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H.G. Wells is rightfully celebrated as one of the founding fathers of science fiction, but he is rather less well-known as one of the pioneers of tabletop wargaming. Wells’ Little Wars is way down on the list of his books in terms of general name-recognition, outside the better-read segments of the wargaming community, but it’s difficult to read it without concluding that the great man is staking out the territory a huge number of subsequent games have occupied in the century or so since its first publication.

It’s essentially a description of the rules that Wells and his friends – we are invited to assume that Jerome K Jerome was a regular opponent – concocted to play wargames using a mixture of infantry, cavalry, and artillery pieces. Some of Wells’ system feels distinctly odd to me, as a modern gamer – beyond the very occasional use of a tossed coin, it makes no use of randomisation, gunfire is handled by the players physically launching pellets at each other’s miniatures, hoping to knock them over, and there are some (fairly unwieldy, if you ask me) rules for models being taken prisoner – but time and again Wells either hits upon a consideration which will be familiar to any modern player – army comp, how much terrain to use, unit coherency – or comes up with a gaming convention which is still in use today – for instance, one player setting up terrain and the other getting choice of sides. I rather think that, were Wells to walk into any branch of the UK’s leading wargames store chain, he would find much more that he recognised than was strange to him. Would he, perhaps, recognise power-armoured SF warriors and colossal titans toting melta-cannon as somewhat-distorted descendants of his own creations? I don’t know. I would like to think so.

In any case, these two threads of Wells’ career come back together, sort of, in Osprey Games’ War of the Worlds: The Anglo-Martian War of 1895, written by Mike Brunton (whom I dimly recall as a GW writer back in the mid 80s, when they didn’t just sell their own miniature games). Osprey are one of the newish, small wargames publishers that I have become rather more familiar with since severing my own engagement with Games Workshop. This book, along with the rest of the range it belongs to, are slightly odd in that they are composed entirely of ‘fluff’ – in other words, they’re all background, with no actual game rules included.

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To be honest, a War of the Worlds tabletop game would be a rather odd prospect, given that the whole point of the story is that the war is a one-sided slaughter pretty much from start to finish, with the Martians suffering only a few token casualties along the way. However, the book, which presents itself as a ‘historical’ account of the war written from a modern perspective, is rather engaging – although I am admittedly a bit of a War of the Worlds devotee, and thus most likely biased.

The book takes an ambivalent approach to the ‘facts’ of the Martian invasion as recounted by Wells himself (perhaps most obvious from the title of the book itself, which dates the conflict to 1895, when the author explicitly specifies it took place in ‘the early years of the twentieth century’). The text indicates that Wells was ‘not the most accurate of war correspondents’, and inclined to present the Martians as more of an implacable menace than was actually the case, which is presumably the justification for some of the divergences from Wells in the new book. However, unlike most books and films inspired by Wells, they agree with the author that the Martian invasion was limited to southern England (no global despatches on this occasion).

Things get underway with an overview of the disposition of the two forces prior to hostilities commencing: the stuff on the British army is a little bit dry but historically interesting, the material on the Martians and their technology obviously a bit more imaginative: Brunton comes up with some interesting amendations when it comes to Martian biology and the nature of the silicaceous-boned servitors brought with them from Mars. The revelation that the Heat Ray was actually a maser should really surprise no-one, though.

Past this is an account of the war from beginning to end, which is… well, it’s faithful to Wells up to a point. The thing about The War of the Worlds is that much of it concerns the initial weekend of the Martian arrival, and the days on either side, with the government having effectively collapsed by Monday (the same day as the Thunder Child‘s battle with three Fighting-Machines). Wells’ primary narrator spends most of the next fortnight in the cellar of a ruined house, emerging into a devastated landscape where the last of the diseased Martians is about to expire (do I really need to give a spoiler warning for a book published in 1898?). What the army and the Martians have been up to in the interim is mainly a matter of hearsay, as far as the book is concerned, so you would have thought this would be fruitful territory for Brunton to expand on.

But apparently not. The Osprey book diverges considerably from the actual chronology of the novel, with the Martians arriving on a Saturday, not a Friday, and the Thunder Child engagement happening ten days later rather than three. The saturation use of the lethal Black Smoke by the Martians to destroy the defences around London is only obliquely referred to, although Brunton does come up with a few instances of actions taking place not mentioned in the novel – heavy fighting around the Palace of Westminster, for instance. On the whole, though, he seems happy enough to deviate from his source material in terms of the details, but very reluctant to make really significant additions to it in terms of narrative.

Hey ho. As I’ve said before, The War of the Worlds is such a magnificent book, and such a brilliant idea, that it takes a really concerted effort to totally stuff it up (for the record, I think Greg and Sam Strangis were the only ones who really managed it), and Osprey’s The War of the Worlds is entertaining enough, especially when it’s not dealing with the particulars of the novel. There have been many worse offenders, after all, and there’s a sense in which the novel has surely become a sort of folklore, or collection of ideas and images which different people play with in different ways: it seems to be an irresistible, endlessly rewarding game.

Post-invasion history is also touched upon, with the Russians being the only foreign power to get their hands on a Heat Ray projector – the technological bounty brought by reverse-engineering Martian devices, which Wells alludes to, doesn’t really seem to have been an issue, however. Brunton also suggests a reason for the Martians not making another attempt, but nobody tell Stephen Baxter about that (Baxter’s own War of the Worlds sequel is out next year).

Perhaps inevitably, the Osprey book engages in the usual metafictional conceit where every significant literary figure from Victorian England lives in the same city: I remember reading Anno Dracula back in 1994, when this seemed terribly new and interesting. Now it just feels routine. The results are not quite as grotesque as in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘s version of the Martian invasion: we hear of Fu Manchu’s role in the upheaval afflicting London, and of Colonel Sebastian Moran bagging himself a trophy like no other. (It’s not quite the same thing, but we also learn of a young Winston Churchill’s exploits in the war.) Elsewhere, the author looks further afield, with perhaps more laboured results: we are told that, luckily, the Martian landing which damaged the botanical gardens at Kew did not result in the escape of any triffids, while many years later a ‘lost’ Martian cylinder turned up, mistaken for an unexploded bomb when it was discovered under an underground station in Hobbs Lane. Hmmm.

Whatever you may think of this sort of thing, the writing itself is consistently brisk and engaging, and the art is very nice: these are slightly steampunky-looking Fighting-Machines, and not entirely faithful to Wells’ description, but then that fits pretty well with most of the rest of the book. Quite who this is aimed at, though, still bemuses me a little: there’s pretty much zero wargames content for anyone intent on recreating a series of one-sided massacres on their tabletop, while it’s simultaneously neither detailed nor expansive enough to be a totally satisfying addition to the already-sizable War of the Worlds canon. The slimness of the volume when you consider its price is also likely to be an issue for many people. Hard-core fans of The War of the Worlds, in all its incarnations, will likely find a lot to enjoy here, though.

 

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Hitting the 30th anniversary of my first experience running an RPG feels like a bigger deal than I would’ve expected, possibly because this kind of game is currently a larger presence in my life than has been the case for many, many years. I have lost track of how many hours I must have spent GMing in all that time, but the total must be well into three figures. Obviously not many moments of that stand out, but one which does came near the end of my one big Vampire chronicle, back in 1996.

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We were about six months in and the climax of the story was looming, but just prior to this we were resolving a little side-quest as one of the characters had inadvertently tainted herself by consuming the soul of her evil sire (ah, Vampire…) and felt the need to expiate this. During this, one of the group got into a fight with a Spiral Dancer, the dice were unfavourable, and the numbers indicated a PC with a key role to play in the conclusion was, in fact, a pile of ash on the floor.

‘Oh, looks like I’m gone,’ said the player, with a resigned smile on his face. Almost at once I stepped in and explained how his frenzy, or the significance of the moment, or something, allowed him to keep going, with enough strength to either escape the combat or hide or finish off the evil werewolf. I forget exactly what.

It was, of course, a classic dice fudge, one of those occasions where the GM steps in and over-rules the numbers for the sake of the story. (Note I say story rather than game.) It’s something I’ve found myself doing more and more as my style of gaming has become increasingly focused on stories rather than strict adherence to rules mechanics. You wouldn’t enjoy a movie where the protagonist slipped down a flight of steps and broke his neck on his way to the final battle with the villain, and you wouldn’t enjoy playing in a game where a character failed a Dex check and suffered the same fate twenty minutes before the end (this actually happened in a Call of Cthulhu game I was a player in).

I’ve never thought much about this, beyond contemplating different ways of trying to keep dice fudges from being too obvious, but then I was browsing a ‘how to be a better GM‘ discussion the other day and found someone arguing that dice fudging is not fair. The GM may justify doing it on the grounds that he’s serving the story and creating dramatic moments, but couldn’t a player justify disregarding a dice roll for exactly the same reasons? Why bother rolling dice at all, if you’re just going to stick with the story you have in mind? Isn’t this just another example of railroading the story?

Hmmm. Well, this gave me food for thought, and I would still defend the GM’s right to fudge the dice. Firstly, many modern games have a mechanism which gives players the ability to disregard bad dice at critical points, either by a reroll or something else. Every game I currently run has one – Mutants and Masterminds has Hero Points, the Cypher games allow XP to be used to buy rerolls, and the FFG Star Wars game has Destiny Points. Implicit in all these games is the idea that the GM can fudge, in the name of a good story, it’s just that doing so gives the players an increased ability to overrule the dice in response (the implication seems to be that the GM will always be trying to make the story more interesting, i.e. difficult, which doesn’t really include things like saving players’ lives from bad dice rolling and the like).

Also, the player-GM relationship is not really an equivalent or symmetrical one, in the sense that the GM has a lot more power over everything that’s happening. This is a truth of this type of game, where one person is basically the god of the story. The only exception is a game like Fiasco, which doesn’t have a GM or storyteller at all, and which is a rather different gaming experience. Denying the GM the right to fudge is, firstly, an almost impossible restriction to enforce, and, secondly, something which feels like a throwback to the days of wargame-style rules-implementation GMing.

So, on reflection, I think I’ll continue to fudge at key moments. The issue has become a little more complex of late, however, as I have found my own gaming style doesn’t really give me the opportunity to fudge the dice as easily as I once could. This is because I only roll a tiny handful of dice each session in most of the games I run.
This is a core element of the Cypher games: one of the mantras of the system is ‘the players roll all the dice’. I was initially a bit unsure about this, but I quickly became a bit of a convert, mainly because the vast majority of my Cypher experiences have been on roll20 where the last thing I need is to worry about how to use the dice rolling utility. It also makes sense, as it gives the players a bit more to do (one person shouldn’t be throwing almost 50% of the dice, as is sometimes the case in games where the GM rolls).

I’ve got so into the non-rolling GM mindset that when I was recruited to run a Mutants and Masterminds game I gave the system a minor hack so that I didn’t need to roll any dice there, either. (One of my players pointed out, six months into the series, that opting to have heroes roll damage against a villain’s Toughness-based DC meant they could use Hero Points to make villains fail their Toughness checks, which isn’t possible in the original rules, so I may need to house-rule that a bit further.) And this also seems to work pretty well and be popular with my players.

And it doesn’t mean I can’t fudge stuff, either: I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve decided to have a bad guy cave in when the players’ attack rolls haven’t quite justified it, simply because the battle was a foregone conclusion and it would have been dull to go through three or four rounds of the players just mugging someone. As long as the players can’t see your notes, you can always do that sort of thing.

However: now I’m hoping to run FFG’s Star Wars rules, a system perhaps most distinctive for its unique dice (and dice system). The nature of the game is such that I’m not sure it can easily be hacked in the same way – the way the dice are weighted means you can’t reverse the maths and easily turn an GM-rolled attack into a player-rolled dodge. At least, I’m not confident you can. But this will be a face-to-face game so at least rolling the dice will be easy enough.
But will it be easy to fudge? The whole point of the game is that everyone involved comes up with a way to interpret every dice roll together. (One wonders quite why FFG sells GM screens for these games, given all the dice rolls are supposed to be done in the open – then again, FFG don’t usually seem to have an issue with selling things which might seem at first glance superfluous.) The flow of information is still in my hands, and I still have my godlike GM faculties when it comes to NPCs and the game world, so I suspect I still have options. Anyway, we shall see how it goes.

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Those who know me even passingly well will be aware that the playing of games has been a significant element of my life for a very long time. This year in particular has been somewhat notable, as I’ve stuck with my usual regime of board, card, and computer games, but my long-standing involvement in tabletop wargaming has come to what feels like a very definite end, while I’ve spent more time on role-playing games than in any year I can recall.

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Having been out of RPGs in a serious way for the best part of two decades, one of the interesting changes in the hobby is the way that people have been giving serious thought as to what makes these games appealing and how best to approach running them as a referee/storyteller. So I thought I would offer a couple of small thoughts on this front, mainly to do with the massive influence of Dungeons & Dragons on the whole genre and how it affects play-style and attitudes.

As I’ve said before, when it comes to synonymity, Dungeons & Dragons is to role-playing game as Hoover is to vacuum cleaner – maybe even moreso, with the rise of Dyson and so on. I routinely refer to my ‘Saturday night game of D&D’ even though I don’t believe I’ve played any flavour of the game in 25 years. The reasons for this association are not exactly obscure – if D&D didn’t invent the genre, I’ve no idea what did, and it was certainly the game that made the biggest cultural splash back in the late 70s and early 80s.

So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise if we find the influence of D&D over RPGs generally to still be incredibly strong. It continues to be a massively popular game. How popular is it? Well, a friend started up an RPG club recently, which he almost-inevitably called ‘Dungeons and Dragons and other roleplaying’. He probably needn’t have bothered with the ‘other roleplaying’ as the majority of the respondees made it fairly clear they were only really interested in playing either 5th Edition D&D or Pathfinder (a game originally derived from the more complicated 3rd-and-a-Half Edition D&D ruleset). More objectively, nearly two-thirds of the games run on roll20 – the website which facilitates most of my current gaming, which is web-based and international – are of some variant of D&D, or a system closely derived from it.

And one gets the impression that even when veteran gamers say they want to play something other than D&D, and end up playing a different rules system, on some subconscious level they still think they’re playing it – or perhaps the subconscious assumption is that all RPGs are really like D&D when you actually get down to brass tacks. And I’m not sure this is always necessarily a good thing. Hopefully making people more aware of the implicit biases and assumptions of D&Dthink will help them shake them off, and lead to more interesting and varied gaming experiences.

Perhaps the single most defining and influential feature of the original D&D rules was that they developed out of tabletop wargaming (or ‘toy soldiers’ to the uninitiated). Commentators have observed that the perceived weaknesses in the original conception of D&D, many of which have filtered down to us today, arise from the fact that it was originally intended for each player to control a whole bunch of characters rather than just one, in something much more akin to a skirmish-style wargame.

To some extent that’s what D&D remains to this day – it is, at least, the most basic playstyle of the game. Players generate a team (traditionally ‘party’) of characters, who then wander about in tunnels usually killing everything they possibly can and looting the place of treasure and other good stuff. The rules were originally not much more than a combat system with rules for character advancement, and while recent editions have addressed things like character backgrounds and motivations, there’s not much mechanically in the rules that requires these to be enforced. The default setting of D&D is the dungeon-crawl rather than any kind of structured narrative, and the default role of the DM – in theory – is to impartially implement rules procedures.

I write this as someone who doesn’t play D&D, as mentioned above, so bear in mind I may be biased – but that kind of experience appeals to me less and less as time goes by. Perhaps this makes me more sensitive to apparent occurences of D&Dthink when I’m playing other games – but I do think this is a genuine phenomenon.

What kind of thing am I thinking about? Well, earlier this year I was trying to figure out what a game was (it was a slow day) – in short, what is it that a board game like Chess and a freeform RPG like Fiasco share, that we can call them both games? I couldn’t come up with anything solid, but it did occur to me that in Chess, one player wins – it has a defined victory condition. That’s also true of most tabletop wargames – games usually have winners and losers (and occasionally tied results).

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Every D&D rulebook I have seen says that, in the game, everyone wins by having fun, and maybe they’ve meant it, but many of the D&D groups I’ve played with seem to have had the working assumption that everyone ‘wins’ by getting through to the end of the dungeon/adventure intact, having won every fight on the way (or at least run away from the big monsters successfully). And so ‘winning’ at D&D becomes primarily about being good at combat, both individually and as a team.

Individually, this takes the form of learning the rules backwards and coming up with the best choices, options, equipment and combos to make your character the baddest ass possible, regardless of all other considerations. Interesting characters are discarded in favour of optimised ones, and people spend hours cooking up absurd creations like half-Elf multi-classed sorcerer/monks, based solely on how their numbers stack up rather than any character- or story-based reason.

As a group, a similar thing happens – there’s a kind of Mission Impossible mentality, where every group has to have a fighter, a healer, a ‘face’ character, and so on. To be honest I have less of an issue with this, given the diverse group of comrades is such a trope of fiction from Lord of the Rings to The A-Team, but what I do find is that people still have the D&D team ‘roles’ in their head when thinking about groups of characters for other games.

I have seen D&Dthink in action quite a few times this year, in most of the games I have played. The main games have been Numenera and Mutants & Masterminds. Numenera is essentially the D&D experience re-skinned as a science-fantasy game, with a very simple and elegant ruleset which does not give extra attention or emphasis to combat as a means of conflict resolution. M&M is a fairly ‘crunchy’ game rules-wise, and it does assume combat as a major resolution mechanic, but this is because it is intended to simulate the action in superhero comic books, where every problem can be solved by a fist fight.

Overall, D&Dthink seems to be less of a problem the less complex and more abstract the ruleset is – D&Dthink is all about working the rules to your advantage – and so it was less of an issue in Numenera. Nevertheless, maybe it’s just the nature of fantasy RPGs – there was a lot of worrying about combat and intense, serious discussion about how best to divvy up treasure, and one keen young player asked many questions about the possibility of making a particularly vicious monster into a playable character type.

M&M is a lot crunchier and prone to min-maxing (this is RPG-speak for super-optimising your character to absurd degrees). As a comic book purist, I am a noted pain in the neck as an M&M GM, as I insist on characters having strong concepts and logical rationales for their powers. I think I must have helped eight or ten people come up with characters for M&M games this year – and it was here more than anywhere else that I saw D&Dthink casting its peculiar spell.

No matter how carefully I explained that I was hoping to recreate the feel of a ‘classic’ superhero team, very odd choices of characters and powers kept coming back to me – lots of interest in Healing as a possible superpower, not because it’s common in the books or particularly logical for that character, but because years of playing D&D had conditioned folk to believe that every team needed a healer. Someone else wanted to play the long-range support specialist, sniping from concealment – again, a solid choice for a D&D character, but not really the stuff of super-teams.

On one occasion I agreed with a potential player that he would play a super-speed character. He came back to me with a creation the most notable feature of which was a magic electrical sword which paralysed anyone it hit and did extra damage 20% of the time. None of this was remotely rationalised, it was just the best way to spend points and wreak the most havoc in combat, both of which would have been absolutely the way to go in most D&D games.

(Needless to say, this guy, like several others, ended up not participating in our game, mainly because I wouldn’t allow them to work the rules as they desired. One of the things about D&Dthink is that the rules are treated much more as some kind of holy text, not as something to be hacked or modded to make a better experience for the group.)

One of the most useful ways of thinking about RPGs that I’ve come across is something called the GNS triangle, G standing for Game, N for Narrative, and S for Simulation. These are, it is suggested, the three main approaches to RPGs – some want to have a game-style experience where it’s all about cleverly working the rules to ‘win’, others want to tell a genuine story, others want to replicate the style of a particular genre of fiction (maybe even a specific movie or TV series).

D&D is absolutely a Game-style RPG, as I hope I’ve made clear. Numenera and its sister games probably tend towards Narrative-style gaming. M&M, at least when we play it, is very Simulationist (although inevitably providing a good narrative is part of the genre experience). It seems a shame that a Game-oriented approach like D&Dthink should crop up when people are running N- and S-style games, but given D&D‘s dominance it’s only to be expected.

I don’t know. Hopefully, as players, people can make themselves aware of the existence of these kinds of thought patterns and try to go beyond them – my own M&M players have proven to be quite flexible when I pointed out just what was going on. And, perhaps more importantly, GMs can keep an eye out for D&Dthink and do their best to close it down before it gets started. When you’re actually playing D&D, D&Dthink can be perfectly logical. When playing a game in a different style, the best you can hope for is that the game will be odd and a little unsatisfying; at worst, it can wreck the whole experience.

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