Friday, March 23, 2012

Grumbler

I am a grognard.

Like many introduced to roleplaying games in the mid- to late Seventies, I was a wargamer first. I started with board-and-chit games - specifically Avalon Hill's 'Bookcase Games,' starting with Tobruk, and later Third Reich, Squad Leader, Panzer Blitz/Leader, and my favorite to this day, Kingmaker, along with several others - then added metal minis, first learning the 15mm Napoleonics house rules used at my local gaming shop, encased in plastic covers in three-ring binders chained the sandtable in the back of the shop.

Roleplaying games slowly consumed more of my free time; my Starfleet Wars Terran squadron was given away around my sophmore year of high school after I started playing Traveller in 1979, for example. The exception was The Sword and the Flame, which I continued to play through high school, publishing a few issues of a 'zine my senior year for TSatF campaigns on the North-West Frontier; rather than falling by the wayside, my TSatF scenarios spun off a couple of 'Great Game' adventures using Boot Hill, with my 25mm Minifigs Punjab Irregulars serving double-duty with some 1:72 plastic Italeri or Atlantic Pathans.

Mashing up wargames and roleplaying games was pretty common, sometimes by design. GDW specifically integrated Traveller with Mayday, Snapshot, and Striker, of course, and I used the rules from TSR's Divine Right for resolving the clash of fantasy armies in my AD&D campaign.

Much has been written about the wargaming roots of roleplaying games. Personally I'm most often reminded of this history when discussions turn to combat in rpgs. After twelve years away from the hobby, I returned with 3e D&D, and I found myself a bit bumfuzzled by gamers who gushed about how 'tactical' 3e was, with its rules for flanking and attacks of opportunity and so forth.

I was puzzled by this for a couple of reasons. First, many, if not most, of the 'tactical' rules that 3e gamers prattled on about had their origins in AD&D. Second, and more bizarrely from my perspective, so much of what they talked about seemed to have more to do with Magic: The Gathering deck building and little if anything to do with tactics as I understand the word.

Coming into the hobby as a wargamer, I found the combat rules in games like AD&D to be simple and intuitive. Frex, nowhere does AD&D spell out the advantage of placing a rank of pikemen ahead of two ranks of heavy crossbowmen, and from my perspective it wasn't necessary for the rules to do so - the pikemen receive a to-hit and damage bonus for setting their pikes against a charge, and the ranks of crossbowmen alternate their fire, as expected from their 1/2 rate of fire, to maintain a steady barrage of bolts. The rules reward tactical thinking, provided you understand the tactics the rules are designed to reward.

But many gamers who came into the hobby after me were not wargamers. The implicit tactics of the rules were lost on them. Furthermore many learned the game through oral tradition rather than reading the rules in the first place, adding a further remove from the wargaming origins. I never realized until I started sharing experiences with other gamers on bulletin boards how exceptional my high school gaming group was: four of us rotated through the referee's chair, and we each poured through rulebooks like the DMG or Mayday, hunting for obscure rules to spring on one another during our turns behind the screen. The net effect was to give us an intimate familiarity with the rules - what the current jargon calls 'game mastery' - that many of our peers apparently never acquired.

To gamers who didn't grok the implied tactics, combat in early roleplaying games could seem sterile, as I learned from many fans of 3e on my return to gaming. But I noticed that after awhile, the 'tactics' of many roleplaying games came to resemble ordering from a Chinese menu, matching class ability from column A against supernatural ability from column B to get the free bowl of egg drop soup or a side of spring rolls. The real-world tactics that wargames attempt to model was increasingly replaced with dissociated mechanics which primarily reward game rules-knowledge.

Experience with wargames contributed to the differences between characters as well. One of the complaints leveled against early editions of the D&D, frex, is that there is nothing to distinguish two fighters of the same level, yet I never found this to be the case because different players chose to emphasize different tactics. Some players wanted their characters to fight like heavy infantry battling toe-to-toe to break the enemy's line, while others wanted theirs to perform more like skirmishers harassing and wearing down the enemy, and they would equip and play their characters accordingly, so even if they were more-or-less identical mechanically, their tactics and peformance in combat varied consistently during actual play.

Even now if you scratch my roleplayer surface you'll find the wargamer gleaming dully underneath. I can't play a game with automatic weapons without adding in rules for suppressing fire, and the fact that I frequently have to do so is a ridiculously common oversight on the part of game designers - I'm looking at you, d20 Modern. One of the reasons I chose Flashing Blades for my current campaign is that it has rules for throwing sand in an opponent's face and kicking him in the junk as well as trying to stick a rapier in his eye, and not Enhanced Mobility and Elaborate Parry. And I still like to mash up wargames and roleplaying games, like AK-47 Republic with Top Secret and Field of Glory with Flashing Blades - I need to set aside some portion of my disposable income toward building 2mm armies for FoG.

Now you kids get off my lawn, or I'll turn the hose on ya.

17 comments:

  1. Great post. Opened my eyes to some of the under utilized tactical considerations in AD&D. Thanks for posting this.

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  2. This is a key element of roleplaying games that's been forgotten. I've often dreamed of using Field of Glory alongside my AD&D games.

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    1. I don't know if I'd call it forgotten so much as poorly understood in the first place.

      A little while back I read a referee complaining that a dwarf character wanted to build a shaped-charge explosive in his D&D game - I pointed out that a petard wasn't really that outlandish for a game with fantasy gunpowder, and the referee admitted he'd never heard of petards before.

      There's a lack of shared experience, vocabulary, and knowledge between wargamer-roleplayers and just-roleplayers that can be tough to bridge if it's not specifically identified.

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  3. Maybe it's because I have been a wargamer far longer than a roleplayer, but excellent post. RPGs lost great opportunities when it shaved off the shared roots with wargaming in the 80s.

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    1. I would like to see more publishers do what GDW did with Traveller, Striker, Mayday, and Snapshot, integrating roleplaying, minis, board-and-chit, and skirmish games.

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    2. That would be Savage Worlds then.

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    3. @Sean, I have PotSM but I don't recall ever seeing a SW tabletop minis war game.

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    4. That is because Savage Worlds is its own minis war game. Actually there is an official minis game called Showdown but is basically the same as the RPG rules with some more bulk friendly rules for ammo and mana counting. Seriously the RPG rules are a great skirmish game, it was designed so your heros could lead squads of 10-40 men against similar sized sets of foes and resolve rounds at a good pace.

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  4. RPGs and Wargames came at almost exactly the same time in my life. I played my first SPI hex and counter wargame 1 weekend before I played Holmes Basic D&D; to me, and almost everyone I played with, D&D and wargames went hand-in-hand. I was deep in the 2nd edition AD&D era before I realized there were RPG players that had NEVER played wargames, it was just an unthinkable concept to me before that, something too alien to consider. I mean, I had met people that preferred D&D to wargames, but to have never experienced them was just unknown.

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    1. I started encountering it as early as 1980, but even the gamers I knew who didn't play wargames were history buffs, so it balanced out a bit.

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  5. Good post. I started playing D&D and wargames at about the same time, although I wasn't as well versed in history as some folks (I tended more to the sci-fi type wargames).

    And to pick up on a throwaway line from your story, I'd like to hear more about your experiences playing Starfleet Wars.

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    1. My experience with SW mostly consisted of my Terran squadrons getting mauled - figuratively and literally - by my friend's Carnivorans. I had a poor fleet build - needed more dreadnaughts - and once I picked up Traveller in '79, my interest in big fleet battles waned.

      I think if I'd started playing Traveller in '77 or '78, I might've used the SW universe, thin as it was, as my Traveller setting. If I had more time, I'd gladly stat up the Monday Knight models in High Guard.

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  6. Meanwhile I've never been interested in war games. I prefer to inhabit a character rather than simply simulate a battle.

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    1. I don't think one precludes the other.

      I mean, we used to roleplay our leaders in Squad Leader, going so far as to arrange a 'prisoner exchange' so we'd have an excuse for our German and Soviet soldiers to meet face-to-face.

      It's not too dissimilar to how En Garde! started out as a fencing skirmish game and turned into a roleplaying game when the players wanted to know more about what their duelists did when they weren't crossing swords with one another.

      Where roleplaying games crossover best is when the characters and the rules for warfare integrate seamlessly. Traveller is very good at this; so is Flashing Blades, where the six-month campaign is a mini-game for characters serving as soldiers.

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