Role-playing games, known as RPGs in the more hip circles of society, have actually been around for a very long time (Swan 1990). The newly popularized and immensely profitable Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Games are all descended from a more primitive but arguably not less exciting form of gaming called Role Playing Games. As the World of Warcraft threatens to break all profit records and usher in a new era in the world of gaming, there are still other forms of Role Playing Games that have survived and are still followed by the more traditional players who argue that nothing beats a good imagination and a handy pair of dice.
This schism that has risen between the younger players and the more traditional players has more to do with the development of the RPG over the years than just simple economics and marketing strategies (Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 2007). This short discourse will dwell into the history of Role Playing Games from its earliest predecessors to the massively popular new online forms that this generation is more accustomed to playing. It will also provide a short background on the basic mechanics of Role Playing Games and attempt to define to just what exactly a Role Playing Game is.
There will also be a brief section outlining the future of Role Playing Games. Role Playing Games A Role Playing Game (RPG) is a type of game wherein the participants or gamers assume the roles of predetermined or fully created characters and direct the actions of these avatars as they struggle through an adventure or storyline (Swan 1990). The participants of the game determine the actions of their respective characters based on the characterization or character attributes of their avatars.
The success or failure of these characters in the game or through an adventure is based on a formalized system or rules and guidelines. Within the constraints of these rules, the players are free to do any action that their character is able to do and as such the choices that a character makes during the course of the game will determine the direction and outcome of the game or mission (Fannon 1995). The success of Role Playing Games comes from the fact that there are rarely any winners or rulers in the game.
This is also what makes the RPG fundamentally different from the other games such as sports, card games, and board games since Role Playing Games are more collaborative and social than competitive traditionally (Swan 1990). In a typical Role Playing Game, the participants or gamers are grouped together in a single team, otherwise known as party that attempts to complete the game or the mission. The length of these games varies as typical game scenarios can take as long as months to as short as days to complete.
The current preference, however, lies in the shorter games or missions since these are easier to complete and are faster paced and action packed (Fannon 1995). The popularity of Role Playing Games comes from the fact that the participants have virtually free reign over their characters. Any participant can create any character that he or she desires as long as such character conforms to the parameters that have been set for the game. The most common scenarios are the mythical and magical heroes or characters (Fannon 1995).
There are also Role Playing Games that attempt to simulate real-life such as the highly popular Sims series and also RPGs that are more inclined to the sci-fi genre. These characters can be any chosen creature and can have many character backgrounds depending on the preference of the gamer. Characters may be aligned with evil, aligned with good or even neutral. There are also certain Role Playing Games that allow the player to select from different character classes ranging from priests to warriors (Swan 1990).
It is this freedom and flexibility that appeals to the modern as well as the traditional gamers because it allows them to explore an alternate reality and create their own destinies. Characteristics of RPGs Role Playing Games, as earlier mentioned, are a form of interactive and collaborative adventures that involve how characters progress through a certain story or mission. Much like fantasy novels or films, these Role Playing Games engage the gamers or participants imagination and allow for a degree of interactivity that is not offered by other types of games (Swan 1990).
This is the crucial difference between Role Playing Games and Traditional Fiction. In a show or in a novel, the person is a passive observer who only watches the progress of the protagonist. In a Role Playing Game, the gamer is able to make certain decisions that will alter the story and propel the adventure (Swan 1990). While simple forms of Role Playing Games exist in traditional children’s games such as “cops and robbers”, “cowboys and Indians” and “playing house”, role-playing games add a level of sophistication and persistence to this basic idea (Fannon 1995).
Instead, the participants in a Role Playing Game are able to generate specific characters and involve these characters in an ongoing plot. A consistent system of rules and a more or less realistic campaign setting in these Role Playing Games aids the suspension of disbelief. The level of realism in games ranges from just enough internal consistency to set up a believable story or credible challenge to full-blown simulations of real-world processes (Fannon 1995).
Video games incorporating settings and game mechanics found in Role Playing Games are referred to as computer role-playing games (CRPGs). Due to the popularity of CRPGs, the terms “role-playing game” and “RPG” have both to some degree been co-opted by the video gaming industry; as a result, traditional non-digital pastimes of this sort are increasingly being referred to as “pen and paper” or “tabletop” role-playing games, though neither pen and paper nor a table are strictly necessary (Rilstone 1995). History of RPG
The history of Role Playing Games begins with an earlier tradition of role-playing, which combined the Rules and Guidelines of early War Games that were developed in the early 1970s to give rise to the modern Role Playing Game (Swan 1990). Interactive and impromptu dramas have been included in the basic elements of play long before the advent of modern War Games, the recognized predecessor of Role Playing Games; the children’s games of “Playing House” or “Cowboys and Indians” are in essence very good examples of traditionally simple role-playing games (Schick 1991).
Forms of RPGs in History Perhaps the earliest recorded history of Role Playing Games dates back to the 16th Century, where in Europe, travelling groups of players performed in what was known as the Commedia dell’arte which was a form of improvisational theater that featured stock situations and stock characters but included an improvised dialogue (Schick 1991).
Though there was a lack of formalized rules that characterize the modern Role Playing Games, this theater form had the basic characteristics of Role Playing Games such as having characters thrust into situations with only the characteristics of the pre-made characters to allow them to proceed with the story (Schick 1991). Some studies have also suggested that as early as the 1920’s in New York, there were already Assassin style games that were introduced and were played mostly by adults.
This was played by simply declaring a person dead if one was an assassin (Schick 1991). This was mentioned in the autobiography of Harpo Marx and is arguably a primitive form of Role Playing Games. Other early examples of Role Playing Games include the historical reenactments in the 1960’s that gave rise to “creative history games” that were introduced by the Society for Creative Anachronism in Berkeley, California on May 1, 1966.
At around the same time, the Markland Medieval Mercenary Militia, began holding events on the University of Maryland, College Park in 1969 that reenacted certain historical scenes and featured improvised dialogue though bound by the historical constraints that were actually recorded and accurate (Schick 1991).