Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Raised by wild wargamers

One of the distinct differences I've noticed between gamers who started gaming after D&D became really popular (c. 1983 or 1984) is that they aren't as curious as those who started before that, in my experience.  Particularly those who started gaming before D&D actually appeared, playing board wargames and/or historical miniatures.  I got my start with games such as Avalon/Hill's Afrika Korps (see map up above), a fun introductory boardgame.  I think I still have my copies of Panzerblitz and Panzer Leader buried deep in the collection.

Playing these games - or playing miniatures - often involved fairly extensive supplemental research about the battles and wars being played out on the table.  Did Rommel make a mistake in laying siege to Tobruk?  Probably.  How effective were pikes in stopping cavalry charges?  Most of the time - especially when used by the Swiss.  Was Charles the Bold's Burgundian Army something different than what had been done before?  Yes.  And so on and so forth.  Looking up obscure references in university libraries was seen as part of the fun.  The lasting effect of this has been that I carry this research curiosity into role-playing games.  What did Tolkien have to say about the origin of orcs?  What was Star Fleet's General Order 7?  Was there a specific location for Miskatonic University, according to Lovecraft?

I might have encountered a skewed sample of newer gamers, but I think this habit isn't one being taught to newer gamers.  And I think that's unfortunate.


  1. Was it because, back in the day, all you got for a game were the rules of play? You as GM created the universe and wrote the scenarios, and this sometimes involved further research and evolution of 'world building' ideas.

    The scenario pack with the detailed background universe that the game is set in (usually the writer's, or publisher's house campaign) came later.

    With 'official universes', 'heretic' games stopped being games where the GM was playing around with the game mechanics and became games set outside the parameters of the 'official universe'. And then these slowly die away as well as pressed-for-time GMs, who were being told that winging it was a bad GM trait, took to using the prepackaged scenarios straight out of the wrapper.

    Which keeps writers being paid, which is a good thing, but kinda stunts the imagination and wonder-seeking muscles.

  2. As someone who did begin playing in the late 80s and who really appreciates the settings created in that period, I really don't recognize myself or my friends in this description. Could it simply be that the type of questions asked has changed over the years?

  3. Kobold - I think there's something to that. NOT having anything to act as the boundaries of game context meant that curiosity wasn't out of place.

    Havard - not sure what isn't recognizable to you - could you clarify? For myself, what I've encountered regularly and repeatedly is a willingness on the part of more recent gamers to not investigate things, to regard themselves as relatively "passive" consumers or participants in game play. This may very well be related to what Matt Finch refers to as the second Zen Moment of Old School gaming: player skill, not character ability. But if your experience has been different, that's great! (It unfortunately has not been mine.)

  4. I did begin gaming in the 80's with D&D, I didn't come into the hobby out of wargaming, but was already frequenting game stores. I was in there buying models, & paint & little pieces of metal and whatnot for various projects. Gaming did appeal to the same personality traits that had me in the game store already, and I definitely recognize that a huge part of the appeal of gaming for me was that it neatly dovetailed with being curious about various things. History as a basic time-line wasn't as interesting to me as finding little wrinkles to geek out on, like the stirrup, the long-bow, the historical spread of various grain crops, the history of medicine, etc. Not only did gaming the hobby mesh with my natural curiosity, gamers too, to make a broad generalization, they seemed to be educated, still seeking knowledge as adults, and to likewise place a higher value on spending loads of time and energy researching and discussing this or that, compared with the general population.

    There seemed to be a sense with the earlier games, to me, that they had things in common with models - you got a general plan to build a thing, the plans and materials might be missing some components, or be otherwise unsuitable, and that was not a big deal. It was going to require some work to make it go, and would need continued tinkering as you went along, it might never be totally finished, and most people wouldn't understand why I'd want to spend my time in the basement or garage dormer like that. Which was totally fine by me.

  5. The thing I like least about new school games (besides loads of the art, which has a mainstream over-colored comic book feel to it, which I find grating and irrelevant) is the design bloat - in an effort to make games easier to run for everyone, to help groups play fair at the table, to give players "cool powers" too much is spoon fed to to us. Gaming (for me anyway) is an active endeavor in the sense there is a DIY element to it. My preferred games have a strong DIY element, modern games seem to be going for a softer, less active DIY element. To use the model building analogy, they want every kid to be able to make a model that looks like the picture on the box, so the design is more complicated on the factory end, so it can be less complicated on the consumer end - a small handful of shapes that snap tightly together, elaborately pre-painted to resemble the latest pop-cultural thing (in the late 80's that was usually hair rock, in the 90's "alternative" rock with tribal tattoos and nonsensical piercings, the newest games will undoubtedly ape Avatar in some way, fantasy rain forest chic, probably meshed with mild post-apocalyptic imagery, ie artfully battered trench coats).

    It's more more about wish fulfillment than building things.

    Which is fine for some people, especially some really young kids, I guess, but here's me wanting to tinker around with things, I have some vague notion about doing a campaign based on the historical Amber Road, but with monsters, or some basic beer-fueled, pun-laden dungeon crawling, or whatever, but the current games are heading more in the direction of a Pick A Path, with Hollywood costuming. I don't wanna play a Pick A Path, I want to build things.

    Even if I accept the fantasy wish fulfillment aspect as being as important as the building things aspect (I don't, but for the sake of argument) there is more than an aesthetic difference between a player who shows up at my table wanting to play a clone of Bilbo Baggins or Conan, and one who wants to play the vampire who hunts vampires from some movie. I love movies, but they are in fact a more passive form of entertainment than books. Tons of the modern development of games seems to me to be skewed in the direction of helping people who want to do make-believe from some specific movie to do that in-game. Which ends up working counter to my own interests.

  6. Kekone: "in an effort to make games easier to run for everyone, to help groups play fair at the table, to give players "cool powers" too much is spoon fed to to us."

    QFT. And...

    "Not only did gaming the hobby mesh with my natural curiosity, gamers too, to make a broad generalization, they seemed to be educated, still seeking knowledge as adults, and to likewise place a higher value on spending loads of time and energy researching and discussing this or that, compared with the general population."

    Yes, very much my experience as well. Of course, this could lead to arguments over the color of the saddlebags of Polish Winged Hussars, but such pedantry was relatively minor in comparison to the fun to be had in finding cool stuff out.

    Discussing this has helped me remember that a fair number of historical gamers didn't like fantasy, I think precisely because there was no way they could see to "research" it. That having been said, those gamers that DID start to play D&D did so because they enjoyed fantasy and realized that there was a lot in the genre to draw from for their games.

  7. Raymond:
    Most of the people I've gamed with and even the majority of those I am in touch with over the Internet began gaming in the late 80s. They do not fit into this category of not curious people. However, we had a rule back in my group, that everyone had to do their share of DMing. I wouldnt be surprised if that has something to do with their not so passive attitude to the game. Good point about the importance of player skills by the way.

    Kelone: I think the RPGs made in the 70s are great, but I wish that the Old School fans would not be so negative towards younger gamers. More than anything I think that will make new generations less inclined to investigate further into the roots of our hobby. Which would be a shame.

  8. Havard: ah, I see what you are getting at and I agree. I probably was a little too subtle in my original phrasing - I'm not exactly making a distinction between older and younger gamers. I'm making a distinction between when people got involved in gaming.

    Frankly, some of the BEST gamers I've played with were in their teens and twenties when I was in grad school. So I definitely do not think of it as an AGE thing. Rather, I think it's what Kekone is getting at in how gaming is presented NOW in contrast to in the PAST. For what it's worth, I was in my teens when I started gaming, and I do remember that.

    And I agree with you; being expected to referee does awaken a lot of that curiosity.

  9. Harvard, I apologize for sounding like I'm down on younger gamers, or putting players who started in one era at a rank above others, or anything like that. I'm very much a product of late 80's gaming too. No offense meant to anyone based on age or when they started gaming.

  10. Kekone: No need to appologize :) I think Victor is right that the early games would have encouraged more of a sense of curiosity in the games who grew up with it. However, making broad generalizations about gamers who grew up with games of the 80s, 90s or 2000s is probably not a good idea as it is likely to put people off old school games that they might otherwise be interested in learning more about :)

  11. Havard: good point. It doesn't help to antagonize or put down newer players. I'm sorry if I sounded that way. To be honest, I'm more perplexed than anything else, and so I don't regard gamers from "back in the day" as better. I just wish there was a way to inculcate this habit again more than I see going on now.