Monday, March 17, 2008

RPG/wargames symbiosis

The move from Chainmail based wargames to fullblown Dungeons & Dragons is often noted by game historians. Often it is described in terms of a conceptual revolution. But even taking that quantum leap for granted, many RPGs include some sort of wargame element. Some games pretty much demand mass combat resolution of some sort. Games set in the genre of giant fighty robots aren't really complete unless you can play out vast armies of mecha slugging it out, for instance. And Pendragon's abstract war rules are definitely needed for an rpg so narrowly focused on the exploits of cavalrymen.

Lately I've been thinking about the origins of the World of Greyhawk. Reading Gygax's words in early Dragon articles and such I get the distinct impression that initially he wasn't 'worldbuilding' in the sense the term is used today. That is to say, creating an artistically inspiring fantasy world was not his foremost goal. Instead, the World of Greyhawk developed initially as a fictional Europe-equivalent for Chainmail campaigns. I think you can still see artifacts of this era of Greyhawk in some of the placenames. I'd bet dollars to donuts that the Kingdom of Keoland got its name because it started life as the home country of Tom Keogh's troops. Similarly, what else could the Grand Duchy of Geoff be but the home country of a player named Geoffrey? The latter is obvious to me as I know for a fact that all people name Jeff are total egomaniacs.

So now I've got this idea in my head that maybe an authentic D&D campaign should run parallel to a wargame campaign using Chainmail or some other set of rules. Players who build castles and gain followers would immediately have something to do with those shiny new toys. Running through a few wargame sessions before starting the D&D game would also give some nice background that would be immediately accessible to the players. Why are you all at the tavern? Because the 23rd Goblin War just ended and you've decided you're not quite ready to go home. Why do you trust the cutthroats, wandering priests, and wizard's apprentices assembled around the table? Because they, too, held the line when the chips were down at the Battle of Felltree Pass. Why the heck are all these bandits and hobgoblins wandering the countryside? Because the war just ended last week and it was the kind of fiasco where nobody really won.

Then let the PCs wander around for almost a year of game time. Maybe they encounter some war refugees. Maybe have the villages they visit are burned to the ground. Maybe the party will parley for a change when they encounter some bandits and you say "They're flying the colors of Lord Remrik, who saved your unit's bacon at Umlo Hill. The hobgoblins destroyed his lands and sacked his castle, banditry is all he has left."

When the 24th Goblin War rolls around the experience will be much richer. The D&D sessions will give the wargame some really juicy context, while the wargaming gave texture to the RPG. Assuming your group likes both kinds of games, that's a win-win scenario.


  1. It's been a long time since I've done the hybrid miniatures-campaign roleplaying campaign, mainly because I always found the scale of timing a bit of extra trouble (battle after battle can pass on the tabletop while the PCs are still fighting to the heart of a single rival baron's castle over the course of multiple sessions), and (more crucially) because I ditched all my tabletop supplies three moves ago :)

    But that said, it can be a very good time.

    The last time I did it, though, I separated the two campaigns ... both were running in the same world, and there were a few threads connecting them, but I relieved the time pressure by setting the tabletop fights 500 years before the RPG campaign, a series of battles that the PCs were "learning" about as the game went, meant to provide foreshadowing in the great question of Whatever Happened To the Dingus They Were Fighting Over? That worked pretty well (at least until two key players changed real-life jobs and their schedules clashed ... sigh).

  2. I ran a minis/RPG game a few years ago.

    The RPing party existed during the times of the minis battles and in some cases took part. It was hard to pull off but it was a lot of work and a lot of fun.

  3. Back in the day we used to do something like this after the PCs had reached name level and built strongholds and whatnot. I was a twerp whose discretionary income couldn't afford minis, but the War Machine rules in the D&D Companion Set worked for us. In fact I loved all of the fiddly domain rulership stuff in the Companion Set - I only ever had one campaign that used it all, but it's the one I look back on with the most affection.

    I've never thought of running a war as a prelude to a D&D game before, though that sounds like a really good idea. Would you put the players in control of opposing sides, or would they take the side of order, civilization and "Law" while the DM runs all of the Chaotic opposition? Are you thinking of using Chainmail as your rules or did you have something else in mind?

  4. Jer, my thoughts right now are to use Chainmail, but I have had success in the past using an old set of Ral Partha rules called Chaos Wars.

    My preference would be to have the players run both sides of the battle(s) with me acting solely as referee.

  5. Jeff, I think this all sounds like a fine time, but with mild concern: why the recent focus on "authenticity" or (echoing another recent thread) what the game was originally ("designed for?").

    I wish you all the best, and you know that (and I think you're getting into some very fun territory, as it happens), but in my experience, seeking external standards for what your game should be about is seldom healthy in the long run.

    I mean this only as concern, not criticism.

  6. Thanks for the note of concern. If I may be brief: inauthentic games also rock on toast.

    File this post as simply research in How Some Old Beardy Dudes Used To Do It And Can Their Stuff Help My Game-ology. I can even add that as a tag if you'd like.

  7. wulfgar1:43 PM

    This definitely sounds cool and from what I've read like something that went on in the early days of D&D. Along with the wargame element of your campaign, you could add a table like the one in FFC to roll on each year or season to see what big events are going on in the world.

  8. James Maliszewski5:04 PM

    The published World of Greyhawk is almost entirely an artifact of publishing. Gary's own campaign world was based loosely on the map of North America, with the City of Greyhawk being located approximately where Chicago in the real world. As D&D grew in popularity, there was demand for a published setting and Gary thought to use his own campaign setting as a basis for such an effort. Unfortunately, his world was at that time still very loose and vague, so he invented what we now know as the World of Greyhawk for the project. He wound up liking the results so much that he later "transposed" his existing campaign on to the new one.

  9. James Maliszewski5:28 PM

    An addendum re: Greyhawk names.

    Gygax loved anagrams and wordplays, so it's no surprise that various places in Greyhawk are named for his friends and family. Keoland is named in honor of Tom Keogh, who I believe died before D&D became the huge success it did. The Grand Duchy of Geoff is named for Jeff Perrin, who co-created Chainmail with Gygax. Perrenland is also named for him.

  10. Because I am a total nimwad for his game, I would like at this point to mention Chris Engle's "Engle Matrix" game. The Matrix Game (as it used to be known before those movies with Ted in them came out) is designed such that, in the course of resolving a battle (or a war, or a skirmish, or an argument over who looks better in a tracksuit), history practically grows around it; it is, in effect, a story-telling game wrapped in a conflict simulation engine.

    "Horsefeathers!", you say. "Poppycock!", you might continue. "Balderdash, fiddle-faddle -- I say, bunk!" Okay, now you're just being stupid. Quit it.

    Anyway, the game is terribly easy to use for the kind of stuff that jeff is talking about, without taking up too much time and fiddling about with minis, assuming that's not your thing. If it IS your thing, then you can try "Politics By other Means", which is, uh, a "Matrix" game with, umn, minis. It's good stuff.

    Great for world-building...and it's free. Go Google it, b'wana!

  11. inauthentic games also rock on toast.

    Many do, many don't. Same as for any other kind ;)

    This definitely sounds cool and from what I've read like something that went on in the early days of D&D.

    Not to mention pretty much every day since.

  12. Cool idea, I think that would be an excellent set up for a campaign.
    Back in the first edition days I played in Hommlet game that centered around gnoll war, but we never wargamed the battles out. Years later when Battle System came out I thought about revisiting the idea but never got around to it.

  13. While I had battle royale using AD&D 1st's BattleSystem and later GURPS Mass Combat. I have found the key to building up a campaign to record your player's accomplishments and make them part of the background.

    In addition I ran theme campaigns to flesh out part of my Majestic Wilderlands background. For example everyone played a wizard, another where everyone played a thief, city guards, clerics.

    Even had a 50 point GURPS game where everyone played somebody who lived on a street in City-State. That was notable for a vampire being killed by a frying pan wielded by the neighborhood priest.

    The results of these past games get thrown into the background for the next campaign.

    For newer campaigns I suggest running a series of one-offs in addition to the minatures battles. Have play member of the Church of the All-might for a single scenario/module, wizards, thieves, or any other major group you want to flesh out.

    With weekly or bi-weekly gaming you should have a wealth of material within a couple of months.

    Rob Conley

    P.S. The best battlesystem game I ran involved this huge fight with an "evil" army. Now the player had wind that this was going to be an Armageddon type fight so where primed for a last stand.

    They won the fight with the "evil" army and thought "Wow we won armageddon!".

    Now for those who don't remember battlesystem had lot of cardboard counters. The base set comes with a good mix of creatures from AD&D. However there was a Dragonlance addition that just was packed with Dragons for obvious reasons.

    So the fight was over and the players were slapping each other on the back. I starting hauling out all those 1" by 2" dragon counter from the original set and dragon and lining them up on the edge of the table.

    The players grew silent. "The cheering of your army has grow silent when all eyes turn to the distant horizon."

    Gesturing at the line of dragon. You see a line of 50 dragons of different chromatic colors flying abreast at you.

    The resulting "Oh shit! It really is Armageddon" was priceless.

  14. Starting out the campaign with a war is pretty brilliant. I've always opened with small stuff that led up to wars.

    I always used a homegrown cobbled together with ideas from the mass combat rules I'd read.

  15. Depending on how much effort you want to put into the battles, not to mention supplying miniatures, I think that the board game Ancients could be a good choice as the "battle system" for a campaign. There used to be a web site with a free version of the game (which was originally published independently and later by 3W). However at the moment all I can come up with is the record:

    Looks pretty complete, though.