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Role-playing game

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

(Redirected from Tabletop role-playing game)

A role-playing game (RPG, often roleplaying game) is a type of game in which the participants assume the roles of fictional characters and collaboratively create or follow stories. Participants determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, players can improvise freely; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the games.

A role-playing game rarely has winners or losers. This makes role-playing games fundamentally different from board games, card games, sports and most other types of games. Role-playing games are typically more collaborative and social than competitive.[1] A typical role-playing game unifies its participants into a single team, known as a "party", that plays as a group. Like serials or novel sequences, these episodic games are often played in weekly sessions over a period of months or even years, although some gamers prefer playing one session games.

Role-playing games are a form of interactive and collaborative storytelling. Like novels or films, role-playing games appeal because they engage the imagination. Interactivity is the crucial difference between role-playing games and traditional fiction. Whereas a viewer of a television show is a passive observer, a player at a roleplaying game makes choices that propel the action. Such role-playing games extend an older tradition of storytelling games where a small party of friends collaborates on a unique adventure.

While simple forms of roleplaying exist in traditional children's games such as "cops and robbers", "cowboys and Indians" and "playing house", role-playing games add a level of sophistication and persistence to this basic idea. Instead, participants in a roleplaying game will generate specific characters and an ongoing plot. A consistent system of rules and realistic campaign setting in games aids suspension of disbelief. The level of realism in games ranges from just enough internal consistency to set up a believable story or credible challenge to full-blown simulations of real-world processes.

Computer games incorporating settings and game mechanics found in roleplaying games are referred to as computer role-playing games, or CRPGs. Due to the popularity of CRPGs, the terms "role-playing game" and "RPG" have both to some degree been co-opted by the computer gaming industry; as a result, traditional non-digital pastimes of this sort are increasingly being referred to as "pen and paper" or "tabletop" role-playing games, though neither pen and paper nor a table are strictly necessary.


Main article: History of role-playing games

The assumption of roles was a central theme in some early 20th century activities such as the game Jury Box, mock trials, model legislatures, and "Theatre Games". In the 1960s, historical reenactment groups such as The Sealed Knot and the Society for Creative Anachronism began to perform "creative history" reenactments introducing fantasy elements, and in the 1970s fantasy wargames were developed, inspired by sword and sorcery fiction, in which each player controlled only a single unit, or "character". The earlier role-playing tradition was combined with the wargames' rule-based character representation to form the first role-playing games.[1][2]

The first commercially available role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, was published in 1974 by E. Gary Gygax's TSR. TSR marketed the game as a niche product. Gygax expected to sell about 50,000 copies.[3] After establishing itself in boutique stores it developed a cult following.

Dungeons & Dragons was a subject of controversy in the 1980s when well-publicized opponents claimed it caused negative spiritual and psychological effects. Academic research has discredited these claims.[4] Some educators support role-playing games as a healthy way to hone reading and arithmetic skills.[5] Though role-playing has been accepted by some,[6] a few religious conservatives continue to object.[7]

Games such as GURPS and Champions also served to introduce to role-playing games game balance between player characters; later, Vampire: The Masquerade and similar games served to emphasise storytelling and plot and character development over rules and combat.

Competition from computer role-playing games and collectible card games led to a decline in the role-playing game industry. The financially troubled market leader TSR, Inc. was eventually purchased by Wizards of the Coast.[8] To better cope with the economics of role-playing games, and to combat growing bootlegging problems, they introduced a new regime of open gaming, allowing other companies to publish D&D-compatible supplements. Meanwhile, self-defined "Indie roleplaying" communities arose on the internet, studying roleplaying and developing several forms of role-playing game theory such as GNS Theory, and critical reflection on role-playing games has become popular in Scandinavia leading even to a yearly academic conference.

In thirty years the genre has grown from a few hobbyists and boutique publishers to an economically significant part of the games industry. Grass-roots and small business involvement remains substantial while larger projects have attracted several million players worldwide. Games industry leader Hasbro purchased Wizards of the Coast in 1998 for an estimated $325 million.[9]


Most role-playing games are conducted like radio drama: only the spoken component is acted, and players step out of character to describe action and discuss game mechanics. The genre of role-playing games in which players do perform their characters' physical actions is known as live-action roleplaying games (LARP).

In traditional roleplaying games, participants usually sit around a table and conduct the game as a small social gathering. One participant, the "gamemaster", describes the setting and the actions of the inhabitants, while the others describe their characters' actions and responses. The game system typically requires players to roll dice to determine the outcome of some of their actions, most typically in combat or other stressful situations. Games that emphasize plot and character interaction over game mechanics and combat sometimes prefer the name storytelling game.


A Live action roleplaying game (LARP), is played more like improvisational theatre. Instead of describing their characters' actions, participants act out their characters' actions, often in costume. Further, the players' environment is used to represent the imaginary environment of the game world.

LARPs de-emphasize die rolls and rulebook references. Theatre-style live action roleplaying games often use rock-paper-scissors or direct comparison of attributes to resolve conflicts, while "boffer" games use padded weaponry to simulate real combat. LARPs vary in size from a handful of players to several thousands, and in duration from a couple of hours to whole weeks.[10]

Electronic media

The challenge of producing a video game with which players can interact through roleplaying, rather than simply a framework within they can interact with each other, is yet to be answered. Computer imitations of role-playing games instead incorporate role-playing game elements into a man-to-man wargame. It has so far proved impossible to recreate the depth, flexibility, teamwork, and characterisation of traditional gaming.

Nonetheless, computers and other electronic media are not unknown in role-playing. Computer-assisted role-playing games blend elements of traditional roleplaying with computer gaming. Computers are used for recordkeeping and sometimes to resolve combat, while the participants generally make decisions concerning character interaction. This may include tools used to facilitate traditional pen & paper games to be played over the internet. Such tools may be nothing more than an IRC program, but there is also specialised software which includes built-in functions for dice, character sheets, mapping, and such (e.g., OpenRPG).

Some role-playing games use the internet as their medium. Online text-based role-playing games, in which players interact through a text-based medium rather than face-to-face, are popular on the internet. Some games are played in a turn-based fashion, whether play-by-mail games using email, or play-by-post games on internet forums. Others are played in a more real-time way, similar to offline games, over TELNET or IRC; these are known as MUDs. Finally, some people use internet chat clients or dedicated virtual tabletop software to play what would otherwise be a simple pencil-and-paper RPG.


Freeform roleplaying games are played with minimal or no formal rules and a greater focus on character or plot development, with the organisers as referees. Most freeform games are also live-action games, though they exist in both traditional and computer-assisted forms. Freeform games are most often seen at gaming conventions, though they are also sometimes run by gaming clubs or a dedicated team of independent GMs.

Game systems

Main article: role-playing game system

The set of rules of a role-playing game is known as its game system; the rules themselves are known as game mechanics. Although there are game systems which are shared by many games, for example the d20 system, many games have their own, custom rules system.

Almost all roleplaying games require the participation of a gamemaster (GM), who creates a setting for the game session, portrays most of its inhabitants and acts as the moderator and rules arbitrator for the players. The rest of the participants create and play inhabitants of the game setting, known as player characters (PCs). The player characters collectively are known as a "party".

During a typical game session, the gamemaster will introduce a story goal for the players to achieve through the actions of their characters. Frequently, this involves interacting with non-player characters, other denizens of the game world, which are played by the gamemaster. Many game sessions contain moments of puzzle solving, negotiation, chases, and combat. The goal may be made clear to the players at the outset, or may become clear to them during the course of a game.

Games rules determine the success or failure of a character's actions. Many game systems use weighted statistics and dice rolls or other random elements. In most systems, the gamemaster uses the rules to determine a target number. The player rolls dice, trying to get a result either more than or less than the target number, depending on the game system. Not all games determine successes randomly, however; an early and popular game without random elements is Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game by Erick Wujcik (1990).

Most systems are tied to the setting of the game they feature in. However, some universal role-playing game systems can be adapted to any genre. The first game to feature such a system, GURPS, is accompanied by a number of sourcebooks which allow games to be created in different genres. The d20 system, based on the older role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, is used in many modern games such as Spycraft and the recent Star Wars Roleplaying Game.

In practice, even universal systems are often biased toward a specific style or genre and adaptable to others. For example, although the d20 system has sourcebooks for modern and futuristic settings, most published d20 system material stays within Dungeons & Dragons' combat-focused fantasy milieu.


Main article: Statistic (role-playing games)

Characters in roleplaying games are usually represented by a number of statistics. Statistics are an abstract measure of how successful a character is likely to be at a class of tasks. Many game systems make distinctions between two key types of statistic: attributes and skills. These names are not at all consistently across different games, however.

Attributes are statistics all characters possess: strength, agility, and intelligence are common examples. These are ranked, often on a numeric scale, so that a player can gauge the character's capabilities. For example, a character's strength rating could be used to determine the likelihood that the character can lift a certain weight.

Skills are abilities that only some characters possess, such as negotiation, horseback riding, and marksmanship. Game systems often define skills that are genre-appropriate. For example, Asian adventures commonly emphasize martial arts. Fantasy settings include magic. Science-fiction settings may contain psionics. However, some skills are found in several genres: a medieval rogue and a Wild West outlaw may both be very proficient at throwing knives.

Character creation

Main article: Character creation

Before play begins, players develop a concept of the role they would like to play in the game. They then use the game system's character creation rules to form a representation of their characters, in terms of game mechanics. The character's statistics are recorded on a special-purpose form called a character sheet. Some systems, such as that of Feng Shui, require characters to choose from a set of prebuilt template characters with only a small amount of customisation allowed. Others, like the d20 System, use character classes to define most character concepts, but allow some freedom with the statistics within those classes. Still others, such as GURPS, allow the player to create their own character concepts by freely assigning statistics.

Game statistics are not a substitute for a character concept. For example, one Wild West gunfighter may become a quick drawing revolver marksman, whereas another with similar game statistics could be a mounted rifle expert.

Template-based systems have the advantage of easy and quick character creation. It also gives means the gamemaster spends less time approving each character for play. The sacrifice is in flexibility and concept. Templates are essentially pre-built characters that are balanced against each other and pre-approved by the game companies.

Class-based systems give slightly more freedom but still require a player to choose from a set number of roles for their character. The character's powers are generally set by the character class, but the specific statistics are assigned by the player.

Character point-based systems allow complete freedom of concept. The downside is that character creation is, in many cases, much more complex and the GMs have to spend a lot more time examining and approving each character concept.

A few games allow freeform character creation. Characteristics are simply assigned as a player sees fit, and the final result is submitted to the GM or group for approval. Freeform character creation can be implemented in any game system, but is only rarely the prescribed or assumed method.

Campaign settings

Main article: Campaign setting

Each game is set in a fictional world in which adventures and campaigns can take place. Usually a campaign setting is designed for a specific game (such as the Forgotten Realms setting for Dungeons & Dragons) or a specific genre of game (such as Medieval fantasy, or outer space/science fiction adventure). There are numerous campaign settings available both in print and online. In addition to published campaign settings available for purchase, many game masters create their own.

Campaign settings exist for almost all genres of fiction; however, because the world's most popular roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons, is part of the fantasy genre, fantasy is also the most played roleplaying genre. RPGs of the fantasy genre are sometimes collectivelly called "Fantasy roleplaying games" ("FRP").

The use of the term "world" in describing a campaign setting is loose, at best. Campaign worlds such as the World of Greyhawk detail entire cosmologies and timelines of thousands of years, while the setting of a game such as Deadlands might only describe one nation within a brief segment of alternate history.

There are three primary types of campaign setting. The first exists in genre- and setting-specific role-playing games such as Warhammer or World of Darkness which exist specifically within one setting. The second type of setting is for games that have multiple settings such as modern Dungeons & Dragons or those that were developed specifically to be independent of setting such as GURPS. The final type of setting is developed without being tied to a particular game system. Typically this last sort are developed first as stand-alone works of fiction, which are later adapted to one or more role playing systems such as the Star Wars universe or Middle-earth.

The range of genres represented by published settings is vast, and includes nearly all genres of fiction. Role-playing's roots began in fantasy, science fiction has been used in settings such as Traveller, and horror formed the baseline of the World of Darkness. Even modern-day spy thriller-oriented settings such as Spycraft have been introduced.

A small number of campaign settings fuse multiple genres into a single game. GURPS Infinite Worlds, for example, the characters play "Infinity Patrol" agents who travel to alternate worlds.


Main article: List of publishers of role-playing games

The largest publisher of tabletop roleplaying games is Wizards of the Coast , a wholly owned subsidiary of Hasbro. Dungeons & Dragons, the D20 Star Wars RPG, and a number of smaller D20 titles combined represent about 60% of the current unit volume of sales. White Wolf Game Studio is the 2nd largest publisher, representing about 20% of the market. The other publishers as a group comprise the remaining 20% of sales volume. Occasionally, one of these publishers will generate an exceptional period of sales (usually corresponding to the release of a new game or new edition of an existing game), but such spikes are extremely short-lived.

Market research conducted at Wizards of the Coast in 1999-2000 indicated that more than 1.5 million people played D&D on a monthly basis, and about 2 million people played all tabletop RPGs combined on a monthly basis. The success of the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons likely resulted in an increase in those totals. These figures for play are substantially larger than the figures for sales. In 2006, non-Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPGs in the upper echelons of sales typically generated between five and ten thousand unit sales. Most commercially published RPGs are essentially vanity press products, having less than a thousand units sold.

Most roleplaying games are published by a handful of small publishing houses. These small RPG companies typically have very small permanent staffs, and rely primarily on freelance writers, editors, and artists. This trend has accelerated in pace with similar changes in the broader publishing world. Green Ronin Publishing is a prime example of this business model, with no central office and an employee network including full time, part time, per diem, and freelance workers. This is a substantially different model than that used by Wizards of the Coast, which has a tabletop RPG research & development team, editing team, art & graphic design team, and business management team that has more than 50 full time employees, plus numerous freelancers on semi-permanent assignment.

The standard business model for successful tabletop RPGs relies on the three-tier distribution model, under which the company sells products to distributors who in turn sell the products to retailers who sell to customers. A small number of companies have recently begun shifting towards direct sales via the internet, which entails greater margins, and many publishers are experimenting with electronic sales & distribution of older, out of print products. Exposure to potential customers is an essential and difficult element of the business model, especially with the slow demise of the hobby store which historically served as the publishers' portal to customers[1].

Typically, RPG publishers have a very long lifecycle once they manage to generate an initial successful game. TSR, the initial publisher of Dungeons & Dragons was an independent entity until 1997 when it was acquired by Wizards of the Coast, who was subsequently acquired by Hasbro in 1999. Many of TSR's contemporaries remain in business as independent publishers. Even after an acquisition, the core design group of a publisher is often kept as a team within the new company for the purposes of continuity and productivity.

Indie publishers

Main article: Indie role-playing game

Indie games are published outside of traditional, "mainstream" means. Free from the pressure of creating in a corporate environment, the indie roleplaying game community often produces games with signature and idiosyncratic character. Indie publishers often eschew the three-tier distribution model and sell directly online and at conventions. The line between "indie" publishers and "mainstream" publishers is hazy at best. Varying definitions require that commercial, design, or conceptual elements of the game stay under the control of the creator, or that the game should just be produced outside of a corporate environment. The very validity of the indie label is disputed, with detractors claiming these designers are either amateurs or simply very small press businesses.


  1. ^ a b Rilstone, Andrew (1994). Role-Playing Games: An Overview (HTML). RPGnet. Retrieved on 2006-09-01.
  2. ^ Where we've been and where we're going.: "Generation 1" games
  3. ^ Interview with Gary Gygax at Atlas of Adventure
  4. ^ The Attacks on Roleplaying Games - originally from the Skeptical Inquirer
  5. ^ An educator's opinion of roleplaying games
  6. ^ Christian Gamers Guild explaining that one may be Christian and a roleplayer at the same time
  7. ^ "Dark Dungeons", a Jack Chick comic tract portraying D&D as the "Filth of Satan" and promoting book burning
  8. ^ Wizards of the Coast to acquire TSR, Ken Tidwell April 10, 1997
  9. ^ WotC buyout by Hasbro at
  10. ^ Live Roleplaying FAQ

See also

  • Role-playing game terms
  • Gaming conventions
  • List of role-playing game artists
  • List of designers of role-playing games
  • List of publishers of role-playing games
  • List of campaign settings
  • Polish role-playing games

External links

Lists and reviews

  • DMOZ Roleplaying Category - Open Directory Project category on roleplaying
  • John H. Kim's Role Playing Game Page - Encyclopedia of roleplaying games and companies
  • RPG Gateway - Roleplaying game directory
  • Pen & Paper - RPG Database


  • The Forge - a site maintained by Ron Edwards and Clinton R. Nixon, dedicated to the promotion, creation, and review of independent roleplaying games.
  • - a web site for developers and players of open-source RPGs; includes a mailing list
  • The Escapist - A roleplaying advocacy website devoted to dispelling the myths and urban legends and promoting the hobby through positive means.

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