History of role-playing games

History of role-playing games

The history of role-playing games begins with an earlier tradition of role-playing, which combined with the rulesets of fantasy wargames in the 1970s to give rise to the modern role-playing game. A role-playing game (RPG) is a type of game in which the participants assume the roles of characters and collaboratively create stories. Participants determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, they may improvise freely; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the games.

Role-playing games are substantially different from competitive games such as ball games and card games. This has led to confusion among some non-players about the nature of fantasy gaming. The game "Dungeons & Dragons" was a subject of controversy in the 1980s when well-publicized opponents claimed it caused negative spiritual and psychological effects. Academic research has discredited these claims.cite web|url=http://www.rpgstudies.net/cardwell/attacks.html|title=The Attacks on Roleplaying Games|publisher=first published in the "Skeptical Inquirer"|author=Paul Cardwell, jr] Some educators support role-playing games as a healthy way to hone reading and arithmetic skills.cite web|url=http://www.newhorizons.org/strategies/literacy/kestrel.htm|title=Working Hard at Play|author=Gwendolyn F.M. Kestrel: An educator's opinion of roleplaying games] Though role-playing has been accepted by some, [http://www.geocities.com/TimesSquare/Arcade/2964/ Christian Gamers Guild] explaining that one may be Christian and a role-player at the same time] a few religious conservatives continue to object.cite web|url=http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/0046/0046_01.asp|title=Dark Dungeons|author=Jack Chick:a comic tract portraying D&D as the "Filth of Satan" and promoting book burning]

Media attention both increased sales and stigmatized certain games. In thirty years the genre has grown from a few hobbyists and boutique publishers to an economically significant part of the games industry, though grass-roots and small business involvement remains substantial. Games industry company Hasbro purchased fantasy game publisher Wizards of the Coast in 1998 for an estimated $325 million.cite web|url=http://boardgames.about.com/library/news/bl990911.htm|title=WotC buyout by Hasbro]


Earlier role-playing traditions combined with the game mechanics of fantasy wargames in the 1970s to give rise to the modern role-playing games.cite web|url=http://www.rpg.net/oracle/essays/wherewevebeen.html|title=Where we've been and where we're going: "Generation 1" games]

Early role-playing

In 16th century Europe, traveling teams of players performed a form of improvisational theatre known as the Commedia dell'arte, with stock situations, stock characters and improvised dialogue. In the 19th and early 20th century, many board games and parlour games such as the game "Jury Box" included elements of role-playing. Mock trials, model legislatures, and the "Theatre Games" created by Viola Spolin arose, in which players took on the roles of characters and improvised, but without the formalised rules which would characterise modern role-playing games. [http://www.rpg.net/oracle/essays/rpgoverview.html Role-Playing Games: An Overview] , Andrew Rilstone in Inter*Action #1, 1994]

There is some evidence that assassin-style games may have been played in New York city by adults as early as 1920. A simple version in which an assassination was performed by saying, "You're dead," was mentioned in Harpo Marx's autobiography, "Harpo Speaks!", in a section covering the 1920s.

In the 1960s, historical reenactment groups gave rise to "creative history" games, which probably originate with the founding of the Society for Creative Anachronism in Berkeley, California on May 1, 1966. A similar group, the Markland Medieval Mercenary Militia, began holding events on the University of Maryland, College Park in 1969. These groups were largely dedicated to accurately recreating medieval history and culture, however, with only mild fantasy elements, and were probably mostly influenced by historical re-enactment.


Drawing inspiration from Chess, Helwig, Master of Pages to the Duke of Brunswick created a battle emulation game in 1780. According to Max Boot's book "War Made New" (2006, pg 122), sometime between 1803 and 1809, the Prussian General Staff developed war games, with staff officers moving metal pieces around on a game table (with blue pieces representing their forces and red pieces those of the enemy), using dice rolls to indicate random chance and with a referee scoring the results. Increasingly realistic variations became part of military training in the nineteenth century in many nations, and were called "kriegspiel" or "wargames". Wargames or military exercises are still an important part of military training today.

Wargaming moved from professional training to the hobby market with the publication of "Little Wars", children's toy soldier game, by H.G. Wells in 1913. [http://www.hmgs.org/history.htm History of Wargaming] - discusses developments from chess to H.G. Wells] A niche hobby of wargaming emerged for adults that recreated model games around actual battles from the Napoleonic period onward. Although a marker or miniature figure typically represented a squad of soldiers, some "skirmish level" or "man to man" games did exist where one figure represented one entity only.

The board wargame "Diplomacy", invented by Allan B. Calhamer in 1954 and released in 1959, made social interaction and interpersonal skills part of its gameplay. A live-action variant of "Diplomacy" named "Slobbovia" was used for character development rather than conflict.

In the late 1960s, fantasy elements were increasingly used in wargames. Linguist M. A. R. Barker began to use wargame-like sessions to develop his creation "Tékumel". In 1970, the New England Wargamers Association demonstrated a fantasy wargame called "Middle Earth" at a convention of the Military Figure Collectors Association. [http://www-personal.umich.edu/~beattie/timeline2.html The Courier's Timeline of the Historical Miniatures Wargaming Hobby] ] Fantasy writer Greg Stafford created the board wargame "White Bear and Red Moon" to explore conflicts in his fantasy world Glorantha, though it did not see publication until 1974.

Chainmail and Blackmoor

Gary Gygax of the University of Minnesota's wargaming society developed a set of rules for a late medieval milieu. This unusual wargame saw publication in 1971 under the name "Chainmail". Although "Chainmail" was a historical game, it included an appendix for adding fantasy elements such as wizards and dragons.

A wargame session was held at the University of Minnesota in 1969, with Dave Wesely as the moderator, in which the players represented single characters in a Napoleonic scenario centering around a small town named "Braunstein". This did not lead to any further experimentation in the same vein immediately, but the ground had been laid. It actually bore greater resemblance to later LARP games than what would conventionally be thought of as a role-playing game. Wesely would, later in the year, run a second "Braunstein," placing the players in the roles of government officials and revolutionaries in a fictional banana republic. The two games would be used partially by Dave Arneson who was a participant, to focus his ideas regarding a fantasy realm known as Blackmoor, and by 1971, Arneson would be running what could be conventionally recognized as a role-playing game based on his Blackmoor world. This game is still running in 2008, making it the longest-running role-playing campaign ever.

Blackmoor contained core elements that would become widespread in fantasy gaming: hit points, experience points, character levels, armor class, and dungeon crawls. Like the wargames it grew from, Blackmoor used miniature figures and terrain grids to illustrate the action. The key difference with the Blackmoor games, which allowed it to become a game distinct from the wargame-based Braunsteins, was the ability of the players to set their own character goals, in addition to the scenario goals set by Arneson. Arneson and Gygax then met and collaborated on the first "Dungeons & Dragons" game.


The 1970s: The first modern RPGs

The first commercially available role-playing game, "Dungeons & Dragons" ("D&D"), was published in 1974 by Gygax's TSR. TSR marketed the game as a niche product. Gygax expected to sell about 50,000 copies. [http://www.atlasofadventure.com/Archive/gygaxinterview.asp Interview with Gary Gygax] at Atlas of Adventure] After establishing itself in boutique stores it developed a cult following.

The game's growing success spawned cottage industries and a variety of peripheral products. In a few years other fantasy games appeared, some of which blatantly copied the look and feel of the original game (one of the earliest competitors was "Tunnels and Trolls"). Along with "Dungeons & Dragons", early successes included "Chivalry & Sorcery", "Traveller", "Space Opera" and "RuneQuest." Live-action groups such as dagorhir were started, and organized gaming conventions and publications such as "Dragon Magazine" catered to the growing hobby.

TSR launched "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" ("AD&D") in the late seventies (retroactively renamed "AD&D 1st Edition" after the debut of "AD&D 2nd Edition" in 1989). This ambitious project expanded the rules to a small library of hardcover books, each hundreds of pages long. These covered such minutiae as the chance of finding a singing sword in a pile of loot or the odds of coaxing gossip from a tavern keeper. Optional modules in the form of small booklets offered prepared adventure settings. The first edition "Dungeon Master's Guide" published in 1979 included a recommended reading list of twenty-five authors.

The 1980s: Growth and controversy

Literary and mythological references helped draw new fans to the game. Success became a mixed blessing for TSR: copyright infringement issues dogged the first edition "Deities and Demigods" rules book. A public controversy emerged (see below) that brought public attention and improved sales but also stigmatized the game. The company underwent dramatic growth, peaking at 300 employees in 1984.

Translations allowed the hobby to spread to other countries. "Traveller" was translated into Japanese in 1984, quickly followed by "Dungeons & Dragons" in 1985.cite web|title=RPG FAQ from Japan|url=http://www.trpg.net/en/faq/|accessdate=2006-07-27] New games began to be produced outside America, such as "Drakar och Demoner" (1982) in Sweden, "The Dark Eye" (1983) in Germany, "Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay" (1986) in the United Kingdom, "ANKH" (1989) in Finland and "Sword World RPG" (1989) in Japan.

Role-playing games began to influence other media. A new genre of computer games arose from early mainframe computer imitations of RPGs, with "Akalabeth" and "Rogue" both published in 1980; the genre inherited many of the settings and game mechanics of RPGs as well as the name, and went on to have its own varied history. An animated television series based on "Dungeons & Dragons" was produced in 1983, also called "Dungeons & Dragons".

The second edition of "Dungeons & Dragons", launched in 1988, downplayed literary elements to reduce objections. Surviving artifacts of this heritage and its influence on the wider gaming community include widespread use of Tolkienesque character types and the persistence of the gaming term "vorpal." Borrowed from Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky," this was the first edition's most powerful magic sword.

Up to this stage, each game had tied itself to a particular setting; If a player wanted to play in a science-fiction game and a fantasy game, they had to learn two game systems. Attempts were made in "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" to allow cross-genre games using "Gamma World" and "Boot Hill" rules, but the obscure rules went largely unused. In 1986, seeking to produce a single, generic game which would meet every gamer's needs, Steve Jackson Games released "GURPS" - the "Generic Universal Roleplaying System". "GURPS" emphasis on its "generic" aspect proved to be a successful marketing tactic; it remained the second-most popular role-playing game system into the 1990s.

"GURPS" and "Champions" also served to introduce game balance between player characters to role-playing games. Whereas in "Dungeons & Dragons" players created characters randomly using dice, newer games began to use a system whereby each player was given a number of character points to spend to get characteristics, skills, advantages, getting more points by accepting low characteristics, disadvantages etc.

The 1990s: Sophistication and decline

The game "Ars Magica", originally published in 1988, emphasised characterisation and storytelling over game mechanics and combat. The game was acquired by White Wolf, Inc., who took the same approach to their 1991 game "", a gothic horror themed game whose setting appealed to the growing Goth subculture; the game was a huge success and spawned a huge number of spinoffs which were brought together as the "World of Darkness". This style of storytelling game lent itself well to live-action role-playing games.

The fall of communism allowed the hobby to spread even further. A Polish RPG magazine, "Magia i Miecz" ("Magic and Sword"), was published, and soon several Polish role-playing games followed, with other post-communist countries soon joining in.

With advances in home computing, computer role-playing games increased in popularity. These games, which use settings and game-mechanics found in role-playing games, do not require a gamemaster or require a player to remain in-character. Although they helped to introduce new gamers to the hobby, the demands of time and money on players were split between the two.

In 1993, Peter Adkison and Richard Garfield, a doctoral candidate in mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, released a competitive card collecting game with a fantasy setting reminiscent of fantasy role-playing games called "". The game was extremely successful, and its publishers Wizards of the Coast (WotC) experienced phenomenal growth; A new genre of collectible card games emerged. The sudden appearance and remarkable popularity of "Magic" took many gamers (and game publishing companies) by surprise, as they tried to keep pace with fads and changes in the public opinion. [http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0DTI/is_n10_v24/ai_18726434 Card sharks - success of card game company Wizards of the Coast - Company Profile] - a financial analysis of the firm]

As printing technology improved, buyers' expectations increased and the increased printing costs needed to meet them was passed on to the customer. TSR found itself involved in litigation against file sharers who were bootlegging RPGs. Many FTP sites and webpages that contained material relating to, but not directly copying any copyrighted material, were targeted and attacked by TSR, and some online fans of "D&D" and RPGs started to refer to TSR as "T$R".

With gamers' time and money split three ways, the role-playing game industry declined. Articles appeared in "Dragon Magazine" and other industry magazines foretelling the "end of roleplaying", since face-to-face time was spent playing "Magic". TSR's attempts to become a publishing house further drained their reserves of cash, and the financially troubled company was eventually purchased by Wizards of the Coast in 1997. Needless to say, articles criticising WotC's game in TSR's magazine stopped. WotC became a division of Hasbro in 1998 for an estimated $325 million buyout.

Meanwhile critical and theoretical reflection on role-playing game theory was developing. In 1994-95 "Inter*Active", (later re-named "Interactive Fiction") published a magazine devoted to the study of RPGs. In the late 90's discussion on the nature of RPGs on rec.games.frp.advocacy generated the Threefold Model. The Scandinavian RPG scene saw several opposing ideological camps about the nature and function of RPGs emerge, which began having regular academic conferences called the knutepunkt conferences, which began in 1997 and continue to today.

The 2000s: Open gaming and Indie gaming

Frustrated that game supplements suffered far more diminished sales over time than the core books required to play the game, WotC's "Dungeons & Dragons" brand manager Ryan Dancey introduced a policy whereby other companies could publish "D&D"-compatible games under the Open Gaming License. This would spread the cost of supplementing the game and would increase sales of the core books, which could only be published by Wizards of the Coast. The new "D&D" rules became known as the "d20 system", and a System Reference Document was published, containing all the rules needed to write a supplement or run a one-off game, but lacking the character advancement rules necessary for long-term play. The open gaming movement enjoyed a great deal of success, although there was some criticism of the move, and a great many have been released.

Meanwhile, self-defined "Indie role-playing" communities arose on the internet, studying role-playing and developing the GNS Theory of role-playing games. With the advent of print on demand and PDF publishing, it became possible for these individuals to produce games with tightly-focused designs, eschewing the mainstream trends of the industry.


Role-playing games are often poorly understood by the non-gaming community, and have attracted criticism from concerned parents and religious conservatives. The religious objections leveled against fantasy role-playing games in the past are similar to religious objections sometimes now made against the "Harry Potter" fantasy series and The Walt Disney Company. However, these objections have not led to a boycott of Hasbro similar to those organized against the latter two products.

Outsiders who misunderstand the nature of fantasy gaming have created serious problems for the industry. Publisher Steve Jackson Games nearly went out of business after a 1990 United States Secret Service raid seized the company's computers. The firm's fantasy technology game "GURPS Cyberpunk" inspired a mistaken assumption that they were computer hackers. [http://www.sjgames.com/SS/ SJ Games vs. the Secret Service] - a summary by a Steve Jackson Games attorney] A 1994 U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit ruling upheld the firm's subsequent suit against the Secret Service. These actions, in part, led to the creation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. [http://www.swiss.ai.mit.edu/6095/assorted-short-pieces/sjg-appeal.txt Text of the appellate court ruling] in favor of Steve Jackson Games]

"Dungeons & Dragons"

Though many role-playing games have had controversies or poor press, "Dungeons & Dragons" has often been the primary target of criticism, at least in part because it is so widely played that it has become emblematic of role-playing in popular culture. Groups as diverse as the Israel Defense Forces and Jack Chick publications have singled the game out as a source of concern. [http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3052074,00.html Army frowns on Dungeons & Dragons] , Ynetnews] [http://www.fecundity.com/pmagnus/darkdung.html Secrets of Dark Dungeons] by P. D. Magnus]

In 2008 Michael Goldfarb, writing in support of Republican presidential nominee John McCain, referred to "Dungeons & Dragons" while disparaging supporters of Democratic nominee Barack Obama. [cite web|url=http://www.johnmccain.com/mccainreport/Read.aspx?guid=181471d0-5456-4434-9f78-2f30ffc39459|title=Smears the Left Can Fight For|author=Goldfarb, Michael|date=2008-08-18|accessdate=2008-08-27] Goldfarb had previously apologised for any harm caused by his comments about players of the game. [cite web|url=http://www.politico.com/blogs/bensmith/0808/Goldfarb_keeps_experience_points.html|title=Goldfarb keeps experience points|author=Smith, Ben|date=2008-08-18|accessdate=2008-08-27]

team tunnel incident

One of the most widely referenced incidents relating to "Dungeons & Dragons" came in 1979, with the disappearance of 16-year-old James Dallas Egbert III. Egbert had attempted suicide in the utility tunnels beneath the campus of Michigan State University, and after his unsuccessful attempt, hid at a friend's house for approximately a month.

A well-publicized search for Egbert began, and a private investigator speculated in the press that Egbert had gotten lost in the steam tunnels during a live-action version of the game. The press largely reported the story as fact, which served as the kernel of a persistent collective delusion regarding such "steam tunnel incidents." Egbert's suicide attempts, including his successful suicide the following year (by self-inflicted gunshot) had no connection whatsoever to "D&D", being brought on by his being a talented but highly depressed young man under incredible stress.Dear, William C. "Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III", Houghton Mifflin, 1984] The 1981 book, "Mazes and Monsters" was a thinly disguised fictionalization of the press exaggerations of the Egbert case, which was later adapted as a made-for-television movie in 1982.


Also in 1982, Patricia Pulling's son, an active "D&D" player, committed suicide, and Pulling believed the game to be the direct cause of his death. After unsuccessful legal action, Pulling founded the one-person advocacy group Bothered About "Dungeons & Dragons" (BADD), and began publishing information circulating her belief that "D&D" encouraged devil worship and suicide.

Overall opponents of role-playing gaming were remarkably successful at attracting media attention in the 1980s. In a 1994 "Skeptical Inquirer" article, Paul Cardwell, Jr. observes that, "The Associated Press and United Press International, between 1979 and 1992, carried 111 stories mentioning role-playing games. Almost all named only "Dungeons & Dragons"... Of the 111 stories, 80 were anti-game, 19 had no majority, 9 were neutral, and only 3 were pro-game. Those three pro-game stories were all from UPI, which is a considerably smaller wire service than AP.

"Dungeons & Dragons" publisher TSR made little direct attempt to counter this impression other than to reduce objectionable content in its products. The company was experiencing growing pains during this time. Sales had doubled annually throughout the 1970s and quadrupled as the controversy ensued. TSR also commenced a partnership with Random House at the same time, so the degree to which media attention helped sales is uncertain. Internal management and production issues appear to have consumed the firm's attention during this period.

Response to criticism

Gamers organized the Committee for the Advancement of Role-Playing Games (CAR-PGa) in 1988. This organization writes letters to editors, gives interviews, and advocates for balanced reporting about RPGs.

Their defense of RPGs has been made easier as more research has become available regarding such games. For example, the American Association of Suicidology, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and Health & Welfare (Canada) have all concluded that there is no causal link between fantasy gaming and suicide. [http://www.rpg.net/realm/critique/gama.html QUESTIONS & ANSWERS ABOUT ROLE-PLAYING GAMES] , Loren K. Wiseman and Michael A. Stackpole, ©1991 by Game Manufacturers Association] And in "The Pulling Report", writer Michael Stackpole used BADD's own data to demonstrate that suicide is actually lower among gamers than non-gamers. [http://members.tripod.com/~limsk/pulling.htm The Pulling Report] ]

Mainstream criticism of RPGs has subsided with the debunking of BADD's and similar claims, although a number of urban legends have nevertheless been linked to RPGs over the years.

wedish National Board for Youth Affairs

From 1994 to 1997 three proposals were put forth in the Swedish Riksdag aimed at removing government grants for Sverok, the Swedish nationwide umbrella organization for gaming clubs. The arguments for the proposals were that playing role-playing games made youths more prone to acts of violence and that some sensational cases that had come to the public's attention had a cause in role-playing games.

In response to these proposals the [http://www.ungdomsstyrelsen.se/kat/0,2070,7,00.html Swedish National Board for Youth Affairs] , the government agency charged with monitoring and acting on the interests of youths in Sweden, was given the assignment to evaluate role-playing as a hobby. This resulted in a report with the title " [http://www.sverok.se/fileadmin/dokument/Rapporter/Rollspel/Rollspelsomfritidsysselsattning.pdf Role-playing as recreation] " sv icon.

The report gives no support to claims of correlation between acts violence and playing role-playing games, nor of claims that impressionable youths would be susceptible to blurring lines between reality and fantasy, another claim made in the Riksdag proposals. On the contrary, the report is positive of role-playing as recreation for youths. The report states: "Role-playing gives youths the opportunity to acquire exciting and complex skills. The game as such invites creativity and learning in for example oral presentation". Several other benefits are also mentioned, such as: stimulating flexibility and negotiation in social contexts, promoting cooperation, and promoting learning history and culture. The report concludes : "In light of this it is possible to regard some parts of the criticism aimed towards role-playing as an expression of so called moral panic".

This report was used as the main argument to strike down the Riksdag proposals. In 2004, Sverok was the youth organisation that was granted the most government funding in Sweden.

Belfast robbery

In December 2005 Robert Boyd from Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland robbed a lingerie shop at knifepoint in Belfast while wearing a blonde ladies wig. During his trial Boyd stated he was playing "Shadowrun", specifically the role of criminal elf Buho, at the time and may have "blurred reality and fantasy". Two jurors believed his story, but ten did not and he was convicted of robbery in March 2007. [cite web|url=http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/6430683.stm|title='Elf' lingerie thief found guilty|work=BBC News|accessdate=2007-03-08]


ee also

* History of live action role-playing games

External links

* [http://www.skotos.net/articles/TTnT_134.phtml A Brief History of Roleplaying] - categorization of role-playing games in history
* [http://www.roleplay.org/ Roleplay.org] - An introduction, history, and articles on role-playing and role-playing games.
* [http://www.theharrow.com/rpg/whatisroleplaying.html What is roleplaying?] a copylefted introductory article
* [http://ptgptb.org/0001/history1.html A History of Role-playing] - 8 part series
* [http://www.theescapist.com The Escapist] - A role-playing advocacy website devoted to dispelling the misconceptions and promoting the hobby through positive means.
* [http://www.mage-page.com/index.php?pageid=17 A Brief History of Role Playing Games] by Victor Raymond (1994), Midwest Area Gaming Enthusiasts.

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