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Thorsteinn Mar

Thorsteinn Mar

Oct 17, 2023  ·  34 min read

History of Tabletop Roleplaying Games

Dungeons & Dragons

Call of Cthulhu


Askur Yggdrasils

An illustration of an inviting tavern.
You push open the heavy wooden doors of The Chronicler's Inn, a tavern known to many as a haven for storytellers and lorekeepers.

Music and laughter fill the hall and you take a seat by the warming hearth.

As the flames dance, a weary elder takes the seat next to you. He leans close, his voice a hushed intrigue: "Traveler, may I tell you about the history of tabletop roleplaying games?

What do you do?

Roleplaying games have never been as popular as they are now. More and more people flock to the gaming table. They are drawn to the escapism provided in games where you can take on the roles of a brave adventurer, an investigator trying to stop an evil cult, or even a vampire caught in the turmoils of the political landscape of these nocturnal predators.

The first edition of Dungeons & Dragons was published in 1974 by TSR, founded by Gary Gygax and Don Kaye. Many more roleplaying games followed, like RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu. Only one roleplaying game has ever been published in Iceland: Askur Yggdrasils. Here is a short overview of the History of Roleplaying games.

What is a roleplaying game?

Before delving into the history of roleplaying games, we need to closely examine what a roleplaying game is. In roleplaying games, participants take on the roles of fictional characters, often created by themselves, and take on whatever projects and tackle problems poised by the narrative and within a set of rules provided by the game.

There are many different types of rulesets, but each set determines what the characters created by the players, called player characters, can or can not do and how to determine success or failure when they try to do something that might either fail or succeed. For example, no roleplaying game has rules about breathing or walking, but almost all have rules about drowning, suffocating, or walking along a tightrope. In short, the rules help the participants determine the success or failure of their actions.

Using dice

Many games use different sets of dice to determine if actions are successful; some systems use 20-sided dice, while others use 6-sided dice. There are different types of dice are available, for example, 4-, 6-, 8-, 10-, 12-, 20- and 30-sided dice. You can even combine two 10-sided dice to form a 100-sided dice, which is used in games like Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest.

Rolling a d12 dice

In some ways, roleplaying games are like audio drama. Participants use words to describe their characters' actions, interact amongst themselves, and engage with non-player characters. One participant often takes on the role of a storyteller, game master, or dungeon master (many games use different terms for this role), and it is their role to set scenes, enrich the background of the narrative, play adversaries and other non-player characters and further the narrative.

The Boundaries of Roleplaying Games

Roleplaying games are set within some boundaries agreed upon by all participants, both outer boundaries and inner. A game system governs the outer boundaries, the number of participants, the space where the game is performed, allotted time, technology like Quest Portal, etc. The inner boundaries are set by setting, type of narrative, player characters, topics, and so on.

Roleplaying games are an interactive narrative where all participants have a chance to affect the narrative. The goal is to have fun, but the players get an opportunity to solve issues and problems posed by the game master through the narrative. The players have a chance to influence the story through their player characters' actions or inactions. Thus, a narrative can swiftly change and move in a new direction if the player characters either succeed at something or fail.

Genres of Roleplaying Games

Many different roleplaying games are available, each with its rules, settings, or even both. Some are influenced by popular literature, such as The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien or film franchises, like Star Wars or Marvel Superheroes. Roleplaying games have similar genres, such as fantasy, superhero, horror, science-fiction, etc.

RPGs are like literature in many ways; some even say they are their own form of literature. As in drama, how the players portray and play their characters shapes the narrative and how other characters react to their person. Two different players might show the same character in vastly different ways, just as two actors might portray the same character in a play differently. Unlike movies, however, the players do not have a script, and therefore, roleplaying games are more akin to freeform drama, and their role is to determine the characters' reactions in each scene as they happen. Consequently, it is not solely the role of the game master to create the narrative. Still, it is a joint effort by all participants, and everyone is responsible for ensuring all participants are having fun.

The Role of Game Masters

The game master is all in one: narrator, arbitrator, and director. Their role is setting the scenes, determining successes or failures, and solving conflicts. The game master also takes on the roles of all non-player characters, rolls any dice needed to see if their actions fail or succeed, and describes their actions and reactions. It is also their role to play any monster and describe their actions. Finally, the game master has the last word in all matters concerning the game's rules, but game masters are urged to be fair and keep in mind that they are instrumental in ensuring that every participant has fun.

The Role of Players

Each player creates their character, following the character creation rules of each game. They later take on the role of this character in whatever narratives and stories the game master sets up. It is important to remember that roleplaying games are interactive narratives where the player characters work together to solve the problems posed in the narrative. Therefore, taking part in conversations, listening, and finding solutions in cooperation with other people is an important skill. Roleplaying games are by nature not competitive, i.e. there are no rules to determine a winner, and all participants lose if they are unwilling to help each other have fun, find solutions, and solve problems. Therefore, all players and the game master do well by remembering that the goal of roleplaying games is to have fun and that having fun is a joint effort.

Types of Roleplaying Games

The following are the most popular types of roleplaying games.

Pen & Paper roleplaying games

Three people playing Dungeons & Dragons

The first roleplaying games published were Pen & Paper games, where players come together with their characters outlined on a paper (or on something that represents paper, such as an app like Quest Portal). The essence of this type of roleplaying game is simple: the participants view in their mind’s eye everything that takes place. Many Pen & Paper games use miniatures and boards to represent the tactical positions of different characters, adversaries, and other things that might affect the outcome of a scene.

Live-Action Roleplaying Games

Live-Action roleplaying games (or LARP) can be just as diverse as Pen & Paper games. They follow the same outlines as the latter; you create a character following guidelines set by the game’s rules. However, in Live-Action roleplaying games, you dress up as your character and act out scenes. Live-Action roleplaying games are often just as popular as Pen & Paper games in many countries, such as Denmark and Germany.

Computer Roleplaying Games

Many computer games assimilate Pen & Paper roleplaying games, for example, the immensely popular Baldur’s Gate game series, based on D&D and using the Forgotten Realms setting. The players create their characters, following the game's rules, and need to solve whatever problems the narrative poses. However, most computer roleplaying games do not have a set game master, and the player characters' choices are mostly fixed.

A fantasy castle on a hill at dawn.

Game Systems and Settings

Roleplaying games are built on two different pillars: systems and settings.

Systems like BRP or 5E can be easily adapted to many different narratives. Each system determines characters' and monsters' attributes, features, skills, etc.

Systems are a set of rules to determine how characters or adversaries succeed or fail in any action where the outcome is uncertain. The rules might not take into account actions that automatically succeed or fail, such as walking along a path or humans surviving in the frigid cold of space, but most detail how participants determine an action’s level of difficulty and how to determine success or failure.

Settings are unique and often detail much information, such as history, events, location, and major non-player characters that do not have a place in any other setting than this. Each setting sets certain restraints on narratives; for example, when you play games using the setting introduced in the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, you can not create a tiefling or dragonborn character since these are not a part of the setting.

They also provide the backdrop to the narrative the game master wishes to set up with their players. Settings can be as vast, diverse, and multi-cultural as our world but also simple, small, and set with rigid boundaries; for example, if a narrative takes place on a spaceship, the player characters know little about it. While systems are logical, predictable, and - usually - easy to understand, settings can be complex, detailed, and creative.

The two categories of roleplaying games

  1. Set Difficulty Systems
  2. Dicepool Systems

One might argue that there’s a third category, narrative systems. However, both types can be used for narrative games, as is later detailed (see below), and games specifically marketed as narrative can be categorized as either.

Set Difficulty Systems

When roleplaying games were first introduced, almost all were Set Difficulty systems. Such a system has rules determining the difficulty level of a certain action, against which the players might roll a dice (like moving a d20 against a DC in D&D), draw a card (such as in the game Castle Falkenstein), or compare a fixed number against another number (as is the case in the Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game).

In D&D, when players make a skill check, they must roll a dice and add the modifier of the skill in question to the roll to see if they succeed. If they roll equal or higher, the check succeeds. In Call of Cthulhu, all player characters have a percentile number in any skill and must roll equal to or below the number to succeed in a skill check. In the Star Wars roleplaying game published by West End Games, players rolled several d6s and added the results to see if the results were equal to or higher than the difficulty number.

There are many different Set Difficulty systems. Many of these can be described as simulationist systems, where the rules are more centered on combats and conflicts, leaving the narratives and storytelling to the game master. Set Difficulty systems are the most played roleplaying games, such as D&D and Call of Cthulhu.

Dice Pool Systems

Dice Pool Systems became popular in the 90’s. In games using dice pool systems, players build dice pools, using either a single type of dice or different types, often using certain symbols or numbers on the dice as indicators for success. To see if an action succeeds or fails, the player rolls all the dice in the dice pool and counts the symbols or numbers representing success. Most of the time, these systems do not have numeric values determining success but have degrees of success.

In Forbidden Lands by the Swedish published Fria Ligan, players build dice pools of d6s by combining attributes and skills. When rolling dice, each 6 rolled counts as a success, and sometimes the number of 6 rolled determines the degree of success. In the Star Wars roleplaying game published by Fantasy Flight Games, using the Genesys System, players build dice pools using special, colored dice containing different symbols, and players need to interpret the symbols to see if an action succeeds, has an advantage or disadvantages, or fails.

Higher Player Agency

Many dice pool systems offer players more agency over the narrative, where they can use the system to impact the story directly. Such is the case with the aforementioned Star Wars game published by FFG, where players can use Force Points to alter the narrative.

Finally, some systems border both these categories, where players roll against set difficulty but also have to build a dice pool and look out for certain numbers or symbols. The One Ring roleplaying game is one such game; players roll d6’s against a difficulty number but also roll a d12 containing both numbers and two symbols, one of which means automatic success, and the other can have a dreadful impact on your character.

Narrative games

Many games have been published as narrative or narrativist games in recent years. These games can be categorized as either Set Difficulty or Dice Pool system; for example, FATE is essentially a Set Difficulty system, and Fiasco is a Dice Pool system.

Narrative games, which can be almost any roleplaying game, center around the player characters’ agency (not the players) to affect the world around them. A game master with a predefined storyline, which the player characters have little to say about, where they are either protagonists or antagonists, and their prowess in combats and resolving conflicts using the game mechanics is not narrative (but simulationist).

In a narrative game, the player characters’ choices and actions impact and shape the narrative. The game master reacts to their choices and actions or inactions, thus building the narrative collaboratively with the players. Some systems encourage this by having mechanics that allow players to affect the narrative, for example, in FATE, players can add aspects to a scene as long as it is helpful to the action of the player character or use a FATE point to add specific detail to the narrative.

A medieval village

Types of Settings in TTRPGs

The number of settings for roleplaying games is unfathomable and way too many for a detailed list. They follow roughly the same genres as in other literature categories. There are fantasy settings, such as The One Ring, which is based on Tolkien’s Middle-Earth; horror settings, like The Vampire the Masquerade; science-fiction, like the Star Trek 2d20 game; or even historical games, such as Pendragon. Some settings mix up genres, like Shadowrun, a science-fiction fantasy game, or Deadlands, a Western horror game with steampunk elements. 

Almost all systems are linked to one or more settings. Those who like to play 5E can choose from a vast array of settings, such as the official settings published by Wizards of the Coast, for example, Forgotten Realms or Planescape. The same applies to BRP, the system used by settings published by Chaosium, games like Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest.

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The History of Roleplaying Games

The history of roleplaying games starts in the late 60s and early 70s. It is often credited to Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, two men who liked playing strategy war games and wanted to enhance their experience. Thus came into being Dungeons & Dragons.

It is only possible to dig into the history of roleplaying games by looking at the history of D&D since it is by far the most popular and instrumental game on the market.

The History of Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons has a long history, but was initially published in 1974. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson designed the game. Since then, it has been revised and republished several times. Each edition has its own group of fans; some editions are more popular than others.

Strategy war games like Chainmail influenced D&D. Gygax’s and Arneson’s idea was to have players, instead of using many models and pit one army against another, assume the role of a single hero in a group of heroes that was sent on daring missions and adventures, fighting monsters and finding treasures. This simple idea later became the essence of all roleplaying games. Gygax had gone from one publishing house to another, trying to have another idea of his published with no luck, and decided to set up his publishing, TSR, along with his friend Don Kaye. TSR published Dungeons & Dragons.

Rise and fall of TSR

Studying the first edition rulebooks, it is apparent that strategy war games still influenced the game, yet D&D became a sensation. In later editions, the game system was updated, time and time again, to become what it is today. However, with the advent of AD&D, TSR saw a surge in sales and new players. Roleplaying games had been catching on; more and more games were available, and despite bad publicity, especially in the US, people seemed eager to play roleplaying games. AD&D had many different settings, some of which are still very popular, and TSR published modules and sourcebooks almost every month, along with novels and other paraphernalia.

In AD&D, the designers emphasized the role of players and roleplaying, and combats were to add tension to a session (even though the rules were mostly about solving action) but not the game's main theme. One could even argue that since 1st edition game masters were urged to be interactive storytellers, to tell stories the player characters could influence through their actions, and even more so in AD&D.

The Golden Era of RPG Narratives?

Browsing through modules of this era quickly reveals that these are loaded with text and images, descriptions, places, and events to help game masters and players roleplay. True, combats and solving conflicts were a huge part of every narrative, and most player options were combat-oriented. However, the modules were not written as 5-8 encounters with a thin narrative thread but as settings of narratives enriched by the game masters and the player characters’ actions. Many players of the this era say that this was narratively speaking the Golden Era of Roleplaying games.

Unfortunately, TSR was nearly run to the ground. When it was on the brink of bankruptcy, Wizard of the Coast, a company known for publishing the popular trading card game Magic the Gathering, took over TSR and its brands.

The Age of Wizards of the Coast

Wizards of the Coast took a similar publishing approach to D&D as they had in their trading card games. They revamped the mechanics of the game and put more emphasis on combat. To put it short, the theme of this new edition was the higher, the better. No more THAC0, no more death saving throws, and no more either roll over or under. They called the new system the D20 System. All checks were made using a d20, and the mechanics were more streamlined from AD&D 2nd edition.

Unfortunately, WoTC seemed rushed to publish the new edition and quickly discovered that many spells, feats, and combinations needed fixing. A couple of years later, the company published the 3.5 edition of D&D and updated almost all rulebooks and sourcebooks. This edition was well-received, and many avid D&D players liked this new approach. Players had more flexibility in character creation, especially with introducing skills, instead of non-weapon proficiencies.

A dicebag and dice used for playing tabletop role-playing games.

Combats and Conflicts

However, many older players felt the emphasis that the new edition put on combat and conflicts was different from the spirit of the older versions, and the game was now more a tactical board game rather than a roleplaying game. They were additionally focusing on having as high a bonus as possible rewarded power play and using certain combinations, which deterred roleplay and character building. Many game masters also complained that the system was bloated, and it became ever harder to run games and create modules since the rules for encounter building were complex and difficult to understand and balance.

Pathfinder splits from D&D

When WoTC started working on the 4th edition, Paizo (which formerly had worked alongside WoTC) decided to make their own updated version of the 3.5 edition, which they called Pathfinder, and became quite popular. Paizo published many different narratives, which they called Adventure Paths.

Pathfinder has a huge fan base, and recently, Paizo published an updated version of the 2nd edition of Pathfinder.

D&D 4th edition

Early in the 21st century, Wizards published the 4th edition of D&D. Combats and conflicts were still the system's main theme. Many older players and 3.5 edition enthusiasts criticized this edition heavily, often sparking endless rows of edition wars on social media and comment sections. Some of those who criticized this new edition said it was too akin to online multiplayer computer games, where character optimization and combinations of features and powers are central to succeeding.

However, this edition had many, often overlooked, merits. Creating encounters had been simplified, making the game master’s job much easier, and the mechanics had been streamlined. The saving throw mechanic had been updated; a certain recharge mechanic was introduced for features and powers (daily, encounter, or at-will powers), which later would be updated and revamped in the 5th edition.

Despite the criticism, the 4th edition drew many players to D&D, and the number of players grew steadily.

The rise of D&D and the 5E powerhouse

The 5th edition of D&D was published in 2015. WoTC decided to empower the fanbase and let the fans have a say in the development of the system, e.g., by allowing them to playtest beta versions of the system. The overarching goal of WoTC was to have the 5th edition unite all D&D players and end the edition wars once and for all.

This edition of D&D is immensely popular, and D&D’s market share has never been higher. Many publishers have updated their games and settings to suit 5E players publishers, like Fria Ligan (their fantasy game Symbaroum was updated and re-published as a 5E game). Some also attribute the rise in popularity of roleplaying games to the popularity and visibility of 5E, but D&D has been featured in many TV series (such as Stranger Things), D&D film has been made, and there are hundreds of well-received and popular online game shows (such as Critical Role) where 5E is being played.

One could even surmise that the Golden Age of D&D is now.

The Three Eras of RPGs

Looking at the history of roleplaying games, it is easy to see three different eras.

The Beginning Era

The first era, which encompasses the first wave of roleplaying games published between 1974 and 1995, is characterized by Set Difficulty systems, many of which were highly influenced by D&D. Perhaps the most popular roleplaying game of this era, save for D&D, is Call of Cthulhu, published by Chaosium. In this game, players assume the roles of characters investigating strange happenings. Still, the setting is based on short stories and novellas written by H.P. Lovecraft and other weird fiction writers.

TSR was the most prominent roleplaying game publisher of this era. Not only did the company publish D&D, but also roleplaying games based on the Indiana Jones movies and the Marvel superhero comics. Games based on pop culture were popular; for example, the Star Wars roleplaying game published by West End Games had a huge fanbase, even among the employees of Lucasfilm which West End Games worked closely with.

Many roleplayers consider much of what was published during these first 20 years as some of the best books and modules ever made. WoTC has even tried to evoke the spirit of this era in their published campaigns for 5E; for example, it is easy to see the resemblance of the Tyranny of Dragons to Dragonlance Classics, the Storm King’s Thunder is an obvious nod to the Against the Giants. Curse of Strahd is an updated and expanded remake of Castle Ravenloft.

The Unwritten Rules of RPG

The unwritten rules and etiquette of roleplaying games were set down in this era, and many of those who took part in roleplaying games during this time are still at the forefront today. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see the echoes of this era still in many games today.

The Satanic Panic
A satanic ritual. Thankfully, not actual photage, but AI generated.

When looking at this first era, it is impossible not to mention the Satanic Panic in the US during the 80’s. Many Christian leaders and priests wanted to ban roleplaying games since many games delved into themes not in line with Christian values, and some even considered a form of heresy. Murders, suicides, rapes, and even some mental illnesses were attributed to roleplaying games. Still, as time passed, it became evident that none of these allegations had any base in scientific facts.

Askur Yggdrasils - Icelandic Roleplaying Game

Askur Yggdrasils was published in 1994 by the publisher Iðunn, and is the only roleplaying game ever published in Iceland and Icelandic, though many Icelanders have taken part in developing and publishing roleplaying games in other languages. During this time, roleplaying games were popular in Iceland, and many bookstores sold such games.

The game was developed by the brothers Runar Thor and Jon Helgi Thorarinsson. Players took on the roles of heroes in a world heavily rooted in Scandinavian mythology; the characters could be anything from the lowliest thrall to a powerful godi and even go to Valhalla to meet with Odin before battling frost giants and undead.

Greg Stafford’s RuneQuest influenced the game, and the mechanics of Askur Yggdrasils incorporated much of what could be found in RuneQuest. This was a Set Difficulty system, as in most games of this era, players needed to roll under to succeed.

Askur Yggdrasil was a boxed set that included a player’s handbook and game master’s guide, along with a game master’s screen and a map. The game master’s guide had a short module, and even though the brothers Thorarinsson had planned to have more published than the box, none of it had ever seen the light of day.

The Second Era

The advent of the Second Era was when the 3rd edition of D&D was published. As mentioned above, the landscape of RPG publishers was changing. Wizards of the Coast took over TSR, and many more publishers struggled or went under, as West End Games did. Computer games were drawing players away from roleplaying games, and the introduction of multi-player online games seriously impacted many publishers.

However, the second era is especially interesting because this is when we see the rise of new kinds of roleplaying games - games with dice pool systems. Games using the Storyteller System by White Wolf, for example, World of Darkness and Vampire: the Masquerade, became popular. This new approach to both game systems and storytelling would later impact more games, for example, the Genesys system by Fantasy Flight Games, which is the foundation of their three Star Wars roleplaying games.

Non-native USA or UK games

In the 80s, a few games were published outside the USA or UK, like the Icelandic Askur Yggdrasil. These games were mostly written in the native language of the developers, for example, the German games Midgard and Die Schwarze Auge or the Swedish Drachar och Demoner (which later became Trudvang Chronicles).

Some of these games gained attention during the second era. One of these games was the Swedish modern horror game Kult, where players take on the roles of everyday people, slowly discovering that reality is just an illusion created by the Demiurge.

Kult’s success paved the way for other non-native USA or UK games, and many games originating in Europe or Asia were published in the late ’90s and early 2000s, for example, In Nomine, Tenra War, Crystalicum, and Demonworld.

The Third Era

The third era started about the same time as when the 5th edition of D&D was released. Roleplaying games had slowly been gaining popularity after a few meager years, and their popularity had grown slowly but steadily since the late 2000’s. The internet and improved online gaming helped, but this change can be mostly credited to roleplayers no longer managing many publishers but business people with clear views on how to market roleplaying games.

Early in the 2010s, the marketing of roleplaying games had altered dramatically. Many publishers used the internet in many different ways, using online ads, creating videos, employing bloggers, and platforms like Kickstarter to gain the attention of would-be customers. In addition to Wizards of the Coast managing to get D&D into popular media, this transformed the market, and the visibility of roleplaying games grew immensely.

Along with the effect of better marketing, more and more people missed the times when they got a chance to interact with friends and families outside the online space, and playing roleplaying games is a great way to do so.

Rise of Scandinavian RPGs

As mentioned above, during the second era, more and more non-native USA or UK games gained popularity. Though most had a relatively small following compared to D&D or Call of Cthulhu, these games were still played by thousands of players.

A house in a spooky scandinavian forest

In the late 2010s, Scandinavian games gained a huge following. As mentioned above, Kult was the first such game and marked the way for many great games originating in Scandinavia. The most prominent publisher, Fria Ligan, has enjoyed huge success with many Kickstarter campaigns for different games, such as The Blade Runner and Alien roleplaying games. Fria Ligan also publishes games such as Forbidden Lands, Tales from the Loop, and Vaesen.

Games by other Scandinavian publishers also saw some success, especially through platforms like Kickstarter, games such as Trudvang Chronicles by the Swedish publisher Riotminds, and the Danish RPG Black Void.

Most played TTRPGs today

Dungeons & Dragons is, by far, the most popular roleplaying game and has been since the introduction of 5E. In fact, one might even say that it is the most popular RPG in the history of roleplaying games. Other popular games include Call of Cthulhu, Pathfinder, RuneQuest, Vampire the Masquerade, Cyberpunk, and Star Wars.

Despite more than half a century since roleplaying games were first marketed, D&D is still a powerhouse, and with a new edition on the horizon, it might retain that position for a few years more.

Although it is easy to assume, especially when you are a player who started playing during the first era, that the golden days of roleplaying games were the first two decades, in terms of visibility, popularity, sales, and availability, the third era has been the most successful era of roleplaying games, with the other two eras not even coming close. Of course, creativity and narratives always depend on personal taste, whether you prefer the old school or the latest publication.

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