Why Didn’t Ancient Rome have Dungeons and Dragons?

Why didn’t ancient Rome have Dungeons and Dragons? I am talking, of course, about the game. Anton Howes presents the general problem:

A theme I keep coming back to is that a lot of inventions could have been invented centuries, if not millennia, before they actually were. My favourite example is John Kay’s flying shuttle, one of the most famous inventions of the British Industrial Revolution. It radically increased the productivity of weaving in the 1730s, but involved simply attaching a little extra wood and string. It involved no new materials, was applied to the weaving of wool — England’s age-old industry — and required no special skill or science. Weaving had been “performed for upwards of five thousand years, by millions of skilled workmen, without any improvement being made to expedite the operation, until the year 1733”, was how Bennet Woodcroft — one of the nineteenth century’s most important historians of technology — put it. (Lest you doubt that description of Woodcroft, he was, in addition to being an inventor himself, the man who compiled and categorised England’s entire patent record up to 1852, and who collected the inventions that would later form the basis of London’s Science Museum, particularly some of the earliest steam engines — among the most important machines in human history — that grace its engine hall today. My hero!) Weavers had been around for millennia, as had shuttles: one is even mentioned in the Old Testament (“My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, And are spent without hope”). As a labour-saving invention, Kay’s flying shuttle was even technically illegal.

I keep coming back to this example, because it goes against so many common notions about the causes of innovation. When it comes to skill, materials, science, institutions, or incentives, none of them quite seem to fit. But I keep seeing more and more such cases. There’s the classic example, of course, of suitcases with wheels – why so late? Was the bicycle another candidate?

…The economist Alex Tabarrok calls these cases “ideas behind their time”. I tend to just call them low-hanging fruit. Hanging so low, and for so long, that the fruit are fermenting on the ground. I now see them everywhere, not just in history, but today — probably at least one per week. And I now have a new favourite example, suggested yesterday on Twitter by Jordan Chase-Young: tabletop role-playing games.

Was it lack of the right the bureaucratic mindset? Lack of numeracy? Lower population densitie? Were such games invented but then lost to history? Ultimately Howes rejects these explanations, I think correctly.

Physically, there was nothing that actually stopped the invention of such games centuries or even millennia earlier. It required no special level of science, skill, or materials. So why did it take so long? Rather than there being any constraints, soft or otherwise, I think it’s simply because innovation in general is so extremely rare. It’s a matter of absence, rather than of barriers. The reason we have had so many low-hanging fruit throughout history is just because very few people ever bother to think of how to do things differently. We are, most of us, quite set in our ways. So even today, when there are many more inventors alive than at any previous point in human history, the fermenting fruit still abound.

Innovation doesn’t happen very often. How many people have ever invented a new way of doing anything? If stasis is the norm, then we should expect that many great ideas are routinely overlooked. For an economist this is an uncomfortable thought because we tend to think that profit opportunities are quickly exploited (no $500 bills on the ground). But while that is certainly true for choices within constraints it may not be true for choices that change constraints. This is also consistent with Paul Romer’s views on the combinatorial space of possible innovations—when the combinatorial space is vast and the explorers few, the innovations will be few and far between. What times, places and institutions generate more explorers?

Jason Crawford on twitter has more background and thoughts.


Children playing "Let's pretend"? Romans had that (or they would be very strange, since there is not a culture where children do not do this).

Massive formalized sets of shared rules, published for a consumer market and presented as a unified "game"? How are you supposed to get that without the Printing Press (and numerous other steps in the development of markets in leisure and literature), exactly?

NB: Why didn't the Romans have playing cards, but the Tang Dynasty did, and then other cultures did? Printing.

The Romans used lots for gambling. The gambling niche was already full.

The printing press was in 1455. If that's the requirement, then it takes 500 years late.

But the printing press didn't invent books or even long books. Every society had wealthy, literate classes that had free time for games.

So it isn't a question as to why the poorest farmers didn't play D&D- why didn't the wealthy and literate ancient peoples have games like this?

Also, why didn't the Romans invent knock-knock jokes or the office-centered sitcom or the steel plow (actually... why the hell was that invented so late... f#@k this D&D shit... ask real questions).

Here's one reason the Roman's didn't invent D&D: most people were poor as shit and those very, very few that weren't had to go off and read their Virgil and Homer before going to kill some barbarians. No reason to make stuff up when you can just go quest it out in real life (though I do imagine some kids having make believe fights while pretending to be Achilles or Hector or Ajax). Also, the lack of numeracy and lower population densities that Alex thinks are rightly rejected as explanations... yeah... those (in addition to... you know... widespread poverty) are almost surely the reasons (on top of M's suggestion that the manufacture and dissemination of a game with written rules is really tough without a printing press).

The reason why I'd emphasize numeracy a little less than other factors (literacy, viable market size, and specific printing, as you agree) is that the ways dice are used in these games are not complex (count successes above a target number and compare to a to hit / compare face value on die to a to hit number), and dice games are pretty common in simple cultures (the Romans even had d20s), and you've got significant (?) enough folk numerate enough to gamble with them for money.

One interesting note from Bernstein's Against the Gods is that in this time period, people did not think dice were random. Rather, they were influenced by the gods. For this reason they weren't too upset about irregularly-shaped dice.

Questions like these might be a caution, because they lead us to forget the difference two millennia of history and innovation make. The printing press, the idea of abstract randomness, fair dice.

Sure. But I'm not sure it would inhibit this particular game when it didn't others. (And doesn't inhibit the gamblers in the casinos of Macao and Las Vegas, today, who probably often don't really just believe merely in cold hard, uncaring probabilities, not luck or god on their side?).

D&D doesn't seem especially reliant on the idea that dice are not guided by a higher power / are "fair". Not in the way that other factors seem like more logically necessary prerequisites.

If you claim the printing press is the pre-requisite technology, then D&D is about 500 years late.

But we are acting simple-minded when we talk about the printing press. It did not invent literacy- there were wealthy people in every ancient society who could read and write and who had leisure time for games. Their games had dice, and some had formalized rules sets that were written down.

So even if the poor masses couldn't read and didn't have much time off, why didn't the wealthier classes participate in these activities?

Well, Commodus, when he was emperor liked to pretend that he was Hercules and fought in the arena against gladiators pretending that he was him.

That is kind of like a LARP.

But it is also kind of like a play -especially since the stories of Hercules were well known- it is unlikely that he didn't follow the scripted outcomes.

But it does show us that there were ancient literate peoples who had the leisure time and will to play pretend.

Formalized Role playing should have been just around the corner, just like dancing and reciting an epic showed that theatre was just around the corner.

Nero also liked to LARP as a great athlete, tragic actor or musician.

Agreed. Also, D&D is a game for somewhat older children. 10-12 and up, or thereabouts. I suspect that during the Roman epoch, most kids that age didn't have time for long, elaborate games; they were too busy working, schooling, training, etc.

+1, the majority of people were peasants and their kids were working all day by age 10. Furthermore, night lighting was poor. All that being said, I'm sure the kids played plenty of games, but without widespread printing and with paper being expensive, nobody was doing games that relied on written rules.

D&D does require leisure time, but it also depends on having several shapes of reasonably accurate dice. Was Rome capable of making them?


Quite emphatically yes. We're talking about a culture that thrived on engineering marvels; making objects the shape of regular solids was as old as Greece (which Rome strove to emulate the same way that Medieval Europeans strove to emulate Rome). Remember, a 6-sided dice can be produced--easily--with a lathe, and lathes were widespread at the time. More complex shapes require more effort, but were still common.

Rome also had an odometer (how do you think the milestones were put in place?), what we now call Swiss army knives, crank handles, cranes (powered by treadwheels), a type of power loom, heated floors, primitive automated manufacturing (stone and wood slab cutting), and many others.

The Greeks had primitive, mechanical computers, coin-operated vending machines, and the steam engine. Really, we shouldn't be wondering why the Romans didn't have D&D; we should be wondering why the Greeks didn't have railways! (The answer is "metallurgy".)

Do not underestimate the ingenuity of people in the past. They were like us--and as intelligent, ingenious, and curious as us. What allows us to do more is that we have more knowledge than they did, due to the virtue of having had more time to accumulate said knowledge.

The Aeolipile is a long, long way from being a useful steam engine. Are we to also state that the Victorian English had computers, based on the work of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace?

Like I said, they lacked the metallurgy to make it practical. I included it--and the explanation for why it wasn't further developed--to point out that exact fact.

It's a modern myth that agricultural workers slaved away 24/7. During sowing and harvest they did but during other times of years, especially winter, they had more free time than we do

Because they still had to tend their animals, weave their clothes, fix up their homesteads, make and repair their tools, etc.

The D&D example is stupid even if the "fermenting fruit" argument may not be. As mentioned many times, without printing and lots of leisure time, D&D is not going to happen. The flying shuttle is a much better example.

I feel like we are seriously underestimating the wealthier classes of the ancient world.

We have all kinds of evidence that the wealthy literate class had leisure time for weird stuff- sometimes even to play pretend. Why did it take so long to make a rules set for playing pretend?

BUT- even if we accept the argument that it takes the general literacy of the printing press, D&D is still 20 generations late.

It's not like we moderns don't have housework and repair and maintenance tasks too.

I worked for Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro. I have my name on a lot of Dungeons and Dragons books and have been an avid player since age 8. This question - why D&D was invented so late - has always intrigued me, and I feel qualified to comment.

First, any delay in the invention of RPGs is not due to the military and battles in ancient times being 'real' and thus obviating the need for wargames and quests. As counterargument I point to the immense popularity of Dungeons and Dragons and other RPGs among the modern military. (Another point: David Weseley was in the US Army when he helped Dave Arneson develop proto-RPGs.)

Second, the printing press is not required for RPGs any more than it is required for chess, whist, the Oresteia, or any other art form invented long before 1970. No thick rulebook, or any rulebook, is needed to play an RPG.

Third, numeracy is not required. I have played successfully with adults at cons who literally add up their attack bonuses on their fingers over a period of five to ten seconds or more, and I have played with low special ed. classes in middle school.

Lopez and Crawford make excellent points about patents and the market. Possibly, RPGs were invented before, maybe in some sort of Bocaccio and Decameron scenario, and then lost. Gygax and Arneson were certainly motivated by and aided by the existence of patents and markets. However, it should be noted that word of Arneson's Blackmoor game was spreading even before any codified rules were published, and it seems unlikely that the new art form would have been lost to history if Gygax and Arneson had not published.

Alex makes an excellent point that in a system, changes within constraints are much easier to come by than changes to the constraints themselves. Certainly RPGs are a change to the constraint themselves. They are a new art form, unknown to history before 1970, and although Shannon Applecline et al. have done good work, much more attention needs to be paid to the phenomenon. Also, for those who have never played an RPG, it is very difficult to understand them without either playing or watching/listening to one. Obviously, I recommend trying it. They're great.

A couple of my thoughts on why D&D wasn't invented until the mid-20th century.

1) Yes, successful innovation is rare. Unsuccessful innovation perhaps not so rare; every year we get a new way to teach math. But truly novel ideas that are also advances - yes, these are rare. How rare? It is possible that they are uncommon enough that their infrequency is consistent with D&D's late invention.

2) But I mean come on, this is some really, really late invention that we're talking about here. There's a reason Alex titled his post the way he did. Something about the question hits you right in the Whoa Yeah Seriouslys.

Now we could also ask, why didn't Archimedes invent calculus? He could have. He was close. Or ibn al-Hayathm? But on the other hand we did get calculus by 1700, and from multiple independent sources. Was DnD really 300 years more rare, more flukey, or more difficult than calculus? What about Hero and the steam engine? But then again we did get the steam engine also by 1700. These things were arguably right on pace with the Western Renaissance-Enlightenment-IR recommencement of history. Novels came to be around 1700. Photographic art and cinema came to be as soon as the requisite tools were invented. Cave painting is as old as hands. Why was DnD invented so long - millennia! - after its requisite tools?

There are other examples of delayed inventions, sure, but they do seem to be the exception rather than the rule. As such I think it's worth looking at what makes them exceptions.

I think that for Dungeons and Dragons and RPGs, what made them an exception was that a couple of ideas were uncommon until the 20th century.

It's always tricky to pin these things down, but I think one relevant idea that gained currency or even prevalence in the 20th century for the first time is the idea that a human being can create and destroy her own world. Role-playing games will be the last game type where AIs outperform humans because to play an RPG, an AI must be able to pass the Turing test. It must be able to act completely as a human. More than that, if it is to be the game master or Dungeon Master, it must predict, interpret, describe, and present an entire artificial world. Every game master must act as the prime mover of his own world. Every game system posits a new world. This idea of constructing an entire new world with its own metaphysics, physics, and internal consistency - not just a shadow or an allegorical mockery of our own - was not common, I think, until at least the mid- to late-19th century. And the idea of taking seriously man's creation and destruction of the real world was not really common until the 20th century.

RPGs also make normative statements, implicitly saying that it is ok for a GM to play god and for players to kill old gods. Rules for god-killing are not a very medieval concept. There was a reason that the most virulent anti-DnD reactions came from churches. RPGs also require man to consider alternate universes with their own internal logic. Perhaps some of these universes are better than our own, and where does that kind of thinking lead?
It seems to me that this is the sort of thinking that wasn't around until the century or even decades before DnD was invented. So in some sense, maybe RPGs weren't a delayed invention at all - and in another sense, perhaps the necessary ideas were just delayed.

I would argue that for at least a D&D style game, some sort of book is required. Not necessarily for rules, but to record information. You have a goblin. How many times do you have to bash his head before he dies? Six weeks later, another goblin--how many times did you have to bash the last one's head? You also need to record loot, and anything special about said loot. Literacy is a must; humans just can't remember that much.

Two historical facts from the ancient world support this. First, the first writing we have is tax documents. Again, humans simply can't remember that sort of data long-term, or even mid-term with any precision. Writing was developed, in large part, specifically to store the sort of information D&D requires. Second, see Plato's arguments against writing. He thought it ruined the mind, because it meant you didn't have to memorize as much.

Also, I disagree with you on math--not your observations, but rather your evaluations. Humans don't naturally know math. It's something we struggle with. This includes apparently basic concepts like addition and subtraction, and even counting. Many cultures get by with a very small amount of numbers, putting the rest into the piles roughly labeled "many" and "lots" and "whole lots". The ability to add is technology.

There are many RPGs that don't require books or paper. I've played many games of Risus, for example, with nothing but dice. There are many, many similarly "rules-lite" RPGs. They often use the dice themselves as the tracking system. It works quite well.

Similarly your point about math. I agree that math is technology, but it's not technology that is needed for RPGs. I've played Dungeons and Dragons with people who literally can't do math: those special ed. kids I mentioned. And there are many, many RPGs that require no math at all.

How many rules-lite RPGs were developed prior to D&D? Sometimes you need to develop something complex before it cam be pared down, so that you can determine what is actually needed.

That may be true sometimes. But that assumption doesn't seem like it should be the default one, and it's not clear to me that it pertains here.

Not default, no--but definitely a model that we should consider. We can't assume that what's necessary to RUN an RPG is what's necessary to ESTABLISH RPGs.

Other art forms that require literacy (like poetry, or books on philosophy) gained prominence long before literacy was generally available.

Perhaps the general masses did not enjoy them, but that didn't keep them from existing.

I think that even if we accept that RPGs requires literacy and education, we have to consider why the wealthy and educated did not play RPGs.

But, I mean, do we? Look back 50 years--were governors, CEOs, congressmen, and the like sitting around playing D&D? The reasons why the equivalent folks in the past didn't play such games were probably similar to why these folks back then didn't. (And again, Roman elite DID play role-playing games--just very different types.)

And that's assuming we're talking Rome, which is giving the best possible situation to your argument. In the Middle Ages it's worse, because "wealthy and educated" translated to "professional warrior or priest".

As a kid (around fifth grade, I think) I GM'd quite a few RPGs with no rulebooks, no paper, and no dice. The players and I could easily remember everything that was needed. We had heard of D&D (we didn't make up the basic idea from scratch) but we had no idea about all the rules that were involved, and just went with our intuition. The GM decided what succeeded or failed.
Later, in middle school, I came up with a way of generating pseudorandom numbers without dice, so that we could play while hiking. Basically the GM would think of a number from 1 to 20, the player would do the same and say it out loud, and then the GM would add the two together mod twenty. Not very random of course, but it was pretty hard for the players to beat the system.

The real impediment has to have been cultural... either nobody found that kind of abstract game rewarding enough to bother with it, or they didn't think it was worth writing about.

Yep. Sounds good, Frank. Christians were killed in Japan pretty much because the concept of a being that could Judge the Emperor instead of, at best, being an equal was shocking. Democracy is lower on the tech tree than D&D.

I would be interested in learning about the history of wargaming. That would have been obviously useful to the Ancient Greeks, but I doubt they had it because of their attitudes about fate and conducting war.

I'm not an expert on the history of wargaming, unfortunately. RPGs history I do have some knowledge of. But the books by Shannon Applecline are probably the best if you want to start reading about the history of RPGs.

@Frank - hi, thanks for your thoughts. Apropos of nothing, in my professional capacity I did patent a game or toy for several assignees that are famous. As you may know however, in the game / toy industry, being first to market, especially for the crucial holiday season, is more important than any patent. Same for fashion actually (you can get a design patent on a fashionable design, and sue people if they copy this design, but for historical reasons, except for some sneaker manufacturers with the designs of the bottom sole imprint, that's not done).

D&D isn't chess though. It's not a competitive game where the competitive players compete in a test of skill, accompanied by a set of short rules that would take no more than a page to describe.

It's a way to formalize collaborative children's games of "Let's pretend" essentially. Is it worth the trouble for children to do so using dice and rules? Probably not, without a thick, mass produced tome to support doing so.

You may as well ask why card games were invented hundreds of years before "Magic: The Gathering".

RPGs aren't about formalizing children's games. Check out Critical Role or some other show/podcast to learn what they are.

You may dispute that characterization (many introductions of actual role playing game books would not).

But they aren't chess, competitive, abstract, player vs player games with brutally simple rulesets where complexity emerges from intricate and skillful use of those. They are ways to formalize multi-participant storytelling, and indeed "roleplaying" experiences (the clue is in the name).

Agree with the cultural argument that creating worlds/ playing God needed to be acceptable before D&D could prosper. Also along those lines, the idea above that fair dice was a concept the world didn't have before The Enlightenment.

You have to have the notion that a magician casting spells in your game universe didn't affect the real universe.

Tyler recently expressed his disdain for the MR comments section:

You have improved the average.

Ha ha, thanks.

This was a great comment and it makes me think that the "hard" part of inventing D&D is conceptual. It's almost definitely *not* about dice carving or rulebook printing. The ancient world could keep entire epics intact without even writing. Even rather average D&D players don't need to check a rulebook once in a typical gaming night, and D&D could easily be far more optimized for memorizability. If you don't have dice, you can easily play D&D with a deck of cards, a spinner, and many other low-tech devices.

No, I think the answer to why D&D is so new is very similar to the question Why did it take us so long before a human being told a story about time travel? Why did this not happen even once before the late 19th century? The problem wasn't technological. It was conceptual.

I think that world-building games like D&D require a conception that reality is just the unfolding of a set of fundamental yet contingent rules or "laws". For most of human history, this perspective was just not available. One early thinker with great clarity about this was David Hume, and I suppose he could have invented role playing games in the 1740's, but nobody earlier would have had a chance. The bottleneck was the idea of the "possible world" and lots of enlightenment about the relationship between contingency and necessity.

>Also, for those who have never played an RPG, it is very difficult to understand them without either playing or watching/listening to one.

You think that's difficult? Try baseball! It would be almost impossible to intuit the rules from watching a series of games without having someone already knowledgeable on the subject explain it to you.

I believe this is true of many human activities.

The suitcases with wheels "lateness" have a simple explanation: suitcases are carried by servants.

Only until air travel becomes affordable to the middle class and therefore no servant is traveling along to be responsible of the luggage, a wheeled suitcase makes sense.

Also, elevators were no that common until the last century. What's the point of wheels if you still have to reach the 4th floor using the stairs?

Forge the elevators, consider the streets and docks. In centuries past your luggage would move from the floor to your carriage/wagon. It would be transported to the docks. At the docks you would, at best, have cobblestones. Absent good, lightweight bearings you would need heavy, large wheels and it would still be a royal pain to move the chest over cobblestone. Once at the pier, you are again looking at a surface that might be slick with salt water/vegetation, uneven, and with the steady gaps of rough hewn lumber.

Even if you were middle class, you just did not walk that far with luggage in hand. Even if, for some reason, you were to walk that far, wheels do not add a huge benefit on even the nicest surfaces two centuries ago.

Do wheels have costs? Of course. Voyages back then tended to be longer and everything was heavier (fabric, grooming implements). So you needed the luggage to be sturdy. So you are going to need wheels that can take serious weight. Likely this means metal - heavy and until about 150 years ago, very expensive. Weight means you can use less of the luggage for its primary purpose. You could try making it lighter with wood, but that tended to result in larger wheels (e.g. Conestoga Wagon wheels) . Later you could try pneumatic tires, but that increases the cost and means you need to carry a pump given how unreliable tires were for decades.

It is like the people who speculate about these things never even imagine the basics. You want rolling luggage? Well you need good surfaces where wheels actually improve performance. You need lightweight, efficient wheels so that means you need bearings (~1750) and materials that can handle the load with low physical and weight profiles (i.e. plastics in the 1930s). And, of course, you need people to actually lug their own luggage long distances once the other constraints are met.

So you yeah, absent airports (one of the few places in history where people have moved luggage long distances on flat, even terrain) and a mass market of people lacking servants even with bearings, good wheels, and good surfaces, wheeled luggage just is not that useful.

+1 outstanding answer.

-10 answer is longwinded, fails to get to the point, self-satisfied, and irrelevant to dungeons and dragons.

Forget the luggage. As French historian Fernand Braudel once wrote, most people didn't leave a 30 km radius from where they were born. No need for luggage then. Only the 1% traveled. The 1%, the vanguard of human progress...

It was not lack of physical means. It's possible to walk 30km in a day and much easier to ride on horseback same distance on a single day.

Most of travel restrictions were political. Before large nation states, small kingdoms were the norm. Going beyond the small kingdom boundaries meant being exposed to being enslaved, robbed or kidnapped for ransom by the people from the next valley. That's why traveling in an unsafe 1500s ship was much safer than traversing 20 different kingdoms.

Of course, there were some special rules for merchants. But the idea of traveling to the other side of the world for other motives beyond business or war, is quite new.

During times of upheaval land travel might be dangerous. But there were norms and even written rules for how travelers were to be treated. In antiquity the gods were invoked as the especial protectors of strangers. Betraying a guest was almost as heinous as betraying a family member. In the Middle Ages merchants and pilgrims had legal protection. The former could be required to pay tolls, the latter were sacrosanct. Even in the Middle East during the many wars with Byzantium pilgrims and merchants were protected, until the caliphs grew weak and Turkish marauders saw only riches and potential slaves for the plundering .

@JonFraz, well said, but pace the Thugees, as per the book: "Thug" by Mike Dash (on the Indian villainous highway band). BTW, this book is not sensationalist but historically researched, and, as such, you will not get told the tale (except to debunk it) that the Thugs were a religious sect who betrayed travelers to strangle and rob them for religious motives (Dash says that if this was the original impetus, it's been lost to history and no historical evidence for this practice exists).

I'm not sure I believe Braudel though. What was his evidence?

Though I suppose if you accept that most people died in infancy the claim could be true without being remotely important.

Lots of ordinary people did make religious pilgrimages, but that might be a once in a lifetime thing. And the ethic was ascetic. You didn't travel with fancy wardrobes, maybe just the clothes on your back, and generally you did it on foot. Also, and this speaks to bicycles too, roads were awful back then and wheels not so much an advantage.

It is like the people who speculate about these things never even imagine the basics. You want rolling luggage? Well you need good surfaces where wheels actually improve performance.

Richard Bulliet's The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions makes a similar argument about wheeled vehicles in general.


Hotels made greater use of luggage carts back in the day, also.

+1. Airports with long concourses and people using mainly carry-on luggage (for convenience and to avoid checked baggage fees) are new. It's not as useful to have wheels on your luggage if you drop it off curbside.

"suitcases are carried by servants."

Or by porters. Or are hauled on luggage carts. It's not the case that every heavy thing that could be wheeled now is. There are shoes with pop-down roller skate wheels, but nobody wears them. If they eventually become popular (perhaps after becoming electrically powered?), will we wonder what took so long? And do we know that no solo inventors came up with wheeled luggage for their own use earlier but never attempted to make it a product? When wheeled luggage finally was brought to market, I understand it was a hard sell for quite a long time.

Another product that could have been invented long before it was is the Frisbee, and that was a long slog too for the inventor to sell (he used to dress up in a 50s spaceman suit and go around to county fairs).

One of my favorite sayings about this (and I wish I remember who said it) is something like "the problem with great ideas is that they quickly deteriorate into a lot of hard work". I come up with little inventions all the time and I'm always a bit relieved to do an online search and find out that it's already a thing so I don't have to feel guilty that I'm not going to do anything with the idea.

Here's one of my ideas, and it's actually related. Feel free to have a go at it because I'm not going to -- there already is luggage with wheels and backpack straps, but AFAIK, nobody makes a pack for backpacking with 'off road' capable wheels that could be towed on trails when you get tired of carrying it on your shoulders. It wouldn't work on every trail, of course, but it would work on a lot of them -- why doesn't that exist? Maybe you'd tow it with a handle like luggage. Maybe you'd attach your hip belt and tow it like a pulk. Make that product for me, will you, and I'll buy one. To get you started, this isn't too far off.

But wheeled lugage is still 40-50 years late. And for 20 years the wheels were unidirectional. Only in the last 5 do we see 4 caster style wheels per bag almost taking over the market. And how long untill they make caster style wheels that don't bust off easily? It is possible to make reasonable small semi recessed caster wheels that are rugged and don't catch on things, but let's see how many years or decades that takes.

All these delays still prove the main point. The delays aren't always hundreds or thousands of years, but they are still too long.

Would you like to say something about umbrellas?

No it isn't.

I did a bit of Googling and it appears that the dates on wheeled suitcase innovation are earlier than thought.

Patent US2472491A shows wheeled luggage back in 1947.

Patent EP0106906A1 shows wheeled luggage with casters back in 1982.

Patent US3606372A shows wheeled luggage with retractable handle back in 1969.

Patent US2577951A shows retractable luggage wheels back in 1950.

Patent US1561122A shows us a wheeled "luggage carrier" from way back in 1925.

Putting wheels or castors on something is not a huge conceptual leap. Doing so in a useful manner is much harder. Again, prior to air travel most of the time your luggage went into one form of conveyance and then on to the next with relatively little time spent moving it. If it needed to be moved large distances, carts and porters were used. So when wheeled luggage hit the patent office, there was a giant collective "meh".

The utility gained from wheels, even in 1950 was not that much. The 70s, though, saw both the massive rise in air travel and the beginnings of the airport security nightmare with long, sustained walks on the concourse. And since 1950 you had a lot of progress. Wheels had become both stronger and lighter. Bearings were cheaper and more efficient. And the weight of clothing and luggage itself had dropped with synthetics (and fashion).

People back in the day were not dumb. Most ideas have a pretty strong "I, Pencil" quality towards making their innovations successful. Having the idea is arguably the easiest step; the patent office attests to failure rates well over 99% after the idea is published.

The real story is that as air travel become vastly more common you had vastly more people thinking about and tinkering with better luggage. Eventually bright people figured out how to make the pieces click, often using innovations that were quite recent and then had good business sense. I would submit that our ability to build and affix quality castors has improved in the last few decades (certainly for the price) so we see more apparent innovation now, not so much because we were all idiots in the 80s.

I wonder how much is due to the change in the nature of travel. How much travel was done in the past that only required a small suitcase that a person could move by themselves on a set of wheels? If you were traveling so far that you couldn't use your own transportation (car, horse/wagon), you were more likely to be carrying a large steamer trunk or more, because you'd be gone for weeks.

Long distance, short-term, light luggage travel for the masses is a relatively new thing.

Because Romans were asskickers that fought and conquered not the dice rolling cuck nerds that their descendants turned into.

Fair point.

The question should probably be:

Why Didn’t Ancient Greece have Dungeons and Dragons?

Apposite, and one of my favorite Internet posts of all time:


@Bruce CLeaver - I've seen this post before, it's good, possibly I think you posted it here before.

On my bookshelf is a book by an Italian scholar, not unlike the below, that purports to show what Jason Crawford said in his Tweet above, that many inventions may have been invented before and lost (because of no patents). Lots of examples, not just Hero's toy jet airplane, not just the antikythera mechanism--which, like Babbage's mechanical computer, had memory--not just the Persians supposed electroplating device, which had a battery, not just Roman concrete, super-strong even without metal rebar in it (metal can corrode concrete so you have to be careful when adding it, recall that failed Italian bridge a few years ago), not just Korea "stone" pottery that you can drop and not break, not just the Chinese prisoner who flew a heavier than air glider (did Icarus really live?), but numerous other inventions lost in time. Speculative but who knows?

Amazon book: Ancient Engineers' Inventions: Precursors of the Present (History of Mechanism and Machine Science) by Rossi, Cesare

Perhaps you’d be less bewildered about this if you knew that prior to about a couple centuries ago, 99.99% of humanity spent 99.99% of their time either sleeping, or trying to ensure they had enough food, or fighting.

Also, they didn't know how to read.

that’s a common, if not probably untrue conception of prehistory.

i imagine in fact far more free time than we have now

I have no comment about flying shuttles, they may be a good example of low-hanging fruit, I don't know. Most of the other examples show bias about today's activities being superior to those of the past.

Maybe the reason the Romans didn't play role-playing games was because they didn't want to. Instead they played ... who knows, Etruscan charades; or listened to bards; or watched gladiators fighting. We could equally well ask why Roman writers didn't write crime noir fiction or compose sonnets. They could've invented those genres but why bother? They had other things to write and read.

The bias works the other way too: why don't we modern people compose and read odes? Or watch chariot races? Why was it Dungeons and Dragons instead of say Spacemen and Aliens? Silly questions and silly examples, as is the whole Roman D&D example. People will engage in the recreational activities that they want to engage in. Trying to invent and impose a game upon people two millennia removed from today and wonder why didn't they play it is silly.

The bicycle article that they link to is also poor. Inventors created improved bicycles at about the best rate they could. If all you've got is wood, then the best you can do is build a velocipede, which is what inventors did. With iron and steel you can build lighter vehicles such as the high-wheel penny-farthing. And they did that. To build the modern "safety bicycle" you need steel, more importantly affordable steel, for hollow-tube frames, as well steel ball-bearings, steel chains, and you also want vulcanized rubber for the tires. When those materials became available, the modern bicycle was soon invented.

Materials science is underrated.

There is validity in the overall point about innovation being something that in theory anybody could do, all they had to do is think up the idea. And the observation that it's rare is correct.

Many of the best ideas took imagination or even genius, yet seem obvious in retrospect. You can play a parlor game pooh-poohing Nobel economists' great contributions: "people are wary when buying used cars"; "don't put all your eggs in one basket"; "education, training, and experience make you a more productive worker"; etc. When you try to explain the economic insights of most of the great papers in terms that a layman can understand, they're likely to say "Is that all? That's trivial. Anybody could've thought that up."

And in theory anybody could've. But true innovation is not easy.

The higher-up Romans certainly did engage in role-playing. It was more....adult oriented....than D&D, if you get my drift.

One thing that came and, sadly, went was small-scale war games using tin soldiers. Lewis Carol was a fan of these. Think Stratego, but on the scale of a good-sized back yard. They had a series of rules for how to count what gets hit, how to handle cover, how far various pieces could move, etc. It was popular with a certain group, but mostly has died out. Just the way of games.

"Little Wars is a set of rules for playing with toy soldiers, written by English novelist H. G. Wells in 1913. The book, which had a full title of Little Wars: a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys' games and books, provided simple rules for miniature wargaming."


"One thing that came and went, sadly..."

Came and went? Google 'warhammer', you're welcome.

Not long ago school yard games such as "Fox and Geese", "Prisoner's Base" and "Pump, Pump Pull Away" were standard fare during grade school recess. I haven't witnessed kids playing these games in years.

Kids games I remember which may well be defunct: hopscotch, four squate (no not the Facebook app), assorted games with marbles, kickball, Red Rover, Annie-I-Over (not sure about spelling on some of these)

I have to concur. The examples used are easily explained through much simpler reasoning. Bicycles, as you point out, need advanced metallurgy and advanced engineering of those materials. It could have been done in brass, but it wasn't for the very same reason that the Industrial Revolution didn't happen earlier. I.e., the economics of the IR were limited to the time and place when they happened.
As for game-playing and entertainment, that is just plain silly. The Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians - all those cultures had games, and entertainment venues. And modern culture has a large increase in leisure time over previous societies.
The only thing I can think of that is even remotely supportive of these ideas is some work that was done with dolphins some years back. The dolphins were taught to innovate tricks, and they did marvelously. The more experience they had with innovation, the more skilled they became at innovating. Assuredly, the same could be said for humans, yes?
However, the rest of the examples given? Pish-tosh. Alex and Anton need to read their histories a little better, and give this concept a wee bit more thought.

Don't be too sure about an increase in leisure in modern times. Work was very much seasonal, with intense "crunch" times and lengthy slack periods. Also there were lots of feast days, far more holidays than we moderns have. We Americans especially are history's champion workaholics.

On a slightly different note, I have a theory on the biggest “why did it take so long” in human history”. Humans have been around for 300,000 years, but civilization for only less than 7000. What were we doing that whole time?

We were waiting. We couldn’t have made civilization because our fruits and vegetables were not evolved enough yet to make farming practical. Look at ancient teosinte versus modern corn. Yields on ancient crops must’ve been pathetic. Better to be a hunter gatherer.

Alternatively, maybe it took too long to create civilization because we were all playing Dungeons & Dragons.


Civilization depends on agriculture, and it's hard to invent agriculture in the middle of an Ice Age.

The current interglacial began around 12,000 years ago, and the last one before that was a bit more than 100 thousand years earlier.

Agreed. But the problem with the Ice Age isn't that it was too cold. There were areas closer to the equator that were warm. It was that weather was more variable. You'd have a number of good years, put more of your time and energy into crops, then have a few years that were too wet or too dry, too hot or too cold. The survivors weren't going to put a lot of energy into crops for a while.

The weather is still variable. Droughts, probably the most common agricultural problem, have been alleviated by advanced irrigation techniques. Pest predations have been alleviated with insecticides. Crop genetic modifications have been made to shorten growing seasons and prevent failures due to early frosts. Farm equipment has made planting and harvesting of crops faster, lessening exposure to adverse elements. The earth is actually in an Ice Age now, the normal global temperature is much warmer than is currently the case.

I must recommend https://rootsofprogress.org/posts **VERY STRONGLY** for anyone curious about this.

Thanks. The "Roots of Progress" blog is by Jason Crawford, who is an engineering manager and entrepreneur. I have more to say on him below, but he's the ONLY PERSON that mentioned patents as a substantive answer, in his Tweet cited by AlexT above. The. Only. One.

Luggage with wheels followed the wide-spread practice of carry-ons rather than checked bags, plus enhanced security that ended curb-side baggage check-in. Then came back-packs; what self-respecting millennial would use grandma's luggage with wheels rather than a rugged back-pack. Innovation, as Rene Girard would say, is a function of follow the leader. By the way, the "innovation" attributed to Trump is coarseness of language. Did I mention what passes for "innovation" in so-called tech?

Yep, people seem to forget prior to 9/11, porters were used generally so why bother with wheels. Nowadays I can't even recall the last time I seen a porter at a airport.

Thank god for the calico acts

DnD needs the printing press and literate children with buckets of free time. Did this combination exist over 100 years ago?

Is AlexT trolling me? If I was vain (which I'm not, in real life at least) I would think so. After reading this post, and initially not seeing the term PATENT mentioned, I seriously thought about stating I would never comment on this blog again. Unfortunately, the term PATENT was mentioned, but in passing (as part of a cataloging effort by 19th century historian B. Woodcroft). The several links in the OP fail to mention patents, except for Jason Crawford in a comment in his Twitter feed, which stated the absence of patents is one reason we don't have innovation in ancient times. Note Crawford is an entrepreneur and manager of tech. I will start reading his blog, he seems bright. The Paul M. Romer abstract does not mention patents, and Romer is a pioneer in modeling technology as an endogenous factor in a modified Solow growth model. Not sure about the body of his paper but it would not surprise me if it did not mention patents at all (dear reader: please inform me, as the site is gated). The previous AlexT post cited, "Ideas Behind Their Time", fails to mention patents, and only one commentator in that link, "Lord", mentions patents as a _retardant_ (!!) to innovation in a single throwaway phrase. I guess the "Lord" knows?

Lord knows. People who have never studied patents like I have--I spent a career in them, now retired--seem to have the strongest opinions, and they tend to be negative, since most people either don't invent anything and are consumers of innovation or people invent just for fun, with no expectation of making money (owners of capital are different). BTW I spent as much of my time breaking patents as I did making patents, and I was against software patents since they cannot be examined properly (actually nothing can really be examined properly with the present system which treats each invention equally, but I digress) but I know, unlike most of you, how important patents are to innovation. It's the first thing on the term sheet, along with price. It's one of the few things that a certain Shark Tank guy asks when interviewing VC candidates, from a five minute perusal of that reality TV show (don't watch it, but that part did make sense). Patents matter to the owners of capital. Not so much to the inventors (they get a pat on the back; Nobelist Kary Mullis got $10k for PCR, testtube DNA replication which is the backbone of biotech, he stated he made more money as a patent litigation witness than from his invention, and I can relate to that)

I hate to tell you this, but this will probably mark the end of my commentating here on MR. Your loss, I know, I know. Beside the entertainment value of this blog rather than educational value--it's hard to respond in WordPress for serious discourse-- I am a busy man these days, with my gentleman farming, real estate (I renovated a Greek apartment building and tripled its value in half a year, rich get richer theme) and on the cusp of some welcome personal changes I rather not discuss but a plus for me and my family, so I will have less time for educating random people on the internet. So don't expect me to post much more here, though, as I say, since I saw "PATENT" mentioned in passing I'll not abruptly get up and leave but gradually fade away.

Take care, it was nice interacting with some of you. Bye.

To play D&D you need a few things.

1) Enough literate people to play. The vast majority of the population of Rome and the Middle Ages were illiterate. Only the ruling and priest classes were literate (and in the Middle Ages this was often marginally so), so your pool of people is limited.

2) Disposable writing materials. Pencils, pens, paper, etc that aren't dedicated to other tasks. This seems minor in our world, but in the past this was a major consideration. Cutting a quill pen isn't easy. Making paper is less so. The Medieval folks got around this by using wax tablets (not sure if Rome did), and certain tree barks could be used, but the point remains: this was a major cost. A Bible that included all canonical books (most didn't) and a few commentaries (all had them) was worth as much as a town. The standard Player's Guide would have been worth at least several tenement homes.

3) Free time. Free time is a modern invention. Sure, nobles had downtime from time to time, but for the majority of the people throughout history "free time" meant "dear gods where am I getting money for food? I'm going to starve!!!" Teenage girls took to weaving straw hats because it was a way to be productive that still allowed them to chat with friends. By 7 years old a child on a farm (and the vast majority of people back then were farmers) was turning a profit for the family. I could list other examples and proofs, but suffice to say that until very recently having enough free time to blow an afternoon on a regular basis screwing around with friends would have been considered an unbelievable luxury.

4) A culture that allowed it. The Middle Ages saw cities routinely wiped off the face of the Earth because they differed in minor points of theological doctrine--the exact relationship between the Trinity, for example, and whether priests had to be good people for their sacraments to count (wars were fought over this). Rome was more tolerant, but we're still talking about a culture where believing the wrong thing could get you put to death. Having a bunch of books lying around describing demons was not conducive to long-term survival.

As for physical inventions, the answer is that humans just aren't very creative. We do not explore possibility space; we stick to what we know. And this is exacerbated by cultures (like Rome, like the Middle Ages, like many cultures) that enshrine the ancient ways. Bucking against the established traditions got you any response from funny looks to being lynched. You're not going to see much innovation in a society where the epistemological structure is "What did the Worthies say about this?"

"whether priests had to be good people for their sacraments to count (wars were fought over this)" - which wars are you thinking of here?

It was more over the concept, of which these were examples. Check out the history of southern France for examples of this. A lot of conflict in the Roman empire also involved such questions, which if they had occurred after the Fall would have been considered wars.

slaughter of the Cathars.

Agree with 1) and 2).

3) is hard for me to take hugely seriously, as if you take it literally you would assume that rural people of history had no arts, no storytelling, no games of chance, no sports, until these were miraculously invented following the industrial revolution. It is true that leisure has greatly expanded in the 20th century, but the kind of "They were too busy for games at all" argument tends to lead the question of why any form of culture exists at all.

I think 4) is a pretty dodgy point, simply for the same reason that cultures were adept in coming up with all sorts of story telling forms that were within the lines of theological doctrine. Ideas like "People could not conceive of GMs / DMs in games; it would be too close to God himself and thus be met with theological censor" or "Games inevitably involve the killing of demons and the use of magic and thus they are precluded" are.. dodgy, in the case of the first because it is not credible that medieval people thought to such a low level of sophistication (the Church did not in fact censor William Shakespeare for devising the character of Prospero, for'ex) and in the latter it is easy enough to make games with sufficient and piously supernatural elements in to satisfy church-ish demands.

3) No, you're very wrong, because of how pre-industrial farming works. There are a lot of tasks that require you be there, and that you pay SOME attention, but not that you need to focus entirely on. Once you get into the swing of it, a lot of the tasks can be done while chatting with each other, allowing for storytelling. And a game of dice can be played in the ten minutes you have while someone else watches the work and you get a quick drink. Arts for most people amount to carving and, to some extent, textile art (remember, we're talking about people living in stick-and-wattle one-room homes). EVERYONE carried a knife, so carving was pretty easy, and women generally were spinning, carding, weaving, or sewing when they weren't doing real work (in the views of the time), so they had plenty of scope for that.

Compare that to D&D, where you sit for hours at a time with a descent-sized group of people on a semi-routine basis. This is a whole different concept to an occasional hour after supper singing songs; D&D (and RPGs in general) require a level of commitment that simply wasn't possible to most of the population for most if our history.

4) I agree it's not the strongest argument, but I think it's something to consider. It's deeper than "People could not conceive of GMs/DMs in games"; it's a whole mental framework. Take Rome. Romans lived in a world where wonders and monsters were real. That's why Hannibal brought the elephants--not for their brute strength, but because to a poor villager who'd never been more than 20 miles from home, being faced with something the size of his house, with spears and tentacles coming out of its face, was FREAKING HORRIFYING. Read some ancient bestiaries sometime, and see what they thought of things like rhinos, or crocodiles, or giraffes (cameleopards, in the old text--for very interesting reasons). Add to this a culture that deals with people straying form the straight and narrow by ripping them apart with horses, and things like D&D simply aren't going to occur to most people.

Eh, we have information about rural people. They went to festivals and religious services which took hours, in which they were not basket weaving, whittling away, etc. It's not clear to me that this demand for that many carved objects, baskets, woven garments, etc was that high. Even if average rural people were like this, urbanization exists at some level - consider that in Elizabethan London people went to watch multiple hour long complex plays, where they were not constantly noted to be performing some kind of subsidiary labour (basket weaving etc). And this is before considering class variations in leisure.

Although, regarding paper, point 2) I actually don't think this is quite as compelling a point, on reflection.

When the ancients wanted to write a lot of stuff, but didn't particularly want it permanently, this did not use cheap and disposable paper, as we do.

But they used chalk, and wax, and for numerical calculations they used the abacus and counters.

They could do so for a D&D-like game, probably. Print rulesets still seems a more plausible limitation than needing paper to track elements in a game at runtime.

Retention of the data is the problem. Chalk won't work; it's VERY temporary. An abacus won't work, for the same reason. Counters can work, if you've got a place to store them. Wax is a better option, but fincky. Hard to use in the winter, tens to get melty in the summer; I know a guy who hardened some leather vambraces with wax, and they softened every summer.

I'm not saying it's impossible. An option would be to carve a wooden board such that each stat slot had a wax square which could be re-written, for example. But it's another burden to be overcome, something that someone would have to address if they wanted to develop such a game.

Re chalk and abacuses, I think you may be placing more emphasis than I think of on tracking HP, EXP, equipment and other resources precisely across "sessions" in a way that's not too taxing on memory.

I think thats a bit too literal on the question - one-shot games exist and most of the elements players might want to track between games can be remembered, abstracted (every two games your character raises a level), forgotten or ignored (characters always have full HP starting a new session) etc, and still be recognisably D&D like enough.

I am trying to wrap my head around the idea that stasis is the norm when it comes to drinking vessels. The materials and forms have changed immensely over time - the basic functional requirements of containing fluid haven't. So, an area full of innovation (think the sippy cup and variants with inbuilt straws that become containers), or an area of profound stasis with all drinking vessels remaining three dimensional containers used for drinking.

Was probability knowledge really good enough back then to develop a game like this?

Maybe the counterargument is that Gygax et al were not really mathematicians and probably came up with everything through trial and error.

Mathematicians? No, but they almost certainly learned more math, statistics, and probability theory in high school than 99% of all humans up until a few decades before they were born knew. Figuring out the specifics by trial and error is probably easier when you have that kind of foundational knowledge.

The fundamental problem with this question is that it's backwards. It takes today's world as a given, and asks "Why didn't the ancients do things the way we did?" The answer is simple: The ancients weren't us, nor did they live in our society.

To truly understand this problem, you need to look forward, starting from the standpoint of folks in the time in question. You have to learn to think like, say, a Medieval woman weaving cloth. Or a Victorian gentleman traveling. You have to understand what they thought of the situation--what problems they had, what solutions they came up with, what problems those solutions caused. You have to look at what materials and technology were available to them. You have to look at their metaphysics--a Medieval peasant, firmly believing in the Chain of Being, simply isn't going to have the same way of looking at the world as a modern office worker who lives in an age of technological wonder.

This question is akin to the evolution of the horse. If you look at modern horses and trace their lineage back, then forward, through time, you can create this nifty story about how horses have gotten bigger and bigger, and developed fewer and fewer toes through time. Nice neat example of directional evolution, resulting in the supreme modern animal. If, however, you start at the dawn of horses, and trace their lineage forward along all the branches, the picture is very different. You see false starts, you see horses with claws, you see horses of all sizes--and then you see the majority being wiped out, with only a few survivors. The direction you look when you tell stories about the past is CRITICAL, and the only valid direction is to start from the past and look forward to the present. To take the modern world as the default and ask "Why didn't they live like us?" (which is what this question is doing, fundamentally) can only give you false answers.

Yes, the people asking the question in the OP have the wrong mindset, looking at things from their self-centered and present-day-centered perspective.

As you say, they need to put themselves into the mindset of those who lived in the past.

Alternatively, as John says a few comments down, they can keep their current mindset, and if it's so easy to just sit around and think up an idea such as RPGs or the bicycle, and ask themselves: "What could be done now that is not and why are you not inventing it?"

Exactly. For example, that we don't have gladiatorial games any more. Why, it's a lost technology! Maybe 4,000 years from now historians will be puzzled by the 'lost art' of gladiatorial games. Why, the Romans had complex elevators and all sorts of technology for lifting wild beasts into the arena. How did we lose that capability? We had elevators, did we just not think of using them that way? Did we forget the lessons of the Roman Colosseum?

Of course we didn't. We just decided it's something we don't want to do. We're different people. Maybe no one i vented dungeons and dragons back then for the simple reason that they thought it was a stupid idea. Or immoral, or disrespectful to the Gods. Or maybe in an era when life is cheap and death is all around you, it's just not that fun to pretend to go on dangerous quests. Maybe escapist gaming only arises once a population gets to a certain level of comfort and safety and people need to scratch an itch (danger and mystery) that is no longer scratched by life itself.

Or maybe there are hundreds of small factors that when combined lead to the emergence of this kind of gaming. Society is complex. There aren't always simple answers to such questions.

Howes' general question seems to be "why aren't great revolutionary innovations more common?" The anwer seems obvious to me: if they were common, they wouldn't be great or revolutionary. It's like asking why there aren't more world champion athletes.

I don't think this is massively surprisingly relative to your other examples. My understanding is that these tabletop RPGs need a lot of paper, and paper was pretty expensive in Roman times, and extremely expensive in the medieval era once Egyptian papyrus was cut off and before Chinese papermaking techniques reached Europe.

It also needed to compete against board games and gambling games, which were presumably cheaper and more durable (dies, boards, pieces, etc. could be made of wood), and actually were extremely widespread.

Dice were mostly made of bone, as I recall. Knucklebones. And in a culture where everyone was personally acquainted with their meat, those were much easier to come by than today. What else are you going to do with pig knucklebones? And in the Middle Ages, everything was used--because if you didn't use everything, you usually starved.

You could make an argument that traditional story-telling wasn't that distinct from D&D. The narrator tells a story one night, the kids complain that the hero slayed the dragon too easily, and so the next time the narrator draws out the battle. There aren't clearly established rules, but there is still collaborative story-telling going on. And if you imagine sailors making up their own tall-tales on a long voyage, that's not really much different from LARPing.

I think low literacy would be the obvious answer for the lack of structured rulesets. A cursory web search estimates ancient literacy ranging from 1%-20% depending on the time and region. And the lack of printing made it difficult to distribute written materials. So, high barrier to entry and low potential market.

Compare that to games like Checkers, Chess, Go, etc. Those games had simple universal rules that required no literacy, and Go only required rudimentary counting. If you sailed into a foreign port, you could paint a checkerboard and collect some pebbles and be ready to play immediately.

I would recommend Against the Gods, which has some interesting discussion about ancient gambling. The book argues that most participants had no real understanding of probability. Would've been real easy to make a quick buck back then.

For everyone making these types of claims I would ask this: What could be done now that is not and why are you not inventing it?

I think when one has the answer to that they might have the answer to the historical question.

So you support communism?

"There’s the classic example, of course, of suitcases with wheels – why so late?"

Good, small wheels require good ball bearings. Those are hard to make. During WW2, the Axis ball bearing factories were a high priority target. That's how valuable they were even in the 1940's.

Do you really need ball bearings for an effective suitcase wheel? I'm somewhat skeptical. This is not a very high load task, nor does it need to have a particularly long service life. And a requirement to occasionally oil or grease your suitcase wheels (something that was common on lots more stuff before ball bearings) doesn't seem like a deal-breaker.

I think the airport explanation is more plausible.

A lot of push lawn mowers didn't/don't have ball bearings. It seems like mowers have similar weight bearing requirements and much longer services lives than checked luggage. You can easily push a mower a mile or more every week, and they can last decades.

Push mowers do have ball bearings, they just are encased to keep debris out.


A lot of bearings were made out of wood--specifically, ironwood. Got a rather harsh lesson in how durable that material was once while traveling to a fossil site. A bit of ironwood went into the truck's tire. The tire lost, badly. This, being a truck full of paleontologists, sparked an interesting discussion on the history of the plant and its manufacturing uses, including ball bearings. Until surprisingly recently we simply couldn't make metal that was as suitable to the task as ironwood.

To avoid double-posting: Lawn mowers have bearings. I know this, because I annoyed my grandfather one day as a kid and he had me spend my afternoon packing those bearings on his mower. Not the most entertaining way to spend an afternoon, but an educational one.

Why didn’t the Romans invent the triangular sail? James Burke explored these issues 40 years ago in “Connections” and made a pretty compelling case for the claim that bureaucracy tends to deincentivize even obvious and profitable inventions if they are disruptive. Much the same thing can be seen today in research on pancreatic cancer and Alzheimer’s. Despite the fact that almost no progress has been made since “Connections” was first aired NIH funding still flows by the billions into investigating the same fruitless hypotheses and journal editors function as gatekeepers who prevent any ideas being published that might topple prestigious labs, the makers of specialized lab equipment and the well funded “non-profits”. Some day we’ll look back and ask “Why with all those thousands of people working over decades didn’t anyone think to try “X”? And the answer will be Burke’s - because they were being paid not to.

Many reasons I can think of (and I'll compare it to chess as a metonym for all of the dice and board games which Romans could access since the features enjoyed by those games are different than those for D&D):

1) D&D evolved from earlier games. Chess was deemed limiting for complex scenarios. This led to the creation of large battle simulations using miniatures so that you could simulate the battle of Waterloo or the Milvian Bridge. The insight of Gygax and Arneson (D&D's originators) was to imagine being a single miniature not just in that battlefield but in a variety of situations. This is what separates D&D from simple make-believe (which has always been present) is that it contained strict rules that emphasized balanced gameplay born from its earlier board game traditions. While these are easy to impose from a technology angle such as a basic game mechanic of rolling a d6 to determine damage, it involves a sophisticated medley of inter-related concepts in support of that mechanic such as needing hit points, damage types, movement, initiative, armor class, and attack rolls before you can even get to the mechanic of rolling d6 for damage. Even this mechanic has changed substantially with recent releases (reactions, resistances, etc.). and its instructive to see its immediate ancestor (Chainmail) evolve into the modern Fifth Edition. Even the classes (professions) available to play seem to behave much like chess pieces do, supporting particular niche aspects of the game such as the tank, the cannon, and the healer. So, balanced gameplay derived in evolutionary fashion is the first reason it took until the modern times to create D&D.

2) D&D takes a long time to play. A typical session is about 3 hours long and will be one session over the course of months or years to complete a single adventure. This is a significant investment of luxury time which I'd presume the ancient Romans did not possess. Well, maybe the upper classes had this much disposable time but those are too few in number to develop the concept. Better to go to the Flavian amphitheater or play mancala.

3) Paper. You can't have the game without some means of tracking the various states a character may experience. Romans had papyrus but not in the abundance needed to complete a game, not to mention the published statistics involved with each monster. And papyrus is relatively expensive compared to modern paper. This is where games like Chess would excel in ancient times--the rules are simple enough that you don't have to refer to guidebooks to make judgement calls in particularly difficult situations.

4) The number 0. Romans didn't have it and all sorts of interesting stuff happens with it in the game (THACO, Saving Throws, Hit Points). In fact, Roman math would have been a nightmare in terms of supporting D&D. Also, if you're looking at low hanging fruit that the Romans didn't grab, 0 should be higher on your list than D&D.

5) Lack of authority. Games like chess are simple enough that if the neighbors played a variation different than my own, we could negotiate agreed upon rules in a short time before starting a game. D&D succeeded because of TSR and Wizards of the Coast who provided a single unified platform upon which all can play. House rules can exist but the core rules are the same for everyone and this lowers the friction in bringing people in to the game. How this would operate in the Roman world would probably involve a brief negotiation, deciding the variations between two players is too complicated to merge, and opting for a nice game of chess instead, reducing its adoption across the Latin speaking world. Some central rule making institution would need to exist in Rome which could create the rules which everyone would acknowledge as the authority. This, again, supports the need for an evolutionary approach toward developing the game as sophisticated as D&D.

6) The Roman mind was not imaginative enough. I say this with all due respect, but Roman plays had neither elves nor dwarves. Speaking parts were for humans, gods, and certain beast-like creatures. This is true even in Roman myth and story telling. Part of the imagination of D&D involves interacting with non-human cultures and possibly being born in to those non-human cultures. Romans did not have the benefit of Shakespeare, Titiana and Oberon. Nor did they have the benefit of Middle Earth, Merlin, unicorns, Norse mythology, Frankenstein, and vampires. They didn't have the saddle, plate mail armor, compound bows, or the bec-de-corbin. They couldn't even imagine something like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (ufos and aliens). I love the Romans but they quite simply didn't have the range of fantasy material upon which to draw inspiration and have someone say, "I'd love to imagine being a gnomish monk adventuring to the land of Fairy." The closest that they managed was, "I'd like to imagine being Hercules cleaning out a stable."

I am trying to imagine a world where the works of Homer and Herodotus are well known, and that same world being considered not imaginative enough when dealing with different cultures.

Why did cooperative board games take so long to invent? Board games have been a regular part of family lives for nearly 100 years but the cooperative game is very recent. That question seems to strike at the same idea here. The idea of every one working together against a game concept could have been brought forth much, much earlier than it did without any technological or societal changes. It just...didn't.

Cooperative board games aren't really that new. There were quite a few of them published in the '80's. And a handful before 1960.

My kids have a copy of Hi Ho! Cherry-O which was first published in 1960.

Granted, the genre has exploded in popularity in the last 15 years or so.


If I had to give an answer, I'd blame human conformity. There's an impossibly strong drive to conform in most societies, even today. You see this when you compare the willingness to innovate, or even build a Excel workbook from scratch, across workers from different countries. Let's not get into specifics but says that the Seed of Albion, and maybe we would include Rajasthan here as well, are more willing to strike out and try something new. Other nationalities will very often have to be told, step by step, exactly what to do as their self-policing instinct to conform is honed. The British nations, it seems to me, are more willing to shrug off eccentricity. It's essential for society to endure a bit of coloring outside the lines if you want innovation. Something like Dungeons and Dragons would have been *far* too weird to have emerged before the late 20th century, and certainly nowhere else but the Anglosphere could have spawned such an unusual game.

Read any Homer recently? The Anglosphere has been ripping him off for centuries.

This is a strange question to me, clearly the ancients did play various games, many of which we don’t play anymore. The ancients could easily ask why we don’t for instance have gladiators for instance, tastes change and D&D or even table top games are probably played less than 30 years ago thanks to the internet.

On the more general question on why very useful simple things like the shuttle were not invented before, one idea it is because there wasn’t a way anyone could profit by labor saving devices without capitalism, that is employing others at scale. Capitalism also brought specialism, in the sense that people instead of being generalists and doing pretty much a thousand separate tasks, they would do one or two things constantly and purchase the rest. Generalists don’t do enough of any one task to make it worth automating. Think of having to build your own car, one per lifetime. This would take thousands of separate operations. I would guess you would invent very few efficiency ideas as each individual task would be done only once.

People didn't have to imagine ferocious creatures and clashing warriors if they could just go to the local amphitheater and watch it for real.

People wanting a taste of adventure and travel and combat could become legionnaires and experience the real thing, crushing barbarians underfoot, interacting with exotic foreigners with strange customs who were not yet assimilated into Roman ways.

People of leisure didn't have to imagine role playing games, they could organize their own entertainment, possibly in actual dungeons, and compel underlings to take part.

Almost anyone of any status had underlings. If you didn't have at least one servant you were poor. Many had at least one slave, while the wealthy had many. The relationship between persons of unequal status was usually one of unquestioned power, society would not step in and intervene even in cases of open and blatant abuse.

Perhaps the wide scope for readily available sexual abuse with impunity outcompeted milder fantasies in earlier societies, up until relatively recently. There is less demand for lite beer when a large fraction of the potential customers are shooting up heroin instead.

As a guy who putters in the garage, I sometimes wonder why it took so long for the track saw to become popular. It was invented in the 1960s, but didn't really get popular in the US until 50 years later. Even worse, the radial arm saw experienced a vogue in that time, resulting in much maiming.

Was it a case of patents being too strong? I love my cheap knockoff (Wen) and would not spring for the original (Festool). Or perhaps it was an insular US woodworking culture.

Regardless, I think it's a good example of innovation not spreading quickly, even in the modern era.

(Did the biscuit joiner also need patents to expire? Perhaps everyone will love dominos sometime in the far future.)

My great-grandfather ran a lumber mill, and used a radial arm saw extensively. He taught himself to do everything with both his left and right hand, in case of maiming. That's how big a problem it was.

First comment by M already got it: board games require a printed rule book and, ideally, a printed playing board. Chess -- which only requires memorization of a small number of rules and is played on a simple grid -- has been around for about 1,500 years.

How can people create table top gaming 2000 years ago when they spent their entire days toiling in hard physical labor? I guess this article must only mean the extremely small number of rich people who had any free time at all. I can't believe this is seriously a topic of discussion. Fruit so low it rots on the ground? For hundreds of thousands of years humans did hard physical labor all day long. They had extremely, extremely small amounts of free time. What prevented table top games from existing thousands of years ago? Only an extremely, extremely, extremely small number of people had the free time to play, much less come up with, a table top game. Very very small populations won't have much "innovation".

Good grief, how much time did you spend living 2 millennia ago before time traveling to 2020? How do you know that the huge majority of people's lives were spent toiling in hard physical labor with virtually no free time? Part of the reason that GDP was so low in those days was that it was closely related to the amount of ambition displayed by the average human, which wasn't much. Nobody worked any harder than required, just like today, as shown in this painting seen here on MR not long ago. The transformation of feudal society to various levels of capitalism provided an impetus for the proles to increase their efforts in exchange for a share of the profits. The well-paid employees of today would, in the past, have been hoeing turnips in the baron's fields.

Keep in mind that work was closely tied to natural cycles and until technology managed to separate us from seasons and daylight cycles there were long stretches when there just wasn't much that could be done. Certainly through the winter you can't grow crops and it's too dark for inside work for a major fraction of the day.


ancient man was a full blown slacker compared to us now


First, growing crops isn't the only thing that needs one. Cloths still need washed. Dishes need done. Equipment needs repaired. Animals need fed. Depending on the snow there may be plowing to do--even when I was a boy the old farmers referred to a light snow over unfrozen ground as "poor man's fertilizer". Maintaining the fodder alone was a hard, long job--get that wrong, let the hay start to rot, and your animals die and you starve to death (if you're not executed for incompetence).

Believe me, there is PLENTY to do during the winter (see "The Book of the Farm" for details).

At night people were generally asleep. Light was expensive--FAR too expensive to waste on frivolity like games. Have you ever tried to write by an oil dip lamp? Or a candle rush? And remember, to run those you need to spend hours either crushing olives (if you can get them) or rendering tallow (not for those with sensitive noses). Inns and taverns and churches had light, sure--for the same reason that stores used to open their doors in the summer when air conditioning was new. It was advertisement.

There's also work that can be done at night. Certain kinds of hunting. Gathering worms for fishing (happy memories....used to do this with my grandfather on rainy days). Certain fires, such as kiln fires, need to be maintained, and mines can be run (who cares about daylight when you're below turf?). Poaching and cattle theft were popular pastimes in many locations, making the next generation was pretty much universally popular.

Also remember: in Rome a huge portion of the population were slaves. The owners didn't need to CARE about comfort, ease, entertainment, or other things we consider important. They could work slaves 12 hours a day, in 2 shifts.

More BS. (not for those with sensitive noses).

Lighting by rendered tallow wouldn't offend people who lived in an era without refrigeration, basically anyone alive prior to WWI, when the smells of rotting food and human and animal excrement on the streets permeated the olfactory universe.

The contemporary mind seems to think that slavery was a devotion to torture and misery. In reality, slaves have always been valuable property, more valuable, and expensive, than domestic animals such as horses, cows and hogs. It doesn't make economic sense to compromise the talents of a slave, inhibit its ability to procreate, or diminish its health and appearance, anymore than it would be to do so to a carriage horse. Certainly there were owners that treated their slaves poorly, just as there were that whipped their horses and dogs. That was deplored then just as it is now. This in no way is meant as an apology for slavery but the fact is that it was a nearly universal characteristic of society for many millennia. Ideas change over time. Today once common activities like cock fighting, bear baiting, bull fighting, and even circus elephants are not only becoming rare but are actually illegal in many places. Are the hand-painted placards advertising the Barnum & Bailey circus to be gathered and destroyed as well as the statues of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee?

To make a distinction between the inhumane treatment of animals in the past and the inhumane treatment of actual human beings in the past.

First off, we moderns have all sorts of tasks that require our attention too, outside paid work. And while machines have made some of them easier, they've also multiplied the amount of stuff we need to do (both at and away from work). The average modern house, along with clothing, etc., is vastly cleaner than any medieval domicile-- and we have more space on the average to clean. Dishes? Clothes? We moderns have a lot more of both. Furniture and tools too. There were no cars in the world until about a century ago, and carriages and the like were mostly an upper class thing --peasants generally walked, though the more prosperous ones might have a small donkey or mule cart. Animal care is generally not that onerous--- I had a friend in high school who lived at a horse boarding facility her parents ran. She did have to make sure that the horses had food and water, but we do that for our pets these days (and no one until very recent decades had to scoop cat litter as we modern ailurophiles do).
There have been studies done, using both documentary and physical evidence: we moderns really do have less overall leisure than our forebearers did.

Bryan Caplan has talked about role playing games as a Tabarrokian “ideas behind their time”, https://www.econlib.org/archives/2011/07/role-playing_ga.html .

Maybe the Romans had a different solution. Imagine designing a transportation system that lost your luggage often enough so you had to carry some. Then to get into the system required walking a mile or two, then sit and wait, then get felt up by a bureaucrat.

Moderns invented wheeled luggage.

The Romans would have paraded the designers and administrators through the streets where people would spit on them and throw rocks at them, their houses would be turned into public urinals and their children sold into slavery. No need for wheeled luggage.

For years I have wondered why chromatography took so long to be invented. The ancient Egyptians had papyrus and vinegar for a mobile phase, they could have separated some plant pigments for a start. I don't know if finely ground sand can substitute for silica as a stationary phase, but other kinds of powders should work, as does starch. The Greeks knew how to distill so they should have had alcohol as a mobile phase. Certainly by the time of the alchemists they had everything they needed, even glass tubes. I guess nobody was interested in separating mixtures of things.

Many inventions are discovered and lost. With steamships and then railroads personal mobility vastly increased and critical masses of sufficient concentrations of innovation inclined people could congregate for the sparks of invention-to catch fire and persist. There's a possible analogy to the rate of evolution being faster in larger populations - Positive gene mutations are happening all the time and most drift back into non-existence, but with larger populations those same gene mutations happen frequently enough that some of the occurrences are lucky enough to continue to spread. With great human mobility came the increase of universities and scientific societies with concentrations of creativity like tinder for fire. Perhaps.

For games, leisure time. Outside the very small aristocracy no one really had any daylight leisure time until the last couple of centuries.

Sorry, those stories from the likes of Juliet Schor that the medieval peasant had more leisure than we do are wrong. Howlingly wrong. She and such others counts the time the peasant worked for the Lord of the Manor and then said the rest was leisure. Err, no, that rest of the time was spent farming the villein's own land. The L of t M time was the rent being paid, not total work time.

Similarly the stories about Bushmen only working 15 hours a week - that's the time to gather food, not total working time.

To play complex games like D&D you need plentiful, lit, leisure time. The very thing people didn't have.

Completely agree. There may be other ancillary reasons, but that's the big one.
Jonfraz keeps mentioning that other than planting and harvest seasons, there were long periods when not much could be done. Sure there may have been less to do outside the planting and harvest seasons, but there was still small matters like repairing/improving your tools, your equipment, and the homestead, feeding the animals, gathering and chopping firewood, hunting, skinning and butchering the prey, tanning hides, and all the year round chores, all done with inferior tools. Daylight hours would have been too valuable for D&D, and, year round, once the sun went down, no light for board games.

Indoor lighting that was more than a single weak flame from an olive oil lamp was expensive until. Until gas lighting was invented effective indoor illumination of the sort we take for granted was an extravagant luxury. On really festive occasions towns would proclaim a general illumination and people would burn everything they could-- the generally rule at night was dim to dark. Even Queen Victoria early in her reign had to economize on candles (switching from beeswax to tallow and using a lot fewer) when the royal household budget provoked political disapproval.

"There’s the classic example, of course, of suitcases with wheels – why so late? Was the bicycle another candidate?"

Suitcases with wheels seems obviously dependent on the Americans with Disabilities Act, as the world contained too many steps and stairs for wheeled suitcases to be truly useful before then.

As for bicycles, you need good roads to get much use out of them and, if you want something better than the Penny Farthing (such as the so-called "safety bicycle") you'd really want to have roller chains and pneumatic tires that can be securely attached to the rim yet which can also be replaced quickly (e.g., no glue) if/when punctured.

Nonetheless, ancient Romans probably could have built a Morse telegraph (or at least an optical telegraph, even without telescopes). Although the ability to make reasonably good glass would enable telescopes (which are obviously useful military tools even for those who have little interest in gazing at the heavens).

Then again, Edison's phonograph seems doable with minimal technology (if you can build a mechanical clock, why not a wind-up phonograph?). Although mechanized spinning and weaving would have a larger economic output.

" ancient Romans probably could have built ..or at least an optical telegraph, even without telescopes)"


Here's an article on some semaphore type methods the Romans did use.


Torch and Water method

"Each post, the sending and receiving station would have a list of messages on a wooden tablet, each of which had a number beside it. Also, he would have a barrel of water with a scale of number running vertically down the inside of the container and a bung in a hole at the bottom.

To transmit a message, the sender would raise his torch to show he was about to issue a communication. The receiver would raise his torch to indicate he was ready and alert.

Then the sender would remove the bung from the barrel and raise his torch, keeping it aloft while the water ran out into a container which was placed at a lower point than the barrel. He would watch the gauge, and lower his torch and a predetermined point when the water level had dropped to a level with one of the numbers on the internal scale. He would then replace the bung.

Likewise, his counterpart removed his bung, allowing the water to escape in the same fashion. He too kept his torch aloft until the sender lower his. The bung was replaced and the water level inside the barrel was inspected to see which number the level corresponded to.

He would then locate this number on his list and read off the preset message.

The biggest problem with this method was that the rate of discharge from both barrels was different due to the internal dimensions of each and the size of the hole would be different in both. Therefore, each barrel would need to be individually calibrated.

Even so, this method was notoriously inaccurate. The sender may have a reading on his scale of 29, while the receiver may have 22."


I have long wondered about shaped skis for the same reason. My understanding is that skis with side cut (parabolic skis as Gen X calls them) were popularized in the mid 1990s. They are basically pareto-superior to the straight skis that endured for decades. Yet the original skis were made of wood and it would have been easy to add side cut, I assume. Similarly, people were shaping surfboards in the 1960s and 70s--and yes that's different, but the idea of playing with the shape of the thing you use to slide on water? Why did it take until the mid 1990s to reach skiing?

i figure hedonistic non functional improvements have mostly to do with marketing budgets and increased consumer spending allocations to discretionary consumer goods.

i am always surprised as soon as i think everything has been done for rec toys, beer coolers, and baby gear, someone comes up with a new, massively overpriced idea

The straight long skis were seen as faster and more “technical “, parabolic short wide skis were seen as cheating, something that advertised you as a noob or not serious. Skiing was a status thing for a long while, like golf.

lol i remember when the metal cap vokels were the old guy surrender skis

The bicycle article largely answers it's own question, and when organized in this way, makes it pretty clear that the invention of the bicycle moved at about the right pace given the availability of materials, production techniques and demand. I guess it's possible to continue to be mystified by this but I think you'd have to dismiss a number of the contributing factors outlined in the link. Get on a modern bicycle and I can see the question starting to arise but then think, for example, what would this experience be like without pneumatic tires? I'll tell you what it would be like. It would be awful. Uncomfortable, useless and dangerous.

I'll guess that one reason was the lack of mass media.

Getting several people together to have an imaginary adventure requires that they all want to imagine the same thing, in a common setting, with basically agreed upon "rules" for the fantasy world.

By that logic, the big breakthrough was probably Tolkien's Middle Earth.

Dungeons and Dragons has a lot of influences beyond Tolkien, but I don't believe much of it predated 1900.

This is the only post in this entire chain that even hints at the fundamental nature of D&D. A better question is, "Why was D&D invented in the 70s in the US?" Why wasn't it invented in Liberia or Costa Rica or Thailand in the 50s or 60s? Don't even talk to me about the Romans. I would argue that it took a generation to popularize Tolkien and Lovecraft, and it coincided with the end of the civil rights movement in the US. It's a game about the intersection of fantasy story-telling and mass racial mob violence. The racist origins of the genre are explicit in Lovecraft's work (read Houellebecq's cagey defense of it) and if you're generous only implicit in Tolkein's. Nerds embraced a safe space and structure to play out fantasies of racial annihilation. D&D is and was always about organizing a vigilante mob to find different racialized humanoids in their homes, kill them, and steal their natural resources (gold) or underutilized possessions (+7 blah blah of etc etc) that will be instrumental in further annihilating other races. So, you need the modern fantasy genre, a modern conception of race, and a country shifting away from its formal structure as a totalitarian race state into one where the weakest members of the privileged race begin to lose access to state-sanctioned racial violence as a means for asserting their dominance. There are other contributing factors like the women's rights movement that facilitated latchkey kids in the middle class. D&D needs a lot of time indoors without a parent telling you to get some air or do chores. So, D&D requires the end of the colonial project in at least two imperial powers, women's liberation, and the printing press. The invention of the d20 is not essential, nor is it essential to bring up the Romans.

Dungeons & Dragons used to often be played in a very racist way but this has changed a lot. Presumably because society has become less racist.

But I don't think modern racism is necessary for Dungeons & Dragons style games to develop. I have no problem imagining aristocrats playing Poverty & Proletariat which puts a different spin on the usual notion of "class" in these games.

titania mcgrath?

did anyone ask the obvious question? why would they “play” dungeons and dragons, while they were living it...

How has no one posted this yet?!?!


Wargames, as discussed above, seem to be the answer. Just to note that this means the role-playing game is father to both the role-playing game and the simulation game, and their storied heritage includes both the Prussian General Staff and Tristram Shandy.

I think it's entirely probable that Roman kids had something that modern-day LARPers would recognize as LARPing. Groups of boys probably played Hannibal vs. Scipio, "hold off the Celts" and other variations of what became cowboys vs. indians. What's novel and conceptually modern about D&D is the world-building, not the war-gaming.

Here to add that D&D evolved in large part out of literary genre. Like, there is no D&D without Fantasy and Science Fiction.

D&D was developed out of table top war gaming-- which *did* exist well before D&D, but focused on troops in contemporary or historical settings.

One of the key innovations of table top war gaming was the addition of statistical math to the war games, which in turn was an outgrowth of formation fighting in the black powder era, where generals of that time sought to apply the scientific method to the conduct and management of war fighting, and sought to quantify the value of things like experience, equipment, etc. Prior to the popularization of the scientific method, military scholars had an ad hoc approach to quantifying the parameters of war, a mixed approach of quantitative and qualitative analysis. Table top 'war gaming' existed even then, but more as a tool for describing the broad movements of forces over terrain in strategic planning. Eventually, games like Risk, Axis and Allies, etc. grew out of the military application of statistical table top war gaming.

Dungeons and Dragons specifically started out when Gygax and Arneson wanted to war game, but with mythical/fantasy creatures, which was largely a product of their status as fantasy Fantasy fans. Prior to D&D, these were intermixed but separate fandoms; war games were popular in the 50s/60s as means of understanding WWII and WWI, and before, and some of those players were also fans of science fiction and fantasy, but there was not a fantasy genre war game.

To contextualize this in Roman terms, the Romans lacked a number of factors. First, their scholars lacked some complex mathematics for statistical methods; the struggled for that matter without the Arabic numeral system. They lacked the scientific method as a means of systemic analysis, and lacked several mathematical theorums and tools to make statistical study of warfare possible in their age. If you crack open a book on statistical methods, you will find a lot of key methods were developed in the Enlightenment period. So without a statistical framework of warfare to reference, it makes sense they would not develop statistical war games. They *did* have a number of strategic board games that used a wooden board and stone pieces, and they did have some rough ideas of stuff like how many men had to die before a front would collapse, that sort of thing. But no statistical wargaming.

The Romans further lacked 'genre fiction' as we think of it today; the novel was a product of the printing press. Roman fiction was then either of a theatrical nature, or of a mythological or folklorish nature. So yes, you probably had instances of children pretending to be figures in mythlore, or using dolls or other toys to 'recreate' famous battles. Definitively, there were gladiator games which 'recreated' famous battles for public entertainment. But writers had very different relationships to the concept of fiction, and as a result the audience of popular media of the time was not of a similar nature to genre fiction of today.

From watching videos on YouTube, it looks to me like the job of passing the shuttle from side to side only became a bottleneck after a long series of mechanical improvements whittled away the need to inspect the loom and make adjustments after each pass of the shuttle. It's only then that the movement of the shuttle from side to side becomes a stand-out optimization opportunity. Before that a flying shuttle may have provided only a nominal improvement to productivity.

wait, you went and actually studied the question at hand?

unacceptable! go away and come back when you can shoot from the hip

One possibility that has been mentioned, I believe in Jason Crawfords Twitter thread, is that some ideas are invented but kept secret. One such case is obstetrical forceps, which seemed to have been invented by Peter Chamberlen in the late 16th century and then passed down secretly within the family, a family of surgeons, for the next 150 years. But why didn't someone else come up with the same invention during that period?

A Roman visitor to our time might very well wonder what deficiency in our civilization prevented us from inventing so obvious a form of entertainment as gladiatorial games. Perhaps it is our inferior system of schooling?

Probably not. There were schools of thought in Rome that condemned the games. Epictetus talks about a member of one such school going to the games, and enjoying them a bit too much, for example. They'd think that one of those schools had taken over.

They would also be flocking to the nearest NASCAR track. We consider gladiatorial games to be huge in Rome because WE find the idea fascinating. To Romans, they were vastly overshadowed by the circus--the chariot races. There was an account of a Roman emperor staging a chariot race in a town that had rebelled. He did it openly--he informed this town, after it rebelled, "Hey, I'm going to have some chariots racing here in a few days. You should come!" His soldiers were able to close the gates and slaughter most of the town.

Suitcases with wheels weren't very useful until the development of the jetway and slower bulk baggage handling at airports. By the early 1980s, it was a smooth path from drop off to aircraft, and baggage was no longer distributed on the tarmac or at the gate. That's when people started using "a bungie and a schlepper". The latter was a light metal gizmo with two wheels and a long handle. The former was an elastic strap for holding the bag in place.

Men and boys have been playing war games forever. I get the impression that they were popular with adults in the 18th century. The Villa d'Este on Lake Como has a whole set of mock fortifications for a retired Napoleonic general, and war games were a major plot element in Tristam Shandy such that it had a plot.

There's a whole field of study of dependencies in science and technology. It's used by industrial analysts and in espionage as well as by historians. There's usually a combination of sufficiency and necessity. It's hard to build a device to automatically tip one's hat without sufficient wire and metal technology, but it will only be built in a culture where tipping one's hat is necessary.

Then, if you build the bungee (not bungie) and schlepper into the suitcase, presto! You've invented the wheeled suitcase. Sometimes it takes a genius to see the obvious.

Apologies if this has already been covered, but I've not the strength to wade through 1500 antecedent comments! 🙄

Robert Heinlein observed decades ago that all progress is made by the dissatisfied. I would add, "...who have the opportunity." So what's needed is individuals in what I'll call for want of a better term the "leisure class."

Naturally the poorer the society, or the more rigidly stratified, the fewer folks who have the luxury, the opportunity, and the impetus to invent.

Humans are rational actors: they seek to improve their situation. But they need the means, the opportunity, and a reasonable assurance that their innovation won't get their heads chopped off.

We may be barking up the wrong tree with regards to D&D. The delaying factor could have been the nature of story telling. Before literacy, there was usually a story teller who had to keep the audience's attention, so a story might vary with each telling, but certain important stories were expected to be told in proper form. This was true even with a company of actors who were the story tellers working with a director of some sort. Print books were similar with a single author telling a story, though different editions or different versions of a given story would be told.

It was only when European scholars, like the Grimms, starting studying folk tales and comparing them cross culturally that story tellers started thinking about story structure and how it could be modified. By the late 19th century, writers were starting to explore the idea. Zola, for example, wrote his experimental novel which embedded the idea that a novelist created characters and a situation and let the characters act as themselves. The author merely presented their actions.

While certain forms of live acting worked this way, there was no theoretical framework. You had stock characters, but you also had stock stories. The idea of unleashing the characters and seeing what they did as an almost scientific observer was relatively new. Authors loved it. Look at Lord Jim with its Patna experiment and complexly framed story telling.

Zola and Conrad were highly talented writers. It was nice to think of being able to put characters in a situation and watch them perform the story, but the mechanisms were limited. In a way, the rise of mechanical story telling in books, radio plays and movies made introducing dynamic story telling harder than just a story teller in a room with an audience. There were interactive movie experiments in the 1960s, but the technology was limited.

Of course, by then the technology really wasn't that limited. You could play the card game "War", for example, and build a narrative on that just as one could narrate a chess game as Lewis Carrol famously did. Then came World War II where strategic and tactical planners were dealing with new weapons, new tactics and larger armies than ever. They needed to be able to track them and try out scenarios.
In the 1920s and 1930s, there was the rise of scientific management. The increased complexity of society - e.g. Social Security - and production - e.g. massive factories - had led to more advanced paper data management. Before everything was stored on a computer, there was a transitional technology of cards, rotary racks, sliding frames and so on for tracking individuals, jobs, shipments, inventories and the like. More and more people were familiar with this way of thinking.

Combine this with World War II which mobilized millions in both production and war fighting and you can see a new way of thinking about events emerging with data abstractions moving into the foreground from their prior invisibility. You can see modern numerically based war games emerging from this way of thought. Anyone versed in the Taylor school of management would feel right at home in a D&D dungeon.

It took a combination of societal factors. You needed the literary critical framework to think of story structure and abstraction differently. You needed a more complex society with more people sensitive to the movement of data as opposed to goods and people. Games like Scrabble and Monopoly required a certain level of literacy and numeracy. Stochastic war games required a different way of thinking about story telling.

P.S. It's interesting watching narrative emerge from events. So much depends on your way of seeing, your story telling framework. I once played a game of Mouse Trap with a man who is now a very successful screenwriter. (He invented Harley Quinn, for example.) As an engineer, I focused on the Rube Goldberg contraption. He focused on the need to kill the mice. "Vermin", he called them. "They're disgusting." I had played the game before, but now it was imperative to complete the machine and wipe out the filthy menace. That's why he gets the big bucks.

I think it's pretty simple. D&D today requires reference materials and bookkeeping. Since mass printing was not around yet, this wasn't going to work.

Let's go deeper, what is D&D? Well it's a type of shared story creation that incorporates chance. OK. Well what do we know about the games Roman's played? I'd say almost nothing. We're only going to know about stuff that was written down by them or recorded elsewhere (say in painting or sculpture). So do we know for sure they didn't have D&D?

They might have. Absent printing it might have been played a lot with wildly divergent rules by kids and young adults. Absent any centralizing force, it was simply never consistent enough to be widely discussed by intellectuals and artists and preserved in records.

Likewise they might have also had some games that would have been amazing that have simply been forgotten. They could turn around and chide us for forgetting some very fun games that do not require technology that seem 'obvious' yet we've allowed them to be forgotten and havn't rediscovered them yet.

According to Open Learn the Romans called a spade a shovel even when they played games "‘levate/dalocv/lvdede/nescis/idiota/recede’ which means ‘Get up, give me your place, you don’t know how to play, you’re an idiot’!" (https://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/social-economic-history/the-games-played-romans)

Cynthia Ripley Miller not so long put some insightful stories about why Glorious Romans loved board games which were really fictional predecessor of Dungeons & Dragons

Ok, I'm convinced that they had the materials you use for an RPG (dice, figures, etc). I reject the arguments that you need a printing press, since ancient societies had literate people with plenty of free time.

What if it has to do with the concept of "World Building?" I mean, it is hard to trace the roots of Fantasy Literature because when you go back, it gets deeply mixed up with mythology and folklore.

There are certainly books that feature what we'd classify as fantasy settings long before the 20th century- things like Gulliver's Travels, Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan- but these do not strive to create coherent settings the way that 20th century authors did.

I can't think of a pre-20th century work that attempts to create a coherent yet fantastical setting the way that we saw from Tolkien- or even the less coherent world building of H. P. Lovecraft of Robert. E. Howard.

But that's kind of an odd mess of a missing link. There isn't a real reason why it should have taken us so long to create fantasy settings for adults to read about.

Frank mentions this earlier in the comments. Search for his name if you want to see what he said.

"I can't think of a pre-20th century work that attempts to create a coherent yet fantastical setting the way that we saw from Tolkien"

I'm curious as to whether you believe homer's odyssey to be not coherent or not fantastical.

I think one constraint not mentioned by others on developing pencil and paper RPGs is group dynamics. Pencil and paper RPG are something of a niche activity, it is not something that is to everyone’s taste. It is also a group activity, you need a group of likeminded people to play with. I doubt anyone will come up with a pencil and paper RPG unless they have a group of friends that will be willing to play. Gygax had such a group with his wargaming friends, it was originally a variant on a war game he was able to get his wargaming friends to try. Without those wargamers who tried his game, it probably would not have gone anywhere.

Any criticisms based around materials or technology are ridiculous to anyone with historical experience in RPGs. The first versions of D&D didn't come with dice - they came with chits! Little numbered bits you pulled randomly out of a bag, like runes used be ancient people. A lot of my early D&D playing was in cars at night on the way to Scout camps, without lights or dice at all.

I think from this comment thread we can see the reason why many things weren't invented earlier - 99% of the population is more obsessed with coming up with reasons "why not" than actually doing anything. Combined with much more dictatorial familial and social bonds, it was a lot easier to be told "no" by one of these folks.

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