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The Basics of Role-Playing

So, you want to know what this role-playing lark is all about? Well, the first thing to know is that it is best explained through excessive use of analogy.

What is role-playing?

Our first analogy. Have you ever imagined yourself in a situation? Have you ever (for some examples) imagined yourself meeting some famous person, imagined yourself indulging in orgiastic sex with multiple partners, imagined yourself rampaging around trashing all you behold? If so, you have been role-playing. In these cases, you have assumed the role of yourself.

Extending the analogy is done by taking one of these settings, and imaging someone else in them. For the sake of illustration, imagine someone you know. How would they act and react? Would they want to meet the same person? Would they endulge in the same acts of sex? Would they use the same implements to trash things, and what would they trash first?

To complete the analogy, you need to invent a character. Not someone you know, not someone on TV, but someone you have made up. This character need not be (indeed should not be) much like yourself. Quickly think of a few defining characteristics for your imaginary character. Are they stroppy, quiet, intelligent, brash, funny, ugly, messy? Do they swear, take drugs, follow a religion, believe in ghosts, or like science fiction?

Once you have this character in your head, put them in your imaginary scenario and imagine how they act and react.

This is role-playing.

Other analogies that are often used:

Role-playing is a kind of free-form acting. Each person assumes a role, and then acts out that role. Instead of following a script however, they act and react spontaneously based on the events around them and the actions of the other characters.

Role-playing is like writing a book, where each character's actions are decided by a different author.

I hope you get the idea. If so, let me tell you about how this concept of role-playing becomes a game.

Role-playing as a Game.

Role-playing becomes interesting when the characters and scenarios become ever more removed from reality. The fantasies we indulge ourselves in are always pretty divorced from our daily lives, that's the point of a fantasy. Role-playing games simply take them a step further. Not only do we use imaginary characters, but we place them in imaginary worlds.

The first, most popular, and most relevant world to these pages, is the world of High Fantasy. This is the genre that was almost single-handedly defined and popularised by J.R.R.Tolkein with the Lord of the Rings. It is a world of elves, orcs, heroes and magic, where great deeds are done and worlds are saved by brave men (they're always men, that's one of the bad points of the genre).

In a role-playing game, you create a character that will do these heroic deeds. It might be a muscular sword-wielding hero who smites all before him with his mighty weapon. It might be a mystical mage, conjuring forth his power to strike down his foes in a blaze of destruction. (It's all dreadfully Freudian isn't it?) Your character will have epic adventures, overcoming perils and reaping the treasures.

Other players will join you, each with their own imaginary character. You will share this exciting world, travelling together and helping each other against the dangers that you face.

Of course, this ideallistic view quickly falls apart. The party never turns out to be heroic and harmonious. Arguments will start over who gets what bits of treasure, the more cowardly (intelligent) characters may rather run than fight the hideous beasties, feuds may erupt and characters may rather fight each other than the villains. Characters may even end up being the villains themselves.

How do we prevent it all descending into chaos? We invent a concept called the Games Master (originally known as the Dungeon Master).

One player does not take the role of a character. Instead, they are responsible for maintaing order. They decide wether your magic is powerful enough to defeat the dragon. They decide if your sword blow was mighty enough to kill the orc. They decide who gets the first blow.

In short, they are responsible for the rest of the world.

How do they make all these world-shattering decisions? They follow the rules.

All games have rules. In chess, the rules determine what pieces can move where. In football, the rules determine how the ball can be moved, and what you must do with it to score ponts. In role-playing games (which I'm now going to start calling RPG's, 'cos I'm bored of typing it in full all the time) the rules determine the limits and effects of your (imaginary) actions in the (imaginary) world.

Thus, the Games Master (the GM) can now be seen to be a kind of referee. Indeed, in Live Role-Playing, the GM tends to get called the ref. (and there are player-refs and monster-refs, but we'll come to all that).

But how (I hear you cry) can the rules be adjudicated if everything they apply to takes place entirely in the imagination? This is where we come to the tool and fetish of all role-players - the dice.

Almost all RPG's use dice. Some use them a lot, some very little, a few not at all. A lot can be told about a game system by how much it uses dice. Dungeons and Dragons - the first RPG - uses dice a hell of a lot. Virtually every action requires a dice role to determine the effect. The Storyteller system (including the classic Vampire - bloody good game IMO) makes a point of using dice only when unavoidable (which generally means combat situations). Amber (based on Roger Zelazny's books) doesn't use them at all.

Note that rolling dice in the middle of a wood is highly impractacle. Thus no Live role-play game (which I'm going to start calling LRPG) uses dice.

Not much more needs be said about rules and dice, but a few words on stats. are needed.

Stats (that's short for statistics y'know) are a way of representing your character using numbers. These numbers, in combination with any numbers rolled on dice, determine the effect of your actions.

eg: You are role-playing a mighty hero. He is big and strong. The system says that your character's strength is represented by a number from 1 to 20 (20 being the highest). You character has strength 18 say. You want to hurl a sheep through a glass window. The GM consults the rules and decides you must role a 20-sided dice, add the number to your strength score, and hope it totals more than thirty. You role a 10, the total is only 28, the sheep bounces off the glass and lands in a wooly heap.

Every RPG system has rules to determine what numbers you can place in what stats. Generally, for every good stat, there must be a bad one.

And that's all you need to know. Now on to LRP'ing.

Live Role-Playing

If you refer back to the analogies at the beginning (oh, alright, here's a link), live role-playing is more like free-form acting than writing a book. In normal RPG's (usually referred to as Table-Top), everyone just sits around and says things like "My character will smack the beastie good and hard with his huge chopper". In LRP'ing, you will actually be facing a beastie, and you will actually have to hit it.

Where do you find the beasties (I hear you scream). Simple, we get someone to play the part.

This gives rise to one essential difference between table-top RPG's and LRPG's. In LRP, you need people to play all the monsters.

The monster-players (just refered to as "monsters", even when they're playing things other than monsters, like peasants or bandits, or gusts of wind) alternate each play session. One week you may play your character, the next week you play a goblin, an old hag, and the back end of a dragon in one session. Monstering (monstering /'mon ster ing/ v. the act of being a monster) is actually just as much fun as playing your favourite character. You get to show off your acting talents, you get to play a greater variety of things, and you get to do dramatic death sequences all the time.

Monster characters have stats, just like player characters. However, the GM (who writes the adventures) will have a good idea of what they will be doing, so generally only worries about what stats will be needed. This is usually just hit points (the number of times you can be bludgeoned before you must perform your death scene).

It is the refs resonsibility to ensure that the players have plenty of monsters to keep them occupied, and to ensure that the monsters know what they are doing, what their lines are, etc. Sometimes, the ref merely sets the encounters (the scenes in which players and monsters interact), and the actual organisation is done by a monster ref. The monster ref is like a seargant to the ref's major.

Similarly, it is up to the ref to tell the players (via an encounter) where they must go and what they must do when the get there. To ensure they do as they are told, a player-ref may go with them. The player ref is a monster role-playing being a player (weird huh?). He goes with the party and role-plays just as if he were a player-character, but his character will have any necessary knowledge that the party might need.

Player refs are often navigator characters. They will be the captain of the ship the party hire, the village elder who agrees to show them around the old ruins, that sort of thing.

So, how do the rules work. You can't use dice (imagine going to hit someone with your rubber sword, then saying "hang on" while you bend down to role your dice, then spend five minutes trying to find them in the mud), so how does it work?

Simply, you try to hit the monster, and if you the player hit them, then your character hits them. To avoid bloodshed, you use weapons made of foam-rubber and coated with latex. I call them rubber weapons simply 'cos it sounds sillier.

But what about magic (I hear you expostulate). This is slightly stranger, in that you must shout out what spell you're casting and what effect it has. All the monsters (and the players if appropriate) will then react as if the spell had actually been cast.

To compensate for the possibility that a martial arts expert may be playing a character that can't fight for toffee, and a 5-stone weakling may be playing a super-hard monster that is intent on eating the character, there are rules.

For one thing, you are expected to act like someone who can fight as well as your character. The above martial artist should not fight to anything approaching his true abilities if his character cannot.

Also, there are things you can shout that will make the players act as if you had done something that you cannot, but your character could (keep up son, I say pay attention boy).

eg, you want to disarm your opponent, but you have no idea how. Your character, however, is a swashbuckling hero, who could do it easily. Therefore, you make an effort to disarm your opponent (as long as you have a decent shot at it) and you shout "disarm". Even if you as a player fail miserably, your opponent will drop his weapon and act stunned at your masterly prowess.

So, instead of rolling dice, LRP'ers shout at each other. Hey, its good for relieving stress.

And that's about all you need to know about Live Role-Playing.


See also : Monstering and the Bare Essentials
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