Monday 19 April 2021

Imagi-Nations: wargame and rpg campaigns

40mm 'flats' used in Tony Bath's Hyboria campaign in the 1960s

I've been thinking recently about what in wargaming circles, are now called Imagi-Nations. The term isn't new, but has, in the last decade or so, really taken off. The concept however, goes way back. When I was a kid, growing up in the UK in the seventies, what is now called an Imagi-Nations approach, was simply what we called 'a campaign'. We didn't have enough knowledge or sufficient numbers of miniatures to try anything realistically 'historical'.

Charge! Peter Young's classic wargame rules

Back then we hardly ever played recreations of Rorkes Drift or the Battle of Minden. Most of the really keen guys (myself included) were busy drawing up maps of imaginary worlds in which to fight our battles. Our discovery of Dungeons and Dragons could not have been better timed- here were rules to play the individuals in our fantasy worlds. This didn't put a stop to the bedroom carpet being taken over by hordes of Hinchliffe and Mini-Figs warriors fighting en masse however. My fantastic wargaming world was inspired by Tony Bath's Hyboria and thus was a world of ancients and early Medievals. Vikings often faught Persians with the occasional aid of the Romans! Ah, fun days.

But 'The Campaign World' idea is of course at the root of D&D. The style of wargaming we played fitted with it perfectly. And the split occurred right then. Some of our group (and the school wargaming club) wanted to carry on with the wargame side whilst others headed for the dungeon. As it happened, the World War 2 guys and the few Napoleonic gamers we had as members, carried on much as before, whereas the Ancients players (inc me) and Medievalists, became the core of the roleplayers. I'm willing to bet that this situation repeated itself all over the wargaming world.

Tony Bath's version of Hyboria 

As I said, for our campaigning, the inspiration was Tony Bath's Hyboria. For those who don't know, this was a massive and long lived wargaming campaign loosely based on Robert E Howard's Conan stories. Each player representing one of the countries; Aquilonia, Cimmeria, Ophir and so forth. The two versions of Hyboria (Howard's and Bath's) are not identical, but are clearly meant to be the same place. Quite why the Howard literary estate didn't complain when details of the Bath campaign began to be published, I've no idea. Bath and his associates initially played out the wargame battles which arose from the political intrigue (essentially, play by mail roleplaying) using 40mm 'flats' miniatures, usually used for Bath's Ancient's wargaming. It was this aspect of Bath's play which caught our imagination; the fact that one imaginary nation could be Viking-like and another Hellenistic. It also helped practically because few of us had big enough armies to game out a recreation of the Punic Wars for example.

Map of Charlotte Bronte's imaginary country: Angria. Used as an Imagi-Nation wargame setting

So we drew our own maps and named our cities and created the family trees of the nobility of these places. Some of us went deeper and created economic systems, religions and mythologies. Sounds familiar?
So when Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, came together with their experience of similar campaigns (notably Dave Wesley's Braunstein games) and magicked up Dungeons & Dragons and quite naturally bandied around words like 'campaign' they expected someone (the Referee/DM) to create a world to play in. All of which seemed so natural to us because we were doing it already.

Advanced D&D contained notes on world building and even simple wargame rules.

So the concept of a long lasting campaign in an imaginary world jumped, virus-like, from one species of game to another and has thrived ever since. But that split, between historical 'real' wargamers and 'those fantasy guys', which began all those years ago never really completely went away. This, despite all of the cross-over games and attitudes such as roleplayers, (who would never call themselves wargamers) regularly playing skirmish wargames but just not calling them that. Indeed, various iterations of D&D have morphed in and out of essentially being skirmish wargame rules with roleplaying added. Nowadays there are only a few wargames miniature manufacturers who don't have a fantasy range. And yet that split remains. Wargame blogs and forums are peppered with slightly derogatory remarks about fantasy gamers and many roleplayers claim to be baffled by wargaming. But, the core activity, which both sides of the hobby retain, is the campaign.

Dungeons & Dragons' World of Greyhawk

As mentioned previously, in wargaming circles, the concept of what is now called "Imagi-Nations" has gained traction. Wargamers invent imaginary continents, with imaginary nations, whose armies fight imaginary wars. These countries can be based on real world places or even real world maps, but with alternate or entirely fictional histories. Just as with a D&D created campaign world, the topography, weather systems, religions, even languages are created, and often a system of allocating resources (natural or manufactured) is created to give these Imagi-Nations something to fight over. The only real differences between an Imagi-Nation's campaign and a D&D type campaign is the differing degrees of realism and fantasy. I sometimes read wargamers' commenting on and describing the processes they go through to create their worlds as if they are indeed, creating the concept afresh. And I read Roleplayers thinking, hey wouldn't it be great if we had real wars to fight in our setting? So, here are two cousins, growing up in silos next to each other, both doing almost identical things and to a degree oblivious of the knowledge, expertise, even books and magazines which the others use. 

Tony Bath

Obviously, this is a simplification. There are indeed, I'm sure, plenty of folks who are as equally happy fighting orcs in Mordor as they are sitting behind The Old Guard with Napoleon. But what can be done to help those who aren't really aware of the rich pickings on the other side of the fence? Well, Wargamers could pick up a Greyhawk Gazatteer or two. And Rpgers could take a look at Tony Bath's 'How to set up a Wargames Campaign'. We can encourage those who run conventions to include elements from both halves of the hobby. And wouldn't it be nice if more games shops sold historical wargaming figures alongside all those boxes of Warhammer Space Marines?

Who knows what might happen?

Next time: Thoughts on how Hit Points and Saving Throws jumped the species gap.