Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophers

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophers features Michel Foucault:

Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophers

David A. Trampier, 1954-2014

Friday, March 28th, 2014

David A. Trampier with Yellow Taxi in Carbdondale, IllinoisDungeons & Dragons has attracted some unusual individuals over the years, including illustrator David A. Trampier, who just passed away, according to the The Southern Illinoisan:

He disappeared in 1988, leaving his ongoing D&D comic Wormy abruptly unfinished, and retired from illustration to drive a Yellow Taxi in Carbdondale, Illinois. (The above photo from 2003 is one of the only pictures ever snapped of Trampier.)

Trampier PHB Cover, Lizard Man, Wererat, and Goblin

Critical but Creative Thinking

Friday, March 21st, 2014

The government has started using strategy board games much more often — not to predict outcomes, but to foster the critical but creative thinking needed to win (or avoid) a complex battle or campaign:

Some games are for official use only. The Centre for Naval Analyses (CNA), a federally funded defence outfit, has created half a dozen new ones in the past two years. Most were designed by CNA analysts, but commercial designers occasionally lend a hand, as they did for Sand Wars, a game set in north-west Africa.

CNA games address trouble in all kinds of places. In Transition and Tumult, designed for the marine corps, players representing groups in Sudan and South Sudan try to whip up or quell local unrest that might lead American forces to intervene. In The Operational Wraparound, made for the army, players struggle to stoke or defeat a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Avian Influenza Exercise Tool, a game designed for the Department of Agriculture, shows health officials how not to mishandle a bird-flu epidemic.

Board games designed for the government typically begin as unclassified. Their “system”, however, becomes classified once players with security clearances begin to incorporate sensitive intelligence into it, says Peter Perla, a game expert at CNA. If an air-force player knows that, say, a secret bunker-busting bomb is now operational, he can improve the dice-roll odds that a sortie will destroy an underground weapons lab. During official gaming sessions, analysts peer over players’ shoulders and challenge their reasoning. Afterwards, they incorporate the insights gleaned into briefings for superiors.

One reason why board games are useful is that you can constantly tweak the rules to take account of new insights, says Timothy Wilkie of the National Defence University in Washington, DC. With computer games, this is much harder. Board games can also illuminate the most complex conflicts. Volko Ruhnke, a CIA analyst, has designed a series of games about counterinsurgency. For example, Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? (sold by GMT Games of California) models “parallel wars of bombs and ideas”, as one reviewer puts it, on a board depicting much of Eurasia and Africa.

Even training for combat itself can be helped with dice and cards. Harpoon, a game about naval warfare, has proved so accurate in the past that hundreds of Pentagon officials will play it when the next version comes out in a couple of years, says Mr Patch. One of its designers, Chris Carlson, is also responsible for the “kinetic” aspects of Persian Incursion (ie, the bits that involve shooting). Mr Carlson is a former Defence Intelligence Agency analyst; Persian Incursion’s data on the nuts and bolts of assembling and commanding bomber, escort, and refuelling aircraft “strike packages” for destroying Iran’s nuclear sites is so precise that on at least two occasions intelligence officials have suggested that he is breaking the law by publishing it.

The Man Who Built The Settlers of Catan

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

Klaus Teuber was working, unhappily, as a dental technician when he created The Settlers of Catan:

First published in Germany in 1995 as Die Siedler von Catan, the game has sold more than eighteen million copies worldwide. It was released in the United States in 1996; last year, its English-language publisher, Mayfair Games, reported selling more than seven hundred and fifty thousand Catan-related products. Big-box chains like Target, Walmart, and Barnes & Noble carry the game and its offshoots, such as Catan cards, Catan Junior, and Star Trek Catan. Including all the spinoffs, expansions, and special editions, there are about eighty official varieties of Catan—more if you include electronic versions—and Teuber has had a hand in creating all of them. Paraphernalia in the online Catan shop includes socks and custom-designed tables. Rebecca Gablé, a German historical-fiction author, has written a Viking-era Settlers of Catan novel. Pete Fenlon, the C.E.O. of Mayfair Games, said, “Our volume of sales will be such that, over time, Catan could, in terms of gross revenue, be the biggest game brand in the world.”


Teuber was born in 1952 in Rai-Breitenbach, a small village tucked beneath Breuberg Castle, in central Germany. As a child, he set up miniature fighters and ancient Romans on the floor, using strings to create mountains and rivers and to build routes through the terrain. He rediscovered games during his mandatory military service, when he needed something to entertain his wife and young son in the barracks. He was still running Teuber Dental-Labor in 1988, when he designed Barbarossa, a game in which players mold clay sculptures and try to guess what their opponents’ figures represent. He had been reading “The Riddle-Master,” a swashbuckling fantasy trilogy by Patricia McKillip about a man who wins a game of riddles against a ghost. “I was sorry to see it come to an end,” Teuber said, “so I tried to experience this novel in a game.” It took Teuber seven years to show Barbarossa to a publisher, but when he did it was a hit. The game won the 1988 Spiel des Jahres award, the most coveted prize in the board-game world. According to Stewart Woods, a communications professor at the University of Western Australia, a successful game typically sells about ten thousand copies in Germany; a Spiel des Jahres winner can expect to sell between three hundred and five hundred thousand.

After Barbarossa, Teuber designed several other games and won two more Spiel des Jahres awards, but he was still working fourteen-hour days in the dental lab. In 1991, after reading histories of Viking life, he became fascinated with Iceland and the age of discovery. “What was it like when they reached this virgin island?” he said. “I wanted to find out.” He tinkered with an island-settling game for four years, testing versions on his wife and children every weekend. Initially, the instructions included lots of complicated mechanics—for example, if you had enough cities and settlements in a cluster, you could create a metropole—but eventually, Teuber said, “I cooked it to the heart of the game.” A breakthrough moment came when Teuber experimented with using hexagonal tiles instead of squares for his board. He said he had a dream that he remembered having once before, the last time he won the Spiel des Jahres: “I was standing on the shore of a pond and saw very big fish, and I angled the biggest of them.”

Die Siedler von Catan was an instant success in Germany and won the 1995 Spiel des Jahres. At the time, Spiel des Jahres winners had been gaining traction in American hobby stores for several years, but Catan became America’s gateway into Eurogames, a genre of tightly designed, strategy-based products. Eurogames—also called German-style games, because most of them originate in Germany—have fairly simple rules and are intellectually demanding but not overly complicated. They are also more expensive: Monopoly’s suggested retail price is eighteen dollars; The Settlers of Catan retails for forty-two dollars.

Aaron Allston

Friday, February 28th, 2014

Game-designer (and novelist) Aaron Allston just passed away.

Volko Ruhnke

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

The Washington Post profiles War game designer Volko Ruhnke:

In the ’90s, while at the CIA, Ruhnke designed a role-play session for his work friends. The Seven Years’ War role-play morphed into a board game. Then he submitted his design to GMT Games, the modern hobby’s highest-profile wargame publisher. Wilderness War was released in 2001 and is now one of GMT’s all-time bestsellers. This led Gene Billingsley, a GMT principal, to approach Ruhnke in 2009 with a commission to create a game about the war against terrorism. About a year later Labyrinth became another bestseller and industry award-winner. Now it was Ruhnke’s turn. He told Billingsley he had idea for a game series on insurgency. The first would be set in 1990s Colombia.

“I loved the idea but hated the topic,” Billingsley said. “I told him I couldn’t sell it.” Then Billingsley played Ruhnke’s prototype.

Listing for $75 retail, Andean Abyss was another hit in 2012, and the COIN (counterinsurgency) Series was launched. Soon after, designers began approaching him asking to use his core ideas, while, at the same time, Ruhnke was reaching out to the industry’s most respected topic experts.

Volko Ruhnke's Games

One of those collaborations is a Vietnam War-themed game called Fire in the Lake — the title giving a nod to Frances FitzGerald’s Pulitzer-winning book. Both posit an insurgency wrapped in a conventional war. GMT has a preorder system wherein a threshold must be reached before a game is sent to final production. It’s not unusual for that to take months or years as orders trickle in. Fire in the Lake hit its number within four days.

While different in feel and detail, all of Ruhnke’s COIN Series games use the same simple mechanism: a deck of brightly colored cards featuring actual or generalized historical events. An example from A Distant Plain would be “U.S.-Pakistan Talks.” Cards are flipped two at a time. One card is live; the second allows players to see what’s coming. Two factions are allowed to act on the live card; then the other two factions, on the next.

A Distant Plain Karzai Card

The first-choice player opts to trigger the event and listed outcomes. Each event has two possible paths: one interpretation benefiting the insurgents; one, the counterinsurgents. In the case of “U.S.-Pakistan Talks,” the card could worsen the relationship between the United States and Pakistan, making it easier for the Taliban to operate. Or if a counterinsurgent faction could pick the event, it may choose less antagonistic effects. But it’s not an either-or decision. A faction could bypass the event as if it never happened and, instead, select from a list of faction-specific operations. The Coalition can train troops, patrol Afghanistan’s ring road, sweep into provinces to locate insurgents, or assault. The Taliban’s options include rallying to recruit guerrillas, marching, attacking or executing terrorism. The unique history of each conflict is then baked in, but it never arrives in the same sequence from game to game, if at all.

A Distant Plain Game Board

To win A Distant Plain, the Afghan government has to control as much of the population as possible. The Coalition wants support for the current regime and as many of their pieces off the board, out of harm’s way. The Taliban work to intimidate the population into opposing the government, and the Warlords care little about support or opposition, only that no one is in control so they can traffic drugs with impunity.

Characteristic details aside, all of the COIN Series games are exercises in restraint, tenuous diplomacy and management of chaos.

Dwarf Fortress: A Marxist Analysis

Monday, January 13th, 2014

I’ve never played Dwarf Fortress, the supremely complex simulation game, and I’m certainly not a Marxist, but I enjoyed this (somewhat) Marxist analysis of the game:

What one does in Dwarf Fortress is create a colony of an existing dwarven fortress — you’re always sent out as a team from a much larger existing stronghold elsewhere, and your foreign relations with other dwarves are limited to that particular fortress, on the whole. Even though your settlement is independent and self-governing, and the relations with the mother fortress mostly those of trade, the purpose of the game in all its open-endedness can be nothing other than to create oneself in the image of the previous fortress. In other words, fundamentally in Dwarf Fortress you reproduce the existing structure of dwarven society on a merely quantitatively expanded scale. Allowing for the different resources in this or that part of the world, this resembles nothing so much as the colonies of the city-states of the ancient world, or the processes of settlement enforced on pagan Eastern Europe by the Franco-German feudal societies of the high Middle Ages. The goblins and kobolds who regularly harrass your fortress but do not impinge on your world as an equal counter-society are analogous to the more or less loose relations of early Medieval chieftainship that still prevailed in the lands not yet subject to Frankish reconstruction.

Now the organization of labor in a given fortress is essentially revealing of the nature of feudal society. Each dwarf, male or female, can equally be a worker at any task, and who does what is mainly a question of establishing a strict set of social conventions early on that limit each dwarf to a number of possible economic activities reproducing the whole. They live and die within this limited sphere of labor, and are identified entirely by it, being a ‘miller’, ‘miner’, ‘cheesemaker’, ‘planter’, or whatever. Unlike under capitalism, this process is a matter of a more or less organic arrangement enforced by the player as a top-down set of strictures, without the least competition between dwarves, let alone the appearance of such a thing as a labor market. In fact, in the present version dwarves are not paid for their work in money, but rather demand customary rewards in kind, such as high quality food and drink, decent living quarters, and valuable and pleasing decorations and furniture throughout the fortress. This is characteristic of feudal society’s bounding of needs by custom and convention and the strong role of reciprocity in maintaining the division of labor, especially given the technological constraints on mobility and on adjustment of production.

Korean Gamer, Kim Dong-hwan Gets Special U.S. Visa

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Professional StarCraft player Kim Dong-hwan couldn’t get a student visa to come to the US, but he could get an athletic visa:

His manager, Andrew Tomlinson, put together a lengthy application of around 500 pages, including recommendations from members of the gaming community.

Bingo. The U.S. authorities approved Mr. Kim’s application earlier this month, granting him a P-1 Visa with a five-year term.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Securities says a P-1 visa is for someone “internationally recognized with a high level of achievement; evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered so that the achievement is renowned, leading or well known in more than one country.”

Foreign baseball players joining the U.S. Major League usually enter the U.S. with the same visa.

Videogames Become a Spectator Sport

Monday, November 25th, 2013

Videogames are increasingly becoming spectator sports — which I find baffling:

On any given day, Jayson Love fires up a personal computer from his Billings, Mont., home and starts his job — playing videogames in front of an audience of thousands.

The 33-year-old hosts a Web show called “MANvsGAME,” in which he broadcasts his live gameplay on the site Twitch. Between advertising and subscribers paying $5 per month to watch his video stream, he says it is possible he’ll earn more than $100,000 next year.

It’s not that I can’t conceive of a game worth watching rather than playing, but I haven’t seen one yet. Of course, I’m one of those weirdos who’d rather play a sport than watch it, too.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad

Friday, October 18th, 2013

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is the second of the three Sinbad films that Ray Harryhausen made for Columbia. It was released in 1973 — 15 years after The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

It struck me as very… D&D.

D&D HomunculusI’m assuming that’s where D&D’s homunculus got its wings. (The original concept is just a little artificial man.)

The Harryhausen films seem like a more powerful influence than the books mentioned in Appendix N.

How Larry Bond Met Tom Clancy

Friday, October 11th, 2013

Larry Bond was a US Navy officer when he published his war game, Harpoon, in 1980 — which brought him to Tom Clancy’s attention:

Foreign Policy: How did you and Tom Clancy meet?

Larry Bond: Harpoon was published in April 1980. I would get letters from enthusiasts with questions about naval systems and stuff. Tom Clancy’s was one of the letters I got with questions about naval warfare. I answered it. Didn’t think more anything about it. Tom sent a follow-up letter with more questions, and we eventually started talking on the phone. We became good friends. He would call and we would chew the fat for hours. That’s why I always answer my mail. You never know where a letter is going to lead.

FP: What was Clancy like?

LB: He was knowledgeable and asked questions. He was always playing with concepts. Can you do this in real life? How does this thing work under the hood? For instance, electronic support measures (ESM), which is using an enemy’s radar and radio signals to determine his location. And he not only figured out how to use cross-bearing to triangulate the target, but he would ask, how wide is that beam? What is your margin of error? He really wanted to know how things worked. He was always exploring whatever issues interested him. He would bang the rocks together and come up with very correct answers.

When we were plotting Red Storm Rising — the core of the story is a NATO-Soviet war in the North Atlantic — he looked at Iceland and said, “this is a strategic piece of real estate. The Russians are going to want this.” I told him the Russian Navy wasn’t set up for this. They didn’t have the amphibious groups we have. Tom goes, “no, no, they need to take this.” We set up a Harpoon battle called the Great Keflavik Turkey Shoot that sort of validated what Tom was saying. If there are U.S. fighters based in Iceland, and Soviet Backfire bombers tried to strike convoys in the Atlantic, even just a few fighters would indeed tear a hunk out of the bomber stream. But what I couldn’t tell him at the time was that I had been working at the Center of Naval Analyses where there were several very classified studies going on about the strategic nature of Iceland. People were thinking about this hard, and Tom just pulled it out of the air.

FP: Is it true that Harpoon was the basis for the Hunt for Red October?

LB: Harpoon was one of the data sources for Hunt for Red October. The real basis for the book was the Storozhevoy Incident (where a Soviet destroyer unsuccessfully attempted to defect in 1975). Tom looked at that and thought, “What if that hadn’t been a surface ship that could be stopped easily, but a sub which couldn’t be easily found? And what if it was a brand-new ballistic missile sub?”

As far as technical stats, there are very few numbers in Hunt for Red October. People always focus on where he got all his information. If you pick up The Boy’s Book of Submarines, and The Boy’s Book of Sonar, you have 90 percent of what Tom had. What he got out of Harpoon was some weapon names, speed of ships, and so on.

When I wrote Harpoon, I was still in the Navy, so I deliberately did not go to any classified data sources I had. But there was a Navy training game called NAVTAG [Naval Tactical Game]. It was classified, which made it hard to distribute. So I wrote Harpoon as a training game. It wasn’t classified so we could leave the game lying around. I wrote it with simple rules because most naval officers are not gamers. But I was thinking about making Harpoon a commercial release, so in the game, I explained things like what a convergence zone was, or how passive sonar worked. And I think that’s what Tom liked. There was so much explanatory text in the game.

Andre Norton’s Forerunner

Friday, October 4th, 2013

Forerunner by Andre NortonJust looking at the cover art to Andre Norton’s Forerunner will start you thinking about Dungeons and Dragons, Mordicai Knode says, as the pitch black skin and pale white hair match Gygax’s vision of the drow, or dark elves:

The first thing I did, then, upon seeing the cover for this, was flip to the copyright page — 1981 — and then look up the drow on Wikipedia. The drow’s first official mention is in the AD&D Monster Manual, 1977, with their first appearance in Hall of the Fire Giant King (G3) in 1978, which really nailed down their signature “look.”

Just an odd coincidence? Perhaps not, since Norton definitely was affiliated with Gary Gygax and Dungeons and Dragons. She wrote Quag Keep in 1979, the first official D&D tie-in novel, about a group of people from the “real world.” How did she know so much about the hobby? Well, because she played in Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk game in 1976, of course. Which means…well, what does it mean? I guess it probably means that either Norton thought Gygax’s dark elves looked cool, and cribbed it, or that they put their heads together and cooked that look up together, and that Norton repurposed it for Forerunner. An ancient race of ur-aliens, a pre-human proto-culture that explored the stars before the human species left their home world for the first time? Yes please!

Tom Clancy, Gamemaster

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

Harpoon WargameWhen I learned that Tom Clancy passed away, I was surprised, because I didn’t think he was that old. He wasn’t. He was just 66.

I’ve been meaning to read some Clancy since, well, forever. I didn’t realize that he used the wargame Harpoon to develop The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising:

Clancy’s hallmark, of course, is his realism, particularly his attention to detail in weapons and technical systems; and here we find tell-tale indicators of Harpoon’s influence. For example, when the V. K. Knovalov fires off a pair of “Mark C 533-millimeter wire-guided torpedoes” in the climactic underwater confrontation at the end of the novel, the weapon type and characteristics are taken directly from the data annex in the Harpoon rules; as Larry Bond has told me, the game system’s “Mark C” wire-guided torpedo was simply a generic extrapolation from assumed real-world capabilities since there was no public data for this weapons system at the time. (An examination of later editions of Harpoon published after the collapse of the Soviet Union reveals that these generic listings have been replaced by their correct identifications.) At some point in this process, Clancy struck up a correspondence with Bond over some of the ship data, and the two met in person at a convention not long after.

This meeting was to be the basis for one of the more interesting literary collaborations of the era. Despite enormous pressure from his publishers for the next Jack Ryan book after Red October’s success, Clancy instead pursued an idea he had hit upon with Bond: to write a lightly fictionalized account of a full-scale conventional war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact using Harpoon as an integral part of their creative arsenal to “game” the scenarios and situations in the book. Bond, at the time, was still a naval consultant and not the best-selling author he is today. Understandably, people were nervous. In correspondence to his New York City editor, Clancy declared that the outcomes of the game sessions would furnish “a matrix of detail within which our characters will operate” (the book, meanwhile, had just been given a million-dollar advance). Red Storm Rising, whose working title was “Sunset,” thus became a best-selling work of fiction some of whose key sections—notably the “dance of the vampires” carrier battle and the Soviet airborne seizure of Iceland—were gamed using a tabletop wargames system. (Bond, for his part, was not just the gamemaster, but took an active part in the writing as well, as Clancy’s author’s note at the beginning of the novel makes clear.)

But while Harpoon was integral to the plot, it was not deterministic. For example, the gaming sessions suggested the Soviet bombers might not get through a carrier battle group’s outer air defenses, but Clancy and Bond knew that the “bad guys” needed to win a big one early on for the book’s dramatic arc; Clancy thus independently arrived at the Soviet drone tactics, which is one of the most dramatic (and prescient) episodes in the book. The games did allow Clancy and Bond to maintain consistency as regards the complex interplay of ships and systems and sensors that make up a modern naval battle. The game sessions (dubbed “Vampire I, II, and III” in Bond’s notes) thus quite literally plotted the book in the sense that they offered precisely the temporal and spatial “matrix of detail” that Clancy had promised to anchor the detail-driven narrative prose (I describe the integration of the game sessions with the novel’s plotting in more detail here based on access to Larry Bond’s personal papers).

Red Storm Rising was published in 1985 and immediately shot to the top of the best-seller lists. If portions of it read like what grognards would call an After Action Report, that’s because that’s exactly what they were. For an English professor like me the novel represents a unique example of how games can influence fiction. (Interestingly, the Dragonlance novels, derived from an AD&D campaign, were being published at about the same time.) Moreover, eventually board game versions of both The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising were released, so we arrive at a situation where games have influenced novels that have then had games produced from them!

Red Nails

Friday, September 27th, 2013

Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode look back at Appendix N of the original Dungeon Masters Guide — Gygax’s list of inspirational and educational reading — in their Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons series on Tor.com, and start by looking at Robert E. Howard‘s novella, Red Nails:

The two elements that really strike home here in terms of inspiration are the populated dungeon as its own character of rivalry and strife, and black magic. The city as one massive labyrinth is great, as is the characterization of its architecture & embellishment — gleaming corridors of jade set with luminescent jewels, friezes of Babylonianesque or Aztecish builders — but it is the logic of the city that shines brightest to me. “Why don’t the people leave?” There are dragons in the forest. “What do the people eat?” They have fruit that grows just off the air. “Where do all these monsters come from?” There are crypts of forgotten wizard-kings. There is a meaningful cohesion to the place; Howard manages to stitch dinosaurs, radioactive skulls, Hatfields and McCoys, and ageless princesses into something cogent.

Naturally the commentary turns to the “problematic” handling of race and gender. I am shocked to find such outdated views amongst antediluvian barbarians.

Why Dungeons & Dragons Beats Videogames Like Grand Theft Auto V

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

David M. Ewalt explains — in the Wall Street Journalwhy Dungeons & Dragons beats videogames like Grand Theft Auto V:

After four decades of accelerating technological and artistic growth, even the best video games are still hobbled by a fundamental limitation of the form: players can only get out of them what programmers put into them. Clever game designers can create the illusion of an open world by anticipating player behavior and accounting for most possibilities within the program’s code. But at some point, the player will try to kill an unkillable character, open a door with nothing behind it, or have a conversation with a character who seems intelligent but only parrots a few pre-recorded lines. The illusion will fail, and the player will be torn from the fantasy world.

But the good news is that gamers can find truly limitless exploration and genuine freedom of choice. They just have to look back to the pen-and-paper games that gave birth to high-tech simulations like Skyrim and GTA V: Video games are fun, but they still stand in the shadow of their august ancestor, the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.

Yes, D&D — that geeky hobby with the strangely shaped dice. If you’ve never played, here’s the pitch: Dungeons & Dragons is a game where players control a fantasy hero through an adventure that takes place mostly in their own imaginations. It’s a kind of collaborative storytelling, where one participant, the “Dungeon Master,” acts as narrator and referee; he describes a scene for the players, who respond by explaining how their characters act.

Because D&D is largely improvised, it offers a degree of freedom that’s impossible to simulate in a video game.