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Many media have convenient names for their different historical periods (for example, comics has its Golden Age, English literature has Romanticism). Does something similar exist for role-playing games? If so, what are the names and breakpoints of the periods of role-playing game history?

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The ages of role-playing game history has not been formalized or even informally suggested.

In order or this to happen it would have to be treated formally as literature, culture or art. Then draw to it a field of scholars who can examine the sweep of the published content and the framework it was written and played under. But it has yet to do so.

As best I can tell this is for four main reasons:

1. There is lack of scholarly or historical examinations of the industry.

No one ever took those first steps. We gamers were content trading stories - its what we do, after all. But that is not what historians like to have. They will take that, if that's all they can get, but they prefer original documentation.

Thankfully this is changing. Perhaps most significantly, Jon Peterson has made a concerted attempt to really document the early history of RPGs in Playing At the World. But there are some other sources like the Designers & Dragons series by Shannon Appelcline. Still, Peterson and Appelcline both lament that they may have waited too long, and that many original sources - vital to historians - are lost forever.

From Peterson's blog:

I think there has been something of an informal conspiracy of silence about the contents of the Castle & Crusade Society's famous 1970-1972 fanzine Domesday Book over the years. I suspect this has been driven by a perfectly natural tendency on the part of collectors to create a mystique about rarities in their possession - though really, I'm not pointing fingers here, and even if I were, I'd probably have to start by pointing at myself. People are also starting to get serious about the history of D&D, however, and this secrecy really is doing the historical community a disservice. I think we need to shatter a few myths and shed a bit of light here. I spent the better part of five years trying to assemble enough evidence to be able to say what really happened in the early history of role-playing games, and it was a near-constant process of discovering that widely-held beliefs are inconsistent with documentary evidence.

2. The industry is still very young, barely over 40 years old.

For comic books, the ages lasted approximately 20 years a piece (significantly longer for literature), and were marked by significant milestones both internal and external, that signified a sea change in thematic content or style.

I certainly am no scholar, but I can see the Storyteller system of Worlds Of Darkness as maybe being one marker for a sea change, but that may be it. Anyone else have other suggestions?

It may be that we suffer from the rule of threes? Perhaps we sit in the cusp of the third age now with the advent of the 5th edition. I feel like something has changed with the advent of people watching others play on-line....

3. The industry is very small, and most of the companies were privately held.

Unlike comics, which became huge, Table Top RPGs are a really small industry overall, even today ($25 mil in sales vs almost a billion for comics ; and we have not even begun to mention licensing.). That means less attention, fewer fans, and fewer avid collectors. And the truth is, E. G. Gygax and Dave Arneson didn't view their works through the lens of historicity. Nowadays, Hasbro cum WOTC has a department to handle that, but TSR or Chaosium or I.C.E. didn't have time to track such info.

Given that TSR has always dwarfed all others combined, the fact that TSR was closely held and involved in bitter "custody" battles until it was finally bought by WOTC in '97 has only served to muddy the waters. People are kinda bitter about those years, and don't want to talk about the industry, and often ip protection means you can't see working docs or original sources, which again deters research. But these personality clashes matter to what gets released, and therefore what styles and themes pervade the industry.

As an example I offer this quote from Gygax, right before he was "fired" from TSR.

Fanatical game hobbyists often express the opinion that DUNGEONS & DRAGONS will continue as an ever-expanding, always improving game system. TSR and I see it a bit differently. Currently D&D is moving in two directions. There is the “Original” game system and the new ADVANCED D&D® system. New participants can move from the “Basic Set” into either form without undue difficulty— especially as playing aid offerings become more numerous, and that is in process now. Americans have somehow come to equate change with improvement. Somehow the school of continuing evolution has conceived that D&D can go on in a state of flux, each new version “new and improved!” From a standpoint of sales, I beam broadly at the very thought of an unending string of new, improved, super, energized, versions of D&D being hyped to the loyal followers of the gaming hobby in general and role playing fantasy games in particular. As a game designer I do not agree, particularly as a gamer who began with chess. The original could benefit from a careful reorganization and expansion to clarify things, and this might be done at some future time. As all of the ADVANCED D&D system is not written yet, it is a bit early for prognostication, but I envision only minor expansions and some rules amending on a gradual, edition to edition, basis. When you have a fine product, it is time to let well enough alone. I do not believe that hobbyists and casual players should be continually barraged with new rules, new systems, and new drains on their purses. Certainly there will be changes, for the game is not perfect; but I do not believe the game is so imperfect as to require constant improvement.

4. There has never been an attempt to thematically categorize RPG content from a cultural critic PoV

I can't even begin to think what that may look like, but it is true that a sub-culture's movement periods are themes reflecting the times it moves through. So at a basic level, someone would have to at least get their hands around themes and styles of at least various product lines and campaign worlds. Right now, I think the form is ripe for this type of examination. And if someone were to get in early they could cover a great deal of low hanging fruit.

EDIT: I found this poster over at the new TSR web site. It is someone's take on the cosmology of RPGs. If you look there are concentric rings surrounding the core, which might be interpreted as "ages". You could email the designers and ask!

EDIT #2: Grognardia wrote a piece on the ages of D&D. While it is not formal or scholarly, and it is narrowly focused on D&D only, it does get at some insights on how the hobby has progressed. Also read the comments - there are links to broader discussions in there.

I look forward to seeing your work in this area in the near future. :-)

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    \$\begingroup\$ You may soon have one of the works that provide what you need. Rob Kuntz is about to publish Dave Arneson's True Genius. While Tim Kask may roll his eyes, this was a story worth telling. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 0:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think we can quite safely qualify a pre-history consisting of tabletop wargaming. \$\endgroup\$
    – Weckar E.
    Commented Apr 19, 2017 at 11:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Weckar E No doubt. \$\endgroup\$
    – JWT
    Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 19:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ There's no need to signal your edits in text. You shoudl edit your answer to stand as if it were always the best version of itself, rather than adding changes at the end with an edit note. Anyone interested in older versions of the answer can always view the revision history. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 1:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ FWIW, Jon Peterson's recent "The Elusive Shift" covers a lot of the early age/ages. A very good read. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 28, 2022 at 19:35
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The first age of RPG is arguably 1971 - 1977

As Jon Peterson has documented in The Elusive Shift, that did not arise ex nihilo but was a carrying forward of some things that wargamers had been doing between 1960 and 1970 in various places. Wargamers, a fairly small community, shared their experiences through newsletters and fanzines so ideas spread that way, or during conventions/meeting and other gatherings.

Proto-RPG play cropped in the decade before that

Three examples of playing a single character with a personality and a story such that play included self-identification with the character in play include (Peterson, Chapter 1)

  • Mike Carr's Fight in the Skies (WW I pilots being the characters in this case),
  • Don Featherston's games that he documented in Advanced War Games (1969) that had the players play as a single soldier (which evoked considerable empathy with the soldier, and a reluctance to send them on suicide missions),
  • Western Gunfight Wargame Rules as played by the Bristol{UK} Wargames Society beginning around 1970. This game tried to capture the feel of American Western films and the characters in them.

John Morschauser wrote an article in 1966 (Humanizing the Roster System) that encouraged putting characteristics in for each individual soldier. ("Staying power", eyesight, hand-to-hand combat skill, etc). (Peterson, Chapter 1).

Another proto form of RPGs came through play-by-mail (Peterson, Chapter 1) Diplomacy games to include the Coventry game (a Diplomacy variant) and games like Midgard 1. Players mailed in their moves to the referee and the referee would eventually respond with the result, which established a pattern later established in the early forms of RPGs: the referee presents the situation, the players indicate their moves/actions/intentions, and the referee adjudicates the results. (If you go back to various applications of the Kriegspiel war game that goes back to the 19th century, a similar pattern was used there and the RPG/Wargamer overlap was very pronounced in the early days).

A full review of Peterson's book is beyond the scope of this post, but I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the history of RPGs.

The Synthesis among American Midwestern wargamers

In the period before the Lake Geneva Group was introduced to the RPG ideas that eventually became D&D, Dave Arneson and his associates in the Twin Cities area had been playing in Blackmoor, more or less playing and playtesting in the wild (if we view it with hindsight). They were beginning to get a grip on what they had discovered/created1. Arneson has stated that it started in 1971. (In the opening to the film The Secrets of Blackmoor)

The period 1972 to 1974 saw a synergy between the Twin Cities group, the Lake Geneva group, and a few others all of which led to D&D getting published in early 1974. (The court decision that Arneson provided the spark, although the hard work of getting published was surely led by Gygax and the Lake Geneva crew, is born out by Kuntz' testimony in his essays on Dave Arneson's genius in game design and concepts).

From that point until just after GenCon IX, August 1976, the momentum was moving in a particular direction, however a pivotal event that foreshadowed a sea change, and coincided with the departure from TSR of Dave Arneson, Rob Kuntz, Dave Meggary, and a number of other early pioneers was a meeting in TSR after that convention. (Seeking date, will consult other sources).

Kuntz, as an eyewitness and insider, asserts that before that meeting, LGTSA and MMSA were in harmony. (Page 21, Kuntz, see source below).

Once the decision to produce AD&D was made and followed up on, the lead model in the hobby/industry/RPG-verse significantly changed, though (as Shannon Appelcline points out in Designers and Dragons) a dozen game publishers were active in the last half of the 1970's. This burst of activity and success for the hobby, and the companies involved in it, both spread the hobby and accelerated its movement in varying directions.

With the above in mind, the first age of RPG's lasted from 1970 to 1977. (If that's imprecise, it's at least very close).

  • You can argue that this period needs to be broken into two bits: the era of at-table development from about 1971-1974, predating the publishing of D&D's first printing, where Roleplaying was certainly happening but RPG's weren't formally published and the term "role playing game" wasn't even in use. The initial burst of success from January 1974 through the first three years as people discovered and spread of this new and unusual game form.

The AD&D Monster Manual was published in 1977, which made a major player in this new game form take a particular direction. That games from that year are still alive and well -- Ken St Andre's Tunnels and Trolls among them -- shows that some divergence was already taking place by that point i the hobby in time. Kuntz cites a TSR "sweet spot" of the years 1974-1977 in numerous points in the cited work so it makes sense to end the first age, or era, around 1977.

A key transition point not at TSR, in 1977, is the publication of quality RPG material by Chaosium: All the Worlds' Monsters. With the publication of Traveller in 1977, and Runequest in 1978, the next age of RPGs was well already underway.

1977 was the year that Chaosium began publishing RPGs. It was an era when everyone was publishing supplements for the original Dungeons & Dragons game. Even though Stafford had decided to avoid this route for Glorantha, he was still happy to publish Steve Perrin & Jeff Pimper's All the Worlds' Monsters, a D&D-based monster manual.

Though AD&D got their own Monster Manual out later the same year, the Worlds' Monsters supplements put Chaosium on the map as a publisher of RPGs. It was a fledgling industry that then consisted of just TSR, Flying Buffalo, GDW, Judges Guild, Fantasy Games Unlimited, Metagaming Concepts, and a few smaller companies--Chaosium may well be one of only two survivors from this dawn of roleplaying. (From Shanon Appelcline, blog post, Copyright © 2006 Shannon Appelcline, published by RPGnet under license)


1 While Diplomacy had an influence on a lot of proto RPG development, given its popularity among the early practitioners of the RPG scene, I can't point to Diplomacy as having initiated RPGs since it remains a board game. (Great training for a chaotic RPG setting).

The Braunstein role playing Wesley is credited with introducing as an ancestor to the hobby comes from a form of war gaming (for the military) survives to this day, at places like JRTCC in Fort Polk Louisiana. That form of non-attrition based, non-linear outcomes that are ruled on and judged by a war game staff still goes on (albeit aided a lot by computers and other machines). I participated in four major war games/exercises (1990's) where the "white cells" behaved as game masters - these multi-million dollar war games/exercises/CPXs require professional military officers and troops to confront a lot of decisions that don't have hard and fast "right" answers. The JRTCC exercises are particularly good at the "it's not quite war and you can't solve this through firepower" (sort of like "you can't murderhobo your way through this adventure") style of exercise/war game. That kind of role play, where the GM/White Cell/Judge makes a ruling so that the exercise/play can continue is strikingly close, though at a much larger scale, to RPGs.


Source:
Dave Arneson's True Genius, Robert J. Kuntz, Three Line Studios, 2017, pages 20-25; points summarized for brevity due to the authors inflated prose style.

Closing note: Kuntz contests the Braunstein/Chainmail genesis of Arneson's game design conceptual approach, but at the moment I am having trouble unpacking his arguments, and need to cross reference with other sources to see what matches and what doesn't. I sense a little score settling as an undercurrent.

Follow Up Note: the boggswood blog has a complementary view on the proto D&D period that looks to agree with a lot of Kuntz's points in the book.

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Designers & Dragons uses decades

One of the few in-depth published histories of Tabletop Role-Playing Games is Shannon Applecline's Designers & Dragons. Instead of coming up with names like Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age etc., he opted to name the different books by decade (The 70's, The 80's, The 90's, The 00's).

He does point out a few major developments in the evolution of role playing games, but does not give them "age" names:

  • Boom & Bust (1980–1983). A boom period for RPGs in the wake of increased media attention turned into a bust in 1982 or 1983. Many early publishers met their end.

  • Storytelling Revolution (1984). Prior to 1984, most RPGs had been about location-based exploration. Publications like Dragonlance and Paranoia moved the medium toward story-oriented play.

  • Desktop Revolution (1985). The Mac computers appeared and within a year personal desktop publishing had become possible, along with many new small press publishers.

  • Cyberpunk (1988). R. Talsorian Games changed the face of science-fiction roleplaying with their publication of Cyberpunk

  • CCG Boom and Bust (1993–1996). Wizards of the Coast published Magic: The Gathering and created the collectible card game genre. It was much more lucrative than roleplaying publishing, and thus many RPG publishers created CCGs of their own.

  • D20 Boom and Bust (2000–2004). Wizards of the Coast changed the whole industry a second time when they released Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition (2000) under a license that allowed anyone to create supplements for it. Hundreds of new companies appeared to do so, while many old publishers also moved in.

  • Indie Revolution (2001+). Many of the storytelling ideas from the ’80s and ’90s were reborn as the indie game movement.

I personally think that

  • World of Darkness (1991 onward) by White Wolf and Mark Rein-Hagen probably should be also in there as a milestone achievement, because it changed what role playing games could be by connecting them to contemporary gothic youth culture, and influcenced movies and popular culture, like the Blade and Underworld franchises.
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