Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Wargaming Roots of D&D

This post comes by way of an ongoing reading of a 1st edition TSR supplement - "Dungeon Master's Design Kit", an ongoing slow education into miniature wargaming and some various blog readings, this post by Rob Conley at "Bat in the Attic": Into the First Fantasy Campaign Part 1.

James over at Grognardia focuses a lot of his attention on the pulp aspect of the hobby, and rightly so, as the pulp fiction that Arneson, Gygax and others grew up with definitely influenced the hobby. That's why we have "fire and forget" magic, fantastic monsters, paladins and many other little idiosyncrasies that pervade our hobby. I think, at times, we tend to focus on that too much and forget that there's another leg of the stool to D&D - wargaming.

I've learned a lot from reading Grognardia and other posts about how the hobby changed during the 1980s. At the time, I really didn't give it much thought. I didn't buy/play the modules so much, and our games were more of the "Heavy Metal" type than the plot driven type. I didn't play Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk or any of the 2nd edition settings. We weren't caught up in the movement from sandboxes to stories to railroads. It's only later, by looking back at the whole picture and reading some of the books and modules that I can see the movement from where OD&D had it's roots to where the game is today.

The Design Kit, written in 1988, is a perfect case in point. I intend on reviewing this accessory later, as a study for myself so I can write one for a sandbox, so I won't get too deep into it. It is, however, demonstrates the emphasis in the mid/late 80s onward of plot, story and three acts - intro, drama, conclusion. I find this book particularly useless in helping me in my sandboxes.

Contrast that to wargames, at least wargaming as I understand it. When I play a wargame, it's usually based on a scenario. I have a tactical (or strategic) goal, usually involving battling for territory or objectives, resources to use or obtain, terrain to deal with. The focus is small (usually) in scale.

When I read OD&D/AD&D/Holmes, I can see that lineage. When I read how the games were conducted, I can feel that direct influence. Dungeons were seen as the scenarios. Towns and NPCs provided resources. The clearing of the land and obtaining of treasure was a means to an end (holding territory) and a desirable objective so that one could move to up direct wargame scenarios. After all, why have a castle if you're not going to have followers and soldiers? Why have soldiers if you're not going to campaign on a vast scale.

This may be why OD&D's end-game (the castle/keep and the army) faded in importance. Allow me to speculate for a bit. As D&D got bigger in the 80s, people didn't want to go from adventuring to army wargaming. Although for some of us, that would have been fun, for most of the kids I played D&D with, wargaming was the domain of creepy, boring old men who cited from mysterious historical tomes and pushed cardboard counters around with the seriousness of life/death struggles. No, most of my friends wanted either more, more, more story/adventure and they wanted their person to matter to the world. Enter Dragonlance and the plot/story driven module and the rest is history.

As I play my current sandboxes, I can see the differences very clearly. My two campaigns are focused on area/territory adventuring, with player driven plots. This follows nicely of what I understand from wargaming - when I sit down to re-enact the Battle of Stalingrad, for example (you can see my Squad Leader leanings now...) it might be the Germans that win. And if we were conducting a campaign where my victory influenced the future battles of Stalingrad, well, I've just driven the "plot" of the wargame.

Maybe I'm just really as uneducated as I joke - probably most of you are nodding your heads and saying "Well, duh..." because now it does seem obvious. I think I'm going to be thinking a lot more about the wargaming roots and how they influenced the history of D&D.

In the meantime, if you see me at my FLGS picking up a few packs of 15mm miniatures and lugging around Chainmail or Horde of the Things books, don't be alarmed -- unless you want to play in my sandbox.


taichara said...

This may be why OD&D's end-game (the castle/keep and the army) faded in importance. Allow me to speculate for a bit. As D&D got bigger in the 80s, people didn't want to go from adventuring to army wargaming. . . . No, most of my friends wanted either more, more, more story/adventure and they wanted their person to matter to the world. Enter Dragonlance and the plot/story driven module and the rest is history.And then there were the hordes of we 2e lot who were all for the gaining of the castles and the lands and the titles and the conflicts, because how else would your person matter to the world better than to become one of the lords of the world?

At least in my neck of the woods, we champed on that metaphorical bit so much we probably gnawed through the metal ;3 The Castle Guide and its ilk were much beloved, and one of my original group mined BEMCI for the domain rules ...

Which isn't to say you aren't making valid points, mind. Just that I don't think there was always quite so much of a divide between landed warring characters and "adventure" (as you mean it above). Though TSR may have wished it so, some of us weren't toeing the line I guess *grins*

Rick Krebs said...
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Rick Krebs said...

the domain of creepy, boring old men

on behalf of creepy, boring old men, living and dead, I take umbrage, and last week we also took Umbria, specifically Sentinum.

All the best.

trollsmyth said...

One of the very interesting things about the old school renaissance is how we all come at this from different directions and for different reasons, but we're all orbiting the same star. Playing with teenagers, something I haven't done since I was a teenager, has really made me aware of my own background. I'm now playing games with people who were not traumatized at a very young age by that "Watership Down" cartoon, haven't read any Piers Anthony or Madelein L'Engle, never saw an episode of Moonlighting.

Long story short, my experience was closer to Chgowiz's than Taichara's. When we played 1e, we didn't just build castles, but stole bizarre mecha starships from demon princes to serve as our home bases. Through high school, that fell by the wayside, but it came back in a big way near the end of college for the same reasons Taichara mentions. The mecha were gone, replaced with magically warded palaces built by giant insects, but the the whole "castles and the lands and the titles and the conflicts" was center stage.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@taichara - agreed, there were many who still enjoyed that end-game, but you wouldn't know it from the published materials and the way the game as evolved since 2E. We always thought it was cool to have the castles and then have "wars" against the evil castles. They usually floated in the sky, on water or sprang up from the ground like the D&D Cartoon one.

@Rick - I remember that phrase distinctly as there's a story behind it. In 1982, there was some sort of wargaming convention going on in Cincinnati or nearby - I wish I could remember the name of it - and I wanted to go. I finally got parental permission to go (so this has to be 1982) and could not get a single friend of mine to go. In desperation, I went to my FLGS, and was told by the clerk that exact phrase (he was over 18, so to me, he was the "cool" kid at the store...).

I sadly ended up not going, but I did make it to a wargaming get-together the following year and had a blast (and my ass handed to me in Squad Leader - where I learned that the way I was playing it was definitely the "ur doin' it rong!" path) and learned that the stereotypes where not always true. Sadly, none of my friends ever really believed me.

Hm, you keep teasing me with DBA-type references...

Alex Schroeder said...

I'm interested in the area where adventuring and wargaming meet. That's why I read with great interest the reviews of high level adventures on Delta's D&D Hotespot, eg. M5: Talons of Night

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@trollsmyth - We did that! We found a portal that took us to an abandoned LosTek cache - suddenly the mage knew how to turn on a Locust they found. (No metagaming, rly...) There was much howling when we couldn't take it back with us...

Alex Schroeder said...

Also, comments by Greywulf on my blog regarding wargaming have convinced me to order DBA. It's on the way! :)

taichara said...

Since 2e? Definitely not; the 3e field is depressingly barren in that regard. But 2e itself wasn't nearly so bad as 3e, not in my experience.

2e was sorely lacking a domain system, and this we did complain about bitterly; but it did gave us the tools we wanted to gain castles and followers and territories. Someday I might remember how much we actually made up; on reflection it might be interesting to know ;3

(I'm fair certain, though, that filling a moat with beer for a "temple-warming party" probably isn't standard procedure ...)

Scott said...

My last cohesive tabletop group had occasional wargaming setpieces, from skirmish-level to 10mm armies. We used anything from homebrewed rules to kitbashed Warmaster rules. A full scale battle waged with well-painted minis adds a lot to an ongoing campaign, particularly if the battle is a pivotal event in the setting.

As to the movement towards plot-based adventure gaming, I remember being a bit nonplussed when a large portion of the [i]Dungeoneer's Survival Guide[/i] had *nothing* to do with dungeon adventures. :(

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@Alex - thanks for the links! I've ordered DBA/HOTT recently but have had depressingly little time to absorb it lately. I am lining up resources to learn it solo style and see how it goes. I might be printing lots of paper miniatures in the meantime.

@Scott - We never played that type of D&D, and I regret that, to be honest. I don't know if either of my current campaigns will go like that. I would love to see my Ultima sandbox have something of that nature. :D

@Taichara - maybe not by the rules, but that sounds like an AWESOME party. Did the players have as much beer as the PCs? (I hope so!)

I vaguely remember playing a bit of 2E where we did play high level characters, but I think we mashed the higher level basic books with 2E to get the rules/options we needed.

taichara said...
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Rick Krebs said...

There are a whole bunch of the founders of this magnificent obesession of a hobby looking down and giving that store clerk a lot more than the evil eye.

Gaming is a big wide wonderful tent with a lot of fantastic, creative individuals in it. D&D arose from the simple fact that constantly playing miniatures can get boring. Even playing board games constantly get boring. Playing CCGs can get boring. And dare I say it, even playing D&D constantly can get dull. We played Boot Hill, Traveller, Squad Leader, Diplomacy, Source of the Nile, and Rail Baron to refresh our weekly games. And even had time to playtest some original game designs.

The diversity of gaming shouldn't divide us, it should and has made it stronger. It is gaming's history (i.e. HG Wells 'Little Wars'). It is gaming's future, if it is to have one.

All the best

Chris Kutalik said...

Great article. As someone who only recently got back into RPGs (20-year hiatus) and has been mostly a historical miniatures kinda guy, I've been thinking a lot about the connections and parallel evolutions.

I read somewhere recently on one of the gaming blogs a brilliant comment about how the two gaming traditions have evolved somewhat backwards. Miniature rules of the 70s being more precise, formalistic, and rigid and today being more and more simplified and flexible in mechanics.

If I can get some more time away from the day job, I was thinking of putting together an article on Tony Bath's Hyboria campaign of the 60s and 70s. After finally getting a copy of his long-OOP book on campaigns (put out by WRG back in the day too), I was blown away by how much of it an influence it must have been on the thinking of Gygax, Arneson, and company.

In fact, I'm pretty damned sure that one of the sample Hyboria campaign maps in the back of the book might have been the direct inspiration for the Keep on the Borderlands outdoors map.

At any rate, I'm fascinated by incorporating more of the big battle/domain-level play into RPGs too. Maybe when all the low-level characters in my current one grow up to be 9th level bad-asses!

taichara said...

maybe not by the rules, but that sounds like an AWESOME party. Did the players have as much beer as the PCs? (I hope so!)Yeh, I was damned impressed by my players that day. (the party leader / thief passed out and was promptly dressed in the fighter-mage's formal gown and left on the temple steps. it was hysterical.) No beer for us, alas -- none of us were legal at the time ;3

I vaguely remember playing a bit of 2E where we did play high level characters, but I think we mashed the higher level basic books with 2E to get the rules/options we needed.Iirc, we were using the rules from BEMCI plus the Castle Guide, some expanded follower's tables from who-knows-where, and a metric ton of Dragon articles. There was this one about founding a magic school and "weirding hold" that's still dear to my heart ...

(whhy is blogger not letting me keep space between paragraphs?! *godzillasmash*)

Will Douglas said...

When it comes to DBA/HOTT, I have a word of advice: Read the rules yourself, and play a few solo games yourself.

I fell in with a bunch of guys who played regularly. They were great guys, don't get me wrong, but they had their own ideas (not directly supported by the rules) of how such things should go. I could never reconcile the actual, printed letter of the rules nor the (to me, readily apparent) spirit of the rules with some of the oddities they used. So I stopped playing with them, and haven't played since.

And that's too bad, because I like both games.

I can't wait to see what you think of the rules writing. I have seen many discussions of "Barkerese" , and I'll be interested in your take on it.

Matthew James Stanham said...

The core problem that D&D never really overcame was that the D&D war gaming rules, from Swords & Spells to the first edition and second edition versions of Battle System sucked. This disconnect was, by all accounts, still on display in the mid to late nineties when the heaviest rule set yet was in use and The Gates of Firestorm Peak was released.

Bear in mind also Greyhawk Wars and H1 Bloodstone Pass as failed experiments running along this line.

Rick Krebs said...

Please add to my previous post.

And above all else: have FUN !!!

Chris Kutalik said...

Will Douglas has the right of it. I definitely shy away from listening too much to that creepy crowd of tournament-happy, rules-lawyerin' types that you can find playing these games.

Come to think of it, I'm a little surprised to see RPGers gravitating more to the DBxx kinds of rule sets. DBA and HOTT are both definitely fun and quick, but lack a lot of the more RPG-like character and color of systems like the Two-Hour Wargames and Warhammer Historical stuff.

Sorry to wear my prejudices on my sleeve here, there are good, fine, and fun people playing with all these rules. And just like an RPG the social dynamics are probably more important than the mechanics of any rules when it gets down to it.

RipperX said...

We always mixed things up. At high level, the character was a semi-retired. Old enemies would plot revenge from time to time, which we'd play out through war-gaming: Defend the Stronghold, Rout raiders, go buccaneering. Once you become a knight or a lord, a brand new vista is open before you. If the game was something dramatic enough, then my lord could run off and go adventuring still. Playing him never got boring!

Scott said...

It wasn't all what gamers wanted in the '80s, but what options the market was publishing for them. Most companies at the time saw campaign setting gazetteers and boxed sets as the next trend in money-makers, not rules supplements.

Alex Schroeder said...

For one of my games I'm using the following house rule: "Name Level: Characters reach reaching level 9 must build a stronghold be ready to retire their character when they reach level 10. (Ordinary adventures will take place in the level range from one to nine; higher level adventures may involve mass battles.)"

Also @Rick: I recently bought Diplomacy. Yay!!

And @Chgowiz: Greywulf recommended the Unofficial Guide to DBA.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@Alex - thanks! I have that one bookmarked from earlier, that's a great site.

@Scott - unfortunately, that approach has persisted till now, wargaming almost has come full circle, in a strange way. Many say that 4E is a miniatures game, but it's at a single person/mini. Almost like DA/GG intended, but with a set of rules that they probably didn't think about. Funny how that worked out, huh?

@cthulak - that's definitely going to be a topic I'm going to write about later on. That has given me much to think about today.

@Rick - That last paragraph (and the addendum) are words to live by. Thank you. I may not prefer to play various things, but that doesn't mean I don't begrudge anyone else doing so. It's just not my thing.

@Will - Barkerese? Now you have me VERY curious. As soon as I'm done with this CODCon game, I'm going to set down with paper minis and get to learning DBA.

@Ripper/Alex - those sound like great ways to not only have interesting possibilities, but also bypass the never-ending power creep when you get to playing very high levels. I may have to adopt that philosophy for my game.

Chris said...

Taichara said: "2e was sorely lacking a domain system"Well, it had "Birthright". The mass combat system might have been b-rked, but all the rest of the old 'run a domain' system was in there.

*curls into a ball and awaits grogstomping*

Alex Schroeder said...


Hilarious! :)

taichara said...


Well, it had "Birthright". The mass combat system might have been b-rked, but all the rest of the old 'run a domain' system was in there.Yeh, but by the time Birthright rolled around we'd already long since crufted together our own systems *grins*

Also, it was a specific setting and we didn't want to pick up another one --

Nonetheless, it's true that it had once, and a rather interesting one at that.

*curls into a ball and awaits grogstomping*

Hehehe ... ;3

trollsmyth said...

The mass combat system might have been b-rked, but all the rest of the old 'run a domain' system was in there.I doubt this qualifies as "grogstomping", but I found the domain system in BR to be a bit too gamey for my tastes. The number of things you could do in a domain turn, for instance, was based on how strong your "blood" was, which meant that "unblooded" folks were literally incapable of running nearly any organization of note.

You could, of course, tinker to taste, and it did make things much simpler. You never needed to worry about, for instance, crop yields or inventories, since everything was abstracted to gold bars in your treasury.

Still, I love the setting. The next time I get a hankerin' to run High Fantasy, it'll probably be Cerilia.