Last Updated: September 26, 2021
A roleplaying game is a game in which you play the role of a character, and you are solely responsible for the actions of that character. Like any game, the purpose of a roleplaying game is entertainment. Roleplaying games are usually cooperative, and groups of players will work together to tell a story.
No matter what game you are playing, the rules are ultimately up to you. Game rules are intended to provide a working game, but if there are parts which you and your group do not like, feel free to change them so that they work better for your group. Some people prefer to play roleplaying games like board games, where you read the rules and play them as written. Some people prefer to play roleplaying games like Skyrim, where you “mot it ’til it breaks”.
How does a roleplaying game work?
The Dungeon Master
The Dungeon Master is called different things in different games: Dungeon Master, Storyteller, Keeper, Referee, etc. While the players control their own characters, the Dungeon Master controls everyone and everything else in the game. It is generally the Dungeon Master’s job to provide the story of the game (Storyteller), and to be an impartial arbitrator of the rules (Referee). Because the Dungeon Master controls the game, they have final judgment on interpretation of the game’s rules.
Because the Dungeon Master must be impartial, the Dungeon Master does not usually play a Player Character. Some Dungeon Masters choose to play a “GM PC”, but this tends to cause a lot of problems at the table, and is strongly discouraged.
Choosing your Dungeon Master
Being a Dungeon Master can be challenging, especially if you are new to roleplaying games. It often requires comprehensive knowledge of the rules, and requires a great deal of trust from your players that you are not cheating or bending the rules against the players. The Dungeon Master often needs to have time to dedicate to the game outside of game sessions, and needs to be trusted by the players. If you have an experienced player in the group, they are often a good choice, but many players (myself includes) are the Dungeon Master in their first roleplaying experience and are immensely successful.
The Dungeon Master is much like an elected official: their authority comes from the consent of the players. If the players are unhappy with the Dungeon Master, or if the Dungeon Master is unable to fill their role adequately, it falls on the players to assist the current Dungeon Master or find a replacement. Be respectful of the Dungeon Master, because they often put more effort into the game than anyone else, but don’t bow to every whim of the Dungeon Master if they are being abusive or unreasonable. Again: This is a heavily trust-based relationship.
Because being the Dungeon Master can be strenuous, consider changing Dungeon Masters occasionally. This prevents Dungeon Masters from becoming “burnt out” and losing interest in the game, and it gives other eager players the chance to be the Dungeon Master.
If you are not the Dungeon Master, you are a player. Players control only their own character, and interact with the story, materials, and personalities portrayed by the Dungeon Master. Because players only have control of their own character, their control over their own character (“Player Agency”) should only be violated in extreme circumstances, such as when the character is under the effect of a spell.
There is no “wrong” way to roleplay, and there is no “best” way to roleplay. Roleplaying is a very personal activity similar to acting or writing. Find a style which works for you, and consider experimenting from time to time to see if your tastes have changed as you’ve gotten to know the game better. Other players may have different styles, but don’t let that influence you. Do whatever is fun and comfortable for you.
When describing the actions of your character, say “I do something”. Many players prefer this style because it helps them to stay in character. However, because it can be difficult to pretend to be a completely different person, many new players find this style uncomfortable.
The Player’s Handbook describes this as the “active approach” to roleplaying.
When describing the actions of your character, say “Jack does something”. Many players, even experienced ones, prefer this style because it feels like they are telling a story about their character instead of a story about themselves.
The Player’s Handbook describes this as the “descriptive approach” to roleplaying.
One of the most peculiar parts of tabletop roleplaying games is dice. Because all of the players at the table are human, it is difficult to have an impartial game. Dice add an impartial randomization system which can impartially determine success or failure. This help to make the game both fair and exciting. We’ll discuss dice more in a later section.
All roleplaying games comes with a set of rules. However, unless you’re playing in an official organized play group of some kind, there’s no one except the people at the table to enforce or interpret the rules, or to force you to follow them as-written.
If you find that a rule in any RPG your playing is a problem for your group, consider changing it. Discuss it with the group, and try to come up with a solution that everyone can agree to. Try the house rule for a while, and if you don’t like how it’s working out you can always try something else.
Remember: this is your game. There’s no computer forcing you to do things exactly how the game expects them. If you want to change things, you’re free to do so.