Under the Hood – Outsiders Looking In

Outsiders Looking In
By The Warden

I have a confession to make, dear readers. Not that it’s a secret or anything, but the time has come to share a vital detail relevant to this column. For the past year-and-a-half, long before I started working on this column, I’ve been designing my own RPG with completely original mechanics. If anything, it’s been my inspiration for this column and has been incredibly helpful – crucial even – to its construction.

Relax, everyone, my purpose in sharing this tidbit is not to announce my departure. Far from, as I’ve grown quite fond of my work here and look forward to going even further as time goes on. But I do share this with you to explain the purpose for today’s topic: explaining roleplaying games to non-players.

In the past couple of months, members of my fiancée’s family have learned about my upcoming game and started asking questions about it. It all came about when two of her cousins, frequent guests to our house, finally broke down and asked me what the hell I was working on day after day and asked if they could play. Within the first hour, they were chomping at the bit to play some more and have been talking about it non-stop to everyone else in the family, leading to the following question:

“So what is it, a board game or a video game?”

It’s nearly universal from every person on her side of the family. Not only that, but numerous other people in my life – personal or professional – have asked the same question and I’ve had to stumble over countless ways to describe the purpose of a roleplaying game. I’ve tried to find a solid delivery to best explain a RPG, even going online to ask for advice, but nothing seems to explain the medium across the board.

For example, here are some of my previous efforts.

“It’s like a video game except it takes place around a table and instead of being forced to use only the tools and choices programmed into the game, you can perform anything you can imagine.”

“Similar to a board game, except there’s no board involved. Everything takes place in your imagination and your character can do more than simply roll dice to see how far they move.”

“It’s a shared storytelling experience. My job is to present the players with an objective to complete through settings, characters, and events; the players’ job is to create the protagonists and determine how they will achieve their objective without being limited to a few choices.”

Most of the time, any of these seem to do the trick (and sometimes I have to use two or more of these examples to make my case), while others simply give up trying to understand and politely abide with what I’ve given them. If there’s any tactic best suited to get the job done verbally, I point to my fiancée and let her do the talking as an outsider looking in on all the games I’ve run in our house for the past year-and-a-half. (According to her, I’m too long winded and need to find a shorter way to explain it without getting all caught up in my enthusiasm for the game. I respond with a five-minute recount of something irrelevant to the situation in true Grandpa Simpson style.)


When it comes down to it, nothing explains the game better than watching one in progress or playing one yourself and, in my experience, two-thirds of those people who try it first hand come back for seconds. To listen to a quick explanation of the genre – and look at the stacks of books most of us have in our collection, including those almost 500 pages in length – it seems to be incredibly and unnecessarily complex in their eyes.

It’s not a simple task to properly explain the roleplaying genre, is it? I know we all think it is, but if it were truly that simple, Hasbro would have bought Wizards of the Coast for the D&D brand and Milton Bradley would be in discussions with Evil Hat. As a good friend once said, “We’re the model trains of the gaming world.” Only a small percentage of the population enjoys them and does so with fervor.

When I first started to play RPGs at 17, it was a real social struggle to find others within my school and community (outside of my original friends) who wanted to play and some of the scorn received would be cause for students to be expelled nowadays. I can even remember my mother sitting me down and expressing concern about this “strange obsession” of mine, to which I retorted it was roleplaying or drinking and snorting myself into a stupor like every other kid in my school. While it brings a smile to my face to see so many geek parents sharing their thrill for RPGs with their kids – and I love how products such as rpgKids make it possible for me to introduce the genre to my geeky nephew – there is a part of me missing the days of consternation and suspicion towards RPGs. Remember when we were all Satan worshippers? Or aspiring vampires (long before these glitter kids came along)? I do and that subconscious need to keep my hobby under wraps still leaps to mind today. The only difference is that it’s easily subdued and kicked in the groin.

The shift from being the outsider to becoming the insider is both confusing and rewarding because now we know something many people do not. They are the ones left out of something truly cool and rather than repay those who used to finger point and accuse, we offer them a chair and hand them a set of dice of their own. What will the roleplaying community be like twenty years from now? As easy as it is to predict its death like so many other naysayers before, I don’t think we’re giving ourselves enough credit. If you had told me I’d still be playing RPGs to the same level I did in high school back when I was still in high school, I’d have thought you strange. And if you told me there was a chance I could make a living designing my own games, I’d have waited for the dream to end. Yet here we are. (Mind you, I’m still waiting for the dream to begin, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment.)


Will RPGs ever go mainstream? I doubt it. Perhaps there will be a short period where one game in particular will find itself trending across the board, likely as the result of a really good movie deal or some other cross-marketing arrangement we’ve all been waiting for, but I don’t expect the genre to become self-sustaining from such a boost. I also don’t expect it to ever die off for the same reason why I refuse to believe it will become massively successful: it speaks to a particular audience.

I’ve always felt the biggest hindrance to roleplaying games reaching the big leagues is the amount of text required to explain how to play. Even those designers intent on keeping their rules to a minimum strive for a 5000 word limit and that’s just for the basics of their mechanics. It’s the equivalent of 10 pages just for the core rules alone. While assuming people don’t want to play a game because the rules are 10 pages long is a bit presumptuous and insulting, our games are never just 10 pages, are they? This means most players are learning how to play from people like us, the existing fan base, and that’s why the genre will never truly die. We’d have to let it die.

For example, have you ever actually read the original story of Snow White? Or any of the other Brothers Grimm tales? Was it your first experience with the story? Not many people learned of these tales by reading the original text, instead discovering it through other mediums told by other people. Roleplaying games are the same way and it’s incredibly fitting, I say. The appeal of these games is not the books themselves, but the experiences gained from participating in the games surrounded by friends, family, and like-minded strangers. Only by embracing the core value of a roleplaying game – the experience – can the next generation continue to appreciate what has become a vital part of our lives.

No pressure, right?

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