I have been told that roleplaying is great fun. I've looked and looked and it all seems so complicated. Could anyone tell me a good place to start, and what sort of things you end up doing in roleplaying?
Welcome to roleplaying! I know it can be daunting; there are literally thousands of RPGs on the market as well as out of print ones that people still play.
What is roleplaying?
Many a roleplaying game has a "What is roleplaying?" section in the front, and they all have different takes on it, but the most common summary is that it's a formalized version of the kids' game of "cops and robbers." Though trying to generalize how role-playing games work is kinda like trying to generalize how board games work (there are many exceptions to every statement you could make), most commonly you create a "character" that represents someone in the fictional world - a wizard or cowboy or space trucker or whatnot. Their attributes - what they look like, how strong and fast and smart they are - is written down on a "character sheet." You are part of a group of other players who also have characters, this is usually referred to as a "party." There is a Game Master who doesn't usually play a character of their own, instead they depict the whole world and all the people in it who aren't player-controlled characters (NPCs - non-player characters).
The game has rules, and usually dice, which are used to determine if you succeed or fail at difficult tasks. If you are Legolas trying to shoot an orc with your bow, you would roll a die and consult your character's skill and the result would determine if you hit him or not, for example.
As a player, you run a character (like in World of Warcraft or the like) and go about on adventures of whatever type is appropriate to the game's genre. So in this way, using both game rules and the participant's imagination, you can all participate in an exciting story.
Some games don't use dice, don't have a game master, don't have you play one specific character you identify with, etc., but mostly they do.
What kind of story? Well, that's one reason why there's 1000 RPGs on the market. There's everything from stock fantasy (Dungeons & Dragons) to stock science fiction (Traveller) to games that are specifically licensed properties from TV shows or movies (Serenity, Dresden Files, Ghostbusters) to really unusual concepts, like Mormon cowboys keeping the peace (Dogs in the Vineyard). For any genre - superheroes, pulp, horror - there are many games on the market.
Some RPGs are quite complex and require loads of rules and multiple books to play. Some people like this approach, and it can be more like miniatures gaming or complex wargaming. Some games are very small and have extremely light rules and focus more on the story and imagination aspect, and verge towards being collaborative storytelling games.
The most played game is Dungeons & Dragons, in its various incarnations. Because you need a group to play (though you can play online, and there are games tuned towards just two people - some are even for one person, though these are more just choose-your-own-adventure books) it can help to choose a popular game. D&D, especially in its modern incarnations, definitely is one of those multi-book complicated rules heavy games, though, so it can be an intimidating starting point. They just put out a new "red box" starter set with simplified rules that you might consider using to kick the tires on the concept.
Though if you are willing to start a group of your own, maybe just by corralling a couple friends to play, you really can choose whatever game you want. Then, a less rules-intensive game might be a good choice. Pick a genre you like and there's probably a good starter game in there - ICONS for super-heroes, for example. Or Call of Cthulhu for horror. A game that has a good amount of published adventures a GM can run for their players is a good place to start because creating your own adventures can be hard when you're just getting started, and it'll help you get the feel for how others do it. There are gaming stores in most major cities (often comboed with comics or board game stores) and you can go browse at your leisure.
Find Other Roleplayers
In the end, the best way to get started is to find someone who roleplays already - you probably have a friend that does and you don't know it. See Where can I find other RPG players? on how to find other gamers. You can try it out with them and learn more and see if you like it.
It's a fun hobby, many of us have been doing it for 20+ years. Check it out, it can be a blast!
Before you spend money, find out if it looks like fun to you. Your best bet, before you invest in rule books, is to find a group and watch them play a session. Or a couple groups at least. Your local game shop can often help you find a group and many of them have accomodations to let groups play at the shop so you can watch a group there.
Playing RPGs is indeed a great deal of fun, but it's a lot more fun if you like the group you're playing with. It requires an investment on your part however. An investment of money, of time and effort to participate and learn the rules, but most especially of imagination. You have to learn to think like the character you're portraying. You have to be able to imagine the situation you're in, visualize it in your mind, then decide how your character would react to that situation. It takes some time to figure out what works best for you.
If you decide that the concept of role-playing sounds like fun for you, then you need to figure out what genre you want to participate in. If you like midevil/fantasy settings, go with Pathfinder or Dungeons and Dragons. If you like science fiction, try Star Wars, Star Trek, or Serenity. If you like detective stories, there's Gumshoe. If you like horror, Call of Cthulu. Really, the options are pretty much endless. Again, your local game store can be a big help laying out the options and helping you find a group to play with. You can also get an idea by browsing through online game shops such as Paizo.
It's a lot of fun and worth the investment of time and effort.
What is Roleplaying?
It's a form of "let's pretend." Think back to your childhood. Odds are you played cops-n-robbers, or cowboys and indians, or rebels and stormtroopers, or some other such pick sides and pretend shootout. The big problem always was "Who hit whom?"
Roleplaying games (RPGs) generally use dice and rules to replace the old arguing about who got hit. Further, since they evolved from miniatures games, they tend to avoid the whole running about bit, and instead players describe their characters' actions, maybe roll a few dice in some cases, and from this tell a story.
Three avenues present themselves for getting started: join an extant group, get a game and launch a group on one's own, or play solo adventures until you get an idea of mechanics.
First, and probably easiest, is to find an existing group, and try it out with them. The advantages are that they'll know the game and the way play should happen, but the drawback is that they're already playing something.
Second is to launch a game yourself. You get the book(s), you get the group together, and you give it a go. This is not an impossible task, but it's not the easiest route. Some games are much better than others for this, having better advice, and simpler and clearer means of creating characters. Since there are now many good games available legally for free download in PDF, it need not even be expensive.
Third is to start with solo modules. This teaches the rules mechanics for combat, and the kinds of things one can have characters do, but it lacks the multiplayer aspects, and the freedom to go off-script.
Which ever way you go, realize the following truths:
What you'll be doing As a Player:
Sitting around, talking about what the characters are doing, rolling dice to determine the success or failure of the character you control at the actions you have them attempt. You might be moving a miniature figure, cardboard token, or other representation of your character on a battlemap. You might be speaking in character, interacting with others.
What you'll be doing As a Gamemaster:
As a Gamemaster (GM), also called Storyteller, Referee, Narrator, Storyguide, or Dungeon Master in various games.... Just like a player, but also: you control everything which isn't a player character, you adjudicate the rules, and you narrate the results of actions. Often, the GM picks the ruleset.
The GM sometimes prepares a story ahead of time, making room for player actions to affect it, but more often, prepares an environment which the characters will explore. This is sually done by making a map, and labeling what's there, and then encouraging the players to have their characters go there, but not showing them the map. But even when the story is pre-written, the GM has to be willing to let players go "off-script", because no matter how well prepared, there's always some option the GM never thought of.
The GM has only two real restrictions: they don't control the player's characters, and need to be fair. The players need to have that sense of being in control of a character. And the GM needs to not play favorites, because when they do, the fun suffers for the others, often including the favored player.
What your characters will be doing
This depends a lot on both the game chosen and the rules in use.
In Traveller, I've run games where the characters were active duty space marines, others where they were mercenaries, others where they were space-merchant crews (Firefly is very similar), and a few where they were agents of the government, solving problems. I've even run a few where they were just out-of-work retirees looking for excitement.
In Tunnels and Trolls, I've had wandering duelists (Think Inigo from the Princess Bride), having misadventures looking for the big bad guy, in order to kill him. I've had local farm boys deciding to go kill the evil monsters that have cut their village off. I've had the classic dungeon explorer trope, as well.
In Star Wars, I've had rebels of all stripes, including an Ewok Jedi, and a Galamway Salesman, to name a few.
In Pendragon, I've had players play knights, druids, priests, and lords in Arthur's Brittain, and warriors and lords in Beowulf's Scandinavia.
In 7th Sea, Crimson Cutlass and Pirates of the Spanish Main, swashbuklers, pirates, and priests all have their places, and characters can range from hard-core killers to do-gooder officers of the crown, and all points in between.
In Vampire, the players are playing vampires: the hunt, the avoiding letting mortals catch on, and the infernal politics of the damned...
It's a matter of matching rules, setting, and players.
The sorts of things you end up doing in roleplaying will vary from group to group, but it's common to find yourself doing the following a lot:
In many games, there's another element: creating a persona for your character and "acting" as they would, which can include talking to the other players as if you were that character and making decisions accordingly. This is the part that many people identify most with roleplaying games, as it focuses on the portrayal of a role to the people around you.
If you don't have access to an existing gaming group, you can learn how to gamemaster on your own and form a group. I created this page, which lists nine different free quickstart PDFs you can download, so you don't have to invest any money up front. They cover a wide range of game styles and genres, from D&D to DC Adventures to Shadowrun.
These quickstart rules include basic info about how to run the game, and after playing one or two of them you'll have a much more concrete understanding of what they're all about. From there you can purchase the full version of whatever game you find most interesting, or explore other games.
The site also includes a couple of videos showing actual play (D&D and The Burning Wheel), and links to resources to help you learn how to play and GM.
I would recommend Epidiah Ravachol's nano game "What is a roleplaying game?".
It is a small but complete game that fits on a business card and can be freely downloaded as PDF.
It explains the basics of what roleplaying is (to him, obviously). You can try it without preparation, dice or anything similar. It will take about 20 minutes to play.
You will be able to explore and comprehend the detailed mechanics and whatnot of full, big roleplaying games by yourself, after trying this.
PS: I did a German translation of this game and it is also available in French.