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Arcane Lore: the history of role-playing

We look back at the history of role-playing – prepare for ‘wizard’s sleeve’ and ‘whipping out your broadsword’ jokes – you have been warned…

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Dungeons and Dragons

We look back at the history of role-playing – prepare for ‘wizard’s sleeve’ and ‘whipping out your broadsword’ jokes – you have been warned…

To celebrate the release of Pillars of Eternity we’re having something of a role-playing week at Thumbsticks. We’ll be looking back at the nuances of the genre and some of our favourite titles, and of course getting hands on with Pillars of Eternity itself, but first let’s wind back to the very beginning of roleplaying itself and the original platform – to pen and paper.

The history boys

When you look at modern role-playing titles like Skyrim and Dragon Age: Inquisition it almost seems unfathomable that these complex and grandiose visions for the genre can trace their ancestry to pen and paper roleplaying games, but everything has to start somewhere, and when you look back through the mechanics of the formative games it begins to make more sense.

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It’s hard to say for certain where the very first role-playing games as we know them originated. Some believe they were derived from theoretical exercises (like mock trials) at schools and universities, while others would argue that they were first played by historical reenactment societies who wanted a bit more fantasy on their battlefield, but it would be impossible to dispute that when Dungeons & Dragons was published in 1974, the first signs of the modern role-playing game were irrevocably seared into canon.

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Prior to the advent of Dungeons & Dragons tabletop gaming had been painstaking recreations of real-world battles like the Napoleonic and Prussian wars, but a shift from modern to fantasy settings, combined with a desire to focus on individual characterisation over squad-based combat had led to tabletop gamers improvising their own fantasy rulesets (based on Tolkien and Classical mythology). In 1974, everything changed. Devised by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and based on a modified ruleset of Gygax’s earlier tabletop game Chainmail, Dungeons & Dragons was the first commercially successful role-playing game venture and is still popular the world over. An updated version of the ruleset called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was released in 1979, which has become the de facto standard ever since.

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Tom is an itinerant freelance technology writer who found a home as an Editor with Thumbsticks. Powered by coffee, RPGs, and local co-op.