Friday, July 5, 2019

Setting-up a Medieval Fantasy Wargames Campaign

In a previous post, I made the point that Dungeons & Dragons (original) is an approach to setting up medieval fantasy wargames campaigns. Back in the day, folks within the miniature war-gaming hobby would share their rules for how to resolve individual combats. In addition to that, they would also sometimes share rules for how to string together a series of table sessions into a coherent war campaign. In these documents, they would not focus on rules for the wargames themselves -- they assumed they were writing to wargamers who already knew such rules and probably already had their own house rules as a local, hobby, gaming group. Instead, the focus was on how to make the games link to each other, reasonably, in order to game a "realistic" war campaign, and not just individual, disparate battles.

As I thought about these things while writing that post, I began to imagine what their pamphlets might have read like if Gygax and Arneson had written them in a more colloquial style that showed very clearly that they were talking to other wargamers about what had worked for them, what they had found to be fun. Because that was in fact what they were doing. It is just that it can be lost on many of us when we come backwards to the pamphlets from complete-rules-style RPG books rather than forward from their actual wargame hobby context. I offer my imaginings, below. The actual work would be a bit more detailed, but still short enough. I leave a lot that would be fleshed out as parenthetical summaries of what I imagine they would include in the actual text. Who knows, maybe someday I'll write this whole thought experiment up?


Dungeons & Dragons, or
How to Set-up a Medieval Fantasy Wargames Campaign

These booklets are a set of ideas for how to turn an ordinary wargames campaign into a Sword and Sorcery wargames campaign! As with any suggestions for setting up a wargames campaign, these brief booklets give some ideas and descriptions of what has worked for us in our own campaigns. Experiment with it and have fun. Always make it work for your local group.

As with any wargames campaign, you will need to assign sides. In simple fantasy, it is usually good enough just to have "good guys" and "bad guys." But, following Anderson and Moorcock, and hints at such in Tolkien, we have named our major sides "Law" and "Chaos." Monsters, fantasy figures and characters in general fall along such lines. Of course, brute beasts don't fall along any particular line and characters may choose to "opt out" and remain neutral. (Here would follow the list of fantasy creatures by line up, or what would come to be called "alignment.")

Choose rules for resolving combat and figure out a way to factor in the fantastic. We recommend Chainmail, especially with its fantasy supplement and man-to-man rules. We tried to make combat rules and fantasy creatures match up by having monsters and characters act equivalent to a certain number of figures in a typical wargame battle. We talk in terms of "hit dice," to make sense of this. Since we assume that you are already an experienced wargammer (since you are interested in reading pamphlets about setting up an entire campaign), we trust that you are familiar with this way of thinking of these things, so you get the point. But, real quick, here is an Alternative Combat resolution to consider (here they present the "Target-20" method they introduce by means of the "Alternative Combat" tables and the concept of "Armor Class" borrowed from naval wargaming).

Okay, now here is a fun new idea: what if players not only played as "generals" over armies, but actually played individual characters within the game-world? Characters can fall into different "classes," much like then different classes of troops in a typical wargame. Make sure they are different from each other, with clear cooperative properties, so that they can work well together as a Sword and Sorcery style adventuring party.

Here are some ideas for character classes: Start with the proverbial fighting-man. Next would be magic-users. Gygax doesn't much like the idea of magic-users being playing characters, since they are usually the bad-guy in Sword and Sorcery. However, some players may want to play chaos. And you could have "good" magic-users in your campaign. So you may want them to be a character class as well. Also, we had someone who wanted to play a "Van Helsing" type character, so we introduced the "cleric." They are kind of like a crusader. They can force undead to check morale (usually, as they are "undead," they would not check morale). We call this "turning." Clerics also have some of their own kind of spells that are a bit more religiously miraculous, like healing.

Don't forget standard fantasy races such as elves, dwarves and hobbits. Give them descriptions that match what you like from fantasy you have read and that you would like to incorporate into your campaign. Here is what we've done. (Here would follow race descriptions.)

Here is another cool idea: when you play as a general of armies, you usually start with a point-buy system for hiring your starting armies. Then, through play, you can gain more points to buy more troops, thus increasing your army, etc. Well, we thought of a cool way to make this work with players playing characters at a one-to-one scale. We call it "experience" and we measure it in "experience points." Just as armies have tactical goals, Sword and Sorcery characters have the goal of treasure extraction and "looting." So we have developed a way of matching the value of a treasure safely extracted by a character to a character's "experience points." Successful victories also grant some experience. These experience points then accumulate and grant the character advancement in the game-world. We use the term "level" to describe this game-world advancement. Each time a character gains a level they gain in the respective capacities and advantages of their particular class, just like armies growing more powerful in a regular wargames campaign. Here are some ideas. (Here would follow the tables for advancement, XP, HD, spells, etc.)

Now here are some ideas about how to incorporate magic-users and their spell-casting abilities into a wargame context that keeps things fair but still "wonderful." You will find your own way to work this stuff out for your campaign. (Here is where spell lists and descriptions would go.)

Oh, and to make sense of non-combat related eventualities, Arneson borrowed from Naval Wargaming the mechanic of "saving throws." Much like determining how much hull-damage a ship has taken from, say, an underwater mine, you can use saving throws for resolving how much damage a character takes from, say, falling down, drinking poison, or being hit by a magic-user's fireball! We have also found it useful for determining if a character or creature has been affected by a spell or not. As characters advance in level, eventually their chance to save increases as well.

Another thing that we discovered to be really fun is what came to be an emphasis on the more exploratory aspect of the game. Since we have allowed a 1:1 correspondence between player and in-game character, we can set up scenarios where characters explore an unknown, usually interior and often underworld environment. Think of this in terms of Stratego or Battleship, but even more complex and fascinating as the players will need to map a potentially elaborate underworld setting. This could be maze-like or labyrinthine. Or you could have secret spaces only discovered when they have circumnavigated it.

There are a lot of possibilities here. You can set up standard things from Sword and Sorcery that often fall outside the purview of standard wargames. For example, you can have tricks and traps and puzzles that the players can solve by means of their characters interacting with the environment. Really the sky is the limit here.

We have found that the combination of the 1:1 scale and an emphasis on underworld exploration has been absolutely amazing in giving our campaigns a real Sword and Sorcery feel!

Here are some ideas for monsters. We take advantage of the use of Hit Dice to represent relative fighting power and ferocity. Other natural and magical capacities can then be factored in. We describe below what we have developed for ourselves. Again, look at our examples and then work out what would work best for you in your campaign. (Here would follow the monster list and descriptions.)

Here are some ideas for treasure. Look to our examples and work out things for your campaign. (Here would be the tables for deterring treasure, magic items and their descriptions.)

Many wargames campaigns are "map campaigns," and that is what we suggest here. The scope of the game is infinite, but just for starting out we recommend a map of a local area with several opportunities for treasure hunting in dangerous and "underworld" environs, perhaps with one big dungeon nearby. This dungeon would comprise many subterranean levels that the players can easily begin exploring before branching out into the wider world.

Start with at least three levels to this main dungeon (in case they decide to go pretty deep from the start). As they explore, you can continue to add more levels to the dungeon and expand your map to include wider kingdoms and wildernesses -- even a whole fantasy world, eventually, if you want to.

Oh, and if you find your players suddenly want to strike out into the wilderness for an off-hand adventure, Arneson has found it really fun and easy to use the Outdoor Survival board (Avalon Hill). Here are some ideas for random encounters and what to do with some of the symbols on the board in order to render them a bit more like exploring in a medieval fantasy wilderness. (Here follows the suggestions for castles, random encounters, jousting, etc.)

Be sure to keep things fresh. This is fantasy so go crazy! For example, players might think that they have "cleared" an area only to see that a bunch of orcs or goblins have made their home there -- perhaps, very thankful for their newly cleared-out digs!

Most importantly, keep it fun and make it your own. Let us know what you come up with! We always improve as referees by hearing about what other referees are doing with their local clubs.

Fight on!

If you have a medieval fantasy wargames campaign that sounds like something inspired by the above -- no matter what mechanics you are using for resolving encounters -- you are playing "original" Dungeons & Dragons. So, again, I will say:

Fight on!

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Understanding Original Dungeons & Dragons

I've seen some posts on reddit and other fora asking questions like: what counts as (original) D&D, how do we know that it isn't (original) D&D anymore? What are the advantages of D&D to later editions using that name? Etc.

Here is my answer: (original) D&D is an approach, not a set of rules. It is an approach to a hobby, called "wargaming." It is an approach to a particular interest of that hobby: the wargames campaign. It is an approach to giving that hobby-interest a "Sword and Sorcery" feel.

It is not a product designed to be consumed. Repeat: not a product made by experts to be consumed by an unprofessional public. It is a set of suggestions for fellow hobby-ists, who have a rich amateur knowledge and interest in their avocation. And those suggestions were sold at a price to make the effort worth it for the fellow-hobby-ists who did the work to put it out there for you.

So, don't get me wrong, obviously, in one sense, it was a product -- Gygax and Arneson did publish and sell it. But what we need to remember is that back in that day the market for such pamphlets was small and highly specialized and understood to be a way to get ideas out and shared with some minimum compensation -- no one got into publishing about miniature wargaming so that they could quit their day job! (This is something so easily do-able because of the internet and part of the DIY vibe of some of the best "OSR" stuff that is out there. We can share today in a way that the hobby-ists of 1974 couldn't have dreamed.)

Later "editions" move more and more towards "product identity" and changing the very semantics of the name "Dungeons & Dragons" from referring to three little pamphlets that suggested how to set up a medieval fantasy wargames campaign, itself intended for an audience of other wargamers, towards more of a product making money for a particular company from a non-expert set of consumers.

Thus these companies become increasingly concerned about their rights over this "product" -- and taking ownership for its development out of the hands of the consumers. This really changed the nature and vibe of things. Remember, for quite some time Gygax simply could not understand why any fellow-hobby-ist would want to by a "Dungeon Masters Kit," or "module." Why borrow someone else's creativity? The point is to have an outlet for your own! (Then he saw the cash available in it! I do not blame him for this. It was a smart, and, probably, the right business and even hobby-supporting move. I'm just giving this as an example for the subtle shift in things.)

Why do I keep putting "original" in parentheses? Just exactly because of the above. The three little brown books are not an edition. They are suggestions from hobby-ists, to fellow hobby-ists about a particular area of interest: wargames campaigning in a medieval fantasy setting. This is not an "edition," of a "game," with a unified mechanic and defined setting.

To many of us who play (original) Dungeons & Dragons, the other "editions" of Role Playing Game rules with the title "Dungeons & Dragons" look to us like many various house-rule variants of these suggestions for medieval wargames campaigns. (But, in this case, it often feels like someone else is telling us that their house rules are now the RULES, period.)

So AD&D is Gygax' tournament house rules made official.
3.5, 4, and 5 are Wizards of the Coasts house rules made official.
All the retro-clones are cool house rule variants, shared for the rest of us.

And good for them! In fact, thanks for sharing! They are all, also, D&D! But we don't have to use their house rules, we can make up our own. And we certainly don't have to view them as "official."

So, Dungeons & Dragons (original) is an approach to setting up medieval fantasy wargames campaigns. Back in the day, giants of the miniature war-gaming hobby would share their rules for how to resolve individual combats. But sometimes they would share rules for how to string together a series of combats into a coherent war campaign. In these documents, they would not focus on rules for the wargames themselves -- they assumed they were writing to wargamers who already knew such rules and probably already had their own house rules as a local, hobby, gaming group.

So, for example, they were in no way interested in a "unified mechanic." They wanted mechanics that made sense for the type of thing they were trying to resolve, at the appropriate level of scale. (Not everything scales up and down well, like, say, a fractal. More like the cube law, sometimes things need to change to work well.) This alone explains a lot of misconception about what the original little brown books were trying to do and to offer. Folks would do better, and understand original D&D far more, if they compared the three little brown books to other books on setting up wargames campaigns, rather than to later books that came to be called "role playing games."

Here are the three I would suggest anyone interested in understanding (original) Dungeons & Dragons:

Tony Bath's Ancient Wargaming including Setting Up a Wargames Campaign:

Donald Featherstone's Wargaming Campaings:

And, finally, Grant's Wargames Campaigns.

But I would especially emphasize Tony Bath's book.

Another big difference in the slow transformation from a small, wargames hobby to a large, consumer role-playing game product is the vibe of play, and what the goal of play is. And this is, in many ways, far more important for understanding the difference between "original" and later "editions" of D&D -- but that is for another post.

Before I write that post, my next post will be a kind of imaginary example of what D&D might have been worded like if it had more of the form of some of the above classical examples of wargames campaigns books.

To conclude this post, I will say, if you are involved, as a fellow hobby-ist, in a local medieval fantasy wargames campaign that, through play, has developed its own vibe, feel and corresponding house-rules, then you are playing Dungeons & Dragons, whatever other name you call it.

Fight on!