Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tony Bath's Hyboria, Part II

Today I will be looking at the details of game play in Tony Bath's Hyboria—and how that game by the end of its run walked like a rpg duck, quacked like a rpg duck, and was...well I leave the word-choice game up to you fine readers. (Check out this interesting parallel thread on DF if you want the backstory.)

In most miniature wargames from the hoary, old days of Kriegspiel and Little Wars to today players play a collective side. The player is most often not just the general or hero but the controller of the actions of all or most of the actions of all the figures or forces represented. Discounting morale rules, special events, or team play more often than not he is the omniscient controller of vast array of little metal or plastic surrogates. This often hold trues even for most skirmish games on a man-to-man scale.

Though Hyboria was in many ways a traditional wargames campaign played through the large-scale clashes of armies and political/economic management, it evolved into a radically innovative a game-play scale familiar to most rpg players today.

For sure, it all started fairly conventionally side vs. side basis, albeit with a creative twist:
“...with Neville Dickinson, I devised a new scheme for Hyboria in which we ran the continent together, worked out events and movement on a joint basis and, when a battle was imminent, tossed up to see which side we espoused. Thus I might command a Vendhyan army in one battle, only to the find the next that I was leading Hyrkanians against my former command.”
As the campaign took on new players—and Bath became more and more immersed in the dynamic of ever-granular world-building—the sea change began in game play:
“I later expanded [the previous system] into my present system, under which I asked various other wargamers to take on the parts of various rulers of Hyboria and to make all the decisions and movements, while I as Controller, Umpire, or Tin God ran the whole affair; made the necessary movements on the master map, fought the battles, etc. Each campaign week every player is provided with a situation report giving him all the information to which he is entitled; he then issues his instructions, based on this information, and I put them into practice.”
In other words the players weren't the controllers of their side, but were shrunk down to the role of a player character complete with all the limitations of only knowing as much as the ref thinks you might know. And the ref now goes from being an arbiter between sides to being the master game master empowered with running all the world's mechanics—and interpreting how the players' actions have an impact on it. 

Sound familiar?

With this shift in role, the players (many who were other titans of British wargaming at the time such as Donald Featherstone and Charles Grant) played the game in the increasingly more devious “out of the box” ways that D&D veterans do:
“ running a campaign you have to learn to be as unbiased as possible, and to find methods of solving tricky problems, of setting up scales by which to decide just how successful a certain move by a player will be. An example of this is a situation that cropped up quite a while ago in Hyboria, my own mythical continent. Control of the Sea of Vilayet is vital to the interests of Hyrkania, which naturally maintains a large navy; they heard that Turan, on the other side of the sea, was building warships in the port of Agrapur. Hyrkania and Turan were at peace, so Hyrkania could make no overt move, but Charles Grant, the ruler of Hyrkania, gave orders for some old merchant ships to be scuttled in the harbour mouth to effectually block in the Turanian ships. He was of course prepared to deny having any hand in this fortuitous accident! I then had to sum up the chances of success of such an operation, considering the possibilities of challenge by the harbour defences, the accuracy of the scu ttlings, etc. On this basis I set up a dice scale of from 2 to 12, 2 being complete failure and 12 being complete success, and rolled two dice. The result gave Charles a nearly complete success which prevented the larger Turanian ships getting out of port for many months, and the whole thing was an enjoyable little exercise for me.”
This change in game play to out and out first-person role playing was accentuated by Bath's creation of a vast supporting cast of non-player characters, who he called “cardboard characters”. Further he provided elaborate sub-systems for character generation for all the lineages, personalities, expertise, etc. of this cast. Chapter 6: Characterization of the campaign book is a walk through these great systems (many frankly are crying out to be adapted by “modern” rpg gamemasters wanting to play large-scale “end game”).

Breathing life into these characters created a way to give the game roleplaying motivations that helped sustain the overall illusion of a real world with a dynamic of its own. An observation Bath makes explicitly throughout the book. He quotes the following colorful story as an example:
“The situation had arisen in Hyperborea that a certain noble, Lodivarman by name, had raised a revolt with the aid of a large force of mercenary soldiers left unemployed at the close of a campaign... when Lodivarman's money ran out, [the mercenaries] began to loot and ravage the countryside. Lodivarman therefore attempted to disband them.
We—the Controllers, that is—assumed that the leaders of the mercenaries would not be too keen on this and would hold a council to decide what to do. There were eight of these leaders; and since I had gone to the length of setting up characters for everyone down to regimental commanders, it was perfectly easy to look up each leader's character and see what his feelings would be...As it happened two, being cruel, greedy types voted simply to cut Lodivarman's throat; three others, being just as greedy but with considerable cunning, voted to imprison him but to keep him as a figurehead to take the blame for their crimes; the other three were undecided...As a result the vote went 5-3 in favor of Lodivarman's imprisonment, so this is what happened.”
In the next installment in the series I will go back in and peer under the hood at some of Bath's mechanics on character generation, world building, domain management, and other goodies. 


  1. A very enjoyable pair of articles. The third is eagerly awaited. I've been wandering the optical fibres lately pondering the interrelatedness of wargaming and roleplaying and this is warmth for the yeast. I've the first in a series just up, but am already finding material for the second here. Thank you for taking the time to post it.

  2. great stuff. I've got Bath's book but I'm still eager to read your next instalment anyway. I'd quibble a bit with the idea that Bath's character driven wargames were really a groundbreaking difference. True, many wargames were played in a generic fashion, but even in the 1800's games and campaigns were sometimes played with the players taking the role of a specific general or emporer or whatever and playing out the game with only the knowledge and perspective that "character" possesed. Some of these included blind games run by referees where you couldn't see the enemy forces until the battle actually started. Still, Bath was clearly emphasizing that aspect of the game in a unique fantasy setting.

  3. @DHBoggs
    Thanks that's an important point that I was unclear or misleading on in the post.

    I can think of at least one other example off the top of my head of a single-player-character, referee-adjudicated game in the 1960s: Michael Korns' WW2 skirmish game (which was played double-blind as you mention).

    Lots of parallel invention and standing on the shoulders of past giants in the history of roleplaying and wargaming that sadly gets lost in many accounts.

  4. @Chris: "Can you imagine anything so ridiculous as majority rule"?
    Doubly so when the boundaries of the party you're expected to vote for have already been defined outwith your control? :p

    Anyhow; *quack*

    verification: ingsfc (*lol* so near, yet so far... ^^)

  5. > playing out the game with only the knowledge and perspective that "character" possesed

    Heya! Is your definition of "character" anything more than as a piece on a chessboard?

    Could you list any specific examples of such campaigns that fit your full criteria list for the 19th century (timeline framework; ) and whether those were well known outwith particular domains (vs. relatively "public" domain, English speaking per , say)?

  6. @irbyz
    Welcome to American democracy. Party Coke or Party Pepsi?

    Ingsoc, would be most appropriate word verification now.

  7. Ah... to be able to have eternal war elsewhere so we don't need to do anything except vote for the ruling party's definition. Actually, scrub "vote"... :p

    *gives it a micspin* (actually my /previous/ verification word)

    umm.. "cuuqu"? OK, my "luck" had to run out some time!
    re-edit/2nd word; "hadyf". I'm not even going /there/... :p (sorry, Phil!)

    Personally, I prefer Dr. Pepper. ;)

  8. irbyz, not sure exactly what you're after as your text seems a bit muddled, but dig into the history of Kriegspiel (1812) and its importation to the US post civil war and you will find examples. After all, its a short leap to go from saying I'm controlling the fate of a nation to "I'm Napoleon".

    Now, to what extent a character in a game is more than a figure on a board or stats on a piece of paper is not for me to say.

  9. > irbyz, not sure exactly what you're after as your text seems a bit muddled

    Anything more than "....but even in the 1800's games and campaigns were sometimes played with the players taking the role of a specific general or emporer or whatever and playing out the game with only the knowledge and perspective that "character" possesed", if possible, since there are too many potential semantic misunderstandings in there.

    "Perspective that that "character" possesed" meaning"?

    > but dig into the history of Kriegspiel (1812) and its importation to the US post civil war and you will find examples.

    I'm asking you, please, if possible since you made the assertion that "I'd quibble a bit with the idea that Bath's character driven wargames were really a groundbreaking difference".

    You're saying "minor objection", but it comes across as "no", for lack of further specific clarification which isn't provided...

    > Now, to what extent a character in a game is more than a figure on a board or stats on a piece of paper is not for me to say.

    There's a huge difference between raw stats and a "role" for a "character" to play within the "world". Sure, there is a /latent/ "role" and a gamesmaster might force direction within that domain as a "non-player character", if they wish, but only when they become a "player character" in contract with the gamesmaster can that latent "role" be fully explored. (Another reason why solo games playing both sides are so "difficult" :p)

    Try doing that with "mov:12/atk:6/def:7"

  10. I felt from reading Bath that player character, like as in D&D and other first-person rpgs, becomes deeper when you have non-player characters to help define the negative contours.

    Take for instance most any computer strategy game you are typically the one and only actor on your side. There may be random events and other in-game mechanics to model frictions inside your side (revolts and the like), but you are the only real character on the stage. So you might be the King of Freedonia in the game, but for all practical purposes you are Freedonia full stop as it's just a hazy collective identity.

    The presence of NPCs, and lots of them, means that your side (and all other player sides) has a multitude of potential, if less powerful, actors. Your role as a player persona becomes exponentially more subjective. You are the more the king now and less collective Freedonia.

    At least that's my half-baked theory.

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  12. Irbyz:
    The semiotic root of the confusion you express regarding my reply seems to stem from the the black and white perspective you take via the clarity of the concept of character and role playing. I cannot agree that "there is a huge difference between raw stats and a role.."

    How do you know that exactly? How do you measure such a difference or know the strength of anthropomorphism and identification that goes on in the head of wargamers "playing" named generals, officers, and personalities? I submit that history is not as clear cut as you suggest.

    In 19th century Kriegspiel, typically long campaigns are waged between either single opponents and a referee or multiple opponents. The opponents may take the role of various levels of commanders. These may be generic nobodies or actual historical figures in imitation of historic conditions and a given chain of command. The referee conveys only such information to the players as they would be able to know from the perspective of the "person" they are playing on the ground. Orders are issued and the game unfolds as adjudicated by the umpire. Barriers may be placed between opponents so they cannot "cheat" and gain information regarding enemy movements that thier "character" could not know, and opponents may even play out the game in seperate rooms with the umpire moving back and forth between the two. The game can be played at various tactical and strategic levels and typically is one of maneuver and resource management rather than battle.