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"The History of Role Playing Games?" Topic

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4,634 hits since 23 Apr 2006
©1994-2014 Bill Armintrout
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Robotic Legionary Inactive Member24 Apr 2006 8:21 a.m. PST

This is not a topic about which game came first. I think that, while there were earlier starts, "little brown folios D&D" was effectively the game that got this aspect of the hobby moving. But, as I say, that is not my question.

Rather, I am curious as to how the CONCEPT of role playing evolved.

IIUC, it basically had two origins, that kind of grafted together overtime.

One was in medieval wargaming, where, gradually, single miniatures battles developed into campaigns, and players developed into kings. Eventually, the kings wanted to do more than just command armies in the field, and a certain amount of roleplaying began to take shape.

The other was the Old West style shoot-out, where characters gradually became more intricate, and campaigns began to develop. Sure, it was fun to rob the stage coach, but, eventually, you wanted to actually do something with all them thar' Yankee 20 dollar gold pieces, and, again, rpging started to take shape.

Another example of an interesting but ultimately abortive direction was En Garde!, which, as the designers started, out as a duelling system with extras, but in which the extras quickly became more central than the duels.

Again, IIUC, and for all his personality flaws, it took E. Gary Gygax to really create a game in which roleplaying and character development was the central concern, rather than a sidelight to fields battles and shoot-outs.

Here again, this is only my rather anecdotal understanding of what happened. Would love to learn more.

Robotic Legionary Inactive Member24 Apr 2006 8:24 a.m. PST

SHOULD SAY "Another example of an interesting but ultimately abortive direction was En Garde!, which, as the designers STATED, started, out… etc."

ETenebrisLux24 Apr 2006 8:48 a.m. PST

'The' story has been told several places, i just grabbed this from here link

Role-playing games (or RPGs) grew out of table-top war-gaming at the end of the 1960s. Dave Wesley, a war-gamer in Minneapolis-St. Paul, was inspired by an old combat-simulation game created in the 1880s used to train army officers, which used an objective referee to adjudicate between opposing players. Wesley decided to try this out for himself and so he devised and refereed a Napoleonic minatures session set in a fictional German town called Braunstein, which stood between two opposing armies:

"Some players represented advance elements of the armies just entering the town, and others represented factions from within the town itself. Each player's faction had differing goals and abilities. The players, used to set-piece battles between armies, had never encountered anything like this before, but soon they were deeply engaged in all sorts of intrigue, with their figures chasing each other around the miniature town of Braunstein. The game dissolved into apparent chaos, and the armies never did get to the town."
"This undisciplined brawl violated all Wesley's cherished theories of organized game conduct, and he thought of it as a failure. But the players loved it and were soon pestering him to run 'another Braunstein'. "

The players' excitement grew as Wesley's group tried a series of increasingly immersive scenarios, which gradually took on more and more elements of role-playing. In 1971 one of the group's members, Dave Arneson, began running an ongoing campaign set in a mythical medieval barony called Blackmoor. By now, most of the key elements of role-playing were in place: each player was in charge of a single character, whose adventures were not limited to a single session, but could continue indefinitely (or at least until their death). The referee created the world and was in charge of everyone and everything inside that world apart from the players' characters. Blackmoor even introduced the idea of adventuring in underground labyrinths, or "dungeons," which soon became a staple of fantasy Role-Playing Games.

Superlative Inactive Member24 Apr 2006 8:50 a.m. PST

Isn't that what D&D is now? I think D&D focuses too much on power gaming and turn-based combat (like a chess game – not too "real-time" feeling!).

Do you know why the D&D movies (part 1 & 2) were really crappy? Because they were based on a crappy world, and a crappy gaming system. Seriously. Not much thought went into the implications of having magic be able to do everything.

Just look at the movie – seriously, that is how a D&D gaming session "looks" like (lots of magic etc.). And it just looks like crap. Nothing is exotic, instead everything looks like cheap special effects.

I prefer a Robert E. Howard or JRR Tolkien world, where magic and monsters were more exotic and "rare". The worlds were more interesting, which is why the movies and movie plots are better. Magic is more exciting when it is rare and mysterious.

Sorry to digress!

jchokey Inactive Member24 Apr 2006 8:52 a.m. PST

It's not exactly related to RPGs in *general*, but there's an (IMHO) insightful article by Ron Edwards on the Forge about the early history of D&D and 'hobby culture' that touches on this:

ghostdog24 Apr 2006 8:52 a.m. PST

So dave anerson created RPG games, and not gary gygax?

Robotic Legionary Inactive Member24 Apr 2006 8:59 a.m. PST

ghostdog "So dave anerson created RPG games, and not gary gygax?"

I've heard that. Gygax also has his own version of the story, which is not too flattering of Arneson.

Still, in the last analysis, Gary was the won who took the risk of bringing the thing to print and marketing it. He did credit Arneson with partial authorship, at least in the earliest editions.

Robotic Legionary Inactive Member24 Apr 2006 9:30 a.m. PST

Gary was also the ONE who took the risk, etc. Sorry, rough night.

rktsci Inactive Member24 Apr 2006 9:35 a.m. PST

The story seems to be that Arneson's group started doing some role-playing. Soon, Gygax's group heard about it, went to some sessions with Arenson, went back to Lake Geneva and ran with it. At some point, the "rules" both groups were using – actually just notes and random ideas – were written up by Gygax and published.

One thing that the essay on the Forge linked to above has wrong – "whitebox D&D" is not just the late 70s reprint of the original D&D. The first printing of D&D was the brown box (1000 or so copies), but the followup printings in 73 or 74 were white box. I have one, probably the first set sold in Houston. As an aside, I used it to teach several game designers D&D, including Steve Jackson.

Personal logo Lentulus Supporting Member of TMP24 Apr 2006 10:16 a.m. PST

I think you'll find a number of groups doing refereed extended campaigns with a large character element — a group here did Lord of the Rings about '74 for example; but of course only a few contributed to the D&D "gene pool"

When was the WRG "How to run a Wargames Campaign" book published?

nycjadie Inactive Member24 Apr 2006 10:33 a.m. PST

"where magic and monsters were more exotic and "rare""

They are as rare as the GM makes them.

Derek H24 Apr 2006 11:12 a.m. PST

I have a coppy of Tony Bath's "Setting up a Wargames Campaign" published by WRG in May 1973.

The Hyborian Campaign described therein has many roleplaying elements and had been running for years before the book was published.

Personal logo Lentulus Supporting Member of TMP24 Apr 2006 6:01 p.m. PST

D&D and its close friend chainmail also illustrate the greatest change in miniatures over the last 30 years. In that set you will find suggestions about how to use historical figures to represent fantasy characters. Now we speculate on which fantasy figures can be converted to supplement our historical forces.

Personal logo Lentulus Supporting Member of TMP24 Apr 2006 6:05 p.m. PST

"seriously, that is how a D&D gaming session…"

No argument from me, other's mileage may vary; but how many RPG`s can claim independent ancestry, and how many started with people playing some D&D and saying afterwards "nice concept, but I bet I could do better…"?

The Clock Inactive Member24 Apr 2006 7:23 p.m. PST

Yeah. There's something to be said for the fact that they did it first. Also, how many other games have had anywhere near the staying-power of D&D?

GypsyComet24 Apr 2006 8:16 p.m. PST

>>Also, how many other games have had anywhere near the staying-power of D&D?<<

Tunnels & Trolls, Traveller, and Runequest are all still around in some form, as is Chivalry & Sorcery. Of all of these old-timers, only one is still being produced by its originating company, and it *ain't* D&D…

Javier Barriopedro aka DokZ Inactive Member24 Apr 2006 8:56 p.m. PST

Not to mention Call of Cthulhu by Chaosium, as well as GURPS.

They remain at their original home and with a proven track record of GREAT stuff coming out for them both.

D&D on the other hand got bought, remade, revamped and swamped. Sure the initials are the same,but the game has changed a lot and not all of those changes were for the good.

finally, I'll take anything Gugax says or writes with a rock of salt, as his introductions to the original D&D and AD&D were a lot of tooting his horn, gratuitous self-agrandizing and plain "lame geekness" self-percieved as "utter coolness".

Still, him aside, I liked the game system and just luvved 2nd. Ed.

maxxon Inactive Member24 Apr 2006 10:10 p.m. PST

"They are as rare as the GM makes them."

Not very, given every party has a wizard (sorry, magic-user) and a cleric and maybe even a spellcasting elf.

You _could_ remove wizards from the game, but the way the rules work clerics are a necessity (or you have to be VERY generous with the healing potions).

I'm talking about classic D&D rules here, btw.

Robotic Legionary Inactive Member25 Apr 2006 6:18 a.m. PST

GypsyComet 24 Apr 2006 9:16 p.m. PST
>>Also, how many other games have had anywhere near the staying-power of D&D?<<

Tunnels & Trolls, Traveller, and Runequest are all still around in some form, as is Chivalry & Sorcery. Of all of these old-timers, only one is still being produced by its originating company, and it *ain't* D&D…

All of these have also been OOP a time or two. Also, take all the revenue generated by all these systems combined, and add GURPS in on top of it, and I'll bet it ain't a third of that generated by D&D.

Robotic Legionary Inactive Member25 Apr 2006 6:19 a.m. PST

Javier B aka DoktorZinieztro
finally, I'll take anything Gugax says or writes with a rock of salt, as his introductions to the original D&D and AD&D were a lot of tooting his horn, gratuitous self-agrandizing and plain "lame geekness" self-percieved as "utter coolness".
Yup. Guilty as charged, but the man was still a minor icon. What can you do?

Danog MacOg Inactive Member30 Apr 2006 4:37 p.m. PST

Here is an article I had saved – I can't find the original page:

The Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons

From funny dice to cultural icon

by Don Whetsell

Author's note: This history of D&D was compiled from the (yet unreleased) RPG documentary, "Dragons in the Basement." Special thanks to producer John Kentner and D&D legend Dave Arneson.

D&D is probably one of the most influential games of all time. It established the genre of games known today as role-playing games (RPGs) then went on to influence the entire game industry – and, along the way, inspired huge hits like Ultima Online, Everquest, the Final Fantasy franchise and Diablo.

D&D and its concepts were part of the inspiration for Richard Garfield when he sat down to create a quickie, little card game called Magic the Gathering </76082> that could be played at RPG tournaments between sessions. The game single-handedly launched Wizards of the Coast <> and the collectible card game <link> genre to global attention. D&D has also fueled a growing interest in fantasy adventure worldwide and today, D&D has become known as a cultural icon in the Tech-savvy community and its growing power base.

Counter Culture Invades Mainstream

Just how big is this phenomenon? Some estimates put the number of people (worldwide) who have played D&D, or are now playing, to be around 160 million individuals. That number doesn't count all the folks who's only exposure to D&D is through the many best-selling novels or the successful series of computer RPG's like Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale. Now in its third incarnation and about to be unleashed to the world as a major motion picture, D&D is poised to hit the mainstream public like a Bigby's Forceful Hand spell. Wizards of the Coast (who now owns the brand along with the rest of TSR) is already well into its second print run of the new Players Handbook and expects to see the same thing with the two other books, the Dungeon Master's Guide and the Monster Manual.

Dungeons & Dragons has come a long way since those first crazy days in Lake Geneva. But do you know where it all started? (You can tell how much a gamer knows about the scene by how well they know their D&D history.)

"It came from Gary," you shout.


"It came from Dave!"

Wrong again.

"It came from Dave and Gary?"

Closer, but you're still far off the mark.

The Roots of Things to Come

To get to the beginning of D&D you have to go all the way back to 1913 and HG Wells <link>. Wells was a pacifist and one of the first (and, arguably one of the greatest) science fiction authors of all time. He also loved to play with toy soldiers. So much so, that he actually developed a set of rules for playing with them. These "Little Wars <link>" as they were called, became quite popular. Wells' pastime got picked up by a number of different folks and spread around the world and thus the hobby of wargaming with miniatures, as a fun pastime, was born.

As you can imagine, these "Little Wars" quickly grew very complicated and the rule books were amended and added to — for years. Eventually, the rules got so involved (and even confusing) that a neutral third party was needed to sort things out and handle disputes about the rules. Thus, the referee/umpire concept of gaming was born.

People seemed to be pretty happy just pushing around their toy soldiers and arranging their armies for many years. But, in 1958, a new company, Avalon Hill <link>, came on the scene. They specialized in games that recreated famous historical battles. It was their historical reenactment of Gettysburg that got the attention of Gary Gygax <> and the rest of the crowd at Lake Geneva. From '58 through the early '60s, everybody in the scene was involved in miniature wargaming.

All of those games were set in the Napoleonic era and Gary and his buddies wanted to fight battles in medieval times. So he and his friend, Jeff Perren (both men were then working for a small company: Guidon Games) set themselves to work creating their own game — a game that came to be known as, "Chainmail."

Chainmail was all about medieval armies going at each other with spiked implements. But, Chainmail was strictly about strategy and tactics and mass combat; there were no elements of role-playing. You still had two players who basically tried to take out the other guy's armies. It wasn't really very different from what HG wells had originally created in 1913. Not, that is, until Christmas of 1967, when fellow wargamer, Dave Wesley, invited everyone over for a little experiment.

Early Concepts

Dave Wesley had devised an idea for a different kind of game all together. He created a scenario set in a fictional German town, called, Brownstein. The scenario had the usual wargame elements. Two opposing army commanders, both with orders to take and hold a bridge that might be crucial to the battle. But, then things got a little weird. Dave knew that around eight people usually showed up for the get-togethers, which basically left six people standing around watching the two army commanders go at each other. So, at this time, he developed "roles" for the others to play in the scenario. In addition to the army commanders, he had: the mayor of Brownstein, the banker, the university chancellor.The list went on and on. Each role had its own unique briefing on the situation and its own objectives and goals to achieve. When around 20 people showed up that night to play — instead of the eight he had planned for — he improvised and created roles for them to fill — right there, on the spot.

He had envisioned that players would come to him one at a time in the room (where the map of the scenario was placed) and he would brief them on the situation. To keep the game interesting, the players would not be allowed to share information with each other outside of that room. But it wasn't long before two players, one an officer in the Prussian army, and the other a pro-French radical student, came into the room together stating that their characters had challenged each other to a duel. Not to be caught flat-footed by such a request, Dave immediately improvised a rule and rolled some dice and declared that one had shot the other…and the victor was being hauled off to jail. It became soon apparent that other players were huddling off in corners making deals with each other and forming alliances — this, he had not foreseen. The game went on until around 2 a.m., when Dave finally realized that the whole thing had spiraled out of control.

He had carefully crafted the scenario months before and even set up an elaborate point system to help him decide which of the players had best met their original goals and actually "won". But he hadn't planned on so many people or how they would all begin to interact with each other in unpredictable ways. At this point he had to admit that he had no idea who had won!

Thinking the whole game was a huge disaster, he thanked everyone and sent them on their way. At the time, everyone assured him they had enjoyed the game, but Dave thought they were being nice. He made a mental note to file his experiment in the category: "Let's not try that again any time soon." In coming weeks, as more and more people asked him when they could play another Brownstein, he began to change his mind.

He ran a series of the games before joining the army, at which point many other people took up the torch. There was Duane Jenkins' Brownstein, set in Wild West Texas, and, Anaban, which was set in a fictional South American republic and numerous other games and settings. All were wildly popular. The gaming crowd saw them as a refreshing change from their usual, stuffy Napoleonic battles. Role-playing and many of its basic elements had been born!

Adding to the Mix

Around the same time, heavily influenced by Tolkien's Lord of the Rings <>, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax (who were both in the Castle and Crusade Society) were interested in bringing a mythological fantasy component to their games. So Gary wrote a fantasy supplement to Chainmail. That small addition caused Chainmail to become the best-selling product of Guidon Games.

After a weekend of too many monster movies and nonstop Conan novels, Dave decided to chuck his stuffy Napoleonic campaign and create a medieval fantasy-flavored Brownstein, called, Blackmoor. For the players, Blackmoor was a real trip. Instead of making up characters, Dave had each of the players enter the world as themselves! But Blackmoor was a dangerous place, (ask one of them to tell you about the vampire rosebush) and the players were getting worried about getting their alter egos killed, so they quickly retired those characters and created new ones that they weren't afraid to lose.

The major conceptual difference between Blackmoor and the previous Brownsteins was that for all their RP elements, the Brownstein games were stand-alone for the most part and had only a loose connection from one session of play to the next. Blackmoor was different. The game never ended. The characters progressed, and as Dave rewarded them they become more powerful — or finally got killed. They used Gary's Chainmail rules to handle combat, but very quickly needed additions to handle all the situations the players were facing. Dave was basically making stuff up as he went along and scribbling down his notes on pieces of paper so he could have some consistency. Things like Armor Class and Hit Points were taken from rules for a naval warfare game.

Eventually Gary got wind of what they were doing and invited them down to run a session for his group. Gary's group was immediately hooked and Gary set about creating his campaign: Greyhawk. It was out of that get-together that Dave and Gary went to work getting all of Dave's myriad notes typed into an easy to read manuscript. During that time, Gary left Guidon Games (which was not doing really well) and with Don Kaye he formed his own company, Tactical Studies Rules (TSR). One of the first things TSR did was to acquire the rights to Guidon's best-selling product, Chainmail.

A Genre is Born

Now the stage was set. They had a manuscript, they had the legal right to use the ideas developed from Chainmail and they were ready to print. But they couldn't — because they lacked the capital to afford the $2,000 USD printing cost. They also shopped the game to Avalon Hill, but were turned down because there was no clear way to "win". Since they couldn't get the game published professionally, they just made mimeographed copies and handed them out to friends. Gary is on record as saying that it was the fact that he would get calls at all hours of the day and night from players asking about rule clarifications, that motivated him to finally get the full manuscript published.

At the beginning of 1974 they printed 500 copies of the new game, which sold out in about three months. The second run was 1,000 copies, which also sold in three months. From there they had runs of 3,000 and 5,000 copes and by the end of the year they just told the printer to keep going! They sold nearly 10,000 copies of D&D and proved that a role-playing game could be a successful product.

Of course, that's only the beginning of the tale. There's much more to the complete saga of D&D and TSR: how Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax had a big falling out that got settled in court; how Gary himself was forced out of TSR by Lorraine Williams; how, despite enormous demand for product and a huge customer base, internal problems in the company very nearly led to total bankruptcy; how D&D found a whole new life on the Internet and the World Wide Web and about Ryan Dancey's crusade to save the game <link> (he loved as a child) from commercial oblivion. Those tales are better chronicled elsewhere <link> on the Net.

Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian06 Mar 2008 11:50 a.m. PST

David Wesely comments:

So I just ran across this reference to me in your post from three years ago. Thanks. I tend to be the forgotten father of RPG's. But, as Dave Arneson said to me once, "If you had stayed around until the baby was born, you might have gotten to name it…". It was Dave who kept Braunstein alive after I went into the Army, and if Gary and Don Kaye had not put up the money to turn Blackmoor and Greyhawk into D&D and publish it, there might still only be a few dozen people playing RPG's.

By the way, you misspelled my name.

-David Wesely

evilmike06 Mar 2008 11:55 p.m. PST


The US Army invented role-playing games.

It's all so clear now.


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