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What is an RPG?

Excerpted from the Multiverser® Game System Rules--

Index to the pages of M. J. Young--RPG's, Law, Bible, and other thoughts.The Multiverser Information Center, Valdron Inc.M. J. Young's Dungeons & Dragons Materials
Role playing games, known as RPG's, are still relatively new to the world, and some of the uninitiated may not understand them.  Even those who have played one or more RPG's may have difficulty describing a phenomenon which appears at first blush to be completely unlike anything with which we are familiar.  This in fact is not true.  RPG's are very like at least two other kinds of experiences which will help both seasoned players and novices better understand how they work and why they work, and further why they appeal to so many people so deeply.

The role playing game is like a book.  The referee and the player (for simplicity, one player in this analogy, although the number of players only enhances the result) are co-authors of the book.  The referee's task is to provide the setting.  The setting includes the milieu--are we in a medieval castle, an American western, a spy thriller, or a spaceship--but it goes beyond the mere backdrop.  He is responsible for all the secondary and minor characters, including villains, resource people, associates, motivators, monsters, and any others.  He establishes where the action begins, who is there, and what props are available.  The player controls one character, the hero of the story.  As the hero enters the scene, he explores it, reacts to it, and ultimately acts purposefully within it.  The referee reveals the world as the hero explores it, and ultimately reacts to the hero's actions.  The story is created.

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It is more interesting, more suspenseful, than writing a story alone, or even than collaborating in a story, because the player does not know what the world holds until his character manages to uncover it, and the referee cannot predict how the hero will act until those actions are announced.  Thus, neither of our cooperating authors knows what the result will be or how it will be accomplished.  In fact, even if the referee created a world with a clear specific objective and the player decided that the hero would pursue that objective, neither has any guarantee that the objective will be reached, or that the path will be without surprises.  Since the referee and the player follow their own respective tasks as they progress, the story unfolds in ways unexpected by either of them.  So the game lets you enjoy an entirely new story, and as it progresses we enjoy further new stories with our favorite hero in them, someone we relate to because we as players created him.

But the role playing game is still a game.  It is tempting to think that it is an entirely new game.  It in fact owes a great deal of what it is to the very complex simulation games which preceded it; but it is less like those and more like a more familiar game all of us once played.

Think back to when we were young--younger than that.  We use to play role-playing games of various types.  Cops & Robbers, Cowboys & Indians, and Spies were popular among the boys of my neighborhood.  (The girls played House, which is also a role playing game, but is less useful for this illustration.)  All went well until you shot somebody and said, "I shot you; you're dead"--only to have him say, "No, you missed", or "I'm wearing a bullet proof vest", or "You were out of bullets".  Then the game failed, because you realized that there was no way for anyone to win as long as no one else was willing to lose: whatever happened, the other guy was not beaten until he decided he wanted to lose, so you couldn't win.  After that realization, you stopped playing.

RPG's let you play again.  Now you can pretend to be the cop (or the robber), the cowboy (or the indian), or the spy, and when you shoot, you no longer argue about the result.  There are clear rules to identify hits and misses, the presence, absence, and effects of various protections, the number of shots in the gun, and any other variable which affect the outcome; there are dice which control which shots hit and which miss so that the player doesn't always get his way but doesn't always fail, and the decision is random without being arbitrary; and there is a referee, an individual with no special interest in whether the shot is successful or failed (after all, the non-player characters may be within his control, and he may even be fond of them, but they are not his in the same sense that the player characters belong to the players) who can fairly determine what the outcome is both when the rules clearly do apply and when there is some uncertainty as to whether or how they apply.  So the game resumes, and you are a kid again, playing in your own back yard but far away in another world.  We have returned to the best summer days of our childhood.

That is what a role playing game is, and that is why the good ones are so enticing, so involving, so exciting.  We hope that your experience in the Multiverser® will be all of these things.

©1997 E. R. Jones and M. Joseph Young

Visit the Multiverser Information Center for more about Multiverser, or write to me at referee@mjyoung.net.

M. J. Young's Dungeons & Dragons Materials has many resources for role playing.

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