Friday, October 28, 2022

What's in a Label?

 This is yet another essay brought about by Twitter exchanges. There has been a lot of young new-school players lately taking shots at the idea that D&D is a war game or was ever such a thing.

And, of course, there are plenty of people willing to argue the other side as well, because on many levels D&D in particular continues to hold a lot of war game elements to it.

Personally, I find the whole debate, (if you can call it that as it is typical Twitter shouting,) misses a critical point. Which is that the map is not the territory. Genre labels are not solid objective measures of anything.

The Shift from Wargame to Role-playing Game 

The first modern role-playing games are most definitely an offshoot of Wargames.

And by the first early role-playing games I am not thinking of Dungeons & Dragons. I'm thinking of Braunstein, Brownstone, and Blackmoor. These were tabletop war games wherein most of the players were given responsibility for a single character, often a non-combatant, who had specific victory conditions based on things they could achieve on the board. Most of the play was done simply by having conversations between characters.

Using a Stratego-N style referee to adjudicate any action not covered by the relatively light rules, they were able to give these armies of one fairly complex dimension and often complex objectives.

Campaigns were already a concept in wargaming. Everything that happened in one of these settings led to the events of the next one. There was really no new campaign-level narrative structure added to the early versions of Dungeons & Dragons that wasn't already there.

What Dungeons & Dragons added to this was a limited information flow. Play your characters were only permitted to know but their characters knew. Acting on anything of the characters wouldn't be aware of was considered cheating. Over the first 6 or so years of the games existence, the art of describing much player characters experience started making the use of models or pawns irrelevant. The Theater of the Mind emerged and started making the game increasingly distinct from the conventions of the war games of the time.

This became the point at which the adventure game, or role-playing game became distinct from the wargame.... Kinda'

See, here's the thing: genres are a map that does a poor job of describing the territory.

Genres, Redux

With the explosion of popular art and small presses in the late 19th century, we saw a distinct difference in the tastes of the working in middle class and the educated elites. Things like the penny dreadfuls were designed to appeal to popular taste. And that aim to appeal led to a lot of imitation with one writer trying to reproduce what made others successful, leading to clusters of work that had very similar tropes and conventions.

At first, popular work was simply ghettoized as "popular" and considered separate from High Art.  Entire branches of scholarship, such as the Frankfurt School of Analysis and Structuralism were developed in order to explain why popular art was inferior to High Art.

Ultimately, certain authors who helped pioneer styles, such as Jonathan Swift pioneering the exotic adventure story, Edgar Allan Poe pioneering both modern horror and the detective story, and Arthur Conan Doyle creating the definitive sleuth, and writing some of the first lost world stories were admitted into high art. People who borrowed the ideas and remix them for a popular audience, on the other hand, were relegated to "popular" "trash."

The fact of the matter is, however, well purveyors of High Art and literature were lionized and given opportunities to speak and high society and honorary University titles, popular art simply made more money. Which was held right up through to the 21st century as evidence that people who enjoy popular culture were of inferior intellect.

With popular art and literature being a growth industry, a lot of attention was paid to how to sell in market it. In the 1920s through the 1950s the best way to get a dose of popular art and fiction was to buy pulp magazines. Named because they used the cheapest paper possible and rough ink. The "Pulps" tended to look for what sold, which among other things, made sure that the subject matter was titillating and often lurid.

Different audiences within the pop culture took interest in different styles of writing and different groups of authors. Over time, Pulp started slowly dividing itself into groups of followers of different kinds of stories. Detective Stories were one of the first to branch off. Magazine editors in the Pulp industry discovered that they could get a more consistent and more satisfied audience if they focused on one kind of story. And that some fans could be very particular about a style.

By the late 1920s and early 30s, stories involving the fantastical and supernatural were broadly categorized into Weird Fiction. Anything from space travel odysseys and stories featuring space pirates to the heroic tales of Robert E. Howard, too lurid tales of being stalked by serial killers ("mashers"), to vampire stories, to the cosmic horror of HP Lovecraft all appeared in the same magazine.

Weird Fiction was a broad and quickly-divided fan base. Letters to editors the decrying the absurdity of HP Lovecraft work or the dull simplicity of a werewolf story next to space robots pushed further and further division.

Terms like "Science Fiction," "Horror," and "Fantasy" sprung up starting in the late 30s through to the 50s. Eventually several large umbrella genres we're effectively created by a combination of the editors and the fan basemaking requests to the editors over the content of their magazines.

Genre itself translates from French very roughly as "the way of a people."

The recording industry followed suit naming new genres, and naming different styles of jazz after the regions that they came from rather than applying a blanket label.

By the 1960s applying genre labels she came second nature to pop culture consumers.

In fact, genre continues to divide and subdivide over time. As fandoms have become used to popular media purveyors trying their best to narrow the field, they have more and more particular about what is meant by a particular genre or subgenre or not. And subgenres explode. I like to joke about heavy metal having more branches than a willow tree: some subgenres of metal are defined by only one or two artists and their particular fans attempting to set them apart. Gothic Romantic Metal was at one point a term used exclusively to describe the music of Cradle of Filth, for example.

And despite becoming a multi-billion dollar industry, genre remained ignored by high society and academia until the mid-90s when University professors like Deborah Wills established the idea of "genre studies" as a sub category of the study of English Literature. Even then, early genre studies were focused on a taxonomical study of what is and isn't suited to a particular genre. For example, what is and isn't cyberpunk was the topic of one of the classes I took in University. Which followed with an analysis of its underlying politics and the subcultures around it.

The Problem with Genre

But, to reiterate, the thing about genre is that it is a map that does not necessarily describe the territory.

Most of the seminal works of Pulp Fiction don't handily fit into modern genre categories. The Conan stories certainly don't follow the tropes of fantasy as it was later defined by Abraham Merritt or the Lord of the Rings fandom of the 1950s. It often skirts the line between a heist story, the fantasy story, and a cosmic horror story with heavy Lovecraft influence.

Likewise, The works of Jack Vance, which set the standards by which world building is done in genre fiction, includes wizards, crafty thieves, and noble knights, but is set in a world where mathematics and computer programming are interpreted as magic. People who know simple commands to activate ancient pieces of technology are considered to know spells. And alien beings from another dimension, creations of genetic engineering, robots, and artificial intelligences all are categorized as demons. The subtle subtext of forgotten super technology keeps the Dying Earth series from being purely fantasy. Meanwhile the sardonic tone of The Dying Earth often makes it feel more like a comedy than a serious science fiction or fantasy story.

As a third example my readers would appreciate, there are the Amber novels by Roger Zelazny. In these novels, a family of primordial humans discover the language of creation and are able to create and shape worlds as they wish, and move back and forth between them. They live in a nucleus of actual and absolute reality called the Castle Amber. The feuds within that family travel from the gritty underbelly of New York where they read rather like adventure novels, to dinosaur ruled wastelands, to fantastic fearie realms. And that's just in the first six chapters of the original novel. Amber shifts so rapidly between setting and convention, that it could be categorized as almost any style of literature depending on which chapter you're reading.

Genres were, for most of the 20th century, intended to be descriptive,  at best, they serve to give you a loose idea of what something would be like and whether you might like it. Genres helped create fandom culture as well. Often when a new genre was defined, it would draw a fandom. And then the fandom would help refine the idea of exactly what the thing was.

But the the pop art, whatever it might have been, never fully and perfectly fits into the description that the fans and the producers of the genre create for it. The Art exists a priori to the genre... Or at least it did...

Generation X having grown up with genre as a massive component of popular discourse was obsessed with it. Subcultures built up in ways they never had before built around fandoms and creators. In the '80s and 90s, most Generation Xers define themselves by the music that they listen to 

You very much became tied at the identity-level with the genres you consumed. While artists often altered their work a bit to fit a genre and make it easier to be published in literature magazines, GenXers developed a tendency to write to conform to a genre. A GenX creator didn't write a book that had enough science fiction conventions to be considered science fiction: they set out to write Science Fiction and included its conventions in their work conscientiously.

Genre became prescriptive rather than descriptive.

And this was fairly concrete by the time millennials were going through high school. Conformity or non-conformity to a genre is part of how millennials tend to assess art. You can hear discussions like this book is pretty good, but is it really science fiction?

Bringing this Back to D&D and Wargaming

Which is exactly where this discussion about whether or not Dungeons & Dragons is or ever was a war game comes from.

The way modern audiences engage with genre is completely alien to how it was employed in 1974. Dungeons & Dragons set out to appeal to a wargame fan base, but didn't necessarily bill itself as a war game. At first it called himself a "fantasy adventure game."

By today's standards, early Dungeons & Dragons was not particularly "fantasy." It included a lot of tropes from Science Fiction, Horror, and even Westerns. Early adventures included jetpacks and laser blasters, crashed starships, and murder mysteries: demon Lords and artificial intelligences; lovecraftian horrors, dinosaurs, and cowboy wizards with revolvers. Most of Appendix-N was written before genre became a going concern. And is so varied  in content that it is impossible to say one genre is prevalent.

And "adventure game" was a meaningless term. No one made much of anything called an "adventure game."  It was an acknowledgement that it was not a modern wargame like Chainmail had been, but it borrowed most of its structure and conventions from wargames and sold to a wargaming audience.

"Role-playing game" as a term didn't start appearing until around 1976, and didn't have it's own fanvase, imitators, tropes, and culture of playnuntil that point.

So was it a wargame, an adventure game, or a role-playing  game?

It doesn't really matter. At the time genre, was unimportant. People did not think of genres in the same way. It was one of many experiments going on seeking new ways to play with your fellow wargamers for a good time and to show off your ability to innovate with the new spirit of Free Kriegspiel that was emerging in the community.

These experiments have continued and refined for almost 60 years now in various forms from the first Braunstein campaign. Some emphasize immersion, some emphasize individual role, some emphasize the political and social interaction, some emphasize character drama.

If you stop trying to categorize things into genres, take a step back and look, you find that there are plenty of wargames, Free Kriegspiel campaigns, role-playing games both new and old school, and story games that are so similar to one another that the difference between them is marginal. And some campaigns move freely between one and the other.

Example One: the Battletech Ecosystem

For example, BattleTech has multiple scales. A fully involved BattleTech campaign when I was playing in the early 90s started with a Aerotech battle for the space around the planet, both on large scale, and then individual skirmishes on the various quadrants of the planet's airspace. Followed by massive scale engagements during a planetary invasion using the BattleForce rules. Important individual battles then could be played out using BattleTech. Meanwhile, at least in the campaign I played, players off and chosen individual character in MechWarrior to do some role playing in between larger sessions.

This moves from large scale abstract war game to skirmish game to role-playing game fairly freely.

Example Two: the fate of Stormbringer

The BROSR has recently run a fantastic event where forves from several campaigns merged to go to war over Elric of Malnibonné's sword Stormbringer as it was hurled into the sun and threatened to devour the soul of the Sun God.

Several of the campaigns involved run a Braunstein-style "Patron" game where players took on the role of faction heads in these campaign worlds. They run conflicts and competition for power using pared-down dominion rules. Their machinations affect the events in the regular D&D clone games.

These patrons used their influence over campaign worlds to raise armies to intercept Stormbringer, while the forces of Chaos raised an army to guide it on its course.

The actual events of the battle were handled in a solo wargame of Dragon Rampant run by YouTuber The Joy of Wargaming.

These events had ripples in multiple campaigns. In the World of Weirth campaign run by BROSR vet Stephen Smith, in which I am a player and occasional guest GM, the battles between the gods have led to Omens and supernatural events that have made our current planar adventures much more hazardous.

You can watch the whole wargame event here, and get the explanation here:

The Brovenloft campaign they just started was designed in such a way that the patrons involved would have their power and standing determined by the outcome of that war, which in turn determined the starting events and context for the AD&D campaign being run.

This style of play blurs the boundaries of  modern wargame, FKS, and Old-School TTRPG, and cannot said to be definitively any one of them.

Of Simple Maps and Complex Topology

Neither patron play, nor the one-to-one time keeping that makes multiple campaigns feeding on the same results possible are new to D&D. One-to-one time to allow multiple D&D parties to run in the same setting was discussed in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. Patron play is a natural consequence of Dominion-level play.

Dungeons & Dragons at the Domain Level tends to include warfare and intrigues. It is no coincidence that both OD&D and BECMI included rudimentary large-scale battle systems integrated into the system.

Ultimately, where the early games fell was more a matter of what the fans thought and how they were marketed than anything else. A sophisticated campaign flowed pretty readily between wargame, story game and traditional role-playing game. I know that in 1991, when some of my players managed to collect a domain, we used the War Machine heavily to determine how their dominion's held against humanoid invasions, but a huge part of my early games are all about seeing a story unfold.

The 21st century obsession with making something fit into a category has definitely changed the shape of the hobbies we are discussing. Games are conscientiously trying to fit a genre.

  • Role-playing games have intentionally stripped away a great deal of the war game and domain level stuff, because they don't feel if it's with the TTRPG genre.
  • War games have moved away from the individual focus experiments like braunstein in order to make sure they our focused on the combat aspect of War gaming.
  • Story games are a 21st century contrivance that tries its best to not be a traditional role-playing game. As the genre's fandom has expanded, they've disowned many early story games like fate for because it is too close to a traditional role-playing game.

Materially, they haven't really drifted that far apart.  Most are two house rules away from migrating genres. Even when we conscientiously try to make the games fit one genre or another.

And this may well be why people spend so much time arguing over the distinctions: they are often so flimsy as to be meaningless to anyone but the die-hard fans. And then, mostly for purposes of reinforcing the boundaries of cliques more than for creating a useful description of a game.

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