The past doesn’t exist; you can’t poke it with a ten foot pole. It is a tale created from our memories and from such media and material we are able to reference in the present. The task of a scientific investigator of the past is daunting because facts don’t speak “truth” themselves except in the most uninteresting, limited of ways. What people really want to know, the why’s and the how’s, is often more ephemeral than the data and so arguments must be crafted and stories told.
It is exponentially more problematic when the only records are verbal, written or otherwise, and it took a long time – well into the twentieth century - for researchers to abandon the comforts of positivism and realize that documents are but a tool, a guide, a starting point, and a not a whole and obvious truth unto themselves and never the whole truth in any case. In our case, as part of the interest to groke the roots and compass of our hobby, we’ve looked forever at how D&D and AD&D are heavily dependant on both the mechanics and fluff found in CHAINMAIL, which in turn is directly linked to earlier wargames, fantasy literature, and ultimately cultural mythology. Lots of people, myself included, have had a field day over the years of linking CHAINMAIL to the corresponding bits of D&D. Yet the question of how CHAINMAIL, a table top wargame, came to be gutted and remodeled as a “Role-Playing” game, remained elusive.
Speculations about that process often involve a discussion about what a role playing game is, but that question is, I think, both simply answered and misleading. Rather obviously, role playing games are games where people play roles. Cowboys and Indians is a roleplaying game, so is any movie or play you have ever seen. Role playing is as old as time.
“RPGs” have more to them than playing at roles, so lets be more specific. There are really two distinguishing factors between “wargames” and “RPGs”.
1) Character mechanics
2) Victory conditions
First, tabletop RPGs feature open ended character driven gaming. Central to RPGs is the idea that characters affect outcomes through all their individual characteristics. Unlike wargames, where only the material strength of the playing piece applies, RPG’s apply any of the various aspects of the character to the game. So a character will have some kind of intelligence score, a strength score and so on. The character may have a reputation or social standing: a set of skills, abilities, saving throws and so forth, things that define the character and can be applied to any appropriate situation that may come up, not just martial skill. These things can be scores, numbers, or simply descriptions. But in all cases the outcomes of challenges within the game are adjudicated with reference to both the martial and extra-martial characteristics of the Character.
Second, the character is unbounded, both in terms of the mapboard and in terms of agency. Theoretically the character could travel anywhere and pursue any activity and still be in the game. Wargames, such as CHAINMAIL™ are bounded by their victory conditions, which essentially entail overcoming an obstacle on the gameboard via martial ability. Typically, that obstacle is the enemy army, or some similar battle condition. Victory conditions in RPGs however are determined entirely by the player. They may follow a path of opportunity laid out by the game master, or they may go their own way and seek their own objectives, and still progress in the game. Geographic and career agency are significant breaks from previous games where if a character or a playing piece were to leave the “campaign” to found a moon cult in the Atlas mountains, or search for the source of the Nile, it would effectively end that characters role in the game.
There are many games which some element of character comes into play, Diplomacy and Fight in the Skies, for example, but what we call “RPGs” were the first to tie variable, open ended victory conditions with the requirement that any and all aspects of the singular character (skills, nature, background) can be brought in to play.
In short, “tabletop RPGs” are character driven games, in which multiple and varied personal characteristics matter and the characters choose which obstacles to overcome to achieve a self defined victory goal.
This brings me back to the ephemeral aspects of history and a concept I’ve long argued on DF and elsewhere about David Wesely. His Bruanstein was exactly this sort of character driven game, and such play was a new revelation to his players. Wesely created individual characters with broadly defined roles, character backgrounds and skills, and turned them loose on the world he created for the game. The players then decided what they wanted their characters to do, setting personal goals, and maneuvering toward that end, within the bounds of their personal characteristics.
This unique “Braunstein element”, the player character driven and defined game, is precisely what distinguishes “tabletop RPGs” from other games, including other conflict games like CHAINMAIL or Chess. Wargames have built in, externally defined, victory goals. You win when you defeat your enemy. RPGs have no external victory goal assumed by the rules. The “end game” is player character success as defined by the player. Along the way player victories may be won by achieving a level or creating a spell, or simply stealing all the loot in the local bank – whatever goal the player has set out to achieve with the character.
Take away the Bruanstein element and RPGs are left with nothing. All RPGs are variant Braunsteins in a sense, each employing their own mechanics and set design. At heart, D&D is a Braunstien; Traveller is a Braunstein; Burning Wheel is a Braunstein. The exact mechanics and window dressing don’t change the primacy of design centered on personal characteristics and character agency pioneered in Wesely’s game.
Conversely, add the “Braunstein element” to almost any tabletop game and it becomes an “RPG”. Imagine, for example, creating a Chess RPG. One could use the rules of chess, and the names of the pieces as a basis for creating characters with various roles, positions, skills, and powers. The chessboard must be transformed into an open map, and each character left to chart its own path in the great war of black verses white, or good verses evil, perhaps. Is victory for John Q. Pawn promotion to bishop? Or is it amassing a huge fortune selling arms to the knights on both sides? The Player must decide how they will play their character, make use of its’ strengths and what direction it will take in the scheme.
That is Braunstien. That likewise is D&D and all of its descendants.