Updated: Aug 11, 2021
In 1974, a game was published by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. This game was designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and, while it had its roots in war gaming (where players design military forces), it is very different from them. This game was Dungeons and Dragons, and is viewed as the beginning of tabletop roleplaying games as we know it.
SO WHAT IS IT?! Well, I'll keep the topic to D&D to keep things simple, and will go into other games later.
You, the Player, create a Character. This Character has traits, skills, and abilities. They are unique in their personal story and you can make them anyway you like! You pick your Character's race, their class (their speciality) and their background as the foundation of your character. Numbers will be added which will inform how good or bad your character is at something. Then a Dungeon Master (aka Games Master) will take you and 3-5 other players on an adventure. The DM will describe where you are and what you see. They will be the people you interact with. They will present story hooks, villains, and the world at large to you. And all together, as a group, you will make the story happen.
I like to describe it a few different ways. It's like reading a novel except YOU'RE the main character. It's like those imaginary games you played as a kid, except with some rules to add structure and randomness to the game. It's like the improv game "Yes, and...". It's a time to hang out with friends, meet new people, laugh a lot, a lose yourself in an imaginary world for awhile, being someone new, someone who's a hero or becoming a hero.
Does that answer the question? I hope it did. And did you know that there are SO SO SO many other kinds of roleplaying games beyond D&D? If you don't like D&D because you don't like the dice system, there are others that don't use any dice! Don't like fantasy? There are systems for cyberpunk, steampunk, modern times, science fiction, and more. There's a game where you play ally cats. There's a game where you play as bears. There's games you play as super heroes. There are systems that are lighter on combat, and heavier on role-play, or intrigue. And there are others that are heavy on game mechanics, allowing for customisation that's included in the rules. If there is a style you're looking for, it likely exists.
D&D 5e is the current gateway into roleplaying games, due to how popular and well known it is. We're happy to teach you how to play it, help you build a character, and find a game to join. If you're interested in learning how to run a game, we can help there too! Come join us over on our Discord Server, ask as many questions as you'd like! Honestly, you aren't alone if you're brand new to the game, and we are happy to help you start your journey!