In many ways, the modern role playing game is entirely different than the original role playing games that were published in the 70’s. While the two games still share one or two core concepts, the approach to rules, mechanics, and storytelling has undergone over thirty years of change and evolution. Due to the vast number of role playing games that have been published during that time, this change has been continuous and gradual. Looking at the evolution of role playing games, there exist three distinct eras of role playing games.
The first era started with the earliest role playing games and lasted through the late 80’s. The first role playing games were developed in the image of small scale war games. Because they were based off of war games, these role playing games were basically reality simulators. The designers tried to include rules for every possible situation that could ever occur in the game and, in an attempt to perfectly simulate reality, the rules were often unnecessarily complex.
These type of rules actually resonated well with the gamers of the era. War gamers were already used to complicated and strict rules, so they naturally accepted the rules of early role playing games. The rest of the gamers interested in role playing games tended to be geeks and nerds, usually ones that were mathematically inclined. Intense number crunching and tables fit their personality well.
Starting in the late 80’s, the role playing aspect of role playing games began to gain popularity. This started the second era of role playing games. Role playing games like Amber and Vampire: The Masquerade (and a plethora of other White Wolf games) were released with much less complex rules. These games put a much higher premium on plot, role playing, and background story.
While the fans of the previous era of role playing games usually enjoyed playing these types of games, these game were much more popular with a new generation of gamers. The common player of this type of game was usually a person who was interested in writing or acting. These types of players enjoyed the rich stories and were usually forgiving of the occasional rules imbalance.
The second era of gaming started to fade towards the late 90’s, though did last slightly into the current century. The final era has only just begun and is unique in a number of ways. First, unlike the previous eras, role playing games from this era include video games (single player and online). The main focus of this generation of role playing games is on the potential for the rules to create a simple and enjoyable game that appeals to a wide audience.
Focusing on fun, role playing games from the current era tend towards simple, well balanced rules that cover the majority of situations. Where the rules don’t exist, the games either provide generic rules that can be used or pave the way for role playing without rules. In a sense, the games of this era prove to be a mixture of the previous two eras. But, due to the inclusive nature of this generation of games, the population of players has increased dramatically during this era. In fact, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that the current era of role playing games is on the edge of making role playing games into a mainstream phenomenon.