learning how to role play

edited April 2008 in Story Games
I was flipping through a game the other day, reading the "What is an RPG and How to Play This Game" section, and I started to wonder, how often does anyone actually pick up a role playing game without ever having played a game before? Why does every game on the planet feel the need to start off defining “what is role-playing”? Does anyone actually pick up one of these books without a basic understanding of the framework of a role playing game?

When dealing with a hobby as dependent on its social dynamics as role playing, is it even possible to actually learn how to play a role playing game from the book alone, without exposure to the meta-culture that surrounds gaming at large?

I would be very curious to see what would happen if you took four people who had never played a role playing game in their lives, gave them a rule book and a handful of dice, and asked them to “figure it out.”

Comments

  • edited April 2008
    Anecdotally, people do learn in isolation. My favorite example of that is a group of homeless people, teens and young adults, who picked up a copy of Mage at a library book sale here in Durham and were playing at the shelter (they don't come into the library any more so I don't know what their status is; hopefully the Technocracy didn't kick their asses).
  • Posted By: JacobWhen dealing with a hobby as dependent on its social dynamics as role playing, is it even possible to actually learn how to play a role playing game from the book alone, without exposure to the meta-culture that surrounds gaming at large?
    That's how me and my buddies learned. Basic set, 1984.
    Posted By: JacobI would be very curious to see what would happen if you took four people who had never played a role playing game in their lives, gave them a rule book and a handful of dice, and asked them to “figure it out.”
    In our case, a year-long campaign. The first of many.

    I don't have anything other than anecdotal evidence, but I know lots of people that got into gaming because they heard it was cool, so they bought a book and some dice. No one knew how to play, so they just read the rules.
  • edited April 2008
    I would love it if more games had a "How to play this game" section. Preferably instead of a "What is a role-playing game" section.

    I don't see Parker Brothers/Hasbro publishing rules about "How is Monopoly not like Chess" or Milton Bradley/Avalon Hill/WotC/Hasbro publishing rules about "How does Axis and Allies differ from Monopoly" or WotC/Hasbro publishing rules about "What does Basic D&D do that Axis and Allies don't" (ouch!). None of them tries to define what a "board game" is. Why do RPGs insist on defining what an RPG is and is not?

    What I do want to see is line-by-line play examples, explaining to the reader exactly what the game focuses on and how you get there.
  • To the OP: yeah, that would be me. I have just recently bought a few books to learn how to play. I am big into euro style boardgames but have never played a role playing game before.
  • edited April 2008
    Wow! I had no idea. I had imagined this vast network/daisy-chain of gamers teaching newbies the hobby, stretching back to the 70s.

    That story about the Mage game sounds profoundly awesome.
  • Exactly what Mikael said.


    My first experience game mastering was a little Finnish rpg called Miekka ja magia. The instructions were clear enough: Make a dungeon, put monsters inside, some of them have specific story purpose or are very strong so use with care. That's what I did. There actually was an easy way through it, but of course the players took another road. That day I learned to not plan ahead and hence to not railroad.

    I may or may not have a played a little before that. The memory is hazy. Nothing official, though, except maybe for ADOM, which really doesn't count.
  • Posted By: lachekI would love it if more games had a "How to playthisgame" section. Preferably instead of a "What is a role-playing game" section.
    Exactly. It's misleading for any book to claim "this is what roleplaying is." It's telling that several individuals I know who have decades of experience in some RPGs are dumbfounded at others.

    And yet, I find that "noobs" instinctually know "how to play" when I've introduced them to the hobbies. It's the people who come in with fewer assumptions that tend to be easiest to teach. What they're most confused about (or more likely, fearful of) is being the person in the group who doesn't know all the rules as well. Even then, most of the time, they learn more quickly than they think.

    These sections in books aren't trying to teach the fine points of any system; they're trying to define their version of a concept whose core ideas are already generally understood. "How to roleplay in this game" is definitely more appropriate for these sections.
  • edited April 2008
    Just chiming in with the others here. When I was learning role-playing, I and my friend Eric knew that his older brother played D&D (that was part of what made it cool), but we never played with him. When I finally got my hands on the books, it was learning from what was written.

    In my opinion, too many games -- both indie and otherwise -- rely on a lot of assumptions about how people play. They'll jump into using terms like "GM" and "NPC" or "3d4" without explanation, and tell you about how this game differs from other RPGs.

    There are a lot of simple steps to help explain, like having a picture of a filled-out character sheet -- as well as having quick-start options.
  • Let me chime in with one more anecdote.

    My introduction to roleplaying was Robotech: The Roleplaying Game by Palladium. It will come as no surprise to most of you that this book had me toiling in vain obscurity for several years. The main book contains pages and pages of stat tables and technical jargon -- which is awesome, for the tech-heavy sect of Robotech fandom... but not a single word on what one actually does at the table (except for a one-page 'Random Encounter Table'). No stories. No explanation of GM/Player roles and responsibilities. "Argh!" does it no justice whatsoever.

    If you are designing games, please at least make an attempt to introduce the basic premises of play to the n00bs. (Seconds what Mikael said.)
  • My first official roleplaying product was the Red Box, but I was familiar with the choose-your-own-adventure-type books for years. I don't think I understood that the game wasn't supposed to feel like that, and neither did my friends with whom I played. We were very quickly playing diceless freeform games as early at 1986. I wish I hadn't all but abandoned the hobby when I started playing guitar a few years later.
  • I've had a few games that have an introductory paragraph saying something like “If you don't know what a rpg is, you’ve chosen the wrong book. Put it back on the store shelve. This game won't teach you how to play rpg or what a rpg is.”

    It prevents mistakes, but I think it is a shame.
  • edited April 2008
    In Japan, Replays serve as an experience as close as possible to playing an RPG without actually playing it. In fact, since they're not doctored or anything (at least not wholesale), and they include actual human banter and the like, even pointing at places where the group gets sidetracked, or where someone says something funny on the side, etc... and since the replays are taken at sessions which are presumably fun and not mediocre, they serve as almost a blueprint for "what a successful RPG session looks like".

    Also, something like close to 20% of J-RPGers (based on a series of surveys conducted by the RPG manga artist Kanazawa Naoko) learned about the existence of RPGs, and fueled their interest, by stumbling upon a replay book at a library, book store, etc.

    -Andy
  • We've done this conversation before, but OK, I'll bite again

    I am part of the chain that goes back to Gygax and Arneson. Strangely, though I grew up less than an hour from them, the chain goes to California before it comes back to me in Milwaukee. The chain is an amazing octopus.

    Jacob, I think that your observation is, essentially, correct. That is whenever we talk about this, the annecdotes about the folks who did learn without instruction come out. But they're exceptions that, I think, proves the rule. Most people learn to play RPGs from people who know how to play RPGs.

    And, to that extent, I think that there's not much benefit to having "How to play RPGs" sections in games. For those who do see value in them, I'd ask them what is it? John, you know how to play RPGs, right? What's a section like that going to do for you?

    It seems to me that the only purpose these sections serve is to make the game theoretically more approachable to people outside of the hobby who want to give it a try. Again, while there's annecdotal evidence that this happens, what are the odds that the game they try first is going to be yours, and not D&D? I mean for an indie, the sales figures are tiny. What number of people are going to be those who come to your game out of the blue? What, they're going to walk into their FLGS, and pick your game up off the shelf from amongst all of those there?

    And, even if this miracle does happen, then what? They're going to open the book, see there's no section called, "How to Play RPGs" and not buy the book?

    No, worst case, they just can't figure out how to play, and the "loss" you get here is any viral sales that might have occured from actual play of the game.


    But that all assumes that the games are actually opaque. What's odd about every single "How to Play RPGs" section is that they don't tell you how to play RPGs. They give you analogies, and often bad ones at that. "It's cops and robbers, but with rules for when you shoot somebody." Read one of those sections... go ahead. Tell me now, just how does that section actually instruct anyone on how to play an RPG? Where are the procedures?

    What all such sections are boil down to self-conscious attempts to validate the hobby. Does Monopoly have a section labeled "What are boardgames?"

    I'd argue that, in fact, pretty much every RPG contains what you need to play it outside of that section. That is, let's say you are a newb, and you do pick up such a game... are you really not going to get what to do with it? I'll bet that for the people in the annecdotes above, that the "How to Play an RPG" section - if the game in question had one at all - had very little to do with them getting how to play, and what to do. Most of them figure out what to do just fine.

    OK, cue the few people who got an RPG sans training, and, in fact, did not get what it was about. Mostly I hear about this happening to people when they were kids. And, heck, these games read like textbooks, so I'm not surprised that some don't understand the procudures of play. And, again, how many of those games did, in fact, have the perfunctory "How do You Play an RPG?" section?

    I think that where failure occurs, that's a problem with describing the actual procedures of play. I think that what this begs is simply clearer rules. I mean... aren't the rules the answer to "how to play?"

    Oh, sure, if you want to include a section on actual technique, or something, I'm all for it (especially if it's supported by the mechanics). If what we're asking for here is what Mikael is talking about, "How to play THIS RPG" then I can hardly be against that. That's what the rules are, in my opinion.


    And all of this assumes that I want more people playing RPGs, and think that it's feasible by making the texts clearer. But, frankly I don't think we need more people playing RPGs. Rather most people who want to be playing RPGs are. For those that aren't, I can get them to play by showing them how. Call it solopsistic, but if they're playing, and I'm not involved, what do I care?

    So I already have a foolproof method for getting new folks in, should I want to do so. Though I don't have much need to do so. And really could get people to understand how to play from most texts anyhow, even if they don't have such a section.

    So... why would I tell a designer he needs to have one?

    Yes, your text should show how to play your RPG. No, it doesn't have to have any meta-text that enlightens anyone as to what the fun is all about.

    Mike
  • Posted By: Mike Holmes
    It seems to me that the only purpose these sections serve is to make the game theoretically more approachable to people outside of the hobby who want to give it a try. Again, while there's annecdotal evidence that this happens, what are the odds that the game they try first is going to be yours, and not D&D?
    100%, if these are, for example, my Christmas presents.

    Give me a short, easy to read rpg with a good "how to play this game" section that can be played in single session and it's fun even for people who don't worship Tolkien, and you have solved my Christmas "shopping for presents" problem. There is money in that, money that I have to spend elsewhere every year. Nobody wants my money here?

    What tell about our hobby, the facts that the forums are full of people moaning for a "way to interest people in playing with me", and the usual answer is "sorry, we don't have a product written for that"?

    (there are already some games written like that - for example, if I had to buy a present for someone who really like Le Carré and could read in English, I could buy him Spione - but they are few and are for people who already have a strong interest in something particular. Most interests aren't "covered")

    No, worst case, they just can't figure out how to play, and the "loss" you get here is any viral sales that might have occured from actual play of the game.
    .

    This happened to me, with a couple of Indie games. luckily, they weren't the first indie games I tried, and I could ask the game designer, afterwards, what they meant with what they wrote...

    But that all assumes that the games are actually opaque. What's odd about every single "How to Play RPGs" section is that they don't tell you how to play RPGs. They give you analogies, and often bad ones at that. "It's cops and robbers, but with rules for when you shoot somebody." Read one of those sections... go ahead. Tell me now, just how does that section actually instruct anyone on how to play an RPG? Where are the procedures?

    [...]

    I think that where failure occurs, that's a problem with describing the actual procedures of play. I think that what this begs is simply clearer rules. I mean... aren't the rules the answer to "how to play?"
    I agree, on this and all the rest of your post. I disagree only on the notion that there is almost no people who learn to play by reading the books. I think this is an EFFECT of the books we have now (that, really, in general don't do a good job of teaching how to play), not something that would be always true.
  • Posted By: AndyIn Japan,Replaysserve as an experience as close as possible to playing an RPG without actually playing it. In fact, since they're not doctored or anything (at least not wholesale), and they include actual human banter and the like, even pointing at places where the group gets sidetracked, or where someone says something funny on the side, etc... and since the replays are taken at sessions which are presumably fun and not mediocre, they serve as almost a blueprint for "what a successful RPG session looks like".

    -Andy
    Brilliant! I'd love it if we had annotated replays of some of these games.For instance: when a player or GM uses a specific technique or device it is pointed out and explained in a sidebar. Chess and Go are commonly taught using the technique of analyzing famous games, so why not RPGs?
  • Posted By: Mike HolmesAnd, to that extent, I think that there's not much benefit to having "How to play RPGs" sections in games. For those who do see value in them, I'd ask them what is it? John, you know how to play RPGs, right? What's a section like that going to do for you?
    If the RPG effectively explains how to play it, that means that I can give that RPG as a gift to someone who isn't already a gamer -- especially to kids like my nephews or the children of friends who are distant from me (as opposed to the handful that I role-play with locally). At present I don't do this, because other than the D&D Basic Set, I don't feel there are any current RPGs that adequately explain how to play.
    Posted By: Mike HolmesIt seems to me that the only purpose these sections serve is to make the game theoretically more approachable to people outside of the hobby who want to give it a try. Again, while there's annecdotal evidence that this happens, what are the odds that the game they try first is going to be yours, and not D&D? I mean for an indie, the sales figures are tiny. What number of people are going to be those who come to your game out of the blue? What, they're going to walk into their FLGS, and pick your game up off the shelf from amongst all of those there?
    The small sales of indie RPGs is irrelevant to what market they aim at. Yes, most people who start out RPGs for the first time will start with D&D. However, most people who already play RPGs will still play D&D or Vampire or GURPS, rather than a small-press and/or indie RPG. Since sales are small anyway and costs are low, even a few sales to non-role-players can make a big difference.
    Posted By: Mike HolmesYes, your text should show how to play your RPG. No, it doesn't have to have any meta-text that enlightens anyone as to what the fun is all about.
    '
    Well, duh. That's exactly what I said.
  • I had a few close encounters with roleplaying before really learning, the child of one of my parent's friends had a copy of Call of Cthulhu, I hung around a game of D&D at age 11 for an hour ... but really I learnt myself from a copy of D&D and most people I know learnt in something like the same way.

    "How to play [b]this[/b] game" is a great idea for the opening of any book, but it needn't be anything complex. A Fighting Fantasy game book is as unlike a paperback novel as anything you can imagine, but it only needs a page or two to tell you how to play it. I know we are very keen on complex techniques for play, and such things do exist and can be refined, but an RPG really shouldn't need more (or less) instructions than the average computer game.
  • edited April 2008
    I think you forget other parts of the world (where they do not speak English). Someone has to publish a first national-language RPG in a given country, doesn't it? And although there might be isolated groups of people playing foreign-language games, the first national RPG set brings thousands of people into the hobby - a lot of them just picking it up in a shop and then starting to play. (And that is also when a national RPG community actually comes into being.)

    So yes, I am one of those lone starters, picking up a bad Czech fantasy heartbreaker RPG in a fantasy bookstore in Bratislava in 1992-93. I think I brought maybe more than 15 people into the hobby (or at least provided their first RPG experience) throughout the years.
  • Posted By: Mike HolmesIf what we're asking for here is what Mikael is talking about, "How to play THIS RPG" then I can hardly be against that. That's what the rules are, in my opinion.
    Well... what are 'rules'? Is it:
    Tired characters have to roll 3d6, add the results, and score lower than 13 to stay awake.
    Or is it:
    The orc shaman casts a Sleep spell on Jocelyn. John (who plays Jocelyn) doesn't want her to fall asleep in the middle of combat. He must roll 3d6, adding the results, and scoring lower than 13 to stay awake.
    Or is it:
    GM: You hear the orc shaman mumbling to himself. The eyes on the wooden serpent's head cresting his gnarled staff starts emitting a hypnotic red pulsing light, and you feel sleepy. The screams of your companions are muffled as your eyelids get droopy...
    John: Screw that! I'm willing myself to stay awake, I can't abandon my friends now!
    GM: Okay, you want to try to stay awake? Roll these (3d6) and beat a 13.
    John: (rolls) Crap, a 15! Okay, well, you all see Jocelyn suddenly collapse onto the ground... she starts snoring loudly.
    There's the "rules", there's the "examples" and there's the line-by-line actual play example (or "Replay", but probably artificial to serve to illustrate a particular point). This last bit is what I'd like to see more of. I believe such examples could capture nuances of what the author intends to occur at the table which straight "rules" or abstract "examples" can't. With Great Power does a great job of this, especially by including "problem players" into the play example - it serves a comedic value, but more importantly primes the reader for what kind of problems can occur at the table and how to deal with them in the context of this game.

    "In the context of this game" is important - play examples should not show "what role-playing is" but "what role-playing in this game should probably be like". Elaborate characterization may be right for one game and not for another. Actor stance may be right for one game and not for another. Overtly justifying a character's actions may be right for one game and not for another. Regardless, I think it would be very informative and useful to read how the author of the game anticipates it being actually played by actual people for maximum effect.
  • edited April 2008
    Examples are great, too. Look at the topic of the thread. The question is whether or not we need a "What is roleplaying?" section in a book. Or a "How to Play this Game" section. I'd argue that "How to Play this Game" is, in fact, the rules of the game. I don't see a need for any description other than the procedures of play (examples being a method to elucidate such rules).

    What gets added, in the "What is Roleplaying" sections or "How to roleplay" is meta-text that tries to justify why RPGs are fun, or get people to wrap their heads around what's going to happen in play. And we all seem to agree that such text isn't all that important?

    The only real question is whether John is right, and RPGs as published don't provide clear enough guidelines to play. Which is odd, since there is all of that annecdotal evidence saying that one can figure it out. It almost sounds to me, John, like you're saying that the texts as they exist are something that you yourself could comprehend, but not something that you would expect other folks to get. You're smarter than they are, is that it?

    I'm sure you'll respond that, in fact, if you had started with only a copy of My Life with Master, as opposed to Basic D&D, that you'd have had no idea what to do. Yes?

    In any case, I'm not giving out RPGs as Christmas gifts (I think that would be like giving golf clubs to non-golfers), I don't get Christmas gifts for the people I would play with, just family. Again, if I need more gamers, I can make them.

    Does this mean that I'm not helping to maximize the market for indie RPGs? Let me let you in on something... I don't buy indie RPGs. Not unless I'm going to play them for certain. At home, with my home gaming groups. Meaning that even if I expect to play a game like In a Wicked Age at conventions like I did this last weekend, I'm going to count on somebody else having the book, and not purchase it.

    I don't think that Vincent would think me evil for feeling this way, either.

    Indie games aren't about being some mutual-support group that creates internal sales for each other that keeps us all afloat. Indeed it's really not about making money at all. That's a nice side-effect that makes it possible to create these games. So you'll pardon me if your (in my opinion misplaced) discomfort with the potential for Indie games to be given as Christmas gifts registers a big zero on my "Care-About-It-ometer."

    Again, that's not me at all saying that we can't improve on our delivery, there's always room for improvement, and we indies probably do have a long way to go... most of us are pretty new to this, you know. If all you're doing is exhorting us to have clearer texts, all I can say is, "We're trying as hard as we can!" And I think we're doing well enough for any reasonable purpose. Though, again, we can always do better.

    Any notion that we're making these games intentionally opaque is ridiculous. Which is what these arguments sometimes feel like they're coming down to.

    Mike
  • I wonder if part of the phenomenon is that it is really hard work to explain clearly and teach how to play a ("this") rpg.

    Also, Rpg books also have the problem that they try both to be an introductory text for people who are new to the game (in this optic they introduce a general outline then progressively refine the details) and a reference text for old timers (who seek a complete reference in one place when they look up something and don't care about introductory texts).

    For the record, most rpg I played, I learned from the rulebook alone, introducing it to my gaming group. Afterwards I sometimes played with other players (that seemed to have done the same on their side).
  • Making up sections for beginners is irrelevant if you are directing your sales to beginners.

    It might also be appropriate to consider whether a game-producer even has the wherewithal to create a game for beginners. As mentioned numerous times in numerous places, if you're going to make a game for beginners, you really kinda need to make it complete as well as familiar enough for a beginner to grasp.

    If you can't do that, it may not be worth the trouble to throw in Intro stuff at all. In fact, it might be worth skipping entirely.

    Beyond any "How to..." section be present, there's also the presentation of that info. To me that includes length and format. Are your instructions set up in a way that someone opening your game can go to them and figure out where to begin? Do you use a short amount of text, diagrams, whatever? How does your How-to section stack up, not against other RPGs, but against other games?

    Are you using Gamer-Jargon? Are you, personally, clear on just how much different RPGer expectations are versus the expectations of someone used to off-the-shelf, non-specialty store board and card games? Like " RPG X is awesome because you get to come back every week, again and again, and it never ends unless you want it to and nobody has to lose and there's no winner!!!!!" ( paraphrase courtesy of an over-sugared 11 year old komradebob, as remembered through the mist of the years).

    To a very real extent, your game's form is limited by the resources you have available, includng time, money, material, and markets.
  • edited April 2008
    Posted By: JacobI would be very curious to see what would happen if you took four people who had never played a role playing game in their lives, gave them a rule book and a handful of dice, and asked them to “figure it out.”
    I've seen this happen more times than I can count. I've even seen three different groups that invented RPGs on their own. I think that having someone that teaches you how to play is actually the odd case. You don't hear a lot of talk about this "silent majority" because they're not connected to any online or offline communities. They learned to play together and are not interested in playing with anyone else, sort of the way Mike Holmes talks about, but in reverse. And for them, those sections on How to Roleplay are pure gold.
  • edited April 2008
    Posted By: elmago79And for them, those sections on How to Roleplay are pure gold.
    And some of them buy new rpg uniquely for the GMing/playing counsels. (I've known people buying Ars Magica or Vampire for that.)
Sign In or Register to comment.