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The Pre-History of D&D: Play, Simulation, and Storytelling in 1500 Years of War Games

March 17, 2015

The Pre-History of D&D: Play, Simulation, and Storytelling in 1500 Years of War Games

Slide Notes

1. As we go through the evolution of attempts to model war from chess to D&D pay attention to the tension between playable mechanics, accuracy of simulation, and role-playing. The pendulum swings back and forth and D&D sits in a really interesting spot relative to it
2. Mechanic/Dynamic/Aesthetic framework
3. Chess as example
4. Mechanic = rules
5. Dynamics = openings, early/mid/late game
6. Aesthetics = very abstract military units (What are MDA for D&D?)
7. competition, exploration, role-playing
8. chess started in approx. the 7th century, this is the oldest extant chess set
9. quote from The Immortal Game, a history of chess. chess was used in military and political training
10. King's Game consisted of 30 pieces per side, modern units, 500 squares, up to 8 players. Was said to “furnish anyone who studied it properly a compendium of the most useful military and political principles”
11. 1600 squares, color for terrain type, level ground, marshes, water
12. hundreds of pieces, batteries of mortars, pontoon boats, hussar cavalry, Neutral 3rd party to act as moderator
13. Cheaper alternative to Hellwig’s table, uses maps instead of grid, dice rolls for chance events
14. rules for wargaming using widespread toy soldiers, units were cavalry, infantry and artillery, no dice or random elements, used pellets fired by toy cannons to knock over units, made to be played on the floor, Wells was a pacifist
15. terrain, pieces as units, historical realism
16. referee, ruler to measure distances
17. Political, military, economic role-playing simulation, Nuclear crisis scenarios, Role-playing, game master
18. political gaming vs Game Theory, games as drilling/training (player experience vs. “solving”), games as simplified tractable simulation, spread into government/military
19. Roberts had seen an article about the RAND war game simulation so he adopted the hexagonal grid for future Avalon Hill games, claimed: “he was approached by RAND and questioned about the source of the Combat Results Table used in most of his early games”
20. Use the tools of mass-market boardgames to simulate war
21. 1968 - Founding of Gencon
23. Chainmail as published rules (assume players had minis).
24. Dave Arneson GMed from Chainmail, Introduction of characters instead of military units, fantasy elements: elephant and laser beam, telling the story over the phone, persistent elements of adventure across multiple groups
26. play in gygax’s basement, hidden DM (behind filing cabinets), players submitted moves through a selected “caller”, dice rolls/stats were hidden from players, Gygax didn't want players to focus on numbers so attempted to use overwhelming amount of stats to prevent player analysis (this obviously failed and has been the major on-going design tension in D&D).
27. Much of this talk was derived from these books: Playing the World and Of Dice and Men


March 17, 2015


  1. “Over and over chess was said to have been invented

    to explain the unexplainable, to make visible the purely abstract.” — David Shenk
  2. “Some Observations on Political Gaming” Herbert Goldhamer and Hans Speier

    RAND, Social Science Division, 1959 “War Gaming” Herman Kahn and Irwin Mann RAND, July 30,1957
  3. “We too can learn much more about real life games

    by designing simple games that simulate some aspects of the real world, but that are too complicated to be solved. We can play these games and learn from them.” — Herman Kahn