It’s common to see people saying that old-school games like Dungeons and Dragons (1974), or its new-school sequels like D&D 4E, or indie games like Burning Empires, are like wargames. In at least one case, that’s incontestably true: the covers of all three original D&D booklets announce that these are “rules for fantastic medieval wargames campaigns playable with paper and pencil and miniatures figures.”
However, the meaningfulness of drawing a parallel between any given RPG and “wargames” as an abstract, monolithic entity is hugely overstated. The genre of wargames encompasses enormous diversity in theme, content, and playstyle. Wargames have a considerably longer history than RPGs, and have undergone at least as much change over time. People who talk about something being “wargamey” based solely on their experience of the contemporary wargames industry are talking out their ass. If someone says “Yu-Gi-Oh and poker dice are like RPGs; I know because I’ve seen people playing the Warhammer Fantasy RPG in my game store, and it uses cards and dice with different things printed on each face,” their ignorance is obvious because we’re familiar with the essential nature of RPGs, the diverse ways that can be expressed, and the ways its mass-market expression has changed over time.
I’m not a wargamer. My formative experiences were part of a gaming culture where Diplomacy, Starship Troopers, and Advanced Squad Leader were played alongside Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Stormbringer, and The Fantasy Trip, but I never really got into that side of things. Unlike RPGs, I wasn’t motivated to keep up with more recent wargame designs, or seek out and play predecessors like Little Wars. But having that interest in the roots of RPGs means that I’ve spent a couple of hours reading about the history of wargaming on the internet and going to seminars at Gen Con 2008 (Dave Arneson’s on “My Fantastic Gaming Group” and David Wesely’s on Braunstein). Sadly, this is more than enough experience to dispel at least those commonly-asserted fallacies which relate to D&D and the specific wargaming culture from which it arose.
Wargames aren’t all about combat and death.
The game that was published as D&D grew out of the house rules Dave Arneson was using for his Blackmoor campaign. Although the combat system he used was adapted in part from the Chainmail wargame, the essential gameplay grew out of the Braunstein wargames refereed by David Wesely and, later, by Dave Arneson. Here’s how a participant in the 2008 recreation (which, sadly, I wasn’t able to play in) described the experience:
We then played a game that falls somewhere between a LARP, Diplomacy, boardgame and tabletop RPG. The players were given character roles, turn-based order sheets and some plastic WW2 miniatures to represent our units. After the initial rules explanation and set up phase, players spent the bulk of the game milling around in the hallway outside the room in various groups, negotiating with and plotting against each other. Each of the characters had hidden agendas that required us to betray someone, but we also had to work with others in order to achieve these. A few seemingly random crises events popped up as well, such as a smallpox outbreak and rumors of a looming invasion by Banania’s hostile neighboring state. At the end of the game, each player was asked to vote on who they trusted and distrusted the most. I tallied Dave’s spoken results up on a whiteboard so we could see who would have come out on top in the next government.
The essential concern of a wargame is conflict, but there’s nothing in the form that says what form that conflict has to take or what mechanics will be used to resolve it. One of the proponents of the fallacy that wargame = hack and slash says “the absence of skill system and rules pared back to basics for everything except combat, and a very abstract level of combat resolution, are hall marks of a wargamey system… that’s what you have to get if you return to that system.” Looking at the earliest D&D fanzines, it’s clear that the same people who were interested in this “wargamey” RPG were also playing a lot of Diplomacy, where the absence of any rules except a highly abstract combat system leads to… intensely social play centered around scheming, hidden deals, bluffing, and backstabbing.
Wargames aren’t all about moving figures around a tabletop.
Although players in the Braunstein recreation were given miniatures, they weren’t used (in the original, they tracked which characters were in the same location, like pieces in a game of Clue). The Napoleonic miniatures campaigns Dave Arneson had been playing prior to Blackmoor had been exploring similar directions, using his power as referee to introduce an element of the unknown that tabletop battles could not. He talked about telling one player ““Wait, don’t set up your army just yet. Your situation is that coordination has gone awry; the force you were supposed to link up with wasn’t at the rendezvous point.” He’d take the player into another room and draw him a sketch of the area: “Here’s the river, here’s a road, here’s where you think the sound of cannons is coming from, figure out what you’re going to do while I go see what the other players are up to.”
This is the kind of wargaming that the original D&D rules grew out of. Sure, you could find other wargames that feature tactical maneuvering of figures on a pre-published battlemap. But saying that D&D 3.5 or 4E is like OD&D because both are like wargames is like saying that Minneapolis is like New Orleans because they’re on the Mississippi River.
Wargames aren’t all about choosing between pre-defined options whose outcome is rigidly defined by the rules.
Arneson said that the first wargaming group he joined played with a kriegspiel developed as an officer training exercise by the Prussian military. Like many gamers past and future, they were drawn to using the most comprehensive, complex, and incomprehensible set of rules they could find. The fact that what they had was a bad and incomplete translation from the original German meant that anything a player tried to do could touch off an endless string of arguments about which rules applied and how they should be interpreted.
Arneson and Wesely eventually decided that what this group really wanted to do was argue and rules-lawyer. They wanted to play, so they formed a group of their own. Did they react to the everything-is-subject-to-interpretation environment fostered by the kriegspiel by choosing a system with more clear-cut rules? Many such options were available, polished and throughly play-tested efforts by Avalon Hill’s professional game designers.
Instead, what they choose to do instead was keep the parts of the rules they liked, but create the role of a referee to interpret them. Unlike a simple and clear-cut set of rules laid down in advance, the referee could provide flexible and intelligent adjucation of specific situations. Players could try doing anything at whatever level of detail the group wanted to get into, and create new rules and modify existing ones as play demanded. Unlike interpretation by committee the referee’s decisions were fast and final.
This DIY hobbyist style of wargame play demanded many things of its referees, and downplayed the importance of purchasing new systems for doing different things. Not surprisingly, this is not the direction game publishers followed. Parallels between modern RPGs and modern wargames may be accurate because both reflect commercial pressures and contemporary tastes. That tells you nothing about the kind of wargames that RPGs actually came from and the style of creative referee adjucation and open-ended player freedom that both originally shared.
Wargames aren’t all about abstract gameplay instead of simulating the imagined world.
Giving the referee authority over the rules and how they were applied didn’t end quibbling about the outcomes of player actions in Arneson’s Napoleonic wargame campaigns. If anything, the promise of a referee whose adjucation could take into account everything you could imagine empowered quibbling about historical accuracy. Clearly, the muzzle velocity of a cannon in 1802 meant that my troops could not possibly be taking fire from an enemy position that far away! No, I can totally shoot you because this source it says that the new black powder formulation was available to elite troops on this front!
Arneson said that he was drawn to create a “fantastic medieval wargames campaign” because no one would be able to tell him what a dragon could or couldn’t do! Of course, anyone who’s ever heard RPG players argue about of the game implications of the performance of longbow troops against mounted knights at Agincourt knows what became of this. Still, to say that D&D 4E players argue that of course an ooze can be tripped because the system is wargamey makes as much sense as saying that Silver Age issues of Dragon Magazine devoted so many pages to the aerodynamics of falling human bodies because the system was wargamey.
I don’t think that word means what you think it means. I think it means focused on social play, in which negotiations and alliances are as important as combat; enriched by, but not reliant on, tactical maneuvering of figures on the tabletop; allowed players to try anything they could think of; and emphasized imagination over rules as the key to figuring out what happened.