History of tabletop role-playing game

History of tabletop role-playing game

Tabletop role-playing games have origins in wargaming. In turn, wargaming has roots in ancient strategy games, particularly Chess, which originated from the ancient Indian game Chaturanga.


Tabletop role-playing games have origins in wargaming. In turn, wargaming has roots in ancient strategy games, particularly Chess, which originated from the ancient Indian game Chaturanga. From the late 18th century to the 19th century, chess variants evolved into modern wargames, most notably Kriegsspiel. More than a century later, the miniature wargame Chainmail, released in 1971, eventually became the basis for Dungeons & Dragons.[5][6]

According to RPG designer John Wick, Chess can be turned into a role-playing game if chess pieces such as the king, queen, rooks, knights or pawns are given names, and decisions are made based on their motivations. According to Wick, Dungeons & Dragons was a "sophisticated, intricate and complicated combat simulation board game that people were turning into a roleplaying game" just "like giving your rook a motive" in Chess.[7]

The assumption of roles was a central theme in some early 20th century activities such as the game Jury Box, mock trials, model legislatures, and "Theatre Games". In the 1960s, historical reenactment groups such as The Sealed Knot and the Society for Creative Anachronism began to perform "creative history" reenactments introducing fantasy elements, and in the 1970s fantasy wargames were developed, inspired by sword and sorcery fiction, in which each player controlled only a single unit, or "character". The earlier role-playing tradition was combined with the wargames' rule-based character representation to form the first role-playing games.[8][9]

Dungeons & Dragons, developed in 1974 by Dave Arneson and E. Gary Gygax and published by Gygax's company, TSR, was the first commercially available role-playing game. TSR marketed the game as a niche product. Gygax expected to sell about 50,000 copies total to a strictly hobbyist market.[10] After establishing itself in boutique stores, it developed a strong, lasting fan base.

One of the first original role-playing games was M. A. R. Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne, first published in 1974, the same year as Dungeons & Dragons. It introduced the fictional world of Tékumel, influenced by Indian, Middle-Eastern, Egyptian and Meso-Americanmythology.[11] It also introduced the game mechanic of critical hits.[12] Using these rules a player who rolls a 20 on a 20 sided die does double the normal damage, and a 20 followed by a 19 or 20 counts as a killing blow. According to creator Barker, "this simulates the 'lucky hit' on a vital organ."[13] The game influenced Arneson and Gygax, who was so impressed with it that his company TSR published Empire of the Petal Throne in 1975.[11] TSR published Barker's game and setting as a standalone game, rather than as a "supplement" to the original D&D rules.[14]

Another early game was Traveller, designed by Marc Miller and first published in 1977 by Game Designer's Workshop. This was originally intended to be a system for playing generic space-opera-themed science-fiction adventures (in the same sense that Dungeons & Dragons was a system for generic fantasy adventures), but an optional setting called "the Third Imperium" that was detailed in subsequent supplements became strongly identified with the game. The changes in this setting over time, especially those involving "the Fifth Frontier War" as depicted in the Journal of the Travellers Aid Society, arguably constitute the first use of metaplot in a role-playing game.[citation needed] Meanwhile, Call of Cthulhu and Paranoia offered different role-playing experiences, in which the story arc of a group's investigation would lead to death and/or madness, or where comical infighting within a group would be expected and reinforced within the genre conventions of "a darkly humorous future". At the same time, games using the fictional worlds of Star Trek, DC Heroes, the Marvel Universe or The Lord of the Rings expanded the range of possibilities for Table-top gaming. Games such as GURPS and Champions introduced game balance between player characters; later, Vampire: The Masquerade and similar games emphasized storytelling, plot and character development over rules and combat. More recently, rules innovations have combined with literary techniques to develop games such as Dogs in the Vineyard and Polaris that rely on the contributions of players to enhance moral agency in a process of emergent storytelling.

Due to the game's success, the term Dungeons & Dragons has sometimes been used as a generic term for fantasy role-playing games. TSR undertook legal action to prevent its trademark from becoming generic.[15]Dungeons & Dragons was a subject of controversy in the 1980s when opponents such as Patricia Pulling claimed it caused negative spiritual and psychological effects. Academic research has discredited these claims.[16] Some educators support role-playing games as a healthy way to hone reading and arithmetic skills.[17]Though role-playing has been generally accepted in society,[18] the subject retains a level of controversy among some religious organizations.[19][20] This belief or attitude is by no means universal among religious organizations; there are faith-based role-playing games on the market[21] and religious role-players who disagree that these games are morally corrupt or occult in nature.[22]

Competition from role-playing video games and collectible card games led to a decline in the tabletop role-playing game industry. The financially troubled market leader TSR, Inc., which had suffered financial setbacks from overproduction, was eventually purchased by Wizards of the Coast.[23] To better cope with the economics of role-playing games, they introduced a new regime of open gaming, allowing other companies to publish D&D-compatible supplements. Meanwhile, self-defined "Indie role-playing" communities arose on the internet, studying role-playing and developing several forms of role-playing game theory such as GNS theory, and critical reflection on role-playing games has become popular in Scandinavia leading even to a yearly academic conference.[citation needed]

In forty years the genre has grown from a few hobbyists and boutique publishers to an economically significant part of the games industry. Grass-roots and small business involvement remains substantial while larger projects have attracted several million players worldwide. Games industry leader Hasbro purchased Wizards of the Coast in 1999 for an estimated $325 million.[24]


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