Monday, 3 January 2011

Role Playing in the PBEM Wargames Community and the Roots of the Hobby

Something I have a mild interest in, from an anthropological perspective, is the way in which people tend to naturally role play during any sort of game scenario. (By "people", I mean irrespective of whether they have any experience with role playing games or even know what they are.) You get it a lot with games like Diplomacy and Risk of course - people begin to take on airs and behave in a self-consciously "ruler"-ish sort of a way (usually with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks), or make threats to one another and talk with funny accents. I'm sure you've all experienced this.

But it also happens with games which are more abstract, like, say, Monopoly and even Snakes and Ladders - any sort of leisure pursuit, I suppose, which requires some level of investment in a character, counter, or other physical representation of some kind. (You can't really imagine it with a genuinely abstract game like Go, Backgammon or Poker...) Immediately the little toy iron or piece of plastic that acts as your avatar takes on a kind of personality of its own, and suddenly you feel as if you really are travelling around an early 20th Century London buying houses on Regent Street or climbing up a ladder to beat your spouse in a race to the prize.

Given the historical connections between role playing and wargaming, we shouldn't be surprised to discover that wargames elicit the urge to role play very readily. This is something I've noticed a lot of during my career as a Steel Panthers: World at War PBEM player. Not content to merely trade insults or commentary on battles as they develop, I've discovered that most opponents very readily engage in fantastical accounts in which they are a battalion commander on the Eastern Front (or wherever), communicating with their troops and often coming up with highly detailed and entertaining fictional After Action Reports of their encounters. In their email exchanges they pretend to be SS or NKVD officers issuing humorous, over-the-top commands to take no prisoners, or British majors twiddling moustaches and swilling port. The roots of our hobby are very clear in these exchanges; the gap between pretending to be a Red Army colonel advocating death for those who retreat, and between pretending to be a Red Army colonel on a secret mission with a close group of comrades is very small. The only thing separating the two is, in the end, scale and rules.

In light of this one begins to suspect that the development of role playing games was inevitable once wargames became popular. I'm reminded of that old saying that, given the achievements of Newton, Einstein and Da Vinci, you would choose the latter as more important, because somebody somewhere would have eventually made the discoveries of the former two whereas the latter's were by definition unique. In a similar way, though Gygax and Arneson et al have to be commended for their creations, somebody else in the wargaming community, given the nature of gaming in general and wargaming in particular, would likely have come up with them sooner or later. Though obviously in a very different form.


  1. Good to see you back blogging once more.

    I'm reminded of White Dwarf letters page _years_ ago when somebody made the argument that "Game X isn't roleplaying" and the editorial response was pretty much along the same lines as your post pointing out that it seemed impossible to play Junta without it degenerating into a whole load of comedy South American dictator accents and mannerisms.

    I've also noticed it in Formula Dé, Diplomacy and every aerial wargame my group has ever played.

  2. Thanks! What's Formula Dé, by the way?

  3. It's a racing board game. Quite popular.

    Personally I love to play boardgames that way. I almost feel bored unless doing it that way.

  4. Have you seen the description of the game I am working on called Statecraft?

    It is a grand strategy RPG.

    Find it through my google profile.

  5. Are you so patient? These guys, Newton, Einstein and da Vinci come along once every 200 years.

    Without Newton you we don't eventually have electronics, moonlandings and the internet in *our* lifetime.

    Without da Vinci we still have city museums stuffed with *unique* work of genius we rush past on our holidays.

    Gygax was the sole rpg geinus as far as I can tell and there is no reason to think you, in your lifetime, would be roleplaying without him.

  6. Greg: I'll follow with interest!

    Kent: "Genius" is a bit too strong a term. I don't want to denigrate Gygax's contribution to the world, but let's not go overboard.

    I think there's an argument that had Newton or Einstein not been around, there were plenty of other people waiting in the wings (Leibniz, etc.) who would probably have made their discoveries sooner or later - it's the school of thought that views such "great minds" as being a kind of inevitable biproduct of the fact that their society's cumulative technological development had reached a certain level. Somebody had to put it down on paper, but if it hadn't been Newton it may have been Leibniz or a dozen other people working in concert.

    Regardless, we don't have a time machine or an alternative timeline generator so we'll never know, but I reckon RPGs would have come along at most 5 or 10 years after Gygax and Arneson had come up with the idea - just by virtue, as I said, of the fact that wargames lend themselves so readily to pseudo-role playing.