Tabletop Role-playing – What is it?

By: Reader Submissions

20th January 2014

I’ve been involved in role-playing for nigh on twenty years now, and in that time I’ve experienced a wealth of systems, style and interpretations of the hobby. My exposure to it is such that I take for granted the fact that the majority of people I interact with daily don’t understand my particular interest, and even those that do know roughly what it is, probably only grasp the basic idea. So, as is so often the case, let us start at the beginning and answer the question…

What is role-playing?


Photo credit: Brandi Miller Art

The question itself isn’t that simple, as role-playing now covers several styles in and of itself; tabletop, live action and the genre of video game, being the main offenders. For the purposes of this article I’m going to be looking at tabletop role-playing. It’s my personal favourite and the one that springs to mind with most people.

At its simplest tabletop role-playing is sitting around a table (that bit’s given away in the name, we’re a creative bunch) with a handful of people, assuming the role of a character(s) in a fictional setting and playing out those parts. While technically true, I don’t feel that this truly encapsulates what role-playing is.

For me, role-playing is a chance to get together with a group of individuals and work together to create a memorable story. While role-playing is often suffixed by the word ‘game’, there aren’t really winners and losers like there are in traditional games (despite some role-players thinking otherwise) instead everyone is gathered together to create a communal story, crafting it as they go, usually using a common rule-set. It’s an odd amalgamation of improve-acting and a board game. Typically, there are a handful of elements that combine to make a tabletop role-playing game. Understanding these elements gives you a better idea of what the experience is like.

The Rule-set

Most conventional role-playing games follow a rule-set, typically found in a collection of rulebooks. Just like the rulebooks found in board games (although sometimes reading more like the instruction pamphlets from IKEA) these explain how the game works mechanically. However, they often include examples of how games typically play out and often explain what role-playing games are (sound familiar?)

The Setting

The group will usually decide what the setting of the game will be. Sometimes this will be a relatively unknown setting that relates to the rules, for example, the Pathfinder Role-playing Game assumes you’re playing your game in the eclectic fantasy world of Golarion, created specifically for Pathfinder. Sometimes it will be a well established setting from another media, like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars (perhaps even taking on the roles of iconic characters.) In particularly ambitious games it may be an entire world created by the person running the game!

The Games Master

Known by many names (dungeon master, storyteller, narrator etc.) the games master is usually one player who has the honour (read: burden) of refereeing the rules and setting the stage that the game is played upon. Typically the games master comes up with the stories that the other players will embark on, ensures that they are following the rules and most importantly controls everything they encounter. The games master (often abbreviated to GM) controls the enemies and monsters they face, represents the other characters (known as non-player characters/NPCs) they interact with and explain the outcome of their actions and the events that unfold around them. In short, the GM is god. Literally. He’s the boss.

The Characters


Image credit: zazb

Everyone involved in the game, that isn’t the GM, plays the part of one of the main characters. These are the heroes of the story, the Luke Skywalker and Frodo Baggins of your role-play. Sometimes the players may be playing established characters in the setting (such a Frodo and Luke, but probably not together… as cool as that could be) or they may decide to make their own characters within the setting and tell their story. I must admit making my own character is my personal preference, but to each their own.

The players then act out their character’s parts in the setting, but they don’t follow a script, instead they decide how they act and what they say. This is all within the scope of the setting and the rule-set being used. In a superhero role-play it’s well within the setting and rules that the characters may be able to hurl cars at giant robots, but in a horror setting a character may struggle to fend off a single zombie. Setting and rules have a huge impact on what the character is capable of, but within those capabilities it’s the player’s decision how that character acts. Will they be a shining knight, an untrustworthy mercenary or comical entertainer? These decisions are the players to make and the GMs to interpret. When a fight erupts or a character needs to perform one of their skills, they will make a test to see if that action is successful and how successful. This is where the rules come in, usually for resolving challenges and resolving conflicts. While the GM is god, the players are the main characters of the story.


This may seem out of place and abstract, but in my opinion cooperation is one of the most important, yet often overlooked elements of the role-playing experience. As I said earlier, there are no winners and losers in role-playing, everyone should be working together to build great characters within a great story, that way, everyone wins. Sure, the GM is god, but if he makes the character’s lives utterly miserable, they’ll stop playing. The GM should cooperate with his players to ensure that even if something miserable is happening to their character, it’s all part of a greater story. By the same token, the players should cooperate with each other to overcome the obstacles the GM throws at them and to build a great group of characters. One common habit in a lot of role-playing games is a Players Vs GM mentality. Some people like this style, but I personally think it’s counter productive. A good GM will do his best to ensure his players have a good time, but if the players throw their successes and all round ‘awesomeness’ in the GMs face, he’s not going to have a good time. If everyone is working towards the same goal (a great story, in case you’ve missed that) they’ll get there sooner!

Combined, the above elements are at the heart of what role-playing, especially tabletop role-playing is. Once you’ve got all these, you’ve got the makings a solid role-playing game. But the best way to learn what role-playing is all about is to give it a go. There are plenty of ways to ease yourself into tabletop role-playing, but that’s an article for another day.

I hope this has given you a better idea what role-playing is, and hopefully piqued your interest in giving it a go, if you haven’t already. If you’ve got any questions about role-playing, feel free to post them below and I’ll answer them as best I can.


By Thomas Mannering.


Photo credits: Brandi Miller Art, zazb