Is there a definitive book (or a website) on the history of role-playing games?

Optimally the book should be reasonably new (so Heroic Worlds doesn't qualify) and cover also non-mainstream games.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ If someone is willing to start a real world bounty…monographic histories go for about AUD$300,000 and a tenured position… \$\endgroup\$ – Samuel Russell Sep 26 '12 at 4:33

Given the nature of the role-playing games industry, the odds of you actually finding a "definitive" history of the genre are roughly equivalent to me finding gold while panning in my bathroom. While there has been an immense amount of material written about role-playing games, both from an insider perspective and an outsider perspective, very little of it in can agree on specific details and even less can agree on specific philosophies or directions.

Surprisingly, Wikipedia has a fairly extensive entry on the history of role-playing games. The section on modern and independent gaming companies and design is woefully inadequate, missing most of the development in non-Forge-born non-GNS independent game design, but at least it keeps most of the narrative straight.

While it's a bit out of date, Dark Shire has a nice explorational piece on the history of role-playing games. Their history ends before the introduction of D&D 4th edition and a lot of modern independent development, but their coverage of the late 90s and early 2000s is fairly complete.

Purely for the sake of completeness and interest, Rob McDougall made a blog entry in early 2007 which talked about some of the early, early evolution of the role-playing game as descendent of the wargame. Interesting reading and Rob is never ashamed of linking to other interesting articles in the field.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for the answer. I guessed that the web has superseded books as an information source, and this list of recommended sites confirms the fact. \$\endgroup\$ – lavonardo Aug 19 '10 at 20:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm never surprised by Wikipedia's exhaustive entries on geek matters. \$\endgroup\$ – anon186 Sep 3 '10 at 15:31

The best resource I can think of is Shannon Appelcline's "A Brief History of Game". A series of articles on RPG.net that reviews the history of role playing one game company at a time.

It is by no means definitive but has a lot of depth.

Edited to add: These columns were updated, expanded and compiled into a book called Designers & Dragons. A new edition of the work is slated for publication in 2013 by Evil Hat; this new version will be a multi-volume set, divided by decade.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for the answer, looks like an inspired set of documents. \$\endgroup\$ – lavonardo Aug 19 '10 at 20:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think Shannon is working on a new book, right? \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Dray Sep 3 '10 at 15:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, I must have been thinking of his columns. I can't find any mention of it turning into a book. \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Dray Sep 3 '10 at 16:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Adam: Appelcline's book is due out soon, apparently the copy is due on the 28th Feb, for publication this summer. See rpg.net/columns/briefhistory/briefhistory19.phtml \$\endgroup\$ – Alticamelus Jan 21 '11 at 10:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ The four-volume revised Designers & Dragons is available in print and PDF: evilhat.com/home/designers-dragons \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Schmidt Jul 8 '15 at 17:51

Playing at the World by Jon Peterson is perhaps the definitive account of the origins of not only roleplaying games but wargames and computer roleplaying games. Jon's book is backed by a extensive reference to letters, newsletters, magazines, and other primary references which sets it apart from similar works.

Jon Peterson also maintains a blog titled Playing at the World where he examines some of his primary sources in detail.


There is a book covering the publication history of RPGs to about 1985; it has an extensive list of games in print by then. Since I checked it out from the library in the mid 1990's, I do not recall the title.

Dave Arneson at several points noted that Roleplaying itself originated before He and Gygax; it started in a convention GM'd miniatures game, Braunstein, run by Dave Wesley. Arneson has credited Wesley with the concept and mode of play of RPG's, tho Arneson and Gygax were the first to actually release a ruleset.

The other key player in that very early period is Ken St. Andre, also a boardgame designer at the time. He takes a look at an early D&D release, in 1974, and dislikes the mechanics; he develops a different system of mechanics with a more narrative style of play in 1974, and releases them in 1975. They are called Tunnels and Trolls. While little known, it's still in print, in two editions; a 2005 expanded 5th ed (which adds appendices to the 1979 5th ed), and 7.5 Ed, which has numerous mechanical changes, but is still mostly compatible.

Based upon Ken's example, many other companies later developed their own engines, exploring various other means of representing characters.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Was the book Lawrence Schick's Heroic Worlds (mentioned in the question, ha!)? \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Dray Sep 3 '10 at 15:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ If I knew, I'd have said so. I believe it may have been Fannon's 1st Ed, now that I see Jadasc's answer... \$\endgroup\$ – aramis Sep 4 '10 at 0:07

One such work is The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer's Bible by Sean Patrick Fannon (Second Edition, ©1999). Here's a review of the book, and here's its Amazon listing.


I own and have read Tresca's The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games. It is a scholarly work - I suspect it may have been the author's thesis or dissertation. But it is well-written and thorough and while not exactly a thrill-a-minute, it's not a particularly tough read.

I'm not sure how far outside the mainstream it delves - it's been a while since I read it. But it does discuss video game RPGs as well as tabletop.


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