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A tabletop role-playing game (typically abbreviated as TRPG or TTRPG), also known as a pen-and-paper role-playing game, is a form of role-playing game (RPG) in which the participants describe their characters' actions through speech. Participants determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a set formal system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, players have the freedom to improvise; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the game.
The terms pen-and-paper and tabletop are generally only used to distinguish this format of RPG from other formats, since neither pen and paper nor a table are strictly necessary.
In most games, a specially designated player typically called the game master (GM) purchases or prepares a set of rules and a fictional setting in which each player acts out the role of a single character. The GM describes the game world and its inhabitants; the other players describe the intended actions of their characters, and the GM describes the outcomes. Some outcomes are determined by the game system, and some are chosen by the GM. This pattern was established by the first published role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, but is not universal across all tabletop RPGs.
Games are of indefinite length, from a single brief session (usually completed in a few hours) to a series of repeated sessions that may continue for years with an evolving cast of players and characters. Play is often episodic and mission-centric, with a series of challenges culminating in a final puzzle or enemy that must be overcome. Multiple missions played with the same characters may be related to each other in a plot arc of escalating challenges. The exact tone, structure, pace and end (if any) vary from game to game depending on the needs and preferences of the players.
During the first session, players typically create characters whose roles they will play in the game. As well as fleshing out the character's personal history and background, they assign numerical statistics to the character; these will be used later to determine the outcome of events in the game. Together, these notes tell the player about their character and said character's place in the game world. In many game systems, characters can increase their statistics during the course of the game (or over multiple games).
The GM then begins the game by introducing and describing the setting and the characters. Specific tabletop RPGs may have a unique name for the GM role, such as Dungeon Master (DM) in Dungeons & Dragons, Keeper of Arcane Lore (usually abbreviated to Keeper) in Call of Cthulhu, Referee in all Game Designers' Workshop games, or Storyteller for the Storytelling System. Some games, such as Polaris and Primetime Adventures, have distributed the authority of the GM to different players and to different degrees. This technique is often used to ensure that all players are involved in producing a situation that is interesting and that conflicts of interest suffered by the GM are avoided on a systemic level.
The players describe their characters' actions, and the GM responds by describing the outcome of those actions. Usually, these outcomes are determined by the setting and the GM's common sense; most actions are straightforward and immediately successful. For example, if a player has their character look around a room, the GM will describe the room; if they have their character leave, the GM will describe whatever they encounter outside the room.
The outcomes of some actions are determined by the rules of the game. For example, while looking around the room, a character may or may not notice an important object or secret doorway, depending on the character's powers of perception. Determining the outcome usually involves rolling dice and adjusting the result for the character's statistics and environmental factors to see whether the action was successful. Typically, the higher the character's score in a particular attribute, the higher their probability of success. There are alternate game systems which are diceless, or use alternate forms of randomization, such as a deck of cards or a Jenga tower.
Tabletop RPG settings includes challenges for the player characters to overcome through play, such as traps to be avoided, rulers to be courted, or adversaries to be fought. Many game sessions contain moments of puzzle solving, negotiation, chases, and combat. Frequently, this involves interacting with non-player characters, other denizens of the game world, which are played by the GM. In most games, the full details of the setting are kept secret, but some broad details of the game world are usually given to the players.
Tabletop RPGs are often conducted like radio drama: only the spoken component of a role is acted. Acting in tabletop RPGs is not always literal, and players do not always speak exclusively in-character. Instead, players act out their role by deciding and describing what actions their characters will take within the rules of the game.
Main article: History of role-playing games
Tabletop role-playing games have origins in wargaming, which has roots in ancient strategy games, particularly Chess and its predecessor Chaturanga. From the late 18th century to the 19th century, chess variants evolved into modern wargames, most notably Kriegsspiel. Over a century later, the miniature wargame Chainmail, released in 1971, eventually became the basis for Dungeons & Dragons.
According to RPG designer John Wick, Chess can be turned into a role-playing game if chess pieces such as the king, queen, rooks, knights or pawns are given names, and decisions are made based on their motivations. According to Wick, Dungeons & Dragons was a "sophisticated, intricate and complicated combat simulation board game that people were turning into a roleplaying game" just "like giving your rook a motive" in Chess.
The assumption of roles was a central theme in some early 20th century activities such as the game Jury Box, mock trials, model legislatures, and "Theatre Games". In the 1960s, historical reenactment groups such as The Sealed Knot and the Society for Creative Anachronism began to perform "creative history" reenactments introducing fantasy elements, and in the 1970s fantasy wargames were developed, inspired by sword and sorcery fiction, in which each player controlled only a single unit, or "character". The earlier role-playing tradition was combined with the wargames' rule-based character representation to form the first role-playing games.
Dungeons & Dragons, developed in 1974 by Dave Arneson and E. Gary Gygax and published by Gygax's company, TSR, was the first commercially available role-playing game, though at the time its first printing was marketed as a niche wargaming product. Gygax expected to sell about 50,000 copies total to a strictly hobbyist market. After establishing itself in boutique stores, it developed a strong, lasting fan base that distinguished itself from the typical wargame player base. By the time of its first major reprinting in 1977, Dungeons & Dragons was refocused as a role-playing game to segregate it from the typical wargame.
One of the first original role-playing games was M. A. R. Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne, first published in 1974, the same year as Dungeons & Dragons. It introduced the fictional world of Tékumel, influenced by Indian, Middle-Eastern, Egyptian and Meso-American mythology. It also introduced the game mechanic of critical hits. According to creator Barker, "this simulates the 'lucky hit' on a vital organ." The game influenced Arneson and Gygax, who was so impressed with it that his company TSR published Empire of the Petal Throne in 1975. TSR published Barker's game and setting as a standalone game, rather than as a "supplement" to the original D&D rules.
Another early game was Traveller, designed by Marc Miller and first published in 1977 by Game Designer's Workshop. This was originally intended to be a system for playing generic space-opera-themed science-fiction adventures (in the same sense that Dungeons & Dragons was a system for generic fantasy adventures), but an optional setting called "the Third Imperium" that was detailed in subsequent supplements became strongly identified with the game. The changes in this setting over time, especially those involving "the Fifth Frontier War" as depicted in the Journal of the Travellers Aid Society, arguably constitute the first use of metaplot in a role-playing game.
Up to this stage, each game had tied itself to a particular setting; If a player wanted to play in a science-fiction game and a fantasy game, they had to learn two game systems. Attempts were made in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to allow cross-genre games using Gamma World (1978) and Boot Hill (1975) rules, but the obscure rules went largely unused. Meanwhile, Call of Cthulhu and Paranoia offered different role-playing experiences, in which the story arc of a group's investigation would lead to death and/or madness, or where comical infighting within a group would be expected and reinforced within the genre conventions of "a darkly humorous future". The Hero System, first introduced in Champions (1981), was also used in Justice, Inc. (1984), Fantasy Hero (1985) and other games. Steve Jackson Games followed with GURPS (the Generic Universal Roleplaying System) in 1986. At the same time, games using the fictional worlds of Star Trek, DC Heroes, the Marvel Universe or The Lord of the Rings expanded the range of possibilities for Table-top gaming. Games such as GURPS and Champions introduced character creation via point-buy systems; later, Vampire: The Masquerade and similar games emphasized storytelling, plot and character development over rules and combat.
Due to the game's success, the term Dungeons & Dragons has sometimes been used as a generic term for fantasy role-playing games. TSR undertook legal action to prevent its trademark from becoming generic. Dungeons & Dragons was a subject of controversy in the 1980s when opponents such as Patricia Pulling claimed it caused negative spiritual and psychological effects. Academic research has discredited these claims. Some educators support role-playing games as a healthy way to hone reading and arithmetic skills. Though role-playing has been generally accepted in society, the subject retains a level of controversy among some religious organizations. This belief or attitude is by no means universal among religious organizations; there are faith-based role-playing games on the market and religious role-players who disagree that these games are morally corrupt or occult in nature.
Competition from role-playing video games and collectible card games led to a decline in the tabletop role-playing game industry. The financially troubled market leader TSR, Inc., which had suffered financial setbacks from overproduction, was eventually purchased by Wizards of the Coast. To better cope with the economics of role-playing games, they introduced a new regime of open gaming, allowing other companies to publish D&D-compatible supplements. Meanwhile, self-defined "Indie role-playing" communities arose on the internet, studying role-playing and developing several forms of role-playing game theory such as GNS theory. More recently, rules innovations have combined with literary techniques to develop games such as Dogs in the Vineyard and Polaris that rely on the contributions of players to enhance moral agency in a process of emergent storytelling.
In 2000, Wizards of the Coast's Dungeons & Dragons brand manager Ryan Dancey introduced a policy whereby other companies could publish D&D-compatible materials under the Open Gaming License (OGL). He was frustrated that game supplements suffered far more diminished sales over time than the core books required to play the game, then this would spread the cost of supplementing the game and would increase sales of the core books, which could only be published by WotC. The new D&D rules became known as the d20 system, and a System Reference Document was published, containing all the rules needed to write a supplement or run a one-off game, but lacking the character advancement rules necessary for long-term play. The open gaming movement and 3rd/3.5 edition D&D (2000, 2003) enjoyed a great deal of success, and although there was some criticism of the move, a great many d20 System games were released until around 2008.
In January 2012, Wizards of the Coast announced that a new edition of the game, at the time referred to as D&D Next, was under development. In direct contrast to the previous editions of the game, D&D Next was developed partly via a public open playtest. An early build of the new edition debuted at the 2012 Dungeons & Dragons Experience event to about 500 fans. Public playtesting began on 24 May 2012, with the final playtest packet released on 20 September 2013. The 5th edition's Basic Rules, a free PDF containing complete rules for play and a subset of the player and DM content from the core rulebooks, was released on 3 July 2014. In forty years the genre grew from a few hobbyists and boutique publishers to an economically significant part of the games industry. Grass-roots and small business involvement remains substantial while larger projects have attracted several million players worldwide. Toys industry leader Hasbro purchased Wizards of the Coast in 1999 for an estimated $325 million.
Main article: Role-playing game system
The set of rules of a role-playing game is known as its game system; the rules themselves are known as game mechanics. Although there are game systems which are shared by many games, for example the d20 system, many games have their own, custom rules system.
Game rules determine the success or failure of a character's actions, or adjudicate changes in the setting or in the characters themselves. Many game systems use weighted statistics and dice rolls or other random elements.
Some systems are tied to the setting of the game they feature in, or to a broad genre such as science fiction, fantasy, or horror. Examples include Dungeons & Dragons itself (fantasy), Eclipse Phase (a specific science fiction setting), and Call of Cthulhu (settings where the Cthulhu Mythos features strongly). Universal role-playing game systems also exist, created with the intent of building a rule system that can be adapted to any genre. Examples include Basic Role-Playing, Champions, and GURPS. The d20 system, based on the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, was used in many modern or science fiction game settings such as Spycraft and the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. In practice, most universal systems are more effective for particular settings, power levels, or types of play.
Main article: Statistic (role-playing games)
Characters in role-playing games are usually represented by a number of statistics. Statistics are an abstract measure of how successful a character is likely to be at a class of tasks. Many game systems make distinctions between two key types of statistic: attributes and skills. Some, such as Burning Wheel and The Shadow of Yesterday include character motivations among these resources. These names are not at consistent across different games - a "skill" in one game may be a "talent" or "ability" in another.
Attributes are statistics all characters possess: strength, agility, and intelligence are common examples. These are ranked, often on a numeric scale, so that a player can gauge the character's capabilities. For example, a character's strength rating could be used to determine the likelihood that the character can lift a certain weight.
Skills are abilities that only some characters possess, such as negotiation, horseback riding, and marksmanship. Game systems often define skills that are genre-appropriate. For example, fantasy settings generally include magic skills, while science-fiction settings may contain spaceship piloting skills. However, some skills are found in several genres: a medieval rogue and a Wild West outlaw may both be very proficient at throwing knives, and a skill labeled "diplomacy" may benefit ancient Roman patricians or industrial tycoons of the 19th century equally well.
Character motivations are things in which the character believes strongly. The Riddle of Steel's Spiritual Attributes, Burning Wheel's Beliefs and The Shadow of Yesterday's Keys are such features. They might reveal secrets the character has kept, aspirations they hold, or other characters they care about.
Main article: Character creation
Before play begins, players build or select a character. This can take one of several forms:
Main article: Campaign setting
Each game has a setting in which adventures and campaigns (connected strings of adventures) can take place. Campaign settings are usually designed for a specific game (such as the Forgotten Realms setting for Dungeons & Dragons), though some settings are published with the intent of being usable in many games. There are numerous campaign settings available both in print and online. In addition to published campaign settings available for purchase, many game masters create their own.
Campaign settings exist for almost all genres of fiction. Because two long-time best-selling role-playing games, Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, are part of the fantasy genre, fantasy is among the most played role-playing genres. While role-playing's roots began in fantasy, science fiction has been used in settings such as Traveller, horror formed the baseline of the World of Darkness and Call of Cthulhu while Spycraft was based in modern-day spy thriller-oriented settings. The comic book and superhero genres have been utilized for games such as Mutants and Masterminds.
The size of a setting can vary. Campaign settings such as the World of Greyhawk detail entire cosmologies and time-lines of thousands of years, while the setting of a game such as Deadlands might only describe one nation within a brief segment of alternate history, and others like Blades in the Dark describe a single city. Some settings involve shifting between multiple different planets or timelines, sometimes with their own genres. For instance, in GURPS Infinite Worlds, the characters are "Infinity Patrol" agents who travel to alternate worlds, some of which include fantasy or steampunk as well as science fiction elements.
A number of campaign settings have fused multiple genres into a single game. Shadowrun combined fantasy with cyberpunk, Castle Falkenstein drew on fantasy and Steampunk elements, and Torg mashed up fantasy, science fiction, pulp and horror elements. Meanwhile, Feng Shui combined Chinese historical fantasy with Kung Fu action tropes and dystopian science fiction.
Main article: List of game manufacturers
The largest publisher of role-playing games is Wizards of the Coast, a wholly owned subsidiary of Hasbro and publisher of Dungeons & Dragons. Other major companies in 2020-2021 included Onyx Path Publishing (Vampire: The Requiem, Exalted, and others), R. Talsorian Games (Cyberpunk), Paizo (Pathfinder), Evil Hat Productions (Fate), and Modiphius Entertainment (numerous licensed games), as tracked on ICv2's Top 5 Roleplaying Games articles and the Bestselling Titles list on DriveThruRPG.
Most role-playing game publishers are privately held companies and do not release sales figures, making precise estimates difficult. There has been no publicly available, systematic examination of point of sale data, limiting further estimates to a rough consensus between industry analysts.
In 2006, non-Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPGs in the upper echelons of sales typically generated between five and ten thousand unit sales. Most commercially published RPGs are small press products, having less than a thousand units sold. The technology of print on demand is strongly used in RPGs, since it reduces run costs for the typical small print runs.
Role-playing games are produced under a variety of business models, which succeed or fail based on those models' objectives. The smallest viable businesses are one person companies that produce games using print on demand and e-book technologies. Most of these companies provide a secondary income for their owner-operators. Many of these businesses employ freelancers, but some do not; their owners complete every aspect of the product. Larger companies may have a small office staff that manages publishing, brand development and freelance work. Guided by a developer/manager, freelancers produce most of a game line's content according to a central plan. Finally, a few companies (such as Wizards of the Coast and Mongoose Publishing) maintain an in-house writing and design staff.
The standard business model for successful RPGs relies on multiple sales avenues:
Typically, RPG publishers have a very long life cycle once they manage to generate an initial successful game. TSR, the initial publisher of Dungeons & Dragons was an independent entity until 1997 when it was acquired by Wizards of the Coast, who was subsequently acquired by Hasbro in 1999. Many of TSR's contemporaries remain in business as independent publishers. The core design group of a publisher is often kept as a team within the new company for the purposes of continuity and productivity, though layoffs are common after such mergers and acquisitions. For example, Wizards of the Coast experienced multiple layoffs in the wake of acquiring Last Unicorn Games and after its own acquisition by Hasbro.
Main article: Indie role-playing game
Independent or "indie" games are produced by a self-identified independent games community, or individuals who may or may not identify with that community. Generally they are self-published or published by a collective group of small publishers. The indie role-playing game community often produces games with signature and idiosyncratic character. Some indie publishers often eschew the three-tier distribution model and sell directly online and at conventions, or directly to stores, but many do use distribution services. The line between "indie" publishers and "mainstream" publishers is hazy at best. Varying definitions require that commercial, design, or conceptual elements of the game stay under the control of the creator, or that the game should just be produced outside of a corporate environment, or be distributed without dependence on the industry's three-tier retail structure.
As suggested by the name, TRPGs are played face-to-face (around a table, most likely), and involve players 'acting out' a role. This acting is not always literal. Players do not arrive in costume or speak exclusively in-character – something that differentiates TRPGs from live-action role-playing games (LARPs). Instead, players develop characters based on certain rules and are responsible for deciding what those characters do over the course of the game.
Metaplots generally advanced the plotline of an RPG setting through new publications. Uniquely, GDW explored both of these avenues in the late '70s.