My first memory of role playing games is a dim and confused afternoon, in the after-school day care, when I was eight years old. The big kids had gotten a new game out of the boardgame cupboard, and had laid out a complex-looking game board, blue and white with little squares everywhere, and little metal game pieces carefully positioned around the board. I had no idea what I was looking at, and when I worked up the courage to ask one of the big kids what it was, he said, ‘Dungeons and Dragons.’
I was playing — or trying to play, with what few opportunities I could muster at age 9 — from then onwards, with very little comprehension of the rules, the goal of the game, the format, the source material, or any of what makes D&D actually work as a game. I read and re-read the example of play in my increasingly battered Moldvay edition of the Basic book. I had this sense of what a role playing game should be, and could be, and I wanted to make that happen somehow, with no real friends and no opportunities to play with interested strangers.
In those early days, a role playing game was an attempt to simulate the world. Your destiny was largely in your hands, and your adventures were the natural result of whatever action you happened to take. That map I saw the big kids (incorrectly) using as a game-board was the Caves of Chaos, from the Keep On The Borderland game supplement. The Caves were just a place, which happened to be full of monsters and loot. You could find them and go there, or you could go to a different cave system, or you could go somewhere else and do something else. Take over the keep. Set up your own competing keep. Conquer the region. “I want to try X,” you’d say, and if X was something your character might reasonably be able to do, your gamemaster would let you know the results. Your ultimate goals? Whatever you wanted them to be. Amass wealth. Conquer the world. Open a school. Build a castle.
Story, in the sense we now think of it, was a much later addition to the genre. I’ve seen arguments that place its birth in the work of Weis and Hickman, in Ravenloft and Dragonlance. In the new ‘story style’ of role playing game, the first thing you learn is your ultimate goal. Defeat the vampire lord. Recover the magic weapon to save the kingdom. Find the treasure, but not to keep it or use it yourself for your own ends; instead, return the treasure to the Queen so she can use it to protect her land from the Evil Darkness.