I have chosen to write about role-playing games (RPGs) since I consider them one of the most
interesting game genres. Since it's the evolution we're focusing on I will look at all kinds of RPGs
through history, not just the recent electronic ones. My goal is to inform the reader of the history of
RPGs, the different kinds of RPGs that exist, and the differences between them.
Since the different types of role-playing games have evolved near simultaneously the last 40 years I
will write about them in the order I feel is most relevant.
The definition on Wikipedia is most appropriate for role-playing:
“Role-playing refers to the changing of one's behavior to assume a role, either
unconsciously to fill a social role, or consciously to act out an adopted role. “
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Role-playing 2010-03-05
So, in essence, role-playing as seen in theaters, or in real life, is the origin of our modern role-
playing games. In my opinion, role-playing as such can be grouped into a two categories:
−Aesthetic role-playing, as seen in theaters, films etc. to recreate past events, fiction or real, to
entertain the viewer or make them think about an important subject the role-playing is trying to
−Simulation role-playing, is a learning method that depends on role-playing and can be used for
various civilian and military purposes . And as wiki mentions: “Roleplay is designed primarily to
build first person experience in a safe and supportive environment”.
Examples: flight simulators & war-games. However, subjects like politics, law, commerce
etc. are also suitable since they are based on human interaction.
Aesthetic role-playing as seen in theaters (Figure 1) has been with us for several thousands years,
role-playing as seen in films have been with us for just about a hundred years.
War-games (Figure 2), or preferably called Military Simulation to not confuse it with war-oriented
civilian games, have been in use for an unknown period of time, surely several thousand years since
simulation is an important part of learning for soldiers to get prepared for war. Chess and the
Chinese game Go (Figure 3) are amongst the oldest strategic board games that could simulate war.
This is where we move on to board games. When there is no opportunity to present a realistic role-
play scenario with given resources, or there needs to be rules to prevent role-players from acting
unrealistically, a game version of the role-play is needed.
F1. Scene from a theater act F2. Scene from a “war-game.” F3. The Chinese game of Go.
Boardgames: Wargames and Fantasy Wargames
Drawing inspiration from Chess a master of pages to the Duke of Brunswick called Helwig created
battle emulation game in 1780 and sometime around 1806 the Prussian general staff developed war
games similar to modern Warhammer games with metal pieces representing forces (blue
representing their forces, red pieces representing enemy forces), rolling dice to simulate chance and
had a referee scoring results.
Over time games like these became popular in many nation in 19th century Europe. This wargaming
moved from professional training to the hobby market with the publication of H.G. Wells' game
Little Wars in 1913 (Figure 4). Most games had single markers representing a squad or regiment of
soldiers, but some skirmish (small number of soldiers) or man-to-man games were developed over
Diplomacy, a board wargame invented by Allan B. Calhamer during the years 1954 to 1959 made
social interaction and interpersonal skills part of it's gameplay (Figure 5), and a live variant of it,
called Slobbobia was used for character development rather than conflict.
It was in the late 1960s that fantasy elements were increasingly incorporated into strategic board
games and during this time is when much of J.R.R. Tolkiens works are used as base or reference to
create the new fantasy games.
A role-playing wargame session was held in 1969 in which players represented single characters in
a Napoleonic scenario supposed to be located at small town called Braunstein. This gaming session
was very similar to a modern Live Action Role-Playing session and led to another Braunstein
session where the players would take up roles of government officials and revolutionaries in a
fictional banana republic (referring to a politically unstable, corrupt country, that is dependent on
limited agriculture, like bananas).
The Braunstein sessions are relevant because of one of the players, Dave Arneson. Arneson used
parts of these sessions as reference to create his own fantasy realm known as Blackmoor, and in
1971 Arneson ran what we today would call a modern role-playing game, featuring today's
widespread core elements such as hit points (HP), experience points, character levels and armor
class. Blackmoor used miniature figures and terrain grids to illustrate position and action just like in
the Braunstein-games. The key difference between the Braunstein-games and Blackmoor beside the
new game mechanics was the ability for players to set their own character goals, in addition to
scenario goals set by Arneson. (Figure 6)
Essentially, new modern role-playing games are a fusion of role-playing and rules/game mechanics
of strategic fantasy games, and most modern RPGs are portrayed in a fantasy- or science-fiction-
F4. H.G. Wells' Little Wars F5. Calhamer's Diplomacy F6. Arneson's Blackmoor
Just like normal role-playing could be categorized, the role-playing games need to be categorized
into several categories:
−Pen & Paper RPGs are games played with a small group of people sitting around table (or
similar), taking notes of their character details on paper, and most often rolling dice to simulate
chance for the gaming. They often have a Dungeon Master (as in Dungeons & Dragons) who
narrates and serves as judge for successes/failures of the players.
−Live Action Role-Playing (Games) (LARPs) are a mix of RPGs and old role-playing. The players
dress up as their game characters and interact with each other simulating the scenario/game. These
games usually have rules concerning economy, battle etc. and a judge similar to the Dungeon
Master in pen & paper RPGs.
−Console/Computer RPGs commonly referred to as normal RPGs nowadays, these are
modernized variations of Pen & Paper RPGs converted to be played on consoles or computers with
one or more of the following: graphics, sound effects, background music, recorded speech etc.
Many of the modern RPGs are single-player games, often with the focus on a pre-written story that
the player follows.
−MMORPGs, or Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, are similar to
console/computer RPGs, except they support many players, often having thousands of players
active in the same world at a time.
Age of the Pen & Paper: Dungeons & Dragons
After Blackmoor Dave Arneson met Gary Gygax and together they developed the first
commercially available role-playing game in 1974: Dungeons & Dragons (D&D).
Dungeons & Dragons saw a growing success, and with it several new RPGs were developed,
although most of the new RPGs tried to straight off copy D&D. D&D's rulebooks expanded over
time to what we can see today in hobby shops; the Player's Handbook (Figure 7), Monster's Manual
and Dungeon Master's Guide. All three being over 200 pages long.
Copyright infringement issues arose, and a public controversy would later emerge to bring D&D
more attention but stigmatize the game. As mentioned D&D grew dramatically, peaking at 300
employees in 1984, compared to just the two founders in 1974. New publishers began working on
pen & paper RPGs and with translations the hobby spread to other countries (Figure 8), allowing
new games to be produced outside of America:
−Drakar och Demoner Sweden 1982
−The Dark Eye Germany 1984
−Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay United Kingdom 1986
−ANKH Finland 1989
−Sword World RPG Japan 1989
During these years role-playing games began to influence other media, sparking a new genre of
games to mainframe computers, like Akalabeth and Rogue, both published in 1980. The computer
game genre inherited many of the pen & paper RPGs settings and game mechanics and would
develop it's own history beside the old RPGs.
F7. (left) Dungeon & Dragons: Player's Handbook
F8. (right) Drakar och Demoner
Computer and Console RPGs, West vs. East
RPGs as a genre developed quickly once it reached electronic gaming, and a great many different
types evolved. A distinct regional difference appeared between eastern (mainly Japanese) and
Western RPGs (WRPGs), also known as Computer RPGs, often feature dark and serious fantasy or
sci-fi settings with open-ended plot structures. The stories are often focused on struggles for power
that rarely end with a total victory for any faction, and it's characters are often less eccentric and
extreme compared to it's eastern counterparts.
Choices and consequences are usually big topics and some WRPGs like Baldur's Gate, Planescape:
Torment and Star Wars: Knight's of the Old Republic allow the pursuit of different storylines
depending on if the player wants to play “Good”, “Evil” or something in-between. These choices
can affect how Non-Player-Characters (NPCs) treat the player, what abilities the player can use,
how the story will unfold later etc.
Many WRPGs have their game mechanics based directly upon pen & paper RPG-systems, with
D&D being the most common system used. They often show the dice rolls (simulated dice rolls)
and other game mechanics that is normally hidden from the player (Figure 9). Since the game
systems are heavily based on D&D, WRPGs often feature lower level limits and slower character
progression than in Eastern RPGs. It is also common for WRPGs to feature skill-based progression
incorporated with a character level system, where the player spends “skill points” in skills of his or
her choice to specialize the character. There also exist game systems which are fully based on skill
levels, that increase upon usage, as seen in The Elder Scrolls series of games.
WRPGs were earlier just released to PCs, and it is only in recent times that WRPGs have started to
be ported to console gaming systems.
F9. Screenshot of Baldur's Gate in action.
Eastern RPGs as a category has many names: Console RPGs (because consoles are more common
in East Asia), Japanese RPGs (since most eastern RPGs are made in Japan), East Asian RPGs etc.
I will call them JRPGs for the remainder of the essay.
The themes for JRPGs vary a lot, with some games being bright and colorful (Lunar & Grandia
series), some games having dark themes (Megami Tensei seriers), and some games featuring both
types of themes throughout the game (Final Fantasy series, Chrono Cross, Lost Odyssey etc.).
JRPGs often feature settings that are a fusion of both Asian and European history, myths, folklore
and literature. It is also very common with hybrid settings like the mixture of fantasy and science
fiction like in the Final Fantasy series.
In JRPGs the player (almost) always plays the “Good” side, and the games usually end with epic,
ultimate battles between the forces of “Good” and “Evil”. JRPG plots are usually crafted intricately
with scripted cut-scenes and a strictly directed and linear story. Because of this, JRPGs are very
similar to movies or novels compared to WRPGs. It is rare for JRPGs to offer branching plots, but
some games like Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross and Star Ocean feature a multitude of different
endings depending on the player's choices.
JRPGs tend to create new game mechanic systems for each game instead of using existing RPG
systems, for example the Final Fantasy series where each game has it's own unique battle system.
JRPGs tend to focus character development on combat abilities, where WRPGs tend to focus on
both role-playing skills and combat skills. Another significant difference is that most WRPGs now
are action RPGs, whereas most JRPGs continue to use turn-based combat.
F10. Final Fantasy VII screenshots above, and Suikoden II screenshots below.
Dialogue/city screens to the left and battle screens to the right.
Mini-Games and Elements from other Genres
Many RPGs feature a variety of elements from other game genres to complement and make the
game in it self more diverse and fun to play and/or more realistic. For example in Final Fantasy
VII, which mostly is a turn-based RPG, there are (ridiculously) many mini-games that enhance the
gameplay: snowboarding, motorcycling, steering a submarine, gambling mini-games and fighting
mini-games to mention a few.
Since RPGs often amount in huge battles between the forces of “Good” and “Evil” they can also
feature some strategic game elements, like in the Suikoden series where the players controls a castle
and armies in battles against other nations.
Complexity and Reality: Conclusion
With time, RPGs have evolved a lot. One RPG can be very different from another, not only as seen
in the comparison between WRPGs and JRPGs, but the themes, complexity of game mechanics and
reality can differ a lot.
Today WRPGs try to add more and more facets of reality, like making the environment fully
interactive and destroyable, making NPCs react more to the player's choices etc., and today's JRPGs
try to specialize and become unique in many ways, be it game mechanics, world and theme, mini-
games or some other part of the game.
Near all RPGs try to use state-of-the-art graphics as the development of computers and graphics
continues, and music plays an important part of all modern RPGs to set the mood for the settings,
all the while trying to keep it's own graphical and musical style unique for each RPG and it's series.
Recently, modern MMORPGs have become increasingly popular, combining modern RPG
mechanics with multiplayer techniques for battling, questing, crafting, operating an in-game
economy etc. increasing the dimensions for RPGs even further.
I believe we will see many great new RPGs in the future, continuing to erase the lines between
RPGs and other genres such as strategy and action games to create great gaming experiences.
My own gaming experiences as well as several Wikipedia pages:
- All accessed from 5th to 11th March 2010.