Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Wargames, RPGs, and Hybrids

I have very little time at the moment, and I may be nursing a bit of a hangover (it's hard to tell...it may just be too little sleep added to stress and subpar nutrition), so this is going to be a shorty of a post.

Ever since dipping my brain back into wargaming (thanks to watching Chirine's videos...see this prior post), I've been in a weird mental space when it comes to the games I'm designing/working on/brainstorming.

You see there's this assumption that I've been living under for awhile that is (I'm starting to think) is not just fallacious, but A Pretty Bad Idea. Namely that these things we call RPGs (like D&D and its different genre'd ilk), while descended from wargaming roots, have evolved beyond those roots into Role-Playing Games which (by my definition) are games that allow one to role-play, that is:

The act of matching the player's objectives to the objectives of the player's character.

Now, some folks may not remember that a few months back I wrote an eleven (or twelve) post essay called On Role-Playing, that wasn't really "on role-playing" so much as a discussion of the particular instructions for role-playing that are found (or rather, NOT found) in various editions of Dungeons & Dragons. The startling thing I discovered was that there was so little instruction to be had on a topic that is so immensely important to the game itself...the thing that makes an RPG so markedly different from other forms of entertainment. At the time, my knee-jerk reaction to this was "bad on you, D&D" as in, it's a bad game that doesn't offer proper instruction for play.

However, I was operating under that aforementioned assumption...an assumption that D&D had crossed a bridge and was no longer a "war-game," but this new, Promised Land Thing of a role-playing game...just a poor one when considering the objectives of role-playing. And like I said, I'm now starting to think that whole assumption is fraudulent. D&D never "crossed the bridge." D&D IS "the bridge."

In other words the game (and many self-identified RPGs like it) are HYBRIDS. They are not true role-playing games, they are not war-games, they are something in between.

[okay, so just FYI...it looks like I have some more time to devote to this post after all...yay!]

The "action" of the game isn't solely confined to an imaginary space, despite the implicit language of the rules. The concrete, numerical ranges of the game require real measurements, even in virtual space. These ranges include movement, they include distance for combats (both melee and missile), they include the effective range and area of spells and special monster attacks (like dragon breath); they include the measurements of dungeon maps. The inclusion of these ranges prevents the game from being a product solely of the imagination, because they have to be taken into consideration, rather than used only in the abstract.

What would it mean to be "in the abstract?" Well (for example) why not simply say, "the opponent is in missile range" or not? Why not simply say, "I cast charm person at the ogre," as opposed to checking range. Why is granularity important to speed, when you could simply say "you're walking or running" and roll dice (with or without adjustment) to see if you can evade pursuers?

Come to think of it, using real world scale for TIME (ten minute "turns," ten second/one minute "rounds") likewise adds real world considerations (and therefore restraints) on the virtual world. Why not simply have turns and/or rounds and not worry about the time consideration?

The reason, of course, is that the game still has one foot stuck in its wargaming roots.

Now please, this doesn't mean that role-playing can't happen in a game of D&D (even if instruction is a bit inadequate). As I said, these games are hybrids. But the only reason for keeping real time and real distance in the game (as opposed to letting them slide into the abstract) is to preserve the strategy and tactics associated with them. As Gygax says on the subject (paraphrasing the 1E DMG), some folks are going to waste their time, while the 'superior' player will make good use of it.

Players lacking in wargaming roots may simply choose to ignore things like weapon versus AC or length of weapon or speed factor (1st edition PHB), instead simply taking the weapon with the biggest damage die affordable and useable by their character. I can remember my early days of AD&D when the only melee weapons being selected were two-handed swords, long swords, and bastard swords...depending on whether or not you wanted to wear a shield. Later on, we started incorporating things like speed factor and weapon class versus AC to spice things up (especially as more and more of our opponents became high level NPCs, i.e. spell-casters and other weapon/armor users). But as an adult, returning to the D&D game for its role-playing aspects, I found the B/X lack of intricacy to be preferable...after all, if I wanted to play a war-game, I'd play something like Warhammer or Mordheim. Give me optional encumbrance, abstract weapon damage, and a wider latitude for my gaming pleasure.

[before I go any further with this thing, I should probably explain why "real" time and distance are kind of antithesis to "true role-playing." To be brief, having to account for these things mean a certain degree of metagaming, which can take one OUT of the mode of "playing in character," thus hindering the ability to role-play by definition. Except for those with real military (or perhaps architectural) training, we don't usually measure actual distances and times without tape measures and time pieces...things unavailable to your average fantasy adventurer]

SO....having said all that, I should say that I'm NOT faulting D&D (or its many imitators, shared genre or no) with being a "hybrid" game....I'm not disparaging hybrids for being hybrids, in other words. What I'm doing here is ACKNOWLEDGING that this third type of fantasy game exists in place where I used to think there existed only two. I'm adding a category (for my benefit if no one else's) to the general heading of games where people use their imagination and a set of rules for the creation of stories.

[yes, even war games create stories...the end result of a skirmish or battle can be described as "this is what happened" as if an actual event had taken place when, in reality, the only thing that happened is that a game was played. As I've written before, even the basest D&D game creates a story, just not necessarily one that is particularly good, dramatic, or emotionally impactful. Games focused on addressing premise and designed to facilitate story creation...like several indie "Story Now" games...can create fantasies of higher "quality," but the escapism and imagination present in these games (from war-game to RPG) is what links them. At least in my mind]

And so we come to this weird mental space I was talking about, waaaay back at the beginning of this post. As I sit down to write a couple-five, D&D-style games (i.e. "hybrids") I find myself wanting to include rules that push the game either one way or the other...i.e. more "wargamey" or less, rather than split the difference. I find that all the "little adjustments" and "tweaks" that I would give to the D&D system (in hopes of making a "better game") simply - instead - push it more deeply into this weird hybrid realm that I really don't want to spend time in. Because, of course, I like quick-paced games and detest bullet-counting and range-finding in general. Hell, wilderness travel in B/X is so terribly, terribly slow (to play out) that I've tried to find ways to circumvent it completely since...well, since I was ten years old or so. The version in Five Ancient Kingdoms was just one more stab at it, but most likely I'd still "hand wave" travel if I were running a 5AK game in the wilderness. Probably.

But let's not digress too much...here's the thing: one thing people like in their games (including me) is more specificity. Just look at that giant chart of weapons in the 1st edition PHB (or even the 3rd edition PHB)! People love the customization that comes with feats and skills and minor adjustments to characters to get little in-game advantages....and I've tried (in my games) to give folks this, too, while still keeping games streamlined and simple-ish.

HOWEVER, this kind of thing is really only useful in a hybrid game!

In a wargame...even a skirmish-scale one like Mordheim, you want to cut down on excessive characterization in order to keep the game moving. The original Warhammer 40K provided extreme detail and individual characterization, and you can see GW's move away from this with every successive edition (it's just too unwieldy otherwise to play out a battle).  And yet for a game of "pure" role-playing that forgoes actual measurements of time and distance...well, most of these little "extras" are designed to specifically address these measurements (or make an impact through these measurables)!

Okay, now my time really has run out; I've got a kid's birthday party that I've got to get ready for. I'll consider posting some specific examples later (like tomorrow) using an actual game or two I'm in the process of writing up.

Till then.
; )


  1. I really like it when smarter folks are able to put into words the ideas that I can only grasp at. This is what it means to "stand on the shoulders of giants." To read it just like that:

    D&D is the bridge. It is the first step off the battlefield and into the dungeon, not set in one or the other.

    The heroes who formerly led units have shed some, but not all, of their stodgy military personna and taken on new glamour like a boy trying his father's suit on. He's not quite there yet but he's going to grow.

    1. Um...thanks!

      (I think that's supposed to be a compliment?)

  2. You may be aware of this. Chainmail (the miniature game that d&d was inspired from and was included in the original rules as "recommended equipment") actually has a 1 minute turn with abstract rounds of combat. There can be an unlimited amount of combat rounds within the turn. Though it rarely will go past three before a morale check is required. Thought I'd mention that since it's unique in a bean counting way (:

    To me, it is the structure of the turn that is appealing about wargames. Everything has it's place and order.

    Role-playing, on the otherhand, has a more seat of the pants thing going for it.

    1. I am very familiar with Chainmail, having researched it extensively as the basis for the combat system in Five Ancient Kingdoms. The 1 minute combat round of AD&D (1E) is the direct descendant of Chainmail's combat turn...in fact, OD&D often uses the term "turns" and "rounds" interchangeably, only stating that turns outside of combat are longer in duration.

  3. What you are talking about is precisely the reason that some of us were pushing to return to the earlier term "adventure game" in place of "role-playing game" a couple of years back. But, the term "RPG" is just too ensconced in referring to D&D and similar games at this point, despite being, as you point out, not precisely correct. You're probably going to be better off coming up with a new term for what you want your defined "role-playing" games to be (much as "story games" has become attached, to one degree or another, to stuff that uses Forge theories of gaming).

    1. Also, adventure games aren't merely a bridge from "pure" wargaming to "pure" roleplaying. They are a distinct and enjoyable type of game in themselves.

  4. @ faol and shlomo:

    That's probably why I called Five Ancient Kingdoms a "fantasy adventure game" and removed the term "role-playing" from the text completely. I am strongly considering doing the same for all my hybrid games...if I allow them to remain as "hybrids."

    1. Well, I am surely in favor of the "adventure game" term.

  5. The older I grow, the less satisfied I am getting about hybrid games (to use your terminology.) I am loving 13th Age exactly because it dispenses with all attempts at physical measures of distance (and even time.) It just makes sense, when you consider the level of abstraction involved in a roleplaying game.

    1. @ Antonio:

      And yet, there's still something lovable about the hybrid game for me...at least the simple ones like B/X and Holmes Basic.