SHAZRAD: City of Veils

You may not know how a play-by-email game works. Or what free-form roleplaying is. Or even what a roleplaying game is in the first place. Below are some helpful links to articles that might help you out (they all lead to pages on other websites).

Roleplaying games

What is a roleplaying game?

Answers may vary depending on what you think of, but you might say that (most) roleplaying games involve the following elements, if not more:
  • players who control "make-believe" characters
  • rules or a "system" (yes, I include freeform--more on that later)
  • a setting, world and/or scenario
Some people liken roleplaying to improvisational theater, some to wargaming, others to "make-believe" (Cowboys and Injuns being the prototypical American boys' example), a few to collaborative fiction-writing. To be honest, the "best" analogy (if one exists) will depend on who you're gaming with and how. If you're in a game with no "central" gamemaster running the show, the first might be appropriate; a dungeon-crawl complete with miniatures might come close to a wargame.

The manner of play may also vary: in tabletop gaming, everyone meets face-to-face and gets to hunt for lost dice underneath the sofa; online gaming might occur over chat (say IRC or the IM software of your choice) or through email; play-by-mail takes the snail route. Live-action involves (possibly) getting dressed-up and acting out the game in a suitable setting, and some people might also include computer role-playing games, though many are weak on storytelling interactivity. Live-action and computer games will not be included for the purposes of this discussion.

Shazrad: City of Veils, as we've said, is a freeform fantasy play-by-email roleplaying game. Don't worry, we'll explain each of these terms as they come up.


Games need players. People. You. (And us.)

In the most common "canonical" setup, there are two kinds of players: the gamemaster(s) (GMs) and the players. Other terms you might see for "gamemaster" include: Dungeon Master (Dungeons & Dragons), Game Guide (Fighting Fantasy), Storyteller (various White Wolf systems), and so on. Players control characters--make-believe personae who are their interface with the world and with the story/plot (if one exists). Commonly, gamemaster characters are referred to as NPCs (non-player characters), and player characters are referred to as PCs (player characters), though other naming schemes exist.

Generally, the division of labor goes like this:

The gamemaster is responsible for describing the setting, "enforcing" the rules (more anon), determining outcomes, and maintaining the story/plot. In some games his/her role is adversarial: gamemasters typically control all the denizens of a world except the PCs, which means they have the unenviable task of managing the PCs' enemies (if any).

The players are responsible for control of their own characters--typically one PC per player, though this varies by game. In some games they may also participate in creating or maintaining the world and its rules.

Here's an example from an Over the Edge session I ran. All you need to know is that the setting is a wacko version of the "real" Earth, and that names have been changed to protect the guilty. Andrew is playing an alchemist who escaped from a Dungeons & Dragons plane-of-existence to get tenure in chemistry at Al Amarja University. Don is playing a slacker university student.
GM: It's another normal day at Al Amarja University. Andrew, your character is lecturing on the metaphysical bases of alchemy. Don, yours is sitting in lecture, which you finally made it to despite cutting class for the last two weeks. The other students in the class are either chatting up their friends or somnolent.

ANDREW: Well, this lecture is pretty routine. I'd rather be thinking about other things. Under the guise of giving an alchemical demonstration, I cook up a potion to split my mind into two halves so I can be thinking about two things at once.

GM: Er...you do remember that magic works only sporadically in this world, and I'm not responsible for the consequences....

ANDREW: (grinning evilly) That's half the fun.

GM: (sighs) Okay. (rolling two dice) Gosh. Well, at first your potion seems to do exactly what you thought it would do. You're happily lecturing away, waving the rainbow-colored gloop in your beaker back and forth, when you notice that your students are actually awake for once. All of them. Heck, you step back and watch yourself. Wait a second, there's two of you now, and the "other" you is continuing the lecture, just like you planned!

DON: I sit up and watch the scene with renewed interest. I never knew chem 101 could become this good. I decide that whatever I was trippin' on last night, it was better than I realized.

ANDREW: Being the evil guy I am, I slip away and let the other me do the lecture.
This setup puts a lot of work on the gamemaster's shoulders. Other setups are possible, either involving rotating gamemasters or a "no-gamemaster" egalitarian approach.

As you might imagine, arguments can arise over what "really" ought to happen in response to a given action. In the example above, Andrew was playing a character designed around Weird Stuff Happening, so my arbitrary decision as to how his potion misfired was okay, but this won't always be the case. Which brings us to the next item...


Rules, simply put, are an agreement on how to determine outcomes.

System rules are by far the most common. Typical (fictional--I hope!) examples include:
  • Fighter characters may not cast spells, drink potions or wear pointy hats.
  • To decide if you hit your opponent in combat, roll one die and add it to your Viciousness score. Then roll one die and add it to your opponent's Stubborness score. If the first sum is greater than the second, you hit; if not, you miss.
  • If your character is an elf, you have the Pointy Ears Get Stuck in Hinges disadvantage. Anytime you approach a door, treasure chest, or anything remotely hinged, you must roll 50% or better on percentile dice [roll twice on a ten-sided die to determine the digits of a percentage] or you Get Stuck for the next minute of game-time.
Examples of commercially-available systems include Dungeons & Dragons, GURPS, Vampire: The Masquerade, Legend of the Five Rings, Shadowrun, and many more. There are also a few free systems available on the web or by mail, such as FUDGE. System rules will include constraints on character generation (often tied to the world or genre of play), resolution rules for lots of situations (but never enough), and all sorts of statistics. Often they also include guidelines for players and/or gamemasters; one that shows up a lot is, "If the rule gets in the way of having fun, ditch the rule, not the fun."

Most outcome-determiners are dice-based (as in the second and third examples above), though Amber Diceless FRP is score-based and a couple systems are card-based. A friend of mine always said that when in doubt, flipping a coin works just as well. The advantage of "random" low-tech devices like dice is that it lends an air of impartiality to the GM's decisions. In some groups this can be a major issue. The disadvantage is that sometimes, as a result, the GM's decisions don't make sense, though a good system (and a good GM!) will alleviate this.

Freeform is a catch-all term for games that don't have system rules. Frequently they'll have interaction rules in their stead, such as:
  • Thou shalt not control other players' characters.
  • The GM has the final word.
If those look familiar, that's because they're rules that Shazrad uses.

(Games with system rules also tend to develop interaction rules, of course.)

Again, impartiality may become an issue, as freeform gamemasters have far more control over what happens to PCs. Freeform is also weak in certain areas, such as magic systems and combat, but it can lend itself well to story/plot-based games. (There are good reasons why Shazrad is an intrigue-based game where magic is forbidden to PCs--and so far, none of the NPCs have shown up with any, either.)


Simply put, setting is where the game's storyline takes place, whether it be the "real world," a medieval fantasy kingdom, or a galaxy far, far away. System rules are often tied to the intended setting--there's no point in rules about wizards if you have a science fiction setting with no magic or psionics--though most are somewhat adaptable and a few are almost truly "generic." Legend of the Five Rings is a good example of a highly setting-specific system; the thought of ripping the rules away from its Japanese/Chinese-based feudal fantasy world make me cringe. GURPS is a great example of a generic system (it's what the G stands for, after all).

Note the word "storyline" above. A "story" in roleplaying is looser than a story in, well, fiction. A dungeon-crawl might need only the flimsiest of excuses to send its PCs into hours of slaughtering monsters. (For you computer gamers, remember the "plot" premise of Doom?) Nevertheless, no matter how flimsy, storylines are generally strongly connected with the setting, and vice versa. Specific games differ in their emphasis on story and plot.

Other elements of setting to consider are:
  • genre: science fiction, fantasy, spy thriller, horror...
  • tone: grim, heroic, frivolous, realistic...
  • complexity: convoluted, straightforward, flexible, devious...

The best way to learn to roleplay is to do it. This can be daunting for the newcomer, but there are a lot of online roleplaying campaigns out there and therefore a lot of opportunities. This guide is by no means comprehensive; there are a lot of nuances that a text-based guide can't cover. Shazrad can, of course, offer a way to get your feet wet in a specific sub-segment of roleplaying by lurking, reading the archives, or applying to join, but always remember you have options. Lots of them.

Free-form roleplaying

Yoon Ha Lee has also written "Why Freeform?" Check it out on her website.

Play-by-email games

Someone else has gotten to this first. "An Argosy of PBeM Advice," complied by Andrew Fabbro, is subtitled "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Running or Playing in Play-by-Electronic-Mail Role-Playing Games, or Zen & the Art of PBEMs, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to PBEMs, PBEMs on $1.50 a Day, etc." It's slightly outdated, but worth a read for the basics and humor.

Copyright © 2000-2001 by Alioqui & Yoon Ha Lee

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