Okay, before I begin, I just want to get a quick show of hands. Who here has played a roleplaying game before?
Okay, good, good, very interesting. Many of you have.
Now, the interesting thing is that the rest of you are WRONG!
Even if you had spent your entire life to this point in complete isolation with nobody but yourself for company, I'm pretty confident that you would have played a roleplaying game, even if it was with yourself.
(Now I must apologise if I'm bringing back unpleasant memories for anyone who did have to spend a lot of time playing with himself...)
Now, Why am I so confident of this, you ask?
Because a roleplaying game in its simplest form is the art of asking 'What if?'.
What if I were alone in bed and there was a monster in the cupboard, and the monster came to get me?
What if I were a cop and my friend were a robber?
What if I were a wizard who went into a dungeon to find a magic treasure?
What I'm really saying is that, any time you imagine a story from the point of view of a character, you're playing a roleplaying game in your head... even if the character is yourself!
Expanding on this idea, film makers and authors ask "What if?" all the time, and their imaginings enthrall us (or appall us, depending on the end result), but the end result is a static experience that's the same every time you see their film, or read their book... For the pedantic among you, yes directors' cuts and authors' preferred texts are exceptions.
In a roleplaying game, every person at the table imagines their own "what if?", their own story, and intertwines it with the stories being told by the other people who are playing. It is through this interaction that something magical can occur.
A roleplaying game is a work of collaborative, interactive storytelling that can involve action, adventure, mystery, intrigue, puzzle-solving, tactical combat, and an overwhelming plethora of other activities and themes.
So now you're listening with slack-jawed attention, mystified and amazed by the wondrous concepts I am laying before you... or asleep, depending on how boring you think I'm being... what EXACTLY is a roleplaying game, and how does it actually WORK?
Well there's a variety of different game types, some simpler than others, but in the majority of games each player needs a character. This character is the player's window into the world portrayed by the game, and can be as similar to or different from the player as he likes. His character will have a personality, goals, skills and special abilities, and these things will guide the player as to how to react in the situations his character will face throughout the game.
There's another player who DOESN'T have a character, but that's because he plays everything in the game that ISN'T a player's character. Generally this person is known as the Game Master, but each roleplaying game tends to use its own term; from Dungeon Master to Hollyhock God.
The game master has another purpose as well. Not only does he shape and describe the world in which your characters exist, but he provides the dramatic tension required to organise the experience and help the characters shape a proper story.
Whether he sets your group of strangers (who met in an inn) on a quest to find a kidnapped princess, or simply portrays the characters and consequences involved when your band of heroes decides to interfere and broker peace between two warring nations, the game master's purpose is to facilitate the story and to challenge your characters with interesting scenarios.
So, that's basically what roleplaying is. Anything else is a matter of refining the basic formula to make the experience more satisfying for the players. From simulationist games with complex systems and dice mechanics to narrative-based games that focus entirely on the story, there's a massive variety of games available.
Whatever your preference, there's bound to be something to suit you!