Ideas Behind Their Time
February 18, 2020 10:36 AM   Subscribe

Humans have been telling stories presumably since we evolved to speak. We’ve been using dice, or something quite like them, since at least 3,000 BCE. Why did it take us so long to combine them? Historian Anton Howes asks: Why weren't role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons invented before the late 20th century?
posted by Cash4Lead (57 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
For folks interested in the history of role-playing games I recommend Jon Peterson's Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games, though I haven't finished because the first chapter is an exhaustive history of midwest gaming culture and the second chapter is a pretty deep dive into the fantasy genre's roots and creatures and then by the time I got to the third chapter actually about the history I was pooped out from 200 pages of nerd-baby feuds and the etymology of orcs.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:51 AM on February 18 [11 favorites]


Alvy, are you sure that's a recommendation?
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 10:54 AM on February 18 [8 favorites]


Look, just start at the third chapter, treat the second chapter as its own thing, and skim the first chapter if the fourth and fifth chapters need context (Unless you love fanzine letter-column arguments).
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:58 AM on February 18 [7 favorites]


A major theme of Ryan North's book How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler is that a remarkable number of very valuable inventions could have been made much, much earlier than they were.

For example, the ancient Greeks had everything needed to invent the printing press: papyrus, ink, presses (used for making olive oil), and engraved copper plates (used for maps). So close, and yet when they wanted to make a copy of an engraved copper plate they...engraved another plate by hand.

Another really remarkable example is that for several thousand years many civilizations around the world had the means to make simple hot air balloons: fire, basketry, rope, and reasonably airtight fabrics.

War games didn't come about until major multinational conflict was a thing

There were lots of ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and early modern multinational (or multi-kingdom) conflicts. If you mean war games as in simulated war: during the High Middle Ages tournaments centered on large scale melees rather than one-on-one jousts. That went on for centuries, and a significant story telling tradition grew up around it, right alongside more abstract martial games such as chess. All of these elements were enjoyed by the same privileged class, which also had the advantages of leisure time, servants, and often literacy and numeracy. And yet it appears that no one put the pieces together.
posted by jedicus at 10:59 AM on February 18 [23 favorites]




Per yesterday's FPP about ancient board games it's usually the rules of a game which are lost. It seems most feasible to me that role-playing games were invented in the past but, consisting entirely of rules and no physical components, they were lost without trace.

For example, the ancient Greeks had everything needed to invent the printing press: papyrus, ink, presses (used for making olive oil), and engraved copper plates (used for maps). So close, and yet when they wanted to make a copy of an engraved copper plate they...engraved another plate by hand.

The Phaistos Disc was created with moveable type pressed into clay.
posted by XMLicious at 11:08 AM on February 18 [7 favorites]


The author already has the answer, they just don't like it:
An interesting variant of the argument, suggested by Matt Clancy, is that in fact tabletop role-playing games have been invented and re-invented many times, all over the world, but because of the lack of printing and low population densities, they have become lost and forgotten. Perhaps. Though I find it hard to believe that an activity so fun would never have been mentioned.
This idea that everything would always be documented is an absurdly recent idea. As noted in the FPP about ancient board games, or really as anyone who's read about history knows, it's a minor miracle when anything is documented at all, especially the further you go back. People probably have always had games like this, they either didn't write about it or the writing was lost.

Or maybe, since they would have been writing for each other and not for the benefit of curious people in the future, they wrote about such games in ways that made sense to them but we don't recognize, i.e. maybe when we see some reference to Roman equites telling stories at a party what they mean is they were playing a role-playing game.
posted by the legendary esquilax at 11:32 AM on February 18 [22 favorites]


Dungeons and Dragons and similar RPGs could only exist in the brief golden age of the Post-War leisure boom. At no other period in history did people actually have the spare time it takes to play (or especially to create and GM) a campaign. Previous generations were too busy farming and otherwise trying to stay alive. Their games had to be played quickly, typically in odd moments when the feudal lord, overseer, or factory supervisor was focused on something else. This gave us games like rock, paper, scissors and checkers.

Then there was a great flowering of spare time starting in the 1950s which would eventually lead to Dungeons and Dragons, Settlers of Catan, and Advanced Squad Leader.

But by the time these games appeared, that golden age was already fading. Today, no one can play them because they are too busy working 70+ hour white collar jobs or multiple low-paying service jobs, while also driving for Uber. This has led to the rise of casual mobile phone-based games like Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga that can be played in odd moments while on the toilet or waiting for the next gig to appear on the phone.
posted by Naberius at 11:33 AM on February 18 [18 favorites]


But tabletop role-playing games require systematising and formalising that play. It’s not just saying “I pull out a sword and hack the goblin’s head off”. Instead, first roll this die to see if you succeed. But is this really so modern? Obsessive counting of things, at least in the English-speaking world, seems to date at least from the seventeenth century — perhaps it wasn’t that widespread, but lists like actuarial tables and demographic statistics were already being compiled. The craze in seventeenth-century English policy circles was for “political arithmetic”

This is interesting to me because while these things were being done in society by adults they weren't really taught to kids & kids had no reason to think about stuff like this. From a kid's point of view, wanting someone else to tell me if my move succeeded or not is kind of like an abstract jump from "I swing at the ball and I either hit or not" to "I imagine I swing at the ball and something equally imaginary tells me if I imaginarily hit it or not." It's actually pretty crazy if you think about it.
posted by bleep at 11:34 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


I mean, wasn't Frankenstein written because two couples were hanging out telling stories? Are TT RPGs really more than group storytelling with random chance thrown in to keep things interesting?
posted by sleeping bear at 11:35 AM on February 18 [9 favorites]


Naberius

At no other period in history did people actually have the spare time it takes to play (or especially to create and GM) a campaign.

This is just silly and simply factually false. There have been leisure classes for ages, they just weren't the classes doing the farming and fighting. They were the ones laying around enjoying the leisure time afforded to them by the farmers and the soldiers.

But by the time these games appeared, that golden age was already fading. Today, no one can play them

Board games and tabletop RPGs are more popular than ever right now. They've moved from niche hobbies for weirdos into...well, not the mainstream, but certainly a higher profile. This is the golden age.
posted by the legendary esquilax at 11:38 AM on February 18 [39 favorites]


I really wish that Peterson had published Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games or a version of it through a press or worked with an editor. It's a great book but it desperately needs an editor to cut at least half of it. Do academic presses have an aversion to creating new versions of self-published books? If not, this seems like low-hanging fruit...
posted by ElKevbo at 11:39 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


there's no way you can say that such games were not invented before the 20th century. what you can say is that such games were not captured in an enduring form that would be detectable by historians.

also, D&D is not some inevitable Sid Meier Civilization milestone -- it was the creation of very specific people operating in a very specific milieu. they were wargamers first so they described their characters in terms of their military capability. they were fans of specific kinds of fantasy so the metaphysics of their game were inspired by those things. they were white dudes in 1970s America so the basic storyline is a colonialist "find monsters and take their stuff" and most of their follow-on games (Boot Hill, Gamma World, Star Frontiers) deal with frontier, settling and colonial themes. finally they were entrepreneurial enough to successfully commercialize their game, and lucky enough to have their sparks land in dry tinder.

It's interesting to think about what dungeons and dragons would look like if it were invented as a lodge ritual by traveling Nahuatl traders and taught to Dominican priests.
posted by Sauce Trough at 11:40 AM on February 18 [30 favorites]


My theory is that the color discrepancy on pages 74-75 in the DM guide, overtime, help speed the books decay.

Before printed text, things written like complex rules were expensive, like the DM guide circa 1979. I posit that in older times why play a game when storytelling in most cultures was rich enough to have one just imagine themselves say, slay the kraken or traverse the valley of blank and the forest of blank1. Gygax started with rules on miniatures, not pure storyline.
As a wildcard, I wonder about Legos and D&D in the 70s to 80s. Mostly if folks had both.
posted by clavdivs at 11:42 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


Okay, but what about the parts that weren't silly and factually false? Did you like those bits?
posted by Naberius at 11:44 AM on February 18 [4 favorites]


From a kid's point of view, wanting someone else to tell me if my move succeeded or not is kind of like an abstract jump from "I swing at the ball and I either hit or not" to "I imagine I swing at the ball and something equally imaginary tells me if I imaginarily hit it or not." It's actually pretty crazy if you think about it.

Not so much once you think of it as the kids wishing to emulate others. Tabletop baseball games have existed since before professional baseball, with the first dice playing game in the 1880s, which is exactly imagining to hit a ball through dice roll.

Perhaps the more germane issue regarding D&D like games is the assumed necessity of dice or some like item to determine outcome. I'd suggest that the idea of role playing existed long before but mostly didn't need dice, more does having them really improve upon the idea of those involved coming to conclusions through mutual agreement of likelihood or cleverness or whatnot. Not that there's anything wrong with dicing it out exactly, but that needn't be a must have for role playing.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:49 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]


> Why weren't role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons invented before the late 20th century?

This implies that RPGs were an inevitability, which kind of bothers me. There wasn't an existing incentive for somebody to create them in order to advance technology or improve quality of life.

But I think the main reason why RPGs weren't known to exist before recently is that RPGs don't obey traditional game structures (whether board game or war game) and play can be freeform. The published rules are primarily about states rather than processes: The game master is responsible for building (or using) a single-use game with its own set of rules and (optionally) goals that are conformant to the rules and data provided by the game publisher; similarly, on the player's side, for example, a fighter is good at hitting, does magic badly, and that's about it -- even the choices about how to interact with others are entirely the player's own and limited by their willingness to act out the role. Gameplay involves interactions that have to be improvised on the fly, where a traditional game might dictate three or four discrete choices a player can make when encountering somebody (fight/flee/talk/trade). There are no predefined end states like there are in traditional gaming, nor are there wins and losses in the usual sense. As the OP's article points out, it's as much collaborative storytelling as it is gaming, and I'd argue that if you're going to lean into the "collaborative storytelling" angle (about which see below) then this is an invention that's been with us all along and RPGs are just a modernized iteration.

A couple more thoughts on "collaborative storytelling"... I'd argue that theatrical group improvisation, which similarly existed for centuries but only became recognized as a unique form in comedy in the mid-20th century, is a close kin to RPGs in codifying rules and is also similar to D&D in that it came from the urban midwest (well, that last part is glib and probably coincidental). The linkage between the two, I think, is maybe the evolution of modern psychology, which is (among other things) was a popular and trendy topic in the midcentury and had a lot of people thinking of roles and performative behavior.
posted by ardgedee at 11:52 AM on February 18 [10 favorites]


gusottertrout, that gets to the heart of the question "what is a role-playing game". I'd say that certainly their was playing at roles and group storytelling. From my perspective the critical invention of D&D is the somewhat abstracted and relatively 'objective' rules which are written expressly to develop a sense of verisimilitude to the setting and demand outside random elements to determine outcomes.
posted by meinvt at 11:53 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


I didn't know there were tabletop baseball games that early. In which case there is not a huge amount of difference between tabletop baseball and D&D. In my experience of both. In my tabletop baseball game I can go over and yell at the ref, have my player go over and start a fight with the pitcher, whatever I can imagine.
posted by bleep at 11:58 AM on February 18


> ...then this is an invention that's been with us all along and RPGs are just a modernized iteration.

I should've mentioned that I think this framing is misleading. What makes RPGs distinct from group storytelling is their externally-imposed structure (and, often, event-determining mechanism, like dice and results tables). Group storytelling, improv theater and RPGs all draw from a common well but they aren't the same things. The lack of any mention of RPG-like gameplay in history seems like a difficult thing to overcome; you have to find a reason for people who routinely documented their meals and poops would for some reason not leave something about pasttimes that occupied them for hours. I don't know whether it exists or not, but I need something better than "well, they just didn't talk about it".
posted by ardgedee at 12:00 PM on February 18


I cast Charm Person on the umpire.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 12:01 PM on February 18 [4 favorites]


> I need something better than "well, they just didn't talk about it".

...particularly if RPGs were as immersive then as they are now, where thousands of people avidly recount their gaming adventures in diaries and zines and blogs and Livejournal and Facebook and so on because the experiences were a rich and immersive things that they wanted to hold onto and share.
posted by ardgedee at 12:03 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


I'd argue that theatrical group improvisation, which similarly existed for centuries but only became recognized as a unique form in comedy in the mid-20th century, is a close kin to RPGs in codifying rules and is also similar to D&D in that it came from the urban midwest (well, that last part is glib and probably coincidental). The linkage between the two, I think, is maybe the evolution of modern psychology, which is (among other things) was a popular and trendy topic in the midcentury and had a lot of people thinking of roles and performative behavior.

I'd add that a key difference between them, the false exactitude of all the numbers and tables in an RPG, and then having all disputes settled with the finality of incontrovertible numerical values, also seems like it comes from midcentury trends, in this case the ubiquity of electronic computation and related rise of the categorization and quantification of everything. You don't turn "I'm imagining us fighting, but it looks like I'm winning" to "I rolled a 12, so I hit, and that means you lose 4 hit points out of your total of 25" in a society that doesn't think everything can be reduced to some sort of number.
posted by Copronymus at 12:04 PM on February 18 [9 favorites]


From my perspective the critical invention of D&D is the somewhat abstracted and relatively 'objective' rules which are written expressly to develop a sense of verisimilitude to the setting and demand outside random elements to determine outcomes.

I can understand that perspective, but I'm not sure I completely agree, though to some extent there is something to it once you accept the existence of the games as a given.

By taking the perspective, as the article does, that RPGs should or could have been invented earlier using D&D like games as the example, it, in a roundabout way, assumes D&D like games are a natural evolution or somehow more desirable than non-dice role playing, when that isn't necessarily true. That we did go that route and have both table top games like D&D and now computer games that also use dice like number generation to determine "hits" and "damage" is in some ways not any more realistic for being formulaic and kinda ridiculous when carried out to the extent it often is. Players hacking away repeatedly knowing the numbers they need to get to determine kills isn't all that much closer to reality making gaming of that sort often as much about the numbers and predictability of knowing damage amounts and how many times, more or less, one needs to hit.

It isn't to say that can't be fun, but it isn't an essential of role playing. D&D as much just codified one version of role playing that could be more easily shared and monetized, which is convenient and can make things easier and less argumentative, but needn't be seen as an inevitable "better" outcome than role playing without any of that.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:06 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


At no other period in history did people actually have the spare time it takes to play (or especially to create and GM) a campaign. Previous generations were too busy farming and otherwise trying to stay alive. Their games had to be played quickly, typically in odd moments when the feudal lord, overseer, or factory supervisor was focused on something else.

This sort of comment makes me want to go back in time and beat up a few of the glib world-history-book writers. Let's put aside the leisure classes described above. Prior to industrialization, there were routine periods of underemployment in Western European (which is what I know about) agricultural life, driven by the fact that, well, crops don't grow during the Western European winter, and there wasn't much else in the way of paying work to do if you didn't happen to be steadily supplied with piecework on the putting-out system, which only operated in certain times and places. (And even then, you were usually restricted by the shorter daylight hours.) Maintaining what we would consider a decent standard of living required a lot more effort in the home, but most people did not maintain what moderns would call a decent standard of living. The idleness of peasants in winter (who were not being stood over by their feudal lords or even the lords' underlings, unless they were serfs in specific circumstances) was a long-standing "social problem."

Additionally, premodern soldiers were notorious gamesters, because they spend half their time sitting around with nothing to do waiting for someone to tell them where to go and put holes in people. There's a great description of this in Wolf Hall, but I can't find it. Plenty of time for a campaign-within-a-campaign, so to speak.
posted by praemunire at 12:10 PM on February 18 [25 favorites]


a.) Relevant XKCD.

2.) The essay linked to by TFA about the flying shuttle that proposes that innovation is actually really rare is worth reading.
posted by Horkus at 12:13 PM on February 18 [7 favorites]


Additionally, premodern soldiers were notorious gamesters, because they spend half their time sitting around with nothing to do waiting for someone to tell them where to go and put holes in people.

Yes, and that's the kind of thing that only needs house rules to compete on, whether in test of skill as stand in for combat or by draw of cards or rolling dice without need of tables to convert the the numbers to something other than high and low or the like. Complex rules aren't necessary for role playing, so there's no clear reason why a precise set of rules or other specific game items would need exist.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:27 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


2.) The essay linked to by TFA about the flying shuttle that proposes that innovation is actually really rare is worth reading.

One of my favourite MeFi threads ever is on the subject of innovation, inspiration and whether or not ideas are obvious beforehand:

People in general are stupid in all domains, even now
posted by chappell, ambrose at 12:31 PM on February 18 [5 favorites]


I'd add that a key difference between them, the false exactitude of all the numbers and tables in an RPG, and then having all disputes settled with the finality of incontrovertible numerical values, also seems like it comes from midcentury trends, in this case the ubiquity of electronic computation and related rise of the categorization and quantification of everything.

My hazy and faulty memory is that Peterson convincingly argues that this was derived from the genre's origins in military wargaming, particularly the increasingly detailed statistics gathered about warfare e.g., artillery tables, casualty rates, detailed statistics about the efficacy of different kinds of firearms fired at different ranges. There were, of course, related systems that did not rely on these details (wasn't it H.G. Wells's system that relied on actually throwing "rounds" at models and simply counting as "dead" the models that were hit and knocked over?) but the first commercially successful games were developed from the very detailed war simulations created by and for the military that tried to be as accurate as possible. Another crucial development was the creation of the referee role who adjudicated possibilities on-the-fly for players attempting things that were not explicitly described in the rules; this was also inherited from some of the wargames. Finally, Diplomacy played a crucial role in moving the focus from control of groups of people/tanks/ships/whatever to control of one specific individual; this game, too, had strong ties to the military and other state roles which probably further contributes to the violent and colonialist nature of most modern RPGs.
posted by ElKevbo at 12:33 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


D&D is not exactly a game (you can't win; you play in order to keep playing) but it's also not NOT a game (you have to keep winning combat to keep playing). It's sort of collaborative storytelling, but only in the loose sense that people make choices and things happen, and afterwards you can piece it together into a narrative. But it tends to make fairly boring stories for people who are not participating (unless you have a podcast and are totally playing to the audience and editing out any fiddly bits). I think a better name for RPGs would be Rule-Based Make Believe.

I believe the D&D fad of the late 70's and early 80's would have faded and been forgotten if not for the contemporary rise of computers. Computer RPGs are profoundly inferior to tabletop: there can be no improvisation (the beating heart of RPGs). Still, finding a DM is hard, and a well-built CRPG can fake a fair amount of depth. They kept the genre alive and familiarized a large portion of the population with the concepts and lingo of role-playing games. Now many of those folks are discovering tabletop RPGs and the richness that can be created outside of a box.

I think these sorts of pastimes are closer to an odd religious ritual than to a sport or Parcheesi or whatnot. Meaningful and precious, but pretty much the opposite of inevitable (evitable?).
posted by rikschell at 1:16 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


Rpgs had a very tiny window to succeed. The 80s is when cablevision, vcrs, home computers, and game consoles became widespread, but in the 70s the dull suburban life of teens and young adults was ripe for a new hobby. It shouldn't surprise that D&D exploded in popularity then. Rpgs literally had no competition for the "imagination market". It steamrolled everything.
posted by Beholder at 1:20 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


Role-playing? Go outside. Pick up sticks and pretend they are swords or guns or bows, and argue about whether or not you hit each other with your imaginary projectiles, maybe get a bunch of kids together and pretend-fight for some moderately defensible local feature, until your parents holler at you to come in and have dinner - that's a LARP without any real rules. Or maybe a small set of rules embedded in the local kid's oral tradition.

I kinda feel like D&D and its ilk requires a printing press, a wide distribution network, and a lot of people with a serious lack of Adventure in their lives and a tendency to stay inside instead of go out and engage in imaginative play. It also requires a culture where it is okay for adults to engage in this sort of imaginative play, because no kid is gonna sit there and write up all these lengthy tables and rules and actually get them distributed as A Thing with a category it can be sold under in stores.
posted by egypturnash at 1:31 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


I think the author overlooks the moral question of roleplaying. Is there a moral question? Of course there isn't, but only thirty-five years ago a lot of grown people thought that there was. Christians thought that roleplaying was satanic; secular people thought it was stunted and childish (as many still do).

Imagine how much more dread and terror it would have inspired in a tenderer time. Take Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, for example, in which the matter of putting on a play in a country house for friends and family is a terrible moral dilemma for the squeamish Fanny Price, who was not alone in believing that acting had a power to bring wickedness into a home. Can you imagine what Fanny would have to say to the slaying of orcs?
posted by Countess Elena at 1:33 PM on February 18 [4 favorites]


Pick up sticks and pretend they are swords or guns or bows, and argue about whether or not you hit each other with your imaginary projectiles

Back in my day we didn't need no Player's Handbook. We only needed two rules:
  1. Nuh-uh!
  2. Yuh-huh!
posted by The Tensor at 1:41 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


That flying shuttle example is enervating because it leaves out all context. If I remember my history correctly (and probably there are errors in this) the reason a flying shuttle was needed was to make broadcloth, and broadcloth was something that was only developed in the late medieval period. Until broadcloth no one needed to make a flying shuttle. Incidentally, broadcloth making was an industry already in the late medieval period and the Hanseatic league of merchants grew wealthy and powerful partly based on their broadcloth monopoly.
posted by Kattullus at 2:04 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


Take Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, for example, in which the matter of putting on a play in a country house for friends and family is a terrible moral dilemma for the squeamish Fanny Price, who was not alone in believing that acting had a power to bring wickedness into a home.

Whereas the Brontës got their writing careers started through a shared, long-running fantasy roleplaying campaign.
posted by feckless at 2:24 PM on February 18 [4 favorites]


Then there was a great flowering of spare time starting in the 1950s which would eventually lead to Dungeons and Dragons, Settlers of Catan, and Advanced Squad Leader.

But by the time these games appeared, that golden age was already fading. Today, no one can play them because they are too busy working


Uh-huh.

'Nerd Renassance': Why Dungeons and Dragons is having a resurgence

'It's cool now': why Dungeons and Dragons is casting its spell again


I kinda feel like D&D and its ilk requires a printing press, a wide distribution network, and a lot of people with a serious lack of Adventure in their lives and a tendency to stay inside instead of go out and engage in imaginative play.

...secular people thought it was stunted and childish (as many still do).

I love it when comments go back to back like that.
posted by nubs at 2:37 PM on February 18


The design of tabletops RPGs leans heavily on probabilities, itself a somewhat recent invention, call it the 17th century?
posted by chromecow at 2:42 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


I believe the D&D fad of the late 70's and early 80's would have faded and been forgotten if not for the contemporary rise of computers.

I kind of disagree. I was one of those kids who got the Red Box for Christmas in 81, and that one gift has made a difference for my whole life since then.

RPGs have definitely peaked and receded and peaked again, but I think they've done so for different reasons. The original game really resonated with teen obsessive behaviour for detail, the same thing that leads to memorization of a decade of sports statistics or Yu-Gi-Oh cards, the thing Magic and Pokemon weaponized. That absolutely drove the first peak. The first dip was just an aging out, the later generations had other things, i.e. Magic and Pokemon, that filled the same void in souls.

The latest round though is different. The players playing 5e aren't generally gamist, detail obsessives, there are many more players looking for social experiences, or looking to work out identity issues. These were always present in the first wave too, but Wizards and 5e are really tuned to being able to play with personal identity in safe ways with tools that earlier editions didn't have: gender-fluid elves, "monster" races that each embody a personality issue, and so on. This is emphasized by the most popular streamers---another major factor in the RPG resurgence---using those tools themselves.

This new cycle doesn't feel as mechanical and game-like as the previous one; it's much more focused on individual identity and character interaction, imo: roleplaying.
posted by bonehead at 2:48 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


Dice-casting technology advanced by leaps and bound in the 20th century, kf memory serves me right, until the late 70s, it was prohibitively expensive to make a fair die that was anything other than a d6.
posted by Kattullus at 2:56 PM on February 18


But by the time these games appeared, that golden age was already fading. Today, no one can play them because they are too busy working

Running a game is a bit of work. It takes me days to prep for a game (which I'm doing this evening for Saturday).

Playing a game is fairly low-effort. If you have time for a movie or a book, you can play a session.

As adults, the hardest thing is scheduling, but most groups get around that by setting a regular game night.
posted by bonehead at 2:59 PM on February 18


Full-colour custom minis are the coming thing. . Some of the influencer channels have gotten prototypes and they seem to be the real deal. We really are living in the future.
posted by bonehead at 3:01 PM on February 18


It was invented once before, but then rocks fell and everybody died.
posted by BeeDo at 3:18 PM on February 18 [6 favorites]


Oh, the embarrassment.
posted by The Tensor at 4:17 PM on February 18


This new cycle doesn't feel as mechanical and game-like as the previous one; it's much more focused on individual identity and character interaction, imo: roleplaying.

There's always been a massive number of experiences under the D&D umbrella from "we had an awesome session, we didn't roll dice at all!" to "this feat chain will give my paladin an alpha strike avg damage of 105.4 by level 19" which is how the RPGA / Pathfinder Society folks roll these days (in my limited experience)

And there are other axes to consider as well -- DM-driven vs. player driven? Play-to-find-out sandbox vs. greased skids to the boss fight? Homebrew campaign setting vs. packaged setting? Phones at the table or no? Metagaming ok or metagaming bad? ("metagaming" afaik is rules talk freely intermingling with in-character roleplay, which some people find distasteful, you probably already understand this but it's a vague term so I thought I'd specify my definition.)

It's been this way since before Gary Gygax proclaimed that there was only one way to properly officially play Dungeons and Dragons, and that way would be codified in the forthcoming AD&D hardbacks.

This multiplicity adds to the weirdness of asking "hey the Babylonians had dice, why is the code of Hammurabi silent on whether armor class ascends or descends?" The street has found a million uses for D&D and one is people sitting around collaborating on a story without any dice being rolled. I'd bet a non-front tooth that's probably older than 1974.
posted by Sauce Trough at 4:58 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


Oh, the embarrassment.

shouldn't you be off floating a disc or something?
posted by Sauce Trough at 4:58 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


I think we’re overlooking the possibility that RPGs were known to our distant ancestors but were just considered inferior to the other games readily available. They just could never compete with fidchell, for example. Maybe it’s only recently we’ve decided role-playing games are cool.
posted by um at 9:44 PM on February 18


That's Tenser. (This happens to me all the time.)
posted by The Tensor at 10:57 PM on February 18


It's interesting to think about what dungeons and dragons would look like if it were invented as a lodge ritual by traveling Nahuatl traders and taught to Dominican priests.

Nahua trader D&D? I liked this idea and tracked down a translated version of the Florentine Codex's Book 9. Are we talking the Pochteca Naualoztomeca, the spying merchants, or the oztomecatl... the warrior merchants that'll come... and uh ...open up trade? They might have had some cool stories to tell:
And when Auitzotzin had seated himself, thereupon they gave him all which had been taken: the quetzal feather crest devices [and] banners; the troupial feather banners; the blue cotinga, the trogonorus feather shirts; the bracelets for the upper arm with a spray of precious feathers; turquoise mosaic shields; golden butterfly-shaped nose plates; golden ear pendants. These they placed before him. Thereupon they addressed him; they said to him: “O our lord, may it be well with thee. Behold what became the reward of the heads [and] breasts of thy beloved uncles, the outpost merchants, the disguised merchants, the spying merchants in warlike places: this which was not theirs [but] became [the reward] of their starvation, their fatigue. Accept these things which were not theirs.”
or later on:
And when the ruler Auitzotzin heard that the disguised merchants were besieged there, then aid was sent. The one who was sent was Moctezuma, who went serving as general. He had not at the time been installed as ruler. And after he had set forth, as he was already on his way, he came upon the news that those who had gone there to Ayotlan, the merchants, had conquered the land. And then the outpost merchants came staying him. They said to Moctezuma: “O our lord, thou hast tired thyself; thou hast suffered fatigue. No longer needest thou reach the place whither thou goest; for it is already the land of the master, the portent, Uitzilopochtli. For thy uncles, the Mexicans, the merchants, the vanguard merchants, have fulfilled their charge.” He could only go returning; no longer did he go to wage war. He could only join with them.

And at that time all the land of Anauac was opened up. No longer were the people of Tzapotlan, of Anauac, our foes.1
So... find an altepetl and take their stuff? I can imagine that Dominican priests might not be so into Nahua D&D if Diego Duran's disdain for Patolli was representative of the order. He... he didn't seem to much like European games either, so maybe let's just leave them out of this D&D imagination.


1. Sahagún, -, Bernadino de, Arthur J. O. Anderson, and Charles E. Dibble. 1959. “General History Of The Things Of New Spain: Florentine Codex: Book 9 -- The Merchants.” Monograph. Sante Fe, New Mexico: The School of American Research and the University of Utah. https://ehrafworldcultures-yale-edu.stanford.idm.oclc.org/document?id=nu07-018.
posted by Mister Cheese at 11:03 PM on February 18 [3 favorites]


It's interesting to think about what dungeons and dragons would look like if it were invented as a lodge ritual by traveling Nahuatl traders and taught to Dominican priests.

Empire of the Petal Throne?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:20 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


In his excellent 'Storytelling in the Modern Board Game' (McFarland, 2018) Marco Arnaudo describes the game Ariosto's Maze, which Emanuel Tesauro describes in 1670, which sounds like one of the race-games popular at the time, except each player plays a role and narrates the adventures and escapades of their character as they progress along the track. The same game is mentioned in a French book a decade or so later, so clearly it had spread across the courts of Europe in that time. And it sounds a lot like a dice-based role-playing game, just not in the Gygax/Arneson paradigm that has defined modern RPGs.

It's likely that the idea of roleplaying games was invented several times before it caught on, just as the earliest solo-adventure book dates back to 1930, but the format didn't find a large audience until the Choose Your Own Adventure series launched in the late 1970s.
posted by Hogshead at 5:28 AM on February 19 [6 favorites]


It's interesting to think about what dungeons and dragons would look like if it were invented as a lodge ritual by traveling Nahuatl traders and taught to Dominican priests.

I don't know, but I want to DM a campaign to find out.
posted by Gelatin at 11:21 AM on February 19


It's interesting to think about what dungeons and dragons would look like if it were invented as a lodge ritual by traveling Nahuatl traders and taught to Dominican priests.

It'd probably look like Dream Askew with a different setting. Diceless, no central authority, stories focused on community level problems and actions.

I think about this issue more than average people and whether the Decameron counts as a precursor to RPGs or what. The entire framing device is a storytelling game with clear rules (clearer than some games I've tried to run lol) and a win condition, and even though the stories aren't first person (maybe a couple are? It's been a while since I read it) most of the tables I've ever been at had at least one person talk about the situation as "My character Lohse casts bardic inspiration" instead of "I cast bardic inspiration" or "Fane charges the enemy" instead of "I charge the enemy" so I don't think that should necessarily rule it out either, especially with the spread of people describing RPG situations as if they're directing a TV show instead of embodying a character directly.
posted by fomhar at 12:29 PM on February 19


Rpgs had a very tiny window to succeed. The 80s is when cablevision, vcrs, home computers, and game consoles became widespread, but in the 70s the dull suburban life of teens and young adults was ripe for a new hobby. It shouldn't surprise that D&D exploded in popularity then. Rpgs literally had no competition for the "imagination market". It steamrolled everything.

I'm pretty curious to know what it was that existed in the 50s and 60s but vanished by the 70s, leaving kids nothing better to do with their time.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 12:45 PM on February 19


This sort of comment makes me want to go back in time and beat up a few of the glib world-history-book writers. Let's put aside the leisure classes described above. Prior to industrialization, there were routine periods of underemployment in Western European (which is what I know about) agricultural life, driven by the fact that, well, crops don't grow during the Western European winter

A data point: George Orwell points out in his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (published in 1933) just how boring poverty is.
posted by Gelatin at 1:00 PM on February 19




The authors of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre were roleplaying long before Dungeons and Dragons

Branwell Brontë owned a collection of miniatures any Warhammer player would be proud of, and when his father brought home 12 toy soldiers as a birthday present he shared them with his three sisters. Each sibling chose a miniature and named them. They became Bonaparte, Gravey, Waiting Boy and the Duke of Wellington, and were the first inhabitants of a land eventually dubbed the Glass Town Confederacy and sketched out by Branwell on a map that needs only a hex grid to look at home in a tabletop RPG supplement.

posted by nubs at 9:06 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]


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