A Brief History of Roleplaying Games

By Victor Raymond
Copyright © 1994

Part I: Pre-History and the Early Days (RPGs to 1976)

This is the first part of a four part series that will outline the history of the fantasy role-playing game hobby. In this brief history, I hope to cover the major milestones in the hobby, as well as provide some context for understanding how it developed. While it would be nice to write a comprehensive history, that would take up a great deal of room. Therefore, my primary focus is on role-playing games, specifically. I will mention other sorts of gaming and related sub- cultures, but only insofar as they relate to the FRP hobby itself. My purpose in writing this history is twofold: to illustrate the trends and influences that have helped shape the hobby, and secondly to provide some sense of how it all developed for those who have only recently been introduced to FRP. Let us begin with the historical antecedents of role-playing.

Wargames (strategy games) have existed for hundreds of years, going back to chess, fox and hounds, and other highly abstract forms of strategy game. But we tend to think of role-playing as being a relatively recent phenomenon; 1974 is often mentioned as the starting date for the hobby, with the publication of Dungeons & Dragons. Does that make sense? No, not really.

The first strategy game that attempted to realistically model conflict was the Kriegspiel, developed by a Prussian staff officer, von Reisswitz, in 1824. His game was developed from an earlier one used in the Napoleonic era, and quickly became a staple of training Prussian officers. In it, topographical maps and metal markers were used to represent terrain and troops, and dice were used to resolve combat. The practice of wargaming quickly spread to other countries' militaries, and officers learned how to direct their commands using these somewhat abstract models of conflict resolution.

Historical Background of the Hobby

The military interest in miniatures gaming eventually developed into a hobbyist interest, as well. Shortly after the turn of the century, H. G. Wells wrote a slim set of miniatures rules called Little Wars, published in 1913. It set out parameters for engaging in battles and resolving combat, using the miniatures available at the time, including "flats" as well as more three-dimensional figurines. While not nearly as successful as his science fiction, Little Wars was the catalyst for the development and growth of the miniatures gaming hobby, in Britain and later in the United States, during the first decades of the 20th Century.

In the 1930s, more developments took place. Fletcher Pratt, a Civil War historian and fantasy author, developed a set of rules for naval engagements, known by the unimaginative title Fletcher Pratt's Naval Wargame (Pratt himself may have a different name for it, but the name given is how it is known today). Covering everything from effects of long-range gunfire to tracking torpedoes once launched, it became a staple part of the wargames hobby. Pratt was respected for his historical writing, and for his fantasy authorship, an interesting combination for that time. With L. Sprague de Camp, he wrote about the adventures of Harold Shea, a psychologist-turned-wizard in a variety of mythological and fantastic settings. These were later assembled into The Compleat Enchanter. Pratt also wrote two of the best fantasy novels of that period, The Blue Star (1952) and The Well of the Unicorn (1948). Pratt's circle of friends included other science fiction authors and fans, including Isaac Asimov, then a student at Columbia. This connection between science fiction & fantasy and the games hobby would continue all the way to the present day.

In Great Britain, a professor who taught Old English, Saxon, and Old Norse completed a children's book published in 1938, called The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was a member of the Inklings, a literary club which also included C. S. Lewis, and Tolkien moved onwards after this to write what became known as the Lord of the Rings, eventually completing it in the late 1950s. Published in hardcover in 1954, the Lord of the Rings saw only modest critical interest, at least initially. But the elements to be found in it, including the conflict between good and evil in a fantastic world populated by elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs, men, and others were to become an integral part of fantasy role-playing gaming.

World War II had a profound effect on all sectors of American society: the pulp magazines of the 20s and 30s were virtually shut down due to paper shortages, and many later game designers found themselves in real combat. So it was not until the 50s, when Charles Roberts founded The Avalon-Hill Games Company, that there was a resurgence of interest in strategy games as a hobby. The games produced by Avalon-Hill, including Tactics II and Gettysburg, and some design elements pioneered by the company, including the Combat Results Table and the hexagonal grid system used on gameboard maps, would later affect the design of role-playing games. Some of these elements were significantly refined, and new ones added, by Simulation Publications, Inc., or SPI. Both companies produced magazines to go along with their game offerings, The General from Avalon-Hill, and Strategy & Tactics from SPI.

Setting the Stage in the 1960s

By the 60s, then, there was a well-developed miniatures hobby and a growing strategy game hobby. Both were very small in numbers and scale, but there were enough enthusiasts to have clubs in most major American cities, and a few conventions to help connect game players of all sorts. Parallel to this was the emergence of the science fiction genre in publishing, marked by the paperback publication of the Lord of the Ring in 1965. By a curious twist, the first paperback edition was not authorized by Prof. Tolkien or his publisher, which led to the publication of an authorized edition a year later. Immensely successful, the paperback edition went through several printings in short order, and alerted publishers to the popularity of science fiction and fantasy. Various 'sword and sorcery' novels soon appeared, including works by Robert E. Howard about his barbarian hero, Conan of Cimmeria, as well as stories by authors such as Fritz Leiber and Poul Anderson, and many others.

The influence of science fiction was not confined solely to the literature itself. Science fiction conventions and fandom also had their effect. In many cases, wargamers were also science fiction fans, reading science fiction and fantasy, and some were instrumental in the formation of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a group dedicated to the recreation of the Middle Ages as they should have been. The SCA was founded in 1966, as a result of a party hosted by Diana Paxson in Berkeley, CA. In addition to Poul Anderson, Steve Perrin and Steve Henderson were a part of the very earliest days of the SCA and the West Kingdom. Perrin and Henderson were later involved in the development of Runequest from Chaosium, Inc.

By the end of the 60s, there were a considerable number of strategy game clubs around the country, with connections in some cases to science fiction fandom, others to the SCA, still others to the military, and yet others to historical recreation. Historical recreation had also blossomed, due in part to the interest around the centennial of the battle of Gettysburg. In general, these clubs and groups were made up of men, between the ages of 20 and 50, often with a higher than average number of military personnel, active, in the reserves, or retired.

In Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, a group of gamers known as the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association had its home. Among its members were E. Gary Gygax, Donald Kaye, Brian Blume, Rob & Terry Kuntz, and others. Lake Geneva was the site of GenCon, which originated in 1968 as a small midwestern convention with connections to the International Federation of Wargaming (IFW), of which Gary Gygax was an active member and founder of the Castle & Crusade Society (a sub-group of the IFW) The LGTSA was active in the play-testing of a set of medieval miniatures rules called Chainmail, written by Jeff Perrin and Gary Gygax. Chainmail was initially published by a very small company, Guidon Games, which operated mostly on a shoestring, like most of the other small wargames companies of the time. What needs to be noted was that Chainmail, after its first edition, included a fantasy supplement which laid out rules for elves and heroes, and dwarves, and wizards. These were interpreted as being essentially fantastic additions, functions somewhat like command figures and somewhat like mobile field artillery or shock units.

In Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, another group of gamers existed, called the Midwest Military Simulation Association. Its members included David L. Arneson, Dave Wesley, Ken Fletcher, Dave Megarry, John and Richard Snider, and others. Dave Arneson had written set of Napoleonic ship combat rules, Don't Give Up The Ship! also published by Guidon Games in 1971, which helped establish his relationship with Gary Gygax. It was this relationship that brought about the creation of fantasy role-playing as we know it today.

Of Brownsteins and Midgard, Diplomacy and the War of Empires

A question often asked about role-playing games is, "Was there anything before Dungeons & Dragons?" And the answer is, 'Of course.' The primary difference between D&D and its predecessors was that D&D was that it was intended as a role-playing game, with an emphasis on individual character development. Prior games had role-playing elements, but always within the context of a larger tactical or strategic simulation. Even so, it is hard to imagine games that do not have some element of role-playing to them. As Steve Jackson has pointed out, "Monopoly is pure role-playing. It lets you do on the game board all the heartless things you'll probably never do in real life. That's why it's fun."

The realization that almost any game can have a role-playing element to it was independently reached in several places and at several times. In Britain and later in America, there were grand strategy campaigns based on a loosely developed medieval/fantasy setting, called Midgard. And Diplomacy games almost always had some role-playing involved, especially as there were (and still are) Diplomacy 'zines that serve the play-by-mail part of the hobby. And there were yet other campaign games with role-playing elements, notably War of the Empires and Starweb, both play-by-mail games with science fiction settings. Most of these campaign games were started in the '60s and early '70s, and some survive to this day, albeit somewhat changed.

It was, however, in the context of miniatures gaming that role- playing was further developed. Dave Wesley, one of the active members of the MMSA, refereed a number of battles informally referred to as 'Brownsteins' due to the fictional setting of a town somewhere in early 19th Century Germany. Previous games also had role-playing elements, primarily with players having personal missions for the commanding officers of the units involved in the battle. Almost all of the participants recalled having an incredibly good time playing various roles within the context of the miniatures games, and this was part and parcel of what led to D&D.

Some of these experiences were shared with other gamers through club newsletters and gatherings, particularly game conventions. GenCon was one such, CITEX was another, and the number of smaller gatherings far too many to detail. Through GenCon, gamers from around the Midwest gathered to play miniatures and board wargames. The stage was set for the collaboration that led to Dungeons & Dragons.

It is at this point that the record becomes somewhat murky. Partly because people didn't recognize at the time the significance of what they were doing (how could they?), partly due to conflicts between authors that emerged later, and finally because of the messy nature of the creative process. In any case, Arneson notes that:

"...I had spent the previous day watching about five monster movies on Creature Feature weekend (Ch.5), reading a Conan book (I cannot recall which one but I always thought they were much the same), and stuffing myself with popcorn, doodling on a piece of graph paper. I was also quite tired of my Nappy [Napoleonic] campaign with all its rigid rules, etc., and was perhaps rebelling against it, too (in fact I'm sure I was!)."

Arneson then set out to develop a new campaign, in which players could either take on the role of heroes and wizards delving into the depths of Blackmoor Castle, or the monstrous denizens that lurked there. Using the Chainmail rules (including the fantasy supplement) for combat, and adding his own creative twists, including rewards for the players' characters for gaining treasure and killing monsters, Arneson's Blackmoor campaign was very popular with the MMSA gamers in the Twin Cities.

By late '72 or early '73, word about what was going on in St. Paul reached Lake Geneva. Taking advantage of his existing hobby and business relationship with Arneson, Gary Gygax invited him down to Lake Geneva to give the players there a taste of Blackmoor Castle and its depths. Shortly afterwards, Gygax and Arneson began a correspondence which involved re-working Arneson's original rules, going from a dozen or so pages to well over 100. At roughly the same time, Donald Kaye and Gary Gygax decided to form a new company, called Tactical Studies Rules. One intended role for the new company was to acquire the titles of the Guidon Games line, and it seemed only logical for it to also produce the game that Arneson and Gygax had been developing.

It is at this point that some disagreement emerged between Gygax and Arneson. Gygax felt that the new rules were really his, and that the creative work done by Arneson was minor in comparison. Arneson, however, felt that it was more a collaborative effort - something that later had to be resolved by legal means, and in Arneson's favor. But at the time - the summer of 1973 - the fact that TSR was a company jointly controlled by Gygax resulted in the game going to the press when Gygax felt it was ready.

Dungeons & Dragons? What's That?

So it was near the end of 1973, that Dungeons & Dragons was published by Tactical Studies Rules (TSR). It appeared initially in a 5" x 9" cardboard box with a woodgrain wrap and a white cover. Inside were three booklets: Vol. I Men and Magic; Vol. II Monsters and Treasure; and Vol. III Underground and Wilderness Adventures. Later editions would include reference charts and have a completely white box cover, but the first printing was small in scale. Sales, albeit slow in the very beginning, picked up quickly, taking TSR by surprise.

Gamers involved in their local clubs would report showing up to a meeting all set to play another battle in their current miniatures campaign, only to find people puzzling over three tan booklets, graph paper, and oddly-shaped dice. It was, in a word, strange. Yet these same gamers would get hooked on D&D quickly, resorting in some cases to copying the rules by xerox, because demand had completely stripped initial supply.

John M. Ford recalled that, to the gamers he knew in Indiana, the summer of 1974 was "the summer of love" - campaigns sprouted quickly, and in many cases, took over a major portion of the lives of the people playing in them. Lee Gold noted that referees made changes as they saw fit: "When the Hannifens [friends of hers] next came down to Los Angeles, I invited them to play...but warned them that I had on my own authority as Dungeon Master made some changes to the Rules."

The combination of rules scarcity and individual creativity resulted in many campaigns being very different from what Arneson and Gygax may have intended. Some players, such as Steve Marsh, got into contact with Gygax and the TSR staff, and endeavored to get clarifications. To the extent they were able, Gygax and Arneson offered their opinions. Ultimately, however, games and campaigns developed that were as idiosyncratic as the players and referees themselves. A brisk business was done on convention panels trying to resolve this or that aspect of the rules, but the cat was out of the bag. Had TSR had the position of respectability of Wargames Research Group in Great Britain, it might have been able to issue definitive rulings about How to Play. But this was not to be, at least initially, and it seems from articles and opinions printed at the time that this question vexed Gygax severely. He would attempt to revisit it later, with the development of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D).

By the end of 1974, play of D&D had spread around the country, taking hold particularly in Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Other pockets were to be found in the Midwest and in Texas. And many of the people whose names would later appear on games as designers in their own right began playing at this time: Greg Costikyan, Ed Simbalist, Marc Miller, John M. Ford, Steve Perrin, and many, many others all began playing, some of them forced into becoming referees because nobody else was interested in puzzling out the rules.

In Lake Geneva, however, it became clear that TSR had a hit on its hands. Within quick succession, there was a first printing, then a second, then a third, each in increasing numbers. And plans began to emerge for other games shortly thereafter. Among them included Warriors of Mars, a game set in the world of Barsoom and Star Probe, a more science fiction oriented campaign game. TSR also continued to pursue the publication of various historical miniatures rules sets, such as Tricolor and Cavaliers and Roundheads. And while some of these games had modest success, none of them held the same degree of attraction as D&D in the minds of gamers.

And along with the development of new rules sets came the development of a regular publication to inform players about TSR's games and game development, The Strategic Review. The first issue was produced in Spring 1975, and included such articles as a new monster for D&D, the Mind Flayer, some modifications for Tactics, TSR's WWII miniatures game, and an article on random dungeon generation for solo expeditions. Originally planned as a quarterly, by the fifth issue it had gone to bi-monthly, and plans were underway for a completely new magazine. The second issue of The Strategic Review is notable for the announcement of the death of Donald Kaye, who had passed away as the result of injuries sustained in an auto accident. This left Gary Gygax as the surviving founder of TSR - at the very time TSR was entering into a fantastic period of growth. The second issue also saw the announcement of a new game, War of Wizards, which was the creation of Prof. MAR Barker, set in the world of Tekumel. War of Wizards was ostensibly a board game that simulated the magical duels fought in the Hirilakte arenas of the Five Empires, but it was the precursor to a much more complete set of role-playing rules set in the same world, called Empire of the Petal Throne.

In subsequent issues of The Strategic Review further additions were made to the rules, with explanations of existing rules to aid in the play of the game. Along with the further expansion of the D&D rules came another, somewhat more disquieting editorial trend. Some of the conflicts between TSR and other game manufacturers began to surface, initially in exchanges about the fairness of reviews of D&D, and later about whether GenCon or Origins was the 'national' gaming convention. There were elements of truth on all sides of the debates. True, Avalon-Hill and SPI did have a tendency to act as if they were the only companies that mattered. However, it could also be said that Gary Gygax's responses were somewhat hot-headed, and reflected his understandable belief that his work was fine exactly as it was, be it a set of rules or a gaming convention.

Besides The Strategic Review, work was proceeding apace on two different supplements for D&D, both intended to clarify the rules for players and referees. The first, Greyhawk, was named for Gygax's own D&D campaign, in which many of the rules and modifications had been play-tested. Greyhawk was notable for introducing new character classes, including the Thief and the Paladin, as well as significantly expanding the list of monsters and magical items. But the campaign section itself was lamentably short, which did not help players unfamiliar with the practices in the original campaign design successful campaign settings on their own. The second, named Blackmoor for the campaign run by Dave Arneson, introduced more character classes, but took campaign development a step further by providing a small section of the Blackmoor campaign as an example to follow and learn from. Greyhawk was released in the Spring of 1975, and Blackmoor soon followed in the Fall.

By the middle of 1975, then, TSR had managed to produce several different sets of game rules, D&D being pre-eminent. Among them were Boot Hill, a miniatures-based role-playing game for Wild West adventures, and Metamorphosis Alpha, a science fiction game set on a slower-than-light generation starship damaged after passing through intense radiation. Metamorphosis Alpha was the creation of James Ward, and can be considered the first science fiction role- playing game, given its content. Finally, TSR's sponsorship of GenCon resulted in real growth in the convention; GenCon VIII, held in 1975 in Horticultural Hall in Lake Geneva, attracted 1,500 people, which was certainly as many as could be found at Origins I, held that same year in Baltimore. What was happening elsewhere?

Rumblings from Dragon Pass, Tekumel and Other Places

In Illinois, a number of students and staff originally involved with the SIMRAD program of Illinois State University got together and formed the core of Game Designers' Workshop. Among them were Frank Chadwick, Darryl Hany, John Harshman, and Loren Wiseman; a straggler to the fold was Marc Miller. Their first role-playing project was En Garde!, a small booklet "being in the main a game of the life and times of a gentleman adventurer and his several companions." Set in an unspecified 17th Century country (but most likely France), En Garde! reflected the historical boardgame grounding of its designers, who were also hard at work on a number of well-received strategy games, including Drang Nach Osten and Triplanetary.

In Minneapolis, an entirely different sort of game was being developed. Professor MAR Barker, at the University of Minnesota, was the originator of an entire world - Tekumel - that became the setting for a role-playing game called Empire of the Petal Throne. Prof. Barker was a member of a department at the University concerned with South and Southeast Asian Studies, and he was intensely interested in languages and anthropology. A convert to Islam while studying abroad, he had already established a distinguished academic record working on Klamath, Urdu, Baluchi, and many other languages. Elements from ancient Egypt, Mayan and Central American civilizations, as well as from India and Arabia, were the influences on his creative efforts. He had begun working on Tekumel as a world when he was a child, and later developed it further as a student. While in college, he became a member of the Nameless Ones, a Seattle science fiction fan group, and had a few stories published in sf fanzines, but his interests led him elsewhere and away from fandom. In a very real sense, significant parallels exist between the creative work of JRR Tolkien and MAR Barker. Both had a passion for linguistics, both were influenced by ancient and medieval history and culture, and both pursued their world- building quietly as a somewhat solitary affair, sharing with others only portions of their work.

There had been elements of game playing, particularly miniatures, present in Tekumel from the beginning, but a specific role-playing game was not developed until after Prof. Barker saw D&D. He found the background setting for D&D to be too vague and certainly internally contradictory, something which spurred his interest in designing a game to match his years of world-building. The resulting rules were directly influenced by D&D, but were clearly designed to place characters in the context of the world of Tekumel. And what a world it was! After having been settled and terra-formed by humans and other races, Tekumel was spun into a 'pocket dimension' and went through tens of thousands of years of retrograde development. At the start of the game. the characters find themselves in a land with a pantheon of 20 gods, where the Seal Emperor sits behind a jade screen and wields absolute power through a powerful military, an entrenched bureaucracy and a tradition-valuing social structure. The rules came not only with background and history, but also the basic elements of the language spoken in one of the Five Empires, Tsolyanu. Needless to say, the incredible richness of the background tended to overwhelm players and the referee, but there was no doubting the result.

And in California, a group of gamers including Steve Perrin, Steve Henderson and Greg Stafford had been working on a wide range of D&D variants, as well as some particular creative projects of their own. Primary amongst the latter was a strategy game set on a world of fantastic elements, likened to that of the Iliad and the Odyssey - White Bear and Red Moon. The world of Dragon Pass would in time become the setting of the most prominent challenger to D&D in the mid '70s, RuneQuest.

Entering the Second Year

By 1976, then, there were several role-playing games out on the market, with several more in the works. Clubzines and fanzines had grown up around the hobby, and it was clear that role-playing was here to stay. The dispute between TSR and Avalon-Hill & SPI about convention primacy continued, which may have had something to do with the introduction of so-called tournament play of D&D at GenCon VIII and IX. The original tournament designs emphasized individual role-playing, but that slowly changed to a more team-based approach. Even so, the hallmark of the period was that the entire hobby was really uncharted territory. Past miniatures and strategy games could only go so far to point out ways to take role-playing; it was up to the players, referees and designers to decide what was the best way to do things.

In June 1976, TSR began publication of an entirely different magazine, The Dragon. Over time, The Strategic Review had gone from a six page newsletter to a saddle-stiched magazine on glossy stock, but the structure of the 'zine had not followed suit. It was decided then that a new magazine was needed to be a voice in the burgeoning FRP market. Thus The Dragon was born. The first issue was 30 pages in length, with a full-color cover, and included such items as a new set of fantasy miniatures rules, new monsters, and a brief article by Fritz Leiber, who would later be the special guest at GenCon IX.

With the publication of the first issue of The Dragon, it was clear that fantasy role-playing had gone from being a modest oddity of the miniatures market, to something quite new and different. There was no doubt that role-playing would continue to grow as a hobby, and in so doing lead to a shift in the economic balance of power in the industry. That issue, along with several others, will be addressed in Part II: A Shock to the System - Role Playing from 1976 to 1983.

Victor Raymond is a long-time gamer, who grew up in Minneapolis- St. Paul. 31 years old, he works as a community organizer around progressive issues, and has also been active in the science fiction fan community. He is fond of playing GURPS, Castle Falkenstein, and Tekumel.