Role-play - To assume or act out a particular role. (This according to dictionary.com)
We have all role-played some time or other in our life. Lets take the Cops and Robbers example. Most of us used to play this game as kids. One group would be the robbers and another group would be the cops. We usually set up the stage of a bank robbery and role-played as if we where actually in a bank branch. We used our fingers as guns, and a bandana usually was the prop for the robber. We would run around the yard role-playing the great car chase. The classic argument of this game was "I shot you!" "No you didn't." This is where a role-playing game and general role-play are different. So, what is a role-playing game?
A role-playing game is a game in which one assumes and acts out the role of a fictional character, defined within the limits of certain game rules and guidelines. Ok, how does this apply to our cops and robbers example? If the "Yes I did, no you didn't" argument arises, the two 'players' would flip a coin, if the winner was the person playing the cop, then he would have indeed shot the robber, if the winner was the robber, then the cop would have missed. This small rule puts to rest that classic argument and keeps the cops and robbers game running smoothly.
A more in-depth view of Role-playing games can be drawn from Greg Stafford's view (designer for Atlas Games) that role-playing is much like an "Improvisational radio theater." It is this interactive story telling, or story creation that makes role-playing so appealing to so many people.
It is much like theater in that the players take on the roles of people in the "play." They create identities for those characters, give them personality, and give them their own distinct voice and mannerisms. Player-characters interact with each other in the game as if on the stage of a play. The events of the story unfold as the characters play their respective roles in the game.
Role-playing is much like a radio drama in that there are (most of the time) no props, no real stage setting, and no visual representation of character. Most role-playing games are played around a table, actions being spoken verbally amongst the players. It is these descriptions of actions that bring the characters to life in the setting of the game. No matter what the characters are doing, saying, or reacting to, it is all done verbally. Players can even knock on the table, make walking noises, or the noise of a squeaky door as was done in the radio dramas of old.
Improvisation is a big part of role-playing because nothing is ever set in stone, save the rules of the game. The story is fluid and ever changing. What the players do in the game will determine the outcome of the story. What your character says and does can and will affect the game world. The character's actions are only limited by the imagination. There is no set script or dialog to follow. This makes role-playing quite interesting as the players never know what one another are going to do or say. This improvisation helps to suspend disbelief and draw the player deeper into the game and make it much more satisfying.
In most role-playing games, players may only play one character at a time. Characters are often so complex that a player only wants to play one character, spending his/her time developing the character. The game-master is one player with different kind of role. He acts as the rules referee and also weaves the characters actions into a story. The Game-master is often called upon to play the none-player characters (NPCs) that the players meet. He creates the settings, give detailed descriptions of what the characters see and hear, the GM can even control the weather. He/she becomes the hub that the players focus their play. The players are dependant on the Game-master for an entertaining story and a fulfilling gaming experience, while keeping play fair by adhering to and arbitrating the rules. As you may of guessed the Game-master has the most demanding job.
All these elements come together to create a game. The drama of unseen radio, the improvisation that allows you to act at will, and the character interaction of the theater, players and game-master use all these elements to create a role-playing experience. These basics and fundamentals are behind all of today's leading RPG's: Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, Star Wars RPG, Vampire: the Masquerade, Fading Suns, Shadowrun, and GURPS.
While this is the description of "classic" pen and paper RPG's, in recent years, two other forms of role-playing have become more popular. One is Live Action Role Playing aka LARP. This form of role-playing does bring props, stage settings, and costumes into play. The players literally assume the identity of their characters and act out the actions as if they were their characters. All the basic elements are still present in this form of role-playing, with the exception that what the player sees and hears is what the player sees and hears.
The other form of role-playing is now being done over the computer, via the Internet. This is quickly gaining popularity among the role-playing community as players and game-masters can interact with one another without leaving their own homes. Actions and settings are typed out on the screen and interpreted into the game world by a game-master at his computer. As with both pen and paper RPG's and LARP, all the basic elements of role-playing are present.
No matter how you play, role-playing can be a fun and rewarding experience. Go and check out one of the local hobby and comic shops in your area or contact me to inquire more about role-playing. The people working at the stores or I are knowledgeable and will gladly answer any questions you might have. Many stores run demonstrations of role-playing on weekends, if you are in the San Diego area of Southern California and want to be part of a game that Scienceficiton.com is running, please contact me or stop by Titan Games and Comics (12222 Poway Rd #13) in Poway California every first and third Saturday of the month between 2 and 7.