Of course, interactive and impromptu dramas have included elements of play long before the advent of modern wargames -- the children's games of "Playing House" or "Cowboys and Indians" are in essence very simple role-playing games.
Modern RPGs evolved from wargaming roots in the early 1970s. Where a marker or miniature once typically represented a squad of soldiers (although "skirmish level" games did exist where one figure represented one entity only), in early proto-RPGs each token invariably represented a single character.
Each player controlled the actions of that one character. The first edition rules of Dungeons & Dragons; (abbreviated as D&D) betray these roots in the use of a distance scale of one inch per ten feet (or ten yards, outdoors). D&D is considered the first modern role-playing game, and it has influenced nearly every RPG produced since its inception in 1974.
D&D was phenomenally successful, bringing numerous players into the field of role-playing games and spawning a cottage industry centered around the hobby. As with all successful games, D&D spawned a large number of imitators and competitors, some of whom blatantly copied the "look and feel" of the game (one of the earliest competitors to D&D was Tunnels and Trolls). Along with D&D, early successes in the "first generation" of role-playing games included Traveller and RuneQuest.
D&D soon became Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which took the game (and the role-playing game industry in general) away from amateur hobbyism and into the realm of "professional" gaming. As more elaborate, more expensive role-playing game products appeared on the market, organized conventions and professionally published magazines (such as Dragon magazine) catered to the growing field, while role-playing moved out of college campuses and into mainstream life.
RPGs were originally played on a tabletop, because they involved paper, dice, and, often, miniatures or tokens of some kind. From these origins, RPGs have evolved in different directions. Some RPG rules systems are complex and attempt to be realistic simulations; other rules systems place a priority on game balance or on personality, character development, and storytelling. (Gamers later examined the differences in gameplay among RPGs and came up with explanations on the different types of play, such as GNS Theory.)
The 1980s saw a glut in the role-playing game market, as numerous rulebooks, game systems, adventure modules, and other materials crowded the shelves of hobby shops. The biggest game in the field continued to be Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which grew into a mass of consistent and inconsistent rules, reaching as many as fourteen different hardcover rulebooks. These games that relied heavily on obscure rules eventually folded, and D&D itself was simplified somewhat with the release of "second edition" Advanced D&D in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The advent of trading card games, most notably , outshone the popularity of role-playing games during the mid-1990s. The sudden appearance and remarkable popularity of the Magic card game took many gamers (and game publishing companies) by surprise, as they tried to keep pace with fads and changes in the public opinion. For a while, some pessimists forecast the "end" of role-playing games as a serious hobby because of the onslaught of trading card games, though eventually the dust settled and role-playing continued to thrive. The makers of Magic: The Gathering, Wizards of the Coast, bought out TSR and adapted the venerable D&D and AD&D games into a newer, streamlined version of the game. The "third edition" of the Dungeons & Dragons game brought mainstream appeal to the growing "third generation" of role-playing games: ones that placed more of an emphasis on simplistic (yet realistic) game play and characterization over myriad volumes of rule books.
The 90s proved to be a innovative decade seeing many new role-playing games flooding the markets. Perhaps the most popular RPG from this period was . A game designed as an immersive storytelling experience, VtM lent easily itself to LARPing. However there were darkling glimmers that skirted the fringes of the hobby as well when, all too unfortunately, a series of murders were committed by a gang of teenagers whom the media dubbed a "Vampire Cult". Luckily the backlash was minor, brief, and quickly overshadowed by the buyout of TSR by Wizards of the Coast and the subsequent release of the D20 System/OGL rules.
The 1990s also saw many advances in computer technology taking role-playing into new technological frontiers. Computer role-playing games (CRPGs) were already well established in the computer world. However, with the proliferation of home computers, the ability to play games online over BBSes or networks paved the way for MUDs, MMORPGs, and play-by-email (PBeM) gaming. Alas the first stirrings of copyright and intellectual property concerns had already been felt during the latter part of the 80s with TSR leading the way in litigation precedents, first against the publishers of the Role-Aids line of game supplements, and later against file sharers.
In 2000, a significant change occurred in the tabletop role-playing industry. Wizards of the Coast released their Open gaming license for use with their D20 system. This has allowed many small roleplaying game publishers to quickly and easily create roleplaying material that a large body of roleplayers could easily adapt for their own campaigns.
In recent years, D&D has dominated the hobby economically, after a period of decline in the late 1990s. Owing partially to heavy marketing from corporate parent Hasbro, products branded Dungeons & Dragons, including small lines of subsidiary products developed by Kenzer & Company; (Kingdoms of Kalamar) and White Wolf Game Studio (Warcraft: The Role-Playing Game), made up over fifty percent of the RPG products sold overall in 2002. Perhaps predictably, the economic dominance of D&D has led to resentment from fans of competing game systems.
Almost from the beginning of the role-playing hobby there have been those who have leveled accusations of connections to devil worship, as well as claims that RPGs lead to suicide. The most famous case perhaps being the work of author Rona Jaffe that exploited the whole hysteria surrounding Dungeons & Dragons in her thinly-veiled novel, Mazes and Monsters. The book was turned into a TV movie featuring a young Tom Hanks in the key role of a mentally unstable collegian who experiences a psychotic episode and loses himself in the game world.
Such negative portrayals of role-players, ironically, may have originated from an initial inability of some outside observers to properly differentiate between reality and the immersive role-playing aspects of game play. Perception, or rather misperception, has been the major prejudice that role-players have had to face over the years. For instance religious fundamentalists have found the fact that roleplaying characters, for all that they existed solely in imaginary fantasy worlds, were given the "ability" to cast "spells" and use "magic" to be anathema and anti-God. Such accusations continued well beyond the 1980s and into the 1990s. There have been numerous studies exploring this allegation that have generally concluded that not only does it not seem to encourage suicide, but players of this kind of game are in fact less prone to take their own lives.
The Swedish National Board for Youth Affairs has published a report on "Roleplaying as a hobby". The report describes roleplaying as a stimulating hobby that promotes creativity.
Types of RPGs
The term "role-playing game" can be applied to a number of distinct genres:
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