What is a ‘Role Playing Game’ (RPG):
Unlike board games which are built around very structured rules and limited to the edge of the game board; a true RPG uses a foundation of rules in order to facilitate a free flowing, unlimited, game that is bound only by imagination! Every game involves you directly in the greatest story that’s never been written; where your character is the hero (or the villain?!) in a story that is not predetermined because it unfolds and changes as the characters actions change the fictional world around them.
Think of a play, movie, or better yet a radio drama broadcast. The core of a real RPG is to play the role of a Player Character (PC); similar to how an actor plays the role of a character in a play or a movie. However you don't actually put on a costume and physically act out the game; that's why a radio broadcast is a better analogy because everyone at the table uses narration to play their role. The players are similar to actors in a play while the Game Master (GM) is like the director of a play and is essentially just another player at the table but with a distinctly different role. The GM's role is first to make sure people are having fun! Secondly the GM adjudicates decisions and interprets rules. For every action there is a reaction; players declare actions that their characters take and the GM describes the reactions that occur.
A player declares their character struts to the bar, hollers for the bartender, so they may order a drink... the GM describes how the bartender reacts, walks over, and addresses the player... now a conversation between the bartender and the player’s character ensues. As you can see the GM is also an actor at times and will have to play the role of many Non Player Characters (NPCs)
From this example you may wonder why we need any rules or guidelines at all? What more is there than to Role Play like this example? As another example; the player declares their character will try and use diplomacy in order to talk the bartender in to selling five pitches of mead at a discount; the bartender has no intention of selling at a discount since he wishes to make a profit…. How do we determine who’s will is stronger? This is where the rules come in to play; players will use special dice to roll numbers that will be checked against another number to determine the outcome. If the player’s dice rolls succeed then the character gets a discounted price but if the player’s dice rolls fail then he must pay full price. This is why the story is unpredictable; there is no script and the story may go any number of directions!
You may question this situation by thinking ‘why not just have the player and game master role play their characters and the player should try to convince the game master through this debate’. There is nothing stopping players from agreeing that this is how they would prefer to play. However players also have a good argument to say that dice rolls and using characters ability modifiers to those dice rolls are a preferred method of resolution. This is because players are not their characters; there is a distinct difference. Sometimes players will have characters with ability scores that are way beyond what a real human is capable of or for a real human to comprehend; so how do you play out a role you can’t truly comprehend? That’s where dice rolls and modifiers can play a key role; you may wish to use your characters super-human intelligence to think of convincing the bartender to sell the character drinks at a discount. You would then use the rules and dice rolls to determine whether or not the character actually achieved this or if the character failed.
A lot of actions declared by players and GMs do not even require dice rolls. A good rule of thumb is to consider almost all actions are successful if there is no threat or opposition. If there is no time limit or no opponent threatening a character then they can take the time to do an action correctly and all the GM has to do is describe the reactions. Now if there is a threat like a time limit or an opponent then you should to start rolling dice; or if an action is opposed by another character then you should roll to see who wins. For example a player says their character tries to tell a lie (bluff) and convince someone it's the truth; that action is opposed by the other character as they are trying to sense the motive (sense motive) of the character telling them the lie. This is another situation where the rules and dice are used to determine who fails and who succeeds.