We look back at the history of role-playing \u2013 prepare for \u2018wizard\u2019s sleeve\u2019 and \u2018whipping out your broadsword\u2019 jokes \u2013 you have been warned... To celebrate the release of Pillars of Eternity we\u2019re having something of a role-playing week at Thumbsticks. We\u2019ll 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\u2019s wind back to the very beginning of roleplaying itself and the original platform \u2013 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. It\u2019s 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. 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\u2019s 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. Game mechanics The basic premise is a simple one, but in motion it can be fiendishly complicated. One player assumes the role of the dungeon master, and essentially functions in the role of omnipresent deity over the gameworld. They will outline the parameters of the quest, the environments in play and the non-player characters available to be interacted with \u2013 to be a good dungeon master requires an absurdly high roll for creativity \u2013 but there are rules to be adhered to, and the framework of the game is built around the dungeon master\u2019s interpretation of these rules, as laid out in three books: the Player\u2019s Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master\u2019s Guide. Decisions on what can happen are made by the dungeon master. Decisions on what does happen \u2013 where the characters travel, what they do, and how they interact with the world \u2013 are made by the other players around the table. But the real decisions are made by the dice. You want to pick a lock? Roll the dice. Get higher than a certain score, determined by your character\u2019s manual dexterity, and the lock pops open. Roll lower than that score, and there\u2019s a chance the lock may be forever broken, and you need to find another way around. Want to strike an enemy? Roll the dice. If you\u2019re lucky, you\u2019ll score a hit, then you\u2019ll roll the dice again to see how much damage you\u2019ve done. It sounds cumbersome when laid out in this way, but probability-based algorithms measured against key statistics are the basis of every single role-playing game, computerised or otherwise. It may be hidden under the hood and it could well be infinitely more complex than a set of polyhedral dice, but it\u2019s always there. The dice rule all. I could go on all day about the similarities between Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the modern, computer role-playing game. Aside from the dungeon master, the other players form a questing \u2018party\u2019 \u2013 a term that is instantly familiar. They build their characters by assigning points to statistics from a fixed pool of available attribute points (Fallout\u2019s \u2018SPECIAL\u2019, anyone?) so to build a strong character and a balanced party is critical for survival. As you complete actions, you gain experience points, and can increase your character\u2019s stats (\u2018level up\u2019) to better prepare them for the growing difficulty of the quests they face. Anybody who plays a modern roleplaying game will tell you that you need more than heavily armoured warriors (\u2018tanks\u2019) to succeed \u2013 you need a rogue for lockpicking, trap disarming and stealth; a magic-user for ranged attacks, status buffs and curative magic \u2013 again I could go on, but this aspect of balance is acutely felt in all modern roleplaying games, and depending on your choices can totally change the way you experience a game. The never-ending story Imagine playing through an Elder Scrolls title with a high charisma score, and visualise how easy it is to talk your way around certain situations \u2013 you can save yourself a lot of legwork and aggro by being smart and quick-tongued, and it can be an incredibly satisfying way to play. Now imagine replaying the same situation with zero charisma, and all those extra points lumped into strength and stamina \u2013 sure, you\u2019re tough as nails, but you\u2019ll have to walk a lot further, and fight a lot more battles to reach the same result, and you might enjoy that approach. Now imagine if you will a third scenario, where you\u2019ve made all those choices and play your character in exactly the same way but the experience can still change, because the arbiter of events is not a pre-determined algorithm that calculates what to do next based on some (albeit astoundingly clever) boolean logic about what has occurred before. No, the arbiter of events in this case is a sentient being \u2013 a human overseer who can tailor-make the experience and make similar-sounding scenarios play completely different, every single time \u2013 and you can see why the customisable experience and subtle nuances of tabletop roleplaying games are evidently being striven for by developers in their multi-faction, pseudo-infinite approach titles. Best of all though is that the dungeon master is usually your mate, and if anyone knows how to make an experience magical it\u2019s a group of friends \u2013 around a board, with their Dungeon Master\u2019s Guide, their polyhedral dice, and their pens and paper \u2013 it literally never gets old.