Monday, November 23, 2009

The Wargaming Roots of D&D - Revisited

(As part of my self-imposed slow-down, I'm reposting some articles from 2009 that I really enjoyed writing or the comments really sparked some places for me to explore. This one, and the subject of wargaming, has never been far from my thoughts. One of the things that I did in 2009 was explore a bit of wargaming again and I'm really happy how its went. I thought I would bring this article back and update it a bit.)

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.

Many who play original editions of D&D pay a lot of attention to 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.

When I was first playing D&D in 1979, 1980s, 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. [Ed note: I just couldn't bring myself to doing so. It was that bad, to me. I ended up giving it away on]

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 campaign.

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.


I had the pleasure of finally playing DBA face to face last week and it was a blast. I'm going to be playing a lot more DBA solo and hopefully find some more Chicago locals to play with. The gent I played with has offered to invite me to some of his get-togethers to play and I can't wait.

I've also found myself noodling about a bit with the rules on HOTT and how one could convert OD&D/Swords & Wizardry type characters into HOTT elements and make the rules "feel" like an extension of OD&D. Naturally, one would ask "Why not use Chainmail" to which I have to honestly reply "I've never played Chainmail". I do get the impression that games run long when playing Chainmail - while DBA/HOTT battles seem to be quick and dirty. I like that thought - the ability to run a mass combat game within an OD&D session, rather than the mass combat BE the session. Maybe even do this for AD&D?

If you've got some thoughts or suggestions, take a look at the thread I've got going on the OD&D Boards and let me know what you think (or here as well)? And don't be surprised if I'm buying 15mm orcs, goblins, fantasy figures and the like next year... I've caught the bug.

Some fun links: Make HOTT armies more fun, d20 D&D and HOTT


Old4Eyes said...

Having participated in a few D&D based Wargames using the HoTT rules I can safely say they work. The Rock/Paper/Scissors nature of the rules (its a while since I've read them though!) makes games quick, dirty and easy.
Usually the D&D party was the Hero/Heroes element of the army and didnt need vast amounts of tinkering with.

Robert Saint John said...

I also got the bug about a month ago, and tracked down DBA and HoTT, and also some of the Song of Blades & Heroes for skirmish level play. Bought some 15mm from Splintered Light Miniatures (check out their DBA bundles!) and starting to think about assembling a Barsoomian set of minis.

I love the variety in this hobby! I could probably never buy another thing in my life and never find myself bored.

Andrew said...

I've had an Ultima theme in mind for DBA or HoTT. Lord British and his town guards (1/72 plastic Medieval English) vs various monsters commanded by some mad mage.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

One of the best campaigns I played in was at college. It ended in a grand campaign (war definition) with the characters running around leading armies (using Battlesystem I believe). My Dwarf and a bunch of soldiers sacrificed themselves defending the walls of a fort against giants and other bad guys so the Emperor and a bunch of innocents could escape.

It was best end of a character/campaign ever.

I also wish wargamers liked playing RPGs and RPGers liked wargaming. People who enjoy both aren't common.

Lead Addict said...

I am a hardcore wargammer (I have WWII in 4 scales, Napoleonics in 3 scales, ECW, Samurai in 2 scales, And too many Dark ages and ancients to count, and most are painted), and I have come back to BAsic D&D and the retro Clones. To me it is hard to resist using miniatures for my RPGing and just go pen and paper. And almost all of my wargamming has some RPG aspect to it.
At some point there was scism between the two and so you're not supposed to do them both. I say bunk they are both a vital part of my entertainment. and I am teaching my kids this too.

Lead Addict said...

BTW Song of Blades is one of the funnest skirmish level games out there, and there are a lot of other rule sets that are better/easier to convert from RPG to tabletop for mass battle than HoTTs. I am not a big fan.

Flower of Chivalry, Pig Wars, even the board game BattleLore. I am currently converting all my 15mm fantasy to be compatible with playing Battle Lore on the tabletop.

Mike Monaco said...

I think the d20 HOTT rules you found at the Stronghold make an excellent basis for a D&D add-on. I suppose there would be something more "authentic" about using Chainmail or Swords & Spells. But I can't get ethusiastic about rules-heavy wargames that take more than an hour or two to play out. Since your typical D&D players are probably not going to be hardcore miniatures enthusiasts, I can't recommend HOTT (with maybe some elements from DBA thrown in) highly enough.

I recently took a seconf look at Searchers of the Unknown and Spellcasters of the Unknown and my next gaming project will definitely be to try to put together two one-page supplements in that vein -- Wilderlands of the Unknown (adding missile ranges, terrain effects, and other rules necessary for the outdoors) and Armies of the Unknown (somewhat simplifying the d20 HOTT rules). I'm fairly satisfied that HOTT will let you do anything you need to for a fantasy battle. I'll have to think about a formula for converting HD to elements. Maybe 200 HD = 1 element, so 200 goblins or 400 kobolds to a horde, 200 orcs or 50 ogres to a warband, 40 trolls or 25 hill giants to a behemoth, and so on.