Role-Playing Games in the Renaissance Court

Medieval people playing a dice game, By Master Jean de Mauléon — Walters Art Museum

Is AIDungeon a game? On the one hand, it is fun, and involves taking turns in a structured environment. On the other hand, there’s no victory condition, no score, and surprisingly little structure. It may be illuminating if we compare to some similar activities.

One way of looking at AIDungeon is as a development of what is known as a Text Adventure (a type of interactive fiction) or a Role-Playing Game. We usually think of both genres as beginning in the 1970s. There are some precursors, though, that date back to the Middle Ages. One of them is literally called The Game of Adventure (Le Jeu d’Aventure). Although the history of role-playing games is usually traced through the history of war games (from Chess through tabletop wargames like Kriegsspiel to Chainmail, the immediate precursor to Dungeons and Dragons) there is a parallel thread that focuses mainly on the role-playing aspect, mixed with sources of randomization like cards or dice.

The Declaration of Arbroath was called a Ragman Roll as it also had attached ribbons

Le Jeu d’Aventure was played in the evenings at court beginning in the late 13th century. Players would roll dice to determine what role they would take, a kind of early random character generation. The roles were written out as short poems, and the players would each pretend to be the person described in their poem. The fun of it was in being witty and jointly creating a story, often filled with innuendo and playful courtly intrigue.

A later game called Ragman’s Roll, or Ragemon le Bon, was played similarly but instead of dice, ribbons were attached to the poems and wrapped up in a long scroll. Each player would choose a ribbon and trace it back to find who they would play. The English word rigamarole derives from this practice.

A descendant of this game, with a slightly distorted name, was played in Little Women during a visit with some English children:

An 18th century masquerade in London

We have found that many of the heaviest users of AIDungeon use it as a way of jointly telling a story with the program, in the same way that these children were jointly telling a story with each other. A lot of the fun of the game comes from the surprising humor of the other players (or the program) taking the story in an unexpected direction.

A masquerade ball is a familiar courtly diversion. Games like Ragman’s Roll or Le Jeu d’Aventure were similar to a masquerade, in that they allowed the players to pretend to be someone else, allowing them to say things they couldn’t say out of the context of the game.

Harlequin by Maurice Sand

Another role-playing game that was popular during the Rennaissance was the Commedia dell’arte. This was often acted out by a troupe of improvisational players, but it could also be played as a kind of parlor game: Goethe, for example, depicted it in this context. The players would take on particular well-defined roles — the trickster clown Harlequin being the best known today — and improvise scenarios.²

Although today we think of Tarot cards as being used for divination, they were used for a variety of court games — sometimes simply as playing cards for games similar to Hearts, but sometimes as a randomized source of inspiration for role-playing:

A cheaply printed Tarot deck from around 1500 in Milan

AIDungeon is a realization of the impulse behind “Talking Cards.” Divination techniques, though useless at predicting the future, were a kind of early technology for the automatic generation of sequences of symbols that could be interpreted as if they had meaning. Although AIDungeon is built on a much more sophisticated and responsive technology, in both cases much of the interest comes from the willing choice of players to imbue meaning into the stochastic storytelling.

Roleplaying and text adventure games are not just about assuming a role. They also include creating imaginary worlds to play in. Although not associated with games as such, medieval and Renaissance writers used a memorization technique that involved carefully imagining palaces, caverns and dungeons full of strange creatures, called the Ars Memoria. The method emphasized the importance of creating an imaginary space, a memory palace, filled with bizarre or shocking things. St. Augustine wrote about the endless underground spaces of memory in his Confessions:

“Behold in the plains, and caves, and caverns of my memory, innumerable and innumerably full of innumerable kinds of things… over all these do I run, I fly; I dive on this side and on that, as far as I can, and there is no end.”

As Mary Carruthers pointed out in The Craft of Thought, the Ars Memoria was primarily conceived as a tool for creative invention, rather than a means of rote repetition. Medieval authors used the analogy of the imagination as a machine (a new, rare word in those days, meaning in this case a building crane), a Machina Memorialis, that is only capable of building if it has stone blocks (memorized items) to work with:

This infinite dungeon with its dreamlike, impossible geometries is portrayed as a memory palace in Susanna Clarke’s new novel, Piranesi.

There seems to be an easy parallel with the notion that in order for GPT-3 (itself a literal machina memorialis) to be inventive, it was first necessary that it read widely.

An example of some of the volvelles in The Ars Magna of Ramon Llull

Closely associated with the Ars Memoria is Ramon Llull’s Ars Magna, later known as the Ars Combinatorica, a method for generating ideas mechanically. It involved concentric paper disks that could be rotated to provide infinite combinations of ideas.

The parlor games, the memorization techniques, and the combinatoric invention all have in common the goal of setting apart a conceptual space in which people can construct meanings together from selected fragments of thought. And perhaps this is the best way to understand what AIDungeon is. It’s an entertaining way of creating stories together with the help of little pieces of story that have already been gathered.

¹ Serina Patterson “Sexy, Naughty, and Lucky in Love: Playing Ragemon Le Bon in English Gentry Households” in Patterson, S. (Ed.). (2015). Games and gaming in medieval literature. Springer

² Morton, Brian. “Larps and their Cousins through the Ages”. In Donnis, Gade & Thorup (ed.). Lifelike. Knudepunkt 2007

³ Storytelling in the Modern Board Game By Marco Arnaudo (Introduction)



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