There is a large consensus that we are now in the age of the geek. Things that you were once derided for, now you are lauded for. And one of the key examples of this is the rise of the RPG – no not rocket propelled grenades – role playing games! Often when people think of RPGs they think of things like a group of geeky people sat huddled together, a wide variety of dice being rolled (not just 6 sided ones!) or pages of numbers of ‘stats’. Some may think of magic and evil as well but as I’ll explain later this is based on misinformation.
Firstly, what on Earth is a RPG? Simply put it is a game where you take on the role of a character or characters and take them on adventures led by a games master – which is either a pre-programmed sequence of events in a video game, or a story that has been made up by a person who will have created maps and know what monsters are going to be where, where the traps lie and how the story will ideally unfold (but with human players you never know what might pique their interest and I’ve seen quite a few games change dramatically as something I put in as a tiny bit of side information has become the main focus).
In these collaborative stories you as a player decide how your character will respond to events and then see if they achieve what you want them to. This is done mathematically using probability…either digitally if in a video game or by rolling a dice. This is why RPGs use polyhedral dice (fancy word for many sided) – the larger the number of sides the better to make accurate checks of probability. The most commonly used dice for RPGs is the 20 sided dice.
But how does it all work? Say you had a character who wanted to jump up a wall and grab the top of it. A number will have been set for that or will be decided on by the games master, which is what you need to roll above or higher in order to make the jump. Lets say its a 10, you need to roll the 20 sided dice and score at least 10 or any number higher than that to succeed.
It becomes very slightly more complicated as your character also has stats which help you know how good or bad you are at certain things, such as jumping up a wall and grabbing the top – in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition it’s as simple as you have a Strength and Dexterity values which encompass every action you could use that involves physical strength or the ability to move, in other systems like Pathfinder you may need to have the ‘Climb’ or ‘Jump’ skill – this number gets added onto (or sometimes subtracted as its possible to be bad at things as well as good) the dice roll to help you. As long as the number comes out as above 10 in this case you are fine.
These stats can be influenced by all manner of things – what clothes you are wearing, any equipment you may have – any of them may have a + or – value they can add to your check – which is why people who play RPGs often have sheets of numbers in front of them. In video games this is true as well – but the game keeps track of them for you and usually tells you if something is better or worse than what you currently have on.
That’s the most complicated part of it all, after you’ve got that figured out then you can enjoy playing the story – video games are very good for this as they take care of all the maths for you and I personally believe they are partially responsible for tabletop RPGs becoming increasingly popular in recent years.
This next bit is predominantly for the Christian readers:
Why do people think they are evil? The games often contain magic, occult items and creatures, gods and demons. There is a story that often makes the rounds that says Gary Gygax and the other creators of Dungeons and Dragons consulted a local witch and included real spells for their magicians to add to the authenticity. This has been proven false multiple times. A tract was published in the 80s called ‘Dark Dungeons’ and claimed that Dungeons and dragons had led people to become involved in witchcraft and Satan worship. Again it had no basis in the truth, people had taken the fact it encouraged you to stay in character during the game that it wanted you to be a sorcerer or a warlock when actually it was just acting. As with all media there were people who were influenced slightly by what they played in RPGs which is what led to all the furore, however any impact by it was just slight and it was latched onto by media and parents as a scapegoat. If you feel that your child or friend is being influenced this way then I would advise trying to seek help for them
To me the main issue with RPGs throughout the years has been that they were often very much a boys club, when actually they appeal to males and females equally. Sadly this boys club mentality is still prevalent in some areas but it is slowly being eroded.
If you are genuinely worried about fantasy, magic and mystical beings then I would strongly recommend you read J R R Tolkein’s ‘On Fairy Stories’. In it he explains what a fairy story is actually about – a way of trying to understand the real world, of experimenting with good and evil to understand morals correctly. He and CS Lewis are 2 incredibly famous authors of ‘fantasy stories’ who were also devout Christians – CS Lewis even re-created the Bible in a fantasy setting with his Chronicles of Narnia books.
If its the presence of Gods and Demons that worries you there are ways around that as well – in my games my character is always a Christian, and the ‘Gods’ and ‘Demons’ are just powerful creatures giving their power by the one true God, who have either decided to use it for good (the celestials) or for bad (the demons).
What good can come from them?
Over the past few years there have been companies such as the Bodhana group, Take This and Wheelhouse Workshop who use RPGs as therapeutic tools to help those with mental health issues. The games provide a safe place to explore emotions, actions and consequences and help teach people how to cope with various situations. Though I wouldn’t advise trying it yourself unless you are a trained psychiatrist!
It does show that the games can be used to explore and tackle many complex ideas though, and it’s not unreasonable to create adventures exploring biblical stories or to explore your own or your child’s morals whilst also developing their problem solving skills.
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Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition – this latest version of D&D is by far the easiest to get started with, all the complex maths and stats have been simplified and are easy to follow making for a streamlined and fun game. I’d recommend starting with the Starter Box set, then investing in the Players Handbook if you want to play more, and the Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual if you want to lead games. There is also an app called D&D Beyond which allows you to purchase the books on there and easily create and manage characters digitally.
The Final Fantasy Series contains many of my all time favourite video games. Originally designed as the last chance game from failing studio Square – hence Final Fantasy – the series has become immensely popular and has 15 numbered iterations and many spin off games. It is most famous for FFVII – one of the very first fully 3D games on the playstation 1 with its huge area to explore and good storyline – if you have ever heard of Cloud or Sephiroth that’s where they are from. There have been recent remasters of FFX and FFXII as well as completely new games like World of Final Fantasy. Each game shares certain terminologies, names and monsters but the stories are vastly different. The most recent is FFXV which changes the series from turn based to fully action rpg. There is also FFXIV which is a very good MMORPG that’s constantly being updated.
An epic set of Open-World Action RPGs set in the world of Tamriel, each one has a main storyline which sees you saving the world from some great evil, but there are also countless places to explore, side quests to do and lots of mods to use – especially if playing on the PC providing hundreds of thousands of hours worth of gameplay for people. The most famous game in the series is undeniable Skyrim – the fifth full game released in the setting. There is also Elder Scrolls Online – an MMORPG set in the world that is very It is so successful they have just released it for the Nintendo Switch – 7 years after it was first released. enjoyable and is constantly being updated.
Paizo Inc. created Pathfinder using similar mechanics to D&D 3.5 edition making them open source to the world and since then has created hundreds of expansions, character classes, monsters and fun things to help you craft the exact character and world you want. They have even created a specific sci fi version called starfinder with rules on how to fly a spacecraft together, as well as giving you all the characters you could want to explore space with. Its slightly more complex than D&D 5th ed as there are more stats to assign, but many people see this as giving them more freedom to build exactly the character they want. It’s well worth looking at. There is a new edition of pathfinder coming out soon and you’ll be able to playtest the new rules from August 2nd!
Another great tabletop game I have had the pleasure to play is Numenera, it is a futuristic fantasy setting, set thousands of years after…something…which left humanity and the various other races back in a feudal state with little to no knowledge of how the technology around them works. It is a great setting for stories and the core rulebook is a joy to read.
These are both hybrid board game RPGs. The characters are already made and you play as them. The stories are completely pre-created and run by the game. I particularly like stuffed fables as it’s aimed at families and gives ideas in the back of questions you can ask to help explore children’s emotions
There are countless other RPGs out there, I could go on for ages about how Legend of Dragoon was an awesome PS1 experience, or how the Witcher game series can drag you in for hours on end, but hopefully these give a taster of what’s out there.