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. TSR marketed the game as a niche 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.
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" 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, constitute the first arguable use of metaplot in a role-playing game.
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.
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.
Games such as GURPS and Champions also served to introduce game balance between player characters; later, Vampire: The Masquerade and similar games served to emphasize storytelling, plot and character development over rules and combat. In recent years, rules stringency has been combined with literary techniques to develop games such as Dogs in the Vineyard that stress player input to give players moral agency in the course of the emerging story.
Competition from role-playing video games and collectible card games led to a decline in the role-playing game industry. The financially troubled market leader TSR, Inc. was eventually purchased by Wizards of the Coast. To better cope with the economics of role-playing games, and to combat growing bootlegging problems, 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, and critical reflection on role-playing games has become popular in Scandinavia leading even to a yearly academic conference.
In thirty years the genre has grown 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. Games industry leader Hasbro purchased Wizards of the Coast in 1999 for an estimated $325 million.
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