Role-playing games in their current form owe their existence to a 15th century form of improvisational theatre called commedia dell’arte, where players were given roles and situations without a script to guide them. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson combined this theatrical form with Gygax’s Chainmail wargame to create the world’s first modern role-playing game—Dungeons and Dragons.
Currently in its fourth edition, Dungeons and Dragons remains the most popular tabletop role-playing game. Its future has looked uncertain at times. In the early 1980s, the game was mired in a moral panic centered on the accusation that the game promoted Satanism, witchcraft, murder and other unsavory practices. Later, the game’s original publisher, TSR, approached bankruptcy before its 1997 purchase by Magic: The Gathering publishers Wizards of the Coast. D&D recovered from these setbacks, however, and current estimates place its player base around 1.5 million.
Of course, RPG video games and the explosion of the MMORPG—Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game—have redefined public perception of the RPG. The desktop, rather than the tabletop, is now the preferred venue for role-playing (although staunch advocates of tabletop gaming might argue that this is not, in fact, role-playing).
Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft is now the most popular role-playing game in the world. Based in the setting created for Blizzard’s original Warcraft real-time strategy games, the game was first announced in September 2001. New areas of the world were unveiled in 2007 and 2008 by the Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King expansions.
World of Warcraft had 11.5 million subscribers as of December 2008 and holds a Guinness World Record for the most popular RPG by subscribers. It holds over 60% of the MMORPG subscription market.