Arcane Game Lore

Gaming is not in the blood, it's in the dice!

Taking RPGs Back To Their Roots

The history of role playing games begins with table top war games and explains why the company that brought us Dungeons & Dragons started out as TSR: Tactical Study Rules. As a kid with my first boxed set of Basic D&D rules I always found the name TSR odd till I learned the war gaming connection.

Role playing games were probably inevitable due to how war games evolved. The early days saw the popularity of recreating the battles of Napoleon where a player or group of players controlled several army divisions on the table which translated to one player controlling tens of thousands of men. This level of gaming has been labeled, Grand Battle.

A latter development was the level of gaming labeled, Skirmish. In a skirmish game a player no longer controls divisions or whole armies but instead he controls a company or perhaps as little as a squad of men represented with figures.
It seems to me that eventually someone would have taken that trend to one player controlling one figure or man in a game. If it had not been Gary Gygax and David Arneson then it would have been someone else.

Early RPGs were miniatures or die cut counter dependent but a new trend developed for abstract gaming with blogs and posts appearing on the internet talking about how role playing games needed to shake off the legacy of the war gaming past and become truly abstract with no maps, miniatures and possibly even dice. My purpose is not to tackle the arguments for or against abstract gaming as I consider it a good tool to use. I tend to collect tools and not throw them away so I’ve used abstract styles of gaming and miniatures and counters and had fun doing both.

My purpose is to look at things that worked in war gaming, have some history of use in role playing games and promote some of those ideas or styles of play for role playing games.

One of my all-time favorite RPGs was Star Frontiers and when TSR published the space ship combat supplement for that game it was decidedly less abstract and very much run like a boxed war game. It came with die cut counters and a hex map and you could run fleet actions or simply the player character’s lonely ship taking on a space pirate or corporate privateer. I had almost as much fun playing the space ship combat side of the game as I did the role playing side. In addition player characters on a ship that was destroyed were automatically assumed to have made it to an escape pod. Looking back it seems to me that this was the role playing game coming full circle back to its war gaming roots.

The steam punk genre of RPG that have risen in popularity have continued this fusion of RPG and war game elements. GASLIGHT (Glorious Adventures in Science Loosely Involving Generally Historic Times), a game set in the 1800’s where all the wonders of Jules Verne and other Victorian science fiction authors are true. It had thin little rule books for Mass Battle, Skirmish, and RPG levels of gaming. Space 1889 with a similar setting that includes Mars and Venus had supplements for sky ships to battle each other and another called a “Soldier’s Companion” which provided details about and adapted historical military units to the game setting.

There are several advantages to using a war game level of action in your campaign. It can create a sense of grandeur in a game that typically focuses on the actions of a few individuals. The out come can be more satisfying because the players will physically see they had a direct impact on it as apposed to and abstract mass battle. It provides a change of pace potentially alleviating apathy or boredom. It can let you tell different sorts of stories that have not been typical in your RPG campaign. Finally if not enough of the people in the local gaming group show up for a session a war game level of action can be played out for fun and the RPG level of action can resume when the whole group is there.

Systems for mass battles and ship to ship combat have been typical war gaming theaters introduced to RPGs in the past. Almost any set of well-rounded vehicle vs vehicle rule set can be used with any RPG as you can opt for the old Star Frontier’s rule of every PC will survive the destruction of a ship by default unless its destruction is so obviously catastrophic. With mass battles you would subsume player characters as leaders of units and not worry about the character taking direct damage as his unit of men shields him to a certain degree. Stats for leadership and personality should be used for command and morale tests.

One area I’m thinking to adapt is dog fighting. Fighter on fighter space combat has typically been fairly abstract as the fighters are usually handled in the same fashion as a destroyer or battleship. There are two fabulous war games for running aerial dog fights. Wings of War is a WW1 simulation game that is very fast play and fun. I think it has potential to be adapted to Star Frontiers for purely fighter actions. Check Your 6 is a highly detailed WW2 simulation that the game developers are reported to have interviewed living WW2 fighter pilots before writing the game. Its chart dependent but is supposed to be as realistic as simulation of WW2 aerial combat as possible. My gut tells me that Wings of War is the game to pattern a Star Frontier’s dog fight on. It’s a very exciting game when you out guess your opponent and end up on his tail blasting him out of the sky.
A good set of war game rules adapted to space dog fighting would be a game changer. Suddenly, the possibilities of running a carrier based campaign where players are fighter jocks, begins to open up. So while I rather like the completely abstract space ship combat rules that I lifted from an out of print Star Trek RPG, I’m working towards adapting other war game rules for use in my favorite RPGs.

Categorised as: General


  1. neoproxy says:

    I’ve seen a lot people playing the new x-wing. I haven’t had a chance to play it yet, but I’ve heard it’s addicting.

    One of the games that I liked from a while back is ‘Silent Death’. From the designer: “Silent Death is an attempt to produce a fun and fast-moving game that is simple to learn. The mix of design trade-offs (detail for playability) in the Standard Game feels about right, but since you can’t satisfy all of the people all of the time, we piled in a bunch of optional rules so players can find their own optimum mix; either simpler or more complex.”

    • jedion357 says:

      I probably should have checked out Silent Death long ago as I’ve loved many of ICE’s products dating back to 1st ed. MERP. My concern here though is that the scope will of Silent Death will be much like many other games where there are provisions for fighters through battleships on the board and what I’m really interested in is dogfighting rules. The scope and scale are different. I’ve had little interest in gaming in the Star Wars setting but I’ll have to research Xwing and check ebay. In all likelihood though I will probably fudge an adaption of Wings of Wars since I own the rules and like the game- the amount of tactics that come into play in this game are incredible for a simple fast play game. It might not be as realistic a simulation as Check Your 6 but it has a good feel that I think will translate well to Star Frontiers.

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