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Last week I again complained about what a mess the term "RPG" is. I can't think of another genre label that is as badly misused and abused. The meaning of the term is so nebulous that we keep diving the genre into sub-genres and maybe even sub-sub-genres. But some of those - like "Action Role Playing Games" - suffered the same fate as the original term and once again became meaningless. Now, you might think this is just another sad case of genre abuse like Steve Butts talked about earlier this week, but looking back I think this problem existed long before anyone even heard of Baldur's Gate.
But before we talk about that, let's go on a long meandering tangent about how we got the term "RPG" in the first place:
It started with wargames. No, not the movie. I'm talking about the hobby. Before nerds spent their time sitting around pretending to be wizards, they spent their time reenacting the American Civil War or the Battle of the Bulge with hex grid maps and many little miniatures. These games were usually hardcore number-crunching simulations and were not designed for the faint of heart. This was a hobby for historians, engineers, and mathematicians. (Not that I would know first-hand. We're talking about a time period before I was born.) If you played wargames, then you most likely loved thick, detailed rulebooks and odds were better than 1 in 2 that you had a beard.
Then in 1974, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (both of whom had beards) adapted this style of play for small-scale battles and blended it with medieval fantasy to make Dungeons & Dragons, the first widely recognizable Role Playing Game. The game began as a very mechanical and number-crunchy beast, but as the hobby grew it spread to a lot of people that were never very interested in the original wargames. These new people dragged the thing in a new direction, making it more character-and-story driven.
Other spinoff and copycat games arose, new rulesets came out, and pretty soon RPGs overshadowed and outpaced wargames in terms of audience and cultural impact. There were a lot of elements to a D&D game:
Character building: Leveling up and acquiring ever more powerful loot. Making all those numbers on your character sheet go up. (Except for armor class, which went down. Look, it was complicated. Don't get me started.)
Storytelling: Discovering and taking part in an epic tale. Who is the source of evil? The betrayer? Is the prince alive? Can I bang this hot barmaid? Some games were more sophisticated than others about this.