Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Redefining the Wargame (for us Lunkheaded TTRPGers)

A while ago I wrote an article on how wargaming has a great deal to teach role-playing groups. The reaction I got was interesting, and best in cancellated in this comment:

It occurred to me that when a lot of people think of wargames, they think of something like Warhammer 40K, and so the definition they're using of wargames is very narrow. It is hard to understand where are the idea of Dungeons & Dragons being still heavily influenced by, and improved by cleaving its wargame origins might be confusing.

I thought it might be helpful to give a broader picture of what a wargame is, and why that is relevant to modern Dungeons & Dragons.

Early Wargames 

Wargames as we know them are an early modern phenomenon. There are a lot of contentious arguments about where the first one started (excluding chess). It was clear that by the early 18th century more games were being used to both analyze real world warfare in Europe, and to train officers for the military.

These early modern wargames had complex rules meant to create realistic simulations of battle. Certain wargames like those used in the Prussian military Academy, required months of study to learn, years to master, and your quality is officer material was often judged by your ability to learn these rules and play a good wargame, with the assumption that it would teach you enough about real world tactics in the process.

However, the more complex, realistic, and sophisticated the games got,  To the point where young aristocrats were expected to learn more games often openly rebelled against it the way children today might rebel against piano lessons that they don't want.

Free Kriegspiel 

And so, in the late 18th century a movement emerged with the purpose of freeing wargames from their tedious and excessive rules in favor of logic and "good enough" rules. These were the first Free Kriegspiel games. The original Free Kriegspiel movement was not able to redeem the wargames in popular culture, however. Early Modern Wargames died out as a hobby, and fell to the wayside as a training tool for some time. Military history became the popular way to train officers.

20th Century Wargames

At the dawn of the 20th century, the science fiction writer H.G. Wells was inspired by the toy soldiers in a friend's collection to try to recreate a simple wargame that involved using toys as terrain and popgun artillery. Little Wars: A game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys' games and books, included both skirmish rules and rules for a longer Kriegspiel  campaign, complete with multiple engagements, logistics, and troop transportation. This became the grandfather of modern skirmish-focused wargames. 

Games inspired by Little Wars (with just a touch of the historical war games of the 18th century) inspired the nascent board game industry of the 1950s to release a handful of simple war games such as Stratego, Axis and Allies, and Risk. As these gained in popularity, new generation of hardcore bobbyist emerged that was interested in moving into more sophisticated games than those made by Milton Bradley or the Parker Brothers.  By the 1960s these enthusiasts had returned to simulating the Napoleonic Wars using recreations of the Early Modern Wargames,  often using custom rule systems generated by clubs and shared in community magazines.

The Free Kriegspiel Revolution 

By the 1970s, however, those rules were once again becoming cumbersome. And they were extremely limiting in many ways. Most war gamers understand that warfare is not simply a matter of mashing forces against each other until someone wins like in Risk or Axis and Allies. That events that are hard to govern by the rules such as sabotaging supplies, diplomacy, and making best use of the battlefield can have a huge impact on warfare.

This is especially true in the long run. Most wargamers don't play single skirmish matches. Instead, they run multiple conflicts against multiple players, while forming alliances and agreements at times to share resources and supplies. They will often play dozens or even hundreds of individual clashes, but often the most important events in the warfare happen when the players are talking to each other away from the table.

Ultimately, is that track not just individual conflicts but overall progress of a large multinational conflict are handled in these systems.

And the rules don't always cover them well or at all, but they are as fundamental a part of the game as any mechanism to determine what one volley of arrows does to an infantry force might be.

As the rules became more sophisticated, but less able to cover the most important events in a given campaign, many players turned back to Free Kriegspiel concepts. 

A major influence on the new Free Kriegspiel movement was a 19th century Kriegspiel rule set: Strategos: the American Game of War (not to be mistaken for the mass market game Stratego.) Strategos, written in 1880 by Brigadier-General Charles Totten, suggested a neutral judge be appointed to help players handle events that the existing game mechanics couldn't cover. For example, if the players decided they wanted to set fire to a clump of trees to destroy cover, or build a makeshift bridge, or lay a track, the judge would use their logic to determine the outcome of those events. When in doubt, the judge had a single simple system for determining success or failure of a risky action.

The judge was trusted to modify the rules on the fly in response to non-combat actions. For example, allowing characters to freely move over water the point where the bridge would be created, or to declare that the cover rules no longer apply for the burnt patch of wood, or that the moment one player moves into an area that is considered trapped, their units are suddenly damaged.

This allows the players to "zoom out" as well, letting the judge listen to their declarations about troop movement, politics, strategy, etc., and deciding how it affects future engagements.


A major evolution of Strategos (mixed with the non-combat wargame Diplomacy) was Braunstein. In the original Braunstein game by David Wesley, players were not assigned roles as commanders of combat forces, but were instead assigned roles such as "influential university professor," "student advocate," "foreign spy," "wealthy aristocrat," etc. With the goal of determining what side the elites of a city would support during an impending invasion, which would make all the difference for potential follow-up scenarios. The players very quickly both stated actions to the judge about the secret actions they would take to create influence in the larger community and role-played out their interactions with one another independently. The result was a game full of intrigue, espionage, influence peddling, and murder that felt as much like a "murder mystery weekend" as a wargame. Later iterations of Braunstein focused on intrigues preceding a potential coup d'etat in a Latin American country, where the scenario was such that the players could possibly avert or accelerate the coup depending what happened during a fictional political rally.

But, that is exactly what it was: a sophisticated wargaming experience dealing with intrigue leading up to the first engagements in a war to determine the initial outcome. 

Why We Think of Skirmish Games When We Say "Wargame"

When you say war game today, people tend to think immediately of combat heavy games such as Warhammer 40,000, which far and away is the most dominant war game on the market. But while Warhammer 40,000 has all the tools for determining the outcome of thd struggle for control over an entire planrt, it is often played solely as one to one or small group skirmishes. The systems baked into Warhammer to determine the longer outcome of a conflict over a planet are often ignored. Likewise, the BattleTech system has role playing games, games that simulate courtly intrigue, games that simulate star system battles, mass troop battles, as well as the familiar giant robot blasting each other's to scratch. But, most players rarely engage with the larger systems to determine a war for a star system's outcome.

The perception of what these games are is easily colored by how they are played by a majority of first time or casual hobbyists. And doesn't give a clear picture at all what the larger wargaming hobby is all about. Especially in light of both the original Free Kriegspiel movement of the 18th century, and the Free Kriegspiel Revolution of today.

Redefining Wargames to Capture the Broader Scope

If we look at what war games are when played by masterful players engaging in the whole scope of the hobby, we see a much bigger picture:

  • Wargames are games designed to determine the outcome of a large conflict between factions or cultures.
  • Wargames are played by the players both "at the table", and in conversation, or by letter or Internet "away from the table".
  • Agreements, communications with the judge, and role-played events that would change the shape of the battlefield, are taken into account when determining which side has the upper hand.
  • Combat at the table is a very small part of the game, in a larger campaign, players may be assigned advantages or tools based on their performance away from the table, as well as at previous sessions at the table.
  • Rules for combat are usually formalized, but limited in scope. They're designed to ensure fairness when adjudicating the outcomes of a armed conflict.
  • Resolving non-armed forms of conflict generally requires the use of logic, intuition, and a clear understanding of the parameters of the game setting. They tend to use accepted convention rather than formal rules.
  • In games where there is going to be a great deal of activity that has not involved one unit attacking another, which is going to be a large portion of war games of this nature, a referee using a simple rule set and a great deal of logic and fairness is the preferred method of resolving outcomes.
  • Generally, the wargame is over when the players are satisfied that it is over. Which is generally determined by the state of the fictional world.

Free Kriegspiel And TTRPGs

If you are a fan of Firefly, it might be interesting to point out that the young Simon and River Tam are engaged in Free Kriegspiel in the scene that features a childhood flashback in episode 5. In it, they were simulating a battle between the brown-coats and the alliance, in which River was introducing a new element, claiming that the brown coats had somehow acquired dinosaurs and cut off the alliance forces this is the purest manifestation of a good Free Kriegspiel. 

Brownstone was an evolution of the original Braunstein campaign that fused the more traditional table top miniature-based game with the Free Kriegspiel. In it, a group of players played various key citizens of an old west settlement town called Brownstone that was beset by bandits and internal strife. The characters could move minis representing their various player characters, and take whatever actions they thought appropriate or role play with one another if their characters were inside of one another. This provided a great deal of the template for how Dungeons & Dragons was structured.

After Brownstone came Blackmoor, a Sword & Sorcery adventure that owes a lot to authors like Michael Moorcock and Jack Vance and an extremelyheart dose of Robert E. Howard (esp. The Scarlet Citadel). Run by Dave Arneson, Blackmoor was a miniatures-free wargame, in which the referee narrated but the player character saw and heard as they move together has a group of rogueish adventurers in the vein of Elric or Kugel the Clever. 

This wasn't particularly unusual on some levels: the single player character wargames of Brownstone and Braunstein had already set the stage. The only thing that was unique was that it was miniatures free, and driven entirely by way of narration. The referee also became a virtual reality interface using narration.

It was the fusion of the ideas of Blackmoor, and Chainmail, a rule set designed specifically for medieval and fantasy battles by E. Gary Gygax that gave rise to Dungeons & Dragons a few years later. It was not viewed as a new style of game, but rather a new experiment in combining various elements of war games. Something that played like Braunstein sometimes or Brownstone at others, with a robust combat system, and enough dice mechanics for other situations to make the job of adjudicating these adventures fairly easy in spite of the number of moving parts necessary for a weird fiction dungeon crawl adventure.

That it featured combat was not what made it a wargame, so much as it was borrowing liberally from these new and experimental Free Kriegspiel structures of David Wesley and Dave Arneson's.:

  • The idea of a narrated gameplay theater of the mind which players solved problems,
  • The asymmetric structure of play wherein the referee challenged the players and allowed them to work together to solve their imaginary problems,
  • The rules light system that really was only designed to handle the determining with their character lives or dies when they put their neck on the line,
  • A structure that allows the Dpreferee to solve the rest of uncertain problems with a few simple rules and a heck of a lot of logic, 

 These were all existing tropes on the cutting Edge of war games in the '70s.

Why It is Still Important 

I think we lose a out on a lot of great ideas when we fail to understand what a wargame is and how it is played. The most interesting wargames of the last few centuries almost never have to do with skirmishes of armies, so much as looking at all the ways conflicts could possibly be resolved to change the landscape of a fictional world.

This is also the reason why it is very natural for early versions of Dungeons & Dragons to have wealthy and successful player characters become leaders of armies, lords of feifdoms, or even gods. That allows the player character to move to different levels of play in the same Free Kriegspiel environment. A low-level PC is played mostly at the table. A high level PC gets to dictate the landscape of the table. An immortal PC can rewrite the rules themselves. 

The delineation between a wargame and a role-playing game was essentially a marketing matter. Many of the younger players that came into the gaming hobby in the early '80s, the so-called "Munchkins" of early Dungeons & Dragons, were more interested in playing as Saturday-morning-cartoon-fueled epic adventure saga focused around the characters, rather than reshaping a procedurally generated fantasy world using everything from politics to culture to war bands to mercantilism. The style of the game had changed, the audience that found it appealing had changed, and so labeling it is something slightly different than a wargame made sense.

I would argue, however, that even the modern storygame has not drifted too far from their roots of wargaming culture. Once you realize that combat doesn't have to be the goal, but rather reshaping the world is, a good many of the story focused games coming out of the Indy community right now still fit the bill, and may in fact, be closer to the Free Kriegspiel Revolution of the seventies then Dungeons & Dragons itself is.

Understanding FKR ideas can let you change how you approach your game to get much better results.  You think of your campaign world differently if you think of it as a blank slate in which the players are trying to make a mark.

Bringing the FKR Back Into TTRPGs

I have had the great pleasure of playing Dungeons & Dragons with Stephen Smith, who is both a veteran D&D player and a veteran wargamer (check out his awesome wargaming substack!). Stephen has, in turn been involved tangentially with the BrOSR community. Whatever you might think about the bluster of a few members of that clique, they have some amazing ideas on how to blend fantasy wargaming and Dungeons & Dragons. They have been working singly and collectively on building upon ideas on how to fuse D&D and Braunstein-style wargames for several years. And come up with some brilliant tools.

In the two campaigns I have played with Stephen, he has had a collection of patron players who are running a "long" Braunstein in the background. They each control a faction, be it a cult, a group of monsters, a religious organization, or are playing the rulers of certain fiefdoms. What they are doing in the background affects the game that the D&D players experience... and vice versa. 

If the Goblin King of player decides he wants to take territory, he will tell Stephen how he is scouting and moving goblins into position for invasion. Then, Stephen will use random tools to find out if the goblins are discovered before they are a credible threat. If they are, inform the player who's the lord of that county. That player might in turn might mobilize troops, put out a reward on goblin heads, or improve town defenses.

Many of those actions will have ramifications for us heroic players. For example, if the count puts out a bounty on goblin heads, that will be a hook that we PCs can pursue next time we play. Many of the rumors and events in the D&D campaign are handled entirely by a handful of patron players running their play-by-post Braunstein.

This does require strict one-to-one time observance. It also requires that the Braunstein players have a little more structure to make sure everything happens in a sensible order. Stephen has recently compiled rules on how he handles the Braunstein players working as patrons in the background.

While this requires a little bit of cat-herding, much of the work of the DM is handled for them. They don't need to come up with villains or plots, they just have to receive emails about the plots of a collection of players who may well be villains. (Certainly as a heroic player on the receiving end of their machinations, I tend to think of the patron players as such.)

In the Weirth campaign, this ultimately led to an invasion of Skarn, (the Low Fantasy Gaming equivalent of orcs,) led by a charismatic cultist played by a patron player. His hunt for profane artifacts and forbidden magic to arm his forces had been a touchstone in almost every adventure we had experienced (unbeknownstto us). Eventually my fighter RĂ³inseach was recruited as the herald of a dark god by that patron player, and we actually sat down and role played her recruitment together.

Interestingly, almost none of the conflicts between patron players turned into warfare until the campaign was over 2 years old. And then, they were handled by a siege war game simulation run only by the GM is a solo event. With my player characters caught in the middle of it all...

This in turn was a part of a massive multiverse-wide event where the BrOSR guys all decided go have the cataclysmic events going on in one ACKS campaign affect the campaign worlds of every other campaign run by a player at that table. This led to one of the wildest wargame-TTRPG fusion experiments I have ever seen: The Fate of Stormbringer. 

The Braunstein game in the background of Stephen's campaigns had led to strange omens, zombie apocalypses, revelations of new gods,  warfare, assassinations, planar alignments,  and far stranger things. The world feels alive. As players on the D&D end, we generally see it only through hooks, rumors, and portents much of the time, but occasionally it gets much bigger, much stranger and sometimes much bloodier than the kind of D&D most people get to play, exactly because it is drawing on its Free Kriegspiel roots.

It has been a truly amazing series of experiments to witness. And was only possible because the players at the patron level, have a wargamers, understand that a wargame is much more than attempting to win skirmishes on a miniature battlefield.

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