[Manuscript] What's the DEAL with TABLETOP ROLEPLAYING games?

In every video, I make sure to say that this is a Youtube channel about roleplaying games. But what is a roleplaying game really? Everyone has their own ideas and frames of reference when it comes to roleplaying games and what that term means to them. There are tabletop roleplaying games, live-action roleplaying games, massively multiplayer online roleplaying games. All of these are roleplaying games but they're also very different roleplaying games.  

This channel focuses on the tabletop aspect of roleplaying, and that's also what this video will primarily be about. This is a video aimed at newcomers to the hobby, who're interested in learning more about tabletop roleplaying games, but aren't really sure about what it's really about. I'll be going through the basics of what tabletop roleplaying is, what misconceptions there are, and what to expect or not to expect from a session. I'm also going to briefly talk about the history of tabletop roleplaying to give some context to what led up to where we are today. This video will not go into detail about individual game systems, though some will be mentioned in passing.  

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In general terms, a roleplaying game is a game in which the players assume the roles of characters within a fictional setting. The players act out these characters' roles within a narrative, and there's typically a formal system of rules and guidelines that dictate the outcome of these character actions. The exact nature of these guidelines are determined by the type of roleplaying game it is.  

A tabletop roleplaying game is a form of interactive and collaborative storytelling conducted in a small social gathering, usually by a small group of friends around a table, and often with snacks and drinks as well as all of the accessories you need for the game you're playing. These games tend to follow a pre-determined ruleset that varies from game to game.

Traditionally, one participant takes the role of Game Master (or GM), though different games can use different terms to describe this role. The GM presents fictional scenes for the remaining participants who determine how the characters they portray interact with this scene. Each player controls a single character – the protagonists of the story – while the GM controls every other character that inhabits the scene. Traditionally the GM's characters are called Non-Player Characters, or NPCs, but some modern games have been moving away from this term because in essence, the GM is also a player of sorts. The new Vampire the Masquerade has coined the phrase SPC, from Storyteller-played character, with Storyteller being their definition of a GM.  

The players' characters have traits derived from how the game's narrative interacts with its ruleset. It's the sophisticated rules that make these games stand apart from improvisational theater or childrens' games of make believe. These rules determine consistency and structure in the experience, as well as uncertainty in the outcome.  

In a traditional tabletop roleplaying game, levels of uncertainty are added and tested both to help guide the narrative, but also to add a chance of risk and reward. Whereas a childrens' game of make believe can create arguments between the participants – perhaps one child claims to have won something over another, and the other child refuses to admit it – tabletop games often use dice to give meaning to contests as well as to generate random outcomes when necessary.  

There are diceless games as well, and these may work differently from game to game. Some rely on player agreement, but similar to children's games of more competitive make-believe, disputes may arise without a clear guideline on how to resolve outcomes. There are games that incorporate mini games or other games as a tool for resolution instead of dice. One example is Dread which uses a Jenga tower in order to resolve outcomes. The more fragile the tower becomes, the more fragile your psyche is, represented by the characters' dread. Should it fall, your psyche crumbles, and you're dead.  

Before I started working more seriously on Machineborn, I was theorycrafting a card-based game system called Taledeck. There are other card-based roleplaying games out there, so I'm not sure if I'll ever get back to creating Taledeck in the future. Maybe one day.

The first commercially available tabletop roleplaying game was Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), first created by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax back in 1974. This was an effort to combine inspirational fantasy literature with the popular wargaming hobby. It wasn't as much made to be a roleplaying game as it was a complicated combat simulation game. People took this game and turned it into a roleplaying game.  

D&D was first published under Gary Gygax's company TSR and, since it was a niche product, it wasn't expected to sell too many copies. However, this game gave rise to the tabletop roleplaying game industry, and it's still the most popular tabletop roleplaying game even to this day, several decades and editions later.  

The same year as D&D came out, a less talked about roleplaying game called Empire of the Petal Throne came out. While this wouldn't rise to the same level of fame as D&D did, this game helped to inspire the direction of roleplaying games going forward as well, since it inspired Gary Gygax enough to purchase the rights to it and publish it under his own company the following year. What this game had that D&D would incorporate later was rules for critical successes – that extra meaning you give to rolling 20 on a die, the vital strike that deals more damage.  

Countless games would come out after D&D, most of them forgotten, but some standing out from the rest. Call of Cthulhu came out in 1981 and Paranoia in 1984, Cyberpunk in 1988 and Vampire the Masquerade in 1991. These games explored new genres and moved away from the wargaming roots towards a more narrative approach. Vampire, for example, emphasized storytelling more than combat simulations, and this widening of the tabletop roleplaying hobby helped it reach a broader audience as well. There were games for everyone.  

Now the 1980s was an interesting decade for tabletop roleplaying games. This was during the so called “Satanic Panic” where D&D was accused of causing negative spiritual and psychological effects on children. I'm not going to talk too much about this in this video, but it's a very interesting time in the history of tabletop roleplaying games, and I could make a separate video about it at some point. Though preachers scared parents into taking their childrens' games away, academic research since have proven that there are no such negative effects to D&D or other tabletop roleplaying games. In fact, there's a lot of research indicating the opposite, that roleplaying games can have a very positive effect. I plan to make a video in the future about using roleplaying games as a tool for therapy in a professional capacity, because that's something that interests me as a social worker.  

The tabletop roleplaying game hobby did decline in the 2000s, most likely because of competition from video games and collectible card games. This led more publishers to move online and to fewer books in stores. While it's still a fairly niche hobby even to this day, I think the 2010s and now going into the 2020s have been a period where the hobby has been moving mainstream. Much to this, I think, is thanks to Critical Role's success and the popularity in general for live action plays online. D&D is bigger today than it's ever been, and people getting into D&D leads to more people exploring other games than D&D as well, such as Cyberpunk, or my own favorite game Exalted.  

Tabletop roleplaying games are played similar to radio dramas, but the level of actual acting and immersion will vary from table to table and player to player. A lot of newcomers to the hobby have been introduced to it through live play shows such as Critical Role, but these shows are often focusing more on entertaining an audience than to portray the game as it's played by the average group. There are definitely groups who play like that or attempt to play like that, but it's definitely not the norm and it's wrong to expect that to be the norm. When the shows are performed by professional actors, this further skews people's impressions of what's expected of them as players.

My personal preferences is that I prefer when people speak in character, but I don't generally like when people do “voices.” When I roleplay, I want to focus primarily on the theater of the mind – what you and your players visualize as the story unfolds – but this is different from actual theater. While I love watching shows like Critical Role, or LA By Night even more so, I don't want to play like that myself, and I don't want a newcomer to the hobby to assume that's the way the games are played.

There's been a lot of discussions about gatekeeping within the gaming community in recent years, and I want to highlight these – let's call them Critical Role Expectations – as a new type of gatekeeping. Tabletop roleplaying should be open and inviting to everyone, even those who aren't comfortable with those levels of performance and immersion. I think that everyone can find something enjoyable out of roleplaying, but what these things are vary from people to people.  

As for how I play the game, well, I can only speak for myself and my own experience. If I'm the GM for a game, I try to prepare a few scenes based on some story goals I want to reach in the session. If my players have already prepared their characters, I add in some details about things I expect from certain characters or things I want certain characters to have a chance to experience. This could be a few puzzles aimed towards a certain character's skill set or perhaps a scene where an NPC with a connection to one of the player characters may partake.  

While I try to add as much as I can to cover as many possibilities as I can, my ultimate goal is to let the players guide the action with a few nudges by me here and there to try to keep things from derailing too much from certain pre-established story goals. I tend to have a few pages of notes as prepared material, but I often find myself looking at them a handful of times in a session. Some Game Masters can easily improvize entire sessions without effort while others need a plan for every scene. I consider myself to be somewhere in the middle. I can improvize scenes well, but I'm not good at improvizing key story goals.  

The GM's role is much more complicated than the player's role, and it's a much more daunting task to pick up this role. But if you're playing with friends who're actually respectful of each other's experience, you'll find that the players will often help you along when you stumble. I know that this isn't supposed to be a GM Tips video, but I still want to mention that one of my main tips for Game Masters is to not be afraid of failure. By realizing in the moment that you don't have a contingency in mind, you're forced to improvize, and even if you nervously stumble through a scene, players usually don't actually notice this even if you yourself feel like it's obvious that you don't know what you're doing. It's often in scenes like this when the most memorable moments are, those moments that surprise everyone at the table.  

Anyway, after I've prepared my notes for the session, I invite the players. We usually play on weekends when everyone's having off time, and we often meet up for lunch before the game, before heading to my place or to someone else's. We start up the game fairly slow, more jovial and social with a lot of casual chatter. We make coffee, hand out some snacks, and ease ourselves from social mode into game mode.  

Here's where a lot of different groups tend to have some different expectations, and it's good to communicate with each other what your own expectations should be. I see roleplaying night as being the same as social night, and I want everyone to have the freedom to speak when they want, take breaks when they want, use their phones when they want, refill their drinks when they want, and even drink what they want. As long as someone isn't disrupting the game, I don't mind if people drink alcohol or briefly want to mention something fun that happened to them the other day. A game session doesn't have to be formal. It has to be fun. And sometimes just being social with friends is what's fun.  

However, when I feel that someone is interrupting an active and engaging scene, or when I feel that someone is getting annoyed by being interrupted as they're actually playing the game, then I'll speak out and ask for everyone to focus. I don't want the social chatter to take up more time than the game itself. I think a respectful player should read the atmosphere in the moment and then decide if them interrupting the game for an anecdote is appropriate in that moment.  

I have some triggers at the table, and that's when too much time is spent arguing about the rules. If there's something that can't be resolved by taking a minute to confirm it in a book, then the GM makes a ruling, and the debate about whether it was a good or bad ruling can wait until after the session. When it comes to interruptions at the table, I may have made it seem like I've nothing against it, but that's not entirely true. I think there's a difference between interrupting a scene to make a joke that makes everyone laugh than to interrupt another player who's currently immersed in the game. If you wait for the right moments, the social jabs here and there will make the evening more casual and fun.  

Some Game Masters run their games like a prison, with strict rules about how to behave, when to take breaks, when to speak up, and how to speak up. If that's what you like, go for it, but that's not fun for me. I think there are moment when that's necessary, but too much in either direction takes away from the fun. I think the best games have found a happy medium.  

When the game is under way, what I expect from my players is nothing really too demanding than engagement and interest. They don't even need to know the rules very well. You can easily tell when a player is bored, because they'll start looking at their phone. I don't tell my players how to play their characters, to always speak in character, or how to resolve certain situations. I may have opinions about that, and I may prefer certain ways of doing things, but every player should get to decide for themselves how to play the game. They may ask for advise and I'll give it to them. It's only when a player is disruptive in some way that I step in. What constitutes as being disruptive is something only you and your group can decide.  

But let's talk about the actual roleplay. How much roleplay is expected and how much is required? Some players will never be comfortable taking the role of the character, but they still enjoy the game just as much as someone who never leaves character. The difference is that a player who don't want to “play the role” can still guide their character's actions through the game. Instead of actually speaking the line “Could you show me the way to the inn?” they're guiding their character's action by stating that “I ask someone where the inn is.” They still did the same thing and drew the same conclusions, but they could still keep themselves separate from the character. Most players will do a mixture of both. Sometimes they speak in character and sometimes they suggest what their character speaks about without actually saying the words. Never enforce one way or the other. Always do what you're personally comfortable with.  

A lot of the time, players may want to get comfortable speaking in character, but they aren't used to the social environment yet. If that's the case, I've found that it's helpful to get them to open up and immerse themselves more by using NPCs to help them practice. If you've got an introverted player sitting quietly amidst extroverts, a good GM should take note of this and initiate some roleplay with them so that they don't feel the pressure to initiate it themselves.  

I started roleplaying when I was only 8 years old, but there was a time during my high school years when I didn't roleplay at all, and this made actually roleplaying as an adult feel super cringey at first. But that was mainly because I hadn't gotten a feel for the social environment yet and what attitudes the other players at the table had. As long as people remain engaged and respectful, I find that things relax fairly quickly. And if they don't, like I said, don't force it. People are different.  

The length of a session varies. When I was younger and had more free time, we often played throughout the night. I think the longest session I've had without rest was 26 hours. This was when we played the Daughter of Nexus story for Exalted 2nd Edition. I've also had a few sessions where we've played most of the day, slept for the night, and then continued playing in the morning. Nowadays, my sessions tend to be between 5-8 hours on a weekend, which is still a pretty long session, but we usually have some break in between and we don't get together as often as we'd like, so we try to make the most out of the time we do.  

I don't think a new player should come in expecting sessions that last for that long, though. You'll get a feel for what works for your group. I think that between 3-5 hours is an ideal length for most sessions, though. Time flies fast when you roleplay, and a session shorter than three hours will feel like it just went by. There's a special feeling to having those 8+ hour sessions, though, but they aren't necessarily healthy, even though they can be a lot of fun.  

One session doesn't have to mean a finished game, either. Many groups play campaigns that sometimes last for years, with every session just being a brief progression within a never-ending story arc. My Dawn of the Chosen campaign for Exalted 3rd Edition has gone on since 2015, taken place in almost every part of Creation, and involved more than ten different players (though never more than five at the time) with different characters.  

If you're interested in roleplaying and want to get into the hobby, whatever you do, don't feel intimidated. Start as a player if you can, since then you'll have a GM who can show you the ropes, and don't hesitate to ask your GM questions when you're unsure what to do. As a player in a roleplaying game, you have the agency over your character's actions. There are things that are good to know about portraying characters in game, such as matters of consent, meta-gaming, and things like that, but those are topics that deserve videos of their own. For now, just try to take that first step into getting a chance at an actual game, and remember that roleplaying is a social experience where everyone should have fun together.  

If you liked this video and want to see more, please like, share, comment, and subscribe. I also have a Patreon where you can learn more about my various projects, and you can also find the manuscript for this video. I only needed to go into my first session as an eight year old to get hooked on this hobby for life. It's actually impacted my life in a massive way, not just because I'm making videos like this as a hobby, but because I now get to write for roleplaying games professionally. I'm no more an expert on this than the next roleplayer down the street, but I'm passionate, and if you give this hobby a try, you might get to be as well.  

Once again, I hoped you enjoyed this video, and I promise more in the future. Until then ... 

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