History of Role Playing Games

On March 27, 2013, in JT Evans, RP Nerd, by JT Evans


A Little Pre-History

Crafting tales is at the root of role playing, and humanity has been telling stories since we could grunt out polysyllabic words. More recently, tabletop strategy games, or wargames, were created to hone military commanders’ skills. These wargames date back to the late 1700s and early 1800s. Skip forward to the 1960s, and we find fantasy elements added to the wargames in homage to Tolkien’s works. It was around this time that Gary Gygax’s medieval recreation wargame, Chainmail, added in fantasy elements to the game. At around the same time, Dave Arneson created Blackmoor, which included concepts modern gamers will recognize: levels, armor class, dungeon crawls, hit points and so on.

Founding Fathers

In 1974, the first true RPG was released by TSR. Gygax and Arneson collaborated to create Dungeons and Dragons. Gygax has gone on record to say that he only expected to sell 50,000 copies. I think he reached that goal, and then some.

At the same time as the release of D&D, M.A.R. Barker worked on and released Tékumel, and Empire of the Petal Throne.

Simbalist and Backhaus came out with Chivalry & Sorcery in 1977 as a competitor to D&D. The approach for this game was a fantasy game with more realism in the system than what D&D provided.

Tunnels and Trolls was also released in the mid-70s by Ken St. Andre, and is still going strong today.

While most of the games of this era were based on fantasy, the science fiction genre was not ignored. Traveller came out from Game Designers’ Workshop in 1977, and this game is still thriving today with a plethora of support books and alternate rules.

Chaosium arrived late to the initial push of the new hobby in 1978 with their release of RuneQuest. They established a strong following and recently released version six of the game.

The Early Days

With a wide variety of offerings in the role playing arena, people still couldn’t get enough material to support their habits. TSR gladly filled the void by releasing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons between 1977 and 1979. In my opinion, one of the best role playing books ever printed was the first AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. Anyone running a game (any genre, but especially fantasy) should scour the pages of this book to learn from one of the masters on how to run a game. The charts, tables and appendices (especially Appendix N) are vital to any fantasy-based game.

In addition to the release of AD&D, Dragon Magazine was formed to support the burgeoning hobby, and this magazine lives on today in electronic-only format.

The games mentioned earlier continued to grow and expand the hobby of role playing, but none of them made the mark on the world like AD&D did. TSR ran away with the hobby like a juggernaut until the early 1980s when others entered the gaming arena with firm offerings.

The Hey Days

I got into the hobby of role playing in 1983 with the release of the first D&D Red Box. Little did I know at the time that this was the prime time for role playing. The gaming industry exploded in the 1980s, and this “RPG Big Bang” continued outward, with TSR at the center, into the 1990s. While I’ve listed the founding fathers and early contributors, there’s just no way I can list out everything that came out between 1980 and 1999. A very conservative estimate of mine is that almost three-hundred distinct role playing systems, across all genres, were published during this time-frame. This does not count independent efforts that may have had a small, local following, or the thousands of support and setting materials published. As a gauge of the hobby’s growth, we can use the world’s largest gaming convention, Gen Con. In the early 1980s, attendance was just under 5,000 people. By the time 2000 rolled around, Gen Con pulled in over 20,000 people in the four days it ran.

Modern Times

Interest in the hobby waned in the late 1990s, but when Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR in 1997, they revamped the D&D line. The release of D&D 3.0 under the Open Gaming License (OGL) in 2000 caused the hobby to re-surge into popularity again. The OGL allowed for third-party publishers to create content, alternate rules, rules expansions, and settings. Many publishers came into existence to create D&D 3.0 materials, and some of them have gone on to great success in their own rights.

With the release of D&D under the OGL, many derivatives have surfaced. Some were quite good, while others languished. RPGs have also become more popular because of lower start-up costs involved in publishing one’s own materials. Print-on-demand technology and assistive publishing companies have been leveraged by quite a few indie efforts to get their games in front of audiences. Of course, with the Internet being able to be used as a marketing tool, it’s easier than ever to get word out about small projects. Lastly, sites like KickStarter and IndieGoGo have allowed role players to return to a patronage system where patrons (or consumers in the modern terms) can pre-pay for a product or ideas as a show of support for the independent effort. When enough people join together in these crowd-funding efforts, a small publisher can quickly grow their product lines.

Future Predictions

D&D is currently in its fourth edition, and Wizards of the Coast is working on “D&D Next,” but I predict the future of gaming will be in the independent or smaller presses. They are more agile and able to produce quality work more quickly than the behemoth publishing houses. With the advent of quality print-on-demand and crowd-funding, the sky is the limit for a creative person interested in producing their own gaming material.

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4 Responses to History of Role Playing Games

  1. Ed Marrow says:

    I started with the Red Box too! I cant tell you how many weekends disappeared into Domino’s Pizza, Mountain Dew and D&D. I can’t wait until my kids are old enough to play.

    My only concern is that everyone seems to be abandoning RPGs for console and PC games.

  2. JT Evans says:

    I’m with you Ed. I can’t wait until my son is old enough to sit down at the table with me. Lots of people have asked me about what age their child should be before attempting to introduce them to role playing. There have been some great games (I’ll write a post about them at a later date) regarding RPGs for children. If you’re using one of those, I would say wait until they’re 7-9 years old, depending on their math skills and maturity level. Keep the sessions to about an hour or so, or you’ll risk losing their attention. Once a child has reached about 10-12 years old (again, depending on maturity level) you can begin playing the more advanced games with longer session times. I’d avoid the complex point-buy systems (GURPS, Hero, etc.) even though I love them. Wait until they reach 14-15 before throwing them into those more complex systems.

    Your last point about people migrating to console/PC games for their RPG immersion is a valid one. I completely understand that fear, but the immersive and flexible nature of a good GM will always trump what a computer can do. One of my favorite quotes from Gary Gygax is, “There is no role-playing in an online game that can match what happens in person.” He said it quite a while back, but it holds true today. It will most likely hold true until we get the full-immersion virtual reality type stuff of today’s science fiction.

    Thanks for the reply!

  3. Ht J.T.

    I hit Dungeons and Dragons at about the same era, early 80’s. We (my brothers and friends) quickly went from “basic” D&D to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and didn’t look back.

    We experimented with a slew of other games–Traveller, especially. We wanted but never found Metamorphosis Alpha.

    One major break I think you could and should talk about in more detail is the reaction to 4th Edition—that is to say, the Pathfinder split.

    And of course the rise of small press Indiegames, the games that came out of The Forge…

  4. JT Evans says:

    Yeah. I wanted to delve a little deeper into the OGL (Open Game License) and what it spawned for the industry. I also wanted to dive into how Pathfinder is now the 800 pound gorilla in the fantasy role playing industry while D&D 4e pretty much dropped off the radar due to massive mistakes made with the system.

    I just ran short on my word count. 🙂

    I’ll queue up another post about the current status of role playing and get it in the mix for a near future release.

    Thanks for the ideas!

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