There are several sorts of things which people associate with the word 'Roleplay'1, though they all revolve around the concept of taking the place of a character and 'playing the role'. In its most basic form, role-playing is all about taking part in a story - rather than simply reading a book or watching a movie, you participate and build the story for yourself and others playing with you. The way people go about this varies, from the Role Playing Game (RPG) to the Live Action Role Play (LARP) to Table Top RPGs, to the Storyline Roleplaying, and even to using collectable cards. These all are viable ways of roleplaying, with only slight variations in results- a story, told in different mediums. The way that they differ is essentially in the structure that they give, and how they give it.
In its most real form, roleplaying is about getting together with a bunch of your friends and kicking serious monster-butt, all while explaining how this fits into your character's motivations and goals, usually to some sort of higher roleplaying power, such as a Dungeon Master, who is armed with such things as dice and common sense, to make sure things stay interesting and with a balance between predictability and unpredictability2.
Overall, the best way to find out about role-playing is to try it. Variants of roleplaying groups, conventions and shops are to be found everywhere, especially on the Internet.
The first and most well known method is the typical Role Playing Game. The main character is typically given a quest to carry out, or a dungeon to complete, usually with a boss at the end3. Completing this will usually unlock the next bit of storyline and a few items to help you defeat the next dungeon or quest. Rather than report to a Dungeon Master or a thick game manual, the player(s) are subject to the parameters and rules set by the programming in the game itself. Notable examples include things like the Final Fantasy, the Seiken Densetsu (Secret of Mana), Nipon Ichi games (Disgaea, Makai Kingdom), and Grandia series.
This sort of 'roleplaying' is the most well known, yet is the loosest use of the term, as they are more an example of 'Hack and Slash' and 'dungeon crawling', in that they involve more combat than actual role playing. The majority of mainstream RPGs lack the flexibility of other systems, and are closer to watching an interactive movie with numerous fight scenes than playing the role of the main character.
The online variants of this sort of game, such as Ragnarok Online, Guild Wars, Everquest and others, have the potential have the potential for more roleplay, as there are people to interact with. But in most cases, roleplay is not especially encouraged, and the game becomes a sort of way to Hack and Slash and dungeon crawl with some friends, without the usual plot advances that console RPGs have.
The player(s) go about their business, limited by the rules, limitations, locations, and such that have been preprogrammed by the maker of the game. They tend to be very rigid, with a specific path in the game, with possibly a few small variations.
Rather than having a game console decide outcomes, some roleplays employ a flexible set of rules and some dice to structure the roleplay.
Partly because it lends a unique element to the hobby, but mostly because it makes money, gaming retailers hit upon the idea of dice with more (or less) than the usual 6 sides. After extracting geometrical secrets from some mathematicians, they realised that they could create other regular polyhedra in plastic. And thus were the d4 (tetrahedron), d8 (octahedron), d12 (dodecahedron) and d20 (icosahedron) created. Apparently the d10 is not regular, but we forgive it. Many people are initially confused by the concept of the d100, until they realise that a it can be easily simulated by two d10s, and this is why you find 'tens' and 'units' versions of our 10-sided friend. Of course, if you're going to splash out, you can get one of the large dimpled balls that act as genuine d100s (Zocchihedron 4).
Two different sorts of roleplays which typically involve the use of dice: Table Top RPGs and War Games.
Table Top RPGS
The first of these sorts of games are headed by a DM (Dungeon Master), and are called 'table top role playing game', and variations of the terms, though full abbreviations are uncommon ('Table Top RPG' is used, as well as the simple 'roleplay'). The most well-known example would be Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) by Wizards of the Coast. It funtions in ways which are parallel to those of an RPG, with a few exceptions which make a very large difference. Rather than control a complete party5 of 3-4 characters, like in the standard RPG, one typically gets together with his or her friends. One friend acts as a Dungeon Master/Game Master, and the others take the roles of a character in the party, which does things in responce to the quests/situations that the GM gives.
And while DnD is a generic fantasy system, this sort of roleplay has examples across several genres; anything from science fiction (Cyberpunk, Cyberspace, Alternity) and science fantasy (Shadowrun) to horror (Call of Cthulu) and western (Deadlands) can be found. As well as this there are a few 'generic' systems (GURPS, RIFT) that operate in a modular fashion to provide for all settings. As with any other creative media, the options are as broad as your imagination.
The player is only limited by the imaginations of both him and the Game Master, the restraint of the latter, and the dice rolls. Having a human decide things give things considerable flexibility.
War Games are just that, a game of war, most notably, and aptly named: Warhammer. Rather than being on the same side as your fellow players in a party, you are opposed, with your own entire group of characters to yourself. Your concern is the care of your troops and the obliteration of others. Little representations of your characters/hordes/armies called miniatures stand tall (relatively) on boards or buckets or makeshift terrain as you go about and try to decimate the enemy, and then take out the 90 percent left after decimation. This type can vary greatly in terms of structure and flexibility. They may or may not use dice, or even any sort of structure, and simply are dictations of what your armies do with small representations running about. Most cases, though, you will see a set of standard rules, though, as in most roleplays, the rules can be bent.
The setting is limited only by your imagination and what is commercially available: orcs, space marines and treefolk bump shoulders with Napoleon's soldiers and US marines in the eclectic war-gamer's cupboard.
Rules and dicerolls, with the possibilities of a 'Game Master', a grid-system, and/or miniatures, decide what your characters can and cannot do, and how well they do it if they can. Things roll from there, and you go about questing or killing and maybe some pillaging and heroics, though probably not at the same time.
Live Action Role-Plays
Those who participate in Live Action Role-Plays (LARPs) would define this sub-genre as writing their own part of a play, rather than a story. This shares around as much notoriety as the Table Top RPG. This is much more involved, and more 'in character' than the other roleplaying forms, in that you actually get into gear and act out the part of your character, rather than dictate his actions. A sort of Game Master and/or Crew 6 set up the plot beforehand, and make sure things go smoothly, taking the place of Non-Player Characters (NPCs), coordinating the battle scenes, and more. To avoid confusion, LARPs usually happen within a defined area thereby preventing non-players from getting confused, scared or aggressive.
LARPs happen on various scales, from the small and intimate 12-person, 3-hour variety to the 25-up, all-weekend marathons. LARP-ing does have certain restrictions, though, being limited by budget and the fact that having a 10-metre tall tentacle beastie in a story may involve constructing said beastie first. When in doubt, emphasis is placed on the 'suspension of disbelief' factor.
LARPs very much resemble ad-libbed acting, with the common theme of weapons and war. Dress yourselves up, beat others down, or rather, pretend to, under the guidance of a leader or leaders.
The roleplay7. For the sake of distinction between the four types listed, it shall be referred to as 'Storyline Roleplaying', though it should be noted that rarely will the word 'storyline' be tagged onto the term by people who actually do this sort of thing. The best definition for it is co-writing a story, except that the only total control which you have is in a character which you specifically have created and written yourself8.
People have different reasons for this type of roleplaying. Some do it to sharpen their skills as a writer, to be able to churn out higher quality material faster. Some do it for interest. Some do it to live a separate life apart from their own.
You take turns with others to writing small blocks of text on how your characters act, what he or she does. Your characters and their characters interact with each other and their environment, and then things build from there. This can, depending upon a number of deciding choices and circumstances, become either tedious and annoying, or a gripping, exciting sort of interactive story.
Collectable Card Games(CCGs)are probably the newest aspect of the role-playing subculture. Although certain variants do use elements of a standard deck (Doomtown), most CCGs have their own paradigms, mostly hinging on creating your own deck from available cards and hoping that you shuffle well enough to get the ones you want. The intricacies of individual systems are many, leading to the addiction of many a strategy-minded soul.