Tuesday, November 05, 2019

They Were Wargamers

It’s a fact that the earliest players of D&D were wargamers, and that D&D sprang, not full-fledged from the brow of Gygax, but rather as variations on fantasy medieval wargaming. It’s easy, therefore, to extrapolate some assumptions based on what we know about wargaming. But if you don’t do much wargaming, or you’ve only been exposed to certain flavors of wargaming, the keyhole you’re looking through might be too skinny for you to get the full view of things.

Let’s take a look at one of the most popular wargames (at least in the US) out today: Warhammer 40,000. Thing is, when it was first released, it wasn’t really a wargame. Rogue Trader was billed as more of an RPG. Today we’d recognize it as a skirmish-level, campaign focused wargame with RPG elements. The idea was you’d create these stories of the 41st Millennium by playing out clashes between freebooters, criminals, space marines, and orks on the backworlds and seedy alleys of a dark and distant tomorrow. And stories need characters. In order to create interesting stories, you need interesting characters. That requires a certain amount of customization, if only in the ability to name and outfit your dudemans to personalize them. So if you flip through a copy of Rogue Trader, you’ll see all kinds of weirdness: Space Marines wielding shuriken catapults and rolling after a fight to see if your character was just laid up in a medical vat for a week or is truly, really, completely dead.

That’s likely what the first iterations of proto-D&D were: rules for personalizing your fantasy army’s captains and lieutenants, so you could create your own Elric and Conan and Aragorn and pit them against each other. They would acquire a history and rivalries and bosom companions and such from the stories of their battles, which would spin off new adventures (very much the way The Temple of Elemental Evil was spawned by the wargaming of a fantasy siege).

But note that this is a desire to imbue these characters with personality and hang stories on them. This is not the disposable cypher miniature of just another grunt in your horde. So how do we reconcile this desire for story with the very disposable nature of early D&D characters?

Quite simply this: the story a wargamer is telling isn’t so much the story of any particular individual, but rather the story of a battle, a campaign, an army, or a family. The death of any individual doesn’t end the story, but merely marks the ending of a chapter in a broader, possibly multigenerational story.

This is why AD&D has rules for things like constructing strongholds, for stat adjustments when characters age, for followers and henchmen and the like. Early D&D may not have been about fighter Joebob III, son of Joebob II, son of Joebob, but it could very much be about the dynasty of Joebob, the effect it had on the Gran Marches, and its eventual corruption and destruction at the hands of the black wyrm Mavelant.


DMWieg said...

Parts of me wish I'd been more into war gaming in my formative years, even if I'm generally terrible at that kind of thing. I used to occasionally want to integrate some sort of war/campaign into my D&D game and have some actual decisiveness consequences come from it. These days I lack the patience for such an endeavor.

trollsmyth said...

DMWieg: I was mostly of the cardboard-chits-and-hex-map variety of wargamer. (Revolt on Antares was my favorite wargame from back in the day.) The ones I preferred were low-impact and could be played fairly quickly. This also meant they were easy to hack as well. I'm not sure they make games like that anymore.

I do enjoy a big pitched battle or siege in my campaigns. They make epic set-piece moments that let the players know that the story they're in is of world-shaking importance. However, I'm much less likely to try to wargame that out. Instead, I'm far more focused on what the PCs are doing in the fight and looking for moments they can use to swing the tide of events.

JB said...

I have long suspected that I am a wargamer at heart, even though I got into wargaming years AFTER getting into RPGs (unless you count playing "Crossbows and Catapults" on the unfinished concrete floor of my childhood home's rec room). Perhaps this is why AD&D (and even OD&D) elicits such a "pull" on my heart...is it any wonder that my B/X Companion project was mainly concerned with providing rules for intergenerational play (including domain management, mass combat, aging, etc.)?

On a side note: whatever happened to Oddysey? Do you still have contact with her? I hope she's doing well...she was on my blog roll for a looooong time.

trollsmyth said...

JB: I can totally see that. It's interesting how that makes a difference in the stories people create with RPGs over this divide. The wargamers are telling huge, sprawling tales of kingdoms and dynasties, while the New School folks are more focused on individual stories. And I think the switch probably came before 2e hit the market, and was absolutely there for the heyday of DUNGEON magazine.

As for Oddysey, she's working in the high tech industry on the West Coast now. She's really fascinated with the things her industry is doing, and that's sucking up most of her time and attention these days. I don't believe she's involved in any RPGing anymore.

JB said...

Ah, well...perhaps when she hits middle age she'll have her own role-playing "renaissance." Like the rest of us.
; )

Glad she's doing good, regardless.

Anonymous said...

WHATS APP: +2347012841542

I want to thank DR EMU for the wonderful work he done for me and my family, i was having a serious breakup with my ex but when i contacted him for help he brought him back to me with his historical powers, and also helping me to get a job, since he cast his spell for me things has really be good to me and since i know him my husband has been faithful to me, well i will say that this man is a really great spell caster that every one must contact for help, if you are facing breakup or marriage problem just contact this man for help he will help you settle everything with his power, please contact him on his email: emutemple@gmail.com once you contact him all your problems will be solve.