Roleplaying games, at their heart, differ from most other types of games because they are about telling an interesting and enjoyable story in a medium that combines traditional storytelling techniques with improvisational theatre, speculative problem-solving and statistics (found in whatever “resolution mechanic” that decides actions that could succeed or fail—and, according to modern RPG theory, both success and failure are interesting and appropriate to the story).
There’s no need to detail the venerable forty-some-odd-year history of “modern” roleplaying, but a few notes might prove useful for those drawn here by subjects other than gaming. The mother-of-all-roleplaying-games (as we think of them today) is of course Dungeons & Dragons. In that game, as in most other RPGs, one of the participants takes on the role of the Gamemaster (GM), while the others take on the roles of the Player Characters (PCs). We’ll call the latter the Players.
As in a theatrical performance, a Player seeks to play his Player Character as well as can be done. What “as well as can be done” depends heavily upon the group and the RPG, but for our sake we’ll stay highbrow and assume that this means immersing oneself in being someone else for a while, learning how someone other than yourself might feel and speak and act and exploring an alternate reality through that lens.
Under normal circumstances, each Player has only one character to portray. With a typical group, that means the Players are supplying three to five PCs to the game. While they may have intricate backstories, complex psychologies and all of the other traits that well-thought-out characters in fiction have, there’s not much for them to do without a situation for them to be in.
This is where the Gamemaster (GM) comes in. In an RPG, the GM represents all forces external to the characters—the weather, the setting, things that happen, all the other characters in the story that are not the PCs, etc. This gives the GM broad authority over the nature and course of the story that will be told over the course of the game.
So, the PCs find themselves in a situation over the creation of which they had no control. Once the “scene,” the playing out of the situation, begins, however, it is the agency of the PCs (and other characters involved in the scene—known as NPCs or non-player characters and controlled by the GM) who move the story forward.
This brings us to a feature of roleplaying games that separates the genre from other storytelling games—rules and mechanics. A Player Character has “statistics”, values that determine the character’s strengths and weaknesses. When the PC takes an action that could potentially fail, that character’s statistics are used along with the rules and mechanics to determine the result of the action. The mechanics of most RPGs use dice to add the element of chance to the action—representing all of the little factors that could come together to ensure success or conspire to assure defeat. This prevents the game from being determined by GM fiat, leaving some things to chance.
The rules may allow for possibilities that do not occur in our reality (such as wizardry and magic), but they may also prohibit certain actions (like hacking a computer to which one does not have access, or succeeding at sprinting down a tightrope in gusting winds and pouring rain).
Once the dice have fallen, the results of the action (its success, failure and side-effects) become part of the story, which now moves forward having incorporated that event. The “structured unpredictability” of the game both separates it from other types of storytelling and adds drama to the story. If, as occurs in Dungeons & Dragons, a brave hero confronts a dragon, he cannot be assured of success. When played as intended, neither does the GM have the ability to absolutely determine the outcome of the battle (although, as the controller of the dragon, he may try his best—using the rules—to defeat the hero).
Who wins? Some RPGs focus on an adversarial relationship between the GM and the Players, with each attempting to outwit the other for control of the story. Fortunately, the mainstream approach is quickly becoming that of “structured collaborative storytelling.” Here, everyone wins or loses together—either the story is a good one or it falls flat. Well-developed and -played characters can improve a poor plot; conversely, a rich setting with an interesting plot can cover for two-dimensional characters. But the game only takes on the transcendence sought by its Players—it only becomes meaningful as something more than mere game, something closer to art—when Players and GM all do their jobs to the best of their ability and everyone’s benefit.
Stories can be long or short, they can be played in a single session of a few hours or stretched into many sessions over the course of months or years that create truly deed and epic narratives.
Thoughts about Dungeons & Dragons, RPGs and Sci-Fi/Fantasy as they relate to Christianity are (or will be) addressed in other posts.
 Much to my delight, creators of roleplaying games have brought us a wide variety of approaches to gaming, some quite avant-garde in pushing the envelope of what the genre of game can do. There’s far too much variety (and I have far too much to say about that variety) to address such things here. So, when I say “normal circumstances,” just know that I intend the most common approach used by current RPGs. There will always be variation.