Knightmare star and improviser Michael Cule explains how roleplaying games work (in a thousand words).
"Just a thousand words," said TQ's long suffering editor. "You can do that easily. Just to explain role-playing games for someone who's never played one. Easy."
Humph. Yes Wilf (the Editor)
Humph. Put it this way...
Picture a table, an ordinary dining table perhaps, with chairs for five or six people around it. Just now it's bare but in a little while the edges will be buried under a snowstorm of papers behind small mountains of books, cans and packets of 'munchies', both sweet and savoury.
Seated around the table will be a group of people, mostly male, mostly young (although some of us are getting on a bit). listening intently to one of their number who sits at one end of the table, reading to them, sometimes from the sheets or papers, sometimes from the books. Every so often they roll dice on the tabletop and groan or cheer at the result. Some of the dice have odd shapes.
And in the centre of the table will be... almost anything. The table has in the past held castles and cities, windswept plains and airless moons, Japanese tea houses and the decks of starships.
To outsiders it might look as though there's just a crudely drawn map and some brightly painted miniature statues. But seated around the table you can see that it's a cave high up the tallest mountain in the world, where Sir Taurinas is about to face the White Dragon. That's Manthos the Magican in the corner, preparing a fireball, and E.L. Ugli, the Dwarf making a prudent exit through the cavemouth.
Cowboys & Indians for grown-ups
It's odd but I'm the only actor I know who's involved in role-playing games. Perhaps to anyone else it would seem a busman's holiday, but to me it's a way of combining my love of playing a part with my love with fantastic literature.
When I have to explain the hobby to people my usual quick explanation is to say: 'It's like Cowboys-and-Indians, but for grown-ups and with rules.' As in those playground games, the players take on the part of someone else, some hero or villain, (Why did I always end up playing Daleks in those days?) but instead of the endless argument of the 'You're-Dead-Oh-No-I'm-Not-You-Are-Too' type, the game has rules to decide how you do and dice to provide a random element.
There's one other thing to make role-playing-games deeper and more enjoyable than those first, childhood attempts; the presence of a referee or Gamesmaster. One of the players is in overall charge. He runs the world where the game takes place, perhaps using a commercially produced product or something out of his own imagination.
The other players each take on an individual role of a person living in that world, but the referee gets to play everyone else, villains and allies and innocent bystanders alike. He sets the tasks the others must face and overcome together, he describes what the others see and rules how their attempts to survive and prosper come out.
Together the referee and the players make a saga, an adventure happen, creating dialogue, event and plot within the framework of the world they agree to inhabit. At its best, role-playing is like improvised theatre or a story that is made up by several tellers. (Storytelling is another name for the hobby.)
You just survive...
I love being the referee, despite the eternal struggle of the players to muck up my plot lines and frustrate the fate I've got in mind for them. The endless new parts to create, the sense of power!
Usually when I've explained this far, people say "Well, very interesting, but how do you win in this game?" Ah, but these games are trying to be like life (or at least the more exciting parts) and in life you never win, you just survive. You hope to carry on the same role from game to game, making the character richer, wiser, more powerful... Or perhaps you just want him to have a good time. The referee is always laying danger in your path; it will be hard enough just to survive.
The first role-playing game was 'Dungeons and Dragons', the result of a creative collision between table-top wargaming and the late 60s fantasy boom. It remains the best known game, although there have many better games produced since. Because of 'D&D' most people think only of the swords-and-sorcery genre when they hear of role-playing games. But there have been games covering all sorts of worlds from the Three Musketeers to star-spanning Empires, from cavemen (with or without dinosaurs) to 1930s pulp detectives (with or without Fiendish Oriental Masterminds). Someone even wrote a game based on 'Watership Down' but, in my opinion, anyone who wants to play the part of a rabbit is very, very strange.
Adventure beyond dreams...
If you're interested in trying this odd hobby, first see if there's a games shop that sells these games near you. They usually have a notice board of groups that are looking for players. Or your library might have a contact address. Or you might look in the listings published in 'Games Master International.' The hobby takes up quite a bit of my free time, especially when I'm referee. So, if you'll excuse me, I have to get things ready. Tonight the tabletop is a dockside inn where a young nobleman from a distant province is about to begin a journey that will lead him to adventure beyond his wildest dreams...
At least it will it the dice fall right.
Perhaps I'll see you across the tabletop sometime.