM. Players and GM don't usually control characters outside of their own.


There are a plethora of role-playing games on the market today, either available from games and hobby stores, by mail order, via download from the web or online purchase, etc., not to mention many "home grown" systems developed by players. While every game will have its own settings and rules, certain characteristics are common to almost all.

The character

Details of the character will be recorded on a special sheet. In most games, characters will have several primary attributes or statistics, recording how strong, dexterous or intelligent the character is, for example. In addition to these basic attributes, the character may also have a number of skills in various areas. Depending on the game's setting, these may include combat skills; specialist knowledges such as how to pilot a ship, perform first aid, negotiate deals successfully, or how to survive in the wilderness; or innate skills such as being able to spot hidden objects or being ambidextrous.

Again, depending on the setting, characters may or may not have special abilities. When these are present in a game, they will generally be something that sets the character apart from the ordinary denizens of the game's fictional setting. In a game set in the superhero genre, for example, these would be the character's super powers. In a fantasy game, they might be the ability to cast magic spells or perform extraordinary combat feats.

Some games will require the character to belong to one or more pre-defined archetypes. Depending on the game, this may place a limit on powers, abilities or skills open to the character, and/or may grant others not available to characters who are not a member of that archetype. For example, characters in the various Dungeons and Dragons games must belong to a race (such as human, elf or dwarf) and class (such as fighter, thief, or wizard), while characters in the horror game "Vampire" must belong to one of a number of vampire clans.

Character creation

Each player will need to either create a character, or use a "pre-made" character supplied with the game or created by the GM. Various systems have evolved for doing this. The most common are:

  • Random. The player will roll various dice to determine the character's prime abilities, such as how strong or intelligent the character is. Modifications to the dice rolls may be allowed.
  • Points-based. The player will be given a certain number of points which may be used to purchase the desired scores in an ability, and any skills or special abilities required.

In addition to abilities and skills, the player will also be expected to create a background history and personality for the character he will be playing in the game. Generally, the personality must conform to or be in keeping with the character's statistics - a character created with a low intelligence score, for example, should be portrayed as such by its player, regardless of the intelligence of the actual player.

Task resolution

All role-playing games will have one or more systems of task resolution. The purpose of such systems is to determine the success (or otherwise) of actions taken by the PCs and NPCs. Subsystems may cover such areas as combat, item creation, problem solving, trading, etc. Rules and modifiers will generally cover areas such as:

  • Simple tasks - e.g., accomplishing something such as opening a stuck door;
  • Cooperative tasks - e.g., two or more PCs attempting to help each other open a stuck door;
  • Opposed tasks - e.g., trying to open a door that is being held shut by another PC or NPC.

Most task resolution systems involve a random element, e.g., a die roll, usually combined with any relevant attributes or skills a character may be able to apply. Most systems use one or more kinds of polyhedral dice: 4-, 8-, 10-, 12- and 20-sided dice, in addition to the common 6-sided die, to generate random numbers. Generally, the GM will announce a difficulty for a given task, or a target number that must be rolled. He may also announce any applicable modifiers effecting the situation - for instance, a normally simple task for a rogue character of picking a lock in a dungeon might be made more complicated if the character was also under fire from enemies. Some games, especially the more cinematic types, may allow players to modify results by spending resources such as "drama points". Most game systems will have special rules to reward or punish especially good or bad dice rolls, known as "critical successes" and "critical failures" or "fumbles".

Style: "Roll versus Role"

A major difference between various systems and settings is the emphasis given to the role-playing element. This conflict has been dubbed "roll versus role". In many early games, perhaps because the genre was new, it was normal for players to concentrate on the statistics and abilities of their PCs. This would lead to players making decisions for their characters based not on what the character would logically do or choose in a situation, but what would be more beneficial in terms of achieving success via the game's task resolution or advancement systems. Some later games have tended to emphasise the role-playing aspect more, and may specifically reward players for staying "in-character" and making appropriate decisions for their characters based on their personalities, even where such decisions may have a negative impact on the character.

Different role-playing games may emphasise different styles of games. In some, there may be a large emphasis on realism. This will lead to a complicated task resolution system and possibly many tables which must be consulted in the course of a game. An associated example is the rules for creating a starship design in the various Traveller science-fiction RPGs, where spreadsheets and calculators may come into play. Such games may have relatively slow combat systems, as multiple modifiers must be taken into account for each player's actions. Conversely, other games will emphasise a more cinematic style - combat will be much quicker and characters may be able to achieve amazing feats, but at the expense of realism.


Almost all role-playing games will allow the player character to increase in power over time. The most usual "out-of-character" method is for the game master to award each player with "experience points" (XP). These might allow a player character to increase in "level", thereby automatically increasing its abilities; or might be used to increase attributes or skills. "In-character" progression can be expressed as the PCs acquire better equipment, influence within the game world, etc.


The first role-playing game was Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), created by Dave Arneson and the late Gary Gygax in the early 1970s. The concept for the game arose after Gygax, Arneson and their friends had been playing miniature wargames for some time, using a fantasy setting. They developed rules allowing for combat between figures representing individual heroes, rather than units. Over time, their play came more and more to focus on the individual level, which led to them developing adventures where these adventurers would take on fantasy monsters such as orcs and dragons. Eventually, they formed a company, TSR Inc., and published the rules as the Dungeons and Dragons game, in 1974.


As Dungeons and Dragons became successful, many other RPGs were also developed and released. Some, like D&D, were also set in the fantasy genre. Within several years, it was possible to play a game set in every major genre. Some, such as Traveller (science fiction) and Runequest (fantasy) are still being published, while many others have fallen out of favour. Licensed games then began to appear, in hopes of building on existing markets and fanbases. One of the first was Call of Cthullhu, based on the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Licensed games have continued to be popular, releases over the years including both Marvel and D.C. superheroes, James Bond, Conan the Barbarian, Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, and literally dozens of others.

A feature of early games and game settings was that each had its own rules system, incompatible with any other - even where a single company published several RPGs. A group of players who wanted to try a different setting - say, moving from science-fiction to horror - would therefore need to learn a completely new rules system. In 1986, Steve Jackson Games addressed this by releasing GURPS - the "Generic Universal Roleplaying System". The basic rules allowed the creation of characters and adventures in any genre, and players could freely move between settings using the same rules. Several similar systems have been developed since, the most successful being the "D20" system (q.v.).

Business model

Initially, the advent of role-playing games resulted in the establishment of many publishing companies devoted to supporting RPGs. On paper, the business model was sound. Whereas with a traditional game such as chess or Monopoly, there would be little or no repeat business from any one customer, role-playing is more of an ongoing hobby, rather than a game someone might pick up and play just occasionally. RPG publishers could therefore release additional supplements for each game in their stable, such as expanded rules, pre-designed adventures and campaign settings, knowing they would have a loyal following.

The market, though, soon became saturated, and with economic recession and increased printing costs arising in the 1980s and 1990s, many companies failed and market consolidation occurred. Other significant factors included the advent of new related hobby games, such as collectible card games (e.g., Magic the Gathering); and the dawn of the video and computer games market.

Some companies have adapted and survived, while others have failed or been bought out. New business models were developed in some cases, such as online sales of game rules and supplements, available for download in Adobe Acrobat format (criticised in themselves for harming the traditional local games shop).

A significant development was the release of the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons, by Wizards of the Coast, Inc (the publishers of Magic the Gathering, who had bought out TSR Inc., and who were later in turn bought by Hasbro Inc.). The revised rules underpinning the game were developed and released as the "D20" system, the critical factor being that the rules were made freely available for use under an Open Gaming Licence - very similar to and based on free software and operating system licences. This allowed other companies or individuals to publish games using the same basic rules as D&D. The result was that the D&D rulebooks saw a huge increase in sales, as players now needed to only learn one rules system, which could be used in any number of settings.