How large is role-playing?
By David Gillis
If you think of role-playing in terms of the MMORPG (or Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) market, it is easy to see the popularity of the hobby. As of 2012 it is a $13 billion dollar industry, with over 400 million players worldwide.
If you expand your focus to the entire realm of role-playing, the number quickly becomes incalculable. Many role-playing game publishers are privately held companies that do not release sales figures. Events range from gigantic conventions to invite-only, play by mail games. Participants are not always consumers. And if asked, these participants probably wouldn't agree on what role-playing is.
A brief history
Tabletop role-playing, popularized by Dungeons and Dragons, has deep roots in wargaming. It is focused on the mechanics of combat and strategy. The first player characters were military generals, overseeing vast campaigns. From this tradition you get many of the tropes of role-playing; including varying attributes and experience rewards. In computer games, 'role-playing' usually refers to the creation of a unique character that improves over the course of play.
However, the focus on combat mathematics is not what role-playing means to actors, or therapists, or playing children. Role-reversal is one of the oldest human traditions, and can be seen in any culture that uses masks. For example, on the ancient Roman holiday Saturnalia (later Christmas), masters and slaves would switch places, and a Lord of Misrule would make absurd decrees.
The profession of acting also dates back to Roman times. Historically, a script was followed, and there was a clear demarcation between the performers and the audience. Improvisational theater didn't emerge until the 20th century, with the work of Viola Spolin. Other elements that inform modern role-playing, such as amateur acting or audience participation, are informal by nature. This makes it difficult to trace their origins.
The primary category is determined by format. LARP (or Live Action Role-Playing) incorporates improvisational theater. MMOs and other computer RPGs are played on computers. Tabletop games are based on group discussion. The content is usually changed to suit the strengths of the format. A LARP may see more social maneuvering and player vs. player conflict, while a tabletop game will probably feature more player cooperation against enemies created by the Gamemaster.
As computers become more commonplace and sophisticated, hybrid games become more popular. Many live action players now use their phones or other devices to review character stats and resolve game conflicts. Long-running games switch formats over time to suit player availability.
Games are divided further by genre, which is tied to the popularity of certain franchises. The medieval fantasy genre dominates, with various games based on Warcraft, Dungeons & Dragons, EverQuest, Diablo, Conan, Lord of the Rings, Warhammer, Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire), Wheel of Time, and other properties.
In live action, the horror and mystery genres do well. White Wolf's World of Darkness setting may be the most influential, which focuses on the perspective of supernatural monsters. Vampire has remained the flagship game, being the most common game in worldwide organizations such as the Camarilla and OWBN, as well as in independent games. Other properties such as Call of Cthulu do well, as do murder mysteries not tied to a continuing franchise.
The fantastic elements of superhero, science fiction, and other fantasy settings make conversion to live action difficult, so you are more likely to see these genres online or in tabletop. However, these genres are heavily influential in cosplaying, computer games, films and other media, so this has the potential to be a huge market. Notable sci-fi properties include Star Wars, Star Trek, Cyberpunk, Traveler, Paranoia, Robotech, and Dr. Who. For now, superhero games haven't strayed too far from the influence of DC and Marvel comics.
Battle Gaming is a subset of Live Action fused with mock medieval combat. Unlike the dice rolls and rock-paper-scissors contests used to resolve disputes in other games, battle games use padded weapons and targeted tag systems. Most of these games are based on the rule set of the game Dagorhir, which began in 1977.
Polearmball is in a category of its own. If you look at the polearm used in Polearmball it may appear that this sport is similar to Battle Gaming. Yet it is a sport with stronger similarities to a fox hunt. Even more, the role-playing aspect of the game may be ignored without changing the rules and played in its own right as a competitive athletic sport. The role playing aspect of the game lends a theme to the game and is confirmed with the creation of teams (known as a Clan, Tribe, Gang, or Family). To my knowledge, there is no other sport like this.
Simulations tend to dispense with the 'game' aspect of role-playing, but the participants still adopt personas, so the events are worth a mention.
Many simulations are tied to historical sites. In the US, civil war reenactments take place on old battlefields, and colonial cities such as Williamsburg, Virginia are recreated in exacting detail. Other events, such as Renaissance Fairs. These events tend to have some controversy over the degree to which historical anachronisms are tolerated., tend to be less centrally organized.
Most people are curious about what it would be like to live another life.
Several forms of entertainment feature fictional characters in interesting situations. Games and sports are compelling because they separate risk and competition from the high stakes of real life. Role-playing is a natural synthesis of both of these desires.
The interest in role-playing coincides with a trend away from passive entertainment, and towards interactive, participatory experiences. Watching someone else inhabit a role is not enough for modern audiences.