Tabletop Roleplaying Games: Back where we started

My last posts have all been very serious and weighty.  This one might be, but is going to be about one of my hobbies – tabletop roleplaying games.  I’m a thoughtful gamer rather than an expert – so there may be things in here that are simply wrong – and my classification of tabletop roleplaying into decades is a good rough approximation but not entirely accurate.

So what is tabletop roleplaying?  The only answer I can give is people getting together to sit round a table having fun with a shared imaginary world, and in some cases doing so on a weekly basis for years on end.  What it is varies almost from group to group – and all versions are valid.  I can more or less group what is considered cutting edge – but there are outliers in any grouping, and people don’t stop playing a given game just because more come out.  People still play Monopoly – and that is not only ancient, it was deliberately designed to not be fun.  So I’m going to divide the strands that make up tabletop roleplaying by period of starting (it’s as good a method to start as any) – and this post only deals with the oldest strand.

Prehistory – Braunstein

In 1967, Major Wesley in a tradition that was to mark roleplaying games said “What if?”  He took a tabletop wargame and gave each participant a part to play of a specific officer or townsman to add some realism – and called his game Braunstein.  And he found his players had minds of their own and the result was complete anarchy.  Very fun for most of the players but worrying for him because they didn’t do as expected (something that would become a tradition) and responded by doing absolutely the wrong thing and trying to restrict their options for the next couple of games, at which the players had  (something else that would become a tradition).

Game four was set in a banana republic and along came someone called Dave Arneson, playing the Students Revolutionary Leader (who got points by distributing his flyers).  Only Dave Arneson came along with a fake CIA ID and convinced everyone he was (a) a CIA agent and (b) the safest person to look after the republic’s treasury because of this.  Game, set, match.

Arneson decided that was fun.  And ran his part of the Castles and Crusades society that way – apparently driving Gygax almost mad with reports to a wargaming society that were talking about stealing magic swords rather than epic battles.  Gygax came to take a look – and completely revamped what he was doing, ending up by producing D&D.

The 1970s – Dungeons and Dragons

Gary Gygax was, like Dave Arneson and everyone else round then a tabletop wargamer, and early Dungeons and Dragons was about taking things to the next level of challenge than a wargame.  So instead of commanding an entire army, each of the players except the runner (the Dungeon Master or DM) took a person and their retainers, and the goal was to get as much loot from a dungeon as possible without dying.  More or less like an asymmetric boardgame except you could do anything you could think of and it was the DM’s job to work out what happened from an off the wall plan.

Or possibly more like a video game; the dungeons the adventurers were trying to loot were built in levels – which matched how hard the area was.  And when one player of that period was asked what his monsters ate, he put a McDonalds on the sixth level with prices in copper pieces.

The basic rule of the period was “We made some shit up we thought would be cool”, and role playing games were about exploring the unknown and making it out alive.

I Fought the Chaos and the Law won

Early D&D had a fundamentally different relationship between the players and their characters than you normally see now.  Play was commonly “Pawn Play” – instead of being a person to flesh out, a player character was your playing piece to use as effectively as possible in the same way a wargamer uses their army or squad.  Player skill at overcoming obstacles was almost the point of the game – you just had a much bigger toolbox than you had in traditional wargames.

The method of gaining power was treasure – you either gained more powerful objects, gained experience points, making you more powerful, or both.  So smart play revolved round not killing monsters for power but robbing them blind (a slight improvement) and for preference you evaded them.

Alignment was law vs chaos initially rather than the classic nine point alignments – you were on the frontier with chaos being things looking to tear down civilisation (not that too much law was much better).

So with these constraints, characters were almost as much pawns of the player as boardgame or wargame pieces are – and NPCs were equally pawns.  Identity and a coherent world were less part of the game than fitting into puzzles.  This was to change, and change several times.

If this sounds like fun

The players who like to play in this style normally gather under the heading of the OSR and I’d start off looking at Grognardia (and links provided by Grognardia) – with the game of choice probably being Swords and Wizardry which is a legal reimplementation of the original published rules of D&D.

The module I’d recommend for exploration is Caverns of Thracia – and I’ll let Zak S (NSFW), Grognardia, and The Alexandrian’s play report explain why.  For challenge it’s White Plume Mountain or the notoriously lethal Tomb of Horrors, and for sheer atmosphere and advice for a prep-light game I can’t beat Vornheim.  But half of this is missing the point – coming up with your own environments is part of the fun of this form of play.

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2 thoughts on “Tabletop Roleplaying Games: Back where we started

  1. Pingback: Tabletop Roleplaying: Traveller to a Common Language | Eudaimonaic Laughter

  2. I personally think Edwards’ simulationinst category is pretty spot-on.

    It’s true that at the phenomenological level people feel it doesn’t fully capture their experience, but phenomenological adequacy is not the only constraint on theory formation in the cultural sphere. But I wouldn’t expect you to change your mind about it on the strength of this objection.

    What I think you might want to think about changing is is your claim that a toolbox game can satisfy a range of creative agendas. Having played and run a bit of Traveller back in the day, and having run bucketloads of Rolemaster, it’s actually quite hard to get these games to satisfy player-protagonism agendas. (Harder in Traveller or RQ than in RM, due to some quirks of their PC build and action resolution rules – RM has more points at which the players can inject metagame priorities.)

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