The other day I purchased a new game for my PS3. I grabbed a pocket knife, cut the plastic, and eventually, like an otter shucking an oyster, opened the jewel case. Inside the glossy booklet that came with the game, 10 point font provided a wealth of uninspiring information: control scheme, seizure warnings, etc. I noticed, however, that the booklet did not contain an explanation about what a video game is. I did NOT see “This is a game of video enjoyment, wherein you hold a controller and manipulate on-screen events. The powers and abilities referenced in this video game are not real. Therefore, do not go outside and attempt to cast fireballs, sneak by awkwardly squatting, or sprint for an excessive amount of time. You are a human player enjoying the challenges of a programmed digital adventure.” In other words, there was no “What is a video game?” introduction. There was an in-game, tutorial, of course, but that’s a different animal.
Similarly, I recently played Last Night on Earth, the excellent zombie-survival board game, and I did not see an obligatory “What is a board game?” passage in the game’s rules. Go ahead, look for yourself. Crack open Monopoly and see if there’s an explanation of what board games are and how the miniature metal dog is not a real dog and as such does not need a tiny bowl of food or a leash. There are rules, of course, but not much more.
So, why is it that role-playing games always include the “What is a role-playing game?” chapter close to the front of the rulebook? What is so confusing about the setup that an explanation is required? Frankly, I don’t think we need these awkward dissertations any longer. In most cases, with decent writing, the playing process is clear. Either the rules are sufficient or the person buying the book already knows what an RPG is. In addition, some rulebooks contain nicely written “example of play” passages that are much less cloying than the “What is an RPG?” chapters that I rarely, if ever, manage to get through. These “example of play” sections are often clear, fun to read, and can be threaded throughout a rulebook to include other helpful examples. Boo-yah.
I do understand that in some corners of the world, there are people buying GURPS or Savage Worlds or D&D having never heard of pen and paper RPGs. I also get that in some cases, a person might be new to the hobby, and the lovely little explanation could make all the difference between utter confusion and profound understanding. Fine: 1 in 100 RPG purchases, maybe. But for the most part, the RPG self-definition isn’t needed. It’s even demeaning, sometimes, because it seems as though the hobby needs to explain itself too much. I’d rather read an intro to the world and the mechanics, followed by a sample of play, and leave the “If you’ve never played a role-playing game” explanation buried in the appendix next to “What are dice?” and “There will be expansions, so start saving your money!”
Not to get too snarky, but I can’t imagine someone reading through a typical RPG book and simply waiting for dice to roll themselves or characters to materialize on the dining-room table. It’s just not that confusing. There are tons of subtleties and variations, of course, but the basic principle is clear. And when it isn’t, when someone has no clue what an RPG is, I doubt that most of the current “What is this that you are holding?” confessionals are going to make a big difference.
These days, it is very easy to listen to live play podcasts, to read descriptions online, or to simply communicate with friends. So, I don’t think the “What is an RPG?” passage makes sense any more. I’m not against them, of course, and when I run for RPG President that will not be my platform. However, I don’t think they are necessary, either. There are far better ways to introduce our excellent hobby to new players.