Are roleplaying games a cool new technology?

Continuing the discussion from D & D got woke and that's good because you should have all been playing that way (or not if you didn't prefer)):
One line stood out to me:

I wonder whether roleplaying games are more fundamentally new than any other form of entertainment in the last century or so.

Video games get all the “cutting edge technology” buzz, and from the pure viewpoint of the stuff used, sure. But in terms of how people interact with them, video games are mostly just continuations of board games (for multiplayer) or solitaire (for single-player), or novels (for those annoying RPGs that are like 50% cut scenes).

And TVs and movies, of course, radically change the way we receive narrative–but even they feel like continuations of novels and serials.

I’m unfamiliar with any entertainment in any culture prior to the 1970s, though, that’s like roleplaying games. That is, entertainment where:

  1. Folks create a narrative
  2. Semi-cooperatively
  3. With each participant (save one) assigned a single protagonist
  4. And their capabilities are limited by game rules and random chance.

A wonderful writing instructor once told me that in crafting a paper’s thesis, “Don’t be obvious, and don’t be stupid.” It’s possible that my thread’s thesis–that roleplaying games are more qualitatively new than any other recent entertainment–is obvious, and it’s possible that it’s stupid. But maybe there’s something to discuss here.

So what do y’all think? Are there clear precursors to roleplaying games that have those four elements? Is one of those elements not really emblematic? (I mean, sure the third one gets broken by a variety of RPGs, and you can quibble with each of the other three, but overwhelmingly I think they hold) Is there something else that’s more qualitatively new than RPGs?

Perhaps new entertainment, but certainly not new technology or even a new concept. Militaries have been wargaming in a fashion almost indistinguishable from modern RPGs since the 19th Century.

It’s essentially playing make-believe, which has been going on since the beginning of humanity, at least.

Gygax was a wargamer. As the story goes, his inspiration for D&D was when he wondered what it would be like if each player controlled only a single soldier rather than abstracting large-scale combat.

I listed the emblematic components of gaming for just this reason:

Wargames lack the second and third components (“semi-cooperatively” and “each participant assigned a single protagonist”). They are overwhelmingly competitive, and each participant controls an army.

Make-believe lacks #4 (limits on capabilities described by rules, and random chance). There may be cultures in which make-believe is limited by chance, but I’m not aware of them.

The new thing about them was being able to buy a formal set of rules.

People have been making up their own for much longer; probably ever since there were people. As @Acsenray said.

People playing make-believe make up their own rules; some groups of friends/family make up strict and/or complicated ones, others don’t. I’d be surprised if nobody’s rules ever included a random chance element.

It’s almost certain that someone’s did–but although I know of many, many games of chance from different cultures, and I know that almost all humans have played make-believe, I’m not aware of this combination, especially with the other elements, as a persistent cultural feature. Not saying it hasn’t happened, and if it has–if, for example, Inca children had dice they threw as part of their games of make-believe, and changed the games based on dice rolls–I’d love to know about it.

I wouldn’t call role playing games a fundamentally new form of entertainment as games and make beleive have been around for pretty much ever. But D&D was a unqiue combination of make believe and war gaming that most Americans had never seen prior to 1974. Cool new technology? Sure. It combined existing ideas in a new and interesting way giving us a new form of entertainment.

Certainly kids create rule sets when they play make-believe, but they’re calvinball rule sets. Hence the “I shot you, you’re dead!” “Nuh uh, I have armor!” arguments that are a hallmark of that kind of play.

D&D’s great innovation is the combination of individual fantastical roles (certainly already present in make-believe play), an impartial ruleset which the players must conform to (certainly already present in wargames and board games), and persistent character progress and development (certainly already present in storytelling mediums).

The RPG is a synthesis of wargaming, cooperative tabletop gaming, and make-believe play. All of those things existed for a long time but nobody combined them into a single experience prior to D&D. I think that was the innovation and that it was indeed a brand new form of entertainment.

I think you and @Johnny_Bravo put it really well, and I’m curious whether there are other new activities quite like this. Even watching movies, as an experience, involves basically the same actions as watching plays. Are there other forms of entertainment that are fundamentally new combinations of activities in this way?

As an interesting–at least I think so–aside, icosahedron dice existed even back in ancient Rome.

Escape rooms, maybe? Wikipedia says the first modern one was an attraction at the 2003 Gen Con.

They’re scavenger hunts with strong narrative elements mixed in, and even a bit of roleplaying depending on the room.

They’re continuations of plays, which, obviously, are thousands of years old.

How is that not a game of Monopoly?

  1. It’s a very limited narrative, but it’s there.
  2. “Sure, I’ll give you a loan. For your station.”
  3. “I want to be the top hat!”
  4. “Roll a double or pay to get out”

And I strongly disagree that video games are anything like solitaire.

No there isn’t. Monopoly has a theme, but not a narrative. Some monopoly games may have narratives develop organically during play, but that’ll vary by group and is in no way a required element for the game. If somebody decides to roleplay an evil real estate tycoon, that’s fun, but it’s outside the intended scope of Monopoly.

Monopoly figures are just game pieces, completely indistinct from one another except by shape. The game would play no differently with colored scraps of paper or differently shaped bundles of belly button lint.

Players in D&D are meant to portray fully realized individual characters with unique skill sets who grow over time: session to session, adventure to adventure.

There’s a whole story about properties bought, taxes paid, fortunes won and lost, in every game. There’s a narrative.

Spoken like someone who’s never sulked because they had to be the iron.

Taken as a joke, this is pretty good, so I’ll take it as a joke.

I’m focusing on how the entertained person interacts with the entertainment. In solitaire, you sit down and prep your entertainment materials, and then you start playing it by yourself, paying attention to what the entertainment materials show you and making decisions based partly on the materials’ displays to you and partly on your judgment about how best to win the game, based on the inflexible winning condition. You can choose to cheat if you get frustrated, and nobody cares.

That’s not at all how a person interacts with movies or books or plays or a game of make-believe, and it’s fundamentally different from a game of checkers with an opponent, and it’s different from listening to or playing music or having a game of softball or going for a hike.

But it’s basically the same thing as a single-player video game.

It’s no joke. Roleplaying games are just a form of boardgame (more particularly, wargame) with more fluff.

I don’t think I play Freecell the way you seem to. Or else I don’t play solo video games the way you do. Because i interact with those two very differently.

I haven’t played a video game like that since 80s arcades.

If it’s not a joke, it’s a lot less funny and a real stretch (seriously, the top hat is a protagonist in a narrative? That seems like pedantic picking at my terms and frankly exhausting). It makes more sense as a joke.

I’m playing Horizon Zero Dawn, and of course there’s an inflexible winning condition: complete the main quest line. Not sure what you mean.