A Short History of Tabletop Roleplaying

D&D: A New Kind of Game

The history of tabletop roleplaying games is a story of birth, near death, and rebirth. When Dungeons & Dragons was published in 1974, it created a new category of games, one in which players collaborate to create imaginary adventures populated with wild monsters, fierce adventurers, and danger at every turn. D&D originated from the esoteric hobby of miniatures wargaming, but quickly grew to eclipse its parent in popularity. It spread beyond the confines of wargaming and took hold in the popular consciousness.

By the early 1980s, it was a cultural force, appearing in movies, music, television, and books. It spawned computer RPGs, which became a huge industry and a mainstream phenomenon. And along the way, it triggered a bizarre moral panic (in the US at least).

How Dungeons & Dragons Was Born

David Ewalt, author of Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons talks at Google in 2013 about how D&D was created. Many of his predictions about the intersection of tabletop RPGs and technology were spot on.

Over the last four decades, game designers have published an incredible array of tabletop RPGs, with more being released every month. They cover every imaginable genre, from fantasy to science fiction, horror to superheroes. They even allow players to create their own imaginary worlds, mashing genres and taking inspiration from novels, comics, movies, and historical events.

The popularity of tabletop roleplaying has waxed and waned over the years, but with the 40th anniversary of D&D, the release of the highly popular 5th edition D&D, a resurgence of games harkening back to the early days, exciting rules innovations, and increasing visibility through YouTube, Netflix, Twitch, and other media, over the last few years tabletop roleplaying has surged in popularity again. At this point it’s safe to say D&D has never before been this popular for this long.

Beyond D&D

Because D&D paved the way for everything that followed, it’s no surprise that people outside the hobby tend to refer collectively to roleplaying games as “D&D” even though there are hundreds of other games, many of which vary wildly from D&D. That said, the basic concepts of creating and inhabiting an imaginary world, controlling the actions of made-up characters, and collectively overcoming obstacles are shared by all tabletop RPGs.

In tabletop roleplaying games, one player is responsible for describing the world and the obstacles in it, while the other players describe the actions of their characters as they attempt to overcome those obstacles. Players use die rolls to determine the outcome of events, which adds an unpredictability and drama to the narrative. The rules that govern play vary in complexity and emphasis, depending on the game.

How Tabletop RPGs and Computer RPGs Differ

In computer RPGs the action is described on screen. In tabletop RPGs it is described primarily by spoken words. This difference in approach means that there is no pre-defined storyline and no canned dialogue. There are no “off limits” areas of the game world, which provides flexibility that is impossible in even the most sophisticated multiplayer computer RPG.

Everything from the setting to the power level of the characters to the types of adventures they pursue can be constructed and tweaked by the players to suit their needs. The gamemaster can even modify the adventure on the fly to adapt to what the players are doing. The most sophisticated computer game can’t come close.

Learn More

These books provide more detailed treatment of the history of tabletop roleplaying games:

  • Playing at the World by Jon Peterson: The definitive scholarly text on the origins of tabletop roleplaying, this is a thorough, carefully-balanced 720-page work that reveals the games and people that gave birth to D&D.
  • The Elusive Shift by Jon Peterson: From the first days of D&D, its fans argued about how to play it properly and what they were actually playing. If you want to truly understand the tabletop RPG hobby, this book is a must read.
  • Designers & Dragons by Shannon Appelcline: This four-volume work examines the history of the tabletop roleplaying industry by following the companies, game designers, and trends that have shaped it.