Saturday, 30 May 2015

Deconstructing Wargaming

In even asking some of the questions I pose here, I run the risk of being classified as a postmodernist wargamer, even though I have no idea what one might look like. Even if we reject postmodernism in many of its forms (mostly because such pronouncements as ‘it is all relative’ are self-stultifying) , we have to acknowledge that there is something in some of the questions which are asked by it. For example, the hermeneutic of suspicion encourages us to question the texts which we read and, in a sense, turn them against themselves. This has, of course, significantly been done against religious texts, but most texts are open to this form of deconstruction. Of course, what the users of these techniques often have failed to recognise is that the same technique can be applied to their own texts. Again, we run into the issue of self-stultification. If the author vanishes, then that means that the author of any text, including deconstructionist text vanishes as well.

Nevertheless, it is useful to make some use of these ideas. The questions that are asked, about the limits and meanings of text, are important ones, even if we do not necessarily agree with the answers given (or, in some cases, even understand them). Some typical deconstructionist questions would be ‘where did these ideas come from?’, ‘whose interests do they serve?’, ‘what voices are silenced here?’ A text, as I have recently noted with respect to history, is selective and selected. We cannot know the full meaning, the intention of the author. We can only work out some of what they might have meant, some of what they left out and some ideas of why that might have been so.

As an example I will take a set of wargame rules and ask these sorts of questions. To be specific, I will use De Bellis Renationis, by Phil Barker and Richard Bodley Scott. This is not particularly because I have anything against (or, indeed, in favour of) these rules or the authors. I just want to ask the questions of the text as I bought it.

First, then, ‘where did these ideas come from?’ Well, clearly, DBR is a cousin, at least, of the DBM and DBA nexus. The authors are the same and many of the mechanics carry over. The authors also claim in the introduction (it is always worth reading the preface and/or introduction or author’s notes; we so often let slip what we are really doing in them) that they will bring to player’s attention the largely unknown campaigns of the later seventeenth century in Europe (Turenne, Montecuculi and so on). So there is a claim here also of input from history.

This is, of course, not beyond criticism. The rules, as presented, are, perhaps, more conventional, or at least more stereotypical of a certain view of the ‘Renaissance’ wargaming period that might at first appear. Recent research, so far as I know, does not support the claim that command systems were inadequate (or at least, more inadequate than earlier systems) nor that clumsy deep formations were the norm, or had slowed the style of warfare down. In short, the ideas seem to have come from an earlier period of the historiography of warfare.

Secondly, we can ask ‘whose interests do these ideas serve?’ here, I think there are multiple answers. Firstly, of course, the ideas might serve the author’s interests. Authors are usually interested in people reading what they have produced. I guess it is true to say that most wargame rules are written for love and not money (except GW products), and so the interest of the author is in having their ideas out there. Of course, the danger for the author is that they then get roundly criticised, but in part that is the idea. The ideas are also, almost certainly aimed at serving the interest of the wargaming hobby as community. They do enable us to play games, after all, and hopefully enjoy them. They give us a common language and experience to discuss and critique. We might also note that the rules might serve the interests of the publishers of older historiography, such as Oman.

The third question was , ‘what voices are silenced here?’ this is possibly a bit more interesting and less obvious, and also slightly contradictory to the answers to the second question. Explicitly in the Introduction it says ‘The simple mechanisms produce effects much more subtle than may be apparent at first reading and should not be tampered with.’ With this simple rhetorical device the voices of any other wargamer apart from the authors is effectively silenced, at least with respect to this precise rule set. Potentially, the answer to any question about why the rules are doing this and not doing that are ruled out by the simply expedient of claiming that the rules are too subtle for the questioner to comprehend. This is a pre-emptive strike against any critic of the rules.

This might be construed as working against the implied claim of the rules (and every rule set) that they are serving the wargaming community. Indeed, one of the criticisms of rule sets commercially produced is that they stile the individual wargamer’s ideas and creativity. Perhaps this is so, but of course many wargamers have neither the time or space to undertake the scholarship required to write rules, and simply want to enjoy a quick battle with low set up costs.

Nevertheless, there is a tension emerging between the statement silencing wargamers and the rule set in the communitarian context. We can, of course, ignore the authors, particularly as the next sentence, claiming that scouting, forced marches and so on will arise naturally in the game seems to me to be entirely wrong. But in doing so, are we not simply being postmodern enough to remove the authorial voice?

I suppose that the final point is that to most wargamers, the ‘do not tamper’ declaration would be a red rag to a bull. Most of us, I suspect are inveterate tinkerers; we would not be wargamers, to some extent, if we were not. Most of us like to push the boundaries set by the rules. Someone remarked once that you could play a perfectly good hoplite battle with Polemos: SPQR. I have never tried it, but I suspect it is correct, even though the rules do not cover the period.

So, DBR now lies before us, dismembered. Does it matter? Probably not that much, but it is interesting to consider what the authors are up to.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Partial History and Wargames

I made a comment, in a comment, a bit ago that history is only ever partial. This is in fact ambiguous, and, possibly, was so deliberately. History is partial, in that we can only ever deliver a part of history in our historical writing (or any other medium, for that matter) and history itself, as written, is biased, inevitably. In fact, things are a little worse than that.

We all have a history. We stand, as Newton observed, on the shoulders of giants, or at least we live within a given culture and society which has shaped us. The culture and society itself is shaped by its history. Thus, our worldviews, standpoints and biases are shaped by those of our society and its history. There is no getting away from this. We all have to stand somewhere, and the somewhere that we stand is going to have blind spots.

To use a way of thinking about this that I have used before, we all have a horizon. Stuff within the horizon is interesting to us, stuff outside it we neither know nor care about. If we stumble across something that is outside our horizon, then usually we will ignore it as not being interesting or relevant. Of course, our horizons are not static. Things can move from outside to within as we develop new interests. Similarly things can move from within the horizon to outside, as we lose interest.

Gadamer has the view that as we learn something our horizon fuses with the other. Thus, if we read an ancient historian, we have, to understand him, fuse our horizon with his. Notice that we do not replace one horizon with another. The fusion carries over from our previous one; it is, so to speak, merely expanded, in terms of trying to understand, say, Tacitus. We bring to our reading of Tacitus the interests and understandings that we had before. If we are attentive, intelligent, rational and reasonable in our reading, we will hopefully emerge from it with a broadened horizon, one which incorporates insights from Tacitus into our worldview.

In terms of history, of course, this sort of thing starts to impinge on the nature of history itself. As it turns out, history (like so many things) is difficult to define precisely. It is one of those things that we know when we see it. But the horizon of the historian and the horizon of the times contribute to the sort of history we write and want to read. The questions which an investigator has will be different, according to both the investigator’s own interests and those of the times in which they live.

For example, there is much interest in classical history into Greek and Roman homosexuality. There are more papers and monographs in the last thirty years or so than you could shake a stick at. But if you probe further back into historiography, you tend to find less and less interest in the subject. The reasonable conclusion to be drawn from that is that historians were simply not interested in the subject. For the most part it was illegal, of course, but it was also something that most consumers of history were simply not interested it. Therefore, not much work was done on the subject, and that which was, was mostly ignored, or tried to explain away the activity as it is presented in our sources. In recent culture, of course, there has been much discussion of gay partnerships, marriages and so on, and so we should not really be surprised by historians asking questions about homosexuality of their sources.

History as it is investigated, then, is mediated by the society in which the historian is situated. However, as I mentioned above, history is always partial. A historian cannot give a full account of the past. Firstly, of course, sources to do so are not available. But even if such sources were there, a historian would have to select from them. Sources do not, as it were, speak. The historian must interpret them and speak for them. So they much choose from the range of sources before them which to present, and how they are going to do so coherently. The selection, of course, will be with respect to their own interests and those of their society. This partiality is nothing to do with any prejudices the historian or their society have; it is simply a matter of being able to do anything by selecting those sources which seem most important.

This has a number of results. As society shifts and moves, history has to be re-written. A few decades ago it was popular to see, for example, the English Civil War through a Marxist lens and hence to observe class war, or the rise of the gentry (or the fall of the gentry – history is never neat and tidy), to view the Levellers and Diggers as proto-communists and so on. Now things have changed (except, I suppose, on the hard Left) and the Diggers and Levellers are viewed radical splinter groups of no great significance, and most of the blame for the war is placed on Charles I. History, therefore, has to be re-written to account for this, which is, at least in part, due to the collapse of the Soviet Bloc as a viable economic alternative to rampant capitalism.

Similarly, as wargamers, we read history partially. I am sure I am not the only wargamer to have skipped over the boring bits of history to track down the battles and armies, the nature of tactics and the experience of battle. These are, of course, valid bits of history, but we do need to recall that they are only bits of history. History itself is much bigger and more complex than just the wars and battles. Eventually, even as wargamers, we should emerge from this and start wondering about how the people lived, about what their world view was. As such, history turns into something much deeper and richer than a list of battles, disasters and diseases, and we, hopefully, become more rounded human beings as a result.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Thus far, I have written a fair bit about wargames, the culture they spring from and the preconceptions we bring to them. I have claimed, for example, that wargames are an example of enlightenment rationality. Thus, in a wargame, we can fairly well predict what will happen, barring a few random bits and pieces. Cannons will shoot and, within a predictable manifold of probability, will cause a certain amount of damage. Even when, for example, it is pointed out that casualty rates in real battles are far below that in wargames, this is rationalised away as lightly wounded, their comrades bravely helping them to the rear, and those whom, as the Earl of Essex politely put it, ‘have gone to see their friends’.

This is, of course, all well and good, but it seems to be side-stepping an important bit of being human, which is the emotional side. We rationalise away the fact that units disintegrate in real life, model it, but actually turn it in to some intelligible activity. Running away might be a wholly understandable activity in a battle (I’m sure I would participate in it), but it is not necessarily the most rational course of action; most casualties in (pre-modern at least) battle are sustained during the rout.

The focus on models and rules in wargames, of which I am entirely guilty, is the application of a sort of ‘cold’ rationality. The real world, that of a battle, is chopped up into a series of models, the outcome of which (or, rather, the outcomes of the models and their interactions) is compared with that real life original to see whether it has worked out, in any sense, as the original has. So far, so coolly Enlightenment rational.

There is, however, much more to a wargame (or, for that matter, a real battle) than just some machinations, calculations and outcomes. A wargame also has emotion, it has mystery, for we know not what the outcome will be, and it makes use of our imagination, otherwise it would be seen for what it is, merely pushing bits of lead (or cardboard, or whatever) about a table. There must be more to a wargame than simply the cool rationality of rules and army lists.

Firstly, of course, there is the aesthetic imagination which is engaged when surveying a wargame table, nicely set up, with decent terrain and well painted soldiers. We consider that to be nice; a nice demonstration game at a show, for example, might tempt us to give that period a go. This seems to be somewhat akin to the suspension of disbelief that occurs when watching a good film, or reading a decent novel, or seeing a well-acted play. The line between make-believe and reality blurs, as is does sometimes with children playing a game. We focus our attention on it; it becomes, somehow, real, while, at some level we know that it is fiction, make believe, and that we are safe. We can safely experience a range of feeling we would not have (for example, of being in a British square at Waterloo) without the danger and inconvenience of actually being there. We know that the actor is not King Lear and is not blinded, but at some level, that does not matter.

So our imagination is engaged by a wargame. I think that this is not only our aesthetic imagination, in seeing the troops, but also our narrative one (if, indeed, narrative and aesthetic can be so divided). As with a new novel or film, we want to know what happens next. Even if we know the outcome of the original battle, we want to know if the Light Brigade will get to the gun line. The narrative thread is strong enough to move us on into the unknown. Even in something as simple as a wargame, the thread of narrative is, usually, strong enough to draw us to an outcome. Even boring and one sided games have their moments of interest. We can take emotional sides, rooting for the smaller force to escape, for a particular officer to survive, and so on. Our imagination is fully engaged, as can our emotions be also.

It is possible that somewhere under all this there are answers to questions about whether this is a good wargame or not; or, perhaps a little more pointedly, whether this is a wargame campaign that will fly or not. It is not enough simply to have some good mechanics, some decent rules, a nice campaign map and some willing players. The wargamer’s emotions must also be engaged. Their imaginations must be stimulated.

It is a fairly well acknowledged issue that simple, single, pick-up games tend to pall after a while. We deploy our troops, maybe have an enjoyable battle, but eventually we might seek something more. For many wargamers this might be another period to research, buy figures for, evaluate rules and play more games. But others might seek a more ongoing narrative, to care more about the armies, the countries they represent, the characters of nations and individuals. The mysteries of the future for these entities beckon us on.  We start to care for the characters and their wellbeing, even if we try to bracket out that care for them on the wargames table.

Wargames are usually (not always, but usually) conducted by men, and the male of the species is generally regarded as not being good at expressing emotion. This is, in fact, only partially true, as attendance at a football or rugby match will show. In wargaming, of course, we have our favourite units and armies, and it might be interesting to reflect on how we feel when they perform well or badly. In golf, for example, it has been observed that albatrosses are due to bad luck, but that we are personally responsible for every hole in one. It is our engagement with our armies that makes them into armies, rather than just lumps of painted metal or plastic.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Morality and RPGs

There has been some discussion recently about the morality (or ethics) of role playing games, particularly, perhaps, fantasy RPGs. The morality of some of these games can be regarded as dubious, at least from modern points of view. In brief, some RPGs have a set of goodies and a set of baddies, and they fight.

The first thing to consider is why the games are set up this way. I suspect that the answer is both moral simplicity and also as a plot or narrative driver. The two tend to interact.

Back in my days as a Runequest player, the irruption of chaos (the ultimate evil) somewhere in the world was enough to trigger a massed campaign to eradicate it. There was no real need for any more of a narrative than that. Chaos was chaos, evil and must be combatted by the forces of good, which were us. Thus we can see the thread of absolute good and evil, us and them, and the simple plot driver; as good we must oppose evil.

Of course, as the games became more sophisticated, the moral questions became more difficult. In Runequest there was the Lunar Empire, which was not unequivocally opposed to chaos, and also there were some ‘illuminants’ who, Buddha like did not recognize the difference between good and evil (I’m not saying that this is Buddhism, by the way, but in the artwork they usually looked like Buddists). The main players and the cults, however, were severely opposed to chaos and its evil cults. There was no compromise.

I believe (although I have never played it) that Dungeons and Dragons was sort of similar, while being different. Characters could be good, neutral or evil. The good fought the evil. The neutral joined in if they thought it was a good idea or the evil threatened one of their interests. Some things (Ruaridh mentioned goblins) were simply evil, and were to be killed and parted from their treasure as quickly as possible.

Role playing games, at least the ones I have mentioned so far, were the children of the 1970’s. I wonder if we can see a bit of Cold War paranoia creeping in here. After all, Ronald Regan described the Soviet Union as the ‘Evil Empire’. The forces of chaos were, quite possibly, identified as Communist. The neutrals or the Lunar empire could be identified with the nonaligned nations, ready to join in with something they identified with, oppose something they did not like, often to the frustration of Western politicians.

Of course, other RPGs are available. My own favorite, Flashing Blades, is securely set in seventeenth century France, that of the Dumas Three Musketeers novels. There is, within it, some simplistic morality – in the novels, as in the game, the King is usually the right; thus the Musketeers get into action based around this and the perceptions of who the King’s enemies might be. Often, the enemy is the Cardinal, but the Cardinal himself is a bit of a morally ambiguous character, although not often shown as such in games.

Again, in Traveler, there is no real defined evil. This, in fact, depends on the universe which we create for our games, and Traveler shows this rather well. There are criminal gangs. Interstellar companies with dubious practices and so on. There might even be a few pirates. But on the whole there is no real unmotivated evil as there are in the simpler FRGPs described above.

My other favorite game was Toon, which perhaps says more about me than about morality. I was, in fact, banned from playing Toon because I was too good at it (the secret was never to get boggled, I discovered). As with most cartoons (for example, Tom and Jerry) the violence was always present but never serious; characters could and did come back to life again. Again, morals did not really manifest themselves. The vampire I remember in the scenarios was, in fact, just waiting for someone to offer him a Hollywood contract.

However, there is a question running through the simpler games, or even those of more complexity, the darker games such as Paranoia and Call of Cthulhu. Is evil just evil as defined? In most games evil just is. Cult followers in CoC are to be wiped out (or to have their object of worship destroyed) in just the same way as goblins in D&D (it is just harder to do it in CoC). Paranoia could be characterized as the ultimate in cold War games, of course, the Computer being the Communist Party hierarchy, and so on down the line to the player characters who were expendable (perhaps like the Soviet soldiers in WW2?).

These musing might well transfer to wargaming. After all, we all know that the Nazis were evil. It does not stop them being represented on the wargame table, however. Perhaps, though, because we know that the evil was defeated, we can wargame on, because we know that even if they are successful on the table, evil was ultimately defeated. In that same way, we know that the nameless horrors of CoC do not exist, or even, perhaps, that D&D’s goblins will always be defeated.

Perhaps underlying this is a view of progress, of things going from bad to better. Good wins out in the end, evil is defeated. Perhaps this is an optimistic US view of the world; Europeans might not agree, their experiences of evil are different and less precise.

As to Ruaridh’s problem with simply going and slaughtering goblins because they are evil as defined, then it does point to both the narrative driver and a problem in the game and its view of morality. We know now, after a bit of experience in the world, that morality is rarely so black and white. There is the possibility of goblins who are not intrinsically evil, who might have a right to life, or to a family, or even to hang on to their possessions. In the world of D&D and Runequest, however, this cannot happen, and so we have to decide that, morally, the games are deficient, and fix them the best we can.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Culture Wargames

I have mentioned before that one of the issues with wargaming is that, in essence, we expect every other culture to conduct war in a similar way to which Western European cultures. That is, if we accept some version of the ‘western way of war’, everyone else should conform to it.

Now, of course, as I am sure you can already discern, and which I have commented on before, this is deeply problematic in all sorts of ways. Firstly, it is disputable as to whether there is a western way of war at all. The expression derives from recent US historiography as is an argument that only western nations, deriving their views of warfare from the Greeks, seek decisive battles. The Greeks, the argument goes, developed this form of warfare to fit in with their agricultural year (given that most hoplites were farmers) and the relatively small cities could not sustain large numbers of troops for long periods, and so a decisive battle, the results of which were acknowledged on both sides, determined the outcome.

This view of warfare, the argument goes, was passed on through the Romans to the medieval nations (where practitioners included Edward I and Edward III) to the early modern state and hence into the western military culture. When the westerners went out into the world after 1492, they encountered different military cultures, most of which did not rate highly the decisive battle. Hence it took, say, the Aztecs a while to realise that the Conquistadors were not simply trying to gain military prowess, grab money and set themselves up as emperors. They really had come to do something else: conquer in western terms, although that entailed, of course, the other things as well.

I am fairly sure that we can see the flaws in the argument. Firstly, it was not just westerners who fought decisive battles. There were a fair number in other parts of the world such as Japan, China and India. People had been slaughtering each other quite happily for millennia in these places without so much as a by your leave from the west.

Similarly, there are parts of European history where battles were not particularly sought or, if they were, were not particularly decisive. For example, most of the battles of the English Civil War were not decisive, in that they did not determine outcomes of the war, often not even at a local level. As someone noted, the losers recruited their strength from local garrisons, the winners dissipated their strength into local garrisons, and so, with a few changes, the status quo ante was preserved. In fact, the ECW only moved to decisive status when there was an army sufficiently centrally controlled and supplied that it destroyed the opposing armies and garrisons without dissipating its strength. Even so, local histories record that the New Model Army was not the only force in the country, and local troops still played a major role.

Having digressed slightly, I will try to return to the main point. Cultures can fight wars without buying into western (Enlightenment) ways of conducting war. This does not preclude them from fighting battles, however, many of them in fact decisive. Thus we cannot simply take a model of western warfare of, say, the seventeenth century, and apply it to every other culture for which we can obtain some sort of ‘order of battle’.

However, I think I could argue that this is exactly what we do. Our models for warfare in the seventeenth century are largely based around western ways of warfare. The interactions of musket, pike and cavalry are the key elements to creating a successful set of wargame rules. And this is fine and dandy so long as we keep the rules restricted to the cultures and societies for which this was the way of war. It only becomes problematic when we extend the model to include other cultures which may have fought decisive battles, either among themselves or against ‘western’ armies, but which had a very different military culture.

These societies may not be as far away as we might think. There is a reasonable case for arguing that the societies on the Celtic fringe of Britain had a different way of way, one which lasted from the medieval period until the eighteenth century without that much change. The Irish and Scottish highland way of war was based, from sometime around the thirteenth century, on the heavy infantry with a large cutting weapon, either an axe or claymore. The charge of these infantry was the decisive point of the battle. The infantry either won big or lost big.

The point here is that the military class was not, as in most of the rest of Europe, based around the heavy cavalryman, the knight. While the battlefield power of the knight had been blunted by longbow and pike, the culture was still based around the idea of the cavalry charge. Neither Ireland nor Highland Scotland are particularly conducive to cavalry charges, and so this ideal was not part of the culture. The terrain and nature of the people were more conducive to hit and run tactics, skirmishing, and the final, decisive, charge.

The Irish and Highlanders chalked up a significant number of victories using these tactics. The whole of the Elizabethan Irish Wars were tied up in the English attempting to figure out how to deal with them. Similarly, Montrose’s campaigns in Scotland were successful, at least up until he was confronted with large numbers of professional soldiers. Bonnie Dundee’s charge, as well as those of the highlanders in the ’45 can be seen as the inheritors of the tradition. We can suggest that, as an alternative to western mainstream tactics, the “Highland Charge” was only superseded when the socket bayonet, mobile artillery and large scale logistics came into play, or (more contentiously) when the Irish and Highlanders attempted to adopt mainstream tactics.

The point here is that, at least on these views, the Celtic fringe armies cannot be subsumed within the mainstream western tradition, and hence need a model of their own. Most rule sets attempt to do this by adding bits to represent the armies, but this might be a ‘neo-colonialism’ of itself. To represent the logic of the Celtic armies, we need to develop specific models for them.