Many outsiders have interesting ideas as to what role-playing games are. To some, they are engaging in a gateway activity to the dark arts (little to no truth to that). Others see the games as impenetrable activities being played by oddball games speaking a language no one else can underst4and (okay, there’s a little more truth to that one). But let me life the curtain and tell you what role-playing games really are: simply put, role-playing games are improvisational acting with pen (or pencil), paper, and dice.
This is actually an oversimplification, though it’s very close. Sometimes cards are used instead of dice (for simplicity sake dice with be used below to encompass cards and any other way of determining outcomes). Not everyone getting fully into their character (more on this in a moment). And some computer games are also called role-playing games; in the latter case I would argue they’re a different form of game entirely, though they do draw on elements from fantasy role-playing games such as character statistics; they have their appeal but are beyond the scope of this discussion.
Basically with the type of role-playing games we’re talking about, all players (except one) play a single character, and the remaining character presents the scenario and plays all necessary characters except those played by the other players; we’ll call this player the Games Master, though Dungeon Master, Judge etc. mean the same thing. The players interact with each other, with the fantasy environment, and with the Game Master’s player. This much, again, is improvisational acting, `thinking on the spot what your character does. Kids call this make-believe, but since the Game Master has something resembling a script (at least s/he should), improvisational acting is a slightly better term. Like the movie Best in Show, the script is there as a framework, but the players are largely free to do their own thing as long as it’s within character.
Now some players don’t really get much into character. If, say, they’re playing Thor, they might say “Thor questions the civilian” whereas someone more into their character might say, “Halt, yon mortal. The Mighty Thor would have words with thee!” In the former case, well, okay, they’re not doing a very good acting job, but at least they’re taking some aspect of the script that the Games Master has shared with them and making a decision accordingly. It’s still on the outer edges of improvisational acting.
Where dice come in is where an action has a chance of failing. Most movies don’t really worry about that if they use this kind of acting; it’s more bouncing dialogue off one another there. With role-playing games though the characters (not usually the actors, though we’ll get more into this in a moment) are often presented with situations where they could succeed or fail. Dice are rolled and the results are compared with they characters’ statistics (how smart they are, how good a fighter they are, etc.) to determine how successful they are at what they are trying to do (or what they could potentially notice, etc.) Sometimes the player roles the nice, sometimes the Games Master does do behind a screen (because they know something the players don’t), and of course the Games Master roles the dice to determine actions taken against the player’s character. Regardless, the Game Master tells the player the outcome of their action based on the dice roll and the player will usually get another chance to respond to this outcome unless the character is killed or incapacitated (meanwhile the player playing the character is probably sitting down with everyone else in front of a table).
Dress? Well, that’s usually a lot more casual then characters in movies wear. Oh sure, role-players are often depicted in cartoons wearing robes and hats and the like but really most just wear their regular clothes to the game sessions. Most of the acting is just done verbally. I’m sure some do dress up, but in my experience most don’t. As long as they’re consistent in they’re role-playing it’s not hard to visualize who’s playing which character.
But ah, I hear some of you wondering about those players who wander around from room to room and go into sewers and the like; isn’t that the real evil of role-playing games, that you get that lost into your character? I've never met any of those types myself but I’ll give you my take on that anyway. First off, are they still using dice? If not I would argue that they’ve stopped playing a game that uses improvisational acting and are just improvisational acting by itself. That is, they’re role-playing but no longer playing a role-playing game. Straight acting with no camera or an audience, at least not an intended audience. If they are still rolling dice, well that’s probably a good thing because that provides some mechanics to sometimes disrupt the illusion. Frankly if a group starts dressing up and wandering into the sewers (even if they’re still rolling dice) even your typical role-playing gamer is going to think they’re a bit strange. It’s simply not normal behaviour for people playing these games. Among those who do dress up, wander around, wander into sewers, look at it this way: some actors in a TV series or movie go in and out of character pretty easily, but others, the so-called method actors stay close to character even between takes. As long as they can eventually shut off the character, it’s probably okay. I’d guess that the amount of danger for the type of role-playing game players who dress up and go mobile are comparable to having a group of method actors together. Some risk sure, but only if the player gets hopelessly lost in their character. The Game Master, who normally plays multiple characters and frequently breaks character to discuss a scene or game mechanics, should be able to pick up on aberrant player behaviour like a director would a regular actor. But again, usually players just stay sitting most of the time (and often forget to even stretch) and I only mention the extreme group just to puncture the stereotype.
In a nutshell, a group of novice actors sitting at a table using pen, paper, and dice to determine the outcome of their characters’ actions … that’s all role-playing games really are, generally speaking.