Do we need those “What is a roleplaying game” sections?

What is a Role-Playing game? I don’t remember ever seeing a boardgame, videogame, book, movie DVD or any other entertainment product to first explain me what it is. But in the case of roleplaying games there almost always a small section that explains what the author thinks pen & paper RPGs are.

Recently I started thinking whether this was actually needed. There are actually only two kinds of people out there who might pick up a roleplaying game: the ones who have played RPGs before and the ones who haven’t. Explaining the first group what a roleplaying game is, that’s just silly. And what about the second group? How likely is it that someone picks up a game that he knows nothing about?

In my WR&M game I told people to ask their geek friends or look it up on Wikipedia if they don’t know what a roleplaying game is. But again, is this really needed? Of course there are people out there who buy a PC game and are surprised it doesn’t run on their DVD player. Or there are parents and grandparents who buy stuff for their kids and grandkids without doing any research before they shell out the bucks. But is this really the majority? And do you really believe these people actually read the book?

Things are actually made worse by the fact that everyone tries to come up with his or her own definition of what a roleplaying game is. A lot of effort is wasted on these definitions (and more often than not even gamers argue about what RPGs actually are) instead of really informing the public about our hobby.

I think instead of sticking to these “What is a roleplaying game” sections we really should make an effort to share our hobby with a larger audience. And with the high popularity of MMORPGs it shouldn’t be so hard to explain today’s youth what the roots of their hobby are, don’t you think?

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

13 thoughts on “Do we need those “What is a roleplaying game” sections?”

  1. I personally like having the description of what an RPG is at the beginning of a book. It’s not because I don’t know what an RPG is, but because our hobby can appear so arcane to outsiders.

    This “what is” section is a little different in each book and each time I read one I have gained another way that I can try explain what I do to someone who doesn’t know.

    Just like the character creation section provides tools to make a character and play, and the GM section provides tools to run a session of the game in question, I see the “what is an rpg” section as a Gamer tool that helps us as gamers be able to bring new people into the hobby by providing a potential context and metaphor that we can use to help others understand what might be going on with this strange hobby of ours.

  2. I think it depends on the product. For the RPGs that are made for a general gaming audience (ie – core books for Savage Worlds, World of Darkness, D&D, et al), it probably isn’t necessary. If you bought it, there’s a good chance that you know what you’re getting in to (or know someone who does). I do see it’s use, however, for the licensed franchises such as Leverage, Marvel Heroic, or Star Wars. People could very well have bought them just because they like the property in question. In those cases, a bit of explanation might actually get a non-gamer to try out the hobby.

  3. I agree with Glenn that some (probably most) games need the “What’s an RPG?” section, while those obviously intended for a gaming-fluent audience don’t need it. Most licensed games luring non-gamers need it, as does anything purporting to serve as an entry to the hobby (i.e., games geared toward kids). Games that, by their very nature or presentation, assume fluency in RPGs don’t really need them; Risus is one that comes to mind, though off the top of my head I can’t think of many others. It is nice, however, to have some brief explanation of RPGs in a book, if only to clarify how the designers view the intended game experience.

  4. I am with Glenn. It depends on the nature of the product. If it is likely that the product will be picked up by newbies (popular comic book or TV license, a genre that is unusual in RPG-dom, a publisher that is not a classical RPG publisher and serves other markets) then by all means, include a “What this is about” section.

    I am also with ShadowAcid, and would add: especially if you serve other markets use language to explain RPGs in their words, e.g, if a computer game publisher markets a P&P RPG to his community (hypothetical case) start with computer game lingo. “The GM is both a level designer and the AI of the game.”

  5. I say take an axe to that section, it’s wasting pagecount. Want to have a section on what RPGs are about? Then in 1 or 2 short sentences, send them to your online FAQ.

    “Don’t know what a roleplaying game is? Then we suggest you use your favorite search engine.”

    What about people without internet? Well, chances are, they’re not the target audience.

  6. I think the “Roleplaying” section is very much needed. In a hobby that has so few participants as ours does, we need EVERY little recruiting tool we can get. In fact, we should be pooling our resources to fund late night infomercials and sponsor little league baseball teams too! 😉

  7. I think it also depends on where the product is going to be sold. If you’re likely to encounter it in your local Barnes & Noble game section somewhere near Hey, That’s my Fish!, you might want to include the paragraph, because some kid or parent who’s really there to look at something else might get intrigued and pick it up. If it’s an indie, then no, it’s probably not necessary. It’s not like you’re going to run across FREEMARKET out in the wild unless you’re actively seeking it.

    I also like these sections because they’re a good way to get a sense of whether or not the game designers have the same idea about RPGs as I do. If the description emphasizes story and psychology, I’m in. If it discusses the fun of exhaustively tracking the crap in your backpack…not so much.

  8. I concur, I decided against including a “What are RPGs?” section in Free Spacer for pretty much the same reasons. Instead I included an invitation to read my blog post on the subject which includes links to Fear the Boots series on the subject.
    I also put in a more appropriate “What is…” section that talks about Sci-fi Roleplaying specifically. I think a section that talks about what makes Sci-fi Roleplaying different from other types
    is a much better use of the pages.

  9. I don’t think I’ve read that section since my AD&D 1st Edition Player’s handbook. Has the boiler plate changed much since then?

  10. I’d argue that no games need this. For one, there are a few ways we can expect people to be introduced – through other people, or on their own. If introduced through other people, the people who introduced it likely dealt with the introduction on the concept, and thus it is wasted. Otherwise, the people are going to introduce themselves through D&D – it’s the only game that is even known outside of the hobby. This suggests that only D&D needs this.

    With that said, the main reason that section is included is to cover the vast majority of play, which the rules just skirt around. All that actually means is that the rules are incredibly poorly written, and as such all D&D even has to do is write the rules well enough without that piece that how the game is played is clear. Something akin to boardgames’ “How To Play” section that actually covers the game is one possibility, but there are others.

  11. I favor keeping the “what is roleplaying?” sections precisely because everyone’s definitions vary so much.

    Knowing how the game designers define role-playing can give you some insight into the “why’s” behind their game design.

  12. I also believe that the description is useful for those people who are going to pick up the book in a shelf and take a look at the first few pages. As you said : “How likely is it that someone picks up a game that he knows nothing about?” So now, there’s a chance the guy who just picked the book understands what the confusing rules in the next 300 pages are about and he’s curious enough to actually buy the thing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.