Friday, July 1, 2011

If you don't understand wargaming, you shouldn't be a D&D designer

Or, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." -- "wargame" edition.

This is not a new idea, just my take of something plenty of other people have said in their own ways. It comes with caveats. I'm talking about D&D, not other RPGs. Also, not really talking about homebrewing and hobby culture as a whole. If you're working on something for D&D, do what you like, and all that. I'm thinking about the paid professionals who have the (admittedly often thankless) responsibility of husbanding Dungeons & Dragons.

The simple version is this. The designers of D&D need to understand wargaming. Otherwise they are poorly suited to work on D&D. By wargaming, I don't mean they need to understand the mechanics or rules sets of a large number of wargames in great detail, though cross fertilization is a fine thing. I mean wargaming as a phenomenon, including how wargamers think about what they're doing. Not all minis games are part of wargaming culture, and a lot of popular tabletop strategy games don't count. Click-based tabletop games, for example, are generally more akin to CCG's in terms of their cultures of play. Their cultures of play are rule-oriented and reward rule-oriented cleverness and playing to win. Wargames aren't like this, a point I'll come back to. I don't know about Warhammer or 40K or similar major minis games, but I suspect they're outside wargaming culture. It's easy to lump all "wargames" and "competitive tabletop games" together (as M. Tresca does, very badly, in his recent book). These games all include head-to-head competitive engagements, after all. But they're not all competitive in the same ways, and the ways they differ as competitions turn out to matter quite a lot.

CCGs and click-based games have a competition culture more in common with that of head-to-head video games than with wargaming. I'll use Street Fighter as my point of reference for how competition works in video games, since it's a game I know a bit about. Also, I can let someone better than me explain it.

Here's how you play Street Fighter.

You play to win.

Sirlin spells it out here: Part I, Part II, Part III (To see the culture in action, start here or here and work outward).

In competitive video games, you play to win. That means the game rules are what they are and you apply cleverness and skill to the task of winning using all available means. In CCGs, you get a similar effect. The rules are interpreted legalistically. They don't model anything but themselves. You win by applying cleverness and skill within the rules set. There is no essential fictional component to gameplay. Dungeons and Dragons has moved toward this type of approach, as noted (to choose a prominent example) in Justin Alexander's "Dissociated Mechanics" essay.

In this respect, modern D&D is very different from wargaming, in spite of the superficial fact that miniatures are an important component of most wargames as well as modern D&D. Wargaming isn't found in the use of minis and rulers or hex maps and so on. Indeed, the move from wargames to D&D is not particularly surprising when real wargaming is taken into account. In wargaming, fictional content does affect gameplay. Dissociated mechanics are antithetical to wargaming in general, not just to RPGs.

Bob Cordery summed up a few basic principles for wargaming design (and, in fact, for wargaming play as well) in a recent post at Wargaming Miscellany. I'll repeat them here in brief, but I'd encourage you to read the post for more explanation.

Fred T Jane’s ‘Reality’ or ‘Primary Rule of Wargaming’
‘Nothing can be done contrary to what could or would be done in actual war.’ 
Golf’s ‘Spirit of the Game’
‘Wargames are played, for the most part, without the supervision of an umpire. The game relies on the integrity of the individual players to show consideration for other players and to abide by the rules. All players should conduct themselves in a disciplined manner, demonstrating courtesy and sportsmanship at all times, irrespective of how competitive they may be. This is the spirit of the wargame.’
Joseph Morschauser’s ‘Dice’ ruleJoseph Morschauser had a simple rule for adjudicating events that were not covered by a specific rule. It states:
‘Let the dice decide!’

Probably best to just read Bob Cordry's post. It isn't long!

I am not in fact a heavy wargamer (half a year of regular attendance at the Leeds Wargames club and miscellaneous other play outside that), but Cordery's principles were immediately recognizable to me. They described a lot of what I saw at the club. They are also strikingly at odds with Sirlin's "Play to Win" philosophy as well as the general philosophy of play in CCGs and many other competitive games, a philosophy that is often applied to modern Dungeons & Dragons. Under the broad umbrella of "competition," it's very easy to conflate these approaches, and I've seen them confused more times than I can count. Each approach has its merits, and I happen to enjoy both. Still, it's important that the designers of D&D have a clear understanding of how they differ, and I'm not always sure that they do. Furthermore, confusions about how wargames work is common in online discussions about the relationship between D&D and wargaming, where it's easy to make facile analogies based on surface similarities like the use of minis while missing out on the stark differences in the underlying procedural and play assumptions. I am not opposed to structurally-oriented, and even dissociated systems in principle. I do, however, think it is essential that designers are making informed decisions when incorporating "competitive" elements into their designs. And it's especially important for D&D, given its heritage.