Jun 19, 2007

A CRPGer friendly introduction to the world of pen & paper Role Playing Games

So, uh, let's start with a disclaimer, shall we? Lovely. If you are one of the few proper pen & paper RPG gamers frequenting Gnome's Lair, then you really don't need to read any further. Really. You'll probably know all there is to it. If, on the other hand, you are video gamer or preferably a video gamer that can appreciate the intricacies of Fallout, the vast worlds of Morrowind, the demented setting of Planescape and truly enjoy your average (or garden) video game RPG, then you might just be interested in finding out a bit more on them pen & paper RPGs, the sources of inspiration behind every CRPG from Ultima to Fallout 3, in which case you should probably read on.

For starters, in an ideal world, nobody in their right mind would ever dream mentioning pen & paper before the RPG bit. The later should be enough, mainly because the vast majority of computer/video game RPGs (CRPGs) lack the actual roleplaying bit, at least in the more traditional sense, which of course you wouldn't know unless you had already played a real RPG, something rather impossible as you wouldn't be reading this very article, would you now? Anyway. All a CRPG ever did to earn its role-playing title was borrow some ideas (e.g. character creation), game mechanics (e.g. combat, hit points, to-hit modifiers) and/or setting (e.g. The Forgotten Realms, Shadowrun), but never came close to emulating the true, traditional, wholesome, imaginative, wholly satanic and ridiculously time-consuming RPG experience.

So, what is an RPG? Well, it's a role playing game, that's what it is. Players assume roles and act out impromptu parts -following certain rules and in thoroughly defined settings- much like actors in radio theatre. Only, this is interactive theatre. You not only take part in a story but actually help tell it, as you're absolutely free to do whatever crosses your mind.

How is this achieved? Simple. One of the players assumes the very important role of Game Master, Storyteller, Dungeon Master, Keeper, whatever. Let's call him -as most RPGers do- the GM. Well, said GM's job is to act as the other players' senses, describing everything they see hear and smell, as the general organizer of play, as the narrator of the main plot and as the ultimate rules referee. His or her job, essentially, is to be what a PC or games console is -say- to an Oblivion gamer: the screen, the speakers, the physics engine, the enemy A.I., the voice of Patrick Stewart. The major difference though is that a GM, unlike even 2 PS3s supported by a Pentium 5, can react and adopt to absolutely anything a player might come up with...

Hence the importance of the rest of the players in the storytelling part. They are free to experience, twist, enrich, play through and ultimately shape the GM's plot, always following some rules, not unlike those a video game would impose on a gamer. Rules, that determine whether a player kills a monster, is stealthy enough to bypass a drowsy guard or even adequately desirable to organise an orgy. What's more, and just like in the vast majority of CRPGs, players get to create a character, an in-game persona, typically called the PC or Player Character, as opposed to the NPC or Non Player Character, obviously played by the GM.

What must absolutely be understood is that the GM is not the adversary of the players. He or she is just an instrumental part of a group of people enjoying a storytelling game. After all, there is no antagonism among players. Nobody can win in the traditional way and the game never really needs to end, as PCs grow older, more experienced and set forth for new adventures (in true MMORPG fashion). RPGs are collaborative, social, storytelling, imaginative affairs, totally unlike board and war games, even though they might share the use of dice -usually to determine the success of an action, be it combat or not.

Now, provided you're even slightly intrigued, here are some pretty popular games/systems/settings (they usually come in the guise of books, you know, them nice papery things) to get you started. Surely you'll recognize some of the names... Dungeons and Dragons (the father of the modern RPG, pretty complex, but perfectly balanced rules, huge variety of mostly fantasy settings), Call of Cthulhu (simple rules, fantastic insanity system, spawn of Lovecraft, brilliant and comfortably short scenarios) Vampire / WoD (simple and extremely versatile rules, Gothic feel, excellent prose), Shadowrun (very tactical, smart hacking mechanics, cyberpunk meets fantasy setting), Rolemaster (more complex than an accountant's spreadsheet, but weirdly enjoyable) and the utterly notorious Aftermath!.

Anything else you care to know? Well, that's what the comments section is for, you know...

Related @ Gnome's Lair: Tons of free character sheets, a hilarious RPG mockumentary, lawful and uncensored RPG sex

22 comments:

  1. An utterly fantastic post! I can't see me picking up the pen or paper anytime soon, however.

    What I do admire wholeheartedly is your enthusiasm for the whole caboodle!

    I bet your one of these types that goes off to the woods at weekends, dressed as an orc with a load of like minded hippy friends...

    ...and more power to you for that!

    Do you remember that excellent comedy video you posted with those two RPG guys (Dungeon Masters or whatever...)

    THAT was genius!

    (Please re-post that!)

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  2. Well dear Father, I'm really glad you enjoyed the post, for it was quite a bit an answer to your rpg-related question of yore: WTF is an RPG?

    Oh, and the video you're referring too (one of the few posts in this blog not by me) is part of the "related @ Gnome's Lair" links...

    And I don't run around forest in chainmail.. Really, I don't. On the other hand, I do enjoy the odd Call of Cthulhu session while camping next to the sea and drinking... Have a pic I might post... Not sure, though...

    Cheers for the comment my friend! I would suggest giving the whole thing a try...

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  3. I bet you do... I bet you're currently replying to me from the woods head to toe in chainmail on your laptop named Frodo or something... LOL!;)

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  4. And, to absolutely frank here, I must admit I painted my face blue and brought all my John Sebastian LPs to the woods, too.

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  5. At last, my pal the gnome posts something that this non-CG'er can comment on! Great article gnome, a concise and informative account of the crucial differences CRPG'ers could expect were they to try a regular RPG. And that can be summed-up as the inherent open-endedness of games in which the human imagination is the driving force, instead of there being a pre-defined range of options in place, however vast in scope and subtle in structure.
    Like you I dislike the term 'pen and paper'- although there are surely many more CRPG'ers than 'pen and paper' roleplayers, it should be the CRPG'ers whose term is qualified, because we were here first, so that the term RPG should stand for our games! Petty? Perhaps, but I prefer to think that it's just polite and fair.

    Plus, thanks for that link to The Escapist article about Aftermath. Believe it or not, but the nuclear wastelands of a post-apocalyptic Canada was the setting for the first forays my roleplaying friends and I made into roleplaying romantic melodrama. What fun we had!

    Cheers,
    John ;)

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  6. Ah, dear John, it really is lovely having your comments around the place. I must also admit that -even though admittedly the RPG, tabletop games conetent here isn't that rich- there'e always your fantastic blog for the lovers of non digital games!

    And of course I heartily agree on the *pen 'n' paper* bit. RPGs just have to be printed.

    Now, if I understand correctly you've actually played Aftermath!? That's quite amazing. I haven't even seen the thing...

    Btw, would you care for some Open RPG sessions?

    Cheers my friend,

    gnome

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  7. As a pen-and-paper veteran of some 25 years, I still get misty-eyed when someone talks about my first love in gaming. Let's face it: video games have taken over. But there's no replacing the experience of sitting around with a bunch of your buddies at 3am, on the edge of your seats as the campaign you've participated in for a year builds to a roaring crescendo of drama and magic.

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  8. Agree here too. No game experience a computer could provide can replace an RPG session, but -antisocial and hard-working as our times are- video games are way more popular. Not that I believe there isn't a strong market for RPGs...

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  9. Stunning piece Maestro!!!!, and i've finally grasped the whole concept of crpger's.. not about winning but the experience of sharing an adventure unlike anything the videogame market could supply....

    thank you for posting this Gnome, finally I understand....

    I've missed out....big time...

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  10. CRPG's score over RPG's in several ways. One is that they are much easier to get into. They are 'plug-and-play' in that no-one has to do any preparation. And you don't have to worry about all the social complications which can arise in RPG's, from bad group dynamics to clashes of playing style. CRPG's also do something utterly unique with MMORG's, which do things that no RPG could ever do. So while the classic RPG's have elements which no computer short of a genuine AI could ever match; CRPG's are now developing their own features which make them more than just a poor substitute for classic roleplaying.

    And yes Gnome, I used to own Aftermath, as did a friend who actually GM'ed it. It was a system I had a sneaking admiration for, because it was the first example I ever saw of an internally coherent RPG design. That is to say: characters were defined by sets of numbers which interrelated in a systematic way, even if the values of those numbers, and the arithmetic of their interrelations was a bit eccentric. This impressed me.

    And finally, I'm afraid I can't offer Open RPG sessions dear gnome. I just don't do that kind of thing at all. I barely even use messaging systems these days- too much typing for my poor wee hands. You'll just have to visit Scotland some time I guess.

    Cheers,
    John ;)

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  11. That "had a sneaking admiration for" should've of course've been "retain a..."

    Cheers,
    John ;)

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  12. (forgets Open RPG)

    (thinks Scotland)

    Aftermath... And you still like it huh? To think I can't even dare remember Rollmaster...

    Anyway, at least dear mr. Elderly enjoyed the piece... Lovely. Guess I might just find you a freebie of two Sire...

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  13. Still liking Aftermath? Well, I still admire it for it was, but I'd always play that kind of game using HERO now.

    Cheers,
    John ;)

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  14. Aha! SO, at least, you're still quite fond of the setting then. Anyway, I must absolutely have a look at the freaking system...

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  15. I have a couple of opportunities to play tabletop RPGs, but not enough to my satisfaction. (I'm hoping that in another couple of years, mine and I can start playing.]

    One of the problems that I'm seeing, especially now that I'm not a teen, is finding a group to join. (We tried at work but there were too many newbies as well as folks who wanted to play different types of RPG. We settled on a d6 game.)

    Here's one question for you veterans of the tabletop game: Have you tried playing a variation online, say through a chatroom?

    The reason I ask is that I can see this being easier for guys with families or who have just an hour to spare every couple of days.

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  16. yeesh. Sorry for all the typos in my previous post. That'll teach me to post messages while listening to a mind-dulling meeting on XML.

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  17. A meeting on XML? Wow... ;)

    Anyway, truth is I don't get to play as much as i would like either, and mostly actually do play a bit more during summer when we go camping, which can be quite fantastic.

    As for online RPGing, i haven't tried it yet, but I'm more than willing to give Open RPG a try... Would you be interested in giving it a try? I'll post about it pretty soon.

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  18. (elderly sits down and listens.. mesmerised by the interplay....)

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  19. Gnome, when you say 'open rpg,' are you referring specifically to this online RPG app?

    Interesting. I figured there had to be something like that available, but I hadn't yet used the right search terms or talked to the right people.

    Well, I'm up for trying it. I'm open to any game though Call of Cthulu caught my eye. But if others are interested and want a specific type of game, I'm flexible.

    I'll email you with my personal address if we want to follow up on this. Hopefully, we can entice others to join. :)

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  20. (brings Elderly a GameBoy and some lemonade)

    Yes, dear guttertalk, that's exactly what I'm talking about. Call of Cthulhu would be my game of choice too, as it's pretty light on rules and very atmospheric... I'll try to get things going :)

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  21. (sips lemonade... takes out biro... awaiting the sign up for Cthulu rpg.... turns on gameboy...)

    luv it here...

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  22. Aha, so you will sign up! Ah, lovely!

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