THE ORIGINS OF ROLE-PLAYING

Jon Peterson recently wrote about Western Gunfight Wargame Rules (1970, revised 1971), by Steve Curtis, Ian Colwill and Mike Blake, and plausibly suggested that it could be considered an early RPG. He drew the conclusion that the emergence of role-playing was a wider and more diverse phenomenon than the experiments of Dave Wesely, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. His observations recall some comments made by Rick Priestley about his own early fantasy gaming.

The initial impetus to play fantasy wargames came from The Lord of the Rings, which was huge in the 1960s. I think I read it when I was about 12 or 13, not least because The Hobbit was a set text in my first year [ie at secondary school]. So I read The Hobbit and that gave me the impetus to go on and read The Lord of the Rings. And like many people at the time, I became obsessed with The Lord of the Rings, to the extent that I can still quote from it quite extensively. And remember, I was already gaming with ancients, using the early WRG rules, and me and Hal [Richard Halliwell] and a few mates from school started a project, to make Lord of the Rings armies from existing model ranges….

When Dungeons & Dragons came along, we were already doing something very similar, playing fantasy-based skirmish games with personalities inspired by the Skirmish Wargames Group, which was Mike Blake, and his mates, who produced two books that I know of. One was Wild West Skirmish [sic], and the other one was Colonial Skirmish. They were fantastic books and really inspiring. They had lots of individual combat, so they were an early form of roleplaying, but in the context of the skirmish wargame. So, based on toy soldier wargaming, but still with that element of roleplaying. That was where I came in. D&D then came out, and when Richard Halliwell and I first saw it, we thought “They’ve stolen our ideas!” But of course, Gary Gygax and his crew in America had been doing that for years already. So, they were ahead of the curve, but we had had no knowledge of that – this was, after all, the 1970s, when often what happened beyond the confines of your village was a mystery!

– Rick Priestley, Battlegames

Priestley here suggests that an early form of fantasy role-playing developed in the UK independently of D&D, using a descendant of Western Gunfight Wargame Rules. The gameplay still used miniatures, and it is unclear to what extent it involved a one-to-one relationship between players and characters, but it evidently incorporated some elements of role-playing.

The chronology is important. Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor dungeon campaign began in 1971-1972. The publication of the original D&D rules was in 1974 (though GW did not sign its UK distribution agreement until 1975). If Priestley’s games took place early enough, it can be established not only that forms of role-playing emerged independently of D&D, but even that they predated D&D.

Priestley refers to his initial wargames using “the early WRG rules”. These are Ancient Wargame Rules, by Bob O’Brien and Ed Smith, published by the Wargames Research Group (WRG) in 1969. Rick Priestley’s first year of secondary school, when he read The Hobbit, was in 1970-1971. He was aged “12 or 13”, when he read The Lord of the Rings, in 1971-1973. It seems, therefore, that he started playing his first fantasy games some time in or after 1971.

There is, however, no suggestion that at this stage Priestley’s games incorporated role-playing elements. Such elements are said to derive from “Colonial Skirmish” and “Wild West Skirmish“. The former game is Colonial Skirmish Wargames 1850-1900, by Ian Colwill, Mike Blake, Steve Curtis and Ted Herbert, which was published by the Skirmish Wargames Group (SWG) in 1972. This would place the role-playing experiments in 1972 at the earliest. It is not entirely clear what game Priestley means by “Wild West Skirmish“. It is possible he is referring to Western Gunfight Wargame Rules, which would support a date potentially as early as 1971 for his games with role-playing elements. However, I believe the most natural interpretation is that he is describing a descendant of these rules: The Old West Skirmish Wargames 1816-1900, by Ian Colwill and Mike Blake, also published by the Skirmish Wargames Group (SWG). This first appeared in 1975 (and was revised in 1978). Piecing this evidence together, we can conclude that the earliest possible date for his games with role-playing features is 1971, but the balance of probability suggests a later one, perhaps after 1975. It is unlikely, therefore, these games predated D&D.

Nonetheless, Priestley’s comments are remarkable for highlighting the development of forms of role-playing separately from D&D. They are striking further evidence in support Peterson’s argument for the broad development of role-playing features among wargamers in the 1970s.

Title art by John Blanche. Used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.

5 thoughts on “THE ORIGINS OF ROLE-PLAYING

  1. Yeah, I think there’s a good argument for rpgs being “invented” a number of times in parallel, especially when you look beyond the wargame field. For example, there’s also an interesting recent doc with Naomi Alderman, “SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK”, on the origins of interactive fiction, here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b071h083

    Arguably, the wargame origins of rpgs have been overemphasised because that’s where D&D emerged, when in fact what makes them distinctive is the narrativity.

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      1. I see three main strands to the development of RPGs. First, gamebooks. Branching-path books began in education with the TutorText series (1957 on), but moved into entertainment with Lucky Les (1967), State of Emergency (1969) and the Tracker series (1972 on). Second, wargames. Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor dungeon campaigns began in 1971-1972, and original D&D was published in 1974. Third, computer adventure games. The first, Will Crowther’s original Colossal Cave Adventure, was written in 1975-1977.

        The three stands interacted. Gamebooks acquired dice mechanics from D&D in the Fighting Fantasy series (1982 on). Crowther’s adventure game was explicitly inspired by D&D, but later computer adventures were much closer to gamebooks.

        These interactions in my opinion led to different attitudes to role-playing over time. In the 1970s gamers were perhaps more likely to come to RPGs from wargames, and so tactical and competitive styles of play were more popular. By the 1980s, players were coming from gamebooks and computer adventure games, which encouraged a more narrative style.

        Of course, there were endogenous changes that drove stylistic evolution, as well. Call of Cthulhu (1981) was revolutionary, but I have seen nothing to suggest it arose from anywhere other than RPGs themselves.

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  2. I studied the origins of role-playing games over a few years, ending recently. One other strand I had been aware of as having “played D&D early on” was the California nexus centered on Berkeley and several science fiction writers. They had prior to this in the 1960s already begun to sort of tell collaborative stories over hits and drinks, with the result being a strong proto-RPG influence in some novels – Philip K. Dick’s A Maze of Death for example.
    PKD was not one of the ones who was active in the Berkeley wargaming and sci-fi book clubs though even though he lived in the area. The other authors were already doing cooperative storytelling minus any real rules, in parallel with wargames of individual unit level but not using many rules, so …skirmish type situations.
    They never were keen on the stat blocks and so on, preferring the “describe your character and play act” approach. That married better not with stat blocks but with tables for resistance or hit probability.

    It’s a fascinating example once again of Charles Fort’s Steam Engine Time – the time had come and several people, of both sexes, had begun to have firm ideas crystallize about what would very quickly come to be table top RPG rules.

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