Saturday 13 April 2024

Of Dungeons and Things

Well, more of the things, really. The dungeons part of the title is really because I saw the other week that 2024 marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Dungeons and Dragons (TM, no doubt) by Gary Gygax and David Arneson. This was brought to my attention by an article in the Guardian, which is quite interesting in its own right.

I confess I have never played D & D. My own role-playing days started with Runequest and progressed through Call of Cthulhu, various science-fiction-based stuff, and finishing up with Steve Jackson’s Toon and Flashing Blades (which is still available, I notice). I once got banned from playing Toon as a character because I was too good at it. The knack of playing Toon was to do something, no matter how silly, rather than to hesitate and get ‘boggled’. Possibly I am so saturated in TV cartoon lore that I just do silly naturally.

Flashing Blades was very much up my street. I recalled watching the badly dubbed series on daytime TV when I was off school for the summers (and doubtless my parents were out; they didn’t approve of daytime TV. O tempora, O mores!). Still, having got all the science-fiction and fantasy out of my system, perhaps all that was left was historical silliness. And Flashing Blades provides that.

Of course, now, as a fully paid-up solo wargamer without a role-playing group to boot (they all stayed in the south), I have to try to figure out how to role-play on my own. Now, this is not a problem, really, but the Guardian article has an interesting take on the whole idea of role-playing games, which I agree with and which will, I think, be of considerable assistance in my ruminations.

The article suggests that role-playing games are ‘collaborative world-building’ games. The idea is not to win something necessarily, but to construct as believable world, most often, of course, a fantasy world with monsters and the usual plethora of weird and wonderful creatures. It does not have to be like that, of course. Any sort of world can be built.

The rules of the game then become more like guidelines for the collaboration of world building. A monster that takes a swipe at the player characters is not necessarily a mindless brute, but in a properly run RPG has a purpose of its own, is set in the landscape (mental or physical) for a reason, and has some sort of motivation. In a world like that, simply killing a monster because it is a monster, or because it has a gold coin, or whatever, starts to get frowned upon. A world is more complex and subtle than that.

Another way to look at RPGs (and indeed, wargames in general, I think) is that they are exercises in telling stories. We do not know the outcome of the story when we start, which is why a wargame is not a novel, but we tell the narrative in such a way as to start to progress towards some sort of end, some sort of satisfying finish, or at least, end of a chapter or scene.

Writing a RPG campaign, or a wargame scenario, is not as straightforward as writing a novel. While novels are (the best of them) character-led, an RPG is player plus chance-led. We cannot know when planning, whether a particular outcome will occur. I once had half the PC party jump off a tall building in pursuit of something or other, and die. So I had to consider how to get them out of that and back on the track of the plot. This is not necessarily something that can be planned for. Similarly, in a wargame scenario, it is difficult to accommodate one side rolling a load of sixes and the other ones. But such things do happen.

As a solo wargamer, things are both a little more pointed and a little less. They are more difficult because there is no collaboration in the world-building. This might be an advantage in that as the dungeon master I might have a vision of the world that the players do not grasp; that cannot happen in a solo RPG. On the other hand, the world relies on one imagination only, and my character’s actions within it. This might be somewhat limiting.

I think the overall design of the scenario and campaign in solo RPGs is one which, even more than group games, is episodic in nature. Thus, there is an overall narrative arc – escort the ambassador to the port – and a series of scenes within that – meeting the ambassador, getting him from A to B, avoiding ambushes, the ambassador’s own attempts to get captured and so on. As a solo player, I can be more flexible, not deciding on the next scene until the last one is completed, keeping within the overall narrative arc.

The fount of these musings has been the painting I have just been doing. As seen recently, I have finished 5 more dismounted cavalrymen, and just now a bunch of civilians (Parisian folk, by Warbases). The question arises as to how to use the, of course. I have in mind reviving the Treaty of Corbie scenario and reworking it a little better than the original. There is certainly enough scope for a bit of skulduggery (hard to do as a solo player? Not necessarily), with different interest groups hoping to lay their hands on the treaty – pro and anti-English factions, French factions, and Spanish factions, and probably quite a few bystanders (hence the civilians). I have also been building some 20 mm scale card houses, which fit in quite nicely.

All I really need to do now is some design of the initial scenario or two, and the overall arc, which I already know. I might invest in some trees and hedges and so on, but most RPGs dispense with such niceties, and so I probably will as well. I shall have to see.


  1. Really interesting, thanks for posting. How much do you procedurally generate and how much do you invent as you go?

    1. Having just completed a solo RPG-ish scenario. it is definitely a blend of both. the overall aim and goals were set and fixed. How that was achieved was a matter of a lot of chance (rolled up encounters) moderated by the scenario.
      The 'goodies' and 'baddies' were set, but did not necessarily turn up. Through it all I had to tread a narrative of how 'my' character moved, experienced and reacted. Lots of dice rolling ensued, of course.