There is a gap in my videogame repertoire. Specifically, I don't do RPGs.
Oh, I've played a few of the classics (Fallout 1&2, Planescape: Torment, the first Ultimas) as well as the occasional MMO. Roguelikes might count as well, depending on your definition. But for the most part I've played RPGs in ways that only involve computers incidentally, or not at all. Namely via forums, text based virtual worlds, or simply around a table with a few friends.
You caught me; I like to read and write a lot. But even if you're into glitzy graphics, pen&paper RPGs (a.k.a. tabletop) might hold some points of interest for you.
Wait, doesn't everybody say that computer RPGs aren't the same thing as their low-tech predecessors? Well, yes. But I'd like to go against conventional wisdom and claim that the difference isn't so big.
You might remember from the history of roleplaying games that the earliest titles were essentially cooperative tactical wargames; their computer counterparts capture that side of them just fine. The storytelling aspect developed later, and while a computer program can't match the flexibility and imagination of a human GM, the aforementioned classics are proof that they can go a long way. MMORPGs are even more flexible, as you can impose your own conception of roleplaying over the base mechanics provided by the software, via a little feature called the chat window. That works because you have real people at the other end... just like in tabletop roleplaying.
Why should you bother, then? Well, if you're merely a player of computer RPGs, I guess there's little reason, unless you're curious to try something different. But if you're on the way to making your own, then you'd do well to know e.g. how rule systems work, independently of their implementation on a computer. As for the story, if you can't make it work by talking your friends through it, what makes you think it will work under the mechanical direction of the machine?
Trouble is, if you're not familiar with the hobby, the sheer number of titles out there can be daunting. The best known, like Dungeons and Dragons or World of Darkness, are both big and expensive. Luckily, free games exist, and some of them are good introductions to tabletop gaming. If I were to pick one for that specific purpose, it would be Risus.
At only six pages of loosely typeset text, Risus is among the tiniest RPG systems. While it doesn't explain what roleplaying games are, the sheer simplicity of it means you can bring a beginner into the fold in 30 seconds flat. Risus is also very fun, designed for light-hearted games with little concern for minutiae. On the minus side, the rules are very coarse, and any attempt to add more detail has rather bizarre results. If you need more handholding, or predefined tactical options, a better choice would be GURPS Lite.
Now, GURPS is one of the best known, if not especially popular, RPG systems, and the first one that tried to be generic (previous games had rules tailored to a specific setting, usually a fantasy or space opera one). The Lite edition is freely redistributable, and gives a good idea of what a traditional rules-heavy RPG is like in only 32 pages. On the minus side, for all its precision, it leaves a lot of decisions to the GM's common sense. But that's all right — house rules are half the fun in a pen&paper RPG. One system to acknowledge that is FUDGE.
FUDGE is probably the system you want if you're thinking to study how RPG rule systems are created, or just find yourself customizing other systems beyond recognition. At 107 pages, you've got a ton of options to play with, and thanks to the relatively liberal license there are many supplements and settings. As a downside, you'll have to find one of those if you just want to jump in and play — some assembly is required with the core book.
These are just three of the many roleplaying games in existence. Some others titles that have my attention:
- The Window, an elegant ruleset designed for high drama and suspense that skimps combat in favor of story.
- The Rocket Rangers fan supplement to Mini Six, an excellent retro SF mini-setting with intentional, well-thought-out use of the traditional clichés.
- BASH and Supercrew, two commercial supers games, both of which are dynamic, rules-light and very very fun.
- Shadows, an RPG for kids, with a simplistic but interesting conflict resolution system.
- The Star Wreck RPG, a goofy inversion of space opera tropes... and also RPG tropes: the heroes are fighting their own incompetence rather than any serious enemy.
Did I scare you away yet? No? Good. For staying current, I can think of no better resource that RPG.net. If on the other hand you want timeless advice, The Harrow has an impressive collection of articles, both for players, game masters and those who like to create settings and scenarios (now that's a name for an RPG). Many other resources exist, such as roleplaying forums — too many to list — or collections of stories about remarkable game sessions. If you just want to learn about tabletop RPGs, these will help you; and if you want to actually give it a try, go out and look for some fellow players. Nowadays it can admittedly take a little patience to find a gaming group. But rest assured that the hobby is not dead, nor likely to go away anytime soon. And now you know why.