Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tony Bath's Hyboria, Part I

Today we return to exploring the work of Tony Bath in his ground-breaking Hyborian campaign. As I noted before Bath's book, Setting Up A Wargames Campaign, is a fascinating glimpse into an era where innovative miniature wargamers' campaign play was growing into elaborate, sophisticated affairs—with strikingly deep explorations of some of the robust roleplaying elements we've come to think of as unique to D&D and its successors.

(Which, of course, is not to deny or belittle the uniqueness of what Gygax, Arneson, Kuntz and the other original D&D pioneers created—that powerful witches brew of elements rightfully grabbed hold of the imagination of millions of players in a way that miniature wargames even at their height never did on their own.)

Bath's Hyboria was never a fantasy role-playing game full stop. His Hyboria had no overt magic. There were no dwarves, elves, dragons, and all the rest. The nation's of Hyboria were stand-ins for real world equivalent armies of Celts, Romans,Medieval Europeans, Indians, Numidians, Aztecs, etc.

For all that, it's also hard not to notice that Bath was as into pulp fantasy as some of the D&D founders were. Sprague de Camp's Tritonian Ring and Krishna books; Edgar R. Burroughs Barsoom; Fritz Leiber's Newhon and Andre Norton's Witch World all get tips of the hats as possible locales for people to base their campaigns in the very first chapter. Telling little details pop in the book such as Vance's Dying Earth characters sneaking in the middle of a chart laying out all the many nobles of Hyrkania (Kandive the Golden) or in the section on why you should have nicknames for characters (Liane the Wayfarer and Kandive again).

Perhaps more importantly he brought to his campaign such an immersive fictionalized world-building style that it's hard to deny that his Hyboria had the living, breathing feel of the deeply-imagined fantasy world—and a player-character game-play style that would foster out-of-the-box roleplaying as a central feature. Passages throughout his book read less like the usual straight-laced, geared-down prose of most wargamer advice and more like the kind of breathless, no-holds-to-your imagination words of an excited fantasy gamemaster to another:
“Another advantage of this mythical continent is that, if your original creation was properly done, it will last you for not just one campaign but for as many as you like, and in the course of these the continent will develop a life of its own. Precedents will be created for future actions, traditions of both friendship and enmity arise, and all these will help you later in running the continent. Finally you will probably reach the stage when you wonder just how much control you have or whether you have created a Frankenstein's monster!”
Similarly other accounts by him (this from White Dwarf #4) run over with that flush of fantasy world-building excitement likely familiar to many readers:
“As it happens, I enjoy organizing working out systems of military service, taxation, family lineage and such items came easily to me and in fact gave me many hours of enjoyment. I had the advantage to start with that Howard...had worked into his stories far more background detail than exists in the normal fantasy. He had provided an outline map, superimposed on one of the present day world--for Hyboria is not a different world but a theoretical age of our own world, thousands of years in the past--and while the geographical picture was rather vague, featuring few cities, there was a wealth of ethnological detail available. On this I proceeded to build.
One of the first things I did was to take Howard's map and blow it up to a reasonable size, 4' x 4'. 1 then proceeded to fill in a vast amount of geographical detail tracing in rivers and mountains, founding new cities, and dividing his countries up into smaller provinces. Later, when I founded a tax system, I went even further, coloring the whole map to represent grasslands, hill country, cultivated regions, forests and suchlike.”

Enough for today, in the next part of the series we will explore in greater detail his approach to world building, how the Hyborian game play I mentioned above paralleled later rpg play in its inventiveness; how the campaign distinguished player characters from non-player characters and other yummy bits.

In the good news department, the Society of Ancients (which Bath founded) has released , Tony Bath's Ancient Wargaming, a nifty omnibus edition that not only includes the campaign book but a copy of his ancient mini rules and an entire new section titled "Hyborian Legends". A nice deal that you can find here in the US and (much cheaper) in the UK here


  1. This is relevant to my interests. You've had some damned useful/interesting posts lately. Kudos.

    Special thanks for the tip re: the omnibus. I've wanted a copy of Bath's Hyboria writeup for some time.

    I find myself more and more attracted to miniatures wargaming of the DBA/HotT stripe ... I feel like most fantasy roleplaying campaigns don't feature war in anything nearly a central enough role. (Mine included.)

    I think one can easily port over historical rulesets for fantasy campaigns, especially those with a high level of abstraction, the assumption being that the effects of wizards, heroes, etc. are subsumed and taken into account in the regular unit rolls. This only becomes a problem if truly fantastical elements such as dragons, demigods, etc. take the field, in which case something like HotT is probably warranted.

    At some point I do want to run my Elizabethan fantasy campaign, at which point I'm sure I'll be mocking up period European army lists in the same way as Bath. That book will hopefully come in handy.

    1. If you like DBA and HOTT check out Sword & Spear (I think in second edition now) and Sword & Spear Fantasy. Some of it will be familiar to a DBA player but it seems a more flowing and better explained system.

  2. Scott: I'd highly recommend DBA/HotT, either for casual play or for integrating into an RPG campaign. Particularly when you build your armies using 1/72 scale plastic minis, it's very cost effective. (Caesar Miniatures does a line of 1/72 fantasy figures, I believe.)

  3. Thanks for starting on this topic! I didn't know about the omnibus. I'd love to know more about what Tony Bath was doing. If you have not seen this, there is some interesting stuff here:

    but it does not seem like the work there
    transcribing Tony's Hyboria notes are still going on. (That url looks messed up in the comment box) There is one of Tony's maps (apparently a simplified one; not the one described in your post).

    Dittos on DBA/HOTT, the best and most flexible wargames sets out there.

  4. This is really a nice post and a very informative approach, kudos!

    I ordered the book to add to ,y pile that I'm reading. :)

  5. Thanks one and all.

    I agree that DBA/HOTT are great rules sets (one of the HC players, DesertScribe, is active in the local HOTT scene and has some nice write-ups of games on his blog, Super Galactic Dreadnought). I have enjoyed playing DBA it makes for a nice quick game.

    But there are times when I want to play something more granular with less abstraction. Chainmail and Bath's rules (like many of that time period) tend to be more on this other end of the spectrum. Warhammer Historical rules scratch this itch for me on the rare occasion that I get to play a mini's game.

  6. I picked up "Setting Up A Wargames Campaign" while in the Army. We used it for running campaigns using WRG Ancients (we used third edition at the time). My Frankish Horde went up against Macedonians, Byzantines, Romans (both Republican and Imperial) and my most memorable fight at a Confederation of the Rhine event, a Japanese Army.
    It's actually surprising how much he wrote of which is very workable and realistic. We had a pretty good sized matchbox setup he suggested in the section 4 for gaming without an umpire. It worked very well for doing hidden movement.

  7. Thanks for the shout-out and the reference to my blog (I really need to update it with my pics and writeups from Millennium Con).

    Regarding the Hyborian campaign and Hordes of the Things, the HOTT rulebook mentions Bath's book in its Hyborian armies section, noting there is only one hero in the campaign (Conan), and the players dice to see who gets him each season.

  8. De nada, Mack. Here's the URL for his blog for you lazy types:

  9. > noting there is only one hero in the campaign (Conan), and the players dice to see who gets him each season

    Beats Warriors of Mars where /no-one/ can be John Carter;

    Out of interest, how many people let other players run their character if they can't make it to a particular session?

  10. I would love to see analysis of Warriors of Mars. Someone cited it in the Red Planet RPG review, but it's hopelessly rare and expensive for poor little me.

    Our practice varies about PCs not present. Sometimes a comrade runs someone's absent PC, sometimes I do, but most likely we just say that the PC is not with the group for some reason or the other.

  11. I've owned Tony Bath's Ancient Wargaming for years,
    him and Charles Grant and Donald Fatherstone were
    and still are some of my personal sources of inspiration.