Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Two Sides of the Same Coin

I read this post yesterday on Porky's Expanse, which got me to thinking about the commonality of roleplaying and miniatures war gaming.  Porky notes that while there is plenty of internet adversity within each gaming community there is little conflict between the two groups.  This almost suggests that wargamers and roleplayers share so little common ground that there is little to argue about.

I commented that not only are these two groups not separated by a vast gulf on opposite ends of the gaming spectrum, they are so closely related that the line dividing them often becomes so blurred as to be indistinguishable.  Of course there is little room to fully develop and explain an idea when commenting on other people's posts, so I thought I'd take an opportunity to expand upon the line of thinking that Porky's post started me on.

I've been playing miniatures war games nearly as long as I've been roleplaying and, if I remember correctly, my first miniatures war game was Starfleet Wars, which I began playing in the early days of 1981.  This was a grand game of space ship battles that consisted of five factions, each with their own line of metal ships.

I played the hive-like Entomalian faction, and a group of us spent countless hours moving our spaceships around my my best friend's basement floor.  Such was the scale of the game that we needed the entire basement floor to play on - no game table could contain the star systems we fought over - so we spent a lot of time on our hands and knees, with tape measures, maneuvering our fleets into combat range.  The thought of doing that now makes my joints ache.  But it wasn't just the battles that turned us on, it was the immersive nature of the collaborative story of galactic conflict that unfolded in our games.  We spent much of our lunch hours at school talking about the game and spinning background stories of the empires we championed.  There were five factions: the Terrans, Entomalians, Aquans, Avians, and Carnivorans, so even though the game provided little background information about these empires it was easy enough to wrap our heads around how they would look and behave.

Star ships of the Entolmalian Empire
Then, sometime about half-way through highschool, I discovered my new miniatures game obsession: Star Fleet Battles.

Based on the T.V. series we all knew and loved (with some wonky stuff from the animated series thrown in), SFB had the advantage of a common frame of reference for all players.  But somehow, as much as I loved SFB it never had the level of immersive story-telling that I enjoyed with Starfleet Wars.  Perhaps this was because the Star Trek universe was already so detailed there were few gaps left to fill in.

A Federation Dreadnought and Constitution Class Heavy Cruiser
 confront a Klingon D7 Battlecruiser
Sadly, SFB became a victim of it's own success as it's burgeoning popularity lead to a lethal outbreak of splatbookitis.  Task Force Games produced such a rapid proliferation of new rules, races, and ship classes that before long it ceased to have any resemblance to Star Trek whatsoever and victory inevitably went to he who was able to commit three binders worth of rules expansions to memory (hmmm.... does that remind anyone of a certain RPG produced by WotC?).  The game quickly ceased to be fun, and I haven't played it since.  Fortunately FASA came along and saved the day with their Star Trek Combat Simulator, which integrated a fun, playable starship miniatures combat game with their Star Trek role playing game.

And here, I finally get to the point: certain games were able to blend miniature battles with roleplaying so seamlessly that it became difficult to tell where one ended and the other began.  Now, although I did play the Star Trek RPG, and I loved the Star Trek Combat Simulator, I don't recall ever integrating them.  You could, but the characters from the RPG consisted of crew members of a star ship, and in the combat simulator game each player controlled one or more of his own ships, so it wasn't such a seamless blend.  There were games, however, that did manage to pull this off.

One such game was Car Wars.  Although it was originally intended as a fun, fast-paced pocket game, where each player drove around shooting at other player's cars with machine guns, it grew into much more.  We had a long-running campaign that was run by a game master and all the players were part of a group that faced opponents controlled by the GM.  We even had encounters out of our cars; since the game included statistics for drivers and rules for sidearms and such, we gradually transformed the game into a roleplaying game - a style of play that was eventually supported by rules supplements.

The same was true of Battletech, a miniatures war game of armoured combat in the distant future.  FASA eventually released a roleplaying game called Mechwarrior that was based in the Battletech universe and opened up whole new avenues of play.

I once played in a very enjoyable Battletech campaign in which the players were all members of an Inner Sphere mercenary company and the game had all the trappings of any science fiction rpg, except that in a setting frought with internecine warfare, battles were seldom long in coming, at which time our characters would climb into the cockpits of our mechs and we'd shift into wargame mode.  This didn't seem usual to me at all.

Nor should it, given D&D's genesis from the miniatures wargame Chainmail.  Yet, somehow or other the hobby splintered and became dichotomized into roleplaying and wargaming, and the two seldom meet anymore.  Back in the early days of D&D it was commonplace for campaigns to fall back on the Chaimail rules to resolve large-scale battles, and according to the Wikipedia entry, this is something that happened regularly in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor Campaign.  Indeed, large-scale warfare is such a commonplace theme in role playing campaigns that many modern rpgs have mass combat rules to resolve them.

As I read Porky's post my revelation was not Hey, our two hobbies have a lot in common, it was Huh? When did the hobby split?  Because, as far as I'm concerned, miniatures war gaming and roleplaying are two facets of the same hobby.  Both types of game use a set of rules mechanics to simulate play in a campaign setting and serve to help a narrative storyline unfold through play.  And often the two sets of rules mechanics can be used in the same campaign - thus, to my mind, roleplaying games are just miniatures wargames with a tighter narrative focus.  Miniatures games are a panoramic view of the cinematic action, whilst in roleplaying encounters the camera has zoomed in on individual characters.  It's all the same storytelling - just on a different scale.

If I had to guess, I'd say that it was probably the growth of Warhammer into an industry that established miniatures wargaming as a separate hobby altogether.  I remember back when White Dwarf was a general purpose gaming magazine with D&D adventures in every issue, and when Citadel Miniatures were intended for use in D&D campaigns.  Warhammer was created as a way to play with those miniatures in a more structured fashion.  But as Warhammer took off in popularity and Games Workshop went corporate, they created an industry all its own.  Now it's possible to walk into a GW hobby centre, filled with young folks at the gaming tables, many of whom have never even heard of D&D, let alone played it.

But, I think the biggest culprit responsible for dichotomizing roleplaying and wargaming is time itself.  How many different games did we play back in highschool - in those halcyon days of our youth before the responsibilities of adulthood laid claim to so many of our waking hours?  Hell, what didn't we play back then?  At the moment I am in the middle of a very enjoyable Warhammer 40K campaign, but I've had to put my Swords & Wizardry campaign on temporary hiatus to do so.  This is a sad reality, and I fear that I will never again be able to wallow in a bacchanalian orgy of gaming like I did in my teens, which reminds me of one of my favourite Calvin and Hobbes quotes: "There's never enough time to do all the nothing you want."


David Larkins said...

"...miniatures war gaming and roleplaying are two facets of the same hobby."

I completely agree, and that's how I've viewed the situation from when I first visited a game store. Here were the bookshelves full of RPGs, and right over here were the miniatures on display. They're in the same shop, clearly they're the same hobby! I'd picked up the boxed set of Fantasy Warriors within a year of buying the D&D Red Box.

Later in high school, it wasn't uncommon to go through a "miniatures phase" of a couple months followed by an "RPG phase" of a couple months, back and forth. I recognized that the two sub-hobbies exercised different aspects of my creativity, but they were clearly on the same continuum.

I think you make an excellent point about the Games Workshop stores being a step towards separating miniatures from RPGs.

Desert Scribe said...

I'm glad to see someone else posting about Starfleet Wars! I obsessed over advertisements for this game as a starrry-eyed sci-fi-loving kid, but I never scraped up the money to order it from the catalog.

Decades later, I found the ships available online, and I've acquired quite the collection of ships from all five factions. I even managed to find a copy of the game! However, I haven't yet played it--instead, I play Galactic Knights, the game produced by the current manufacturer of these minis. I found another outlet for my obsession: I started a blog, Super Galactic Dreadnought, about (you guessed it) those miniature starships we love.

So, do you still have your Entomalian fleet? If so, I'd love to see some pictures.

Sean Robson said...

Hi Sirlarkins, thanks for the comments. Right you are! Kids who are introduced to gaming via Games Workshop stores are never introduced to the broader aspects of the hobby. GW refers to the "Warhammer hobby" as if it existed in isolation and they stock everything you need for Warhammer so there's little incentive for kids to explore other venues.

@Desert Scribe: Wow, I didn't think anyone else would even remember Starfleet Wars! I'll definitely be checking out your blog - thanks for the heads-up. I'll see if my SFW miniatures are in the basement somewhere (every time I move stuff goes missing - entropy in action). I had a heck of a time hunting up my Star Fleet Battles miniatures.

-C said...

I'm a big fan of car wars (you inspire me to write a post).

Have you seen song and blade? it's a miniatures wargame that allows you to use any miniatures you own, legos, whatever. Worth checking out. I'm not affliated with them in any way, just figured that since I enjoyed it, you might.

Desert Scribe said...

I agree, Song of Blades and Heroes is a fun, easy-to-pick-up game. I've blogged about it a little as well. Another game along those lines is Hordes of the Things, which I also play frequently.

Sean Robson said...

I'd never heard of Song of Blades and Heroes nor Hordes of the Things before. Thanks for the suggestions, guys!

Porky said...

You're right that the two overlap and are facets of the same hobby. I completely agree. I use 'hobby' at the Expanse to refer to all games, and even the wider creation of fiction, for this reason.

I do, however, think there is a distinction in the minds of many, that the fact of two labels existing goes some way to creating two distinct categories, and then subcategories, all of which still share essentially the same space even if not intending to. We're all doing essentially the same things - using the imagination to explore aspects of imaginary worlds or situations - but without always being aware of it, or perhaps even believing that we're not.

Your suggestion that GW is responsible for this, at least in part, is something I can agree with too, and my subjective feeling is that barrier is upheld more by the wargamers, more so by the GW players, and the 40K players in particular. This is a great generalisation of course, as there are clearly players of 40K and wargames who feel otherwise - the comments at the post testify to this. That said, the observations on the content of White Dwarf, and the way in which the brand has changed, do suggest a great shift in shift in approach, and that can only have a knock-on effect on the customer base. We might not like it, and it may come as a shock, but this is where we are.

For my part I'm trying with the Expanse to highlight the areas of overlap and even bring together the various communities. It's ironic that with the post in question, I've given the distinction more publicity! I'll certainly ponder how to avoid it in future.

Dave Garbe said...

While I agree that roleplaying and wargaming are similar, they're also different - and GW is hardly the ones to blame.

Wargaming has roleplaying elements (fluff) just like buying a red sports car lets you imagine you're a famous race car driver. It's not a game about roleplaying, it's a game about battles in which, like anything in life, we can see something else in our minds eye. Paintballers play war, sports enthusiasts picture themselves in the big leagues, and so on.

Roleplaying sometimes has wargaming elements but up until TSR started selling battle maps, we had never brought miniatures to a D&D session and we're wargamers too - we had the minis on hand, but we always kept everything in our minds eye. LARP certainly has no miniature wargaming elements to it. And I could go on and on listing roleplaying systems without miniatures. And roleplaying isn't about the miniatures, it's about the roleplaying. You want roleplaying that's about the miniatures, you get Warhammer Quest or the weekly D&D Adventures or from the sounds of it, D&D 5th edition.

People have multiple hobbies, and usually they'll be similar genres because we play what we like. If we don't look at genre lines, the argument could be made that video gamers are also roleplayers or tabletop wargamers. Playing RTS Starcraft is different to wargaming. Playing Dawn of War is different to 40k. Playing Neverwinter Nights isn't the same as playing D&D. Similar, yes, but different genres.

Now, back to the original question, that I understand a little more now - why don't roleplayers and wargamers argue/discuss more? Because they're different. Blogs offering a new perspective like Porky's look at subjects both sides can appreciate because there are commonalities (dice, chance, fluff, fantasy, sci-fi, minds eye, etc) and those are things we do have in common, which both sides can discuss at length - but wargamers are playing strategic battles, not roleplaying. Roleplayers are (in theory) concerned with escaping reality and pretending to be someone else for a while and sharing that person's adventures.

If anything, Wizards of the Coast is killing roleplaying, as they keep adding "combo" builds and removing actual roleplaying elements from D&D and are turning it into a hack and slash dungeon game ala Warhammer Quest.

David Larkins said...

@Dave_G: I'm glad you brought up "fluff"--to my mind, that ridiculous word is a perfect encapsulation of what the original post is talking about. The word is clearly meant in a pejorative sense: it's the stuff you can go without and still play the game, the stuff that doesn't matter.

When I first got into miniatures wargaming, that word did not exist, or I was not aware of it. I took the background information as seriously as I took the stat blocks. In retrospect, I started to see the differentiation between fluff vs. crunch proliferate in direct correlation to the rise of the GW "Hobby" marketing shift.

Although I, like you, intensely dislike the new direction WotC has taken D&D in terms of making combat into a tactical boardgame, I'd hardly say that 4e is killing roleplaying because it's made miniatures all but mandatory for play. Although I've generally not made use of miniatures in my RPG sessions, I can readily admit that many, many people have done since the dawn of the hobby, and it's hardly had a detrimental effect on peoples' abilities to role-play their characters effectively. Using miniatures in RPGs doesn't kill role-playing any more than giving credence to "fluff" kills wargaming.

Sean Robson said...

Interesting comments everyone, thanks for the input.

@Dave G: We obviously see things differently, which is probably a reflection of how we play and what we each consider important. I've always played rpgs with miniatures and can't imagine playing without them. Likewise, I wouldn't want to play a miniatures wargame without a strong narrative component - the "fluff" is very important to me. It isn't that you can't play without these features, but that I'm simply not interested in doing so.

Aaron E. Steele said...

Wasn't Maatac an outgrowth of Starfleet Wars? I loved Maatac, and still have a couple of the tanks from that game.

Sean Robson said...

Hi Paladin,

I never played Maatac, but yes, it was an extension of Starfleet Wars; it was made by Superior Models and had the same five factions.

It appears that the game and models are still available from Monday Knight Productions http://www.mondayknight.com/Rules/Rules-MAATAC.html

Aaron E. Steele said...


Unknown said...

What is your opinion of Federation Commander? I first played Star Fleet Battles when it was in a little ziplock bag in about 1981. I agree it got way out of control. I think Federation Commander is an attempt to bring the game back to something the majority of us could love again.

Sean Robson said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I'd never heard of Federation Commander until now. I just took a look at the game's website, and it looks intriguing. I might have to check this out (and I think I still have all my SFB miniatures somewhere in the basement).

Unknown said...

Please check it out your miniatures are all compatible. To bad you are up in Canada and not in Tampa. Anyway, love your blog. Wish you would post an update or two, hint, hint.


Sean Robson said...

Thanks very much, Mike. Yeah, I really need to start posting more frequently than once per year.