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.