Muhlenberg Community Library

Role Playing


What Is a Role Playing Game?

A role playing game is quite simply a game of "let's pretend." When a six year old ties a towel around his neck and says he's Superman, that's role playing. In a role playing game, the players use their imaginations in the same way. A player might pretend he is a noble knight like Sir Galahad, or a wise wizard like Gandalf, or a brave hobbit like Bilbo Baggins. Role playing games also cover many genres— science fiction, super heroes and more— but the most popular remains classic fantasy, as inspired by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and others.

How Is It a Game?

Unlike "let's pretend," role playing games use rules to help the players determine what can and can't happen. For example, in a fantasy setting a knight might be able to fight a dragon, but how do you determine the victor? The rules of the role playing game help the players find out. Each game session is led by a referee called a "Game Master" (or, in Dungeons & Dragons a "Dungeon Master"). The job of the Game Master is to plan out the setting and plot for an adventure which the players pursue. For example, the Game Master might decide that the players will be on a quest to slay an evil dragon. The Game Master will decide where the dragon lives, how the players' characters can find it, what treasure or nefarious traps are in the lair, and what other surprises might await the characters. Then, like the narrator of a play, he will describe these settings, items and events to the players, who, like actors, will decide what their characters will do and say in response. The Game Master in turn controls the actions of the dragon (and its minions) and handles the details of keeping the story within the rules of the game, telling the players whether a character's actions are successful and what happens as a result.

How Is It Different From a Board Game?

Unlike board games, role playing games don't have a winner or a loser. The players are not adversaries with each other, but working cooperatively to achieve an overall goal. Secondly, that goal and the circumstances of it aren't set by the rules at all, but rather by the players' imaginations. Thirdly, the results of playing one session (or adventure) are recorded and carried into the next. For example, in one adventure the noble knight might find a suit of magical armor; he may have this suit for any later adventures. But if that same knight shatters his sword in a fight with a dragon, the sword is lost for all future adventures, with the knight having to acquire another. Finally, the game doesn't use a board with predetermined paths, but rather is almost entirely imaginary. Pencil and paper may be used to record specific results, or to draw a convenient map, but the game itself occurs in the imaginations of the players. In fact, it's not unlike reading a book; the reader is not herself following Sherlock Holmes through Victorian London, but she sees and hears the tale in the theater of her own mind. It is a chance for the player to be the hero in a story of her own making.

Why Should I Let My Teen Play a Role Playing Game?

Role playing games encourage creativity, social interaction, and problem solving, as well as cooperation and teamwork. Role playing games are inherently literary, touching on mythology, folk tales, and classic literature. Role playing games foster interests in diverse cultures and world history, imagining life in societies based on ancient and medieval civilizations from around the globe. Role playing games also promote high level reading and writing skills, plus such math and science concepts as probabilities, geometry, and physics. But even aside from that, there is quite simply the power of a role playing group to build supportive friendships that can last a lifetime. And, of course, role playing is both physically, mentally and emotionally a far safer activity for teenagers than many other options they might pursue. There is a great deal to be said for an activity that can be played in one's own living room (or in a library), among thoughtful, supportive friends— and, in our case, with adult supervision built in. Of course, if you have any concerns, please contact the Assistant Director/Teen Librarian at 610-929-0589.

*The information above is provided curtesy of Howard Shirley, Teen Library Assistant for the Williamson County Public Library.