For several decades role-playing games meant tabletop role-playing games – pen and paper affairs that left the kitchen table covered in half-open rule books, character sheets, and other assorted paperwork. Most people have at least a passing familiarity with the idea of a role-playing game. Games like Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft, and Warhammer Online have become so well-known that to the uninitiated they seem to be the same thing. Many of these ideas one together in the minds of people unfamiliar with the world of role-playing games.
But tabletop role-playing games are quite different than computer run games regardless of scope. While massive multiplayer online role-playing games or MMO’s bring together thousands of people in the same virtual playing field, classic pen and paper role-playing games create unique social environments where face-to-face contact and interaction are not only possible but necessary.
Role-playing fans know that definitions of what tabletop role-playing is are common. Most role-playing game books include at least a paragraph describing what role-playing is. Sitting around the table, pretending that an alternate world exists and using a set of rules and a referee to decide what happens is all most people need to know. But such a utilitarian definition hardly gets across the depths and the breadth of games available and a variety of stories that can be told.
Curious individuals have braved the embarrassment of asking “what is a role-playing game?” or walked into a game store and seen for themselves the social interaction that is part of a shared storytelling. Sometimes the story is as simple as how many monsters will I kill and how much gold will I find. Sometimes the stories are as deep as any sound on television film or in novels. Other times the story focuses on creating a simulation of the world imagined and a great deal of joy is taken in the details. More often than not games will have a combination of these elements.
The referee or Game master or Dungeon Master (in the case of Dungeons and Dragons) either creates or finds an adventure and introduces the players and their characters into the setting. Depending on the game master he may give them a great deal of prodding or allow them the freedom to do whatever their characters are capable of doing. In the end the entire game hinges on a sort of social contract between the referee and the players. As with any game if players or the referee are dissatisfied they always have the option of getting up from the table and walking away.
Table top role playing games are a bit of a dying art. The market for them is weak. Simpler, more flashy games have come calling and found many customers. Card and miniature games, computer and internet based games have also eaten into the market. Once there was one huge company dominating the market. One game. If you role played, that’s pretty much what you played.
Game playing, that is to say playing face to face with another person, is a time honored tradition. Dice games, card games, board games, war games… humanity has seemingly done it all. But always with the idea of face to face interaction, calmerade and socialization.
If role-playing games have become sterile and impersonal it is because of the power of technology to bring more information and entertainment into our lives, and in new and different ways. Old forms of gaming change. Like all things, gaming evolves as time goes on. But tabletop role-playing, which grew out of tabletop wargaming where individual figures represented faceless soldiers in a larger battle, though less popular is not dead. The form has not enjoyed the commercial success he did in the 1980s and 90s but continues to hang on as a hobby for many looking to create a unique experience.
As an art form in performance, pen and paper role-playing games seem almost quaint. Graphics refers to the design of the artwork in the rulebooks. Groups are formed automatically based on who is around the table, not who was online. But even those things are changing. Some manufacturers are incorporating virtual tabletops to allow players to meet online and role-play over the Internet.
Progress and tradition war in all things. The novelty of change and the comfort of the familiar are two forces constantly fighting to create the present state we see from day to day. The traditional pen and paper role-playing game industry has seen better days. The hobby is constantly changing to try and keep up with the new century and new technologies that change how people interact throughout all levels of society. How successful the hobby is in adapting may determine how the imaginations of generations to come are shaped. There is no doubt that role-playing in one form or another will always be present. Role-playing, like toys are a part of childhood. Formal rules and sit-down sessions may be a relatively new thing in the world of imaginative play, but they seem to provide a certain clarity of vision in those that take the time to indulge in the past time.
Sit-down role-playing games will always afford the hobbyist and in-depth and social experience that is different if not superior to less face-to-face, online games. And as with anything, it is always possible for an industry to overtake a seemingly unbeatable rival. New ideas can often trump new technologies. But most importantly what is popular does not have to be what is primary to us. Individuals of like mind, no matter how small their numbers, can always get together and indulge in “unpopular” hobbies that seem old-fashioned and past their prime to others. What is key is following our imaginations and following our hearts. Ultimately along that path, there is no map, no rulebook, and no computer program.