Imagine if someone who had never watched films thought all films were like Fast & Furious. Or if someone who had never listened to music thought all music was like One Direction. Or the same with videogames and Call of Duty. This is similar to what happens to Role-Playing Games (from now on, “RPGs”).
You see, RPGs don’t have to be a dorky, silly power fantasy (disclaimer: I’m a Dungeons & Dragons hater). They are story-based games that can be used in different ways, a bit like videogames: telling a story, light social fun, cooperative problem-solving, etc. They have many different genres (horror, fantasy, detectives, thriller, science-fiction, …) and as many ways to interpret those genres as films do.
Tiny bit of history
Modern RPGs started in 1974 with Dungeons & Dragons, in the context of wargames and other boardgames. Its author greatly downplayed the “play-acting” and story telling elements, and indeed most old-school RPGs are not very story-centric, but more rule- or goal-centric. However, some later games, like Vampire or Trail of Cthulhu, gave much more importance to the stories. In fact, there are more and more story-driven games, including many recent RPGs that explore different mechanics, like not using dice or not having a central narrator, or themes and genres not usually associated with RPGs, like love or sex.
How they work
Now, how do you actually play? It’s sort of what an improvised radio drama could be: you have one narrator and several “actors” (the players) playing the protagonists. Some important differences are that (a) the “actors” (players) don’t have written parts, and instead decide, as the story develops, what their characters do; and (b) all non-protagonist characters are played by the narrator. When there are conflicts (eg. a character searches a room for clues and for whatever reason it’s not clear they will find it), dice are usually used to decide the outcome.
In detail, an RPG session starts with the players getting familiar with their characters (assuming they’re playing with new characters; it’s a bit like actors preparing a role, but only for a minute or two), and the narrator describing the initial setup or conflict. Once the initial scene is described, the players talk and decide what their characters do. The narrator then describes the outcome and the players can decide what to do next. And so on.
This has some interesting properties: first, the narrator does not have a full, linear story ready to tell, but instead has to work with events, characters, locations and scenes, adapting all this to what the players decide to do; second, no one knows how the story will develop or end, including the narrator itself! This opens the possibility of telling the same story to different groups of players, because it will be different every time.
RPGs can be used as a storytelling medium. A bit like videogames, they can be used both for interactive storytelling, or simply for the fun or the challenge. As examples of different genres and possibilities, I’ll close with a short list of “alternative” RPGs:
Dread - Horror game about centred on tension and, well, dread. It’s played without dice, using a Jenga game instead. If a player knocks over the tower, his/her character is removed from the story (dies, becomes insane, …).
Universalis - Storytelling game in which all players are narrators. There’s no story to tell beforehand, the story is created collaboratively.
Breaking the Ice - “A game about love, for two”. It tells the story of the three first dates of a couple, and at the end of the game it’s decided whether or not the couple stayed together. Again, like in Universalis, both players are narrators and build the story while playing. This book is part of an RPG trilogy about love.
Fiasco - Another RPG without narrator in which you tell Coen-brothers-style stories that end up pretty bad for the characters.