Thursday, April 30, 2009

Whither went wargaming, so goes D&D?

Let's take a quick trip back to 1989. Wargaming, and especially historical miniature wargaming, is suffering from an over-abundance of complex rules, expensive entry points and, anecdotally, waning interest. A gentleman by the name of Phil Barker, of Wargames Research Group, walks into a Society of Ancients conference, that year, armed with a revolutionary two page document. It was an experimental set of rules which "stripped away" the points, the tables, the complex rules and took the game back to a very basic, but very open format. Wargamers could play games in under an hour, as versus many hours. Novices didn't need to spend large amounts of money on miniatures, they could field an army with only twelve elements (each element has a couple of figures to represent the type of element - spearman, swordsman, cavalry, etc.) and fight a complete battle.

This two page document took the wargaming community by storm. Within a year, a commercial version of the rules had been generated. From 1990 to today, DBA (De Bellis Antiquitatis) is a very popular, and easy to learn, wargame. It has gone on to branch into different versions of varying complexity, but the basic DBA game remains very accessible, with few changes. It has gone through only 6 "official" change versions, with the last being in 2004.

What an amazing story and what interesting parallels it holds for D&D.

In my observation and participation, wargaming, and historical miniature wargaming in particular, can be a community obsessed on details and complexity. If we also look at the evolution of wargames from a very broad perspective, we see it going through a cycle of simple leading to complex, then back to simple. I find that very interesting in light of how D&D has progressed - from the simplicity of OD&D, to the building complexity of AD&D, 2E, 3E and now 4E. Contrast that progression of complexity and expense to the real interest these days in the simpler versions of the game: Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry and the like.

It seems to me that there is real heartening lesson in looking at how DBA came about and how it changed the historical wargaming community. There is still a vibrant and active DBA community and there is still a great deal of interest in the rules. It made its mark on a community that needed a simpler option and it opened the door for a great many people to enjoy what had become an expensive, complex niche of a niche.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - my main mission is to share my love of the original editions of D&D. I think that is best done with simple rules, open games and an accepting attitude. Just as DBA paved the way to provide an extremely viable alternative to the complex rules at the time, I think what we do in the "old school revival/renaissance" can echo that. I don't think the RPG world is an exact parallel, but I do see how the retroclones and the OSR have opened the door to a simpler and perhaps more accessible version of the game we all love. I think that by stressing alternatives to the expensive entry point for D&D, we will find more and more interest. I think this is especially true, considering the fact of the continuing "Core Book" churn that I hear about - the plan by WotC is apparently to release +1 x 3 so-called-Core Books each year for 4E.

For what it's worth, I've been reading DBA so I can learn how to play - and perhaps have an endgame to my campaigns where massive armies can duke it out using DBA (or perhaps the fantasy based offshoot of DBA - called Hordes of the Things.) I'm also reading it to gain a perspective of going back to simple - and then in looking at my copies of the retroclones, feeling like I'm in good company all around.


Sharpen your pencils, get out the graph paper and enter the One Page Dungeon Contest! A "metric ton" of awesome prizes awaits those who dare! Contest ends May 14th.

13 comments:

Zachary The First said...

Wow! I'm going to have to check this out. Interesting paralells, indeed!

greywulf said...

Amen to all that. I love me some DBA too. My lovingly painted Achaemenid Persians get an airing once every 4-6 weeks to clash against the massed Greek hordes of a couple of other wargamers. Makes a change to rpg'ing and gives the old tactical braincells a good workout.

DBA wins because that one tiny booklet contains everything you need to play. D&D needs (nay, DEMANDS!) a similar one-book solution that folks can just pick up and play straight from the bookstore. The 4e Starter Kit came close, and good though it is, managed to Epic Fail by not including character generation. The Last Good one book D&D was, and still is, the Rules Cyclopedia. Ah well.

Chgowiz said...

:channeling Yoda:
*cough* No, there is another... *cough*

jsemaj said...

Far too many RPGs are written for folks experienced with RPGs. No way I'd have gotten into D&D when I did if there wasn't a Basic D&D set at the time and I was playing avalon Hill war games at the time so I had some tolerance and experience with large rule books, which I figure is anything over 4 pages for normal humans.

Chgowiz said...

@jsemaj - agreed. That's why Jeff Rient's 2 page player handout rocks at a con to get people started - those kinds of quick intros can lower the bar. The thing I find slightly disingenuous about the whole 4E "Quick Start" is that you really can't progress with it beyond the pregens. I think basic rules need to provide a complete game, much like Holmes and B/X did.

That's why I like the retroclones today - written in accessible language and you really can spin them down to a simple set of rules. I did it for Swords & Wizardry for my CODCon game in this player handout (which I adapted/adopted/stole from Jeff Rient's Players Handout). I guess you could call it the Swords & Wizardry Quick Start, if I wanted to really tweak my nose at WotC *g*

Chris said...

As Colin Chapman (the man who founded Lotus Cars) used to say: "Simplify, then add lightness."

What's good for cars is good for RPGs, wargames, computer programming...

Badmike said...

This is the biggest reason I support the retro-clones. I don't play them myself, and can't imagine more than a one-shot with any of them due to my propensity to fiddle and diddle with the rules. However, the game NEEDS a simple, playable entry into both RPGS in general and D&D in particular. S&W, Labyrinth Lord, etc fit the bill...if I was running a con game, these would definitely be a good choice on my part simply because of the quick start up.

BTW, the BRP document by Chaosium is a good start in that direction by a major company.

Mike B.

Chgowiz said...

@BadMike - Well, the quick char gen documents are a good start - we just need a quick/dirty summary of combat and a really huge dose of "You imagine it, you say it, the Referee says Yes or rolls dice" type of instruction.

kaeosdad said...

The funny thing is that a lot of people I know didn't get into D&D until 4e and felt that 4e was more accessible to them than the previous editions. 4e stripped down on the rules set considerably compared to 1st through 3rd edition. I don't think any of them has played od&dthough, but 4e parallels other aspects of wargaming similarly to the old school "movement". 4e is the flames of war of D&D.

Rick Krebs said...

sssshhhhh !! I asked you to keep this quiet.

Pere Ubu said...

Would "Phil Barker" = M.A.R. Barker of Tekumel fame, perhaps?

I know he's a minis wargaming guy in addition to RPG'ing.

Chgowiz said...

No, he's not - and the note at the bottom of MAR Barker's wikipedia entry has an interesting note about Phil and the Professor.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Played a game of Field of Glory last week, quite enjoyed it. Looks to be a lot more complicated than DBA or HoTT, but mostly it is just common sense rules being standardised by example, possibly for tournaments.