What is a Roleplaying Game?

Have you watched Stranger Things and wondered what the kids were playing in their basement? Heard about Dungeons & Dragons but haven't figured out what is a roleplaying game yet? Read on!

Will is the Dungeon Master in Stranger Things. Hat not required.

An interactive storytelling game

At its core, a RPG or TRPG (Tabletop Roleplaying Game to differentiate it from a computer RPG) is an interactive storytelling game.

One player is the storyteller, commonly called the "Game Master" or "Dungeon Master". A bit like a movie director, he creates the plot of the story and sets the scene.

Game Master: "You are walking in a dark wood, wolves can be heard howling in the distance and it is raining. Far ahead, you see the silhouette of an enigmatic tower looming between the trees."

The other players, generally two to five, are like the actors of the movie but without the constraints of a script. One might incarnate an elven ranger while another one might decide to be a grumpy old wizard. The players interact with the elements set by the game master.

Player 1: "Wolves nearby? I draw my bow and notch an arrow. I'll be ready if they come."
Player 2: "We walk toward the tower to seek shelter from the rain. Damp weather makes my old joints hurt."

A game with limitless actions

When playing a board game, there is usually a defined number of actions a player can take during his turn. In a roleplaying game, what you can do is limitless. 

Game Master: "Soaked from the rain, you arrive at the base of the tower. There are no windows on the ground floor, only a sturdy wooden door. What do you do?"

The players in turn can decide to knock on the door. They can try to listen for noise. If they try to open it and the game master tell them it is locked, they can decide to force it open or to pick its lock. There is no reference sheet to tell you what can be done. Your imagination is the only limit. They could even try to climb the tower!

A game with dice for suspense

If the heroes attempt something simple like knocking on the door, the game master would simply nod and tell them if someone answers or not. If the heroes attempt something more difficult like forcing the door open, the game master would use the rules of the game to determine if the attempt succeeds or not. A test normally involves rolling some dice to determine if the intended action succeeds or fails. In this regard, the game master acts as a referee and a judge.

Player 1: "If nobody is answering the door, then I'll break it open!"
Game Master: "Ok. Roll me a Strength test. Roll a d20 (twenty-sided die) and add your Strength bonus. You need to beat 15."
Player 1: "Alright. And... 12. Plus my Strength bonus of 1 is 13."
Game Master: "That's a failure. The door won't budge and you hurt your shoulder. The wolves are howling closer and closer."

Note that the game master is not playing against the heroes. A roleplaying game is not a competitive game. The game master will place challenges in the way of the heroes under the form of traps, puzzles, and monsters because heroes wouldn't be heroes if they didn't overcome difficulties. Every good movie has plenty of tense moments and action scenes!

A game with different universes

Like movies, roleplaying games exist in every flavor: fantasy, horror, science-fiction, steampunk, superhero, etc. Dungeons & Dragons has been a fantasy RPG for almost 50 years now but some other roleplaying games are inspired by novels, movies, or even video games! For example, there is One Ring, a RPG based on J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels, an Alien RPG based on the movie, and a Fallout RPG based on the computer game. There are so many options on the market that we cannot list them all.

Where to start?

Golden Goblin Games recommends the following starter sets to dip your toes into roleplaying games. They are extremely affordable and made by well established publishers.

Last updated: January 2023.

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