I understand the direct history of RPGs mostly coming from Dungeons and Dragons, which had grown out of the combat game Chainmail, but I am wondering if there were any close equivalents in older history. I am not looking for wargaming history, but earlier examples of similar cooperative storytelling. It seems even the ancient Egyptians had dice, so there is no technological barrier. Are cooperative storytelling games purely modern or is there an ancient equivalent?

Edit: I am in particular looking for games in which people sit down together and improv out a story for personal enjoyment. I have found examples of old war games (like chess) and we have theater. I have not found any examples of this group improv.

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    – MCW
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 11:59
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    How "ancient" is ancient? The possible antecedents are virtually any - and every - cooperative endeavour engaged in by humans since we evolved, from theatre troupes to Prussian kriegspiel to team sports. I'm intrigued by the question so not yet voting to close as too broad - but as written it really is too broad and needs to be clarified and focused . Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 12:06
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    I have not found any examples of communal improv. Perhaps I am not good enough at searching for things or perhaps there is nothing like it. @PieterGeerkens - I am looking for this particular activity. It seems strange that there are no references to it when everyone in the past had the technology to have RPGs. Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 13:22
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    The ancient and medieval equivalent would have been storytelling competitions like Boccaccio's Decameron or East Asian poetry competitions, which sometimes involved following line for line. Usually style and allusion was awarded more than building up a character's stats as things went along, though.
    – lly
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 17:27
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    Obligatory xkcd. Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 17:33

2 Answers 2


This is only a partial answer (by challenging the frame) but way too long for a comment ...

  • I believe that there will be no clear answer because wargaming and RPGs influenced each other in ways that make it difficult to separate them. Look at the early history of Traveller, for instance, and Trillion Credit Squadron.
  • When you put the focus on cooperative storytelling, how do you draw the line between a RPG with character sheet, dice, and story elements, and e.g. a game with hand puppets telling a story.
    For that matter, how about children creating cooperative adventures with Playmobil figures or similar toys?

So, having said that, I nominate dolls even if I cannot confirm how the play unfolded. Make it 2000 BC, with play dolls at least from 100 AD.

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    I like how far you pushed this back, Check out oldest known doll from 4500 years ago. Yes, newspapers aren't the best reference - but it's your answer not mine, so I'll let you finish off the work. Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 16:03
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    Dungeons & Dragons is slightly older than Traveller, I think. Yeah, playing theater roles is as old as antiquity and there is no reason to assume that its precursors, be it childs play or entertainment, is not older. Like much older. Speculatively hypothetically. Could even be older than language. There is no way to tell with certainty.
    – user43870
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 17:01
  • @a_donda, one could try more restrictive definitions. A rules set for character generation, the ability to reuse and improve characters, different paths for characters to specialize, but some RPGs might not qualify under those restrictions. The presence of a game master distinct from the players. The presence of a plot to be played.
    – o.m.
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 17:52
  • Perhaps to keep the definition restrictive we could say "An activity in which people got together improvising stories with each other, that was not ordered towards a larger performance." This would remove hand puppets and other theater practices, reading a play together, and a bard singing a story to everyone. Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 18:35
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    @a_donda, that sounds like wargaming. The difference between a character and an interchangeable game piece is what makes the RPG.
    – o.m.
    Commented Apr 25, 2020 at 5:27

In the study of historical games there is a strong evidentiary bias towards those that used physical artifacts. A board for ur or a drawing of senet probably predate evidence of a collaborative talking game. Those games have narrative structure, but the state of the game is represented by the placement of physical tokens instead of the use of language.

A major antecedent of role-playing games is divination, fortune telling. The activity can be more or less structured depending on context, but usually involves some kind of spiritual authority and ritual, and possibly introduces new information. All through the history of speech people have been asking each other's advice, and it wasn't far from there to the emergence of trusted elders, shamans, and gurus. Divination rituals include visiting an oracle, throwing knucklebones, consuming entheogens, tarot, and ouija. Some of these are more randomized (i.e. cleromancy) and some are more guided (e.g. séance).

Role-playing games combine the rituals of spiritual authority with the fantasy of board games and the chance of cleromancy. Perhaps the most analogous historical practice --- a guided, collaborative thematic adventure --- is an entheogenic drug trip led by a shaman. Fantasy, suggestibility, and struggle are all present. Archaeological evidence for prehistoric shamanistic trips may be thin, but ethnographic evidence suggests that many peoples brought spiritual drug rituals into the modern age.

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