A role playing game is any game where the players play roles. They are not to be confused with roll playing games, which use bread rolls as the components and exist, as far as I am aware, only in my imagination.
The original and most well-known RPG is Dungeons & Dragons, invented by Gary Gygax in 1974, as a spin-off from a wargame he was working on at the time. In Dungeons & Dragons, the players work together, exploring a “dungeon,” which is a pre-written adventure scenario. It is often set in a castle or subterranean labyrinth, but it could be set anywhere from a pirate-infested archipelago to a desert-realm in a hell-dimension. One player acts as the game master (GM), who knows the dungeon’s secrets and tells the story to the others, controlling the monsters and rolling dice to determine the outcome of certain events. The other players all have their own individual characters who they control in the game – perhaps a warrior, or a wizard, or a cleric. Together they solve puzzles, kill monsters, and loot for treasure, like you might have seen in modern video games, but D&D all takes place in the players’ imaginations. Players invariably become very attached to their characters indeed, and this is what makes the game so addictive – as the game goes on, characters earn “experience points,” and if they can get enough of these they can “level up” and become more powerful.
I used to play D&D with my little friends, back in the 1980s, when we were all about twelve or thirteen, and I was the GM. Back then (even more so than today), D&D did have a bit of an image problem – the stereotype was a group of bearded physicists sat in a basement for ten hours at a time rolling twenty-sided dice to kill goblins. That was completely different to our experience of the game of course – we did not have beards. If you want to know what we did look like, though…
The success of D&D has spawned many, many imitators over the years. Some of these have become classics themselves, like Runequest, Pathfinder, and the sci-fi themed Traveller. Games have also appeared which use the fictional worlds of Star Trek, Marvel, DC, Firefly, and The Lord of the Rings.
If you are a horror fan, there are a wide variety of RPGs to choose from. The one I have a particular soft spot for, is Call of Cthulhu. This is an RPG set in the world created by the American writer H.P.Lovecraft – his short stories, written in the early twentieth century, featured terrifying cosmic monsters, ancient races, and murderous occultists. The Call of Cthulhu RPG is unusual in that the players’ characters are not powerful or heroic, but ordinary people, investigating mysterious goings-on, and are totally out of their depth. They often end up dead, insane or worse.
If Lovecraft is not your bag, you could try Ravenloft, which is a campaign setting for D&D, that turns the game into an interactive gothic horror story. Vampire is an RPG where the players are the monsters, but not perhaps in the way that you expect, with some of the campaign stories focusing on things like warring vampire civilisations. Similarly (superficially at least) the sexually-charged and LGBT-friendly Monsterhearts casts its players as vampires, witches, ghosts, and the like, as metaphors for teenage problems – the setting is a high school, and the inspiration is more Twilight than Bram Stoker. Ten Candles is an atmospheric “tragic horror” storytelling game, where everyone dies at the end. Finally, perhaps the easiest RPG to jump straight into, is Dread, a horror story game which uses a Jenga tower to heighten the tension.
There are so, so many other RPGs, far too many of them for me to keep up with. These games could, and should, be the subject of a whole book themselves; and if someone ever does write that book please let me know as I would love to read it. I will just mention a few of the more popular ones for now though, such as Fiasco (inspired by Coen brothers movies), and Tales From the Loop (a game about playing kids in an alternate 1980s containing fantastic machines and strange beasts), and the adorable Mouse Guard.
Finally, although perhaps not what most people would think of as an RPG, I feel I should mention Gloomhaven at this point, which has been one of the most talked about games since it came out in 2017. This game (originally released on Kickstarter) is like a cross between D&D and a Eurogame. It has the traditional theme of warriors and wizards exploring dungeons, but there is a board (with miniatures) for everyone to sit around, and decks of cards to determine actions. There are also pre-written scenarios, but they do not require a game master.
And just in case you were wondering, yes, the old classic D&D is still around too, with rules that have been revised several times over the years (and now legitimately available free on the internet). It is still popular, and I am sure that somewhere, that group of physicists I mentioned earlier is still playing, the only difference being that by now their beards are all grey.