Explain Our Hobby

Last week, a new roommate moved in. He asked me what I do, and I said “I make roleplaying games.” He responded that he hasn’t had time to play “those sort of video games” for quite some time. Naturally, I corrected and said that I do the tabletop stuff (though occasionally I work on video games).

He had no idea what I was talking about. I mentioned Dungeons & Dragons, because that’s the iconic IP that people outside our hobby are familiar with. But that only served to confuse matters — he vaguely heard of it, and started describing what I think was an awkward description of one of the recent D&D board games.

End result: he has absolutely no concept of what I made, and I apparently have no concept of how to describe the hobby overall. And here’s what I found interesting: I didn’t want to use trite, pretentious shit like “it’s like improv with dice” — turns out that doesn’t mean a damned thing. When someone cannot conceive of what you do, using short, empty analogies is meaningless.

So I ask you, friends and fellow geeks, how would you explain the hobby to this person? And I don’t mean explain a single game (though that might be more effective), but to explain what our culture loves at a high-level view. For the final bit of difficulty, this person doesn’t have a blank concept of RPGS, he’s got one that’s solely console-based.

For clearly I am at a loss. I have lived in this world too long and surrounded myself either with those who already know or those who have no interest in this world.

Follow-up: When answering, imagine if the person followed up with “what does that look like?” That’s the part that’s hard, because I can’t just drop everything and grab people to play a four-hour game. (And likely why it’s easier to get into board games, since you can just play a short, two-person board game to explain.)

– Ryan


64 Responses to Explain Our Hobby

  1. John A says:

    This is how I explain it – I help produce imaginative games you can play with your friends around a table, involving a few dice and various other items.

    So far no one’s told me that’s a bad thing to say, and it seems to cover enough bases between all the different types of games and my role in their creation.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      See, that doesn’t really explain anything. If people accept that as an answer and move on, I would question if they’re really interested or just asking out of politeness.

      What’s your answer to “I don’t understand what you mean by that. I can’t imagine what you’re talking about.” Because that’s what I was asked when I said something similar. (And keep this to a conversational space; showing someone is rarely practical when not scheduled.)

      – Ryan

  2. Elspeth says:

    That’s a tough one. But I’ve had to do it several times, and this is the best way I know how.

    “Table Top (or Live Action) RPG gaming is telling a collaborative story in which every person is responsible for one character in the narrative. You have the main storyteller, who describes the world that the characters are living in, and the obstacles they will face, while the players figure out how their characters will react to said obstacles. In the end, you have a full and complete world in which stories have been told, to the enrichment and enjoyment of those who got to partake.”

    That’s what I used to describe this hobby. Hopefully part of it will be useful to you.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      As I mentioned in another comment, what do you say when you’re asked what that looks like? And keep it to a conversation; you don’t get to right then and there drop everything and say “let’s go play a game” like you could if you were talking about Chess or something with less time commitment and fewer needed participants.

      – Ryan

  3. GeekyLyndsay says:

    What I usually say / bring up:
    You know when you go to a movie, and you wish you could decide what the characters did? In an RPG, you can do it.
    What you basically do is tell a story together, but you get to have cool powers and solve puzzles with your friends. If you got to decide how all the stuff you try worked out, you’d always win. The dice are added in to make it possible for you to fail and give you a challenge.

    I also point out that you can’t “win” an RPG and offer a LOTR movie as an example of an adventure you could go on with your friends, if they’re still interested.

  4. OssianGrr says:

    Tabletop RPGs are like Console RPGs except:
    You get to create your own character; you’re not necessarily the pointy-haired big-sworded teenage protagonist.
    Instead of a computer controlling the randomness, there are dice, and statistics on paper.
    Instead of a computer controlling a prewritten story, there are your friends. One of your friends is chosen (the “GM”) to make sure there is some sort of coherence to the universe.
    Instead of a linear plot from A to B, you can make a choice for your character to do ANYTHING.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Except when you’re playing a GMless game.
      Except when you’re playing an adventure on rails.
      Except when you’re playing a diceless game.
      Except when you’re playing pre-gens.

      It’s a lot tougher when you’re talking about a hobby and not a specific form of game.

      – Ryan

  5. Blackcoat says:

    It’s really, really hard to explain, and really obvious once you start playing.

    Structured Make Believe is the best answer I’ve come up with, but it’s about as trite as your Improve With Dice example.

    IIRC, the 4E books had a really, really good explanation of this, that I glossed over because I didn’t really need an explanation of what it was I was about to do.

    Meaning that I don’t understand what it is that I’m trying to do by my general rules (If you can’t explain it to a fourth grader, you don’t understand it)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Meaning that I don’t understand what it is that I’m trying to do by my general rules (If you can’t explain it to a fourth grader, you don’t understand it)

      I’ve always found those sorts of koans to be pretty toxic. There are many forms of understanding, and while “can I explain this” is one form that’s demonstrable, not being able to shouldn’t be in and of itself a source of shaming, because it doesn’t mean you don’t understand — it means you cannot yet articulate.

      – Ryan

  6. Jesse P. says:

    It’s like a console role playing game, except the characters are all played by different people and you have a person instead of the computer that does the actions of all the non-player elements, generally called a game master. Conflict resolution is usually handled by stats for each character and some random element such as dice.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      “Conflict resolution” is a gamer term. I would avoid all such terms, and speak plainly.

      – Ryan

  7. nook harper says:

    In a video game you can only do what the game designers have thought of. You can only take certain paths or say certain things, even in large games like Skyrim. The game world is finite and your options are limited.
    In a table top RPG you are limited only by your imagination. “Can I do this?”
    “What if I talk to them, I’ve got an idea”

    Table top RPGs use game rules to help players interact with the world, to maintain a fair balance and to allow for dramatic failure and success.

  8. There’s no easy way. And there’s no way at all in which it doesn’t sounds goofy.

  9. Logan says:

    I would yell, “Kids these days!” and shake my cane at him.

  10. My friends and I sit down and tell a story together. Sometimes one of us takes the lead and plays all the minor characters, and each of the other people at the table takes on the role of one of the major characters of the story. We each decide what we do within the story, and the group shapes the way the story flows and reacts to our actions. When something happens where the outcome is in doubt we turn to dice or cards or colored stones to help us decide what happens; we rely on systems of rules to provide structure or a sense of fairness to our play.

    Does that come close?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Maybe? It seems like one that could be built on — it doesn’t use a lot of specific gamer language, so I would get to avoid “what does X mean” and jump straight to the concept.

      I would add the time commitment aspect, maybe, and that one session to the next can be linked together to form a longer story. At least, maybe I would. I dunno.

      But it does have bias — something no explanation can get around if your’e talking to the uninitiated. (Which is interesting in and of itself.)

      – Ryan

  11. OssianGrr says:

    Don’t try to explain everything at once.
    You started with “it’s like D&D”. And then explain D&D in simple terms without worrying about all the exceptions.
    Then you can say “..and then there are a whole ton of games that are variations on that theme with different kinds of mechanics and settings.”

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      And as soon as “what’s D&D?” came up, I realized that I didn’t actually want to explain D&D and then extrapolate. That would be a bunch of confusing bullshit.

      “That thing I explained? Okay, so, like, that’s maybe barely a third of what the games I make and play are like.”

      – Ryan

    • Blackcoat says:

      The (or at least one) of the problems that you (and the rest of us) are running into is you’re trying to come up with a succinct answer for “what is this hobby like”, without making it too narrow, but in a hobby as widespread as ours is getting, that’s like saying “what are sports like?” There are team sports, and individual sports, and individual competitive sports, etc, etc.

      Everyone can agree that swimming, and say, football, are both sports. Yet, both of them share NO mechanics with each other.

      Even if we say that sports is too big an overview to be a good parallel with roleplaying games, and we cut it down a little to “ball sports”, the differences between baseball, basketball, tennis, and golf are wide enough to make this nearly impossible.

      “Well, it’s a game that you play on a field with a ball. Sometimes you want to get the ball out of bounds, sometimes you want to keep it in bounds, some games you want a really high score, sometimes you want a really low score, sometimes there’s a referee, sometimes you police yourselves, sometimes there’s a clock, other times it takes as long as it takes.”

      Earlier, you use the example of describing Chess. But with that you’re describing an individual game, not the concept of “Board Games”.

  12. Honestly the best way for your new roommate to understand RPGs is to observe a session, but I get how that’s not necessarily doable.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Sure, but as I’ve said in other comments, that’s impractical. So it’s invalid.

      And frankly, there should be a step in between “trite explanation” and “hang out and watch/play with us for a few hours.” If not, how are we expected to grow?

      – Ryan

  13. I also agree with Ossian that trying to encapsulate the entire hobby in a simple explanation to someone completely uninitiated is something of a fool’s errand. Explain the basics. Explain the most common use cases. Pick a game you feel is representative of what you do, and explain that (since the goal here is to teach the guy what you do, right?). Examples are usually easier to explain than generalities.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Or explain the cases you want, rather than the common cases? I like Fiasco and I like playing games with GMs. I don’t want to hand this guy instant “story game” baggage bullshit of seeing one as alien to the other.

      If we have an opportunity to not use D&D as our cornerstone of explanation, let’s fucking take it.

      So you mention examples. What would you use?

      – Ryan

  14. Brandon says:

    “I work to make social roleplaying games. You sit around a table, or in a chat room, or a forum or e-mail, with friends and you play a game about assuming a role different from your own. Some are adventures, making you and your friends playing through a scenario designed by another friend. Others are more dramatic. A lot of them use dice or rules to get the effect going.”

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I’m going to stop replying with the “what does that look like” comment. That should just be implied as a follow-up to all attempts.

      – Ryan

  15. Lugh says:

    OK, here are my answers:

    In a universal case: “You know when you were young, and you played cops and robbers or things like that? How did every game end? ‘I shot you!’ ‘No you didn’t!’ Then punching and rolling in the dirt. Which was fun when you were six, but got pretty old. We take the same idea, and turn it into a more sophisticated game for adults. We introduce more complex stories. We sit around a table, because we’re old and un-athletic. And we introduce rules so we can agree on whether or not we got shot.”

    In your particular case: “Okay, you know what a computer RPG is like. You know what a FPS video game is like. Can you understand the difference between an FPS video game and paintball? The difference between a CRPG and a TTRPG is a lot like that. Instead of letting the computer do all the work, we engage with our imaginations and descriptions. (We’re engaging with imagination instead of getting physical because we’re about the story more than the action.) When we reach a decision tree, we get to try anything, not just a pre-defined list of options.”

    What it looks like: “Let’s try a five-minute game. You’re in your kitchen, cutting up vegetables. A junkie crashes through the door, holding a knife to your friend’s throat, and demands all your cash. Describe what you do.”
    If he jumps right in, you’ve got a natural born gamer. If he asks what his options are, you respond with something like, “Anything! But, most of those options are stupid. Realistically, you’ve got four choices. Fight the junkie with the knife in your hand. Talk the junkie down and convince him to leave. Give the junkie your money. Try something stupid you saw in a movie once.” He picks one. You create an arbitrary TN and have him roll a die. Adjudicate. “OK, you and your friend survive the junkie. She is totally impressed with how you handled it, and feels like she owes you now.” (Or, you know, she’s totally mad at you, if it flubbed.) “If we had more than five minutes, we’d talk about how you collect on that favor. If we were playing a normal game, you’d be making choices based on the character you created instead of just yourself. So, if your character was a douche, he’d guilt the girl into paying him back with sex. If your character was a white knight, he’d wave it off with a ‘No thanks necessary, little lady’.”

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Great stuff!

      – Ryan

    • Andy says:

      I really like the in-play example. However, I feel like we really need to rid ourselves of “It’s Cops and Robbers, but with mechanics so that we don’t have arguments.” See, though that’s a cliche of game explanations everywhere, it also doesn’t really work well.

      1) If the mechanics are there to avoid arguments, they certainly don’t work. In fact, the mechanics can often act as enablers for the argument-prone; that’s how we get Rules Lawyers. I would argue that the people who get along well with RPG rules are the people who wouldn’t need rules anyway.

      2) Limiting the role of mechanics to enforcement really sells them short, and if this is going to be someone’s first impression, you really don’t want to lock them into that mindset. There’s a whole host of games that have reached awesome places by shrugging off that mindset (and throwing forward the idea that yes, rules can improve the story instead of just settling disputes), and setting that mindset up makes it harder for players to get into said games. (Case in point: most D&D players who balk at anything else.)

      The five-minute “set a TN and have them roll” is a really good idea, though. Very old-school, I might add.

    • Andy says:

      …now I find myself wishing I could edit the “really” out of my post.

  16. angille says:

    I usually do use the “collaborative interactive story-telling” phrase, but that’s very similar to “structured make believe” and “improv with dice”. You would probably have to use different descriptions to most effectively describe it to different people. For the CRPG player, I would emphasize the importance of having human arbiters, to deal with player decisions outside of “pre-programmed” expectations.

    What does it look like? A board meeting, minus the negative connotations. Especially when I run games – I tend to use a whiteboard for certain universal things in-session. There are personal documents (typically character sheets) and group documents (maps, visual aids, etc). At a minimum, these games create a shared experience.

    The end result is a story. A story that could never have come about exactly the same way without the specific, unique individuals around the table.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      A board meeting, minus the negative connotations.

      Defining with the negative is, to me, a cardinal sin. I’ve found such explanations to be actively detrimental.

      – Ryan

  17. Andy says:

    Say “Here, I’ll show you.”

    Give them 2d6.

    Ask them if they want to be a wizard or a fighter. Alternately, pick a different genre and offer according options, such as a noir game where they can be a detective or a thug, or a swashbuckling game where they can be a musketeer or a pirate. Tailor it to whatever genre they happen to like. Superheroes might not be a bad idea.

    Regardless, here’s what you do: use the Apocalypse World engine. If they roll 10+ when trying to do something, it happens and they get to follow it up. If they roll 7-9, it happens but the situation complicates and they have to address the new development. If they roll 6-, they get hit with something bad, even if they succeed.

    Whenever they’re trying to do something that their chosen archetype is particularly good at, they get a +2 to their roll.

    I think you could get some mileage out of that one, if they have ten minutes to sit down and try it out. (You could also alternately use Roll to Dodge: http://rpgcode.ultimaterpg.org/t3-roll-to-dodge-rules )

    Of course, I’ve never tried this out on someone. So it might not work.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      The one danger of this that I see is of boring them by picking the wrong genre, so I would start with a conversation about the media they like. If fantasy isn’t their thing, gotta switch it up.

      However, that starts to fall into the “not describing” thing. That might work in the situation I was in, but it wouldn’t work at a party where someone asks and is curious, or on a plane and I don’t have dice, or what not. And it’s only a slice of the experience that does not focus on the most important part: the group aspect.

      Or maybe that’s just the most important part to me.

      All said, it’s an approach that could work.

      – Ryan

    • Thomas D says:

      “The one danger of this that I see is of boring them by picking the wrong genre”

      Then you have them pick it. “Hey, what movie did you recently see that you liked? Avengers? Okay, cool, you’re Iron Man…”

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Hence “so I would start with a conversation about the media they like.” :)

      – Ryan

  18. John Powell says:

    Lugh hit it out of the park.

  19. Roleplaying games are improvisational acting in a continuing storyline in a specific setting with agreed upon rules. It’s like “Cowboys and Indians” for grown ups. We each have a character sheet that tells us what we can do. The game master is the person running the story. We use different kinds of dice to add an element of chance and suspense.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      The problem is that I then have to rely on an understand of “improvisational”, explain that it’s not actually “acting”, and open up another whole can of worms. It’s a longer form of the “improv with dice” explanation — only useful to someone who already gets the fundamentals.

      – Ryan

  20. I’m trying to remember what I’ve said in the past. Dunno. I think I’ve usually been functioning within the context of explaining a particular game.

    Anyways, I’d probably say, “It’s rules for playing make-believe with your friends.”

    “But what does that look like, Seth?”

    “Well, that obviously depends on the game, but generally, it looks a group of people sitting around a table, pretending to be characters in a story.”

    At this point, get a genre that the audience is familiar with and I’m familiar with. Use this to sketch out a brief imaginary exchange at the table. Let’s say that we’re using cop shows.

    “Right, so you and I are in this cop roleplaying game. Like, End of Watch, right? So, your character and my character are partners, and we’re about to take a door in South Central L.A. So I might say, ‘Careful when we go in, partner. Remember what happened last time?’ Because that’s what my character said to your character. Then you say, ‘I just flip you off.’ Because that’s what your character did.” And I spin it out maybe one or two more exchanges, and that be that.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Right, and I’m normally also functioning within the context of a particular game. Often as a prelude to actual demonstration or play.

      I was honestly blindsided because he asked me while I was making dinner on the stove, and I had nothing that was useful.

      – Ryan

    • Plus, well, dinner! :-)

  21. James Brown says:

    To build on what some other folks have said:

    “Oh wow. Trying to describe tabletop RPGs in one go is like trying to describe all sports in one go, or all computer games. There’s just such a huge variety.

    Here’s one game I worked on that I like: ____________ ”

    Then describe what that one game looks like. Reference its similarities and differences (as OssianGrr did) back to what your new roommate knows: cRPGs.

    I agree that trying to encapsulate it all succinctly is a fool’s errand.


  22. Daniel says:

    I recently had the opportunity to try answering this question over a few days at a non-roleplaying convention. This gave me exposure to lots of people with no idea about roleplaying but with a few minutes on their hands.

    I experimented by using many of the different ways guests have suggested on Penny Red (hear the proprietor of this fine ‘blog’s answer on Episode 30).

    Over that weekend the strategy that was most successful for me used two parts and was heavily influenced by Vincent Baker’s Otherkind system and the description of its use by Lenny Balsera (Episode 16):

    The first part was laying out a scenario involving a woodcutter a princess and two kingdoms at war. He loves her, she loves him, she’s to marry the prince of the neighboring kingdom uniting them and ending the war. I tried to paint a picture of each character which was important for later.

    It was a familiar scenario, the characters were relatable, the themes were as old as anything, or put another way; the scenario had no barrier to understanding and no components that needed to be explained.

    I then said something like “it’s the night before the wedding and even though you promised each other that for the good of the kingdoms you wouldn’t be together your love isn’t to be denied.

    So, in essence, the set up was two characters, two conflicts, no good solution.

    I then said, “OK so what are you going to do?” I tried not to paint the person I was talking to as either character in the scenario that way they would describe things from the perspective of the character they identified with.

    After some description I’d ask some questions like, “What could go wrong?” “What’s something good that could happen?” “How would that work.”

    The second part, was boiling down their outcomes to three mutually possible events, each with a clear downside like: We get clean away: during the “rescue”: someone gets hurt, Our king/my father cancels the marriage: he guards me/her and then forces the marriage, the prince discovers the escape and refuses to marry: he supports their escape because he has a lover of his own.

    I then pulled out three coins, shook them in my hand, covered them up and said “ok for every head, one upside happens for every tail the downside happens but you get to choose which coin goes with which outcome.”

    I then shook the coins, revealed and them and then described how the story played out based on where they allocated the results. The thing was though that because a completely positive outcome is not possible it always gave a messy but narratively satisfying conclusion.

    I found this was pretty effective at showing an example of interactive fiction while also showing what part “the funny dice” had to play.

    Did it translate to sales, not often, but almost invariably I got to see the “ahh” moment as they got it which is always cool to see.

    Now, I got to try this a lot so maybe it was just the practice but that’s my answer.

  23. Johnstone says:

    We sit around and we have a conversation about some fictional characters in a fictional setting. Sometimes we try to see things from the perspective of one of these characters and we decide what they do or we say their dialogue, which we just make up on the fly. Mostly we just talk back and forth about this fictional stuff. These books we have are like our version of Robert’s Rules of Order, because they have rules in them. They give us specific things to talk about and a specific way to do that, so it’s a lot more structured than an ordinary conversation. More like a game.

    Sometimes we roll dice, play cards, draw things, or play with dolls. This is all part of the rules we have for the conversation. We borrow stuff from other tabletop games all the time, but the fictional characters in their fictional setting is always the most important thing.

    Sometimes we drink Mountain Dew and eat Cheetos. This is just part of hanging out and enjoying each others’ company. It has nothing to do with playing role-playing games.

  24. EZ says:

    I couldn’t explain it to some people at work who WERE familiar with D&D. They could not grasp the idea that you would have a RPG where you didn’t have stats for strength and weapon lists. After playing a session of In A Wicked Age and then Jackson Tengu’s Microscope hack, they were like “Holy shit, what was that?”

    Another time I tried explaining Fiasco to someone only familiar with consoles, and he said “How is it a game, and not improv?” I think I explained it eventually, but there was some bewilderment.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Core to that last bit is that people don’t see improv games as “real games.” False, but still a problem that persists.

      – Ryan

    • EZ says:

      Yeah. I’m not even sure if he was thinking of improv games, but just improv acting. I didn’t even know improv had games despite watching “Who’s Line” for years.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That’s part of the issue I have with likening it to improv — people don’t, in general, actually understand improv.

      – Ryan

  25. misuba says:

    I often find myself giving them the two-minute version of the medium’s history. “Dudes were playing medieval wargames, then they went to modeling individual fighters instead of squads, then they started weaving a kind of LotR-inspired wrapper story around their encounters and tracking changes to their guys over time. Before long they were taking the referee player, who would also move the monsters and opposition figures around, and calling them the Dungeon Master. And some of them started taking the opportunity to make stuff up as an invitation to leave the combat-gamey stuff behind almost altogether, and just talk about what these characters were doing, using the DM as the arbiter of how the world responded.”

    I think that to the degree this works, it works because the defining works of the medium were accreted more than designed.

  26. DainXB says:

    I’ve answered that question in the past by essentially giving an ‘instant demo’, kind of like Lugh’s explanation above. I’ve never done this with someone who had a background in CRPGs, though, so I don’t know if that would be as easy.

    I tell the other person that I’ll show them what it’s like, and ask “What’s your favorite action movie?” (I specify the action genre because that’s easier to work with on the fly, and I’m hoping against all hope that I’ll get ‘Raiders’ or ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Die Hard’ or something else I’ve seen.)

    Then I grab an iconic scene from the movie, and tell the other person that they get to play the main character, and decide how the character acts and reacts. “Not all games work exactly like this, but a lot of them do. I play the rest of the world, basically: It’s my job to come up with challenging situations for your character. What do you do?”

    If they get it, and describe something, cool. A lot of the time, they’ll describe what the lead did in the movie, though. “Most games use dice or cards or some other randomizer to figure out if your character is successful at something, and maybe your character has some numbers attached to show that he or she is really good at certain things, and really bad at other things.” I give an example from the movie we’re using; “Indiana Jones is an expert Archaeologist, and pretty good at using a whip, but he’s afraid of snakes and pretty lousy at relationships with women.” “Luke Skywalker’s an excellent pilot, and the Force is strong with him, but he’s a hick from the backside of nowhere and wet behind the ears besides.”

    “If we had a rulebook and dice or something, this is where we’d consult them. I’ll just flip a coin instead, for this demo.” If the other person was basically following the movie script, I’ll try to deviate, so that they’re facing a different situation than in the movie. My ‘demo rules’ are that actions don’t just fail when they fail, they create complications and other trouble. I’ll let it go back and forth for a couple of actions, and end on a high point that’s also a cliffhanger. (Always leave ’em wanting more. :) )

    “In a real game, there’d be other people playing other characters for you to interact with. Most RPGs are about more than just one primary character; think ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ or ‘The Dirty Dozen’. The situation isn’t scripted out like a movie, the story you tell can go in any direction that seems interesting to everybody.”

    For what it’s worth, I’ve never had anybody completely *not* get it, using this method.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Again, not always in the position of giving an instant demo. I’ve got to start treating such answers as dodging my core question.

      – Ryan

  27. EZ says:

    Hmm, how about this.

    Almost everyone can tell stories. Almost everyone can run. There are different capabilities and interest levels in these activities.

    Add rules to running and you turn it into something that interests many more people. You don’t just get track and field events, you can get football, basketball, baseball, cricket, tag, hide and seek. Even golf if you are flexible in your definition of running. Many of these games require some extra equipment to play, like balls and markers on a field. If you expand your concept to things like golf, tennis, or tetherball, you can see there’s not just a huge variety but sometimes running isn’t important to playing at all.

    Roleplaying games add rules to telling stories. Rules like who can tell which parts of the story and how. Often these games require additional equipment, like paper or dice or cards. Like sports, there’s a huge variety to be found. Sometimes it’s more about the rules and equipment to make it fun. Some you can play without any equipment. Or like shooting hoops, you might decide how you’ll play depending on who shows up using the same equipment and basic rules.

  28. DainXB says:

    It was not my intent to dodge the question, so here’s my try at an answer not using the ‘instant demo’ strategy:

    “Roleplaying games are a group activity about telling stories, or at least generating a narrative. Gamers get together with friends and solve fictional problems that confront the characters they portray. The game rules control what can and can’t happen in the story, and help determine the success or failure of the actions attempted by the characters. There’s usually some chance involved, so we use cards or dice, even dice with unusual numbers of sides, to provide randomness. There are games where one player ‘plays the setting’ and provides challenges for the other players, and games where that job is shared amongst the group. There are games set in just about any genre of fiction you can imagine, but action and fantasy are the most popular.”

    “What does it look like? A lot like a typical party game; a bunch of people sitting around talking and having fun. Depending on the game being played, the ‘board’ might be hand-drawn, or there might not be a ‘board’ at all. Characters might be represented by fancy painted miniature figures, or simple tokens, or just by imagination. Everyone gets a chance to say what their character does, and to influence the story that develops. The fun comes from exploring the setting, seeing your character grow and change, and being part of an interesting story.”

    The perfect explanation should probably be no more than six sentences. I’ve obviously failed at that goal, but it’s hard to cover the breadth of the RPG hobby in something you can say all in one breath.

  29. Doug H says:

    Particularly with a video game player, I would just say that we play roleplaying games, but we play them in person with friends, like a board game or poker. Instead of whatever engine the video game uses, we use dice or other rules to figure out what happens. I’d probably have to go from there, but I find that the connection between video games and tabletop RPGs is relatively intuitive, as long as the person understands other tabletop games as a point of reference.

  30. Simon says:

    Going from the “what does it look like” after the trite description:

    For many (but not all) of these games one of the players takes a role that has similarities with a film maker. That player is responsible for defining the plot of the story that is being created.

    The other players typically play a character. Using the film analogy they are actors playing roles, but unlike actors they make choices as to their character’s actions.

    Most of these games use a randomizer like dice to determine the outcomes of the actions players have their characters take, and for many of these games, the player’s characters have a collection of abilities and options that help differentiate their character from others.

    These games can take a little as a few hours to tell a short story and can run as long as the players are willing to go. Some groups will play the same ongoing story for years on end, meeting on a regular basis for 3-6 hour session.

  31. Jared Nelson says:

    I just like to describe the hobby as “collaborative storytelling”. It’s high level enough to avoid drowning people in particulars and enough of an opener to draw someone’s interest…most of the time anyway. If they want to know more then I explain how the game also includes things like dice/maps, etc.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Given what I outlined as the problem, that’s not an answer. Let’s stick to real answers, folks.

      – Ryan

  32. 3Jane says:

    Recently there was an effort to create a FAQ/beginner’s guide on one forum I participate in (UK Roleplayers), you may be able to get something good out of it:


    And here’s a pitch I prepared to advertise Lady Blackbird. It concentrates on WHY you would play such a game, assuming that people would drop by, watch for 5 minutes and see for themselves how it works:


  33. Chuck Cooley says:

    My answer is pretty close to the one by Lord Danger. Once when I was asked about my hobby by a grey-haired but open-minded lady, I said (regarding my usual role as GM): “I invent interactive stories for my friends. They invent the characters that will be in the stories, and I think up obstacles to put in their path. When the story reaches a point where an outcome is uncertain, we roll dice to see what happens.”

    She acted is she got it and as if she thought it could be an interesting and worthwhile passtime. If she had said, “But what does that look like?” I would have said something like, “We get together one a month, for several hours. We gather around my dining room table, each with some dice, some notepaper, and a pencil. I describe the current situation the characters are in, and ask one of them ‘What do you do next?'”

    I realize my answer isn’t all-inclusive, but it worked for me, on more than one occasion.

  34. JDCorley says:

    I’ve done this a million times, stand aside noobs.

    “So what kind of games are these? Video games?”

    “No…they’re story games. Basically the game provides us a structure for working out what happens inside a story. Take the Avengers, what was your favorite part?”

    “When the Hulk gets loose on the Helicarrier and the red headed girl…”


    “Yeah, Natasha, when she has to get away from him.”

    “That was badass, okay, remember that part where she was running down that narrow hallway and he was smashing through everything?”

    “Yeah, that was awesome.”

    “Okay, let’s say that instead of running down that hallway she ends up in a really confined dead end. And she’s got like five seconds before he comes smashing in. What might happen then?”

    “Uh…She could hide, like on the roof or something.”

    “Awesome, so she hides on the roof and the Hulk comes in all confused. He’s so big his head is inches from her stomach as she presses herself up on the roof. You got what that would look like in the movie, right?”

    “Oh yeah!”

    “And the game part would tell us whether she would successfully evade him or whether he’d spot her and try to smash her through the roof, or if something else would happen.”

    “That sounds cool, JDCorley, now I’m a gamer and want to argue with you on the Internet!”

  35. Leonard Balsera says:

    I’m late to this party, but what I do is take four coins out and play a quick two-person game of Otherkind Dice with them.

    “Okay, so let me show you. Imagine you’re a princess.” (I always go with princesses. Always.)

    “You’re in love with a whiz-bang guy/gal. Except that isn’t who you’re engaged to. Tell me what it is about the fiancee that you can’t stand.”

    (Play the preferred suitor as the opposite of whatever’s said.)

    “One night, the suitor shows up at your window and wants to run away with you! He says there’s a priest in the next town willing to marry the two of you! Do you go? How do you get out of the castle? What might go wrong?”

    (Then throw the coins and keep the conversation moving forward from the outcome, until you need to throw coins again or you reach a natural lull. Then say, “I make games that work like this, except there’s a wide variety of designs with different features,” blah dee blah.)