Escaping Wargaming: How the Purpose of Rules Has Changed in the Tabletop World

This entry was posted in history, RPG, tabletop on by .

I want to start by saying, I have a strong fondness for wargames. I cut my teeth on board games and tactical wargames long before I got excited about tabletop RPGs. Wargames have rules, generally well defined rules, and that’s a lot easier for a kid who’s a bit awkward around other people.

The origins of RPGs in wargaming are far before my time (I’m not that old!) but I’ve seen the echos of how wargaming has shaped the industry right through to modern times. There’s a series of unspoken assumptions that people make about rules and how the rules you have reflect on a game that’s slowly shifted over the years. New, truly innovative games have chipped away at old ideas and prejudices as people began to accept that a game can have a short book with few rules and produce a consistent and enjoyable experience.

In the 80’s and 90’s the RPG writer’s favorite example of why we have rules seemed to be a kid’s game of cops and robbers. “It’s like that,” they’ll say, “but we have rules so that when one person says ‘I hit you!’ the other person can’t just say ‘No, you missed!’” The problem is, even kids don’t quite behave that way. Sure they fight and disagree, but kids have a great sense of narrative arcs and they absorb archetypal stories and characters like sponges. When I ran games for kids it was awesome how hard they worked to get things like “the anti-hero’s redemption through heroic sacrifice” to happen. They knew that was how the stories were supposed to go.

Beyond that, most of us aren’t children. The unspoken point behind the cops and robbers example is that children can be petulant and angry when they don’t get their own way. Assuming that you need iron clad rules to adjudicate every conflict without wiggle room means the players and GM you’re modeling are so immature they never got past that development stage. Do we really think gamers are incapable of looking beyond their immediate wants to the desires of other people or the needs of the group? Or that they’re totally incapable of separating their in-character persona from their out-of-character self?

None of this was important in war games because players weren’t actors in the unfolding drama. You might want that cavalry unit to win a skirmish, but you weren’t personally invested in the survival of one of those little riders. You were focused on the larger battle and the tactical puzzle of how to beat your opponent. The rules were used to abstract away physical and psychological things on the battlefield, since recreating a battle at 1:1 scale with actual military gear and people killing each other isn’t practical.

The focus of many wargames has traditionally been on understanding and recreating historical events, so rules supporting realism were valued over a game being fast or abstractly fun. It’d be especially bad if a wargame was prone to unrealistic numerical imbalances of power, since the overt goal is generally to give players a fair chance to display their tactical prowess as if they were commanding real units. These values have persisted for a long time in the tabletop community and you can still find gamers who put a very high premium on rules being “realistic”, “technically correct”, or “accurate”… even to the exclusion of being fun at times.

But in a tabletop game the role each person takes is very different than in a wargame and what it means to “win” is coincidentally different. What people think of as winning in RPGs varies about as much as what they think it means to win in real life. Designers have always tried to deal with this to some degree. We’ve seen cooperative tabletop games, adversarial tabletop games, and games that can be either depending on the player’s choices. This all sounds very flexible, but up until the last ten years or so many designers lost sight of why rules existed in their games.

Highly tactical games, like Shadowrun or editions of D&D like 3.0 and 3.5, focus on creating an air-tight set of “realistic” tactical rules… giving the players something they hopefully can’t subvert or unbalance too badly. This is often a reaction to the power-gaming that occurred in earlier versions of the rules. Other than power gaming issues, designers didn’t generally talk about what kinds of gameplay those rules were encouraging or what kind of gameplay they wanted to encourage. If you wanted a good experience at the table, you had to find a good GM or be a good GM.

To me it felt a lot like wearing a sweater 5 sizes too big to a formal dance. Sure, I’m not nude, but I’m really not dressed for the occasion. If I go to the dance with my best friends we’ll probably enjoy it, but the sweater isn’t helping me to have fun, just keeping me from being arrested for public indecency.

For a while there was push-back against highly tactical, complex games. Some games, like Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM), began trying to present simpler, more compact rules that let groups ignore the “realistic” complexities and get on with their gaming. Many of these games were still very generic and a lot of people looked down on them because they didn’t have highly structured systems. I got some side-eyes when I chose to run a BESM game and I’m pretty sure that a few of my friends filed it away mentally as, “well she’s just doing it because she can’t handle the rules in a real game like D&D.”

Some of these games also hearkened back to the subset of the very early old school RPGs that had much simpler rules. A few of these early games, like Tunnels & Trolls, are still around and started getting considerably more attention during this period.

Slowly game designers began to question, what game are these rules creating? How can I create the experience I want with different rules? And what experiences do gamers want anyway? This led to games like My Life with Master and Steal Away Jordan that pushed players into more narrative responsibilities and situations that were possibly less familiar or comfortable.

Over time these indie games got more and more traction and larger companies started producing rules that were tuned to helping players create the experience the designers wanted, rather than modeling reality. Not all of these were “rules light” or moved in the direction you might think. D&D 4.0 was built on rules geared to create a tactical combat game that valued a balanced and fun player experience rather than pure simulation or realism; it was a big deviation from it’s predecessors and upset a lot of people because of it. Around this time we also got a flood of narrative storytelling games like Shock and Fiasco that shifted the responsibility of narration entirely over to players, removing the GM from the game.

There are still people who prefer Shadowrun to Fiasco or the Leverage RPG, but the general attitudes have shifted. Games aren’t looked down on just because they have fewer or less traditional rules and people are starting to understand that a game can create other kinds of experiences if it uses rules designed for purposes other than simulation.

There may still be lessons in wargaming that can help us to grow, but we’re beginning to build games based on the unique needs of tabletop play, instead of living in wargaming’s shadow.

9 thoughts on “Escaping Wargaming: How the Purpose of Rules Has Changed in the Tabletop World

  1. Andrew

    You seem to have discovered GNS theory, congratulations. You have arrived at a conclusion that many before you have when they, too, took a hard look at what we want out of our games. The surge of games that are pure narrative or prize a strong narrative aspect over mechanics is a good thing, to be certain. A formerly neglected market is getting it’s day in the sun. We should be vigilant to remember that old playstyles remain valid, though; Narrativists are not “better” than their heroic wargaming 3.5 counterparts.

    Also, as a point of personal experience, do gamers act like petulant little children and not play nice? All too frequently

    1. Eva Schiffer Post author

      Hi Andrew,

      I know about GNS theory. It’s an aspect of why things changed… there were attempts to classify gamers before it and there have been different attempts mutated from it (or separately evolved in sub-pockets of gaming like LARPing). Part of what I was talking about wasn’t individuals understanding their preferences and accepting that different play styles were valid, it was the community as a whole accepting that a game built differently can achieve a different play style. Fifteen to twenty years ago that wasn’t a given. The community had common values that caused many players to focus on aspects of systems that were tangential to what gave them a fun experience.

      Around the time that GNS first became popular many people started reevaluating the games they were playing and the style they were being run in. Often GMs were encouraged to look at their GM style vs player desires or clashes in player desires inside a group. These are useful things to do and GM can change things to a certain degree to suit player needs (or realize that certain individual’s needs are incompatible). Many people still find it hard to realize that sometimes you need to say “this highly tactical game isn’t helpful for this group of people who most want to do a lot of narrative building.” The inverse is less difficult. People who want a tactical game have an easier time rejecting an overtly narrative system because the historical expectation was that the default game type was tactical.

      I do think there are games out there that don’t support the styles of play they claim to focus on (to be clear, I’m not referring to 3.5 here). People still have fun playing them and there’s nothing wrong with that. If everyone is enjoying the game you’re doing something right.

      Questioning how suited a game is for a group doesn’t mean I value one type of game over another. There are historical trends and I wanted to talk about them in the light of how wargaming’s rules needs impacted the beginning of our hobby. It wasn’t intended as criticism of the styles of play that went before. I do think that understanding more about how games can be built and how players work will help us to build better tactical and narrative games.

      Part of the point of being a tabletop roleplayer is that, unlike someone playing videogames, you have a lot of control over the systems and details used at your table. Since we have that control we should be questioning how suited both the system and the style of play we’re creating work for our groups. They’re different axes and both can make our games better. 🙂

  2. Andrew

    Perhaps you can ascribe my particular perspective to my recent introduction into tabletop gaming. Having begun playing so recently (within the past five years), I entered the world after the shift you have indicated already underway. The fact that different games support different styles better was simply assumed by me and my gaming accomplices. We have reaped the rewards.

  3. Lazarus

    I liked your article, especially that you point out BESM. It has been a favorite of mine since 2nd edition and many aspects of it are much more complex than D&D, especially character creation. Just commenting to give you some a thumbs up.

  4. jason wittmann

    This is an old tune. Wargamers always trying to kill wargames with usual exgerations about complexity. Exclusion of fun?!!!! Come on fun is subjective. I today’s games are boring and not fun imo. I don’t like any of them. A wargame must have technical reality. Scream Clausewitz till your blue in the face. randomness is not so fun and friction never meant chaos.

    If you weren’t playing these games in previous decades you probably know only the myths in articles like these. The we’re never not fun. They never took hours per turn and they did have more realism.

    1. Eva Schiffer Post author

      Wow… I am trying to decide if you are just a jerk or are deliberately trying to troll me and I honestly can’t tell.

      I don’t have any stake in what kinds of games you find fun or want to play. If you like war games and heavy simulation rpgs, play them with other people who like them and have fun. This article is about the history of how the range of what we consider rpgs has changed and has come to include things that are _not_ focused on simulation. It’s unclear to me why this has you seeing red.

      To address your (rather rude) last paragraph, I have played many sessions of 3.5 edition D&D where it took an hour or more for a combat round. If you haven’t had that experience, I’m happy for you! However implying that I’m lying about my own experience is very poor form and if you try to do it again your comments will no longer be welcome here.

  5. Commissar Yarrick

    I must point out that the 5th paragraph states that (in wargames) “You are not personally invested in the survival of one of those little riders”. While I agree that Wargames are less personal than RPGs one must consider the emotional state of that one playing the game. A person could definitely become attached to a model they essentially created, brought to reality through painting and designing a Back Story. I and my fellow wargamers all name our individual soldiers and develope a respect for them and almost all of my men have a backstory that is brought to a tragic end in their death in battle. Just reminding you of the “FLUFF” of wargaming.

  6. FlashGambit

    I….accept that this piece isn’t truly an article, but more of an opinion piece, but I’d caution you about spaces in this entry where you’re somewhat ahistorical. Some of the assumptions you’ve made about early games and the designs of systems aren’t supported by the more academic lit in the field (Peterson, Laycock, Hendricks, and Deterding, to name a few).

    I’m not one to extol the virtues of GNS (because most RPG academics pretty much accept now it isn’t much of a “theory” and can be empirically ripped apart), but one thing it does is support differing motivations for the play of the game. There’s a subtext here of a “right” way (which I had to continually remind myself is just “your” way) and at times dismissive of other motivations. And some of the statements just not true (such as “Highly tactical games, like Shadowrun or editions of D&D like 3.0 and 3.5, focus on creating an air-tight set of “realistic” tactical rules… giving the players something they hopefully can’t subvert or unbalance too badly. ” – er….no. In fact, the potentiality to ‘break’ 3.5 was a driving motivation to the creation of the doomed D&D 4).

    It’s all interesting conjecture, but there are sites in the ether and on Facebook that investigate RPG Theory, with academics doing the heavy lifting, which might be beneficial to you for reference.

  7. Alan

    That 3e/3.5e arguably failed to protect against things being broken too badly, a crude sort of balance was clearly an intention. When I was playing in the 90s, it felt like Polymorph got overhauled a dozen times to try and nerf “abuses.” (I suspect it was closer to 3 or 4 revamps, some of which were relatively minor.)

    4e wasn’t a wild move away from what 3.5e was. From a certain point of view it was the logical next step. A heck of a lot of 3.5e games were already battlemat combat grinds, so why not go all in on that and try to make the battlemat combat a better game on its own. 3e’s design goals including increased standardization, such that it would (among other things) easier for a computer to adjudicate; again 4e took it another step.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.