You’ve wandered into the wrong shop my friend. Either that, or a trusted friend gave you this link with the hopes that you’d…​ I don’t know, learn by osmosis?

This is a Role Playing Game (RPG). If you have no predefined associations with this words, or your associations are based on Satanic Panic, let me provide the following elevator pitch:

RPGs are collaborative improvisational storytelling games about fantastical experiences.

That’s a lot of 5$ words there, so let’s go through them one-by-one


Collaboration is the first term because it is everything in RPGs. While some games may be playable alone, it is not a truly solitary experience. For every solo game, there’s a storyteller who prepared the experience. In most cases, RPGs are played in groups of 4 to 8 people. 2 and 3 are uncommon but not unheard of, groups of 9 or more often break down into smaller groups for convenience (and table space.) No matter how many people join you at the table, playing with friends is the preferred method, but playing with strangers at stores or conventions is common as well.


The players of an RPG are often split into 2 groups, one Referee and several players. If you’ve ever been to an improv comedy show, or watched "Who’s Line is it Anyway," you’d be familiar with the prompt and response pattern of such shows. In RPGs, the Referee acts as the audience, prompting the players with scenarios, and the players respond with reasonable actions.


For improv shows, each scene is disassociated with the ones before and after. In RPGs, however the scenes are strung together like a book or movie. The players may start outside the castle, having to talk their way past the guards, then sneak through the dungeons, rescue the wrongly imprisoned friend, then finally escape the castle. Each of these scenes are handled separately, but it may be that actions taken in previous scenes affect the next scene.


RPGs are games, it’s in the name. As with any well made game, it has rules, these rules often take the form of statistics and random number generation. These are used to abstract away the parts of play that the players can’t easily simulate. Most people aren’t well trained climbers, and most kitchens don’t come equipped with the stone walls of a castle. Instead, a statistic is derived to represent the odds of success, and some sort of random generation, often the rolling of dice, is used to evaluate success.

Most people are generally aware of the game of football, (soccer in America,) so we’ll use a penalty kick as an example. Every player’s penalty kick record is kept, and can be used as a chance of success (say 33% of kicks are on-goal) so we can say that after rolling a 6 sided die, if the result is a 5 or a 6, the kick is on-goal. Now we turn our focus to the goalie, who has a 50% record of blocking on-goal penalties, we’ll say they succeed on a 4, 5, or 6. Now we can simply simulate a penalty shot without having to set up a goal.


With the above words in place, we can get to the goal of the exercise. The goal is fantasy, but not specifically swords and sorcery, instead just the fantasy of whatever it is you can’t do in real life. For instance, most of us will never make the premier league, or be as famous as anyone in the premier league. An RPG could let us experience that beyond a passing fancy, or it could be about exploring the far reaches of space. The upper bounds are limited only by our imagination, while the lower bounds are pretty obvious, you’ll be hard pressed to find people interested in playing an RPG of being a 30-something accountant with a wife and 2.3 kids who works 9-5 and hates his job…​ That’s just real life.


Unlike most games, RPGs don’t have a well defined victory state. Instead, as the proverb goes, "It’s the Journey, Not the Destination." If you have a good time, tell a good story, and have a satisfying conclusion, you’ve won. I’ve played in games where the entire group perished and the end of the world came. Sure we didn’t complete the goal, but we had fun along the way, and to this day we talk about that time we didn’t save the world.

In Character vs Out of Character

Likely the hardest part for new players to get a handle on is getting into character. If you have a background in theater, even if it was high school drama, you have an idea of what I mean, but if not, imagine trying to be someone else. Say you’re a quiet introspective person, could you go to a party and spend the entire time pretending to be an obnoxious frat boy? Likely you’d have a hard time and slip up. In RPGs you’ll often take up the mantle of someone you’re not. If it helps, try putting on a silly voice affectation, like a bad accent, or talking in a higher or lower pitch. This is by no means required, but it’s important to remember the line between what you know and what your character knows.

Your character probably knows skills you’ve never tried, or if your game takes place in a different time period, they may know how to fly a spaceship or ride a horse. This is pretty easy to understand, and if you’re unsure if your character would know something, ask! The rest of your group will likely have an idea.

The more difficult one is separating what you know from what your character knows. You’ve seen Indiana Jones, you know that if you steal the Idol there’s probably a trap, but your character might not have. In this case you need to make a judgement call, do you think your character would guess that there might be a trap protecting the idol? If you’re really stumped, pick whatever option seems like it would create the most fun, this is one of the rules of improv and works here just as well.