Saturday, July 11, 2009

D&D was a Wargame

I have been giving this one some thought recently. I was first introduced to wargames, and it was only afterwards that I started into D&D. The concept of the mega-dungeon strikes me as a bit of a wargame. The object of a mega-dungeon is to explore and eventually conquer it. It is designed to be tough. There will be character deaths. It has a players vs. GM mentality, in that the players are actually trying to beat the dungeon. Sure it’s just a game, but the object is to beat the dungeon. This creates a sense of accomplishment, and provides a reason to play the game. There is a winner. This is all good stuff.

As I read through the old school blogs and dig into the history of the game, I get a sense that this is where the game started. It was a game of exploration, and about defeating the dungeon. It was a small scale wargame, in that there were not armies involved, but rather the characters where a small band of explorers. I get the feeling that characters where meant to be plugged into the adventure and they were kept basic on purpose. They were meant to be slightly better than normal men at arms, and one could consider them as leader types with special abilities. When I read through the original rules, I am struck by the notion of how vanilla they are. This idea supports the notion of simple characters, as they are meant to die. Why create a complex character that was not likely to survive the mission. We are not suppose to fall in love with them. They were there to fulfill a mission, and success was based on player interactions, not on character feats and abilities. This is the core of old school gaming. It’s a de-emphasis on creating super heroes. Characters were not meant to be points of light.

But, something happened along the way, and I think this is when D&D moved away from being a wargame, and turned into something a bit different. Looking at it, I think it was really unavoidable. As we played with our characters, we fell in love with them, and we wanted a bit more. This in turn led to an inflation of character abilities and the development of a campaign as a story. Why? Because role playing games pull players into their character. The game encourages players to become their characters, and no one wants to play just an ordinary character.

When I look over the various editions, that is the first thing that really pops out at me. The character classes have expanded in terms of options and abilities, and with the latest releases, they can become quite customized. I will go as far as to say that companies have made a living off creating new and expanding classes. TSR and latter WotC quickly realized that splat books sell very well, because players love their characters.

And to be honest, there is really nothing wrong with that. I think it’s a natural evolution of the game. As folks play with their characters, they become more attached to them. For example, one of the folks in my gaming group played with a character for a long time, and when his character died, he stopped playing for a long time. Subconsciously, the character became a part of him, and with his character’s death, it was like losing a long time friend. There was a sense of loss. Now I am not sure that he would phrase it quite like this, but I think its there.

I have written a bit on the evolution of D&D, and I will write a bit more on this. I suspect that as one plays, no matter how basic you make it, there is a natural tendency to want to move to a story-plot with characters that have more options.

I think this goes back to the question of why do we play the game? How is fun created? I have read that fun is not the responsibility of the GM. I am not exactly aligned to this. If the game is not fun, then why are we playing?

The answer to this question is really determined by the makeup of the group. I suspect that wargamers are more inline with playing D&D as a wargame, and have no problem with character death. On the other side, there are a folks that really enjoy role playing and want to immerse themselves into their character. These folks are going to have a tough time with character death. Now I have just painted a black and white view of the D&D player population, and I am sure that there are plenty of people that are in the middle somewhere.

With this said, I think it is interesting to note that the hardcore wargamer is going the way of the dinosaur, if one is to believe the sales numbers on wargames. Sure board games in general are probably doing ok, but the players that like games such as Squad Leader, Panzerblitz, and other Avalon Hill classics are becoming rarer. Part of this is because of the demands on adulthood, which limits the time available to play. Part of this is having trouble finding consistent opponents.

To go back to my earlier comment, D&D has a fan base that is greater than that of wargames. The focus of enjoyment is very different, and it resonates better with more folks. I suspect that is because the enjoyment of D&D centers around the shared experience of being the hero. There is an element of escapism, and the idea of knights and dragons scratches a certain romantic itch that quite a few folks have. To put it bluntly, we want to believe in magic. Disney has made a fortune on this. This is very different than the concept of D&D as a wargame, and I think explains the popularity of 3rd edition and 4th edition D&D.


Chris T said...

I've been thinking along similar lines lately. On the one hand players like their characters but they also enjoy battles too, otherwise why else would you bother with all the magic weapons etc.

I think a good GM has to understand the hobby's roots in wargaming and respect that. A nice deadly combat focuses the player's minds amazingly.

I disagree about the impending death of wargaming though. I think Games Workshop may have a different take ; )

Mr Baron said...

you know, I wasn't even thinking about Games Workshop when I wrote about it. I was focusing in on the board game aspect of wargames, specifically the Avalon Hill games.

I agree that Games Workshop and other miniature games are wargames, and that D&D sprang from historical miniature gaming.

Now, I would also say that I think Games Workshop is headed for hard times, as they are pricing themselves out of business. The quality of their stuff is excellent, but I think they are missing the mark on pricing, which I believe will catch up to them.

Chris said...

On the subject of GW, I honestly think that consideration of their 'skirmish games' (Necromunda and Mordheim + (arguably) Inquisitor) can add to the "Is D&D a wargame?" discussion.

Those games are excellent models of Shamian entourage-style play, in that each gang/warband has a couple of exceptional named leader types (who gain skills, injuries and equipment over time), backed up by spear carriers, pets, mounts, and hired killers. Them's yer PCs and hirelings.

You have a constrained field of play, set mission objectives, and - on top of beating the other PC team (echoes of West Marches rival groups?) - there are random events, wandering monsters, traps, a time limit, and the like to be overcome.

Add in the between-session elements of 'return to town' gameplay (anything from smuggling to an OK Corrall gunfight IIRC), and you've a pretty decent expy of early-model D&D. (albeit with GW trappings and insistence on "buy our stuff!")

Robert said...

I’m not really a wargaming grognard. I played a number of Avalon Hill games, but I never played Neopolianics on a sand table. I have, however, tried to read and talk to many grognards.

The first thing I’ve found is that “wargaming” (much like “role-playing games”) is more than just the sum of the words that were thrown together. There was some attempt to use “hobby games” instead, but “wargame” stuck.

Secondly, many of the stories I read/hear make it clear to me that role-playing was going on in wargame circles before D&D. This finally culminated in Braunsteins, T├ękumel, Greyhawk, and D&D. I believe it was much more wargaming → role-playing → D&D rather than wargaming → D&D → role-playing.

The dungeon was a wargame, but it was a much more minimal (in terms of rules) wargame than its predecessors. It already had the idea of the characters having continuity between sessions and some amount of life outside the “main” action of the dungeon. Characters may have not been “precious”, but they were more than just pawns or units.

Yeah, there emerged a pattern of adding mechanical abilities, but I don’t think this really has to do with falling in love with our characters. I’ve seen too many role-players who really get into crafting characters yet don’t care about mechanics to believe that the two are tied. Rather, some of us fell in love with mechanics and wanted mechanics to let them build super-pawns.

Well, I think I’ve gotten to the point at which my generalizations will get read as dogmatic black & white positions, so I should probably stop now. ^_^ TINWWTP, but my preference these days is for characters whom we love with minimal mechanics.

Barad the Gnome said...

I have been playing for many years and we go through the same cycles of rediscovery of the roots of D&D. My original group was friends who were war gamers, and we tried D&D as a lark. Well 30+ years later that lark that crowded out our wargame time continues to do so.

We evolved into more character focused, and that inevitably lead to, as you described because players love their characters, far fewer deaths and the dismissal of disposable character thinking.

I like to think we have moved to yet another stage in FRPG evolution, that of Story Telling Adventure Gaming.
I don't think we are unique in that. You might argue I am splitting hairs with that thinking. (and in good D&D fashion do it with a two hander) I do think there is a difference with role playing but staying in the moment vs. building an epic.

Passing no judgement, folks stop in the evolution of D&D at the point it is fun for them. If war game style disposable characters are fun, why move to role playing for real? Etc.

Dwayanu said...

The AH and SPI games are mostly out of print, because Hasbro has no interest in bringing them to market. That industry, of course, was already on the ropes when "the Borg" acquired AH and TSR -- but the disappearance of the games from store shelves hardly helps the hobby!

Giving characters "plot protection" seems to me a shift first to playing "super heroes", then away from role-playing toward story-telling. The latter can easily shift right out of the "game" category, although it need not.

Some games (such as 3E and 4E) end up feeling to me much MORE like war-games than old D&D. The 4E design in particular really frees the DM to take an adversarial role (and may even demand all the skill one can muster to match the players' combined brain-power) in the extremely prolonged and detailed combat board game.

The more nearly human one's character is, the more likely that persona is to be wary of death and conscious of the possibility of failure. The insistence that humanity is an obstacle to role-playing strikes me as quite dubious.

What I have seen in D&D especially (not so much in other games) is that increasing mechanical complexity has been associated with less attention paid to the character of characters.

They have become much more like war-game units designed to optimize certain combat tactics (along with strategies for higher-level "builds").

That said, the war-game element in D&D is pretty hard to escape. The desire to do so seems to me a desire to play something that could be "D&D" in name only.

Runequest characters both start a bit (realistically?) tougher than 1st-level characters in old D&D, and remain more vulnerable -- killable with a single hit! -- throughout their careers. However, there is no such systematic encouragement of frequent resorts to violence as in D&D.

Traveller is another game that leaves what it's "about" much more wide open.

Start your D&D characters above 1st level (as Gygax recommended for experienced players), and you can cut back on character mortality even with fairly frequent fights.

Cut back on the time and energy devoted to combat-oriented rules, and you may see more genuine character development. The piling up of game ratings seems too often to have replaced play of personalities.

Role-playing necessarily took front and center when it was literally how the game was played. Number-crunching and dice-rolling don't need to displace that, but they can make it harder to keep the focus.

A "story-telling" game, in which one's role is effectively that of an author, is something quite different.

Anonymous said...

We all probably think of the price of failure in D&D being character death, or a TPK that ends the campaign short of DM fiat (your horses pull you back to the Spring of Healing!)

But if the characters, by unspoken mutual agreement, can't permanently die, then what is at stake? They might fail in their goals. Princess Buttercup might get married to the horrible villain. But unless your players REALLY CARE about the workings of the fantasy world, those will be "oh well" acceptable losses. There isn't a sense of risk.

I don't know that I'd want to play that game. Nor would I want to play a game under a capricious DM who had rows of little stamped adventurer silhouettes on his DM screen.

I think it's important in the growth of a player to have bad things happen to his character. I don't think a DM should do these things just because, but if it happens you can't coddle them. The first time your character dies, you get upset. If you're twelve you might get angry and storm off. Best to work that out and realize it's just a game when you're a teenager than when you're a grown man in his thirties.

And I think experiencing loss helps your growth not just as a gamer but as a person. If you lost your job tomorrow and your car broke down, would you sit and cry about it? Or would you print out some resumes and hit the pavement?

Barad the Gnome said...

Without the risk, the excitement is not there. I don't think you need to routinely kill characters to make the risk of dying real. In the game I DM a character has not died for many years. Neither have we had any resurretions/raise dead events. I am comfortable saying that my players KNOW that I will let them die if they play foolishly and/or luck is just against them. I just don't aggressively try to arrange character death.

The game we play the players DO care about their environment. So the loss of honor, the failure of a kingdom, the failure of a quest, are all losses which are disappointments to the players. These 'risks' have been adequate to keep our game interesting. I agree, if the players didn't have that attachment to the world, the risk would be meaningless.

Rusty said...

My original group was friends who were war gamers, and we tried D&D as a lark. This is how my original group of gamers entered into the D&D world as well, when we purchased Holmes...we were all playing Avalon Hill games, plus Strat-O-Matic sports games. There is still a very active board wargaming community with lots of stuff available online for free, but there doesn't appear to be viable market for retail board wargames. It is a niche hobby, but one that still exists, even without commercial support. There is a lesson in there somewhere, but I am not sure what it is.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it is that the reason you buy a board game, or figurines, or wargaming terrain, is for eye candy. Truly, pieces of construction paper cut into the shape of buildings and forests and mountains will do the job well enough.

But now we have computer games, which provide better eye candy, and are cheaper / easier to store / more portable / more modular / less DIY time-intensive / allow you to play with hundreds of people at a time from Algeria to Finland to Mozabique.

Fortunately there are still people out there who enjoy this sort of hobby. Unfortunately, we mightsee it decline to the point of model railroad building in popularity.

Walter said...

No where is it said that one has to go above first level. A roleplayed character might remain first level throughout an entire campaign, killing no one, stealing nothing, remaining a virgin to violence. I've never heard of such a thing, so far

Celestian said...

D&D absolutely evolved from a Wargame... Chainmail.

If you follow how things have been going first with 3e then 4e it seems things are devolving back with all the grid/battle map rules.

Hoping the 5e version will get back to what made the game fun. Less focus on feats/skill rules and more on adventure. Less on "DM telling you a story" and more of "Making a story".

Unknown said...

D&D has been to my PG marketed as a RPG since at least 2E at least according to a lot of the people who started with 2E. If Role playing and story telling wasn't a largue party of D&D why the books some of which go back to 1 E Dragons of Autum Twilight and Temple of Elemental Evil were written around stories that took place in 1 E. If all you want to do is hack and slash your way though a dungeon there are plenty of computer games for that. The abllity to role play is probally only thing that seperates the table top game from computer/ console and on line gaming. The DM/GM can think and interact with the players beyond a script. It is likely one of the few things if not the only thing that is keeping table top gaming alive.