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The history of low-hanging intellectual fruit

Alex Tabarrok asks, why was the game Dungeons and Dragons, or something like it, not invented in ancient Rome? He argues that the ancient Romans had the technology (that would be dice, I guess) so why didn’t someone thing of inventing a random-number-driven role-playing game?

I don’t have an answer, but I think we can place this in a larger context by asking why, until recently, strategy games were so limited. There was chess, go, checkers, mancala, and . . . that was pretty much it! I guess there must have been a few more, but what strikes me when looking at old-time (pre-Monopoly, pre-Scrabble) games is how narrow was the selection. Race games with zero or near-zero strategy on the Parcheesi model seem like the standard option, then there were various games such as dominoes and backgammon which, sure, have some strategy but seem more like an excuse to gamble than anything else. (I’m assuming that most card games could not exist until relatively recently because of the technology required to produce cards with indistinguishable backs.)

I guess the main message here is that most people played games for relaxation, not as an excuse to think hard. So pure randomness was the popular choice. Still, it seems like many now-popular board game options were not even considered before the twentieth century. Maybe people played a lot of chess, checkers, and go variants, since the hardware of the games was widely available anyway?

So if you want to talk low-hanging fruit, the thing to talk about here is not role-playing games, but board games more generally.

I’m reminded of various low-hanging ideas in statistics. Indeed, so much of statistics is non-technical, and it seems that a lot of available ideas were not invented or at least widely used until recently. Scatterplots, for example: were they prevalent 200 years ago or more? They shouldn’t’ve been difficult to make, but it seems they were a relatively recent invention.


  1. Nick Patterson says:

    I think a lot of ideas were well known but not formalized. For example professional cryptanalysts have existed since the 16th
    Century if not earlier, and any of them would have understood that it was a good idea to make a histogram of the cipher.

    Another example: Newton on planetary motion — surely he fitted a model and studied the residuals. Is this known?
    Gauss invented least squares fits in this context.

    • KW says:

      >Another example: Newton on planetary motion — surely he fitted a model and studied the residuals. Is this known?

      I particularly dislike the historic take on planetary motions. Newton’s argument was not a comparison of model fit but simply that the math was easier if the sun is taken as the origin of the coordinate system.

      To be fair, it needed Einstein to show that the origin can be chosen freely. So I really can’t understand why kids are still told at school today that “the geocentric model” is wrong. This is a bit silly if I want to predict star charts or see which planet is closest to earth on average (mercury not venus).
      Sure the Ptolemaic model is only an approximation, but it can be refined with arbitrary precision.

      The Copernican Revolution is a scientific revolution that should be obsolete.

      • Peter Erwin says:

        Sure the Ptolemaic model is only an approximation, but it can be refined with arbitrary precision.

        So how do you propose to account for Coriolis effects? Or the phases of Venus and Mercury?

        Or, for that matter, stellar parallax and the aberration of starlight?

        • KW says:

          Right, the model doesn’t account for earth’s rotation and if we consider stellar parallax nothing is planar anymore. Else we can just add more epicycles and fit anything. If we want a geocentric model and don’t consider other geocentric models besides one complicated using epicycles it still wins by default. Thus Copernicus model might be of no relevance.

          (Also, I should apologize to Newton for referring to Copernicus model by his name, as Daniel pointed out)

          • Peter Erwin says:

            Not accounting for the earth’s rotation is kind of a huge defect. (As, I would argue, failing to predict or account for stellar parallax and the aberration of starlight.)

            The Ptolemaic model died in the early 1600s because it failed to correctly predict the phases of Venus, when those became visible with the first telescopes.

            (How, I’m curious, would you fit a hyperbolic cometary orbit with “just add more epicycles”?)

      • It was Copernicus who said the math was easier if you took the sun as the origin. Newton’s argument was really that we should spend our time describing the acceleration and from that derive velocity and position. Newton’s revolution was transformative for how we think about motion, Copernicus’ wasn’t.

        • Wonks Anonymous says:

          Copernicus wasn’t motivated by easier math, but by his abhorrence of equants. He thought orbits should be calculated via perfect circles, and if he had to add epicycles to do that, it was fine as long as they were also perfect circles. It was Kepler (who had access to Tycho Brahe’s more accurate data) who realized the orbits were actually ellipses, and Newton who showed how that emerged from his law of gravity.

          • David Marcus says:

            I vaguely recall reading an article a couple of decades ago (possibly in the Mathematical Intelligencer, but maybe not) where the author needed to set up a planetarium projector. The projector used epicycles to show where the planets are. The author thought he could easily figure out the correct settings, but realized that in this model, the period doesn’t tell you the radius, i.e., you’ve got more parameters because instead of a circle (or ellipse), you’ve got a circle on a circle. On rereading Copernicus, he thought this was why Copernicus was so pleased with his model: because from it you could deduce the distance of the planets from the sun. (I don’t have a copy of the article, so I may not be remembering correctly.)

          • Peter Erwin says:

            He thought orbits should be calculated via perfect circles

            There were late medieval Arab and Persian astronomers with the same idea, who worked very hard to replace some of Ptolemy’s non-uniform-circular-motion kludges with combinations of proper circles; some of this was probably borrowed by Copernicus. (Not the heliocentric approach, though.)

  2. Carlos Ungil says:

    > (I’m assuming that most card games could not exist until relatively recently because of the technology required to produce cards with indistinguishable backs.)

    Relatively recently as in the 14th century in Europe (and centuries before that in other places)? But I guess “most card games” are indeed more recent than that.

    • george says:

      Some history of card games here

      • David J. Littleboy says:

        There’s a Japanese card game involving poems (hyakunin isshu). The cards (of which there are 100) have a face (the author of the poem) on one side, a poem on the other, and you have to memorize all the poems so when the dealer recites a poem, (with players sitting in a circle around the cards distributed randomly on the floor face side up) you can be the fastest to grab the card that has the poem on the other side. This dates to about 1000 AD or so. (The cards may also have the second half of the poem on the face side as well. Maybe.) The Portugese brought playing cards to Japan around 1600 or so, and the Japanese invented some minor variations thereon.

        A somewhat conservative friend (in the US) has two sons who ten or 15 years ago were playing an odd card game. He was dismissive of it, but it apparently when you won a card, you kept it. The cards may have been Japanese. Maybe. And then there are Pokeymon cards.

        Go is really old (3000 years, maybe), but there aren’t many variants. Sure, there are multiple sets of official rules, but it’s the same graph-covering game everywhere. The chess variants are all enough different from standard chess to be something else entirely. The Japanese entry (Shogi) is (to the best of my knowledge) unique in that the side a piece plays for is determined not by color but by direction, so captured pieces come back working for the other side. My current understanding of it is that, while it’s a wild insane game for beginners (new pieces appear out of nowhere), once you get reasonably good at it, it turns into a long positional jockeying game.

        When I was in high school (Boston Latin, ’72), “board games” were a thing. They had zillions of rules, and people who liked board games liked rules. There was a freebie game that was included with another (or a magazine or something) that the real gamers hated, but we computer nerds (we had an IBM 1130) liked: it was a hexagonal grid and your tokens were airplanes that had flight capabilities (number of grid points moved, number of turns) and firing capabilities, and if you could maneuver your airplane to be adjacent to and pointing at you opponents plane, you shot it down or wounded it by an amount determined by firing capability times value from a die roll. So, like Go, the properties of the game derived from the geometry of the space.

        Anyway, yes. Using probability in games seems to be a fairly recent invention, although my intuition would be that rolling dice for gambling should be as old as humanity itself. Go figure.

        • David Marcus says:

          Do you mean the Dogfight board game?

          • David J. Littleboy says:

            “Dogfight board game?”

            I don’t think so: that’s a full-tilt complex board game (by my standards; apparently it’s deprecated by real board gamers, ROFL). This thing just had a hexagonal grid and cardboard punch-out pieces. The pics of Dogfight don’t show a hex grid, so that has to be something different. The idea may be similar, though.

  3. oncodoc says:

    Card games and gambling are frequently alluded to in nineteenth century novels. Perhaps Dostoevsky would have found it strange that 21st century people are playing games without a meaningful risk of being plunged into penury.

  4. James Jones says:

    I believe the simplest answer may be the best in this regard. The lives of people were so heavily indoctrinated, controlled and focused on the well-being of Lords and Ladies that they did not have the excess brain power to spend on making D&D. Also there is a small chance that they did create D&D and we just haven’t found the evidence of it yet.

    Thought experiment: Think about some of the best board games that came out in 2010-2020. Were any of these game systems impossible to implement in 1990? I’d argue no. Were any of the pieces or materials cost-prohibitive to create in 1990? Nope. Were the fans of these games around in 1990 that would have bought this modern games? Yes. Then why didn’t they get created? Perhaps answering that question will lead to a perfectly accurate answer to “Why did the Romans not invent D&D?”

  5. FS says:

    Well, Role-Playing Games like D&D aren’t called Pen & Paper for nothing. There’s a lot of writing, reading and record-keeping associated – for the Gamemaster and the Players. That would have precluded all of the people who couldn’t read and write, and also would have made larger scale access to rule-books to a wide audience unfeasible to any time before the invention of the printing press. And then, most children and also many adults do Role-Playing first in the sense of “Live-Action Roleplaying” – dressing up in fake fancy dressing (armour) and with fake wooden (latex-sponge) swords and fighting it out. It actually is a very intellectual, detached way to think of it in terms of Character Sheets, Attributes and Skills, Combat Values and Dice Rolls. I think for most people of ancient times, the practical way would be the way to go at it – since it also gave some training as to how it could be in the real-life world. Strategy and tactics were probably learned through playing with toy soldiers and wooden mock-ups. And then there’s the problematic fantasy element in most RPGs: If you say “I’m gonna do some magic” or “I cast a spell on you”, people in Medieval Times might actually believe you.

    • Anoneuoid says:

      Didn’t Cicero get made fun of for writing down his speeches, he got called ink stained or something like that?

      But the real answer is probably that roman history is mostly cobbled together by Joseph Scaliger (son of Julius Caesar Scaliger, who had a good friend named Marc Antony and had his son practice declamations daily, ie fictional historical accounts) from neglected documents that supposedly survived 1500 years in damp out of the way places by Poggio Bracciolini, yet no originals of which have survived to today.

  6. Ryan Bernstein says:

    There’s probably some survivorship bias here too. In the games example there might be physical survivorship (e.g. Go is made out of stones that can survive after 4000 years) or cultural survivorship (e.g. Go is an outstanding game so it remained popular enough for us to learn about it). Even if they had card games alongside Go, we might not know about them. Maybe those low-hanging ideas were invented momentarily but for whatever reason they didn’t make a big enough splash to come to our attention.

    • Andrew says:


      Sure, but sometimes in antique shops they have old games from 150 years ago, and they all seem to be variants of Parcheesi. People in European countries just didn’t seem so interested in playing strategy games, with the exception of chess and checkers.

  7. Zhou Fang says:

    Er, are we even sure something like D&D was not around in ancient Rome? It would be something more suited to the technology of the time, sure. You won’t see weighty player handbooks. But storytelling games have been around for a while.

    • NickMatzke says:

      The answer is…Tolkien. The early versions of DnD are basically Tolkien fan-games. It’s everywhere you look, the races, the classes, the spells etc etc. once you have the modern fantasy genre you have DND as the game version.

      There may also be something about early video games or the parallel between “quantitative revolutions” in academia even before desktop computers, and I think wargaming was a precursor, but Tolkien was huge.

  8. Aren’t The Illiad and The Odyssey just records of some of the most famous D&D games ever?

    I mean sure maybe the Trojan war occurred but does anyone think of them as historically accurate vs historically motivated creative writing?

    • And to clarify, what makes them games is undoubtedly the various bits were invented by different storytellers collaborating through time, not by one person.

    • Andrew says:


      Sure, but it’s not like someone was playing Hector and rolling the bones to see who he’d slay, etc. There’s a difference between collaborative storytelling and a game.

      I remember when D&D came out, that it was a big deal that it was a collaborative game. Just about all the games with which we’re familiar are competitive.

      • Ben says:

        It seems like some sort of legal system + stand-up comedy game than something about dungeons, dragons, or dice.

        And so I guess if I was looking for a direct comparisons I’d look in the direction of debates/comedy/detectives/mysteries which have a strong legal component.

        How the sessions I’ve played work (only started a few weeks ago), your group encounters something, and you try to figure out what’s happening and do something with it.

        It’s not purely imagination, and that’s where the legal stuff comes in. There’s a big book of rules, a long history of games, and there’s a judge overseeing everything to make sure stuff isn’t going out of bounds.

        So in the game I’m playing there’s a kid possessed with a demon. We need to get him out, and the options I’m looking at are:
        1. Find a rule (a spell or something that’ll kick the demon out)
        2. Find a previous game where there was a kid and a demon and figure out what rules they used to get the demon out
        3. Read Wikipedia about the history of exorcisms/read other stuff about demons and kids and see if there’s any storytelling to bring back to the game

        The dice are kinda just the jury to see if something works are not. I think other people care more about them than I do though. The theme is just something conveniently detached from the real world.

        It also seems like D&D is crazy popular now in tech circles — I assume courtesy the internet it’s probably more popular now than the 80s. Maybe that will change its legacy to be a socializing/business thing for tech people like golf was for business people (and then the historical comparisons change again).

        • Andrew says:


          Good point that D&D is a social game (it has that in common with storytelling and theatre) and the legal bit. I remember that we were lazy and wanted to kill someone but we didn’t have any easy way to do so, but one character had a spell that would transform someone into an animal. So he transformed the enemy into a deep-sea fish on the theory that the bad guy would then explode, as would happen to such a fish not subject to deep ocean pressure. We then all got into a big argument whether this was legal: did people in the Middle Ages know about water pressure and deep-sea fish, did that matter, was it against the spirit of the rules to do the transformation in a way that would kill someone, etc? I also remember there was some spell called Burning Hands that would allow fire to come out of your hands. This seemed really lame to us so we changed it to a spell that would make someone else’s hands really hot, so they’d drop what they were holding, etc. The other thing I remember is how cold-blooded the game was. We’d think nothing of killing monsters just to take their treasure. I mean, sure, it’s just a game, but we didn’t feel bad about it at all, any more than you’d feel bad starting a battle in the middle of Kamchatka just to win a game of Risk. The puzzle stuff that you’re mentioning . . . yeah, I remember that as some of D&D, but only a very small part. I’m guessing this is coming from puzzles in adventure-style video games. It’s my understanding that those puzzles are mostly scripted, in the sense of being prepared ahead of time. I remember D&D as being a bit more free-flowing.

          • Peter Erwin says:

            The other thing I remember is how cold-blooded the game was. We’d think nothing of killing monsters just to take their treasure.

            The snarky term that someone came up with in the late 1990s or early 2000s for that style of play is “murder hoboes”.

            • The game I’m playing at the moment seems to be kind of the opposite of that… our troupe seems to be “security hoboes”… we go from trouble to trouble saving stupid rich people from societal unrest and getting favors in exchange.

      • I think for D&D dice are just a prop to prevent anyone from having complete control of the story… it requires you to build story on the basis of something other than the story you’ve already built… Otherwise there is no obstacle, it’s pure storytelling and it’s like writing a novel or whatever where the storyteller is in complete control.

        I imagine earlier such as in Greece or Rome, the game would look like the “professional storyteller” begins telling the story as the crowd in the small theater listens… and then when the dramatic event comes along… the crowd yells out for what they want to have happen “have Zeus send a bull to attack the sea monster” or whatever… and then the storyteller would have to figure out on the spot how to tell tonight’s version of the story with some of those suggestions incorporated… and if not enough of those suggestions were incorporated, the audience would boo or find a different storyteller.

        This is what D&D is IMHO.

        • Zhou Fang says:

          Yeah, my P&P RPG perspective is that the rules and the dice rolling really isn’t actually that important to the RPG experience.

          • The rules make a difference, but there are MANY rulesets that result in good game play, and so the specifics clearly aren’t particularly important. Compare to say the rule of how the bishops and the knights move. If you change that very much Chess would fall apart.

        • Garnett says:

          “I think for D&D dice are just a prop to prevent anyone from having complete control of the story.”


          Games of chance are fun precisely because the outcome is unknown.

  9. Jai says:


    How do games disseminate and get traction with a community of players? Ancient Rome didn’t have our mass media. The games you named reside in simple artifacts that can be rendered by artisans in a range of materials and custom design. Getting too specific about the design and printing of a board game sounds to me like it requires a manufacturing economy to produce, distribute, and advertise the game. Meanwhile, there are uncountable thousands of renderings of chess pieces and even in ancient times they could be handed around easily.

  10. Dmitri says:

    There’s probably a lot of games we’ve forgotten about, like Nine Men’s Morris.

  11. Though for some things, like scatterplots and graphing in general, I think it’s fair and fascinating to wonder why they weren’t invented far earlier, games don’t strike me as an interesting puzzle. Two thousand years ago, the population of the planet was on the order of 100 million, 100x lower than today, with of course also a far *smaller* fraction with the time or resources for leisure than today. Though I don’t know what the “scaling function” should be, I’m sure it’s wrong to expect the diversity of games played to be independent of the size of the game-playing population. Therefore, even without accounting for literacy, technology, pen and paper, etc., we should expect the past to have held *far* fewer popular games than the present.

    Also, as someone who has never played D&D, I have to add that descriptions of it make it sound like a lot of work.

    • First: thanks for the scaling law point. I had meant to say something like that but I’ll just +1 what you said.

      As for being a lot of work, D&D is a lot of work for the Dungeon/Game Master, to combat this there are many pre-packaged adventures which you can either use as is, or piece together to create a coherent whole. But it absolutely is the limiting factor in getting tabletop RPGs working, to get someone who wants to be and is good at being a Dungeon/Game Master.

      In contrast to say 1970’s or 80’s there are also a lot more systems some of which have a lot more simplified rules.

      Savage Worlds is one of them, and the PDFs are quite cheap.

      I actually got roped into D&D itself for the first time in decades a month ago or so, and it’s pretty clear to me how much work the rule complexity creates. It’s not necessarily bad, but Savage Worlds is a lot more free flowing. It’s also “swingier” (ie. has more entropy in the dice rolls). To combat the swingyness it uses “bennies” which are basically chits that count how many do-overs you have available to you. The game master gives these out when you think of some particularly creative solutions to problems, and then you spend them when things go horribly wrong and threaten to kill you, so you can try again. It keeps the game moving and the players alive. The goal is to tell cinematic type stories, Indiana Jones type stuff. In my opinion it works for what it’s trying to do.

  12. Peter Erwin says:

    1. I’m inclined to think there are technological prerequisites for the development of roleplaying games, despite what the author(s) seem to think. You do kind of need printing, and cheap paper and writing implements.

    2. There are probably a number of social prerequisites. E.g., you need mass literacy (so players can read rules and write things down), and a commercial entertainment culture that’s large enough to support niche subcategories.

    3. From another perspective, whats odd about that argument is how it confuses technology with culture. Asking “Why didn’t the Romans invent RPGs?” is probably more like asking why they didn’t invent opera, or kabuki, or shadow-puppet plays, or rap. Or why they didn’t invent baseball or cricket. Framing it in terms of “technological innovations” is probably a category error.

  13. Garnett says:

    The answer is simple:
    Prior to D&D, two-liter bottles of Dr. Pepper and Jolt Cola were unavailable to sustain all-night gaming sessions.
    Once someone figured out how to put caffeine in big containers, D&D became popular.

  14. Readers were asking for more RPG content after my last post.

    Steve Bronder’s lore bard and Charles Margossian’s battlemaster in my last D&D campaign, where we were playing Hoard of the Dragon Queen , decided that the way to get into Candlekeep library to do the research they needed on Hellfire would be to write their own book. So they invented an RPG within an RPG, the setting of which was based on their ongoing campaign, Italo Calvino style. (Steve and Charles are Stan devs, excellent GMs themselves, and creative players.)

    Raghuveer Parthasarathy says:

    Also, as someone who has never played D&D, I have to add that descriptions of it make it sound like a lot of work.

    It’s not work, it’s play! Recently, I’ve switched to running Blades in the Dark, which nearly runs itself. Here’s an ongoing set of notes for my weekly campaign: Play Reports from the Blackwell Home for Foundlings.

    Daniel Lakeland says:

    I think for D&D dice are just a prop to prevent anyone from having complete control of the story.

    This is what D&D is IMHO.

    Andrew Gelman says:

    There’s a difference between collaborative storytelling and a game.

    Games like Blades in the Dark and other Powered by the Apocalypse– and Fate-derived games take this to the edge of storytelling. So much so that a lot of people don’t even think they deserve the “G” in “RPG”. But D&D isn’t just a game of improv—it’s the structure of the rules and the setting and putting one GM in charge that gives it structure, which I think is the point Andrew was trying to make. Certainly lots of other people have made it. Though having said that, some games attempt to get rid of the GM altogether.

    Ben says:

    It seems like some sort of legal system + stand-up comedy game

    Not everyone plays it for comedy. Of the two players I mentioned, Steve’s all about the comedy and Charles is mostly deadpan serious. I tend to fall in the latter camp myself both as a player and GM. Too much comedy cuts the tension too much for my taste. I was going over this with Steve Bronder. My sweet spot is something like Spider-man and Iron Man, or better, Firefly or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Leverage. Batman in its most recent incarnation is too dark. As is Peaky Blinders. Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy are too goofy. As is Get Smart and Austin Powers.

    Andrew Gelman also says:

    I remember when D&D came out, that it was a big deal that it was a collaborative game.

    This is also important. When done well, the story emerges from the actions of the players, who get to make decisions that matter for the story. The opposite of this is a “railroad” campaign, where no matter what hapens, the GM is going to tell the novel they have in their head from the start. That doesn’t work so well as an RPG.

    Ben also says:

    The dice are kinda just the jury to see if something works are not. I think other people care more about them than I do though.

    Sounds like you’re not doing it right. If you don’t care about the dice rolls, they don’t matter enough. They’re not being made in critical enough situations. D&D is pretty bad at throwing grindy, meaningless rolls at you, especially if run by a green GM trying to follow the rules, which aren’t exactly a model of technical clarity.

    Ben further says:

    So in the game I’m playing there’s a kid possessed with a demon.

    Sounds like Steve’s character in my other game. The 12-year old warlock, familiars scouting, too many illusions to adjudicate, and general murder hobo tendencies finally drove me over the edge and I quit my last campaign.

    As to options to get it out, D&D can be very limiting in terms of what you can try according to the rules. I’d suggest finding it a better host if you want to save the kid and your party’s OK going that route. You can kill two birds with one stone so to speak by making it someone you want to disappear anyway. (Maybe I’ve been playing and thinking about Blades in the Dark too much.)

    Andrew Gelman also says:

    I also remember there was some spell called Burning Hands that would allow fire to come out of your hands. This seemed really lame to us

    That’s perhaps the most iconic first level spell in the game. If you think that’s lame, you’re probably playing the wrong game! Maybe you wanted to play the spy game Top Secret or Marvel, the superhero game, or Traveler, the space opera game. There’s much better versions of games of all of these genres 40 years later.

    More from Andrew Gelman:

    So he transformed the enemy into a deep-sea fish on the theory that the bad guy would then explode, as would happen to such a fish not subject to deep ocean pressure. We then all got into a big argument whether this was legal: did people in the Middle Ages know about water pressure and deep-sea fish, did that matter, was it against the spirit of the rules to do the transformation in a way that would kill someone, etc?

    I can’t recall 1st edition, but that’s totally legal now. But not good strategy, because when the polymorph form dies, they convert back to their original form and HPs. The better strategy is to turn them into a whale. Helpless on land, but won’t die quickly and convert back to its original self. Or a mouse you can put in a box.

    More from Andrew Gelman:

    yeah, I remember that as some of D&D, but only a very small part. I’m guessing this is coming from puzzles in adventure-style video games. It’s my understanding that those puzzles are mostly scripted, in the sense of being prepared ahead of time. I remember D&D as being a bit more free-flowing.

    It’s free flowing if done well. But early D&D was absolutely packed with trap-filled puzzle dungeons. White Plume Mountain, Tomb of Horros, Lost Shrine of Tamoachan, just to name some of the puzzle-based modules people still play. I’ve never liked the puzzles as they seem more aimed at the players than the characters.

    • Garnett says:

      One thing that strikes me about RPG is that it allows us to “live” a life that isn’t, frankly, boring.

      Bob: is it even possible to have a satisfying RPG experience that has no fantasy/sci-fi element at all?
      I’ve heard of some RPG real-life emulators, but they never became popular. I can’t even recall any specifics.

      • I think real live political / spy intrigue has been popular. By real life I mean without magic or alternative creatures or technology far beyond what we have today. But still, the storylines should be out of the ordinary, or what’s the point. It’s a really sad idea that there may be people out there playing “Savage Worlds: Corporate Regulatory Affairs Edition” in which you roll to see how long your zoom meeting takes and whether at the end of it you need to read a 200 page legal document to determine whether you can bill Medicare for services provided prior to a given diagnosis…”

      • Carlos Ungil says:

        If by “fantasy” you mean dragons and wizards and stuff, you definitely can do without it. Spies, soldiers, pirates, gangsters and cowboys are some examples. There are also examples of “historical” settings where the supernatural element is secondary. If it works in an action movie, it probably works as an RPG.

        • Garnett says:

          For sure you can do without it, but is it sustainable in a campaign? My experience is that there is inevitable “supernatural” creep because real life just doesn’t offer many challenging opportunities. We have to embellish these real life games otherwise our “combat” stats or “saving throws” are largely useless.

          • Anonymous says:

            I don’t know what do you mean by “real life”, but was quite succesful.

          • I think it’s more about the tastes of the typical players than about requirement. I think you can absolutely do a great job of a Caribbean Pirates vs British Navy “Treasure Island” type world without ever inventing a zombie or a sea monster or space aliens or time travelers… but those ideas can be so much fun that people do it anyway.

            Similarly, you could absolutely do a recreation of the civil war, or WWII and people would find that interesting. Or a recreation of post-war CIA spy-plane space-race stuff, or a Lewis And Clark type expedition or whatever.

          • Erling says:

            There has been a lot of development in the global indie-rpg scene since the late 1990s and in the scandinavian scenario tradition (now centered largely around the danish con Fastaval), and you can surely find non-supernatural stuff if you look outside the major publishers of games. For a collaborative one-night game, Jason Morningstars “Fiasco” can work pretty well, I think.

    • Andrew says:


      I know that early D&D had modules, but my impression was that almost everybody created their own worlds. Part of it was $. Modules cost money, but creating your own world was free.

    • There are multiple takes on the dice thing. D&D the dice rolls can really matter. Savage Worlds is super swingy, and if you get a catastrophically bad dice roll, you often can use a Benny to redo it. Both produce fun games, but they have different style/character to them. In swingy worlds, you tend to try more desperate stuff and then backtrack, the goal is to create a cinematic and unrealistic story. In more strict ruled games with carefully tuned dice mechanics, you tend to be more cautious and realistic in your assessment of risk.

      I think it’s great that RPGs are not just one thing.

      • Erling says:

        The way dice or other randomisers (the Norwegian surreal game “Itras By” features two custom decks of cards, for instance) are used really shape the game. One thing is the distributional properties of the randomiser, as you point out, but equally much what they are used to create uncertainty about the outcomes of. In the good old Arthurian Romance game “Pendragon”, you have personality traits and passions to roll for, nicely capturing the theme about striving to live up to an ideal, but sometimes failing, that is so central to stories about chivalry (your hated enemy throws himself at your mercy; succed on a roll for “Forgiving” and impress your King, or fail and lop his head right off). There is a tradition in roleplaying games of giving the player full control over the motivation and choices of the character, but a lot of interesting stories are about conflicting motivations, emotions and personality tendencies, and randomisers can play a great part in that as well.

  15. Alan E. Dunne says:

    With Respect

    We don’t of course know that the classical Romans didn’t invent any or all of the things referred to.

    But archaeologists do seem to have found many game boards from them, with written (carved & c. in writing) gibes on them.

    Yours Sincerely

  16. I wonder if Frequentists also play RPGs?

  17. Bob76 says:

    Here’s an interesting reference:

    But back to the comment above on resources. It seems to be that estimates of the world population 5 or 6 K years ago are on the order of 10 million. So it would take roughly 1 K years to have available the human resources to invent and explore new games (person years of possible thinking) that we have every year or two.

    Ideas probably diffused less quickly (no printing presses, no jet planes, etc), so innovations could be lost. Even so we have a variety of games that date back several K years.


  18. Tom says:

    Well – they did have the mêlée: This wasn’t really role playing as it was possible to die. But I imagine there was a strategy element to any sort of actual combat.

  19. Thanatos Savehn says:

    The Romans were engineers. The Greeks were scientists. It would be more than 1000 years before the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup moment arrived.

  20. jonathan says:

    Um, we know a lot about Romans. We know they made up stories, because we have many. We know common people made up stories because there are stories about common people making up stories, plus graffiti, plus pictures, etc. We know that slaves pretended to be masters (or different status slaves) because that was a common story which has survived. We know about the converse, with masters pretending to be slaves. We know that Caesar was capable of abstracting crossing the Rubicon at the head of his legions with the throw of dice.

    They had the same intuitive sense of odds that people do today. Like the ones who bet on the 50-1 shot at the track. The local news ran a piece about the casinos opening in CT, and the place had its crowd of ‘degenerate’ gamblers wearing masks (which is hilarious since wearing a mask in a casino would get you tossed out, if not assaulted by security).

    The dreidel has been passed off as ancient, but it seems to be a fairly common spinning top dice game. Because you have a result where nothing happens, it includes memory (as opposed to a game where winner takes all). So, they connected outcomes.

    Descriptions of card and other games show that people played roles in them, and that some of these roles were addictive (as they are now). There are many documented examples of men who became addicted to cards. But there were many who did not become addicts, and of course a number of people who worked out odds on at least informal basis and who made money taking advantage of those who dont get odds, very much like today.

    in other words, these games developed to mirror the games already played. Down to the abuse of newbies who are taken advantage of. They’re the same stories ritualized in a manner befitting a world that trades images and experiences differently than people in the past. As in, the first great vogue for ‘jigsaw’ puzzles came with the development of photography because now people could see fixed images of things they never otherwise could see. In the early days of those puzzles, assembling them to reveal an image fresh to your eyes was more the challenge than remaking the image on the box. (Though difficult puzzles, with intricate pieces, became a thing for those with more money and thus time to do puzzles.)

    My dad, like yours, grew up with radio. I believe he actually worked on some shows out of Detroit, and considered becoming a writer for radio, and then of course TV. Radio stories share confabulation. This was sometimes blunt, like Fibber McGee, sometimes subtle, like Jack Benny, often presented in a turn taking manner that became the rote way: the radio model of people sitting around listening to people standing around a mic,

    To make the point, Mark Twain would entertain his family using objects found on the mantel, typically as selected by his kids, and he’d ask them what should happen next, and they’d take turns, and they’d have to act out parts with him and each other. This was common back when people had to entertain themselves. Story telling was a shared art. This even expressed in the huge number of pianos; people were expected to learn how to play or at least sing some songs because you had to be part of the entertainment.

    And the same fallacies existed: gamblers and story tellers expect things to even out, and they see their quest as ending with them heroic over many travails.

    I’m afraid you dont get how to play dreidel. It’s not about the actual face that shows but the discussion of what should happen which is the game. A simple chase game – we had many such board games – reduces to which space you land on, and those games lose meaning as you age out for the simple reason that you need more than dice rolls to keep older kids interested in board games. But young kids are in touch with the actual meaning of the game, which is the sharing of the different stories told in the game. Let’s say you have a dreidel: the point is not what’s counted out, which is where the calculator mentality leads, but to imagine the possibilities. Role playing games have always existed. They’re embedded in simple dice games but we’ve lost sight of those in our technocratically trained reductions to results. If this were not true, then to be blunt: how the heck does Bayesian inference work?

    I found many of the comments to this post unintelligently smug about the incapacities of the past. Seeing how many bridges you can cross without repeating is a riddle. Figuring out proof by contradiction is the posing of a riddle as an answer, so the bleeping Pythagoreans out-thought us over 2500 year ago: they came up with an answer that’s an answer because it’s a definitive non-answer. It took until Georg Cantor to apply the same idea to count the varieties of these infinities. It took people like Fisher to think: we can a riddle a null and use contradiction. In other words, the games have existed, but the development of tools has lagged and yet I read the put downs of the past by the category of people who have taken so long to count better.

    Building better tools is a mimicking of what exists. Those tools lag behind. It’s not the past that’s been stupid, but the development of tools. That mean today is incredibly bleeping stupid because it uses a bunch of tools that the equivalents of the future will look back on …

    Why do tools develop slower? D&D developed because of TV and the ability to see representations of stories from and about anything and anywhere. The experience, like radio before that, was direct: unlike theater, you saw it in your living room or kitchen while you were eating or playing. So you imitate the form. Go back and develop TV earlier and you get the responses to that earlier.

  21. Daniel H. says:

    I see two emerging theme’s in many comments (that sort of contradict each other). This appears to boil down to:
    A) D&D bootstraps on other technologies (pen, paper, reading, logic, set of formal rules in explicit form, dice, fantasy stories, nerd subculture that brings enough people willing to play together for it to spread) that in this combination are only available recently.
    B) Maybe people in the past did play similar things and we just don’t know. And/or we could consider D&D as a formalized version of child roleplay (that must have existed even 10k years ago) and storytelling (that did exist 5.000 years ago, see e.g. the Gilgamesh epos).

    This appears to be a specific case of the general question of whether ideas ar unique or remixes of previous ideas (of how much “newness” we assign to something). So I at least see some connection to the philosophy of science topics in this blog (e.g. the “scientist as a hero” narrative). Anyways, ideas on how to negotiate between view A) and B) would probably be interesting.

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