Fantasy Role Play Gaming Basics
By Jennifer Diane Reitz

Part 2


How do you play an RPG?

The basic game mechanics for an RPG are simple, yet brilliant.

The most basic definition of a player character will, after such matters as a name for the character, some details about the character, a set of statistics which exactly define the limitations and powers of the character. Here are the most basic stats again, with the addition of Agility:

STR     Strength     The muscular power of a character
DEX     Dexterity     The ability to manipulate objects
CON     Constitution     The physical endurance of a character 
INT     Intelligence     The mental ability of a character
WIS     Wisdom     Insight, understanding, reason and knowledge
CHA     Charisma     Both physical beauty AND the power of personality
AGL     Agility     Bodily mobility, limberness, coordination and reflexes

HP     Hit Points     The amount of health and life a creature has

The first thing a Player must do is create a character, and that involves filling in the blanks, which means the stats. Dice are used to generate the numbers. The reason dice are used is covered in another article "The Why Of Dice".

Let's start out with a simple, human character. We will roll 3 6-sided dice (D6) for our numbers. This will produce numbers between 3 and 18, which is within a human range of potential. We will re-roll anything impossibly poor....a character that has 5 or 6 for every stat would be so crippled as to be a vegetable, and thus no fun to play. Who knows what we will get? Some details we get to make up. Here is a sample, very simplified, character:

NAME: Jane Doe
SEX: F    GENDER: F   HEIGHT: 5'6"  HAIR: Brown   EYES: Brown  AGE: 28
RACE: Human   OCCUPATION: Alchemist  ALIGNMENT: Neutral Good 

STR    11 
DEX    15
CON    8
INT     14
WIS    10
CHA    13
AGL    17

HP      10

Clearly, the name, height, eyes and other details are just made up. The Player can be creative here. Note Jane's Race...'Human'. In RPG's 'race' really means 'species'. Idiocy like fussing over skin color is irrelevant to intelligent people, and RPG's are a game created by, and for, intelligent people. We have made Jane an Alchemist, because it is an intriguing occupation!

Jane is of average strength, more or less.  STR 11
Her manual dexterity is very high...she could be a juggler.  DEX 15
Jane is not super healthy, and has a low constitution.  CON 8
She is of genius level intellect, and could join Mensa.  INT 14
Jane is not terribly deep, however, with only average wisdom.  WIS 10
She is pretty, but not beautiful, and is mildly entertaining.  CHA 13
Jane is VERY agile. She could dance on a circus high wire!  AGL 17
Jane has average, beginner level life force and biology  HP 10

This already tells us a lot about Jane. Jane is very intelligent, a bit shallow, not the strongest or healthiest, and not a beauty queen. But she does have more than heroic intellect going for her...she has hero level dexterity and agility. She could drop Alchemy and become a cat burglar, or a stealthy spy, or dance, or take up martial arts. She is both smart and quick.

Now that we have a character, let's assume she has some basic equipment with her, clothes, alchemy tools, money, that sort of stuff.

Now what?

A world to play in...

A Game Master has created a world, and a situation, and we shall throw Jane into it. For this example...oh..let's say... the world is a 19th century, yet fantastic, technology realm, ala Jules Verne.  Airships float above a steam powered Alternate London, top hats and long dresses are in fashion, and rather than  traditional science, alchemy and mystic arts are the the accepted norm. Into this world we shall make Jane an adventurous instructor of Alchemy and Potions at the 'Stanswicke Hall Of Esoteric Studies'.

Let's give Jane a reason to live: She is enlisted by her mentor to recover a young inventors stolen "Babbage Machine", a strange calculating device, from the manor house of a rival. Jane agrees because she wants to see justice done, and because she has an adventurous soul.

She has to have an adventurous disposition, or be capable of growing into such a disposition. All player characters really must, ultimately. Otherwise they would just sit home and play solitaire, and blank out. That would be boring, just like so many real-world lives. This is a game of adventure we are playing!

Game Master and Player...

The Game Master's job is to make the world live. The GM must tell the players about the world, describe things in detail, and commonly draw a map or two. If miniature figurines are used, the map can be to their scale, and they can be moved like chess pieces, to show physical distance relationships.

The GM might say things like:

"You are standing in front of the manor house of Erlin Dewitt, who must surely be the man who arranged for the theft of the Babbage Machine. Somewhere inside this Victorian edifice is your goal. It is sunset, and in the distance you can hear a flying ship. The grass is neatly trimmed, and in front of you is the side of the manor house. What do you do?"

Now it is the player's turn. The player describes the actions of the character, from the perspective of the character. The player might say:

"Um...I creep carefully to the nearest window, careful to neither make a sound, nor to be spotted by anyone inside..."

At which point the GM can interrupt with...

"OK. Roll your Agility to see if you succeed in moving soundlessly to the window, without being spotted."

The player will then roll dice to see if they have succeeded or have failed. In most RPG games, a 20 sided die is used for all stat rolls, and indeed the 20 sided die has become a symbol of the role playing game. Depending on the game system, the number rolled must be above, or below, a given value.

In the Unicorn System, The Player rolls the dice, and must roll a number equal to, or preferably under, her own character's appropriate stat to succeed. In this case, the player must roll a 17 or under, on a 20 sided die, because the Agility AGL for the character of Jane is 17. This is an easy roll!

If Jane succeeds, which is very likely, the GM might say..

"Great! You made it to the window undetected, moving like a cat in the fading sunlight. Now what do you do?"

However, if the player rolled a 18, or a 19, say, that would be a failure, under Unicorn Rules. It is above the character 'Jane's' abilities. Basically, Jane tripped, knocked over an unseen planter, or whatever. Such could happen to anyone. This, in simple terms is the point of using dice... unexpected events.

A failure is arguably more entertaining. Now the GM might instead say:

"You have unwittingly toppled a brass planter, which up till now contained a beautiful Ficus Panderota in full bloom. The planter falls with a clang against the stone walk by the window. You hear movement and voices from within the manor, and the voices do not sound calm. What do you do NOW?..."

Oh dear! Now the player, trying to think like a 19th century Alchemist from another world, must decide on the next thing to do. Run? Hide? Go around the back of the house? Stop and listen carefully to see if a clue as to what is going on inside the house might be found? Wait to be discovered, and pretend to be an admirer of the dastardly manor Lord?

Any one of the actions, and more, are valid. All might involve an ability check...a die roll to determine success.... according to the circumstance. Another Agility roll to run...a Dexterity roll to open the window...a Charisma roll to see if the Lord of the manor can be charmed by false words...

Each decision the player makes is companioned with an interpretation of results given by the Game Master. Successes and failures cannot be predicted, so the Game Master must be ready to deal with the plot going any direction, and the Player must try to be clever and inventive.

In a way, the Game Master and the Players are friendly adversaries, because the Game Master plays not only the world, and all good people and things within it, but also the rogues and enemies within it as well. The Game Master relates dramatic obstacles, and the Players try to overcome them. However, the Game Master must always strive to present a fair, balanced situation at all times, a puzzle, which may be solved in many different ways. The Players thrill to overcome the problems presented, with clever decisions, and attempt to achieve the goal of the scenario. Both success and failure are possible.

In this example, Jane may succeed, and return with the stolen machine, or she may fail and have to escape to save her life. She may be killed, or she may find that the Game Master has so written the backstory that the manor Lord is actually the good guy, and her own mentor is the dastard!

An RPG is a novel that the players and the Game master create moment to moment, based on a pre-generated background. The conclusion is determined by fate, and by bold choices.

In short, an RPG is a life simulator. It is a way to simulate a heroic life, without having to suffer or die in reality.

This is how the game is played, back and forth, between Player and Game Master, decision and result, situation and response.

When a conclusion is reached...the machine is returned, the villain caught, the world saved...or even the characters fail, or die, then the game is over. While the characters might die, this is not losing the game precisely, because a grand -if tragic- story was still told. If the characters succeed, that is winning doubly...success and a ripping tale was told. when several players play together, they form a party, and work together, sharing abilities, each having a turn to act, during each moment, or 'Round' of action in the game.

RPG's are a game one cannot lose, where one can only win. Even a tragedy is still a great story. The goal of an RPG is a great, fun story.

Yet, there is more.

At the end, surviving characters can be awarded "Experience Points". Experience Points, another Stat, are given for accomplishments, and even for failed attempts of note....they represent the ability to learn and grow. This is done, because it is possible, indeed desirable, to string together many such games, such stories, as part of an ongoing, long term campaign. Each gaming session is a chapter in an endless book. Some may end on a cliffhanger, till the next game.

When a character gains enough experience points, say a multiple of 1000 or so, the player may add 1 or more points (whatever the game rules suggest, or that everyone agrees on) permanently to any Statistic of their character. This is referred to as "going up a level", and having a Level, is another Stat. Obviously, a Level 6 Alchemist would be much more powerful than a Level 1 Alchemist, who would be just starting out. In this way, a character can grow over time, like a real person.

This ability to grow over time sets the RPG apart from any other kind of game.

Summary Of Play

Simply put, the steps for playing a TRPG, or Tabletop Role Playing Game, are thus:


1. The participants are divided into one Game Master and any number of Players.

2. The Game Master must create, use, or borrow a 'Game World'...a setting, scenario, or situation, and do some detailing of that World, including the people, creatures, and artifacts within it. The Game Master sets up a stage for the game, and creates the initial plot for the game.

3. The Players create characters by making character sheets: descriptions of the character or characters they shall play. A character is defined by description, name, life details, and above all, statistics, or Stats, which numerically represent the strengths and weaknesses of the Player Character. Additionally, any abilities or belongings of a character are listed.

4. Through the use of colorful and dramatic description, maps, and even miniatures, the game is played out. The Game Master relates the world to the Players, and speaks and makes decisions for every Non-Player aspect of that world. The Players speak and make decisions for their characters, attempting to do so in the manner not of the Player themselves, but in the manner of the Character being represented.

5. Together, both Game Master and Players construct an adventure, with heroic acts, plot twists, trust and betrayals, fighting and negotiation, drama and pathos, and all things that make for an entertaining story. Sometimes the Game Master and Players are adversaries, and sometimes they are friends, as the Game Master plays both friend and enemy, benefit and disaster, in the game. The Players react to what the Game Master has created, and initiate clever and interesting plans and schemes within the shared game world.

6. The Game Master should seek to help the players feel excitement and drama, and will know that they have done a good job if the Players come away from the game feeling that the game was fair, fun, and fascinating.

7. The Players should try to run their characters though the game world, acting in behalf of their characters, attempting to think and react according to the roles they have assumed. They will know they have done a good job if they have succeeded in delighting the Game Master and the other Players with their choices, actions, and role playing.

8. While it is impossible to "Lose" an RPG game, there are various degrees of victory. The goal of the game is to mutually create a wonderful adventurous story of whatever type or kind, that is both involving and compelling. The better this is done, the greater the "Win". Individual game sessions can be strung together as long, continuing campaigns, that follow the entire life and career of characters, within one or more worlds, and the events that transpire for them.


The TRPG is a unique type of game. It demands active and dynamic creativity, imagination, reasoning, and more effort than any other game. Acting skills, the ability to 'get inside the head' of fictional characters, the ability to 'suspend disbelief' are required, or must be learned. The RPG is a game of controlled storytelling, where success and failure are adjudicated with dice and mutual agreement, a kind of intellectual 'Let's Pretend' benefited by a codified structure.

The game is not unlike writing a book, or performing a play, and uses skills from both activities. The RPG can be the most rewarding of all games, because it simulates an adventurous life with heroic and dastardly acts, and can excite the emotions, astound the intellect, and surprise everyone involved.  The RPG teaches and encourages rational thought, creativity, cleverness, problem solving, empathy, and cooperation. It is appropriate for any age, and exercises the mind and heart.

The basic principles given in this article are very adaptable. Any person could use the basic concepts to design their own variation of the game, their own system. As long as all participants can agree, then the system is valid. Many existing, time tested game systems for RPG playing can be adopted, such as Dungeons & Dragons, Alternity, GURPS, and many other brands. These systems, sold as books, can be adapted or used as reference materials. Alternatively, one can attempt to create everything entirely from scratch.

The only limitation, is your own imagination.    


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