Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Fantastic Medieval Wargames

As the furor over whether or not 4e represents a major departure from D&D's roots has raged, lots of people haveturned OD&D in an effort to find support for their own position in this argument. In many cases, the people turning to OD&D have neither firsthand experience playing the game nor any knowledge of the history and culture of the early days of the hobby. Consequently, they view OD&D through a modern lens that leads them astray.

Case in point: the subtitle of OD&D. "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures." Those words are included on the cover all three little brown books and on Supplements I through IV. On the face of it, the words "fantastic medieval wargames" would seem to imply that, from the beginning, D&D was nothing more than a military simulation, albeit one with fantastical elements, such as magic and dragons. If so, this might support the notion that focusing on tactical combat is in fact a return to the game's roots rather than a flight from them.

My own feeling is that it's a mistake to interpret the word "wargames" too narrowly. What people forget, living as we do in a post-D&D world, is that there was no such thing as a "roleplaying game" in 1974. Or rather, "roleplaying" was something actors and psychologists did; it wasn't a form of entertainment as we think of it today. Indeed, I don't recall the words "roleplaying game" appearing anywhere in the entire OD&D corpus. Consequently, it means little that Gygax and Arneson did not dub their new game a RPG.

But why call it a "wargame" if it's not focused primarily on combat? As I said, it's a mistake to interpret "wargame" too narrowly. Certainly nowadays the term refers almost exclusively to military simulations, but was that the case in 1974? If you look at the hobby culture out of which D&D arose, you'll immediately notice the import part played by Dave Wesley's Braunstein games in expanding the definition of "wargame" to include non-military endeavors. Of course, this expansion had already occurred earlier in games like Diplomacy, which, while involving military matters to some degree, was not exclusively focused on them.

My point is simply that one shouldn't make too much of the fact that OD&D calls itself a "wargame," because, at the time of its publication, "wargame" was a very broad term that encompassed a lot of different games, including several that had proto-roleplaying elements. Imagine if, at some future date, someone invented a new entertainment medium that transmitted images directly into one's brain. Imagine further that, despite the novelty of this medium, people call entertainments that use it "movies" or (better yet) "films." This medium is not at all like a motion picture technologically, but it functions analogously to the way movies do, except that there's no projector and no screen involved. This is why OD&D was initially dubbed a wargame -- it was most like that category of games then called wargames, even if it was in fact something quite different.

In short, D&D isn't and never was a wargame in the sense we understand the term now. It was, however, an outgrowth of the wargaming hobby, a hobby that was a lot more expansive and varied than people today might think. This is why I think it's vital that we study the history of not just our hobby, but of its "big brother" as well. Without such study, you're in the same position of people who try to interpret Shakespeare while employing 21st century definitions for his vocabulary -- you're going to misinterpret a great deal.


  1. True. It's not wargame (as we call it now). One important thing: "Miniature figures can be added if the players have them available and so desire, but miniatures are not required, only esthetically pleasing [...]"
    (Men & Magic, p.5). That was one of "steps off". After Braunstein.

    Moreover - genius of OD&D is that it's not even RPG - as we call it today. :) All modern definitions are too deterministic (as usual).

  2. All modern definitions are too deterministic (as usual).

    Very often, yes. I still think they can be useful in discussions like this, provided we keep in mind that it's been nearly 35 years since OD&D was released and that many words -- particularly hobby-related jargon -- can change many times over that length of time.

  3. Whilst "wargame" is likely a term used for lack of alternative signifying nomenclature (the audience being primarily wargamers), there is an emphasis on "war" in OD&D in terms of what the rules describe.

    However, since combat is a normal part of adventure games, it is none too surprising. It doesn't follow, however, that the game is primarily about combat, which is where the disconnect begins.

    Dungeons & Dragons was conceived of as an adventure game. Whatever adventure entails is what its primarily about.

  4. Dungeons & Dragons was conceived of as an adventure game. Whatever adventure entails is what its primarily about.

    Funny you should say that, because, as late as Moldvay's Basic Rules, the term "fantasy adventure game" seemed to be a popular alternate name to describe D&D.

  5. since combat is a normal part of adventure games, it is none too surprising

    Is this the chicken or the egg, though? Roleplaying could conceivably be about any kind of activity, or more narrowly, any genre of fiction. The RPG industry turns out to be all about fighting, however, and that colours all RPGs even today: the most common genre is action-adventure, the character archetypes are Indiana Jones, Conan and Han Solo, and the participant audience is mostly young men. It took a long, long time for any RPG to emerge that didn't have violence at its core - even Bunnies and Burrows couldn't resist adding martial arts. I don't think the wargame roots of the hobby can be overlooked.

  6. I think an important part of the development of the game certainly includes at least the potential of wars being fought.

    Remember, the covers of the booklets don't actually say "wargames" as such; they say "wargames campaigns".

    A campaign is a connected series of battles which take place when the sides involved have forces in the same location.

    Now, a big part of D&D is the gaining of power. Once a character advances sufficiently, he (or she; but in those days almost certainly he) has actual temporal power in the game milieu. So if enemy forces were to arrive on the scene, he would be the one to lead his forces against them.

    I agree with your assertion that the term "wargame" shouldn't be taken too literally, but I also think that in the phrase "wargames campaigns" the second word is the more telling.

  7. but I also think that in the phrase "wargames campaigns" the second word is the more telling.

    That's an excellent point. I recall that there's a passage in OD&D somewhere that says something to the effect of "it is in campaign play that D&D achieves its fullest potential." It's quite clear to me that old school gaming placed great emphasis on the campaign and that the rules structure was designed to support campaign play. Indeed, it's in campaign play that the virtues of the rules structure become most apparent.

  8. Is this the chicken or the egg, though?

    Sorry, sentence error. That should have read "since combat is a normal part of adventure stories, it is none too surprising."

    So no, not chicken and the egg, I would say.

  9. I'll second the emphasis on "wargames campaigns" ... as I posted once before, in the eartly days my brother & our friends were fans of Richthofen's War and it was a clear progression from following our pilots' rise from inexperienced new comers to aces with medals and epic air battles to remember --- to going to D&D and taking a fantasy character along a similar if more detailed route. Similarly, we liked to have campaigns of Sniper! and Squad Leader where we followed the history and progress of specific soldiers with names and backgrounds. So, yeah, campaign really hits the nail on the head, since you might play a wargame anytime, but a 'campaign' once or twice a week (or daily in the case of Richthofen's War)was something special.