Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why Play Wargames?

Occasionally people express disdain for the wargaming hobby, both in paper and miniature formats. To them it’s preserving and advocating a culture of warfare, reminding us of the uglier side of humanity, and encouraging people to find entertainment in the carnage of war. “Why would anyone want to make a game out of something so horrid as war?” they ask.

Conflict forms the basis for interesting games, novels, television programs, movies, and other entertainment. Some people even thrive on constant conflict in real life, much to the emotional exhaustion of those around them. Without the contrast of war and peace, we cannot appreciate the liberty, prosperity, and lives we enjoy today.

War can teach many lessons, not the least of which is its terrible cost in life and property. Studying wars in history class often seems antiseptic as courses focus on the political and economic causes, basic campaigns, and significant yet often isolated events. Students never really dive into the trenches and put themselves on the front lines facing the slaughter and destruction war causes, the results of a breakdown in diplomacy between two conflicted factions.

Games can become valued teaching tools, incorporating entertainment with a learning experience. Yes, of course, wargames are fun -- that’s the “game” portion of wargame -- but they offer a host of lessons: how to follow rules and use them and the resources one’s given to strive for victory; how historical elements of terrain and technology worked on the battlefield; how the reasons behind the war drove commanders to pursue various objectives, especially when those were counterintuitive to military strategy.

Three historical figures commented on war and the lessons it teaches. Their words should remind us never to forget past conflicts, to study history (whether in the classroom, library, or on the wargaming table), and to learn from experiencing it in such a benign form.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana, philosopher (1863 - 1952). Everyone’s heard Santayana’s famous quote about remembering the past to avoid repeating it. This is a common saying favored by teachers, writers, and others in the education business to justify studying various historical periods. It remains valid (see General Patton’s quotation below…) as an admonition to learn from the past, whether to avoid repeating it, improve our appreciation for our currently enjoyed liberties, or expand our understanding of ourselves and our society. What few people hear is another of Santayana’s quotes -- “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” -- which reminds us how conflict drives history forward, exacting a dreadful price in human life and suffering. Playing wargames can help us appreciate past conflicts in their own historical contexts so we might more clearly view our current situation and the consequences of future actions.

“Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable.” George S. Patton, general (1885 - 1945). The successful and often controversial World War II general remains infamous for his numerous maxims. This particular quote refers obliquely to Santayana’s in the context of studying the past to deal with the future, but also acknowledges the uncertainty of warfare (as well as life). The “fog of war” remains an element in many wargames. Some consider it the uncertainty of enemy strength and location, while others refer to “fog of war” as the element of the unexpected and chance often simulated in die rolls (the constant possibility of failure attributed to mechanical problems, difficult terrain, human fallibility, or just sheer bad luck). As in any subject, the more we know about the past -- its players, their motivations, the conflicts, failures and successes, and resolutions -- the more knowledge we have at hand to draw upon when formulating our own strategies for overcoming challenges in the unknown future. We can use our own judgment to compare and combine elements from different historical confrontations with our current situation, or the conditions for a possible future, to prepare contingencies and strategies to effectively resolve the problems we might face.

“You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realize just what a blundering thing Great War must be.” H. G. Wells, writer (1866 - 1946). The prescient father of science fiction loved playing with toy soldiers so much that he published two treatises on the subject, Floor Games and Little Wars, arguably the first modern miniature wargame rules set. The quote above comes from the conclusion of Little Wars, which illustrates the futility of plunging entire nations into barbarous, destructive warfare, especially at the orders of an elite few with private or ideological points to gain. He argues that simulating war helps demonstrate its destruction and futility. Wells’ numerous novels often shows war’s destructive nature. The War in the Air (1908) displayed his prophetic vision; the speculative fiction followed one hapless fellow through a ruthless aerial war waged against nations that lays waste to civilian cities and plunges humanity into a new dark age. It ultimately foresaw the predominance of air power in the coming two world wars and the apocalyptic power of technology over humanity. Readers come away with both a sense of war’s savagery and its bloody price on society. Wargames help demonstrate this, allowing people to engage in war with minimal consequences, yet gaining a sense of its destructive power as “dead” pieces are removed from the game and objectives are defended, fought for, and destroyed. Play allows us to innocently fight a war and learn from it without condemning lives and property to destruction.

Friday, April 22, 2011

CBS Board Game Newsmagazine Feature

CBS’s Sunday Morning newsmagazine recently ran a feature on “board games through the ages,” including clips of reporter Mo Rocca exploring gaming at Gen Con Indy and interviewing game scholar Scott Nicholson.

The piece touches on a number of board game issues, including competition with digital games, historical games, the recent board game resurgence, and the benefit of face-to-face play in teaching kids (and adults) about winning and losing graciously.

Thanks to CBS news for producing this positive feature about hobby games and highlighting a pastime that not only draws people away from their addictive electronic devices, but brings them together for a community play experience.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Solitaire RPG Tutorial Adventures

Game companies have used solitaire “tutorial” adventures to introduce new players to rules and settings since the “Dawn of Roleplaying" in the 1980s.
Solo scenarios, especially introductory ones, provide better insight into a new game’s mechanics and universe than the often over-hyped back-cover copy advertising a game book. Few game companies offer a short solo adventure as a promotional giveaway to encourage sales. The lack of a quick solitaire adventure to play immediately sometimes deters me from purchasing a new roleplaying game book, even those that catch my interest.

I’ve written a number of solitaire tutorial scenarios for game systems published by the late West End Games: introductory solo adventures for the d6 Star Wars Roleplaying Game, the MasterBook World of Indiana Jones -- and later one for Indiana Jones Adventures which translated the game engine to the D6 System -- the Men in Black Roleplaying Game, and Hercules & Xena Roleplaying Game. For licensed roleplaying games these solo adventures entice non-gaming fans who purchase the game to give it a try on their own. Original roleplaying games used tutorial scenarios to teach innovative rules concepts and introduce setting concepts.

Few new roleplaying games today incorporate solitaire tutorial adventures into the overall approach to teaching rules and setting. Many cater primarily to those already initiated into the mysteries of roleplaying games, people who can easily peruse, grasp, and implement new rule mechanics and who easily absorb revolutionary setting concepts.

Perusing the roleplaying game shelves and combing through my foggy memory, I’ve found a number of notable solitaire tutorial scenarios that helped introduce new game systems and settings over the years:

Basic Dungeons & Dragons (TSR): The Players Manual in the Basic D&D boxed set from the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (the one with the Larry Elmore red dragon attacking the barbarian cover, not the iconic Erol Otus fighter and magic user attacking the green dragon) seemed built around introducing players to fantasy roleplaying by outlining basic character concepts followed by a solitaire tutorial scenario simply called “solo adventure.” Readers could use the sample character introduced earlier, or pick standard class-based heroes to use from subsequent chapters that outlined major player concepts. The scenario walked the player through a typical adventure process, starting with an outline of “Town Business,” then a review of rules procedures in “Battles,” and finally the adventure itself, “Into the Caves.” The set’s Dungeon Masters Rulebook contained a section called “Your First Game” with a group adventure in the form of a programmed scenario for the gamemaster, who shared “read-aloud” sections with players and looked up subsequent entries based on the heroes’ actions, all with relevant stats for combat, encounters, traps, and treasure. Wizards of the Coast (which bought financially troubled TSR and its intellectual properties in 1997) recently released a new Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set using the classic “red box” graphics and updating the material inside to mesh with the D&D 4th edition rules…including a solitaire adventure (though I’ve not seen it myself).

Regina Cayli” in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game (West End Games, first edition). A pretty standard set-up -- leave an escape pod, evade Imperial patrols, and enter a scout ship -- drew players into typical Star Wars action while teaching the then-revolutionary and relatively simple cinematic D6 System rules. Using heroes from examples of character creation and gameplay helped create a continuity within the rulebook. (This scenario inspired me to write “Cantina Breakout,” the solitaire tutorial scenario for the Star Wars roleplaying game’s “revised and expanded” edition years later.)

Paranoia, 2nd Edition (West End Games). Although the game system wasn’t too complex, the concepts behind the game world were humorously twisted. The solo scenario in this edition immersed readers immediately into the immense catch-22 that was life in Alpha Complex.

Adventures on Tekumel (Theatre of the Mind). Professor M. A. R. Barker’s Tekumel has come and gone from the roleplaying game circuit in several incarnations. The world and its cultures can seem incomprehensible to the uninitiated. These solitaire adventures supported Theatre of the Mind’s version of the game, helping to overcome unfamiliar settings and cultural references and immersing readers in the rich, exotic Tekumel setting. The initial adventures picked up right where the rulebook’s character creation section left off.

“The Island of Dr. No in the James Bond 007 game (Victory Games). Seemingly added to the back of this rulebook in lieu of a group adventure, “The Island of Dr. No” let readers test drive the 007 rules as their agent infiltrates Dr. No’s secret research facility in the Caribbean. It ably demonstrated the rules for one of the earlier games that relied on task resolution based on individual skills instead of level-based, attribute-modified “to hit” and “armor class” numbers. It even provided the suggestion that a gamemaster could run the scenario for players simply by reading entries aloud and elaborating on the action. Victory Games later published an entire boxed epic solitaire adventure, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, loosely based on the film of the same name.

The Lord of the Rings Adventure Game (Iron Crown Enterprises). My attraction to this product was mainly professional…at the time I was developing the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game and sought inspiration for new ways to teach rules to new players and cultivate new gamemasters. This game and its subsequent scenarios all took the form of programmed adventures for the gamemaster, who shared “read-aloud” sections with players and looked up subsequent entries based on the heroes’ actions.

Notable Non-Tutorial Solo Games

Some solitaire roleplaying adventures deserve mention even though they weren’t included in core rulebooks or weren’t intended to teach game and setting concepts.

Ghost of Lion Castle, Lathan’s Gold (TSR). I wouldn’t consider these Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons adventures among the best solitaire adventures out there, but as Dungeons & Dragons solo scenarios, these fit the bill. Ghost of Lion Castle is a standard dungeon crawl with wandering monsters and an old ghost. Lathan’s Gold contains a classic treasure hunt, with lots of record-keeping, gold-hoarding goodness.

Ring of Thieves (Cumberland Games). In Ring of Thieves a trouble-prone halfling must find and rescue his companion from unknown assailants in an immense and strange city. An enormous fantasy adventure by S. John Ross using his innovative and intuitive Risus game rules. For a system that emphasizes humor, its simple mechanics prove remarkably well-suited for games with more serious themes. Get it for free from S. John’s Cumberland Games & Diversions free downloads page.

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! (Penguin Books). The progenitor of the “fighting fantasy” gamebook genre presented a simple game system for combat and spell-casting allowing readers to partake in an epic, four-book, world-spanning quest. Every encounter, character, and location exuded an exotic sense of this rich medieval fantasy world. After overcoming the excitement of killing beasts and grabbing their treasure, readers could enjoy puzzle-solving and some character interaction.

Solitaire roleplaying adventures have their place, though it rarely seems a very respectable one. Solo scenarios offer an opportunity to explore a new game’s universe and learn the rules on one’s own, without assembling a group of friends to try creating characters for and gamemastering a new genre. They’re similar to the tutorials for various computer games where you can test out the keyboard controls and gain a sense of the strategy in a short scenario before diving into a full-blown game. But the allure goes beyond the instructional. On one hand they provide an opportunity to game when nobody else is around. They’re also a guilty, selfish pleasure. For those who frequently serve as the gamemaster, it’s a welcome break to play an adventure, even a solo one, without spending hours reading the scenario and preparing the game. Solo players aren’t vying against others for the gamemaster’s time and attention; they’re the only one playing, their character is the central protagonist, and all the action focuses on them. It’s a selfish pleasure, but it’s also a treat. Every now and then we all need the satisfaction of a selfish treat.

Where Are the Recent Releases?

I can’t claim to have a comprehensive knowledge of new roleplaying games and their contents, but few recently released games employ solitaire tutorial adventures as instructional elements in rulebooks to introduce players to game systems and settings. The only recent one that comes to mind released with Wizards of the Coast’s new Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set to introduce new players to the current D&D 4th edition rules.

Are solitaire tutorial adventures no longer viewed as effective? Do publishers feel they don’t warrant the time and effort to design, or the space in the rulebook? Or do today’s games cater more to established roleplayers rather than taking on the greater mission of recruiting new players to the hobby? Is the solitaire roleplaying game adventure a dying or dead breed?