In one sense role playing games (rpgs) are the simplest games in the world, but they can appear daunting to complete beginners. Let’s talk about how you play an rpg.
In order to play one person (the game master or GM) has to come up with a story idea. For example “a princess has gotten lost and ended up at the North Pole.” Or “a magic spell has turned everyone in the village into a mouse.” Now these are examples of stories for younger players, you could just as easily say “a farm boy finds his father’s magic sword and is drawn into a great journey to rescue a princess.” Of course then your children would realize you were copying Star Wars. Most of our favorite stories start out simple. The GM then expands the story- why is the princess at the North Pole? How did she get lost? Can the mice in the village talk? Do they wear clothes? Do they like being mice or do they want to go back to being people? There are no right and wrong ways to do this but a good GM tries to come up with fun or exciting details at least, things that their players will find interesting. The GM has all these details memorized or written as notes. The players will only learn the details gradually as they play the game.
The player's job is to make up characters they will act out in the adventure. A "character" is the person you're pretending to be during the game. For example one player may act the role of a knight, and another player may play a talking dog or a wizard. The game you’re playing will guide you in creating characters- a fairytale game may have pixies and talking cats, a fantasy game may have elves and wizards. The characters are usually described on a sheet of paper but as we’ll see you generally don’t need to read to play an rpg.
The idea of playing a character does introduce one critical requirement for rpgs. The players must be able to work with the idea that their characters have certain set limits and that they may not succeed at each task they set out to do. We can imagine a younger child playing Monopoly. They drive the car around and set up houses wherever it suits them. At some point they can play by the rules- they move a number of spaces as the dice dictate, rather than whatever suits them. They can accept the rewards and penalties that the game doles out. That ability to play “by the rules” is essential to rpgs as well.
Finally the group sits down and plays. For our example we'll say that you are the GM. You might say “All of you are living in the magic land of Ned. There is a queen and a family of princes and princesses. Today the good witch has summoned you to her castle to discuss a missing princess.”
The players will then look blankly at you. At that point you may ask them “what would you do if that happened? Would you like to help find the princess?”
The players agree they would like to help. Now you prompt them with something like “how will you get to the castle then, it’s a mile away?”
By this point the players may be catching on. “Can I ride a horse to the castle?” asks one.
“I’m a wizard, can I ride my broom there?” says another.
Now the game is beginning to pick up steam. You describe the results of their actions or decisions. In this case you might describe their trip to the castle. Maybe they meet someone along the way. Or maybe they just travel quickly and easily. The decision is based on what you the GM want to include in order to further the story. Once at the castle you could begin to act out the role of the good witch. You could change your voice and say exactly what the good witch might say, and encourage the players to speak back to you just as they would if they were speaking to the witch herself.
The remainder of the game is a variation on that experience. The GM acts out various roles and the players respond and make plans according to what they are told. If they are told the princess was last seen at the royal candy factory then they will “go there” and “search for clues.” You play the role of the factory foreman or a mouse at the factory and tell the players some clue which leads them onwards till they find the princess. The game is "over" once some goal is achieved but you can play again with the same characters on some other night. In that sense rpgs are like ongoing television shows where the same characters have adventures week after week.
The one element that makes an rpg different from simply storytelling is its set of rules, which usually involve some dice being rolled. The rules usually define how hard it is for a player to accomplish some task. Say the players are searching a factory for a clue. The rules will tell you as the GM to have each player roll a die and (just as an example) if they roll a six they find the clue. The rules might specify that wizards find magic clues if they roll a five or a six, or talking dogs find clues if they roll a four five or six, because talking dogs are (one might imagine) great clue finders. These rules set limits and add drama. Who will find the important clue? No one knows, it’s exciting to find out! Can the wizard cast a spell to turn the mice back into people? Better roll those dice and find out.
Paradoxically rpgs also allow the GM to Ignore the rules. We know that children can deal poorly with failure. A GM may bend the rules to allow “success in failure.” For example, the players don’t find a clue they need. The GM decides at that moment that they have a fairy godmother! She appears and finds the clue for them. Maybe in exchange for her help the players have to sweep her cottage. The quest goes on…
The idea behind rpgs can seem confusing. Happily most games include sample adventures and ideas for generating adventures. In addition stores that sell rpgs will often have people on hand to explain them, Pandemonium Books in Central Square being one example. If this seems like something that might be fun for your family then consider adding rpgs to your game night.