Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Wargaming Roots, Part I

Counter-factual history can be fun, but it can also be seductively misleading, especially when it comes to counter-factual history of arts and culture stuff. For instance, in her book Babel and Babylon, heavy-duty film scholar Miriam Hansen ponders what it might have been like if D.W. Griffith's Intolerance had been a hit with a general audience. Her argument goes that had there been a more positive response to the movie, Hollywood would have followed up with more movies that that used challenging and experimental narrative techniques, and, therefore, the "classical" Hollywood narrative cinema would never have established itself as what audiences expect from narrative cinema in general.

What's seductive in this argument is the idea of a mainstream, popular film culture that was as varied and experimental as, say, the movies of the French New Wave.

What's misleading is that it's exactly those challenging and experimental techniques that the popular audience rejected when it rejected Intolerance.

That is, the dominance of classical Hollywood narrative cinema isn't simply an accident of history: it emerges as the standard of what the popular audience expects from movies because it delivered what the popular audience wanted from movies.

(There's a more subtle argument possible here: that "the system" trained audiences to prefer classical Hollywood movies. I think there's definitely some merit to this idea: culture industry producers try to shape an audience for a product as well as shape a product for an audience. Still, it's important to keep in mind the preferences and desires of the actual people who make up the popular audience do play a part.)

What I really want to talk about, though, is the history of role-playing games.

I was listening to an interview with Jonathan Walton on the Voice of the Revolution podcast and he brought up the idea of role-playing and story games* that were designed as if this kind of game had not evolved out of wargaming. As an example, Jonathan brought up Moyra Turkington's idea for a game designed as if RPGs had emerged as an activity pursued by Victorian women writing letters to each other. That is, if there was a tradition of "letter writing games", where (I assume) women would collaborate on an improvised Clarissa-like novel by writing letters to each other "in character".

So, this kind of as if thinking is a pretty cool design tool, but I think it's also been responsible for some "seductively misleading" conclusions when applied to talking about RPGs and story-games more generally.

How exactly?

Well, it's like this: you start with a mash-up of what SCA-type guys were doing and what wargaming guys were doing and you get something that looks like the original Dungeons & Dragons game. Individual groups develop different playstyles, some of which place an emphasis on using the rules to structure collaborative storytelling. Over the years, new games emerge that attempt to support this playstyle more directly, but (and here's one of the Big Issues with RPGs) most of these new games still have vestigial evidence of their wargame ancestry. So, even though a lot of these games are saying that they are designed to support storytelling, they are still full of rules, procedures, assumptions from wargames that aren't merely extraneous but actively get in the way of attempts to use these games to create stories.

(Hey - this is all stuff I've cribbed from Ron Edwards's great essays, but if you've gotten to this point in the post, you probably already knew that!)

In the past 10 years or so, though, we've seen more games that are designed, top-to-bottom, to create story: games that have thrown out lots of the leftover rules and have broken free from their wargaming roots**. We now have games rules that explicitly, directly, and solely support the activity of creating a story through play. It's only natural for the people making, playing, and thinking about these games to say: "Hey, what if we never had to break free of those wargaming roots to begin with?" Which leads to the idea that because the activities of playing a game to create a story and playing a game to show off skillz (a la an analog version of World of Warcraft are so different from each other that it is "nothing more" than a historical accident that they were ever tied together.

Now, this line of thinking is seductive for a couple of reasons:
  1. As I've already suggested, it's a useful way to approach designing a story-making game.

  2. It allows the folks who are primarily interested in playing story-making games to differentiate that activity from the other kinds of activities that get lumped under the heading of "playing RPGs". I.e., "What we're doing is different from what those guys are doing and its just one of those coincidences that these two different activities were ever intertwined."

Now, I think this is a useful and necessary distinction to make for practical reasons. That is, I want to make sure I'm engaging in an activity where everyone is on the same page and, historically (both in terms of my personal history and the history of the hobby), this has been a big problem.


When you're looking at the history of RPGs and story-games, I think it's probably a mistake to dismiss their evolution from wargames as an "accident of history". That is: there are actual reasons that story-games as we know them did evolve from wargames and not some other kind of activity, like, say, telling campfire stories.

From a logistical perspective, the proto-story-gamers were able to piggyback on wargaming's already-in-place social network. The APAs and gaming conventions allowed the necessary communication and cross-pollination to allow story-gaming to develop into more than just a local phenomenon. Beyond that, though, it's important to look at the values of the people making up that particular social network. But that's going to have to wait for my next post.

*I tend to think of most of the games I play as "story games" and not "role-playing games", but RPG, while not as accurate a term, is probably more generally understandable. I'm going to use both terms here and while I'm not going to use them interchangeably, if you're not an RPG-wonk, feel free to read them as if they were interchangeable.

**Vampire: The Masquerade is a the go-to example of a game that professes to be about making stories, but is burdened with all these rules and assumptions from wargaming (i.e, the initiative system, incentive to build characters for combat effectiveness, etc.) Prime Time Adventures is a good example of a game stripped of any remnants of "wargameyness": the rules focus on character issues, the story arc, and scene-framing.

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