Bryan Caplan  

Role-Playing Games: Behind Their Time

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In Why Not?, Nalebuff and Ayres draw our attention to inventions that took forever to arrive but seem obvious in retrospect:
Think about the innovation of one-way tolls or rolling luggage.  Prewashed lettuce, the ultimate low-tech invention, has become a multibillion-dollar business.  Frozen, pre-chopped onions save time and tears.  You can now buy government bonds with interest rates indexed to inflation.  There are plenty more great ideas like these just waiting to improve the quality of our lives.
In one of his all-time greatest posts, Alex Tabarrok coins the phrase "ideas behind their time" to describe these cases.  He cites experimental economics as another example:
Experimental economics was an idea behind its time.  Experimental economics could have been invented by Adam Smith, it could have been invented by Ricardo or Marshall or Samuelson but it wasn't.  Experimental economics didn't takeoff until the 1960s when Vernon Smith picked it up and ran with it (Vernon was not the first experimental economist but he was early).
As far as I know, though, no one's noticed another fantastic idea behind its time: role-playing games.  They first arose in the 1970s.  But as I explain in this short manifesto, there was really no need to wait:
All you need to RPG are rules and imagination. In purely technological terms, then, RPGs could have arisen thousands of years ago. Imagine how vast our gaming libraries would be today if people started writing RPGs in the time of Socrates. Picture the canon of transcendent classics that library would contain! We can't undo the oversight of the past. But the gamers of the present can and should make up for lost time.
If you'd like to join me in this noble catch-up, email me for an invitation to Capla-Con - July 23 & 24 at my house, noon to midnight.  I'll be running a bunch of RPGs using my True20 House Rules - easy to learn and fun to play.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Isegoria writes:

The Brontë sisters were the first dungeon masters, if you accept dice-free, rules-free gaming as true roleplaying.

Isegoria writes:

While the Brontës had a shared fantasy world full of adventure, David Wesely was the first gamemaster in the sense that he ran a wargame-like scenario for players controlling individual characters with free-rein. It was called the Braunstein game, and it led to D&D.

Patrick L writes:

The Romans had the d20, but what purpose it served is a mystery.

Pierre writes:

Role playing is something that people have done, for free, forever. The particular incarnation of modern role playing games is simply a specialization of a much larger, general, behaviour that we all engage in to some extent. In particular, to play a "role playing game", you don't even need dice or paper. In fact, you can, and people do, do it without players, excepting yourself.


Sol writes:

You know, I've played in a number of excellent role-playing games whose complete rules were shorter than Bryan's modifications to the True20 system. Just saying.

And yeah, role-playing has been around forever -- every time a little kid plays "Cowboys and Indians" or "Dressup", she's role-playing. Though it certainly is an interesting question why no one thought to codify rules for this sort of thing centuries ago...

George writes:


I'm not big into RPG's anymore so this question may come off as absurd or something, so bear with me: I've never seen you mention the White Wolf / Storyteller system in any context. Way back when I was in high school I played the White Wolf system with some friends and thought it was rather easy to learn and it seemed like it would easily be ported to a generic system.

Is there something I'm missing here or is there something about the Storyteller system that would make an economist recoil in horror? (pun intended)

Just curious about your thoughts... haven't seen many deep thinkers on RPG's before! :-)

lemmy caution writes:

A lot of low tech isn't very low tech:

"The salad is bagged in modified-atmosphere packaging, using altered levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen. This can keep it looking fresh for up to 10 days."

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