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It's Not Just A Game!

Wargaming and Historical Reproduction

by Coilean mac Caiside
Jun 19,2002



So, you have a group with ten or so people, but only enough money to afford ten or so figurines. That's scarcely enough for a unit on each side, if you make them real small. That's exaggeration, of course. The real problem, regardless of actual numbers, is that you either have nearly half a dozen people on each team arguing about each move, or you grant them each control of one unit and they spend their time bored as everyone else hashes it out when they're the first ones killed. You can stave this off by assigning them to another, already occupied, unit, but this just returns you to the first problem; you have more than one person in charge of a given unit.

After a while another problem begins to surface with this . . . you have several people all giving their opinion as to what is the best course of action to take . . . how much of a risk, at least . . . and then only rolling one die. If you make it by a margin, someone is saying you should have been more bold; if you just missed it, someone else is saying you should have been more cautious. Eventually you begin to wish you had more votes, other than just people agreeing with you, and at some point the group will decide to split the unit into individual characters . . . who, not having to stay in formation, become eligible for smaller missions and going other places. But, no matter how town-ish you get with them, the original mindset remains.

Each person is (still) thinking in terms of, one unit of people, with each of them having slightly more control over one person than anyone else does. But when it comes time to decide, what is the party doing, how will they defeat a given enemy, how will they do it together . . . they revert* to the old way of thinking, and begin saying things like "Well, if the archer stands here, and Bob's fighter over there, and I take up position just opposite him, we can do this . . . we'll just have the wizard cast . . . ".

*Even if they haven't wargamed before . . . well, actually, I can't prove that. But I think it's because the attitude is very infectious.

Listen to that. "We'll just have the wizard cast . . . " indeed! The 'character' is an individual when they're doing things *on their own*, but get in a collective fight, and the player is easily outvoted by everyone else - their opinion doesn't matter, because having 'slightly more control' over a character only means they can outvote someone one-on-one. When it's back to 'unit' fighting again, every player is thinking in terms of "Well, this is what the whole unit can do . . . we've only split them into their composite abilities.", and tries to calculate with the assumption that every member of the unit will do what THEY think is best. So long as they can convince each member of the unit (or 'character') that their plan is best, which essentially consists of explaining their idea in detail. For them, that's 'role-playing'.

Well, to be fair (I know, I don't have a very good track record on that), they do have another view on roleplaying. It's merely another type of rules, something to make it more difficult and challenging for them. They can't automatically take the best course of action they can think of; they have to limit themselves to "Character Knowledge", which is really just another set of rules defining the logical path their decisions must follow, and what information can be incorporated into those paths. Likewise, 'in-character' is similarly abstract; a certain way of speaking and acting which focuses their actions on the 'character' (single member of a unit) which they are controlling, so as to not create friction between other players when you speak possessively of 'their' characters, and remind everyone continuously that they are now playing a variant where they are each playing an 'individual', and are no longer in 'unit' mode.

Historical Reproduction

You get a bunch of folks together, and dress up in 'period' costume, which is basically exactly what they would have worn (they being people in that time), if not made out of the same materials. Whether this is the Civil War and a life-sized mock-up of the original site for a famous battle (if it WAS the actual battleground, you may have people simulating the event every Tuesday and Friday for educational purposes), or the SCA with medieval locales (or convincing simulacrum thereof) and just normal life, they are far from the "What Is Role-Playing?" spiel you get in the front of most books.

Don't believe me? Take a break from this article, right now (well, no, actually, find out what I want first; otherwise you'll just go away, then get bored, shrug, and wander back after a little while, sending you into an endless and annoying loop). Go grab any of your RPG sourcebooks (what? You don't have any? And you're reading this article? What sort of gamer doesn't have some sort of RPG sourcebook lying around? Sheesh . . . ), more than one preferably though if you have a lot you can do so one by one. No need to cart them over by the computer; just open them up to the place at the beginning which tells you what roleplaying is (like), or how people have lost the oral tradition and want pre-packaged entertainment (White Wolf has a point, but we'll get to that later). Read all of those, and compare to what you know of roleplaying today. Then ask yourself, honestly.

Do you really think that, if you had been given just that explanation of roleplaying when you started out, and you had played with a bunch of other people with no inkling of roleplaying beyond that in the book, . . . you would have, by any logical extension of events, been able to arrive at your current understanding of roleplaying ? Seriously.

Most of them seem to center around "Start out by imagining yourself in this situation.", and it just gets worse from there. The first step was taken badly when they said "Imagine yourself", because really, what role-playing is about . . . is someone ELSE. Someone not you. Someone that exists, or existed, in a different place and time, and has/had their own LIFE, which they lived or were quite capable of living without you . . . and, for entertainment and/or educational purposes, you have gotten together with a few like-minded people to simulate their lives and the world they lived in.

The entertainment, I think, is obvious. It's not, of course. But my feelings on the matter DO make me quite unqualified to speak on it, let alone explain this. So I'll address the educational value. I spoke to a woman recently who was planning to run a new campaign over at the local shop, and she mentioned something to me. Other than historians and such whose field specifically includes this material, almost no one in the world will have an interest, to the point of actively seeking out information on, ancient history, geography, cultures, and so forth . . . except gamers.

I hadn't really thought about it before. But, yes, I can see where she was right. We study older times, to build realistic cultures of our own - or to accurately reproduce them for running events in that time - and to gain information we can cannibalize for our own games.

I guess what it comes down to is that there's just no curiosity. Or very little of it at any rate. Look at work; almost every job you have to do, there's a requirement. Some of it may be so obvious you don't even think about it; like an ability to read numbers/letters, at least the basics. Yet, most people learn just enough to pass by - the difficulty with the American school system (besides nearly-enforced non-specialization . . . congratulations, you're thirty years old, and have the basics to be pursuing ANY career you might have an interest in), is that by making available the education to nearly everyone, it no longer seems either scarce or valuable, and people are encouraged to squeak by with barely passable grades or cheat for them. Some have to cheat just to get barely passable grades, that's how pathetic we are.

Now, you need to know stuff to work; you need, in a sense, to work in order to know how to work. So, working takes effort? What else is new? Not this.

Having fun takes effort.

No, hold on, I hear you tell me. How can having fun take effort? I thought the entire point of fun was that it was a break from the work . . . right?

Well, it's not constant effort. It's like the learning/training you put up with for your job . . . for instance, apprentices would spend several years doing menial tasks for their masters before learning important trade secrets, and being entrusted with more important tasks. They didn't have to do that all over again, as masters, every time they wanted to do a simple job (for one thing, they usually had their OWN apprentices to do it for them *wink*), it was up-front effort. The kind where you do it, and it's done - and hopefully, if you did it well enough, you don't have to repeat it every so often so the lesson is still remembered.

This applies to just about every form of recreation (ever) known to man. From beating your mate so she learns who's boss*, and possibly having to beat her again if you didn't convince her you were serious the first time; to beating up the other hunters so they let YOU have the tasty meat, and then having to convince them you can fend them off when you're not in perfect health; to only chewing a bit of that root at a time at first because old Tough-Gizzard died when he had too much at once, so you can build up an immunity and eventually giggle at high quantities; to forcing your brain to learn something new like how to correlate those funny sounds or symbols on the wall towards meanings you know, and then having to occasionally look up a word in the dictionary.

Mind you that I do not in any way condone this sort of behavior, but for historical accuracy among other things the note should be included.

Did you know that 95% of Americans today are illiterate? I sure didn't.

Now we get back to White Wolf. They sure are right; people love to take their entertainment home in nice, neat bundles, that don't require them to THINK about what they are seeing - on any practical level - but just to choose what they find enjoyable out of that mess, and filter the rest. And the industry, of course, is obliging them. More and more automation and 'smart' technology, and remote access that allow people to order whatever they want without having to stir from the couch . . . more and more technology, to let people actually DO less and less. Controls on nearly every conceivable device for "stupid" people, to make it nearly idiot-proof by simplifying the function still further. Just push the button, it's in. Don't worry about times, those are available in handy 30-second intervals, with suggested meals labeled by the side. You should be able to match those up with the words on the boxes. Each button is marked with a handy little LETTER, instead of a word, and each in a different color.

Literacy is hardly required, neither is familiarity with numbers beyond single digits and basic math. Almost nobody reads a book anymore, because it's "too hard", and requires that you actually learn to read before it becomes easy enough that it's more of an enjoyment than a chore or a bother. I can read quite fast, yet read every letter; speed-reading these days seems to depend on recognizing the word shapes, and studying memory afterword. I can't even say I catch typo's; typo's catch ME, stopping my brain as it tries to make sense of the word/sentence, and my comprehension of the material is up-to-date with what I just read. Yet, people decades older than me struggle to puzzle out small words and simple sentence constructs (and no, it's not their eyes). I know I'm not alone in this; the very act of reading, and doing so often, naturally improves my reading ability and keeps it up to par, so if you do something often enough it's going to become simpler.

I know you don't see many of them in RPG's, simply because the persistence of paper books has forced the crowd of RPG'ers to be mainly literate. But there are some MUDs which try to be RPG's; unfortunately, by having consistent messages for various things, they encourage players to merely memorize various output strings and their respective shapes, mentally link to the appropriate concept, then never read again, except perhaps the number in the damage string which shows how much was done, or that they did. In typing they often use various 'abbreviations', which are odd in that they are based on how the words *sound*, and no actual speaking is done. I place no credence in the supposition that perhaps it is because they are on another plane of communication which our feeble minds have difficulty comprehending (in our ignorance we discount their highly evolved mental shorthand as "keystroke laziness" when in actuality it is simply an advanced mental shorthand).

The wargaming/historical reproduction even extends into MUDs, and in a sense, are worse; the IC and CK that are only rules to them, must, as rules, be known to everyone, right? Rules, that which all must know in order to play; they would accept, within the rules, that 'only so-and-so must/may know this', but then go create a character of exactly such a type just to find out what would otherwise remain hidden from them (a simply intolerable state of affairs, from their way of thinking). If it's rules, they need to know it, and it's the duty of every other player to make sure they do. They value the information for that alone, rather than any true cognizance of or appreciation for the actual knowledge. A quick digression.

CRPG's may have pretty stories, but if actual play doesn't change as a result of YOUR (character's) story, they're not really role-playing games. If I want to read a good story, I'll go out and buy a book, much more cheaply than I would otherwise (I know, I know, I have to learn to read - but doesn't the player have to learn new controls for Diablo when it comes out?), and know that ALL the effort which went into the product was for making it a good story. If I want to see pretty graphics, I'll buy a video (or go out to the theatre, since a TV would be rather expensive), but won't succumb to the temptation of keeping it around for later campaign ideas. Why not? I can flip through books to nearly any page at top speed, keep several of them open to several pages at once, and have several resources in one spot with conservation of room, without needing other devices or feeding of electricity; much faster than others would by ejecting/inserting tapes, then fast-forwarding/rewinding to various spots on the video.

I know, this seems non-interactive (and unrelated), but when playing the CRPG's, people are 'interacting' by means of repetitively hitting the same keys, albeit in complicated combinations. After a while, that's not interaction, that's mindless submission to the machine, having to waste time pounding in more combinations so it can progress. The graphics may be pretty, but you're seeing the same graphics over and over again . Books, on the other hand, provide not only ideas for games, but by this use they lend inspiration for further stories , which can be utilized repeatedly to glean new substance beyond what was originally perceived. (Books also stimulate cogitation, whereas graphics promote gloating over how awesome the screen looks.) CRPG's sell so well because RPG is the new buzzword, the thing that people have so much fun with, and improves them too. But . . . what's this . . . some can't read, or don't want to be seen in public investigating 'gaming', buying sourcebooks, showing an interest in this 'geeky' activity? No matter, the industry will oblige them. Now they can have all the fun and excitement of RPG's (implying that all RPG's are, is fun and exciting), right in their own home!

The evil is that these games bear barely a passing resemblance to the true RPG's; they have a framework in place that feeds bits of the story to players in between fight scenes, the length of these carefully calculated to give the players just enough time to rest their fingers before the next encounter (don't want to be sued for medical accidents, after all). In the meantime, those players acquire a strict idea of precisely what an RPG is, and when they get bored of the CRPG, or find more time in their lives, or simply want to try something new, they go out and find another RPG . . . and head into it with all the expectations they have derived from CRPG's. In short, the story doesn't really matter, it's there to provide a cheap bit of fun, and of course the story will be shallow, not really with any pertinence to gameplay, a stupid little string of events with no depth expected nor sought for. All that really matters (and all they truly care about), is hack-and-slash. We will now return to our earlier paragraph.

So, when these players arrive in a MUD that highly values RP, they are like giants in the playground; they see the kids, playing around far off, and charge in to have fun with them. Of course, they trample most of the kids, and scare off the rest, then squat down to play with the toys; they break the toys, don't find anyone to play with them, and stomp off angrily with the thought that this role-playing thing is way too hyped up, much less than it's said to be. Giants in the playground, ruining the very toys they sought to acquire, then giving up on them. If the MUD is dually blessed with a nice combat system and GM's who don't give up, tossing the entire server into a trash bin, the H&S'ers will not leave; instead, turn and invite their friends, as they may have done previously to provide moral support (*sniffle*, *cry*, none of these people will hunt with me! They say I'm not a good RP'er [*growls* morons don't understand what RP is], but if you'll be around to hunt with me and tell me I'm okay, that there are still people in the world that like me, I'll stay! Then we can show them!).

So, with all the D&D CRPG's out there, and the recognizability of the name ever since the movie came out, is there any worry that D&D is setting a bad example as an RPG? In the video I got, they were advertising for an expansion of Baldur's Gate, quoting someone (Computer Games Weekly, I think?) as having said "Best Role-Playing Game Of The Year!"; and who really notices who said quotes, anyway? Obviously, since it's sponsored by a group with D&D in their name, and the advertisement was put in a video about D&D, it must be a role-playing game, right? And all the features that it excels at (the excellent H&S, for instance), must be the very ones that earned it the title "Best Role-Playing Game Of The Year!", which makes it the very paragon of everything an RPG is supposed to be!

Is there any worry? No. Why not? Because, as well as I can determine, D&D isn't an RPG.

GM'ing (or some parts of it, anyway), can't be learned, only taught. I propose this to be true in the very culture we have, wherein self-education is actively discouraged. People aren't given any reason to go out there, and seek out their own interests, because there's enough generic entertainment that the system will bring to them. They only need to sit back and let all their joys be brought to them. Self-motivation becomes (ever-)increasingly rare. If the person going out to buy an RPG is actually looking for something even remotely related to roleplaying, or is looking for something new and continues to maintain that attitude , they will either adapt the RPG to their uses or continue expanding their idea of what an RPG is as they try to get something more, and new, out of it. Reference this to my earlier request, when I asked you to go open up a sourcebook and look at the "What Is Role-Playing?" section; if you didn't do so then, please do so now. If you have a copy of D&D (3rd Ed., being the edition that convinced me D&D was evolving away from roleplaying, and thus the one I'm speaking of here), go for that. Open it up and read the stuff that actually mentions to roleplaying (I think they have a paragraph).

I stipulate that, if and when the game system does not provide any information to learn from, it is actively not a role-playing-game - by omission of such minimal , yet crucial information. When several books are touted as the 'main' ones, or all that are required to play the game, but contain this same utter lack of information , players are given no inclination to look further, to create . . . the game become nothing more than a glorified boardgame.

"But, " comes the protest, "It's just a game! You don't need to look any farther, so long as you're having fun!" . . . don't we? I contend that every time someone says, "It is just a game.", they are justifying the actions of those people who choose to H&S instead of RP. In thinking of it as a game, people will try to expect something out of it. If not fun, the measurable gain of experience or stats. It is when there becomes apparent something else that cannot be so simply measured, that they don't bother. Certain players simply will not do things unless it garners them a reward (in MUD terms, after trying to 'RP' a few minutes, they will notice how their numbers are not changing, and go H&S instead). Now compare this to all the RP'ers who do something, in character, because their character would do it, even if it's not exciting for them as a player (even if they have something better to do), even if it's inconvenient for the character, even if it directly harms the character, or their ability as a player to 'enjoy' the playing (of the world - for obvious reasons I'm not saying 'game') . . . or even their ability to RP it.

Think about that the next time you're tempted to say "It's just a game."; think about those people, who somehow manage to RP, and do it all the time, without any 'reward', or any traces of what makes other things 'a game'.


Some people will sit back and passively wait for their enjoyment to be brought to them. Others, athletes come to mind, will go out there and try hard, more, some might say, than they need to. There's a word for this, but it escapes me, so 'professionalism' will have to do. Maybe role-playing is a professional activity by nature , and those best suited to it are those who thrive on challenges, and find the greatest accomplishment in pushing their mind (not body, as athletics) to its limits . . . and beyond. If you can find thrills in doing more than 'just enough', if you feel that 'the' destination is unimportant as long as you can visit others along the way . . . I'd hope to have the honor of playing with you one day. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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  • (The Final) Conflict by Coilean mac Caiside, 20sep02
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  • Wargaming and Historical Reproduction by Coilean mac Caiside, 19jun02
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    TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg