1997 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons® and, with it, the advent of role-playing games (RPGs). While RPGs have had a tremendous impact on gaming, publishing, movies, and other entertainment media, they are widely misunderstood and sometimes falsely criticized. To know why this is so, one must first understand what RPGs are all about and how they work as games. In an RPG, each player (i.e., the real person playing the game) controls the actions of a character (i.e., an imaginary person who is defined by certain statistics, skills, and abilities, as well as by a description of background and personality traits). The player play-acts the character (much like in television, film, or improvisational theatre) as his character joins up with other characters to solve a mystery or perform a quest, except that the play-acting involves no set, costumes, or props. Instead the players sit at a table with paper, rulebooks, and a variety of dice (4, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 20-sided), interacting with one another in character (in first person, with accents, etc. as appropriate) and telling the person designated to run the game (known as the gamemaster (GM) or dungeonmaster (DM)) what physical actions his character is taking (e.g., running, fighting, searching, etc.).
The GM’s job is to receive all of the information concerning what the characters are doing, consult the rulebooks and the information contained in the adventure scenario which is being played, determine the results of actions governed by roll of the dice, and report back to the players what their characters see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. The GM also play-acts any non-player characters that the characters may encounter in their wanderings—the local storekeeper, a passing traveler, the Captain of the Guard, etc. The GM adapts the adventure to whatever actions the characters may attempt, providing an ad-libbing flexibility to the game that cannot be matched by computer games.
Originally concocted as a way to spice up a military strategy game by having the ersatz soldiers encounter creatures akin to those appearing in fantasy novels by Tolkien and others, RPGs have multiplied in complexity and genre. While Advanced Dungeons & Dragons®, 2nd Ed., a much more detailed and complicated version of the original Dungeons & Dragons®, dominates the heroic fantasy area, there are RPGs involving secret agents, comic book superheroes, gothic horror, the Old West, the Roaring Twenties, time-travel, science fiction, and various futuristic settings, ranging from worlds run by a Computer Big Brother to bleak, post-nuclear worlds inhabited by mutant creatures.
Whatever the setting, all of these games rely heavily on the imagination and creativity of the players—elements sadly lacking in many games and sports. In all Role-Playing? Game AssociationTM sanctioned games and in the overwhelming majority of available gaming material, the players portray characters who are good or neutral, not evil. The characters are the heroes of the story, out to thwart the bad guys. Success is achieved by the group working as a team, so there are no winners and losers. (Even in tournament play, the players and the GM select the winner—the person who played his character best—by vote.)
Though sometimes criticized for their emphasis on magic, even fantasy RPG settings contain nothing different from the tamer elements of popular film. Whether it’s Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Tinkerbell as a magical fairy, or Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, magic is a common plot element in fiction. Just as actors don’t believe that magic exists just because they portray a character in a fictional world where magic does exist, gamers don’t believe in magic just because they portray characters from such a world. It’s just part of the game. Aficionados of Monopoly® are considerably more likely to become slumlords, than role-playing gamers are to become evil sorcerers.
The same goes for the concept of religion in RPG games. I suspect that there are a lot more people who really believe in "The Force" from Star Wars than subscribe to any of the ancient or fictional religions that are referenced in role-playing games. What the RPGs do teach about religion, aside from a few details about ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Norse mythology, is tolerance for the beliefs of others—a lesson many of us should learn.
Other lessons of RPGs include an emphasis on reading (both the gaming materials themselves and the novels upon which many are based), math skills (not just calculating odds, but a constant use in the game mechanics of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, as well as an occasional calculation of the spherical area of effect of a Fireball spell), and perspective. By portraying a variety of different characters, gamers learn about the inaccuracy of confining stereotypes, the unfairness of intolerance and prejudice, and the value of diverse skills and abilities.
There is a myth, never statistically demonstrated, that RPGs are somehow dangerous. Fueled by anti-intellectual bias and ignorance, as well as by confusion between what characters say and do and what players say and do, this myth is largely based on anecdotal cases involving drugs or other elements far more sinister than gaming. Certainly, concerned parents of school-aged gamers should make sure that gaming of any kind does not eat up time that should be devoted to studies and does not involve individuals or themes that are inappropriate. Unlike other forms of gaming and entertainment, however, in RPGs parents have the advantage of being able to participate as players or as the GM to better monitor and control the gaming experience if they choose. On the whole, however, gathering at a table to play-act and roll dice with friends while exercising minds and wits in a cooperative adventure seems to me a lot more benign than being sent out onto the football field to attempt to maim other children under the direction of a win-at-all-costs coach. RPG gaming is a sport without need for booster clubs, cross-checking, steroids, playing in pain, frenzied pep rallies, ambulances on scene, and failed-to-make-the-team suicides.
While players do learn that actions have consequences (in RPGs characters die, become injured, or get arrested for doing something wrong), the players are not affected. The only danger to a player is that RPGs provide less physical exercise than even bowling.
Gamers are not psychotic loners seeking to escape reality. They are intellectual, creative people who enjoy exercising their imagination with their friends as an entertaining supplement to reality. I have played hundreds of different characters and adventures spanning dozens of game systems and world settings. Those characters have ranged from cub reporters to skilled spies and from heroic knights to arrogant sorceresses. Some have done wondrous and heroic things and some have been inept or unlucky. Some have succeeded to fame and glory and some have died in the quest. But never, in almost two decades of gaming, have I seen anything inherent in RPG gaming to make me ashamed of being a role-playing gamer.
Donald J. Bingle, an attorney, is the top-ranked tournament role-playing gamer and a free-lance gaming writer.