In response to my post about muggles, Erin brought up an interesting point:
I'm confused, I loathe improv theater, both as a spectator and a participant, but I love table top role playing. - Erin
Part of the problem with communicating what exactly a role-playing game is, is that role-playing games aren't really like anything else. They're an artistic goulash that borrows from a wide range of arts. When I'm talking to new or potential players, I usually fall back on high school drama class, and the improv theater games we played there; in a role-playing game, you make up your character, speak for him or her, act out his or her actions (either through description or through demonstration), and create something that is very much like an impromptu play.
But role-playing games aren't actually improv theater. For one thing, theater assumes an outside audience, a group of people who are not active participants but who are instead passively entertained by the action on stage. Role-playing games don't typically have an audience that is separate from the people who are involved (there are exceptions of course; sometimes someone "Just wants to watch," and then the theater analogue gets it a little closer). Moreover, the director of an improv play has a much smaller role in the direction of the narrative than does your average Game Master (again, with the exceptions, though: GM-light games or games that don't have a GM at all, exist, and those games are definitely role-playing games. I suppose the closest a role-playing game could be to improv theater would be a game with an outside audience in which the GM plays an ancillary role).
Role-playing games are often compared to traditional storytelling, as well. If you've never met a professional storyteller, you're missing out; they're intense, and it is my personal belief that they would make both the best and worst Game Masters on he planet. In the best tellings of a story, the storyteller is both a performer and an improv artist. The storyteller has a story more or less memorized, but will include the audience in coming up with the details as the story is told. This adds a personal element to the telling of the story, and makes each telling a unique and interesting experience. Depending on the story (and the teller) the same tale can be told in wildly different ways when the audience changes. But storytelling, too, is not role-playing. For one thing, the audience is invited to invent details, plot twists, small things that can effect the flow of the story, but they do not play the protagonists. The storyteller controls all of the characters when weaving his or her tale. There is no question of authorship in traditional storytelling; the storyteller has all the control, a perfect railroad to the end game.
In some ways, that may seem like very bad role-playing. In fact, sometimes it is. When GM fiat gets completely out of control, it stops being a role-playing game and starts being a storytelling session in which the players have little or no control over what their characters do or how their characters act. And that is an integral difference between traditional storytelling and role-playing games. In the former, the storyteller is the performer, and the audience is a (mostly) passive force in the story. In role-playing games, the entire group make up both performers and audience, and the story belongs to the party.
Others have drawn similarities to the production of a television series, or a comic book, or a collaborative novel, or a shared world series of stories, or a million other things.
Not to mention the fact that many role-playing games include a tactical miniatures game. While the role-playing bits are all great and good, when the dice start flying, the art of the thing is replaced by a half hour of rolling dice, checking stats, doing some quick arithmetic, moving little toy soldiers around the table, and snacking on Cheetoes. This is a phenomenon you won't find in either improv theater or traditional storytelling; it has more in common with chess.
Not to mention the random element of dice.
Or the role of out-of-character table talk in fleshing out the narrative.
Or the novel-like quality of attempting to quantify reality within a system.
Or... Well, there are a lot of ways role-playing games differ from damned near everything else.
So maybe that's what role-playing games are. They're improv theater about traditional storytelling in which the teller weaves an elaborate plot around the pieces of a randomized chess game, to an audience that participates in the creation of the story by providing the protagonists' personalities (and moving their corresponding piece about the table). Or, maybe they're something completely different. It's been over thirty years and no one has managed to really pin down what the hell it is we're doing when we sit around and toss dice.
But I can't tell new or potential players that. It's too big, it's too much to try and understand. When I'm talking to a potential player about role-playing games, and they ask me what it's like, I always say "It's like improv theater, with rules and dice." Sometimes, the person that I'm talking to cringes when I say "improv theater." It's happened. I just have to trust myself as a salesman to pick up on that and find a way to explain that is both unintimidating and intriguing. I'll save "how to sell role-playing games" for a different blog post, though.