The basic idea of pretending to be someone else, somewhere else is a concept so natural to the human mind that its the kind of play most children develop on their own. How many games of Cowboys and Indians or other kinds of play-pretend do you think happen in the average elementary school on a given day? The answer is a lot. Have you ever stopped to consider the fact that play-pretend that most children play is simply a rules-light roleplaying game? Think about it for a minute. You take on the role of another person, lets say the Sheriff for an example. Even if you don’t choose for the Sheriff of this town to have a different name than you do, you have taken on this different persona and perspective. Depending on the group of kids playing, the Sheriff probably also gets power in the game, in that they can say when someone is being a bad guy.
Now take this basic idea and expand it. It naturally leads to more structured play in the form of rules and perhaps having one person tell the core of the story while the other players explore it. Taking this approach, you can see the evolution from the basic idea of children playing pretend either with them taking on roles or their toys taking on roles to live action role playing games or table top roleplaying games, such as Dungeons and Dragons. Historically speaking, the root of Dungeons and Dragons can be seen in chess and its derivatives. In 1780, a chess variation was created as a war game to teach pages in the Dukedom of Brunswick. Later, in the early 1800s, staff officers in the Prussian military were playing a war game that involved dice rolls for randomization and sometimes had judges to make decisions when there were decisions that neither the players nor the dice could make. It was these kinds of war training games that evolved into the sorts of wargames that many people play today, such as Heroscape and Warhammer, and also into the root game for Dungeons and Dragons, called Chainmail. It is from this base that tabletop roleplaying was derived.
The jump from tabletops to what is known as a CRPG or computer roleplaying game wasn’t a difficult jump to make. In the early days of the computer, many of the people doing development were also the kinds of people who played these sorts of games. It was natural that early text adventures would take the form of a simple roleplaying game. While perhaps the earliest didn’t have the sorts of freedom that you could have in a tabletop or live action game, it was a start. Soon after this appeared the MUD (multi user dungeon). These games relied on the Internet or early inter-computer connections to allow multiple players to interact with each other and with the game. With the advent of graphical interfaces, single player roleplaying games with much more freedom and customization began to appear and eventually the MMORPG (massive multiplayer online roleplaying game) appeared on the scene. These games then brought many people in who previously had no interest in the concept of a roleplaying game.
The present state of the genre is astounding. Tabletop roleplaying games have branched off in more directions that I can number, from the very simple and almost video game like Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, to the completely open source Fudge, or the modern fantasy of White Wolf or Marvel Superheroes. At the same time, live action roleplaying is slowly becoming, if not widely played, widely recognized. CRPGs are giving the player more and more control, more and more choices. Just look at the Fable series. They have a system for determining how the player is behaving and use this to determine the morality of the character. They give the player all kinds of choices, including the ability to be evil. They also allow you to marry other characters, and as of the most recent version, the other characters take the initiative periodically.
The future. Its hard to predict where roleplaying is going to go from here, but I’m going to give it a try. With studies showing how important play-pretend is for children, and people trying to find fun forms of exercise, people may begin turning to live action combat games. If you take some of the science fiction novels as a basis, someday we can expect special parks with holographic monsters. Think the Holo-deck from Star Trek, but on a bigger scale and outdoors. CRPGs are getting extremely close to having the kind of freedom that a tabletop can have, and at the same are increasing the realism of the non-player characters. Its exciting looking forward and thinking and maybe someday I’ll be able to sit down at my computer to play an MMORPG and not be able to tell the players from the non-player characters, well, at least until the players start speaking in chat speak.
Are there things you expect in the future? Is there something you would love to see in your roleplaying games in the future? Is there something in science fiction that you’re really hoping will come to pass?