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Tools of the Game: Role-Playing Games
What does it take to play a role-playing game (RPG)? Role-players obviously need a game to play and a group of like-minded individuals in order to play (role-playing games are socially interactive games). There are other logistical concerns to work out as well, such as meeting place/time and accommodations for basic needs (i.e. access to bathroom, snacks/food). So with the more readily-understandable issues tackled, the question remains: what does it take to play a role-playing game? Well, there are a number of tools that every group needs, then there are a few things that are not necessary but a really good idea for players/groups to have in order to make their games shine.
NOTE: this article is in regards to traditional table-top role-playing games and not video game RPGs or MMORPGs. However, this article could apply to online role-playing groups; as distinctions arise, they will be addressed.
Let’s start with the most fundamental necessities for a role-playing group; the stuff everyone needs in order to play.
Every RPG has a set of rules and, no matter how complex or how simple, has a rulebook. It doesn’t matter if it’s called a guidebook, if it is an actual book or a scrawl of notes on a notebook, every group needs to be able to access the rules for their game. Why, because everyone should know (or at least be able to know) what the rules for their game are. Also with a rulebook handy players can reference it if there is a question about a rule during a game session. As implied, the tangible form of the rulebook is irrelevant. If it a legally acquired digital version of the book or accessible from a sanctioned website, then it doesn’t matter as long as the players can access the rules as they need to.
Pen and Paper
Tabletop RPGs get the nickname “pen and paper RPGs” for a good reason: you need paper and you need a pen. It doesn’t need to be a pen (many players prefer pencils) but the idea is the same. It is essential that players keep information about their characters organized on character sheets, a universal aspect of pretty much all role-playing games. Character sheets are how a player knows the traits of their characters and how they can record the progress of said character. Character sheets are also useful for taking down any additional notes by the player during the course of a game session. Again, the main concept is to keep things organized for future reference. Many players use notebooks and other logs to help them further with this organization, but more on that in a little bit.
While a given player’s character may have abilities that may assure success there is always the chance of failure, if only marginal. In RPGs, players need to determine what the consequences of their actions are. With only for the very rare exception, every RPG utilizes dice to help determine the outcome. Dice provide a random means to determine success or failure. NOTE: “random” should not be equated to arbitrary or unpredictable in this case. Rather the dice provide the probability of success based on all the given factors. For example, if a given action had approximately a 33% chance of success, then that could be determined by rolling a standard six-sided die (or d6). Four out of six of the possible numbers would result in failure while two of six would be success. Not every game system uses d6’s and not every game uses a single type of dice. It is important than for players to have a variety of dice in order to partake in any game they decide to play. It is also more convenient for players to have their own sets of dice rather having to borrow from other group members.
In online RPG groups, there are dice generator programs available for use. These programs can generate results that are made with all participants being able to see; rather than the player roll dice at their location and then describing the dice results. This helps mitigate concerns of player deceit (e.g. cheating) as well as cuts down on the possibility of dice-bias; in that, certain dice may have a tendency to roll certain consistent results due to wear or design abnormality.
Moving past the essentials, we can take a look at the tool that are very useful to many RPG groups, but are not required for play. These tools help improve game play in subtle ways and many, if not most, are commonly found among most RPG groups.
As mentioned above with Pen and Paper, it is important for players to keep information for their character organized. A step further in this direction is for players to have a notebook, character journal, or other similar logbook to record any notes they take during game sessions. This can be used to keep track of their character’s development, act as a reference for story points and/or quest goals, or even be an inventory for their character’s equipment and/or the equipment of the whole group; this is not an exhaustive list and players can and will find creative uses for such tools. Another common use of notebooks is for players to tear pages out and make private messages to share with either players or the gamemaster. A step even further into organizing information for their characters is for each character (or game) to have its own notebook; although many players are comfortable simply using the same notebook for different games and characters.
The gamemaster (or GM) is the player responsible for crafting the basic structure of the story for the group’s game. The player’s actions help define the action as well as the exact outcome of the story, while the GM guides the players into and through the story. In order to maintain the challenge for players and to keep story elements a surprise, the GM needs secrecy. The simplest way to do this is to not show the players everything that is coming. A physical means to do this is for the GM to use a gamemaster screen (GM screen, or just screen). This shields the players from the GM’s notes, any sheets they have for non-player characters (NPCs), and even provides a means for GMs to conceal their die results. This last option is not to be confused with giving the GM carte blanche to cheat in their favor every time. Instead, this gives them the privacy to help the story move along; if a GM needs to lower their own results so the players can progress, then so be it. Finally, many commercially available GM screens (produced by game manufacturers) also have several rules references written on the GM side of the screen. This allows for a quick reference guide; but it should not be mistaken as a replacement for a rulebook.
A great many RPGs involve combat as a story element. After all, it is exciting, allows practically every player a chance to participate in game play, and is the classic resolution to many story conflicts (at least in fantasies and adventures). However, keeping track of every character’s location in a scrum can be a taxing mental challenge. Again, it is best to write it down to keep things organized. Maps therefore are the natural go to tool for staging combats as well as adding description to the setting without using too many words (i.e. what is on the map is what is there in the story). The vast majority of maps are drawn by the GM either during sessions or beforehand; however many maps are commercially available by manufacturers. Manufacturer maps are already drawn out to fit certain settings/scenes and are professionally detailed out. When drawing a map for a session, the most common materials are roll-up vinyl maps as you can use dry- or wet-erase markers with relative ease. Some groups use dry-erase boards with square grids scored in as the map-boards; some groups even built their gaming tables with a dry-erase board as the tabletop for this exact purpose.
Online mapping programs do exist for online RPG groups to design maps for game play. Players can interact with the map in that they can move their characters on the map.
Along with maps, players need a means to track the location of their characters and the GM’s NPCs. With dry-erase boards and other similar maps, players can mark their character’s location and then erase it as needed. However, a more expressive and less tedious way to accomplish the same task (i.e. keeping locations of characters organized) is to use miniatures (minis). Not only does the mini make movement within a location easier to visualize, but it gives the player an opportunity to provide a solid physical representation of their character. While the exact facial expressions, height or build may not be as the player envisioned, the miniature can at least capture the equipment and attitude of the character. If players take the time to have their mini painted, then they can bring the character even more to life; after all, most miniatures are sold unpainted and as bare metal or plastic. GMs can also give enhanced expression to their stories by having important NPCs or enemies figures of their own. With or without paint, this helps bring the game a stronger sense of life or realism without breaking the boundary of fantasy and reality.
During the course of game play, it is not uncommon for characters and NPCs to accumulate various status effects; conditions which may persist over a length of time within the game (e.g. poisoned, dying, bleeding, divine blessings, mystical warding, etc.) It is important for players to keep track of their ongoing buffs (beneficial status effects) and debuffs (detrimental status effects). This can become challenging on a strictly pen and paper manner. Many players use tokens to represent the plethora of statuses that either affect their character or their character can afflict. Paper tokens are easiest to print and cut out for this purpose, but different companies produce plastic tokens that embody specific effects (or at least allude to such effects). Other manufacturers make tokens that are blank and can be filled in, often times with a dry-erase surface to be reused for whatever status the players need to denote.
The same programs that help design maps for online players also have either built-in functions for keeping track of status effects or additional software that allows such versatility.
Computers and Internet Access
Having access to a computer (be it a laptop, notebook, or even a smart phone) is useful for any group. Yes, it is pretty much a requirement for groups meeting almost exclusively online. However, the computer grants players the ability to reference any digital copies of the rules the players have. Being able to log into online forums during a session can give players a chance to find answers to their group’s questions quickly. If other non-rules-related questions arise, accessing other forums or online informational sites would be extremely handy as well. A laptop or other similarly portable device can also be a substitute for the traditional pen and paper notebooks for taking notes. Along with note taking, many character sheets are available for download and can be modified in an appropriate reader. Indeed, a player can have a completely digital copy of their character available from their computer; or if they store in a cloud or other server then they can access it anywhere they have internet!
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