Thursday, August 17, 2023

Learning From The Oldest School

Tony Bath was a British wargamer who founded the Society of Ancients and (in certain circles) is celebrated for his long-running "Hyboria" campaign, based mainly on the setting Robert Howard created for his Conan stories. While Bath died in 2000 (at the age of 74), his writings have been collected and are still published by The History of Wargaming Project (edited by John Curry) under the title Tony Bath's Ancient Wargaming.

Good read.
Bath's writing, especially his 1973 work, Setting Up A Wargames Campaign, is remarkable because despite it being written about wargaming for wargamers, much of it (especially the thought process and philosophy) is directly applicable to Dungeons & Dragons and the burgeoning Dungeon Master seeking to build their own RPG campaign. Conclusions that I've only reached after decades of playing and pondering and reading the blogs/writings of folks much smarter than me, were carefully outlined by Tony Bath years before I ever laid eyes on the Moldvay Basic box.

Of course, it is no secret that D&D was created by wargaming enthusiasts. But when I write that Bath's book is directly applicable to the D&D game, I'm not talking about his rules for conducting tabletop battles, historical or otherwise. While such battles can be a part of one's D&D campaign (see the Gygax novels I mentioned in my last post as examples), the rules of D&D are far more concerned with the small scale actions of individual heroes (i.e. the player characters) then the movements and actions of troops. Instead, it is Bath's procedures and philosophy of creating and running campaigns and world building where one finds golden instruction.

It is only the vocabulary used that needs to be [slightly] altered.
"Almost all new [D&D players] start their careers by fighting a succession of single, unconnected [adventures]; this is inevitable since it takes time to get the feel of the hobby, to learn the rules, etc. But if a new recruit is really going to take up [D&D play], then before very long he begins to feel that something is lacking; that these individual [adventures], though well enough in their way, need some connecting link to make them more satisfying and to give an objective other than just trying to [kill monsters, delve for treasure]. In other words, the desire to [play] campaigns rather than ["adventures"].

"What makes campaigning so rewarding? Why, if you have fairly limited time available for the hobby, should you use time that could be spent in fighting on the table-top in [dealing with the minutia of encumbrance, rations, resource management, etc.]? The answer is that no real-life general could limit himself to the purely tactical problems of the battlefield, and a campaign is the way in which the [D&D player] general widens his horizon. 

"The player who merely participates as a [player character] finds the opportunity to practice strategy as well as tactics. He may find himself having to solve problems of supply and finance, and, if the campaign is a complicated one, matters of diplomacy, etc. as well. He must learn one of the hardest lessons for [of D&D play]: when to cut his losses and abandon [an adventure], instead of fighting to the bitter end.

"The [player] who [acts as a DM] to run a campaign gains even more, for he can give full reign to his creative genius, both as regards the rules he uses and the countries and characters he creates. A radio interviewer once asked me whether the desire to run a mythical continent of my own was a sign of power mania; I replied that this was possibly true to some extent, since most of us like playing God to some degree, but more important was the freedom it gave to a bent for organizing things.

"As your campaign develops, you will find yourself adding fresh angles to it which, while quite unnecessary from a purely practical viewpoint, can add much fun and interest to the proceedings.

"It is however true of campaigning, as of so many other things, that the amount of enjoyment to be obtained from it is pro rata to the amount of effort that is put into it. This will vary from person to person and group to group according to ow much time and interest people have to spare, but the main ingredient necessary is enthusiasm for the project and a sense of responsibility toward the other players. 
"...if you are running a large or complicated campaign it is necessary to pick your players wisely."
[excerpted, with adjustment, from the introduction]

None of which is very new info to longtime readers of geezer blogs like this I said, the remarkable bit is just how much of it is applicable to D&D and how old this material is. 

Following the introduction, Bath gets down to the nitty-gritty of building one's campaign from the ground up...assuming you are creating a fictional setting like Bath's own Hyborea campaign. And, of course you are: you are a Dungeon Master for a D&D game that is going to have magic and monsters and whatnot even if it is set in (a fantasy version of) our real world.  Bath discusses the drawing of maps, the outlining of political borders, the importance of rivers and roads and natural features, the seeding of population centers, and the impact and use of weather. He discusses setting up factions and characters (and their personalities), determining resources and economics of nation-states, and how all these things drive the campaign, creating dynamic environments and providing ideas for situations and scenarios. 

It is all good advice and most of it is readily adaptable to one's D&D game.

What I am lauding here is practical application of Bath's procedures to world-building. This is not about crafting histories and backstories and "plots" or "story arcs." These things are unnecessary to creating and running a campaign that is vibrant and engaging for the players.

What IS necessary is a world with things to do. A world with a degree of verisimilitude, where there are consequences (good, bad, and indifferent) to the actions of the players. A world that gives the players the chance to make an impact based on their own actions. 

Of his own campaign world, Hyboria, Bath writes the following:
"Like all good things, Hyboria had small beginnings. In the early days I had no experience of campaigns and only the vaguest ideas on rules of map movement; things like finances, supply, etc. had not yet reared their ugly heads with all their attendant complications. So we...usually just decided to have a war between two countries and set up one or possibly two battles which decided the result of the war. That was back in the dim and distant past -- in fact the first two or three battles were actually fought on the floor with 54mm solid figures -- a process I definitely don't recommend.

" The long history of Hyboria (which is all recorded in very considerable detail) began with the first Brythunian war when the ambitious King Mamedides of Hyperborea invaded its southern neighbor. This resulted in the Battle of Warrior's Pass, fought under the most extraordinary rules, and the repulse of the invasion. I commanded the Brythunians on this occasion; I then changed and led a second Hyperborean invasion, which was more successful..."
Please take note: the history of Bath's campaign world (which he chronicled in SoA's bi-monthly newletter Slingshot) BEGAN with these first battles. His world was created by adapting various real world cultures (ancient Greek and Roman and Persian, medieval European and Viking, American Indian, etc.) to a fictional map drawn from Howard's tales, and then assigning it characteristics: here is a wealthy country. Here is an ambitious ruler. Here is a mountain pass. How do these things intersect with each other to create an interesting, playable scenario?  

Do we care what has gone before (play began)?  No! What matters is the play of the game. The world-building sets the stage for the play. We may, after play begins, chronicle the history of how play legends arose from our gaming table...if it so amuses us (as, generally, it does). But as players of a game (whether Dungeons & Dragons or a wargame), it matters not a whit to us WHY, for example, a PC became a magic-user instead of a druid or monk. We do not care about backstory or motivation; we are not actors researching a role for a play, nor authors plotting a trilogy of novels. What we care about is the situation at hand and how the game will play out.

Dungeons & Dragons was created by wargamers, and its no wonder: in Bath's writing he constantly name-drops fantasy authors like Tolkien, Leiber, Srague de Camp, etc. (authors found in Gygax's "Appendix N") as being widely read by members of his Society of Ancients and being inspirational reading for wargaming campaigns...even though SoA itself decided very early on NOT to include anything "fantastical" in their rules and games. The idea of "fantasy adventure" fires the passions and imaginations of LOTS of people, not just wargamers. But wargamers, by trade, seek to create rules and model adventure in a fashion that allows its experience in a safe, comfortable environment. Around the gaming table, in other words. 

D&D, and other fantasy adventure games, simply "drill down" to a more specific, smaller level than large scale warfare.  And by doing that, they make the experience of play even more intense and personal to the people involved. Which might account for why the FAG hobby has more devotees than wargaming in the present, even if there is a lot of confusion on the best way to run/play the game.

More blueprint posts to follow.


  1. Fucking BRILLIANT!! Begging your pardon, but this may be your most salient post. At least as it spoke to me!

  2. Not to overly distract you, but what do you count as "fantastical"? Does that include anything that does not actually exist in the real world, or can we include things that are imaginary, but follow the kind of precepts and concreteness that real world items and creatures do? Is it fantastical if Mongols are restyled as urukhai, but the urukhai conform in every way to the standard behaviour of Mongols, except that they're taller, beefier and supported by the occasional cave troll?

    Or can we weigh "fantastical" in a strict definition of the word, as something that could not be seen in any degree as a believable object or possibility, as too many laws of physics and biology are being broken?

    1. Hm. "How does one define fantasy?" Good question.

      For purposes of THIS post, I am referring to anything not based in actual history. One wants to re-fight the Peloponnesian War (for example) with the same historical troops? Not really fantastical, though the result might end up different from actual history.

      Re-skinning Atilla's Hunnish horde as orcs or goblins is a stickier subject, even giving the horde similar weapons and tactics. For me, I suppose, I would still call this "fantastical" because such creatures are not human, and there is a LOT of consequences to such a fact. Despite historic xenophobia, prejudice, etc. humans are, indeed, still human, even if we treat them as "orcs." An alien species...even an overly "fecund" one like Gygax's orcs...are in the end something overtly different, with consequences thereof.

      I guess, for me, there is a difference between "alternate history" (i.e. "what could be") and "fantasy" (something that is not).

  3. Well noted. This book has been one of the obscure treasures I have discovered in my gaming career. While being ostensibly about wargaming*, its lessons are entirely applicable to a larger-scale RPG campaign. As you write, it is an inspiring and well-written guidebook to developing a campaign-level perspective. In this sense, it is closest in its mindset to Gary's DMG, and should be read with similar eyes. It is probably not something you *need* to read when you start GMing, but it can be tremendously useful when you wish to scale up from that. As noted in the parts you cite, it is the jump from battles (adventures) to campaign play where these considerations surface.

    Definitely worth owning, and unlike a lot of high-priced collectibles, you can just grab a copy from Amazon.

    * This term needs to be clarified a little: in the book's context, Bath is talking about a complex form of wargaming that's less Warhammer, and more 4X games like Civilisation or Crusader Kings.

    1. While I have played a lot of Warhammer over the years, I would not really equate it with "wargaming" (apologies to Rick Priestly), despite some elements of campaign play in the original (1st edition) 40K rules.
      ; )

  4. Second the recommendation for this book. I grabbed it a few years ago on a recommendation from Kellri. It's right up there with the DMG for pre-campaign planning and world shaping.

    Great post

    1. I can't remember if I first heard of Bath on the Hills Canton blog or Grognardia, but it took me till 2020ish to buy/read the book. Would have saved me a lot of trouble if I'd picked it up 10 years earlier.

  5. Ok. This is interesting. I don't have any of substance to add here, save that I will add this book to my TBR pile. Every so often I enter into a "re-grounding" phase of my game development where I go back to the classics* to recharge my creative batteries. This might be a very good one to add, to at least get a different perspective.

    (* My "classics" might not be the same as others.)

  6. Huh. I had no idea he was still in print. I had a copy of him years ago but lost it in a fire. Perhaps it's time I replaced that, I'd assumed it was gone forever.

  7. Fascinating. Reading the excerpts you highlighted the applicability to D&D seems so obvious now, but the book remains obscure.

    I can't help but wonder whether these topics influenced Dave Wesley and his Baunstein game that led to Dave Arneson's Blackmoor game. While the book referenced is from 1973, other publications by Bath had been available from the mid 60s and perhaps made their way to the USA.

    1. I would imagine that even if Bath's work wasn't specifically known to Gygax, Arneson, etc. in the USA, his influence and impact would still have been felt. His usual partner in crime, Don Featherstone, was highly prolific in wargaming journals and 'zines (Bath was, too, of course) that were published in Canada and the US in addition to the UK, at least as far back as the 1960s.

    2. Bath would be familiar to Gygax through Gush and also through the connection of Jack Scruby and his War Games Digest.

  8. the Curry Wargames project is a godsend! I've been able to replace many of my foundational works that I'd lost. I highly recommend the Pioneers of Wargaming series, you'll find an awful lot to inform and delight a roleplaying gamer. indeed wargaming and roleplaying both exist on a spectrum...I've always seen them as the same thing...even an Avalon Hill chit and hex game is really a RPG, as you assume the role of a general (or several)....

  9. Fourthing or fifthing the recommendation for this book, which provides a lot of the context that would've been implicitly understood by wargamers in the 70s but was lost in later decades as that hobby became more circumscribed and commercialized (just like D&D) and in most people's minds now means nothing beyond episodic small-scale tactical battle scenarios a la Warhammer or Squad Leader.

    I don't know if Gygax was familiar with Tony Bath and his Hyboria campaign pre-D&D (IIRC Rob Kuntz has suggested he wasn't) but Dave Arneson definitely was. Jon Peterson's Game Wizards book (on page 59) quotes a letter Arneson wrote to Bath in early 1975 in which he seems almost embarrassed by and apologetic about D&D as-published: "I am certainly not in the most desirable position of saying D&D is a perfect set of rules, they are far from it ... in fact they are very susceptible to being wrecked by a poor referee due to the poor layout and explanations ... still, I feel that they are not all that bad."