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Note: This might be a bit of a naïve question, but I imagine it is a valid one. I am not a historian.

That is, were there any "standard" activities (with a set of rules or other concrete description), be them board-based or not, that involved acting/role-playing with the intent of mutual entertainment?

Sure, theatrics themselves are very ancient, but are usually intended as a presentation to a public, not for the entertainment of the actors themselves.

So, was any kind of roleplaying game practiced?

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    Trivially no - as the accoutrements necessary require existence of a printing press not invented until the 15th century. The widespread literacy and numeracy required to play the games followed both invention of the printing press and the introduction of national public education systems in the mid 19th century. People played musical instruments and acted in plays instead - and the latter was widely seen as beneath polite society. – Pieter Geerkens Feb 20 '18 at 22:35
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    The kriegspiel was invented by the Prussian General Staff in the mid-19th century - without that concept, and the much later popularization of wargames by Charles S. Roberts with the Avalon ill Game Company, there would be no roleplaying games. – Pieter Geerkens Feb 20 '18 at 22:46
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    I can't imagine a society in which children didn't play "pretend" with each other. (That may just be my assumption, however.) It seems to me that the question wouldn't be whether there was role-playing as such, as whether there was role-playing with rules, whether those rules were transmitted orally or in writing. – bgvaughan Feb 20 '18 at 23:18
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    @liftarn I don't know. Did chess players in that period pretend to actually be the warring parties they played? At least in modern chess, this isn't the case. It's a game about a battle, but it's hardly ever played with roleplaying attached to it. – Kroltan Feb 21 '18 at 11:55
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    Relevant XKCD: xkcd.com/593 – Andrew Grimm Feb 23 '18 at 1:57
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Medieval, and way older; as Saturnalia, Carnival or whatever the name your culture had for it. Festivities about role reversal seem to be abundant.

For example, for Saturnalia:

Saturnalia was characterized by role reversals and behavioral license. Slaves were treated to a banquet of the kind usually enjoyed by their masters. Ancient sources differ on the circumstances: some suggest that master and slave dined together, while others indicate that the slaves feasted first, or that the masters actually served the food. The practice might have varied over time.

Carnivals later developed on top of that, but there are also some local festivities that involve not role but gender reversal, for example mumming1 in England and some celebrations of Saint Agatha

And, of course, this other pagan festivity.


1Don't ask me what exactly "mumming" is, I found it while looking for the Saint Agatha festivities.

  • Mumming is a style of dramatic performance, which seems to have originated in the British Isles and spread from there. – John Dallman Feb 22 '18 at 13:59
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Chess and its predecessors are board-based battle games in which players assume the role of various military figures (the specific roles involved depend on which set of pieces are in use). Today's game was standardized in Europe towards the end of the medieval period. It does not require nor prohibit "acting" and "theatrics".

  • The fact that it doesn't require any acting to be able to play, kind of puts off most board games. Otherwise, most games would indeed classify as roleplaying simply due to their mechanics having been created based on some real concept. Anyways, thanks for the answer! – Kroltan Feb 23 '18 at 16:20
  • @Kroltan do the so-called role-playing games actually require acting? As I understand it, Dungeon Masters that can improvise are preferred, but unless I am mistaken, there is no requirement that they act theatrically. – Aaron Brick Feb 24 '18 at 1:02

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