One of the things I think folks who share this hobby all struggle with is how to explain it to the uninitiated. Unlike really obscure hobbies no one’s ever heard of, people have some notion of what it entails, but unlike really popular hobbies that everyone’s heard of, many of those notions are wrong, vague or confused with other, similar hobbies.
I’ve heard a lot of our folk say that their main tactic is to just say, “Like D&D,” and then change the topic. While that’s expedient, I don’t think that breeds understanding, exactly. I also think that it’s worth explaining how it works at least briefly to an intelligent person who’s actually honestly asking. I think more people than realize it would enjoy this hobby and acting guilty about it isn’t going to help remove a social stigma.
Also, don’t feel like you’re wasting someone’s time who asked. If you fear you might be, tell them, “It’s sort of complex… about like football. Are you sure you want to know?” I should note: I’m notorious for always giving people the Long Answer, so I ask this kind of question about a lot of topics. Once you’re sure they actually want to know, what do you tell them? Well, first off, if you want, check out the Wikipedia article on it.
Now that you’re back, my definition of a role playing game is this:
There are some number of players and generally one Game Master (Dungeon Master, Referee, etc. terminology varies). The players and Game Master (GM) are telling a story together. Each player makes a character (a Player Character: PC) and they constitute the main characters of the story. In order to offer some tension for events where chance plays a part in the outcome, the group is generally using a set of rules that uses a randomizing tool (various kinds dice are most popular, but I’ve heard of cards, for instance) to help decide if the characters succeed or fail at certain tasks. The important thing, here, is this sentence: The players and GM are telling a story together.
The GM is in charge, basically, of running the simulation, as it were. He (please don’t take offense at my use of pronouns, Lady GMs) manages the world, figures out what the various not-protagonist characters (Non-Player Characters: NPCs) are doing, arbitrates the result of any actions taken by the players the outcome of which is not guaranteed, etc.
The other thing that the GM does is he plots the stories the group tells together. Plotting for an RPG campaign, however, is significantly different from plotting for a book or movie because the players each control one of the main characters. So the GM ends up getting a general idea of where things are headed, what the major goals of various NPCs are and then how the PCs fit into it all. Then the PCs get in there and muck things up in interesting, fun ways. This collaboration in authorship means letting go of a certain non-trivial amount of control as compared to, say, a novel author.
The above three paragraphs don’t feel, to me, to be overly onerous of an explanation. It’s enough detail that you could watch one going on and more or less tell what was happening (in a game sense, I mean. Plot is another matter). I think if you boiled football down to a similar number of words, someone could watch a game and at least follow it loosely.
How do you define role playing? Did I miss a key element? Was I too specific?