1d. Role-playing Wargames

The first set of rules for Dungeons and Dragons

"The popular Dungeons and Dragons game has sold eight million sets. The game is based on occultist plots, images, and characters which players 'become' as they play the game. According to Mrs. Pat Pulling, founder of the organization Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, the game has been linked to nearly fifty teenage suicides and homicides."

Tipper Gore, Raising PG Kids in an X-rated Society 118 (1987)

Role-playing games are a genre arguably connected to wargames, though many wargamers might deny this. Role-playing began with Dungeons and Dragons, and though current role-playing takes a vast variety of forms, it has never entirely escaped its association with Dungeons and Dragons.  Dungeon and Dragons had strong roots in traditional wargaming, as is obvious from the cover of the first game book.  The original edition of Dungeons and Dragons, published in 1974, was subtitled "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures."  The company that published the games was TSR, an abbreviation of "Tactical Studies Rules."  Though role-playing games originated in standard medieval-period miniature gaming, they differ substantially and radically from most other wargames.  Dungeons and Dragons, the first role-playing game, abandons four of the traditional trappings of wargames.

First, Dungeons and Dragons abandons historical accuracy in favor of fantasy.  Magic and mythological creatures are as powerful as muskets and marching columns.  The game system draws heavily on the literature of J.R.R. Tolkien and other fantastic authors as sources for the rules of combat and the setting of the games.[1]  

Second, Dungeons and Dragons abandons the "general's view" and encourages players to identify with a single alter-ego rather than to command an entire regiment or army.  In fact, the game's rules encourage players to embrace and play the "role" of their character (hence "role-playing game") and act in accordance with the personality of their alter-ego.  Players voluntarily constrain their range of actions to those they believe their alter-ego would take.  Players maintain and develop the personalities of their characters over time. Generally, a player continues to play using this character (acquiring skills and power for the character over time) until the character is killed during a game.

Fantasy combatantThird, role-playing games largely abandon the one-on-one competition found in wargames. One player, the "dungeon master,"  acts as an impartial referee (much like the referee in free Kriegspiel) as players moved their alter-egos through a fantasy setting, trying to outwit traps and puzzles and defeat their enemies.  The "dungeon master" creates (or purchases) the game scenario -- which is commonly an underground labyrinth (or dungeons) filled with traps, monsters (i.e. dragons), and treasures.  Since the dungeon master plays such a key creative role in the game (and often is required to memorize a vast number of rules), the quality of a game is largely determined by the quality of the dungeon master.  Players typically work cooperatively to achieve the scenario objectives.  The dungeon master attempts to create interesting scenarios that players will find challenging, but does not actively seek to destroy (or aid) the players.  Thus, there is no real "competition" in the game, since the dungeon master is impartial, and there is no real way to "win" since every scenario can be followed by another scenario. 

Fourth, Dungeons and Dragons abandons the game board and game pieces.  The early versions of the game employed miniatures to represent characters and a board to represent terrain.  Over time, the designers realized that these were not really necessary to play the game, since the role-playing aspects seemed more salient to the enjoyment of the game than maneuvering figures on a board.  Freed from a game board and pieces, the game took place largely in the imaginations of the players.The Advanced Dungeon Master's Guide

With all these variances, it is not clear the Dungeons and Dragons is, in fact, a wargame.  The game does involve violent conflict and strategic decision-making, but it is certainly not primarily about "war" in any sense.  The game is much more vast in its scope.  Though Dungeons and Dragons began as a fairly simple game involving miniatures and fantasy battles, it soon spawned a vast set of rules instructing players on how to create the political systems, zoology, civilization, and cosmology of a vast fantasy universe.  Current products include finished "worlds" (such as Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms)  with detailed maps, histories, mythologies, and best-selling paperback books about the heroes of these alternate worlds. With the introduction of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, over 500 pages of basic rules were required for play, with many thousands of pages of supplemental material. 

Many role-players today have never played Dungeons and Dragons.  Soon after the commercial success of Dungeons and Dragons, various other role-playing games were introduced, including games such as Gamma World (with a science fiction theme), Boot Hill (with a Western theme), Top Secret (with an espionage theme), and Call of the Cthulu (with a horror theme based on the literature of H.P. Lovecraft).  Yet despite the wide variety of role-playing games played today, role-playing and Dungeons and Dragons are largely synonymous terms among the general population -- probably to the detriment of the genre.

Bad Press
Mazes and Monsters
While conventional wargamers have sometimes been accused of being of being overly militaristic, role-playing gamers have suffered the far more ignominious stereotype of being portrayed as either borderline psychotic social misfits or satanists.  Though much of this is likely due to the unfortunate name of the game (perhaps Kings & Castles would have gotten a better reception), two books and some misguided media coverage based on those books likely added to the continuing public distrust of Dungeons and Dragons and, by association, role-playing.[2] 

Even though many wargamers are dismissive of fantasy role-playing, and although role-playing is for various reasons in its own category, it is clear that role-playing has shaped wargaming in some significant ways.  For instance, in 1982, TSR purchased Simulations Publications Incorporated, the wargaming company founded by James Dunnigan, which upset the bipolar world of hobby wargaming, dominated by SPI and Avalon Hill.[3]  Computer games, which eventually grew in popularity to supersede the size of both the board wargaming and role-playing game markets, often attempted to capture both audiences simultaneously.  Many modern computer wargames (Warcraft II, Myth II, and Total Annihilation: Kingdoms) use fantasy vocabularies and strategic play in order to appeal to both traditional wargamers and fantasy role-players.  Also, modern professional wargames have occasionally seemed to utilize some "role-play" elements.

Previous Page | Site Map | About the Site

1(back). This is not to suggest that Tolkien's stories were not themselves related to history and war.  Tolkien fought in the trenches at  Somme during World War I and some critics have suggested his epic The Lord of the Rings was actually an allegory for the events of World War II. 

2(back). Mazes and Monsters, a best-selling book by Rona Jaffe, later became a 1982 film starring Tom Hanks.  In the book, a brilliant, but emotionally disturbed gamer becomes mentally imbalanced, and believes he is the character whom he role-plays.  He retreats to a network of caves and acts out his dungeon fantasy.   The book was based, apparently, on the disappearance of James Egbert, a student at Michigan State University, who had played Dungeons and Dragons and had disappeared in the school's tunnels.  As described in William Dear's book, The Dungeon Master, Egbert's disappearance into the tunnels had almost nothing to do with his interest in role-playing, and much more to do with his homosexuality and drug-abuse problems.  Yet following Jaffe's book and the Mazes and Monsters movie, it became commonplace to ascribe any aberrant behavior committed by adolescents who played Dungeons and Dragons to the game.  Patricia Pulling, quoted by Tipper Gore above, launched an extensive campaign against the game after her son (who played) committed suicide.  A report of Pulling's activism can be found here

3(back). Peter P. Perla, The Art of Wargaming 144 (1990).