Monday, May 3, 2021

Fantasy Not a Threat

Behold the glory of the late 1970s! This is the cover of the March 1978 of the UK magazine, Battle for Wargamers, which is simply delightful. If you poke around online, you can find many more equally astounding covers from the same period. I picked this one, because the issue includes a letter to the editor written by Steve Jackson of Games Workshop fame.

Jackson, it should be noted, had written an article in the December 1977 issue, entitled "An Introduction to Fantasy Wargames." While I've not (yet) seen the article myself, it's my understanding that it's a very good overview of the topic, one that situates fantasy wargaming firmly within the wider wargaming tradition, paying particular attention to the innovations of Tony Bath. Nevertheless, as his letter above indicates, there was some resistance and even hostility to the inclusion of fantasy games in the pages of magazines like Battle for Wargamers.

That fantasy wargaming was initially poorly received in some quarters of the wider wargames hobby is well known and, frankly, not at all surprising. What's interesting to me is that Jackson makes an argument that echoes those made often today:
Before condemning Fantasy wargames out-of-hand, traditionalists ought to ask themselves whether they would like to see large, thriving wargames clubs taking in members from History, Fantasy and Board wargaming players, or would they prefer small struggling clubs concerning themselves with just one aspect of the hobby?

Of course, there's some truth to what Jackson says here. At the same time, are there are any large, thriving wargames clubs today? Did broadening the range of games result in "large, thriving wargames clubs," as he predicted? The answer depends, I imagine, on how one defines "wargames clubs," as well as whether the incontrovertible decline in the popularity of wargaming as a hobby has anything to do with the introduction of fantasy games into its ranks. It's a complex issue and I lack the historical knowledge necessary to offer any conclusions. 

I can only say that, while I am sympathetic to Jackson's perspective, being the intellectual descendant of those early fantasy wargamers, I don't think the situation is quite as clear-cut as he makes it out to be. Change may be "the way of the world these days," but change almost always brings with it destruction. I can't fault anyone who, in 1978, foresaw that the hobby as they knew and loved it, was in danger of changing beyond recognition and resisted that change. I feel much the same about the hobby of roleplaying, whose contemporary form and trajectory are at times utterly alien to me. Fortunately, technology has made it much, much easier today to find others who share my interests and perspective when it comes to the hobby. I can wholly absent myself from whatever the big publishers are doing and not lack for games to play or people to play them with. But, in 1978, that was probably harder, which is why I find myself at least a little bit sympathetic toward "the die-hard traditionalists" whom Jackson decries.


  1. There are massive worldwide non-fantasy wargaming clubs, but they are all online and the games are labelled "Paradox" rather than SPI or Avalon Hill.

  2. To focus on the game, as SJ does in his response, is to presume a fallacy - that people who are interested in roleplaying games are interested in war games.

    There's always this sort of "you shouldn't be threatened by the change I bring - do you want to be shut out?" implication when people complain about change, but the reality is - fantasy gaming was popular precisely because it attracted people who never had any interest in war gaming, because war gaming is structurally incompatible to what pops their buzz. Whereas the non-wargaming elements of RPGs weren't incompatible, and so they took to it and immediately began excising and down-talking the elements in RPGs which were visibly war game-ish.

    There was no way those two populations were going to be compatible in the same "club".

    War gamers were absolutely correct in identifying an incompatible element. Would there be war gamers who could happily participate in both elements? Of course. Should the dominant culture of war gaming clubs have shared space and resources, and "officially" supported fantasy gaming? Probably not. They'd have lost time and participation from those members who loved both sorts of gaming, and now had to divide time, of course.

    But by keeping its focus on war gaming, they'd likely have retained some core, even if whittled down in numbers. As it was, they were simply overwhelmed by superior numbers of incompatible hobbyists.

    1. I don’t believe Jackson was referring to role playing games here but rather fantasy-themed wargames (as opposed to historical wargames).

  3. Ah. One of the gaming bourgeois speaks! How dare there be kvetching! He can't make as much money with all that carping going on . . . !

  4. There are still, at least in the UK, large (in the sense of memberships in three figures) wargames clubs that have historical wargamers, boardgamers and fantasy gamers, though the last of those are more likely to be playing Warhammer, 40K or Frostgrave than RPGs.

    The traditionalists that Steve is talking about there would be along the lines of the members of the Sheffield Wargames Society that formed their own breakaway group that would concentrate on purely historical miniatures games (and they didn't even regard western gunfight games as historical). That was reported in an issue of Battle around 1978.

  5. This argument (in all its variations) gets tiresome after you've been in the broader hobby long enough. There's always someone claiming whatever new thing's come along will spoil things forever, and they're always wrong. The player base is not a static entity, hobby sales are not a zero-sum game, and new games (or even entire genres of games) never cause the total collapse of existing favorites.

    Fantasy gaming didn't kill historicals. Roleplaying didn't kill miniatures or board gaming. CCGs didn't kill anything, and in fact did more to keep retail games stores alive and popularize gaming in general than anything except the growth of PC/console/online gaming - which have also failed to exterminate tabletop gaming.

    My personal favorite incident of this kind of silliness was Games Workshop blaming Pokemon for a couple of quarters worth of bad sales around 2000 - something which we're seeing some rumblings of again as the CCG is currently red hot due to the anniversary while GW is stumbling around drunk trying to figure out how to make money post-Brexit.

  6. I went the other way. I got into wargames in the first place by trying to research roleplaying.

    There was a big book called the Wargaming Handbook, or something like that, which discussed all the AH and SPI games, but had a blurb on the cover that it also covered D&D. So I checked it out of my local library and read through it. There were about 2 pages on D&D, which only piqued my curiosity further, but I was intrigued by the other games. I went on to buy and play some of the other historical games and enjoy them very much.

  7. "I can't fault anyone who, in 1978, foresaw that the hobby as they knew and loved it, was in danger of changing beyond recognition and resisted that change. I feel much the same about the hobby of roleplaying, whose contemporary form and trajectory are at times utterly alien to me."

    Ultimately though, it's not up to you or me to decide, but the will of the people. I think when it comes to stuff like that, people start taking this hobby too seriously. Usually hobby purists end up on the losing side...if they are fighting something that is really popular and stick with a narrow definition, they will end up looked upon by the wider public as taking stuff too seriously and too grumpy and angry.

    There's always going to be change in these things, so I think the best thing to do is learn to adapt to the change. Many forms of entertainment have and will change over the decades. If Tabletop RPGs get to a point in the future that you don't like them and can't find enough like minded people to enjoy them -- time to get another hobby.

  8. You can find a copy of the Steve Jackson article in Battle from Dec 77 here: