D&D Was a Wargame: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

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.


19 Responses to “D&D Was a Wargame: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means”

  1. 1 alvordian
    March 5, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Nice post. Although I have felt that 4e has gotten closer to the wargame roots of the hobby, you make very accurate arguments here. My lake of enthusiasm for 4e wasn’t really born out of the tactical aspect or the seemingly required miniatures..instead it was for the lack (IMHO) of exploration and npc interaction which were hallmarks of D&D up to this point. 4e now seems all about encounters, which is about as wargamey as one can get I suppose.

  2. March 5, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    “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’.”

    I presume you are being tongue-in-cheek here. Certainly, there are a few, shallow critics of old-school play out there, who try to “prove” that original D&D is a wargame by citing the language on those original D&D covers.

    The problem is, that once you crack the books open, it becomes crystal clear that D&D, even in its earliest incarnation, is not a wargame. The language on the covers is there, because the authors didn’t have any other way to describe what D&D was, and the “initial” audience, they were writing for, was wargamers. That’s it. You don’t see D&D described as a wargame by the authors of that game, once the role-playing game language itself starts to develop.

    Any critics, suggesting that the language on the original D&D covers somehow “prove” that D&D is a wargame, have become desperate indeed.

  3. March 5, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    @Alvordian: One important distinction within wargame play is between a campaign and a stand-alone game. I agree that the focus on encounters makes 4E more like a stand-alone wargame. In a wargaming campaign like Arneson and Weseley’s Napoleonic one, the losses that your forces suffer and the resources you gain can have a huge impact on the course of continued play. When I used to play the Necromunda skirmish wargame, you could often win individual battles but see your ranking in the league fall because taking casualties opened you up to bad luck in post-battle recovery (brain replaced by a squig!) or replacement (you lose your chainsword fanatic with two Weapon Skill advances, and roll Ballistic Skill advances for the new guy assigned to that mini).

    Even original D&D moves away from that kind of campaign play a little bit by imposing an arc of heroic progression. With the possible exception of Call of Cthulu, I’ve never seen a RPG party undergo a long dwindling of resources and prowess following one losing engagement after another, the way my Necromunda warbands did all too often.

    4E goes much further by “re-setting” so that each encounter is essentially a new stand-alone challenge, and removing as not-fun all the dwindling resources that in older D&D would mitigate against the overall progression in power, like losing your magic sword to a rust monster or having the death of a character cause them to lose a level/constitution, be incapacitated for weeks, or replaced by a starting-level dude. But this doesn’t make 4E more or less “wargamey” – it just causes it to more resemble the one-shot kind of wargame play than the campaign kind.

    @Paladin: Who am I to say that Arneson and Gygax were wrong when they called D&D a wargame? In asserting that it’s not, you’re prioritizing your understanding of what a wargame that means over theirs. At his Braunstein lecture, Wesely gave a very perceptive rundown of why he’d always opposed the label of “role playing game” (in part because of all the other things that term already meant, some of which I mention in my Fight On piece about improv). Sure, having a specialized way to refer to that kind of wargame that D&D exemplified was useful enough that once such a term existed, everybody quickly adopted it, just like nobody nowadays feels it necessary to refer to a “digital computer” unless they need to recontextualizing it as one of a class of other kinds of (analog, quantum, etc.) computing devices. But I think one of the valuable contributions of the OSR for me at least is to force a re-evaluation of what wargames are and can be, and why it’s still valuable and meaningful to see them all as branches of that tree.

  4. March 5, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    While I can agree with many, if not all of the conclusions you present, I think it is fair to suggest that you are presenting them in a certain and specific light, name that of being in comparison to OD&D. Clearly your interpretation (or should I say, your presentation) of what wargaming (was in light of the sort the Col. and Dave developed, and soon became proto-OD&D) is or was is not conclusively true comparing wargames to wargames.

    Diplomacy is not Kriegspiel is not Squad Leader, etc.

    It is important to be aware of a writer’s intent to help parse the accuracy of their statements.
    –I don’t impute sophistry to your presentation, only suggest a degree of bias.

    Interesting reading nonetheless. :)

  5. March 5, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    @Timeshadows: Shucks, why do I spend all that time writing introductory paragraphs if not to lay out where I’m coming from? Although I was surprised to see I know more about Games Workshop skirmish wargames than I realized, it’s still pretty much true that my understanding of “what wargaming is” is strongly focused by my interest in the particular wargaming scene Arneson and Wesely represented and how it relates to OD&D, and by extension to other RPGs.

    As long as that particular scene is part of what wargaming is, it’s valid if pedantic to criticize people for using “wargamey” in ways that ignore the existence of that kind of wargame play. And IMO it’s both valid and important to criticize people who use their ignorance of wargame history to suggest that “progress” in RPG design involves climbing out of some rude ooze of hexes, chits, and lead minis in order to evolve whatever kind of story/social/creative/etc. play they think is superior, when in fact wargames had already occupied and explored that territory.

  6. March 5, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Sorry, I presumed you were simply being cheeky about OD&D being a wargame.

    As you can see from my comments, my analysis differs from yours, but I can cheerfully agree that OD&D was an outgrowth of the wargaming hobby.

    This is one of my favority blog-sites, thanks for continuing to provide excellent food-for-thought.


  7. March 5, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    Sooner or later we must realize the limits of analysis and either roll some dice or tell jokes about mules. I myself reach this point when I see that even I cannot decide whether, since I think wargames are a kind of game, and RPGs are a kind of wargame, and LARPS are a kind of RPG, does that mean LARPers are wargamers?

    Sadly I am all out of jokes, so I will go roll some dice for random encounters with which to bedevil the White Sandbox expedition on Sunday.

  8. 8 alvordian
    March 7, 2010 at 8:58 am

    @tavisallison- I’d agree on the points in your reply. It does make one reconsider the use of the epithet “wargamey”. And it would be an interesting D&D campaign that imposed the same possible penalties and rewards that one got in an Arnesonian/Weseley type wargame campaign.

  9. March 11, 2010 at 12:39 am

    I this this is an interesting topic of discussion that seems to be an ongoing one lately on many blogs out there. To me the reality is that D&D and RPGs in general grew up with and around Wargaming and miniature gaming (as this article and previous posts are asserting). As far as whether or not 1st, 2nd, Basic eds D&D were “wargames” or maybe more just miniature reliant games all I can say is TSR would produce miniatures and encourage their use in game play (I’ve been roundly corrected for saying Gygax used minis in his games, apparently he posted to a forum at one point and said he didn’t). Yet many (if not most) players who played D&D back in those days didn’t use minis and others were effectively running D&D games as tactical miniature skirmish games. Regardless of the age old question of “miniatures or no miniatures” RPGs clearly broke the mold on Wargames and added new dynamics to tabletop gaming that weren’t there previously. Yet to deny that RPGs have their roots in Wargames is just not true. I think clearly there is influence, but yes even original D&D is different and apart from the standard Wargames of that day so calling D&D a straight up “wargame” would be more than a misnomer. However the current versions of D&D are tactical skirmish games and there are countless RPGs on the market that have no use of miniatures what so ever and really bear no resemblance to any type of traditional Wargame.

  10. March 11, 2010 at 1:37 am

    “Yet many (if not most) players who played D&D back in those days didn’t use minis and others were effectively running D&D games as tactical miniature skirmish games.”

    Agreed. I think that it’s important for us to understand the nature of the wargames that Arneson’s group were used to because it yields insights into what they thought D&D was about, and what they designed it to do well.

    But of the millions of players across the history of the game, an infinitesimally small fraction knew or cared about the way the original campaign approached it! So I think it’s equally important for us to remember that from the moment that the first wood-grain boxes were sold, people began trying to take D&D in different directions. My feeling is that for many people back in the day, original D&D didn’t do the things they wanted, and as a result there would have been people in 1979 who would have welcomed a 2nd edition novelistic D&D or a 3rd edition mechanically rationalized D&D or a 4th edition streamlined abstract D&D – just as we know that there were people who recognized that AD&D was moving in a different direction and stuck with OD&D and what it does uniquely well.

  11. August 20, 2013 at 10:04 am

    Quick cut n paste from today that applies I think
    long story short. If I wan’t too talk about the size of small I’m jumping on the recursive train conducted by Mr Mobius, Epimenides engineering , Douglas Hofstadter and Rudy Rucker Trainmen (Jay hoboing trying to find Rockcandy Mountian) This is a no stops express straight to miscomunication town by way of
    “The following sentence is true. The preceding sentence was false.” junction and we’re on our way to visit Uncle Tom who won’t let us in because we’re not there yet and we always end up in the same routine
    “So Jon found this glassblowers when they went down to Cali and got this little dragon.”
    “How little man?”
    Natural language is like Natural Ice when it comes to precise accuracy in areas like that BUT we are not getting diddly squat for this beyond entertainment, entertainment, entertainment I tell you, no dead sheep on the wall, come to think on it how many beers could I’ve…. your gonna go a LOT further in motley that your cap and gown toward entertaining (furthrer maybe TOO far)

  12. August 20, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    From the Forward Men & Magic

    Tactical Studies Rules believes that of all forms
    of wargaming, fantasy will soon become the major contender for first place. The
    section of this booklet entitled Scope will provide an idea of just how many possibilities
    are inherent in DUNGEONS and DRAGONS.
    These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those
    who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping
    through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do
    not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray
    Mouser pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find
    DUNGEONS and DRAGONS to their taste.

    Dungeons and Dragons (you have it!)
    Outdoor Survival (available from your hobby dealer or directly from Avalon Hill
    Company, 4517 Harford Road, Baltimore MD 21214)
    Dice — the following different kinds of dice are available from TSR
    1 pair 4-sided dice 1 pair 20-sided dice
    1 pair 8-sided dice 1 pair 12-sided dice
    4 to 20 pairs 6-sided dice
    Chainmail miniature rules, latest edition (available from your hobby dealer or
    directly from TSR Hobbies, POB 756, Lake Geneva, Wi. 53147)
    1 3-Ring Notebook (referee and each player)
    Graph Paper (6 lines per inch is best)
    Sheet Protectors (heaviest possible)
    3-Ring Lined Paper
    Drafting Equipment and Colored Pencils
    Scratch Paper and Pencils
    1 Patient Referee

    Please note Whitebox is FIVE not three FIVE books

    Outdoor Survival (available from your hobby dealer or directly from Avalon Hill
    Company, 4517 Harford Road, Baltimore MD 21214)

    Chainmail miniature rules, latest edition (available from your hobby dealer or
    directly from TSR Hobbies, POB 756, Lake Geneva, Wi. 53147)

    “The problem is, that once you crack the books open, it becomes crystal clear that D&D, even in its earliest incarnation, is not a wargame. ”

    What books did you “crack” to gain clarity? (you take Sally, and I’ll take Sue, there ain’t no difference between the two…)

    Here’s a couple of quick examples from Men & Magic

    Finally, “faithful” men will come to such a castle, being
    fanatically loyal, and they will serve at no cost. There will be from 10-60 heavy
    cavalry, 10-60 horsed crossbowmen (“Turcopole”-type), and 30-180 heavy foot.

    Massmorph: This spell is used to conceal up to 100 men (or creatures of near man
    size) as a woods or orchards. The concealed figures may be moved through without
    being detected as anything other than trees, and it will not effect the spell. It
    will be negated by a command for the caster or by means of a Dispell Magic spell.
    Range: 24″.

    Mass Invisibility: This spell is similar to Invisibility except that it affects as many as
    6 dragon-sized objects or from 100-300 men and horses. Duration: until dispelled.
    Range: 24″.

    Ice Storm: When cast this spell creates a cubic storm area of 3″ per side. Great
    hailstones descend causing 3-30 points of damage to those within its confines (saving
    throws are not possible). Duration: 1 turn. Range: 12″.

    I have played boardgames as long as I can recall, got my first wargame “Tactics II” in ’73 by ’74 Pop’s had dug up the ancients miniatures group and my birthday ’76 I got Whitebox and a little army of about 100 skeletons as “recommended” with Chainmail and the Wilderness Survival Game from Avalon Hill. I want to say it was a letter from TSR with this information but this is hitting the WAY way back button and I can’t vouchsafe the “memory” I know Whitebox however and I CERTAINLY can vouch for the Wargame nature of Whitebox in full implementation not only from the rules or the fact that I had a little army of skeletons, although this points to something I’m may have missed but didn’t see and thought it should be mentioned. There was no questioning that skeleton up sale, by FAR the biggest dime dropped that day on yours truly, about double the amount spent on the ruleset ~$25 rules & ~$50 lead and that kind of money didn’t drop down unless you were sure all was right with there with the world and we were sure that mini’s were “gaming” because the miniatures, boardgamers, and RPG gamers were the same group we been attending about a year by then. There wasn’t a separation of any kind except at table with the games for that weekend having Players circulating according to the interest and commitments of the Player and “Wargaming” was gaming and Fridays were Wargaming night when we went to our Wargaming Group. Role Playing was party games like charades during a time when there was not loads of electronic and home entertainment equipment and such games were popular and well understood generally and to role play was to engage in silly, party (tippling) casual games. May as well have called it the checkers or chutes and ladders or tic, tac, toe group.
    Pretty important there I think, and it’s also worth noting that depending on how one counted the tables and charts D&D developed very important features the Greyhawk and Blackmore supplements as well as the periodical with the 3rd called Monster Manuel

    CREATURE FEATURE, “The Mind Flayer”
    — #2 Contains RANGERS!, “A New D & D Class”
    — #3 is “THE MONSTER MONSTER ISSUE”, with over a
    Dozen New Monsters for D & D!
    -#4Contains IOUN STONES — Vancian Misc. Magic
    ILLUSIONISTS — a new sub-class
    CLAY GOLEM — fierce new monster

    $3 was money back then, not everyone had the same game owing a nice bit to the fragmented release of features like;
    ALTERNATIVE COMBAT SYSTEM: (Additions and Changes)
    For those who wish to include weapon types in the determination of hit probabilities
    the following matrix drawn from the “Hand-To-Hand Combat” section of CHAINMAIL
    is offered. If this system is used it is suggested that the separate damage by
    weapon type and monster type also be employed.
    That’s right… All attacks which score hits do 1-6 points damage…1d6dam for a weapon in Whitebox period.
    Here is the Man & Magic complete text for the Chainmail Melee system
    Fighting Capability: This is a key to use in conjunction with the CHAINMAIL
    fantasy rule, as modified in various places herein. An alternative system will be
    given later for those who prefer a different method.
    The different method
    This system is based upon the defensive and offensive capabilities of the combatants;
    such things as speed, ferocity, and weaponry of the monster attacking
    are subsumed in the matrixes. There are two charts, one for men versus men or
    monsters and one for monsters (including kobolds, goblins, orcs, etc.) versus men.
    And it has a page with 2 “matrixes”
    Armor 20-Sided Die Score to Hit by Level*
    9 armors in rows 6 lvl grp’s in column and if you didn’t have lead or lots of sup material you could throw a dungeon together and throw on that d20 matrix soooooo

  13. 13 Michael Mornard
    September 24, 2013 at 12:59 am

    “Whitebox is five books”? I don’t know about that, but the original BROWN box was three books.

    BROWN. Not white. BROWN.


    Also, how many of the “experts” checking in here have ever played a miniatures wargame?

  14. 14 flyingtigercomics
    December 1, 2015 at 10:48 am

    Reblogged this on Flying Tiger Comics.

  15. 15 Karl Gustafsson
    February 8, 2022 at 6:53 pm

    Rogue Trader, the first edition of Warhammer 40k, also had scenarios and scenario creation that referenced a referee player. Information could be hidden from one or both players, including the composition of the enemy forces, how features on the board worked or even parts of the map itself. The ref plays any neutral forces present like space vampires and alien man-trap plants.

    In the starter scenario, the ork player has a secret objective. Two ork officers of his band knows where they have stashed a treasure (right under a farmstead occupied by a marine captain). By moving one of these ork models into that room (alone, they don’t want to share) they can unearth the stash for some victory points.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2010

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