Simple, they play roles.
What do they do as they play their roles?
Depends, on what they feel like doing, and what the Guide Master (GM) suggests they do.
That’s the thing about plots and storylines, they’re really nothing more than suggestions. Hints when you get down to it. Give most groups a murder mystery to explore and they’ll want to know where that stash of vin ordinaire came from. In this players tend to be a distractible as a year old puppy.
What do the players do?
As they play their characters they get into all sorts of things. They interfere in muggings, track down ancient tomes and ancient grandmothers. They rescue kittens, baby dragons, and lost merchants. They guide hunting expeditions; land on unknown islands, worlds, trolley stops; converse with wisemen and fools of all sorts (and sometimes the same people), and on rare occasion they kill critters and take their stuff.
What do the players have to do?
Not a darn thing. At least nothing the GM would like them to do. For that is the secret of RPGs, freedom of choice. Any GM who refuses to accept player initiative is in the wrong hobby.
Is it wrong?
You are a cruel man.
Isn’t limiting what people can do crueler still?
…In any case, the role of the players is to explore the setting they’ve been presented with, to present the GM with situations he hasn’t prepared for, and so encourage adaptability and imagination on his part. To put it simply, get him to loosen up and lighten up, and accept things won’t always go the way he planned.To help the GM understand that RPGs cannot be scripted, plotted, graphed out, or (for that matter) outline. All the GM can do is set up the basic situation, the opening incident, then watch as his players play merry hob with his scenario.
You ask, “What do the players do in an RPG?”
The answer is, “Gift the GM with consternation and confusion.” Remember, it’s part of his job to entertain you.
Alan Kellogg. I am a blogger and a gamer, and I opine on various subjects and topics. I live in San Diego CA, have been gaming since 1964 (board games) and 1975 (RPGs). Have credits in Dangerous Journeys: Mythus and have helped out with a few other projects (Charlemagne’s Paladins for TSR for instance). Currently working on a revision of Mythus for possible publication.