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A History of Role-Playing

By Steve Darlington

A fairly complete, mostly accurate and only slightly biased exposition of the hobby's turbulent existence, from its origins to the modern day. Serialised in five parts.

Part I: One small step for a wargamer...

Our Ancestors

Much of the information in this article came from Gary Fine's superb sociological examination of RPGs, entitled "Shared Fantasy".

Like all good histories, we begin with a famous genius who sets the ball rolling. In this case, it is the incredible visionary, H. G. Wells. For not only was Wells the grandfather of science fiction, he was also the grandfather of war-games. Which makes him, if you like, the great-grandfather of role-playing games.

War-games have pretty much existed for as long as there have been wars. The idea of simulating battles without the personal hazards can be traced back to ancient Sumer, more than four thousand years ago. Chess and Go, two of the oldest games in the world, arose from war-games. Contemporary war games originated in Prussia, at the turn of the 19th century. The game, Kriegspiel (War Game), introduced the ideas of arranging markers on a "sand table", and using a dice to determine any random elements in the battle. After the Franco-Prussian war, the English came up with their own version, and they began to be used wisely by armed services to train in tactics and predict military outcomes

It was Wells, however, who first opened up the games for the amateur. In 1915, he published a set of amateur wargaming rules in a book entitled Little Wars, now seen as the "wargamers’ bible". Wells was also the first to suggest that miniature figures be collected to represent respective forces, to add flavour, and a sense of involvement, to the game. Though the book was popular, wargames did not really take off until, in 1953, Charles Roberts released the first commercially available "board" war game. Though it was a slow starter, Roberts eventually went on to form the Avalon-Hill Game Company, now one of the world’s biggest game companies.

Spark to a Flame

In fact, in the 60’s and 70’s, wargaming enjoyed a peak of popularity that it has yet to recapture. It seems all those young people who weren’t doing LSD and listening to Bob Dylan were playing a hell of a lot of wargames. Soon, it was no longer a game, it was an industry. A huge, well-established and well-defined fanclub, with its own congregations, publications and jargon was evolving, just as it was for science-fiction fans at about the same time. By the late sixties, there was a strong and stable sub-culture for wargamers, a supportive environment that was beginning to foster much creativity and experimentation among its members. It was just this sort of exploration that was to be the fuel for the role-playing fire. But a spark was still required. And what a spark it was: The Lord of the Rings.

The first edition of D&D, like so many games that followed, featured hobbits. However, Tolkien's lawyers soon threatened copyright action, leading to the birth of the "halfling".

Released in full across the United States in 1966, it was to forever change the literary world, and likewise the worlds of millions of middle class American teenage males. And since ninety percent of wargamers were middle class teenage males, it took little imagination to see what was going to happen next. No longer did players want to recreate the battle of Gettysburg, but the battle of Helm’s Deep. The Napoleonic Wars were discarded in favour of the War of the Ring, goblins and orcs replaced foot soldiers and calvalry. People wanted to know just how much damage a Balrog could do, and what the range was on a lightning bolt spell.

It seemed only a matter time before the first game specifically set in Tolkien’s world was published. There was, however, a slight impediment to this, which was the fact that there were very few good wargames that dealt with the medieval era well enough to allow such things as magic and dragons to be introduced. Into the path of destiny stepped two men: Ernest (Gary) Gygax and David Arneson.

A Legendary Partnership

TSR was named after another local gaming club: The Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association.

In a small town in Wisconsin called Lake Geneva, Gygax, Jeff Perren and friends had created a wargame that gave an accurate model of most aspects of medieval warfare. It was called Chainmail, and had been published by Gygax’s own fledgling company, Tactical Studies Rules. It was a later, more widely distributed version that became the first wargame to include rules for giants, trolls, dragons and magic spells. This game is seen to be the immediate predecessor of Dungeons and Dragons, and indeed, there are many similarities in the rules and style.

The seeds of role-playing had actually been laid much earlier, however. At the time Chainmail was written, Gygax was a member of a medieval warfare enthusiasts’ society entitled The Castles and Crusades Society. A fellow member, Arneson, had already began to experiment with some role-playing ideas. As he himself puts it:

Arneson gives credit to himself for adding "magic" to wargames - apparently after watching an episode of Star Trek, Dave gave his druid a phaser, and zapped his opponents' forces to kingdom come! This naturally led to the lightning bolt spell.

I would have to give a lot of credit [for the idea] to another local gamer, Dave Wesley. He was the first one to input role-playing…the first game that stands out in my mind is little medieval games, a very dull period of war games. He had a dull set of rules and after our second game, we were bored. To spice it up, Dave, who had been doing the set ups and refereeing [the wargames], gave each of us a little personal goal in the battle.

This was in 1968. Although crude, it was the very first step towards role-playing. Arneson continues:

Well, that kind of got us all thinking about "wasn’t that neat" and we did a couple of other games with various people. "Let’s have a big medieval campaign with half a dozen different people playing with little powers with fifty or sixty men, and then you’re the king or the knight, or whatever." And it developed from there. That got us into role-playing.

In the early seventies, Arneson’s creativity met Gygax’s fantasy and the two men began to combine their ideas. In 1970 or 1971 (Arneson is unsure of the date), Arneson took the Chainmail system and played what was the first true role-playing game ever.

All the fellows had come over for a traditional night of Napoleonic battle, and saw the table covered with this huge keep or castle on it. [They] wondered where this had come from in the plains of Poland or wherever we were playing at the time, and they shortly found out that they were going to go down in the deep, dank, dark dungeon.

Of course, it wasn't called role-playing back then. The first edition of D&D called it a "Fantasy Medieval Wargame, Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures", no less.

This game was later to become the Blackmoor dungeon campaign. Gygax rapidly followed suit with an adventure that was to become the Greyhawk campaign. Over the next few years, the two played and play-tested rules that would eventually become the game Dungeons & Dragons, the world’s first commercially-available role-playing game. Like wargames, it was to prove a slow starter, but a entirely new hobby had been born.

A final tribute to Dave Arneson

Like all great partnerships, Gygax and Arneson’s was not without creative differences. Less than a year after D&D was released, these differences reached a head, and Arneson left. TSR, under Gygax and new partner Brian Blume, continued to run, but without paying Arneson the royalties he was still legally due as part owner. In 1979, Arneson took this matter to court, and after a lengthy battle, was bought out by TSR. The tragedy is that, today, Gygax is extolled and praised far and wide as the sole parent of role-playing, while Arneson has been all but forgotten by the industry. I hope this history can go some way towards correcting this injustice.


(For an alternative history of TSR and D&D, click here. Ed.).


Can't wait? Go on to The Hist ory of Roleplaying Part II.

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