Fantasy Role Playing

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Fantasy role playing (FRP) — games also called role-playing games (RPG, or LARP for the live-action versions) — began in the 1970s as an offshoot of wargaming. Wargamers include miniaturists, the people who paint up hundreds of little lead figures and then refight historical battles with them, and players of such board games as Risk, Diplomacy, etc. (Track games such as Monopoly and Parcheesi are not commonly thought of as wargames.)

Wargaming has been around for decades as an independent hobby fandom, with minor crossover with SF fandom. Fletcher Pratt was famous for a naval game he invented and played with his New York circle. SF fans invented the Diplomacy play-by-mail gaming, with John Boardman's Graustark and Ted Johnstone's Ruritania being the first and second play-by-mail Diplomacy zines.

FRP games differ significantly from wargames in several respects:

  1. They are not played with any standard format. The "board" is a map drawn by the individual Game Master. The players may never see it; instead they depend on the Game Master (GM) to describe what their characters see, smell, etc. A player character (which may be symbolized by a miniature) has powers depending on his skill specialization (fighting, magic, etc.) and experience (level; training). Not even the rules are standard; they have usually been adapted by the GM to his own campaign.
  2. They are not Zero Sum; there is not necessarily just one winner. Instead, the group of players have gathered together to experience an interesting and challenging world as created by the Game Master. Usually the player characters succeed in mastering the non- player characters (as run by the GM), but this is not interpreted as a player victory. Instead, the goal is to enjoy the gaming process -- and to have one's character grow in power by gathering loot and gaining experience.

FRP began in the early 1970s with the publication of "Chainmail; rules for Medieval miniatures," by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren. In addition to standard miniature rules, "Chainmail" also integrated into the combat rules such fantasy-types as dwarves, elves, ogres and goblins; giants and dragons; heroes, super-heroes and wizards; and the Tolkien-derived hobbits, ents, orcs, and balrogs. "Chainmail" was played in wargaming circles, but did not touch fandom.

However, "Chainmail" did put Gygax in touch with Dave Arneson of the "Castle and Crusade Society," who had also written fantasy rules. Arneson had created a more complex miniature game with even heavier emphasis on fantasy figures. In this game, instead of playing an Army or even a squad, the player played only one or two characters. In a series of games (the campaign), the character grew in power, and was challenged by more powerful monsters. Arneson never quite got around to writing this game down in publishable form. Eventually a version of the game considerably rewritten by Gygax (and listing him as co-author) was published as "Dungeons and Dragons," in 1974.

D&D had considerable impact on fandom -- and vice versa. Many fen got and played it. Some started FRP zines and APAs. (One of the latter, the monthly Alarums & Excursions, edited by Lee Gold, reached #100 in December 1983.) Some fans grew dissatisfied with D&D and wrote their own FRP rules. A few of these were published professionally, the most significant being "Runequest" (by Steve Perrin and Friends), the first FRP game to base character competence on individual skills rather than on general levels.

Science Fiction role-playing games were also written, to make the world of hard science fiction available to the role player. Among the most popular of these is "Traveller." There are also a number of role playing games based on popular science fiction and fantasy books, including "Thieves World," "Call of Cthulhu," and "Elric."


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