Storyteller: You push against the worn stone door set in the hillside, and it grinds slowly open on ancient hinges. A gust of damp, cold air moans through the gap, heavy with the scent of ages.

Dwarf warrior: I draw my sword and peer inside. What do I see? Can I hear anything?

Storyteller: Not much, the bright sunlight outside prevents you from seeing for more than a couple of meters into the darkness. All you see are old and cracked flagstones covered with a layer of dust. The rest is lost in gloom. You hear nothing but the sigh of the wind.

Human priest: Okay, I light my lantern and carefully step inside.

Dwarf: I strap my shield on and follow him, mace held at the ready.

Elf archer:  I load my crossbow and enter behind them.

If you're a 13 year-old boy, chances are that this is what your human wizard will look like. Aren't RPGs great?

Human wizard: Great, I suppose I’ll just bring up the rear then. That way, if something decides to attack us from behind at least you guys will be warned by my screams of agony. Hmph.

Dwarf: Yeah, but you aren’t likely to get a crossbow bolt in the back thanks to a trigger happy elf.

Elf: Hey, that only happened the one time! You’re so short I can normally shoot over you.

Dwarf: You’re going to be short after I hack your legs off,  you tree-hugging-

Human: Settle down, people! Save it for the countless monsters that are no doubt waiting inside to eat our faces. Besides, the Elf is going to need her legs to help us carry all the loot we’re going to find.

Storyteller: Ahem. Can we get back to the adventure please? You slowly move inside the shadowy chamber. It takes your eyes a few moments to adjust to the darkness, but after a while you begin to be able to make out the room by the light of your lamp. It is a large, circular area with walls and floor of worked stone. In the centre you see a long-dry fountain, and there are numerous alcoves set into the walls. You also see several piles of decayed wood around the edges. There is a single closed door leading out of the room, directly across from you. The moist, chill air smells of the dust your feet have disturbed.

Dwarf: This would have been the main entrance hall where visitors were greeted. It was also the first line of defense in case of attack, hence just the one door leading deeper inside. I go over to the fountain and check it out.

Elf: I’m going to have a look at the alcoves and wood piles.

Priest: I head to the other door and examine it.

Wizard: I stand as far away from the walls as possible, and I don’t touch anything.

Elf: Wuss.

Dwarf: Pansy hand-waving sorcerer wannabe.

Priest: Heh. Fine, leave the work to those of us with actual muscle tone.

Storyteller: Dwarf, you examine the fountain. It is carved in the form of a human woman holding an urn. It hasn’t flowed for a very long time, and is covered with dust. You see the glint of metal in the basin at its base.

Dwarf: I look closer.

One of the core rule books used to play the popular fantasy RPG Dungeons and Dragons.

Storyteller: You see several coins beneath the dust, no doubt cast there by long-dead visitors to this place when it was still active.

Dwarf: Score! See, guys, we’re already in the money! I told you this place had unclaimed treasure.

Wizard: Typical dwarf. A few little shinies and he’s acting like it’s Free Ale Day. I didn’t sign up for a measly handful of coins. Can we just move along already? If I’m going to die here at least let it be for the sake of some real loot.

Elf: Yeesh, why are all wizards such drama queens? Anyway, what do I see?

Storyteller: The piles of wood appear to be collapsed, rotten benches, probably for the use of waiting visitors back in the day. You also see some decayed fabric, the remains of tapestries that decorated the walls. This whole room must have been a lot more magnificent when it was still in use.

Elf: What about the alcoves?

Storyteller: Each one contains a statue, or in many cases the shattered remains of a statue. Time has not been kind to this place.

Dwarf: Ooh! Are they valuable? Lots of people like this kind of antique crap.

Storyteller: Maybe, but most of them are too damaged. Elf, your keen elven eyes notice that the mostly-intact statue closest to you has an unusual seam at the base of its upraised arm.

Elf: Hmm. Maybe it’s a secret lever or something. I pull on the arm.

Storyteller: Okay. You grasp it and pull, and it begins to slowly-

Wizard: What? Wait, you fool! Who knows what that does?! Maybe it’s the ‘Flood the entrance hall with adventurer-dissolving acid’ lever or ‘Unleash the hideous brutal bloodthirsty undead guards’ lever!

Storyteller: Elf, the Wizard’s warning comes too late, and the lever clunks into place as you lower it. You hear a deep rumbling emanate from the wall next to you. The floor vibrates, and a section of stone slowly grinds outwards – a previously-invisible secret door.

Priest: Great! We all know what secret doors hide! Treasure!

Elf: Phat lewt!

Dwarf: Shinies!

Wizard: Yeah, and the horrors that guard said treasure. We are all going to die.

Some readers will be very familiar with what’s happening here. Those of you who have never tried a tabletop role-playing game (RPG) may be wondering What the heck is going on? Who are these people? What’s with this storyteller person telling them what they see and do? Are all wizards that whiny? Okay, maybe not that last part. But these are all valid questions.

A typical RPG gathering as seen at ICON, the local gaming, comics, figures and lifestyle fair. We're not sure what exactly the Game Master is doing, but he sure looks relaxed. Image delicately borrowed from www.rpg.co.za.

Basically, this is how a typical RPG adventure might begin. So what exactly is an RPG? Imagine the best movie you’ve ever seen or your favourite book, be it sci-fi, crime, fantasy, whatever – but instead of simply sitting back and enjoying things as the story unfolds, you are an integral part of the plot. Have you ever thought a movie character should do something differently? In an RPG you control one of the primary characters, make decisions and undertake tasks that affect the story every single step of the way. In some ways this is very similar to a video game, but instead of fixed options and linear stories there are countless choices to be made, and each action opens up a whole new range of possibilities. These in turn contribute to an ever-increasing level of detail and enjoyment. Add a few friends playing different characters in the same story, and you have the recipe for a ridiculously large amount of fun.

Over the coming months we’ll look at the basic mechanisms of RPGs – how they work, what is required, where to start. We will also check out some famous examples as well as new arrivals on the scene. You’ll find out what a d20 is (and why it’s both your best friend and your worst enemy), why storytellers are not to be trusted, and how clean up pizza grease. Stay tuned!