Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Some Ludological influences on the early adoption of Dungeons and Dragons etc.


Joe over on Uncaring Cosmos recently posted some interesting thoughts on early ludological influences on the development of tabletop role-playing games, and some strands of influence on early adoption of Dungeons & Dragons that I've been thinking about again recently. Curiously both strands feature simultaneously on front cover of Games & Puzzles magazine #23 from March/April 1974. 

Games & Puzzles #23, March / April 1974

Games & Puzzles was a general interest games magazine, a colour-cover glossy magazine on the shelves of newsagents and WH Smiths, distributed by the vernerable satirical magazine Punch.  Launched during the boardgame boom of the mid 1970s Games & Puzzles carried regular columns on crossword solving, chess, scrabble, reviewing latest releases of everything from the latest childrens TV tie in stocking filler to abstract cerebral MENSA-level entertainment through the entirety of the Second World War in hexagons and d12 tables and everything in between.

Historically, I think it is sensible to talk about pre-D&D ludological frameworks - games, methodologies, ideas and discourses about games - that may have influenced the early adopters of D&Ds understanding, approaches, acceptance and adopted playstyles of D&D itself as separate from post-D&D frameworks that may have influenced early-majority  of D&D, as those frameworks appearing in a post-D&D landscape may have already been influenced by the innovations of D&D itself. So while my personal introduction to RPGs was through Fighting Fantasy, it's a second-generation development, indeed, originally created by D&D early adopters Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone to explain D&D, and while FF might have influenced those (like myself) caught up in the 80s D&D boom, it didn't provide impetus for the initial, original acceptance, success or development of D&D when it was published.  

There is, unfortunately something of a presentist tendency in fandoms to back-project concepts, for example there's an 'eternal discourse'* about "D&D separating from 'wargaming roots'" (as pernicious as a myth as Warhammer emerging from 'roleplaying roots') without really indicating much of an understanding that what "wargaming" really meant in 1974, or any expectation that it might actually be a bit different from the understanding somebody carries around in their head in 2021. Much same in Tolkien fandom,  where The Hobbit is forced to fit into the "world" of The Lord of the Rings, while it's textual relationship to The Silmarillion is widely ignored due to authorial comments taken out of context, and that the evidence - early drafts - aren't widely read within fandom. As ever, the only way of escape these infernal traps is to actually look at the original texts.

Games & Puzzles #23, March / April 1974
Mastermind 1973-ish
Setting Up a Wargames Campaign, Tony Bath 1973 (1978 edition)
Dungeon Masters Guide 1979

The Games & Puzzles article by Tony Bath on his Hyboria wargame campaign has comments from several players, including wargaming legend Donald Featherstone. What they are describing in todays parlance would probably be described as a 'freeform play-by-mail domain level roleplaying game', but at the time was simply a Wargames Campaign.  Each player controls a king, emperor, overlord or some-such individual who rules over a land loosely based on RE Howards Conan the Barbarian stories. Bath mentions, with some humour, disallowing plays based on works other than Howards original stories - gaming as an extension of S&SF fandom, where debates about 'canonicity' and legitimacy provide much of the interest.  Bath fully admits to controlling the rules of the world as he sees fit - in a dictatorial manner rather than the democratic mode Bath ascribes to Midgard, and thus, the fiat of the Dungeon Master is firmly established.  Needless to say, the idea of an impartial but all-powerful (and all-knowing) umpire is as old as modern wargaming, going back to von Reisswitz 1812 Kreigsspeil, but how that might have framed approaches to D&D in the 1970s is, perhaps a different story.

Games Illustrated. Boris Vallejo 1984 (post-D&D)

Featherstone writes about being given the character of Conan to play, and subsequently making game decisions in character, and much is made of the games in-world newspaper and the ability for players to focus on their areas of their interest, and for the narratives emerge from play within the structures of defined rules, including those for generating and playing the personalities of the non-player characters who fill the courts and high ranking military positions within each players nation, alongside the initial conditions of geography, supply-chains and Baths judgement. The 'emergent narrative' isn't something I've noticed much in RPG discourse, GNS 'theory' seems to entirely miss the point by essentialising and compartmentalising aspects which are actually complementary and fluid. However it seems to have been a strong element of what a "Wargames Campaign" actually was - a story that emerges from the decisions made by the players within the game system. I digress.  

There is no question that from a British perspective, that the G&P Hyboria article is a pre-D&D artefact, given that D&D had only just been published in the US, and Games Workshop wouldn't start importing it until 1975. The appearance of Hyborian discourse around fantasy gaming, the playing of roles and emergent narratives, within mainstream games media of the time seems remarkable in itself. It's hard not to see the reception and ludological frameworks in the milleu in which D&D was adopted as being informed, if not already established by discussions of Hyboria, (and perhaps Midgard) that employs diverse play-styles some of which would later became synonymous with 'role-playing' but at the time were just an integrated part of the broad fertile plains of the 'wargaming' landscape. I direct interested readers to Jon Peterson Playing at the World, his book deals with Hyborea and D&D topic quite comprehensively, or to undertake your own research into Tony Baths Hyborea Tiny Tin Men provide a good access point to much of the published material. It's clear that Bath had been playing Hyborea since the 1960, but to what extent the elements Bath and Featherstone describe in Games & Puzzles were part of the 1960s game would need slow careful and thorough exploration through the evidence.  Nonetheless, the main point isn't to claim Tony Bath invented fantasy roleplaying before D&D, or had influenced Arneson & Gygax or even David Wesely's late 1960s Braunstein games in some way,  but rather that only a mere matter of months prior to D&D manifesting on the prime material planes, Hyboria was being talked about in the mainstream, popular gaming press, and the dissemination of those ideas may have informed the approach to Fantasy Gaming in general and D&D in particular of a broader general audience, especially in a British context of a general gaming audience than a specialist wargaming audience.

Outside the mainstream, popular gaming press, in the small-press gaming zines there is post-D&D documentary evidence of a direct influence of Baths Hyboria (rather than an airy 'ludological framework') in the 1977 contribution to D&D APA-Zine, The Wild Hunt #12  by Bryan Ansell (Founder of Citadel Miniatures, Warhammer instigator, Games Workshop Managing Director, Laserburn designer etc.) . In his brief overview of "'how we do things in Nottingham" he references expanding the social role of D&D characters using Baths Setting Up A Wargames Campaign (WRG, 1973) which published world-building and characterisation guidelines that Bath established during his Hyborian campaign. And as is the increasingly knotted nature of these things, in the same article, Bryan also mentions using Greg Staffords White Bear and Red Moon  (1975)  board-wargame set in Glorantha as a basis for a D&D campaign - a year before Runequest (the official Gloranthan RPG) was published.

After "Wargaming" a second thread of ludological influence taken up by the early adopters of D&D is undoubtedly boardgaming. Joe at Uncaring Cosmos cites the aforementioned White Bear and Red Moon, (which provide a cover feature for G&P #61, June 77 by Lewis Pulsipher) although as an example to think about it's a little bit of a cheat, as WBRM is a Board-Wargame in the hex-and-chit style Board-Wargaming of Avalon Hill, rather than a 'pure' board-game. 

Semantics aside, Joe's point that boardgames should be considered as providing a ludological framework for the understanding and development of D&D by some of its early adopters stands up to scrutiny. Consider the case of the boardgame Diplomacy (1959), which under some definitions might be considered a wargame but was popular and prelevant enough to establish its own discreet presence beyond both the miniatures table-top and the hex-and-chit "Wargaming" communities. As D&D emerged from the dank and dismal regions it swiftly became taken up by those involved in the Diplomacy zines and the postal diplomacy scene. While it might seem that simply because of the printed (mimographed),  nature of much Postal Diplomacy fandom and its physical manifestation in a vast treasure-trove of play-by-mail zines means that Diplomacy fandom simply produced more evidence of itself than other, quieter areas of gaming, it is fair to say it probably did have greater direct influence on the British early-adopters than any other single pre-D&D influence. Luminaries such as Ian Livingstone, Don Turnbull, Lew Pulsipher and Hartley Patterson all go through the revolving door of 'Dippy' and D&D. Ludologically there is the built-in social-negotation aspect of Diplomacy that makes it particularly akin to the adventurer-player team D&D, wheras in something like Chess, making deals, persuasion and cajoling between players is working against the system, in Diplomacy, as D&D, it is an intended consequence of the system. One of the main innovations of Postal Diplomacy in thematic terms was to use the game to play J.R.R. Tolkiens Middle-Earth,  Frank Herberts Dune or some other fantastic realm from SF&F literature, and like Baths Howardesque Hyborian Campaign foreshadows D&D as essentially as a gameable extension of SF&F fandom. The biggest ludological change from board to postal Diplomacy is the introduction of a non-player umpire, whose role it is to collate the orders sent in each turn and return the results in an unbiased and even manner - no doubt helping form the attitudes of those familiar Diplomacy with who would assume the mantle of the Dungeon Master.

Mastermind 1972
Monster Manual 1977

Another, perhaps more widespread game but less documented example of the a similar ludalogical framework may be seen in Mordecai Meirowitz code-cracking game Mastermind - a game of cunning and logic for two players. An award winning 1972 plastic implementation of the abstract pen and paper game 'bulls and cows', given a slightly more sophisticated James Bond-esque slant to the marketing. The game was "selected for the Design Center London", won Game of the Year 1973 and given a Queens Award for Export, sales boomed, national and international competitions were spawned, and Mastermind became a mainstay of Games & Puzzles articles, peg-trays haunted the G-Plan sideboards of suburbia and Hoover Junior Upright Vacuum cleaner bags were filled with multicoloured plastic pegs across the country and around the world.

The other 1972 Mastermind - Approaching Menace

Mastermind establishes a clear separation of roles - one player sets up a code, the other player then attempts to solve it, both working within the rules and restrictions of the game system, rather than say Chess or Diplomacy where each player is essentially playing the same role against each other. This could be seen to both echo and reinforce the playstyles of early D&D - one player is the Dungeon Master who sets up a dungeon, and the other player(s) attempt to 'solve' it, both within the rules of the game.  Certainly we can see this Rudolpho's review of Ken St. Andre's, admittedly D&D derived game, Tunnels & Trolls (G&P #61, June 77) where the still nascent genre moniker 'role-playing' isn't used at all, and the review focuses heavily on explaining how one player 'sets up a dungeon' and the adventurers then 'solve it', both working within the rules of the game.  So, through the lens of Mastermind we can see the idea of the Dungeon Master not only being the setter of the dungeon-puzzle but also being the non-adversarial respondent to the players actions, the setter in Mastermind isn't trying to block the other player solving the puzzle, but rather to impartially respond to the players plays, and facilitate their exploration of the code-dungeon. Not that anyone would express it as such at the time, but the ubiquity of Mastermind, may have helped establish a ludological framework that prepared a more mainstream audience for certain D&D play-styles.

Some of these concepts, a notion of 'dungeon-as-code', Dungeon Master as neutral code-setter / facilitator, players creating emergent narratives, seem essential to the OSR playstyle in ways that many of the post-D&D influencers miss, certainly it suggests development of investigative playstyles both of the dungeon-crawl with a 10-ft pole type as well as the mystery-solving of the whodunnit and explorations into the supernatural.  It's also a reminder that D&D, or RPGs, or Wargaming do not exist in a isolation, and that while fandoms become increasingly ouberous like in their self consumption, it was once entirely necessary to glance into adjacent spaces to provide ways of thinking about what are now known as 'TTRPGs'.


  1. Very interesting, I had never thought of Mastermind in that way, but you’re dead right!
    You got your Bears and Moons the wrong way round. ;)

    1. Good to hear from you! Thinking about it, Mastermind also has that tiny little cover to hide the code from the players, just like a DMs screen hides the DMs map and notes as well.

      I guess I put the Red Moon pegs in the White Bear slot again! Will switch them round on the next turn ;-)

  2. Nice article, and I'm always interested in reading other's thoughts on Tony Bath's Hyboria campaign. Which reminds, I should clean up some of the scans of articles I have collected on Tiny Tin Men (and thanks for the mentioning of my humble webpage! :-))

    1. Hi Phil, glad you enjoyed the post. Many thanks for collating all that Hyboria material, it's an invaluable resource. Great stuff!

    2. Do you think it would be possible to scan the article on Hyboria from the Games and Puzzles magazine? I tried looking for it online, but no success so far ... ;-)

    3. I don't think much G&P material has surfaced online yet. When I get a few moments to myself I'll ask around to see what the state of play is.

  3. Hi, Zhu! I think you're right to consider Mastermind part of the conceptual world of the dungeon adventure. Another game where one player can't see what the other's map is, that plays a role, is Battleship. Ken St. Andre even made the comparison explicit in his into to the first edition of Tunnels & Trolls (in 1975). He wrote, "The game is played something like Battleship. The individual players cannot see the board. Only the D.M. knows what is in the dungeon." etc.

    I think this fits in with the idea of "Dungeon as Code."

    And by the way, I really enjoy your fantasy illustrations!

    1. Thanks for the kind words about my illustrations Lich.

      Battleship, yes - what a great parallel! Very large ludoglogical overlap with Mastermind both being 2d array based hidden-information recovery games (!). Perhaps the main difference with Battleship is that both players have parity, creating and disassembling each others code, while Mastermind/D&D the player-functions have a clear separation. Makes me wonder what a D&D variant where the players also have 'hidden maps' might look like.

  4. Hello and thank you for the nice article, it gave me a lot to think about. I have one little correction though, the game was called "Kriegsspiel" not "Kreigsspiel".
    I thought a lot about what you wrote about Mastermind and I think it is an interesting idea and there are definitely some overlappings but I think there are some differences too. Mastermind (or at least the version I played) has the players play against each other. The player who sets up the code wins if the other player can not crack the code and he gets a number of points equal to how many tries the other player needed. I am not old enough to have played old school RPGs back then (I started playing TRPGS in 1994), so I can't tell if the role of the DM was a bit different back then, but I think another key difference between RPGs and Mastermind is, that there are no specific rules for the DM. To explain this a bit further, in Mastermind, the player who sets up the code is not allowed to leave one colour "blank" (put no pin in the slot) or something like that. In an RPG on the other hand, there are of course rules like "a goblin has 7 hp" but no rules to cap how complicated (or deadly) the DM can make the code (dungeon). If the DM would play against the players competitively (like in Mastermind) he could just make a room full of traps and dragons that no player character could ever survive and would always win. So I think one of the key differences is, that in an RPG you have to work/play together to make the game fun for everyone and to make it this way the DM can not play really competitively against the players.

    So, these are my thoughts, but I am (obviously) not a native speaker so bear with me if I got something wrong and, as I said, I don't know if the role of the DM was defined a bit differently back then.

    1. Glad my ramblings gave you something to think about Mr. Brainworm! and thanks for the long and thoughtful comment.

      I agree D&D isn't the same as MM, just that some elements of the style of play may have influenced how it was played and talked about in the early days. You are right, MM is a closed set, code-setter has only to choose 1 of 1296 possible permutations, and the code-breaker only has to deduce which of those codes has been played, wheras D&D is an open set. The DM also usually gives a bit of a 'clue' to start the player off, they're not facing a totally blank peg board, even if it's just 'you all meet in a tavern'!

      I'm thinking 'solving' in the MM sense is more about "working out what's going on in the world-code" than 'clearing a dungeon level' in the dungeon-crawl sense. A room with a red dragon, 12 cartloads of treasure and every deadly trap from Grimtooths is a valid code by a DM. Then the code-breakers level 3 Halfling thief steals a single golden cup from the hoard and stealthily retreats, they have successfully identified the code and 'solved' the dungeon. In this style of play 'winning' is more about successfully decoding the problem than 'winning' by defeating the dragon in combat and taking all the treasure.

      The challenge / response aspect of competitive MM doesn't really effects the code-breaking core of the game, there's no advantage gained or lost, you're always just playing against the code, rather than the player, no one of the 1296 codes is any harder than any other. Makes me imagine a D&D variant where every player has both a dungeon and a character and the players take turns in each.

      I don't know when discussions of the DM as dinner-party host with responsibility for everyone having a good time began. It doesn't appear in the gaming literature of the 70s and 80s that I'm familiar with, the discussions are much more strategic and genre focussed. Fun is assumed much in the same way as playing any other game and comes from the humour, wit and intelligence of the players in a social setting, rather than making sure the code has all the players favourite colours in!

  5. The point about Mastermind was really interesting. I added it to my OSR newsletter:

    1. Hi Ben. Glad you found it interesting, and thanks for the add! That is quite a newsletter you are compiling there. Good stuff.