Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Scale, Role-play, and Dungeons & Dragons

I recently published a four post series reflecting on the subtitle of Dungeons & Dragons to help make sense of the original publication. Here are those links:

Wargames and Dungeons & Dragons

Medieval Fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons

Rules and Dungeons & Dragons

Campaigns and Dungeons & Dragons

With those reflections in place, I can now move on to reflect on the development of the supertitle itself: "Dungeons & Dragons"! In doing so I hope to empower hobbyists to start their own medieval fantasy wargames campaigns.

This will be the first post in a short two-part series of posts. This post will be on level of scale and how the move to one-to-one scale empowered things such as the abstraction of hit-points and the ability to role-play.


Wargaming allows for play at different levels of scale. So on a given war gaming table, an inch might represent 10 feet, 10 yards, 100 yards, etc. One miniature soldier might represent as many as, say, 10 soldiers, 20 soldiers, 100 soldiers, depending on the level of scale that you'd set up in the beginning. For most historical miniature wargaming, the level of scale is what is called tactical. So tactical warfare is one given battle between two armies where two generals or colonels can direct the activity fairly obviously over the course of about one battle day.

This makes a lot of sense in, say, Napoleonic warfare, which is again, one of the reasons why Napoleonic warfare is so attractive to historical wargamers. But there are other levels of scale. If you jump up to a higher level of scale, you can have strategic wargaming. This is where you might start getting into what you call hex and counter wargaming, where you've got a map divided into many different hexagons, and those hexes might represent 5 miles, 6 miles, 25 miles of distance across. Instead of miniatures representing soldiers, or 10 soldiers, or 100 soldiers, you have a more abstract piece that represents an entire legion, battalion, or perhaps even an entire army.

At the highest level of abstraction you have board games like Axis and Allies, or Risk. Some miniature wargamers question whether those should count as wargames, because they're at such a high level of abstraction that they're not very far away from a game like chess or checkers. But the typical scale of war gaming for miniature wargamers is tactical. You can abstract it to a higher level like strategic. But you can also move down to a tighter level of scale.


You can go down to a level of scale called skirmish warfare. This is where you're really talking about individual soldiers, head to head with each other. In this case, each one of your miniature figures actually represents one soldier. So the ratio or the scale becomes one to one. Every miniature figure is exactly one soldier.

Chainmail, for example, has a section dedicated to skirmish or man to man combat for the resolution of this level of medieval wargaming. So its fantasy supplement had to address this level of scale as well: how would fantastical creatures and armies match up in not just tactical, but also skirmish level warfare.

Hit points as abstract

One-to-one level of scale helps make sense of the roots of some of Dungeons & Dragons core mechanics, such as, for example, Hit Points. The rules of combat resolution have to be different at such a tight level of scale. The statistics, the way that you match results of combat up to dice, the things that a referee would need to judge all change when you get to that smaller, tighter level of scale.

In a tactical level wargame, when two enemy troops come in contact with each other, generally, if one side is successful and the other fails, the side that fails is removed. If you have those rules exactly at a skirmish level, playing only one character, then every time you went into combat, your character might die the first time he or she was hit. This hit-equals-removal way of playing that works at a tactical level doesn’t directly map to a skirmish, one-character-per-player level of scale. So instead Gygax and Arneson developed hit points. Hit points are the number of points your character can take from successful hits before the character is finally removed. Hit points are an abstraction for the relative resilience of your character and so, in general, as your character increases in level, your character is going to increase in this resilience, represented by hit points.


One-to-one level of scale also helps us make sense of what the original players understood "role play" to be. Role-play existed before Dungeons and Dragons. Role playing is something that's done for example, at professional development training sessions, in training for therapists and counselors, or in other contexts where a mentor is trying to teach a student. A concrete situation with a client, or a patient, or even a more dangerous scenario, where you would say, "here is the situation. We're going to pretend that this situation is real, and we want you to role play what you think you would do in this situation."

One of the chief examples of role-play in wargaming would be the famous game, Diplomacy. Diplomacy is a wargame at the highest possible level of abstraction that could still really count as a wargame. You have a map of Europe, right on the edge of World War I, and you represent one of the major European powers at that time, such as Italy, Germany, Great Britain, Russia and the like. You are going to play the military forces of this particular national power. And in each turn, you can move your armies or navies, and you can attempt to take over other regions. But the most important part of this game is in its very name itself, which is Diplomacy. In Diplomacy, in every game turn, there's a phase at which you are allowed to enter into diplomatic negotiations and form diplomatic relationships with other players. You might form alliances against other players such that it is almost impossible to win the game of Diplomacy if you are not talking to other players, forming alliances, breaking alliances, and the like.

In Diplomacy, you as the player would ask yourself, “given this situation, and given the capacities that this nation has to achieve victory in this war game, how would I, as its leader or ambassador act? I want to play out what I would do to survive and achieve victory in this role within this situation.” Thoughtful role-play becomes a way to invest in the success of the game. Role-play in Diplomacy is a skillful means of engaging the game.

Role-play can work at any level of wargames scale, but it seems to draw-out at the more extreme levels of scale: strategic on the one end, with games like Diplomacy, and skirmish at the other end, with what is going to become Dungeons and Dragons. When you're playing a skirmish scale wargame, and where, instead of playing an officer over a squad you are playing only one figure on a wargames table, then you have an opportunity to role play that figure.

Understanding the wargaming roots of Dungeons & Dragons helps to make sense of the kind of confusion about what is going on in play between what is sometimes called "old school" styles of play and more recent Role-playing Games that emphasize the building of a story. What is clear is that role-play meant discerning what you would do in a given wargames situation if you were actually in this war and you actually had the capacities granted you by the game. Role-play meant playing the role of a leader in a war campaign. It did not, at the time, mean something like playing a part in a play or story - although plenty of players loved to ham it up, even from the beginning, if what I have heard is correct.

Next in this short series: Dungeon, exploration, and the title: "Dungeons & Dragons"!

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Campaigns and Dungeons & Dragons

This is the fourth post in a series of post where I explore the subtitle of Dungeons & Dragons as a means of empowering hobbyists to start their own Medieval Fantasy wargames campaigns.

The previous post was on "Rules," this post is on "Campaigns," or, wargames campaigns.

Wargames Campaigns

Napoleon didn't just fight one battle. The Napoleonic wars were not won by one battle. In actual warfare, often, many battles are pitched as part of an overarching war to attain victory. And not until many battles are fought does a victor emerge. A general, or a king, goes on a war campaign. And this campaign consists of a series of battles that are strategically designed and carefully operated in order to gain victory.

This series of connected battles, towards the end of winning the war, is called a campaign or a war campaign. Likewise, wargamers who are interested in playing out historical wars also become interested not just in playing-out one given battle but in putting a series of related, connected battles together where the outcome of one battle affects the setup of the next battle. They're going to string these battles into a campaign. And this is what is called a wargames campaign.

The key feature of a wargames campaign is that more than one battle is set up and run as a game. But these separate games are connected to each other and the conclusion of one wargame has an affect on the setup of the next wargame much like how, in a real war, multiple battles are pitched before victory is clear.

Wargames campaigns can be done at very high levels of abstraction or at a very detailed level depending on the interest, time and energy of the wargaming group. But wargames campaigns require a different set of rules than those needed to resolve battles with miniatures on a table. You need one set of rules for how to determine the outcome of one given battle on a table of miniatures. But in order to connect the outcome of that battle with the next battle you need an overarching set of rules that logically and coherently connects disparate battles together. You need a set of campaign rules.

Map Campaign

There are many different ways to set up a campaign but I'm going to explain one particular kind called a "map campaign." Map campaigns are one of the first and earliest forms of wargames campaigns. In this kind of campaign you take your wargaming table and let's say that it is four feet wide and eight feet long. And you use it on, say, a scale of one inch for 10 or even 100 yards. Then you get out a very large sheet of paper, and a ruler, and you divide along the top every four inches. Then you divide along the side, every eight inches. So you’ve divided this very large piece of paper into separate rectangles, four inches by eight inches. Then each four by eight-inch rectangle represents one battle ground on which you could set up a wargame.

Now you take this sheet of paper, that has been divided into four by eight rectangles and you either overlap that on top of an actual historical map, to scale, or you invent your own situation and imagine an area and some terrain.

You might start one army in one town, and the other army in another town, and then the referee would ask the players for their orders. The players give very detailed written orders to the referee. This is a complex situation where ideally a given player is unaware of the other players’ orders until executed. This is a case where it not only helps but might possibly be necessary to have a referee. The referee reads the orders and determines for example, whether any two armies have sighted each other.

If two opposing forces have met, then you set up your game table for a miniature wargames battle and resolve the conflict using the rules for a wargame that your group had already been using. Upon the conclusion of the conflict you note the outcome of the battle and decide what that means going forward as the campaign continues. This map, then, becomes the means for piecing together all of these different possible battles that could be pitched on your gaming table.

Dungeons & Dragons as a Map Campaign

In Dungeons & Dragons, in the third Little Brown Book, “The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures,” Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson suggest that you need a map of the immediate terrain surrounding the entrance to the underworld. That map of the overall area would have suggested to fellow wargamers something like a map campaign.

Keeping this in mind helps us to remember what the subtitle meant when it said that these were rules for a wargames campaign. The word "campaign," has taken on new connotations in the on-going growth of Role Playing Games (RPGs). But the original sense of the word was that of logically connecting wargame battles into a single campaign. The rules for the resolution of combat were one game. The rules for connecting the wargames together and including things like supply chain, economics, population, recruitment, leadership, political powers, espionage, diplomacy, and the like, were a different game or even set of games. Remembering this clears up some confusion for folks that come to the original rules only familiar with RPGs that see themselves as a single unified rule-set.

The rules for resolving an individual battle are different from the rules that connect particular battles to one another in a coherent campaign. If your group were conducting a wargames campaign, just as your group over time may have developed its own rules for resolving individual battles, so too over time your club might have developed rules for a campaign so clear and coherent and so seemingly realistic to the historical period you were trying to game, that you might think, "Hey, this is shareable too."

So sometimes wargamers would publish not just rules for resolving battles but they would also publish rules for how to set up a war games campaign. One of the most famous of these is by Donald Featherstone. Another good example is C. S. Grant’s Wargames Campaigns. One really famous set of rules for wargames campaigns relevant to the topic of Dungeons and Dragons is Tony Bath’s, "Setting Up Wargames Campaign." Tony Bath deliberately chose a fantastical medieval wargames setting for his campaigns for the simple reason of not having to worry about getting the history perfectly correct. Wargamers were used to these two aspects of their hobby, battle resolution and campaign organization, being published separately from one another.

Rules complete as rules for campaigning

This is what Gygax and Arneson were doing when they first published Dungeons & Dragons. They were not publishing a comprehensive rule-set that included both campaign rules and combat resolution rules. They were publishing what it would take to coordinate other rules together into a campaign.

The booklets themselves often refer the reader to other rules, like Chainmail, or the boardgame Outdoor Survival. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson understood that any rule-set for resolving medieval warfare would do the trick. What Gygax and Arneson were offering were not so much the rules for running individual wargames battles, although some outlines of how to do so were suggested. They assumed that your local group had rule-sets available for resolving given wargames, so, instead, they were offering rules for how to string together a series of wargames into a campaign. The rules are not incomplete for a wargames hobbyist. They give everything needed to start one's own medieval fantasy wargames campaign as an amateur hobbyist.

We now have everything in place to make sense of the subtitle: "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns." I hope I have shown how helpful understanding the subtitle is to understanding what Gygax and Arneson were up to, and towards understanding what the original publication called "Dungeons & Dragons" has to offer -- and what it does not. I my posts inspire some readers to use the guidelines suggested in Dungeons & Dragons to launch their own, unique, medieval fantasy wargames campaign. 

Now that I have concluder this reflection on the subtitle, I am set for a two  part series on how we have come by the supertitle itself: Why "Dungeons & Dragons"? Once we have this in place even more will start to make senes about the original published rules for medieval fantasy wargames campaigns.

Fight on!

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Rules and Dungeons & Dragons

This is my third post in a series of posts where I look at the subtitle of Dungeons & Dragons as a way to allow the rules to provide a launch point for one's own wargames campaigning.

The last post was on Medieval Fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons. This post will be on what "Rules" mean in the context of the original publication.

Free Kriegsspiel and referees

One significant tradition within wargaming goes back to the use of wargaming as actual training for young officers in 18th and 19th century Europe. This tradition was called, "Kriegsspiel," which is German for wargame.

One particular branch of Kriegsspiel that developed early-on and that influenced all subsequent hobby wargaming, was called, "Free Kriegsspiel." Free Kriegsspiel recognized that the circumstances of war cannot be covered exhaustively by written rules because reality is complicated, difficult to know, and the human mind is finite. You can't possibly map every thing that would go into a possible battle into a perfect rule-set. So in Free Kriegsspiel you would get somebody who had been in so many actual, real world battles, that they knew what combat was like and what warfare was like, such as some old officer who had seen many battles.

Then you would get these young officers in a room, and you'd have a map, and you'd have pieces of the map to represent different forces. And then they would divide up into two different sides and the two different sides would issue their orders to their soldiers, and then this seasoned officer, that was acting as a referee, would judge who he thought would be the successful party in this particular battle based on his actual lived experiential knowledge of how warfare worked. So in the Free Kriegsspiel tradition you trusted a veteraned officer to make a judgment call as to whether your orders were good. And then that old seasoned officer could coach you and say, "in future don't make that decision because you'd be flanked, or you'd be outnumbered, or you'd be outrun. Etc.”

In this way, Free Kriegsspiel provided excellent training and mentorship for future officers. This in turn influenced the wargaming hobby where, even though you might have some rules, such as dice mechanics, to give the feel of randomness and probability, nonetheless, in some cases, you would want to have a referee. The referee would be somebody who was so familiar with war that he could make judgment calls based upon described actions. The referee might roll the dice if he or she felt like he or she needed more information than just orders.

The person that you'd appoint to be the referee over your game would be somebody who had real expertise in the history of war, into historical wargaming, and had accounts of so many battles and so many different types of warfare that you trusted his or her judgment call in a game. The role of referee in wargaming depends upon real knowledge of warfare.

One obvious example of where you would need a referee in wargaming would be when you have too many for the players alone to manage all the information and play well at the same time. Or, trying to agree to the meaning of certain actions and rules may take so long to judge that play gets bogged down, and something that is supposed to be entertaining is turned into a bore. Or, you might need to have a situation where certain information is secret to other players to simulate the unknowns of war, such as espionage or scouting. So there's practical gaming reasons why you'd want to have a referee. The tradition of referees in Free Kriegsspiel gives the advantage of less rules to know and interpret together with a faster-paced game.

Referees and "Dungeon Masters"

The tradition of Free Kriegspiel referees lives on in Dungeons & Dragons. Later publications by the same name would introduce the term "Dungeon Master." But the original Little Brown Books knew no such phrase. The person to facilitate the session was a referee, just as in Free Kriegspiel. And just as in Free Kriegspiel, that person was expected to be expert in all the relevant areas of knowledge necessary to make the game "realistic," or, in the case of fantasy, as true to the sources, the literature of Sword and Sorcery. In the case of the wargame hobby, this "expertise," is amateur, not professional in nature. This goes back to the original sense of the word "amateur," as someone who just does it for the love of it. There are many cases where an amateur can know more than, or have much more facility with a topic than a so called professional. And that is the kind of expertise we are looking for in this hobby.

Rulings, not rules

The "rules" of Dungeons & Dragons follow this tradition of Free Kriegsspiel. Playing Dungeons & Dragons requires a referee. The booklets themselves encourage referees and groups to interpret the rules in different directions. Referees are encouraged to build their own rules. The building of local, hobby wargaming group includes the assumption that each hobby group, just as with the wargaming hobby in general, will wind up having its own peculiar, local rule set that works for them and that reflects the campaign they have developed on their own.

In his Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, Matt Finch has coined the phrase, "Rulings, not rules," in order to try to catch, in a single pithy, easily memorable phrase, the pith of this approach. The point is that the referee is trusted to make good calls for each unique situation that arises, due to his or her expertise in medieval warfare, medieval fantasy literature, dice probabilities, traditional wargame mechanics, and the like. Over time, these rulings would become a unique set of rules for each wargame club.

For contemporary ears to hear the subtitle of this game correctly, then, it should almost be changed to "Guidines," or "Ideas," or "Suggestions," "a Framework," or "Examples," "for Medieval Fantasy Wargames Campaigns."

Next in the series: "Campaigns"