Welcome to part 2 of our introduction to role-playing games. If you haven’t read part 1, head over there first: clicky clicky. We return to our intrepid (if somewhat hapless) adventurers…
Elf: I raise my bow and aim it at the newly-opened, secret entrance , but I don’t enter yet.
Priest: I move up to support the Elf, if necessary – there could be anything in there.
Dwarf: I do the same. Wizard, you replace the Priest at the other doorway – the noise from that secret door opening may have attracted any nearby monsters.
Wizard: What?! Alone?
Dwarf: Just do it! Make yourself useful and be ready to blast anything that comes down the corridor.
Fine. If you hear a brief scream followed by squishy gristle noise you’ll know I’ve been eaten.
Elf: I look into the secret area – what do I see?
Storyteller: You see a dusty corridor leading away, but it extends beyond the reach of you light.
Elf: Okay. I light a torch and toss it down the corridor.
Storyteller: The torch lands with a puff of sparks. After about 30 feet the corridor opens into a room, but you can’t quite see how large it is.
Elf: Do we hear anything?
Wizard: What, like the sound of drool dripping to the floor from slavering jaws hungry for tender adventurer flesh?
Storyteller: The Wizard’s incessant complaints make it difficult to hear anything.
Dwarf, Priest, Elf: Quit your bitching, Wizard!
Wizard. Hmpf. Fine. I’ll die quietly. And no, you can’t have my stuff.
Storyteller: You listen intently – at first there is silence, but you begin to discern a dry rustling followed by scraping sounds.
Dwarf: Right, it looks like we’re in for some action, people. I’ll stand in the doorway. Elf, you shoot over my head if you see anything. And aim high, dammit – this is a brand new helmet. Priest, you get ready to join me if there are multiple enemies. Wizard, pay attention to your corridor – we don’t want anything sneaking up on us from behind.
Storyteller: The rustling sounds continue, and you soon hear irregular footsteps. At the edge of the torchlight you see humanoid shapes appear, but with much less mass than any living creature. As they begin to move down the corridor you see the shapes for what they really are – the horrifyingly animated remains of long-dead people. Ambulatory skeletons, as dry as the dust beneath your feet, clad in rotting armour and clutching corroded weapons in their twiglike fingers. They slowly approach, their movements jerky but full of intent. As they draw nearer, you see baleful red light glowing in their hollow eye sockets, and you can hear ancient leather creaking and cracking.
Wizard: See?! Exactly what I said! Hideous, brutal, bloodthirsty, undead guards!
Elf: Argh! How many are there?
Storyteller: There are three of them, their fleshless feet clicking against the stone floor as each step kicks up a small cloud of dust.
Elf: I shoot at the closest one!
Dwarf: I set my feet and raise my axe, ready to swing at the first skeleton dumb enough to get close.
Storyteller: You are momentarily stilled by the malignant crimson glare from deep within
undead eye sockets, in strange counterpoint to their fixed skeletal grins. These monstrosities are frighteningly unnatural and their presence sends a shudder up your spine. You summon your courage and prepare for battle…
While RPGs differ wildly in setting, play style and complexity, there are several themes common to many of them. The most prevalent is that of characters and storyteller. Characters are created by players according to a set of rules and vary hugely depending on the RPG in question. These could be fantasy-oriented sword-and-sorcery adventurers (like in the dialogue above), mercenaries and space pilots in a far-future sci-fi world, Victorian-era investigators, modern-day special ops soldiers – the list is almost endless. Characters are controlled by players as they explore the realm in question within a guided narrative.
This narrative is facilitated by the storyteller, usually referred to as the Game Master or GM (other titles include Dungeon Master, Narrator, Referee and occasionally That Grumpy Bastard). It is the GM’s job to create and administer every detail of the RPG world, manage the character’s actions in it, and direct the flow of the underlying story. Generally, one GM will run an RPG for multiple players, essentially acting as a conduit for the game’s mechanics.
Before a game starts the GM will envision and construct a story of epic scope, create a suitable setting, and populate it with myriad people, enemies and challenges. Once play begins, the characters will gradually progress through the story by exploring the world, interacting with various persons, battling foes and hopefully overcoming the obstacles in their way without being turned into piles of fine ash, monster food or messy bloodstains. It is the GM’s job to control the world and its inhabitants in response to the character’s actions within the framework defined by the RPG rules. What this results in is an extraordinary amount of fun and excitement for both GM and players, consumption of large amounts of junk food, and stacks of doodled paper (and every so often tragedy, frustration and hurling of dice, but we’ll come to that later).
In the next instalments of this series we’ll look at the fundamental game mechanics that govern these endlessly diverse realms, so stay tuned.