RPG pre-history: the Chinese dice promotion games

Migrated from a Twitter thread.

Here’s a little early “roleplaying” history: some time around 830 CE a man named Li He (who had won first place in the palace examinations in 827) invents a game named 採選 Cǎixuǎn, Selection with Dice, about promotion and demotion in the ranks of the state bureaucracy.

It becomes popular straight away: in 838 Fang Qianli (also a Jinshi graduate) encounters a group of civil service scholars playing the game on the shores of Lake Dongting and later publishes his own version under the title 骰子選格 Touzi Xuange, Rules for Selection with Dice:

In the spring of the third year of the Kaicheng [reign period (836-840); 838], I moved northward by sea. When the boat sailed to the north side of [Lake] Dongting, there was such a strong wind that the small boat had to be tied to the rural river bank for three days. [I] met a few people who claimed to be presented scholars [of the Tang civil service examination] using bone dice in pairs as a game, throwing [them] in turn on the board and, according to the sum of pips, starting [their] careers as different government officials. The higher [the number], the higher the ranking while the lower [the number], the lower the ranking. At the end of the game, there were some among these guests who ended up [either] as a guardsman or a clerk while there were others who honourably became prime ministers and generals; there were some who had successively gained good reputations but then were unable to rise again while there were others who began in humble positions but [soon] were promoted swiftly to high positions. Generally, [their] successes and failures very much resembled those [games I] previously mentioned in that [the outcomes were] unrelated to being wise or foolish but were merely based their divinations on odd and even [numbers]. … [Thus, I] arranged and listed the beginning posts and government officials item-by-item in terms of promotion and demotion to create the Checkers Selection.

Translation from: Ngai, May-Ying Mary (2011), From Entertainment to Enlightenment: A Study on a Cross-cultural Religious Board Game with an Emphasis on the Table of Buddha Selection Designed by Ouyi Zhixu of the Late Ming Dynasty, PhD Thesis:

By 1161 the encyclopædia 通志 Tongzhi lists 14 different dice selection rulebooks; using these you can “roleplay” as an official from almost any period. Examples include the rules for:

  • 春秋彩選 Dice Selection of the Spring & Autumn period [770–476 BCE]
  • 漢官儀彩選 Dice Selection of the Han [206 BCE–220 CE]
  • 元豐官制彩選 Dice Selection of the Yuanfeng [1078–85 CE].

These games were getting very complex so there was also an: 刪繁彩選 Abridged Dice Selection. Wang Pizhi (1031–97+) reports something that will be familiar to anyone who has a friend that invents games as a hobby (my emphasis):

Recently, Cao Gu, Director of the Ministry of War, invented a game called New Rules for Old Joys, based on a former game [of leaves], and the rules are especially detailed and tight. The rules are the following: use six flat dice, ten rhinoceros horn lions, and starting from the section [?] concerning bowl and tokens (tie), fifteen categories are distinguished. Each category has a description, and there are altogether two hundred and twenty-seven well-known [dice?] combinations and two hundred and forty-seven special [dice?] combinations, totalling four hundred and seventy-four combinations. I have the rules, but no one in the world can play it.

Translation from: Lo, Andrew (2000), “The Game of Leaves: An Inquiry into the Origin of Chinese Playing Cards”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, volume 63, number 3, pp. 389–406:

The earliest almost-complete set of rules we have is for 漢官儀 Han Guanyi Official System of the Han Dynasty, created by Liu Ban (劉攽, 1022–88). In this version there are at least 152 official positions and the game is played with a pair of dice; the outcome of the roll either promotes or demotes your character:

For example, a roll of 12 sets a player off as an Erudite, rank 1,000 bushels. Turning to the Erudite section, there are then instructions on how to proceed depending on the next roll. For example:

  • Dice Roll: Double 6 — Directory of Uprightness under the Chancellor (20 points). Rank: equivalent to 2,000 bushels.
  • Dice Roll: 11 — Imperial Household Grandee (20 points). Rank: equivalent to 2,000 bushels.
  • Dice Roll: 9 — Provincial Inspector (13 points). Rank: 600 bushels.
  • Dice Roll: 8 — Grand Tutor of a Kingdom (10 points). Rank: equivalent to 2,000 bushels.
  • Dice Roll: 3 — falls ill (10 point penalty)
  • Dice Roll: 2 — stripped of office, returns home to teach privately (10 point penalty)
from: Lo, Andrew (2000), “The Game of Leaves: An Inquiry into the Origin of Chinese Playing Cards”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, volume 63, number 3, pp. 389–406:

Official System of the Han Dynasty was created by Liu Ban as a youngster… but in a classic piece of *RPG Drama*, his older brother 劉敞 Liu Chong took the rules and published them under his own name, and they appear under Chong’s name in Tuotuo’s History of Song (1345) alongside four other rulebooks. Liu Ban himself was in charge of the compilation of real Han history for the historical reference book 資治通鑑 Zizhi Tongjian (Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance, 1084); so Official System of the Han Dynasty was the first in a long tradition of historian-authored games.

Since the rules for promotion and demotion also sometimes included reasons, Xu Du (d. ca. 1156) suggested that at the end of the game you can gather up all your titles and pro/demotion reasons and compose a biography of your “character”!

These types of games later developed into games played with large boards containing all of the positions, with some Qing variants having up to 600 different positions (see more about these in the thesis cited earlier, here).

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