How do you explain Roleplaying?

So between reading and writing, I still haven’t been able to find a satisfying answer to the question: how do you explain roleplaying?

For something like DnD, it makes sense that they should spend at least a page laying the groundwork for what the activity is, but I see still see it crop up in a lot smaller titles; which feels weird when a 15 page game spent one of those precious pages on the subject…

There’s also the issue of what concrete description would you actually use to explain the concept to someone? I can’t think of any description I’ve seen in published media that accurately groks it. To me it often feels far too grandiose (in a roleplaying game you can do anything) which comes off as bragging, like an artist taking joy in talking down to plebeians. On the other end I’ve seen writing that get so bogged down in jargon it’s almost unintelligible even with 100% comprehension (I’m reminded of the description they brought up in Farrier’s Bellows on Troll Babe, something along the lines of “The medium of Trollbabe is dialog. The substance of play is composed of people speaking and listening. It’s content is the fiction, but…”). Is it possible to hit a sweet spot between the romantic and academic?

I’d love to hear other people’s opinions, both on the writing and reading side of it.
Has anyone actually learned from a written explanation of roleplaying without a more experienced player guiding them?
Has any written explanation ever stood out as exceptionally explanatory?
How do you know if it’s necessary to include one in your game?
If so, how much assumption do you make of the reader’s experience (do you need to explain what 2d4 means, what a GM is, etc.)?

Personally, I had to refer back to Burning Wheel only because to-date it has been the most pleasurable rulebook I’ve ever read. I didn’t remember any specific section on what roleplaying is, because there sort of isn’t one. The first page is aggressively utilitarian, but does halfway explain what roleplaying is in a novel way; it lays out its expectations of the player (You need to build the setting, you need to control a character, you need to live with the outcome of your choices). Its explanation of how to notate dice is curt, which is aided by the fact that D6s are the only dice required, although interestingly it offers a bit of humanity (the paragraph ends with "How’s that for confusing gamer parlance?) that, at least to me, implies a welcoming attitude of “don’t worry if you don’t quite get it, you’ll learn” which does lean on someone being there to teach you.


I usually say -

“Its cooperative story telling. You sit around with others and take turns to make a story, based on situations the person running it starts. For example if its a modern supernatural game, your characters might be FBI or part time monster hunters like Buffy, i’ll say okay you are in the park, you see X and then hear Y, what do you do? and based on the sort of person you are playing you respond and we go from there.”

As for dice I say “Just use these two dice” and they can learn the more detailed jargon later.

Whenever possible I get them to try Rory’s Story Cubes first, since they encourage lateral thinking and cooperative story telling, plus you can carry them in your pockets to restaurants and play while you are waiting for meals.


I’ve always compared reading those “What is a Roleplaying Game?” sections in RPGs to celebrating New Year’s Eve in Times Square: It’s the kind of thing you only need to do once and never have to (or want to) do again. :smiley:


Yep … what Blake said … ‘Collaborative story-telling’ …

To my shame I never read the ‘what is role-playing’ section of rule-books, so no advice on where to look I’m afraid, @Radmad.


I usually say something like:

Roleplaying games are games like other’s too in that there are rules on how to play them.
The game is about telling a story and the rules help you along doing that, e.g. giving you options on how to progress the story. Some roleplaying games have few rules, and some don’t; allowing for different gaming experiences.
Some rulesets are for one person (“solo game rules”) and some are for groups of people.
Like in everyday conversation, you could make use of tools to make clear what the current state of the conversation is - like a piece of paper and scribbling something on it. Some tools are roleplaying specific like “character sheet”, “battle mat”, et al.
To introduce external randomness - independently from the people’s random choices - in some games dice are being used to produce results which have to be interpreted according to the rules.
The stories being told are only limited by the imagination of the players.

I do not know, whether roleplaying should be explained in a rulebook. This may have made sense in the 70ies, where it was hard to look up information. Today we have the internet, especially Youtube, Twitch etc. So if someone wants to know more, he’s using this sources rather than reading a long section in the books. I would compare it to a section in every novel, explaining what a novel is.

Usually, I’m able to find some other cultural touchstone for comparison. Like

“Ever played a video game that lets you choose what you say in conversations?”
“You mean, like Skyrim?”
“Yeah. Like that, but you don’t have to pick what you say from a list. You just pretend to be the character and say what you say. And there are often rules for how to handle tricky situations, since you don’t have a computer handling and if that for you, but that varies a lot from game to game.”

If there really is nothing in their recent experience to compare it to, I will go all the way back to childhood games (cops and robbers, house, let’s play pretend, etc.) and say, it’s like that, but usually a bit more structured, and doesn’t necessarily involve getting up and acting it out.


I’ve never met someone who learned about roleplaying just by reading a description of it in a book. I would love to hear such a person’s perspective on this topic! It would be far more interesting than ours.

I think defining and describing the hobby is becoming more and more challenging as its scope expands, and more and more games that challenge our familiar formats are being designed.

I’d prefer for any given game text to tell the reader very clearly what you are supposed do to get the most out of THAT game; trying to define the whole hobby in broader terms is not going to be terribly useful to anyone.

Show us how to play your game and why it’s fun. The creative goals of your game, its object and its intentions, are the most important thing. Don’t tell me that D&D is “collaborative storytelling”; tell me that my job is to keep my character alive while being a good sport about it, and tell the GM how to create opportunities for fun while being an impartial referee, and the tools to do so.

There’s room to be very practical or to be very philosophical within that, of course, but definitely tell the reader how to get the most out of your game as economically and clearly as possible, and that’s as much about the why as it is about the how.


I also think that most of the “how to” of roleplaying are better shown than told - demonstrated, rather than explained. I think we’re going to start seeing more demos and fewer explanatory texts, and I encourage people to get quite creative with this. I think annotated video has a great deal of promise for this purpose - imagine you’re watching a video, and the GM says, “make a Climb check! DC 15.” Both those phrases are hyperlinked to an explanation, and if you click on one, the video pauses. If you don’t click, the video keeps playing. But, if you do, you’re taken to a quick explanation of what “make a Climb check” means, and another showing how the GM determined the DC for the climb (perhaps showing some of the prep or module), as well as basic principles for how to do this in your own game.


Only that that is it what sets it apart from wargaming: the shift to tell the story of individuals in contrast to moving anonymous armies.
Perhaps not in a modern sense. But I would say, it comes down to that. Without the “story” it is no roleplaying game.

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That’s very true! Speaking about the larger hobby, absolutely. I think within a given game, though, it’s a much lower priority than “how to actually play this game”, and that’s the part I more often see designers and texts omit.

Edit: Perhaps a clearer way would be to say that “collaborative storytelling” might be a decent shorthand for what a lot (but not all!) roleplaying is all about, but it’s a very poor way to explain anything about how a particular game is different from other games (and therefore, to give the reader a sense of what to do with the game).

For instance, if I get a friend to pick up a typical OSR module and run some characters through it, I think telling her that “collaborative storytelling” is what she should be doing would be highly misleading, and likely cause her to screw up the game in some way.


I see your point here. But what would you say is the reason calling “Dungeons and Dragons” a roleplaying game and “Monopoly” not. What would you say is the defining part here? Historical contingency?

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In DnD, “roleplaying” (my personal definition is, intentional non-optimal play), interacts with the rules (alignment for the most part, but other bits and bobs). In Monopoly, I can talk with a stuffy accent and pretend I’m a big shot capitalist, but it will have no actual impact on the game.

I use the term “open world dice game” and it seems to make sense to newcomers who’ve played videogames.

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In this age of Actual Plays, why not refer someone who is interested to a good one of these? Maybe someone has already done a “look at this, we’re playing an rpg and here’s how that goes” video?


With a few caveats, you don’t need to explain role-playing.

In games specifically designed to target new audiences, such as No Thank You, Evil!, Pip System Core, and Power Outage, you’re basically wasting your word count on such things. Even if your game happens to be the first game a new player ever picks up (which are slim chances nowadays), they can easily find out more online like others before me have suggested.

Instead, try explaining what specifically your game is about. That doesn’t mean laying it all out like a written lecture, either. Illustrate your game’s play style through examples.

I don’t have any data to back this up, but I feel like even if a brand new player were to pick up a well-written book, they’d have a sense of what to do and how to play simply by reading the examples you provide. They don’t need to be told that “role-playing is like pretending you’re characters in a TV series, but with dice!”

I feel like you should instead focus on a few key elements which are helpful to new and experienced players alike:

  • Place a glossary of common terms at the front of your book. This tells players what your game is about, familiarizes them with the jargon you’ll be using, and helps you avoid those akward situations where you want to reference a rule that comes later in the text. This is the one place where youc an put very basic terminology for new players, such as “Game Master,” “Session,” “Campaign,” etc.
  • Use lots of examples. Illustrate rules with flavorful text and, if necessary, the math and dice rolls to back it up. This gives everyone an idea of how your game is supposed to play and feel, and it introduces new players to the way a narrative might progress.
  • Speaking of examples, use a few iconic characters throughout the text and, if possible, try to tie the examples together thematically. Spirit of the Century did a great job with this, if I’m remembering the right game, because they basically told a long-running story through snippets of examples throughout the text.
  • Include an adventure which showcases all the best aspects of your game. Make sure there are moments where your systems and subsystems and little flairs and quirks all get their opportunities to show up. You can even include a few specific notes to the GM about how you anticipate certain events happening or you can give them little reminders about a rule that is fitting for the scene you’re describing.

It’s like the old adage “show, don’t tell.” Trust that even a new player will be able to grok what they’re reading because you show them through examples.


For me, I tend towards

It’s essentially an improvised radioplay where we’re the actors and the audience.

To me most (perhaps all) “what is this roleplaying thing” descriptions are lacking in personalization towards the types of experience they aim for. BW is a pretty good example of an honest attempt at defining the roleplaying experience through the lens of the system but it’s not perfect. (sidenote: I bought BW only because of a ‘meh’ review on Game Geeks YT channel which boils down to “Kurt doesn’t understand what to do with this game”; this indicates that BW approach actually isn’t for everyone)

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there can be no one-size-fits-all description of roleplaying and any generic description is bound to exclude something. It’s not cooperative as long as there are solo games - something @Thomas_Junk pointed out - and to me it doesn’t have to be about story if there’s no plot to speak of.

This leads to a lot of “my play style is better than yours” elitism with small- and capital-r roleplaying, being in character or not, etc. I enjoyed crunchy games where character was just a bunch of stats as much as I did quasi-drama of WoD and now find player-centric OSR fascinating. And yeah, it’s not everyones OSR, I know, that’s exactly why there should be no single usable blurb for the first page of a handbook. :slight_smile:

I think it should boil down to a precise choice of words for a specific use case. I’d probably call my outlook on OSR as story building as it feels to me that story emerges through player actions withing the setting or scenario. I’d call AW a story telling game as I feel that story unfolds through character moves (you’re welcome to disagree!). There are probably words that could be used to describe every game individually w/o stock “there’s a GM and players, you use dice” text. I’d actually love to read what game is aiming for first because there’s nothing worse than realizing two thirds in that what mechanics seem to facilitate is not something I’d enjoy.