"Imagine a movie where YOU'RE the star!"
"The GM is like the director, and you're the actor, except YOU get to determine where the story goes!"
"This RPG is like a TV show, where each of you is one of the main characters, and the GM is like a narrator that directs the story...."
So many role-playing games use these as an analogy of what they do that I've lost count. Whole books have been written linking film and RPG together. I get it. It's an easy comparison to make. I also think it's grossly inaccurate.
Well, let me back up a little...it's not grossly inaccurate. But the comparison conveniently ignores several parts of what makes a role-playing game something special. For one, movies aren't performed live. That's a big deal. The energy, the feedback from the other people at the table channels directly into the story. That doesn't happen in a movie, or a TV show. Movies and TV shows also have scripts. They aren't improvised, and they don't (often) change according to the whims of those involved. To ignore the script of a movie or TV show is to ignore the backbone upon which the entire production is based. But many RPG designers would have you believe that the script is something akin to a straight jacket; that a role-playing game is what storytelling is when it's unfettered by plot structure. To this, I say, bullshit.
Roleplaying games, when you look under the surface, are very different than movies and TV shows. An RPG is a living, breathing thing, that evolves and changes with the group. It grows, and it develops, and it spirals in and out of control. A good RPG is a chaotic spin of fantasy, whimsy, drama, and tragedy. It's where the hopes and dreams of the gamers get mingled with their darkest fears and spun into something incredible. Plots are are essential in other, more traditional storytelling mediums. In a role-playing game, plots are optional details.
So I think there's a better analogy out there to describe role-playing games. One of the other loves of my life is hip-hop. In rap, you have this thing called a cypher. A cypher is when a group of rappers form a circle, almost like a football-style huddle, and freestyle. One guy may lay down the beat, while everyone else, one at a time, raps in a circle. They make up their lyrics on the spot, and when one guy starts "fading" (i.e. runs out of cool rhymes), the next guy jumps in. Hip-hop's heritage is in jazz, which is also well-known for its bits of freestyling and improvisational music.
THIS, more than anything else, is a role-playing game. Each player is an artist, a musician, a rapper. The GM, in coordination with the RPG itself, lays down the beat. Then the players enter the cypher, playing off of each other, matching the rhythm with the GM. The lyrics, the rhymes, come from everywhere...the players' fears of death and doom, their fantasies of wealth and power, the truth of life, wherever they live. THAT is a roleplaying game. It may not be as easy to sell to a skeptical newcomer, but it is, in my mind, a far more accruate representation of what a roleplaying game really is.
In his book Decoded, rapper Jay Z talks about the first time he experienced hip hop. He saw a bunch of kids gathered in a circle, dropping beats and laying down rhymes, and he said that he had never seen something like that before, but he knew, instinctively, that he wanted to be a part of it. He wanted to be in that cypher forever. That is exactly the way I felt when, at five years old, I walked into my neighbor's house and saw all three of the neighbor's kids playing Dungeons & Dragons together. I had no idea what was going on...but I loved it, and I knew, at that moment, that this is what I will be doing, forever.