50 years of role-playing

50 years of role play happy birthday dnd
Image by Wizards of the Coast

For five decades, people have been sitting at tables and rolling dice for the lives of their characters. They explore dungeons and fight dragons. Happy birthday, role-playing game!

It’s been 50 years since the first role-playing game went on sale. Half a century, that’s more than half of an average human life or a quarter of an average dwarf’s life. The role-players of the first guard have long since grown gray beards and tell stories of legends from the old days.

As with computer games, it’s no longer just weird basement dwellers who play these role-playing games. Society no longer fears role-playing games as satanic rituals, as it did in the USA in the 80s. Although not everyone knows what role-playing is and some people look at you strangely when you explain it: today, role-playing is better known and more recognized than ever. And that’s a wonderful thing.

A look back

In the beginning there was tabletop. Grown men played war with pewter miniatures. They recreated historical battles. The War of Secession or the Battle of Waterloo. Until two gentlemen named Dave Arneson and Gary Gigax came up with the idea of zooming in on a single fate and following the story of a single fighter. In 1974, they published the first commercial role-playing game, which was called “Dungeons & Dragons” and still bears this name today.

In the 70s and especially the 80s, several other systems for other genres, such as space opera and horror, came onto the market, which are still available and played today.

Dungeons & Dragons 50th Anniversary Logo

The popularity of role-playing games declined somewhat in the 1990s, as computer role-playing games and video games based on their analog counterparts emerged. Card games such as “Magic – The Gathering” also became popular.

Until the popularity of streaming services, social media and Hollywood (LotR) heralded the entry of nerd culture into the mainstream. Superheroes were now printed on baby onesies, horn-rimmed glasses became chic and Japanese anime became commonplace. And finally, Dungeons & Dragons came to the forefront of public consciousness with The Big Bang Theory, Stranger Things and Critical Role. From a hobby that made people ashamed of themselves, celebrities unexpectedly emerged who founded a media empire with role-playing games. Fans watch seasons of 100 four-hour episodes on the internet, in which nine people just goof around, chat and pretend to be someone else while sitting at a table drinking in front of the camera.

The current situation

When I look at the Exandria GMs’ roundtable ((LINK)), I’m filled with pride, even though I have absolutely nothing to do with it. Three people who 20 years ago were still bashfully fighting orcs in their kitchen with their strange friends are now confidently talking about a new art form in public.

They all earn their money with this strange game and inspire tens of thousands of other people to do the same. It’s not for nothing that all these podcasts, Twitch channels and YouTube consultants are sprouting up like mushrooms in the damp fall. And of course, yes, blogs too. But blogs are already so old-fashioned. Who wants to read letters these days when they can watch colorful videos on YouTube? I can’t even listen to a blog while jogging!

The heyday of forums is long gone. There are still large and weighty monuments to role-playing games on the Internet. But the clientele on them consists mainly of gentlemen, like me, who proclaim their expertise while their bellies are getting bigger and the amount of hair on their heads is decreasing.

The large number of young gamers who follow enjoy virtual tabletops, DnDbeyond, Discord and internet shows. And yes, we bearded old magicians do too.

A look ahead

For its 50th anniversary, Dungeons & Dragons is releasing its revised fifth edition. The anniversary version, so to speak. The golden age of the old role-playing games in Germany seems to be numbered, but there is so much available and going on internationally that it is a real pleasure.

It’s a bit like the music industry fifteen years ago. The trends:

  • Many small publishers diversify the market
  • The quantity on offer makes it difficult to recognize quality
  • Unstoppable digitalization is taking place

Collecting things, reading books, playing board games, watching movies, talking smart, writing stories, making dioramas, daydreaming – all of these are really great, each in their own right. But none is as good as role-playing, which combines and perfects all these things.

A home-brewed poem for the birthday of the role-playing game:

Role play, you give me a lot
Slaying orcs without remorse
Fly a dragon, ride a horse
Role play, you give me a lot

Role play, you give me a lot
Lots of really silly memes
And the experience of extremes
Role play, you give me a lot

Role play, you give me a lot
Raiding dungeons, looting chests
Rolling death saves, bleed to death
Role play, you give me a lot

Role play, you give me a lot
Story arcs in which I dwell
I’ll share them with friends in hell
Imagination offers the better reality. Period.

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