A Brief History of Wargames and RPGs
How Fantasy Wargames Became Fantasy Role-Playing Games.
Let’s start with steam engines. As this is the first post on my irregular and personal history and thoughts on RPG’s, let’s start with Charles Fort (1874 – 1932) and steam engines.
Charles Fort was the author of four books on unexplained events, including The Book of the Damned (1919) and Lo! (1931). He was one of the first people to collate and study “anomalous phenomena” and is said to have coined the term “teleportation”, one of the many events he researched, including levitation, spontaneous human combustion, and unidentified flying objects.
My own first reading of Fort was the several references in Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergiers The Morning of the Magicians (1960), a battered copy of which I clung to and read voraciously during my early teens. In another esoteric connection, it has been suggested that this book partly inspired the works of H. P. Lovecraft – certainly Fort himself inspired The X-Files. The book was also influential on the burgeoning New Age movement in France and England and contains an assortment of odd ideas ranging from alchemy to cryptohistory.
But back to Fort, whom I did not ever read directly, but who I had met courtesy of Pauwels and Bergiers, and then two years later when my esoteric teacher quoted the line in Fort’s Lo! which would stick with me for the rest of my life:
“A tree cannot find out, as it were, how to blossom, until comes blossom-time. A social growth cannot find out the use of steam engines until comes steam-engine time”.
This was presented to me as the abbreviated “When it comes steam-engine time, everyone steam-engines”. A concept I have since seen in practice so many times, both globally and personally – in my case, within the world of tarot cards and esotericism.
Fort’s concept of this ‘theory of submergence’ broke away from the idea of some absolute ‘standard’ for human thought and progress and gave an “organic” model. It suggested that humanity did not progress to some pre-defined order, but rather in the “adjusting constructiveness” to all other living things. As a society, we may have some idea to do something, but unless we have figured out how to smelt ore, for example, the other idea will fall on barren soil. And, conversely, when a thing is possible – most everyone will see it, and some will do it, and some few will succeed at it.
WARGAMING CAMPAIGNS & IDENTIFICATION
Which brings us onto the astonishing emergence of Role-Playing Games, such as Dungeons and Dragons, from the field of wargaming in the comparatively recent early-1970’s. A huge leap, obvious now perhaps in retrospect, yet entirely novel and utterly unpredicted at the time. It was a leap that was resisted at the time, somewhat chaotic (as all creativity tends to be as it must, by definition, upset the established order) and led to energetic power grabs, conflict and betrayal as creators found themselves in a swell of interest beyond their initial intentions.
This story has been covered in recent years by others, most notably and extensively by Jon Peters in three books; Playing at the World (2012), The Elusive Shift (2020) and Game Wizards (2021). The area is also the subject of studies in gaming, such as Storytelling in the Modern Board Game: Narrative Trends from the Late 1960’s to Today (Marco Arnaudo, 2018).
As a keen gamer from my earliest memory, with parents who encouraged games from many family card games, Monopoly, Mousetrap, Cluedo, Mastermind, and so on, I was lucky to grow up almost in parallel to the development of RPG’s. I wasn’t part of Generation 0, but almost certainly Generation 1 of the Role-Playing phenomenon. This is partly why in this blog I would like to record and weave my own experiences throughout a wider discussion of RPG’s.
I also came to wargames very early, through the works of Donald Featherstone (1918 – 2013). One of my earliest memories is my Dad telling me I couldn’t send English Pounds through the post to the USA to buy one of the sets of plastic Revolutionary War Soldiers garishly advertised in one of the Conan, Spiderman or Doctor Strange comics I was avidly buying with my pocket money.
I did eventually end up with a green plastic WWII platoon (barely an “army” as advertised) and that brings me straight to the intersection of a personal story and the universal theme of this post – story-telling, particularly identification and connected narrative.
It is story-telling that is the intrinsic bridge from wargaming to role-playing.
When I played simple wargaming with my younger brother, before we both even learnt chess one summer and were totally obsessed by it, I remember clearly that one of the plastic soldiers was my “favourite”. More so than a favoured marble (mine was a beautiful luminescent sea-green one), this figure – one lying down with a sniper’s rifle on a stand, was personal. In fact, when we played, I would always have him placed on one of the larger sandpiles to take precise aim at any oncoming soldiers without being directly in the field of battle. My brother – who always played the Germans – had a similar favourite, a particularly helmeted field soldier with a canister that was (in his mind) full of water for long marches.
There was a primal identification with these two individual figures for us; they allowed us to enter the game, see it more clearly in our imagination, and – most of all – tell stories, about that time I had managed to shoot one of the commanders from so far away, or he – with canteen in hand – had outflanked us and blown up our supply vehicles.
These stories were not simple, and often connected across many days of games, and were to a lesser extent found in playing Escape from Colditz, where certain wooden coloured pawns would take on a character based on their tactics or movement.
We never found this identification arising in more abstract tokens, such as those in Monopoly for example, where it would simply be a matter of favourites as to playing the hat or the iron, the car or the dog.
Meanwhile, somewhat south of us playing army games in Derby, in Southampton, England, this story-telling within wargames had already been in place for five years or more; it was indeed steam-train-time for connected narratives.
FROM SOUTHAMPTON TO HYBORIA
The wargamer and author Tony Bath (1926 – 2000), first opponent and friend of wargaming legend Donald Featherstone, is widely acknowledged as having one of the first wargame campaign ‘worlds’.
Donald Featherstone (L) and Tony Bath (R).
As well as his rules for wargaming becoming one of the prevalent sets, he also founded the Society of Ancients in the same year I was born – 1965. Over the course of several years, he and a friend, Neville Dickinson, developed a dynamic ‘world’ in which many battles and strategies could be conducted. These would have connected narratives, where economic and political impacts would be carried from one game to another, in an overarching campaign.
Over time, this world, Hyboria – based on the fantasy world described by author R. E. Howard for his Conan series – would also have rules for weather effects, crop production, diseases and other factors that could impact the wargames being fought across its many countries.
This campaign must have commenced also around 1965, as Dickinson had already developed his own fantasy world for campaigns by May 1967, where he wrote in Slingshot about his mythical continent of CASIA, having decided that many of the existing and “well-known” fantasy worlds had already been taken over by other wargamers. The world of Casia was rather quaintly based on various holiday brochures he had to hand from his wife, so the Isle of Man became Hostigos, and Northern Island became Beshta, etc.
It is most telling that as a footnote to an article in Slingshot magazine, in July 1969, where Tony Bath provided an overview of this campaign world and detailed some of the players involved and their various global machinations between games, Charles Grant (who was now recently editor of Slingshot after Tony Bath), wrote:
“I’ve had more fun out of my twelve months as Prince Vakar of Hyrkania (a greedy, treacherous and disloyal character, as I was informed) than I’ve had from any wargame campaign yet.”
This is one of the earliest statements of the shift – what Jon Peterson calls the “elusive shift” – to role-playing from wargaming that I have seen.
Bath and Dickinson had already (in 1969) realised that it was more fun and manageable to act as “general controllers, umpires and tactical commanders” and feed information to the other players, whilst maintaining a global knowledge of the entire game world and other player choices. In effect, they were pre-dating the concept of “dungeon masters” and “players”.
They also realised that the idea “could only work if the players took a really deep interest in what they were doing…” which indicates the different level of immersion and engagement required when shifting from wargaming en masse in individual battles to a more individualised game experience with narrative connections and consequences across games.
By 1971, players were definitively being given “characters” and portraits of infamous characters being played were a regular occurrence in Slingshot – again, these are amongst the earliest “player characters” in gaming at this time.
They were now running, with “massive dossiers” the first ‘fantasy campaign’, albeit in a rudimentary way compared to the slightly later but almost immediately parallel development of the same concept in Lake Geneva by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, culminating in the fantasy supplement rules in Jeff Perren and Gary Gygax’s Chainmail (1971) and shortly thereafter, the first Dungeons and Dragons game, published in 1974 by Arneson and Gygax.
MEANWHILE IN AMERICA
The Twin Cities wargaming groups, a wargaming group at Lake Geneva and others were already experimenting with variant rulesets and Gary Gygax was publishing with an existing small company Guidon and then co-founded TSR (Tactial Studies Rules) with Don Kaye in 1973.
Original Guidon and TSR rulesets including rare Warriors of Mars, withdrawn due to copyright claim by estate of E. R. Burroughs.
The growth of Dungeons and Dragons has been well documented from this point onwards, but in the photographs below we can see how a simple wargames book with a fantasy supplement became a thing-in-itself, and was sold as three pamphlet books in a woodgrain box bought cheap from a hosiery factory. This woodgrain box version was assembled by hand, the title stickers were placed on it (in my edition of the box, mis-aligned as were many of this edition), and an erratta sheet was also included.
Shortly thereafter, a white box version was produced, with much the same ruleset, and then the “Holmes” blue book version of Dungeons and Dragons was released. This latter edition became the most popular gateway into Dungeons and Dragons, which then soon gave rise to an “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” in three new hardback volumes; the Monster Manual, the Players Handbook, and finally, the Dungeon Masters Guide.
1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons
Later, when the “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” had become simply the “Dungeons and Dragons”, it went through several new editions, where the rulesets were tweaked to groups of “levels”, in 1993, producing the Frank Metzner BECMI boxed versions: Beginner + Expert + Companions + Expert + Immortals.
This constant development went on through to the current version, 5E, at the time of writing. This fifth edition is the most popular version, and has been in this form since 2014, having been originally released in the couple of years prior for open player testing.
5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons
It looks likely a partly tweaked version will be released in the coming year or so, providing a sort of 5.5 version.
A more typical Wargaming Rulebook of the same time by Jeff Perren & Gary Gygax.
Original Chainmail Rules featuring the first “Fantasy Supplement”.
The Fantasy Supplement in the original Chainmail.
Original Woodgrain Box, a pristine 1st edition version of this box recently sold for $20,000.
Contents of D&D Woodgrain Box.
Original White Box Dungeons and Dragons.
Basic Boxed Dungeons and Dragons.
Blue Book Holmes Dungeons and Dragons and Adventure Module B1.
Woodgrain Box, White Book and Holmes Basic Box Versions.
In fact, Arneson and Gygax may have been entirely unaware of Tony Bath’s campaign, albeit unlikely; Arneson stated his original ideas for a more free-form game came from a Napoleonic game run by David A. Wesely, set in the fictional town of Braunstein, c. 1969. Gygax claimed no knowledge of a Hyborian Age game in mid-1969.
It was steam-train-time for role-playing, and the tree was blossoming on many branches at the same time – and perhaps there was some cross-pollination, if we may further tangle the metaphor. This blog post is only to point out the nature of the shift – and the nature of steam train time – and not the detailed history, for which I highly recommend pp. 61-72 and pp. 425-33 of Playing at the World.
It was, however, not the historically semi-accurate worlds of previous wargames that brought the sun upon the spring blossom, but the cross-over between the fictional world-building of previous fantasy authors; R. E. Howard, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Jack Vance to name but a few. These authors had already provided the ground-work of creating fictional worlds, languages, politics, magic, and monsters, so it was a natural progression to utilise, emulate or build upon these pre-existing narrative structures.
In 1970, at the Philadelphia Wargames Convention, the Best of Show game was that run by the New England Wargamers, using Middle Earth rules designed by L. Patt. This re-created the Pelennor Fields in one area, and the assualt on Helms Deep; already predicting the two major scenes in what would one day be a trilogy of films.
Middle Earth Wargame in 1970 Designed by L. Patt (photo from The Courier).
Hence, we have the first fantasy supplement to Chainmail, what is otherwise a medieval wargame ruleset, appearing in 1971.
In the UK, there was parallel or perhaps overlapping discussion of adapting wargames to the Lord of the Rings, such as the article in Slingshot (May, 1973) by D. J. Walker-Smith, ‘From Khazad-Dum to Cormallen’, which also includes options for individual heroes.
Slingshot May 1973.
These types of games had already been under experimentation, as early as November 1966 in Lancashire, according to one write-up in the letters section of Slingshot.
A rudimentary supplement for fantasy wargaming was published – somewhat grudgingly – as Appendix IV for “swords and sorcery fanatics” in the back of the 4th edition of the War Games Rules 1000 B.C. to 1000 A.D. by the War Games Research Group, August 1973.
Here we see the nascent field of role-playing characters, including Paladins (“because his heart is pure”), Clerics (Saints), Heroes with magic swords, semi-magical Elves, Dragons, Ents, Goblins and Orcs – and even a brief mention of what would later emerge as a thorn in the side of the game – Demons. There are twelve spells, which require the Magician to rest for a time period before casting another – a mechanism to limit their power and the chaos they cause to the ruleset in play, also drawn from the characteristics of magic in the works of Jack Vance.
SONGS LIKE TREES
“But there, my friends, songs like trees bear fruit only in their own time and their own way: and sometimes they are withered untimely.” – Treebeard in The Two Towers, J. R. R. Tolkien.
The wargames popularised from H. G. Wells Little Wars in 1913 were always already primed for individualised characters and connected or sequential narrative. However, much like Da Vinci drawing flying machines without the means for anyone to make them, such story-telling was not conceived because there were no worlds in which to place these stories – other than history itself.
However, once R. E. Howard, Jack Vance, J. R. R. Tolkien, and many other fantasy writers had popularised the notion of fantasy world-building, then became the time for steam-training. The Lord of the Rings was published between 1954 – 1955, but it was the second edition published in 1965 (there’s that year again) which took off, selling quarter of a million copies within ten months and establishing the paperback versions as cult reading throughout the late 1960’s. Tolkien’s work acted as a signpost for a great many other fantasy novels, many of which are explicitly listed as influential on Dungeons & Dragons in Appendix N in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979).
So, by the late 1960’s and into the early 1970’s, we can see the roots of modern TTRPG’s (table-top role-playing games) which soon sprung forth almost fully formed by focusing on individual characterisation, immersion, and sequential story-telling which added consequence to player characterisation. Two systems were bridged by narrative; the idea of building a world, and the idea of being a character in a world.
The wargamers were used to modelling the world of war, and then the world of politics, so it was then a small step to model individual characters and their skills. By placing wargames into a fantasy world, the narrative became more sequential, then in turn it allowed each gamer to develop their own story, as much as one being dictated by a referee or the simple outcome of a battle.
And as stories are amongst the strongest things we have as humans, it was not long before the stories became the thing, and the simple question, “what do you want to do next?” became the gateway to worlds of adventure only limited by imagination.
Whilst Tony Bath, gamers in Lancashire in 1966, Dave Arneson and others were all realising it was steam-train-time, it was Gary Gygax who narrowed his focus on the substantive shift and best articulated it. Here he is writing to a UK wargaming magazine, shortly after the publication of Chainmail, explaining the core shift, and I suspect he already knew it – “Whatever the players desire can be used or done in [fantasy wargaming] games”.
We leave this first post here, at the threshold of those worlds, infinite and endless, and with a final thought from Treebeard in The Two Towers:
We have a long way to go, and there is time ahead for thought. It is something to have started.
I would like to thank the Society of Ancients for providing all copies of Slingshot on a USB drive which is so helpful for research.
I would also like to thank Carlos Castilho for both commisioned and stock art.
 Charles Fort, Lo! (New York: Ace Books, 1941), p. 20.
 I use the terms Role-Playing game and Wargaming here in their most general sense, for brevity.
 Yes, that H. G. Wells, he was a keen wargamer and developed a ruleset in 1913, following the original chess-like wargame created by J. C. L. Hellwig in Prussia, 1780, and the more free-form classic Kriegsspiel, also created in Prussia by Georg Heinrich Rudolf Johann von Reisswitz in 1824. The actual world wars obviously dented interest in playing at war, so it was not until the 1950’s and Donald Featherstone’s book War Games, in 1962, that the interest took off again as a hobby or pastime. As an aside, the actor Peter Cushing (1913 – 1994) was also a keen wargamer, somewhat ahead of the celebrity D&D’ers of today such as Stephen Colbert, vin Diesel, Felicia Day, James Gunn, Karl Urban, Drew Barrymore, Joss Whedon and writers such as Stephen King and George R. R. Martin.
 It was also in 1965 that the first version of Dune by Frank Herbert was published, which became so influential on cult science-fiction and popular films such as Star Wars – and was influential on Science Fiction Role-Playing Games, which I will cover in a later post.