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The Lipaks Way: The Beginner's Guide to Fantasy Role Playing Gaming
Copyright 2006, The Grixit Affinity, All Rights Reserved

§01 About Fantasy Role Playing In General

When children run around pretending to be cartoon or comic book characters, or soldiers, or rockstars, and so forth, they are playacting.

Role playing (also spelled as one word) is formal playacting, the players agree ahead of time who is going to pretend to be whom, and have a general understanding of what each person can do or is likely to do. The person one pretends to be is called a character. A story develops as each player describes what their character says and does, which includes interaction with other characters.

A role playing game adds structure. There is a setting that is independent of the characters. And events can happen that the characters did not plan or expect and which they must react to.

This introduces the idea of a person who controls the setting, generally called the game manager or gm here, but could also be called the referee, director, or storyteller. This person tells the players what is going on in general, guides the story along, and takes on the parts of whatever extra characters are needed. The basic rule of all role playing is "pretend you're there and say what you do".

Note that this can also be considered a form of improvisational theater.

Now a fantasy role playing game is one that includes elements of the supernatural or paranormal such as one finds in fantasy literature. Ever read a fantasy story that you wished you could be in? With a fantasy role playing game you can!

I should note here that there is some confusion about this. fantasy role playing games are often described as geeky. They aren’t; they’re fannish. True, there’s a lot overlap between fans and geeks, but the games go on the same bookshelf as Fritz Leiber and Robert Graves, not Linux 4 N00bz. Of course some would say that making such distinctions is itself geeky. Shut up, this is my article!

Now, where was i? In fact, you could say that the purpose of the game (besides having fun, without which it wouldn't be worth playing) is to participate in a fantasy adventure, to create a story through the interaction of the participants. And that interaction has both cooperative and competitive elements.

Fantasy role playing games (FRPGs, FRPs or RPGs) are played through conversation. The gm describes the scene, the players respond in character.

A game can be a one time event, a single gathering of characters in a single setting. But many gms run campaigns, open ended sequences of gaming sessions. In a campaign the same set of characters experience a series of adventures set in the same environment.

There's an interesting side effect of playing frps. It tends to improve the research and writing skills of the more dedicated gamers. I note this because some people are concerned about the influence of gaming on students.

Gaming Arrangements

The original method of play, and still the most common, is the live, or face-to-face game. That's where the gm and all the players are together, usually sitting around a table.

The players usually have paper forms that record the details of their characters. There are rule books to explain what sort of things can be done, usually modified by the gm. The gm may make up everything as they go along, or they may have notes they wrote ahead of time. Sometimes there are maps that represent the imaginary setting to help people visualize where they are. Sometimes there are miniatures, which are little models of characters that are used to represent movement and positioning. The painting and customizing of miniatures has become quite a pastime in its own right.

But the true setting, the playing field, the game board if you like, exists only in the minds and the shared imagination of the participants.

Also, in live games the scope of conversation tends to stray at times, as in other social activities. Yet this straying sometimes produces unexpected ideas that in turn become part of that game or another at some later date.

There is also play by mail (PBM) gaming, in which the gm writes everything down and mails a copy to each of the players, who then mail back their responses. This has been pretty much superseded by play by electronic mail (PBEM) or play by post (PBP), which take advantage of the speed and ease of computer communication. Both of these have several advantages including allowing people to proceed on their own schedule, giving them time to think, and no arguments over paying for the pizza.

The main disadvantages of these indirect methods of playing are that since they take longer, the chances of personal circumstances forcing a player to drop out are greater. This can disrupt the cohesiveness of the game. And the slower interaction means slower and less varied conversation which in turn reduces the amount of the synthesis of ideas mentioned earlier.

Some online services, bulletin boards and Internet chatrooms offer online gaming, which allows live but not face to face play where the players type their actions in real time. This puts a premium on the ability to type with a reasonable degree of speed and accuracy over extended periods of time.

Some people like live action gaming, also called live action roleplaying (LARP), in which the story is physically acted out as much as possible, often in costume.

Playing Procedures

Normally, the environment (which can be anything from the world in which the game takes place down to the activities of the inhabitants in the immediate locale) is determined by the gm. Some create everything themselves, while others rely on published materials. And of course many start with published materials and put their own stamp on them.

As play proceeds by whatever method, the gm tells the players what's going on. The players tell the gm what their characters are doing, or at least trying to do, which includes discussions with the other characters. The gm determines the results of player actions and the story continues.

When the game ends, the characters continue to exist, assuming they haven't died, of course. They are available to be used in future games. And being living persons, they experience growth and development, hopefully gaining knowledge, skill, effectiveness, wealth, power, fame, fulfillment, or at least something to tell their grandchildren.

And the players too, gain experience, which may be used in the creation of future games.

Creativity in Gaming

One of the most important aspects of fantasy role playing games is openendedness. Anything is possible, if the gm agrees. Players are always coming up with new ideas for characters, ideas which may be simple extrapolations of the rules or which may involve going beyond the rules. When faced with problems, players may come up with responses no one ever thought of before. I always like to use the following example:

A character, an ordinary mortal with no special abilities, is confronted by a big, bad, and obviously hostile enemy, let's call it a troll. It's far more powerful and much tougher than the character. The player has to say what the character does. Now the usual range of responses includes attacking, running, attempted bribery, and perhaps begging for mercy. What else? Well let's see. How about covering your eyes? Maybe the troll really is so stupid it will think it can't see you. Or spitting in its face hoping to blind it long enough to get away. Or playing dead. Or making loud threats, hoping to seem more dangerous than you really are. Or pointing behind it. Or how's this: set your hair on fire and head butt the troll in the gut!

Now none of these may do the character any good, but the fact that the player can even try them is what makes FRPGs qualitatively different from games with more formalized and finite rule sets.

§02 Fantasy Role Playing Gaming and Wargaming

Fantasy role playing gaming is often compared to wargaming because frpg has some developmental roots in the latter. Also, both attempt to create an imaginary "reality".

Wargaming is the attempt to simulate real warfare on a board, (or increasingly, a virtual environment) which represents real terrain with pieces that represent the units of combat forces. Most of the units are groups rather than individuals and encounters in battle are mechanical: the players may yell but the theoretical casualties aren't heard at all. Units rarely get smaller because some of their numbers are killed, instead they are assumed to lose morale until at some point either they are withdrawn to calm down, or else they run away.

Because of the unit orientation, wargaming may seem almost as impersonal as chess. But it remains open ended in a way that chess is not. Chess has very rigid rules. Wargaming may normally proceed as if it did also, but there are always new possibilities that can be devised. Mutiny, for instance, or equipment failure.

Where wargaming and fantasy gaming differ is mainly in their goals and their treatment of individuals.

The goals of wargaming are always, of course, war related. A fantasy role playing game can have a war related goal also, but it need not. Most tend to have some conflict though, as most players like it that way.

The difference in the treatment of individuals is simple: wargames tend to ignore them, except where the scale of battle is small enough, and even then they are treated as units, frp games tend to focus on them. At most a wargame may make provision for the presence of inspirational leaders. For instance in Napoleonics, which is one of the most popular subgenres of wargaming, a beleaguered french unit is less likely to break and run if Napoleon himself is in personal command.

In frp gaming, a character may find themself caught up in the actions of a unit, but the focus still remains on them.

There are some gaming systems that have both unit and individual rules, so people can play at both levels in the same setting.

§03 Computer Games

Some fantasy themed computer games use the term "role playing game" because the setting is complex, there are choices of characters and actions, and the goals are typical of the fantasy genre. Each successive generation features more and more choices in both characters and activities. However, as of this writing, the available choices remain choices from a finite list, however numerous. Until computer games with true artificial intelligence are devised they are not rpgs at all. They cannot pass the "Troll Test".

Muds, et al

The term "mud" (and its relatives, such as "mush" "moo", and mmorg) refers to complex and sophisticated online environments moderated by human agency but maintained by software. They usually have themes but are more like playgrounds than specific games. They combine aspects of roleplaying, along with just about any form of amusement that can represented by exchanges of text (and increasingly graphics). They have the immediate advantage in that once signed up, a member can log on and join in the interactions for as often or as long as they like, independent of the schedules of others. Also, in most muds, dedicated players can gain the opportunity to add or change elements of the environment.

§04 Fantasy Gaming and the Literature

The literary background of fantasy gaming is quite varied. It includes ancient mythology, traditional folktales, fairy tales, classic fantasy, and the latest multivolume epics. But there is a standard environment, a common set of expectations that nearly all games are defined relative to.

This environment draws on popular fantasy fiction from the early decades of the 20th century. That's probably because the first game designers either grew up on the writers of that time, or on the next generation of writers who were influenced by them. The first published version of D&D specifically referenced Tolkien and Dunsany. Hence you are likely to find dragons, elves, wizards, swords, and unicorns, or something equivalent, in most games. And of course, the worlds of fantasy gaming never stand still, there are always opportunities for adventure.

Politics, customs, fashions and ideas tend to be derivative of western Europe in medieval or Renaissance times, again reflecting the background of the designers. Most particularly, the settings of most games lack any sort of modern technology-- no guns, no electricity, no self powered machinery. Even those who set their games in different environments tend to borrow from this standard source. Somehow that seems to help establish the mood.♦


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