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Understanding What You Need for Role Playing Games

Role playing games (RPGs) are all about playing a fictional character who moves through a fictional world. When you play a character in an RPG, you take on the role of that character, just like an actor in a play. But unlike the actor, you have no script to follow; you and your fellow players have free will that lets you influence the events of the story as they unfold.

But what do you do within the game world? Well, you can have a lot of fun enjoying the company of your friends and having the chance to step into the shoes of someone else whose life is dramatically different from your own. And you can also create entire campaigns and worlds for others to enjoy.

Your character may explore a dungeon, puzzle out a mystery, or thwart the plans of an evil Mastermind. It all depends on the intents of the person who created the world and how you (in the role of your character) respond to the various events.

Who is involved

At a minimum, a gaming group consists of at least two people — the person managing (and in some cases, creating) the framework of the adventure and the person experiencing the adventure. But most gaming groups consist of four to eight people. Most regular groups fluctuate over the years. Certainly groups as large as 10 or more are possible, but coordinating that many people can be quite a challenge.

The Game Master (GM)

To have an adventure, you need a setting for the adventure. You also need someone to craft the story line — creating puzzles, hiding treasures, and providing challenges. And you need someone to manage the action, resolve any conflicts, and decide what is required to overcome each challenge. The person who provides the setting and fulfills all these roles is called the Game Master, or GM.

The GM provides the plot outline, the framework for all the action that will occur. This may be as simple as creating a map of a building to be explored, or as complex as creating an entire world with various cultures. In many ways, the fictional world belongs to the GM, who invites the players to come into that world and explore.

The player characters (PCs)

Most people begin their experiences with GURPS by creating and playing a character in an adventure. It is the action of these player characters (PCs) that determines the course of events that unfold within the GM's framework. With the exception of the GM, everyone in a group creates one or more characters for the adventure. These characters band together to form a group known as "the party."

New players often prefer that the GM provide very clear and precise guidelines about how their characters should be created. In fact, they sometimes want the GM to provide them with a completed, playable character, or they prefer to customize one of the character templates provided in the various GURPS books or by the GM. Other people truly enjoy the character-creation process as much as the actual adventure and may constantly be designing new characters for possible adventures or just for their own amusement.

Players create their characters by building a list of the psychological, social, and physical characteristics that define the individual. In GURPS, these are expressed as attributes (such as IQ), advantages, and disadvantages. Then the player gives each character a set of skills that defines what the character is good at.

Within gaming circles, people commonly refer to their characters in the first person — "I managed to crawl across the pit of snakes and grab the magical staff." For many, the enjoyment of the game is more in role playing the character than in the action of the adventure. For mysterious reasons, gamers frequently talk about running their characters rather than playing them. RPGs are filled with jargon of this sort.

Nonplayer characters (NPCs)

Many GMs provide other characters for the player characters to interact with. Referred to as nonplayer characters (NPCs), these characters do not have free will but instead are all managed by the GM and exist to help enrich and guide the story line. NPCs can help the party, provide information, provide texture, or be the very opponents that the characters must defeat. Creating and managing the NPCs is the responsibility of the GM.

The game world defines the game

In the real world, you need to schedule a time for your gaming group to get together and find a place to meet. But the when and where of the fictional world form the setting of the adventure created by the GM and inhabited by the players' characters. With GURPS, you can create any of the following types of worlds (as well as many more):

  • Futuristic or imaginary worlds
  • Historical settings or alternate histories
  • Sword and sorcery
  • High fantasy
  • Contemporary worlds

The same basic set of rules is used for each of these adventures; what differs is the setting in terms of social environment, laws of the physical universe, technological advancement, or any combination of these elements. Understanding the setting of the adventure is necessary for you to understand how to create your character and how your character would respond to the various situations. For instance, the responses of someone raised in a version of Victorian England in which magic is a daily occurrence would differ dramatically from those of someone of contemporary, realistic London.

What you need to play

All you really need to play GURPS are some completed character sheets, three six-sided dice, and a GM with an adventure. Some paper and a pencil to take notes, a few comfy chairs, and a table to hold maps are all nice additions, too. Oh, and food and drink. Gaming sessions frequently last for many hours, often late into the night.

In most cases, however, the gaming starts with character creation, so you'll need access to some basic references for understanding the options available to you. The best resource is GURPS Basic Set, which is available at most gaming stores and provides detailed descriptions of all of the advantages, disadvantages, and skills that your character might have as well as the basic rules that the player needs to know.

When you are first starting out, you may want to begin by downloading GURPS Lite, a free guide available from Steve Jackson's online store, rather than purchasing the complete Basic Set. GURPS Lite provides abbreviated lists of advantages, disadvantages, and skills with brief descriptions of each along with a good overview of the most important rules.

Most gaming groups also use mapping grids (with a hexagonal pattern) and character figures to track the position of everyone during the action (particularly during combat). You might find yourself using computers to manage character sheets, to keep track of important facts, and basically to replace pencil and paper.

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