PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons as professional development

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In response to one of the final exam questions this year, a student in my upper-level undergraduate course on multilateral peace operations at McGill University commented “I never knew D&D could be so useful until I took POLI 450.” That statement finally provided the impetus I needed to offer some thoughts on role-play games (RPGs) and serious conflict simulation.

In the context of POLI 450, the student concerned was referring to the massive Brynania peacebuilding simulation that we’ve been running for almost two decades. It is a grueling exercise indeed: 125+ players, 5-8 hours of game play per day for a full week, 10,000+ emails sent, and hundreds of hours of real and virtual meetings—all at a time when students are also trying to manage four other courses, plus occasional eating and sleeping. The simulation is designed to highlight a range of issues: political conflict and conflict resolution; insurgency; negotiations; humanitarian crisis and response; the challenges of coordination; stabilization; and longer-term development. Like a good game of D&D, participants face complex situations and even difficult moral choices while having to adjust plans on the fly with limited time, resources, and information. As has been evident from exam answers and course surveys over the years, students learn a lot from it, and it helps a great deal in putting course readings and theory into a practical, operational context.

However, I didn’t want to just comment on the value of RPG-type gaming as an immersive learning environment for students—as important as that is. Above and beyond this, I wanted to offer some thoughts of how role-play gaming can help to develop essential professional game design and facilitation skills. Indeed, in terms of professional wargame facilitation specifically, I would argue that running D&D games is probably a more useful preparation than playing either miniature or board wargames.

Before there’s a backlash from my fellow grognards, let me reiterate I’m talking here about game facilitation. I’m a hobby miniatures/board wargamer too, and I enjoy those a great deal. They’ve been invaluable in learning about military operations and history—indeed, far more useful than the 8+ years I spent studying in university. It is undeniable that hobby wargaming can contribute a great deal to one’s knowledge of how to model time, space, movement, and effects.

However, no one would argue that most hobby wargaming (with the notable exception of megagaming) really contributes a great deal to knowing how to run—as opposed to design—the multi-participant events that are usually characteristic of a serious professional wargame or political-military/crisis simulations.

There’s a certain irony in all this. As it is, professional wargamers already deal with a widespread bias against the gaming element of wargames. It is well-known, for example, that many military officers recoil at the thought of dice or cards determining the outcome of military actions in a wargame, even though they are perfectly happy to have outcomes determined through black-boxed stochastic processes embedded in computer algorithms. That Clausewitz once noted ” the absolute, the mathematical as it is called, nowhere finds any sure basis in the calculations in the art of war; and that from the outset there is a play of possibilities, probabilities, good and bad luck, which spreads about with all the coarse and fine threads of its web, and makes war of all branches of human activity the most like a game of cards” doesn’t change the fact that professional audiences often equate cards, dice, and other common game elements with a glorified version of Snakes-and-Ladders. Given that, suggesting that what they are doing is actually rather more like The Tomb of Horrors would certainly be a gaming system too far. Yet RPGs can develop invaluable skills in terms of scenario design, narrative engagement during game play, subtly keeping players on track for game purposes, and managing groups of people within such a context.

In terms of scenario design, this is very much at the core of role-play gaming—the game, after all, is almost entirely about the scenario and the players’ engagement in it. Good gamemasters are good precisely because they are able to keep players within the universe they have created, facing plausible choices with plausible consequences, and subtly encouraging everyone to internalize appropriate perspectives and motivations. In a well-run campaign the players aren’t simply trying to find treasure and slay beasts, but feel themselves part of it all. They begin to filter their worldview through their (fictional) professional specializations: fighters like to fight; magic-users like to stand back and rain destruction of foes while avoiding injury; clerics provide key support; rogues skulk and deceive; and much-maligned bards (like diplomats everywhere) use silver tongues to gain advantages that cannot be obtained by brute force. As Peter Perla and ED McGrady have argued, this sort of player engagement and immersion is also what makes (serious, professional, potentially life-and-death) wargaming work:

We believe that wargaming’s power and success (as well as its danger) derive from its ability to enable individual participants to transform themselves by making them more open to internalizing their experiences in a game—for good or ill. The particulars of individual wargames are important to their relative success, yet there is an undercurrent of something less tangible than facts or models that affects fundamentally the ability of a wargame to transform its participants.

A dungeonmaster also faces the constant challenge of allowing players to explore their universe, while at the same time keeping the game on-track in terms of general storyline and plot—all without letting players feel railroaded into doing (or not doing) particular things. They do so, moreover in a context of multiple participants with different perspectives and personalities. Take, for example, Phil Sabin‘s comments on a recent professional wargame in the UK (emphasis added):

This week at the UK Defence Academy we ran a two day research wargame with a couple of dozen players and facilitators to investigate nuclear risk dynamics.  I was on the Control team, and our main objective was to get the players first to use conventional force and then to escalate to nuclear strikes, despite their natural reluctance to initiate such dangerous and suicidal actions.  We succeeded, and play ended with wide-ranging conventional conflict, the nuclear devastation of central and eastern Europe, and a grave threat of further escalation, all from an initial spark in the Baltics in which both sides felt they were defending their existing rights and interests.

I remarked in the final plenary that wargame controllers in such games are rather like devils, seeking ways to foster player misperceptions and frustration and to present them with horrible dilemmas in a quest to make them trigger a literal ‘hell on earth’.  We succeeded in this aim, and it was sobering for everyone to realise how such a slide into disaster can occur through a horribly plausible sequence of interacting decisions, despite the initial resolve of each team individually to avoid such an outcome.  At least we can comfort ourselves that nobody really died, and that the whole point of such ‘virtual’ destruction in wargames is to help us to understand crisis dynamics and so make such escalation in the real world even more unlikely….

Replace “nuclear strikes” with “boss fight” or “confronting the dragon in his lair” and you pretty much have every D&D game ever. Phil may be more of a traditional grognard than a RPGer, but it is a gift indeed to be able to nudge participants in such a way that they don’t feel nudged, while giving them the freedom to make real choices.

Similarly, in the Brynania simulation, my task as CONTROL is to facilitate exploration of a plausible path of civil conflict and (hopefully) peacebuilding, while not allowing the game to get distracted or derailed. Doing so requires the subtle use of initial scenario and game injects, but in a way that players are—again—making real choices with real consequences. Certainly the outcomes over the years reveal a sort of bell-curve of results, with some more common than others, but none of them outliers in a way that would undercut the instructional purposes of the simulation.

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Brynania simulation outcomes and events.

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Primary peacebuilding mechanisms used in Brynania simulation.

I’m not the only RPGamer who feels this way. Tom Fisher is a fellow member of my local Montréal gaming group and DM extraordinaire, with an impressive record as a professional game designer and facilitator (he is codeveloper of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game and the forthcoming Matrix Game Construction Kit, and has worked with the World Bank and various international financial intelligence agencies on games addressing financial crimes/corruption and strategic analysis). He had this to say on the topic in a recent email exchange:

I can say, without hesitation, that roleplaying games—particularly D&D—have led to the best jobs I’ve ever had.

There is a natural flow between being a gamer and professionally developing games, that much is obvious. What is less obvious, however, are the lessons derived from playing those games that do not directly impact game development. Role playing games, particularly the gamesmastering (facilitation) thereof engages, develops and encourages a particular way of thinking.

Much has been said about the need for outside the box thinking or lateral thinking. What is less discussed is how to train the mind to think different as some marketing campaigns encourage. Roleplaying games, in their various forms, are a virtual goldmine for the development, testing and experimentation of thought, and ways of thinking.

Roleplay, at its best, teaches through gameplay to account for assumptions, test limits of rules, push the limits of established rules – in short, roleplay is a short course on iterative design: “ design methodology based on a cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining a product or process. Based on the results of testing the most recent iteration of a design, changes and refinements are made. This process is intended to ultimately improve the quality and functionality of a design. In iterative design, interaction with the designed system is used as a form of research for informing and evolving a project, as successive versions, or iterations of a design are implemented.”

Iterative design thinking is, in my view, the foundation of critical, outside-the-box, and lateral thinking. The process of iterative design faces-off actions based on assumptions against reactions based on real-world rules. Famously demonstrated by Tom Wujec’s Marshmallow Challenge, participants succeed by testing their assumptions against real-world effects (in that case, gravity and the relative strength of dry spaghetti).

The experiential and imaginary nature of roleplaying games requires reflection and forces a role-player to account for their assumptions when addressing a situation. In so many of my experiences delivering intelligence analysis or crime analysis courses, it is the recognition and testing of one’s assumptions that has been the lynchpin in achieving success in the training. Roleplaying games –and by extension immersive simulation exercises– are a crucible for developing the thought processes deemed so necessary and desired by modern institutions.

The experience of the gamesmaster, or facilitator, of roleplaying games adds a further level of complexity to the mix. Adult role-players, by their very nature, are an interesting bunch. Most tend to be well-read, quite intelligent, and universally challenging. As noted above, roleplay encourages the testing of limits, pushing of envelopes, and accounting for assumptions. So, a gamesmaster (GM) is confronted with a number of players –with their unique agendas– who inherently want to push the limits of the GM’s world-rules to achieve goals laid out by said GM designed to engage, thrill and enthrall each of the players. In short: herding cats. There is no more cost-effective short-course on diplomacy and small-team management than being a roleplaying game GM.

The complexity of gamesmastering (GMing) increases exponentially as GMs become involved in world-building. At the pinnacle of GMing is the world-building GM, who shapes world from thought to engage players in a truly immersive experience. Herein, the GM accounts for the cause-and-effect of player actions against the backdrop of an entire living world simulation. At this level, fluidity and iterative design are paramount to successful implementation and player-engagement, and will lead to a level of suspension of disbelief that will engage players not only logically in the gameplay, but emotionally, on a truly immersive level.

It is these skills of engagement, coupled with the role-player’s way of thinking, challenging and testing that have led to the best jobs I’ve ever had.

Much can be said about the nature of play and the strong links between creative play and language, physical, social/emotional, and cognitive development. Roleplaying games take this level of play to its limits, and push outward, not only encouraging growth, but in my opinion, forcing it, as new pathways of thought develop to deal with novel situations.

The elusive and mysterious “Tim Price,” prolific author of matrix game articles and scenarios, has certainly been known to frequently design and play RPGs. A certain former British military officer and gifted professional wargame consultant—let’s call him GLB—actually carries an image of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook (above) surreptitiously taped to his clipboard to inspire him while facilitating serious games.

As for me, I’ve been playing D&D since the very first boxed three-volume set in the mid 1970s. Like the POLI 450 student quoted above, it’s fair to say that at the outset I too “never knew D&D could be so useful.”

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Have your own experiences of using RPG skills in serious gaming? Post them in the comments section!

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 27 September 2015

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In a few hours I’ll be headed to Fairfax, VA for the Military Operations Research Society (MORS) Professional Gaming Workshop. Several other PAXsims contributors will be there too, and I’ll be running a demonstration game or two of AFTERSHOCK as well (email me for details).

Before I leave, however, here are a few recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to PAXsims readers. Corinne Goldberger contributed to this latest edition.

PAXsims

According to a piece by Julia Ioffe in Foreign Policy magazine, a series of Pentagon wargames has highlighted the serious military challenge that NATO and the United States would face in confronting any Russian attack on the Baltic states:

In June 2014, a month after he had left his force-planning job at the Pentagon, the Air Force asked [then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for force development] Ochmanek for advice on Russia’s neighborhood ahead of Obama’s September visit to Tallinn, Estonia. At the same time, the Army had approached another of Ochmanek’s colleagues at Rand, and the two teamed up to run a thought exercise called a “table top,” a sort of war game between two teams: the red team (Russia) and the blue team (NATO). The scenario was similar to the one that played out in Crimea and eastern Ukraine: increasing Russian political pressure on Estonia and Latvia (two NATO countries that share borders with Russia and have sizable Russian-speaking minorities), followed by the appearance of provocateurs, demonstrations, and the seizure of government buildings. “Our question was: Would NATO be able to defend those countries?” Ochmanek recalls.

The results were dispiriting. Given the recent reductions in the defense budgets of NATO member countries and American pullback from the region, Ochmanek says the blue team was outnumbered 2-to-1 in terms of manpower, even if all the U.S. and NATO troops stationed in Europe were dispatched to the Baltics — including the 82nd Airborne, which is supposed to be ready to go on 24 hours’ notice and is based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

“We just don’t have those forces in Europe,” Ochmanek explains. Then there’s the fact that the Russians have the world’s best surface-to-air missiles and are not afraid to use heavy artillery.

After eight hours of gaming out various scenarios, the blue team went home depressed. “The conclusion,” Ochmanek says, “was that we are unable to defend the Baltics.”

Ochmanek decided to run the game on a second day. The teams played the game again, this time working on the assumption that the United States and NATO had already started making positive changes to their force posture in Europe. Would anything be different? The conclusion was slightly more upbeat, but not by much. “We can defend the capitals, we can present Russia with problems, and we can take away the prospect of a coup de main,” Ochmanek says. “But the dynamic remains the same.” Even without taking into account the recent U.S. defense cuts, due to sequestration, and the Pentagon’s plan to downsize the Army by 40,000 troops, the logistics of distance were still daunting. U.S. battalions would still take anywhere from one to two months to mobilize and make it across the Atlantic, and the Russians, Ochmanek notes, “can do a lot of damage in that time.”

Ochmanek has run the two-day table-top exercise eight times now, including at the Pentagon and at Ramstein Air Base, in Germany, with active-duty military officers. “We played it 16 different times with eight different teams,” Ochmanek says, “always with the same conclusion.”

The Defense Department has factored the results of the exercise into its planning, says the senior defense official, “to better understand a situation that few of us have thought about in detail for a number of years.” When asked about Ochmanek’s conclusions, the official expressed confidence that, eventually, NATO would claw the territory back. “In the end, I have no doubt that NATO will prevail and that we will restore the territorial integrity of any NATO member,” the official said. “I cannot guarantee that it will be easy or without great risk. My job is to ensure that we can reduce that risk.”

PAXsims

RCAT-Falklands-at-Connections-UK-2015-Games-Fair-compressedAt the LBS blog, Graham Longley-Brown offers an analysis of two recent wargames of the Falklands campaign fought using RCAT (the Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset):

This is not a story about HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes; rather it’s a tale of a carrier being sunk in one RCAT wargame and staying afloat in another. This, and other less obvious variances arising from two separate plays of RCAT: Falklands, highlight a number of interesting observations and insights.

Unusually, we ran two back-to-back RCAT: Falklands wargames with different players at Connections UK 2015, simulating the period between the landings at San Carlos on 21 May 1982 and (broadly) the attack on Goose Green. Although the tactics adopted by both sets of Argentinian players were almost identical, the outcomes, while credible in both cases, were dramatically different.

The two games briefly described above (many details have been omitted) might be considered approximate ‘best case’ and ‘worst case’ outcomes. The key decision was to move the CVBG nearer the Islands, but the ensuing outcome was the result of dice rolls.

Imagine if the games had been played at Ascension Island in April 1982. As Julian Thompson and Michael Clapp said at the end of the RCAT OCT: “We liked [the manual simulation] very much and wish we had such a system in Ascension with Fieldhouse, Moore, Trant, Curtiss, Woodward, Comd 5 Bde and us sitting around the map table thrashing through possible courses of action and, hopefully, agreeing a thoroughly well-considered plan.”

One obvious dilemma/trade-off dramatically illustrated was whether to keep the CVBG well off to the east or move it closer to the Falklands to increase CAP coverage over the AOA. Sandy Woodward said that he “was the only man who could have lost the war in an afternoon” (by losing a carrier), and protecting the carriers was paramount. Why, then, were Thompson and Clapp assured that air superiority would be established and maintained over the Islands?

A few of the ‘so what’ questions that should have arisen from such a back-to-back (or more) playing at Ascension, as occurred at Connections UK, are:

  • What will be the effect of losing a carrier? Shades of Midway!
  • Are Exocet targets randomly determined?
  • Will air superiority over the islands be assured? If not, so what?
  • How effective is the ‘picket ship’ tactic (could the T42/22 combo have been envisaged before the shooting war started)?
  • Will the Argentine pilots have time to target specific ships or will attacks be random?
  • How many ships are we likely to lose, best case, worst case and most likely?
  • How can Argentine Special Forces attacks against the AOA, and logistic supplies in particular, be prevented?
  • Can the Argentine land forces launch an immediate counter-attack against the AOA?
  • Do we need to defeat the Argentine positions at Goose Green? If so, what forces will be required? See the OCT blog for the modelling of Goose Green and the operational commanders’ reaction to that.

It’s rare that a course of action can be played through back-to-back like this. The fact that two very different, but still credible, outcomes resulted from facing similar Argentine tactics reinforces the utility of rapid manual simulation. These wargames took 2 ½ hours each and concentrated on a critical aspect of the campaign; a full play through of the entire campaign takes a day. ‘So what’ questions arising can be examined in detail after the wargame, using reach-back to SMEs if necessary. Ideally, the answers would then become inputs to another series of rapid wargames.

Finally, and on another tack, it’s worth reiterating Cdre Clapp’s comment at the end of the RCAT OCT: “I feel that I’ve been properly de-briefed for the first time in 33 years.”

All these potentially significant outcomes can be achieved in just a few hours by rapid manual simulations.

PAXsims

Lancaster County, PA recently used a simulation to help prepare personnel for dealing with refugees:

“I think when people have a real idea of what someone has been through, it helps them respond better,” said Mary LeVasseur, Lancaster General Health manager of community health.

That’s why about 35 employees of Community Services Group spent Monday pretending to be refugees, working their way through an informative simulation.

“Our services are being called upon to respond to people with language barriers that are a challenge to our established practices,” said Susan Blue, president and CEO of Mountville-based Community Services Group. “ And the need continues to grow. Many of our staff are inspired to try to help CSG expand our definition of community to meet the many needs of these new people.”

So the employees visualized being persecuted. They were assigned to crowded “refugee camps.” They carried rice on their heads. And they ran into reams of red tape.

Jessica Knapp of Lutheran Refugee Services, who ran the simulation in collaboration with staff and volunteers from Franklin & Marshall College, Church World Service and Lancaster County Refugee Coalition, said the simulation was “frustrating on purpose.”

It worked; at the end, participants described the experience as overwhelming, eye-opening, uncomfortable. They said it helped them understand why refugees might be reluctant to divulge problems, scared to send their children to school or slow to trust people.

PAXsims

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In Denmark, a mock game trailer has been used to satirize (or provoke discussion) about the current migrant crisis in Europe:

The Danish late night talk show “Natholdet” (“The Night Shift”) has posted a suggested trailer of a new board game entitled the “Refugee Game”, which has at least one hard copy. It challenges the players to block migrants as they attempt to enter “happy little Denmark”; and left the audience at a loss: how do you respond to such a teaser?

The trailer features a family of four, two adults and two children, playing the game, trying to block what apparently look like Middle Eastern refugees from entering into their country

The game has a playground with a map of Denmark and its neighboring countries, a set of cards, blocking fences, a boat with refuges, the figures of refugees (also mostly families with children), and the figures of four Danish politicians.

The politicians are Inger Støjberg, Danish Minister of Integration; Lars Løkke Rasmussen, the leader of the center-right liberal party Venstre, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, the leader of the Danish People’s Party and his fellow party member Martin Henriksen.

It, however, remains unclear whether the idea behind the game is sarcasm or criticism of the government in its policy towards the refugee crisis.

You’ll find the video here.

PAXsims

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As of late, Adam Elkus has been musing even more than usual about the challenges of computational exploration of strategy. Since he keeps offering new thoughts on the subject, I’ll just direct you to his columns here.

PAXsims

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The Active Learning in Political Science blog is always worth reading. Recent contributions include the sad news that the excellent Inside the Haiti Earthquake simulation (which I’ve often used in courses myself) is no longer online; a very critical review of the political science boardgame Agenda; and a discussion of simulations: what are they good for?

PAXsims

The Red Team Journal discusses the value of adversarial interaction—and hence wargaming–in effective red teaming:

Since 1997 I’ve called for more and better red teaming. I’ll continue to do so, but I also believe we must red team the practice itself. In this spirit, I offer a cautionary argument in three parts:

  1. Reciprocal action is the essence of conflict and competition.
  2. Much if not most red teaming inadequately addresses reciprocal action.
  3. Wargaming better exercises the dialogue of reciprocal action.

“But,” you protest, “red teaming is the practice of introducing reciprocal action into decision making!” And I agree, at least in theory. When the client uses the output from the red team to enhance the dialogue, they are to some degree accounting for reciprocal action, certainly more than when they fail to consider the adversary at all.

Risk-and-Opportunity-450Too often, however, clients view the vulnerabilities red teams identify as the penultimate phase of the game. All the clients need to do then is fix the vulnerabilities, and they win, right?—game over! (If only the adversary would agree to play by these artificial rules.) This kind of thinking perpetuates a static, defensive, and short-term mindset, which, as we know, can set a client up for a long-term fall.

In the security domain, you might call the blue team the client’s trusted fixer, someone who collaboratively works with the client to address the red team’s recommendations. From a wargamer’s perspective, however, this is all somewhat counterintuitive. Yes, the blue team should defend its position against risks generated by the adversary (represented by the red team), but it should also reciprocate against the adversary and generate risks for them as well. By definition, however, security blue teams perform only the first function, and in so doing help perpetuate a defensive mindset.

In reality, an organization should address both risks and opportunities, and this is precisely what a blue team typically does during a wargame. In fact, a blue team that seeks only to address risks will fail, as will the real-world organization that does the same. In this sense, then, a wargame blue team is much more expansive and realistic than a security blue team….

You can read the whole thing here.

PAXsims

David Vallat (University of Lyon 1) recently pointed me towards a paper he and several colleagues wrote on using serious games to leverage knowledge management. You’ll find it here. See also his blog post on fun learning.

PAXsims

At VICE earlier this month, Giaco Furino discussed how Dungeons & Dragons went mainstream.

Such is my geekiness, it comes as a shock that anyone ever considered it anything but normal….

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PAXsims

If you’ve recently had trouble ordering AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game, it is now available again via The Game Crafter. (The publisher had run short of 10mm supply cubes, so we’ve swapped them for a slightly smaller 8mm version.)

The curse of D&D

 

04_Right_Inline_Block_ImageFTApparently Dungeons & Dragons is cursed. No, I don’t mean the curse of the D&D business model, whereby the game is reinvented every few years in a new edition (complete with expensive new rulebooks), and players are then milked for a  series of supplemental book on top of that—most of which muddy up whatever elegance the latest game system had, until the process is repeated again. (Full disclosure: I currently have 49 volumes of D&D rules and supplements on my bookshelf stretching back to 1978, a mere fraction of the total I’ve owned at one time or another.)

No, I mean the curse whereby creators fall out with one another amid arguments and lawsuits. According to the New York Times:

For a certain sort of fan, the crowdfunding pitch was impossible to resist. Here was a chance, it announced, to support a documentary about the immortal saga of the legendary game that all but revolutionized modern life. No pressure.

Three filmmakers promised nothing less than the origin story of the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, “a cautionary tale of an empire built by friends and lost through betrayal, enmity, poor management, hubris and litigation,” they wrote on their Kickstarter pagein 2012. They planned to chronicle the bitter battle waged by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the game’s creators, over credit and royalties.

In other words, they wrote: “Imagine ‘The Social Network’  ” — the tortuous tale of Facebook’s founding — “but no one ends up rich.”

If the filmmakers saw a cautionary tale in the story of their shared passion, they failed to heed its lessons. More than $250,000 in Kickstarter pledges and two years later, there is no documentary, only broken friendships and a lawsuit.

The director of “Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary” has sued his former partners for embarking on another documentary on the same subject. Gaming conventions like GenCon (“The Best Four Days in Gaming”) andGaryCon (“a living memorial to E. Gary Gygax”) are abuzz with rumors of backstabbing and creative theft. Gathering around their tabletop games and in online forums, Dungeons & Dragons fans are distraught.

“Every story has 20 sides,” reads the tagline for the upstart second documentary, a reference to the 20-sided dice Dungeons & Dragons players use to direct their tabletop fantasy narratives. So far, this one has two.

It began, of course, with a game of Dungeons & Dragons….

You’ll find the rest of the story here. And, in the meantime, if you really want to know how the world’s most influential roleplaying game got started, you could do no better than to read Jon Peterson’s excellent history, Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role Playing Game.

CFP: The military and the cultural influences of role-playing games

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A call for papers—or, more accurately, a call for a specific paper—has been issued in connection with a planned edited volume on the cultural impact of role-playing games:

Since its initial publication in 1974, the iconic role-playing game (RPG) Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) has spawned hundreds of other analog and digital RPGs, as well as an entirely new industry and subculture. In the last decade, scholars from across the disciplinary spectrum have explored the origins, characteristics, cultures, and player experiences of RPGs. Yet, little scholarly attention has been devoted to the meaningful ways RPGs have shaped and transformed society at large over the past forty years.

The majority of the chapters for the collection have already been selected, but we would like to include an additional chapter on the use of role-playing games (tabletop, live-action, etc.), or similar games or gaming-related activities used by the U.S. or another military organization for training, operational concept development, or any other purpose.

Please send proposed abstracts of 250-500 words, along with a brief (250 word) biography and C.V., in either *.rtf (rich text format) or *.doc (MS Word document format), to editors Andrew Byers and Francesco Crocco at rpgbook2014@gmail.com by August 15, 2014. If accepted for the collection, completed essays of 7,000 to 10,000 words will be due by January 1, 2015.

Source: cfp.english.upenn.edu

Simulations miscellany, 12 April 2014

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After having read or written some 16,529 emails during our week-long “Brynania” civil war simulation at McGill University that ended on April 7, I’m only now digging out from the backlog of other work that accumulated during that period. As part of clearing up my virtual desktop, here’s the latest PAXsims simulations miscellany!

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MokhtarThe Iranian video games industry provides interesting insight into both domestic and domestic politics. A case in point is a recent game release by conservative game designers (by which I mean “folks who create really crude mods of the 1990s first-person shooter Doom“), clearly aimed at Iranian reformists. According to IranWire:

The release of online video game “The Return of Mokhtar” has hit the headlines, dominating social network debates and commanding the attention of a number of news websites. Its aim, according to the game’s creators, is to pit the player against “symbols of sedition and imperialism”. And the game, which is available via the Nofuzi website, has received enthusiastic endorsement from the Pure Islamic Art Institute.

The symbols of “arrogance” are none other than the leaders of the Green Movement, who emerged during the disputed presidential elections of 2009 – namely, former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi, his wife, former reformist president Mohammad Khatami and prominent supporters.

Players move through corridors, advancing to the next stage after successfully shooting and killing an enemy. Instead of being rewarded with points, a player earns “insights”. If he or she fails to hit a target, they lose an “insight”; when they run out of them, the game is over and the player must start again.

The game’s title references the early days of Islam, when, in the 7th-century AD, Mokhtar bin Abu Ubaid Saqafi led a revolt against the governing Umayyad Caliphs. Mokhtar exacted revenge for the murder of Imam Hossein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, who refused to pledge allegiance to the Caliph. Though Mokhtar successfully executed many who had played a role in Imam Hossein’s death, he was eventually crushed by the Caliph’s army and lost his life. He became a martyr for Shi’a Muslims.

On its website, the Pure Islamic Art Institute promotes and celebrates “The Return of Mokhtar”. Initially launched as a design company in 2008, the institute registered as a non-profit organization in March 2010. Soon after, the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance granted permission for it to operate a website, an indication that the institute had widespread approval among some of Iran’s most influential political and religious leaders. According to the site, the institute is made up of “a group of committed and expert young people who want to promote Islamic culture and art”. It lists “The Household of The Prophet Mohammad’ and ‘Islamic Revolution and The Holy Defense” among the most important topics it champions.

Despite this endorsement, the game met with some consternation from Hassan Moazemi, Vice-President for Communications at the National Foundation for Computer Games. “The makers of the game never submitted a request for a permit,” he said, “but now that it has been released, we are duty-bound to refer the matter to the responsible authorities, including the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, security forces and the judiciary, so they can take appropriate legal actions.”

“We will gather necessary information and pass it on to competent authorities,” he added, “so they can perform their legal responsibilities.”

Although the game isn’t directly aimed at current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, it seems likely to me that his administration is an indirect target too.

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Update: Sam Razavi notes that the game designers have removed the turban from the late reformist figure Mehdi Karroubi (see left), most likely because they are reluctant to associate “sedition” with a senior cleric.

h/t Sam Razavi 

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While on the subject of Iran and video games, former US Marine (and former employee of Kumar Games) Amir Hekmati has apparently been retried in secret in Iran, and sentenced to 10 years for “practical collaboration with the American government.” According to the New York Times:

Inside Iran, Mr. Hekmati’s case is viewed as highly political. He is considered a pawn in domestic infighting between hard-liners, who want him in prison, and moderates who want him freed as a good-will gesture to the United States.

“Basically the judiciary, which is under the control of hard-liners, is opposed to Hekmati’s release, but the Foreign Ministry, deeply involved in nuclear talks in which the U.S. plays a crucial role, wants him freed,” a person with knowledge of Mr. Hekmati’s case said, asking to remain anonymous in order to avoid complicating the prospects of his release.

In the past, Hekmati’s association with Kumar Games has provided part of the basis for the charges against him. You’ll find background on the case here (via al-Jazeera English), and on the Kumar games angle here (PAXsims).

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The BBC recalls the the great 1980s Dungeons & Dragons panic:

Looking back now, it’s possible to see the tendrils of a classic moral panic, and some elements of the slightly esoteric world of roleplaying did stir the imaginations of panicked outsiders.

“Since fantasy typically features activities like magic and witchcraft, D&D was perceived to be in direct opposition to biblical precepts and established thinking about witchcraft and magic,” says Dr David Waldron, lecturer in history and anthropology at Federation University Australia and author of Roleplaying Games and the Christian Right: Community Formation in Response to a Moral Panic. “There was also a view that youth had an inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality.”

While the wilder claims about the nature of D&D tended to emanate from evangelical groups, they prompted wider suspicion.

“The memes from this campaign proliferated and, being published largely uncritically in the initial stages, led to a wide-ranging list of bizarre claims,” says Waldron. “For example, that when a character died you were also likely to commit suicide.”

h/t D&D paranoia from Chick Publications 

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In response to recent events, One Small Step is producing a 2014 update kit for owners of their Millennium Wars Ukraine wargame.

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Recently we mentioned This War of Mine, the forthcoming video game that places the player in the role of civilians trying to survive the conflict. You’ll find more on the project at Gamasutra.

h/t James Sterrett 

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The February-March newsletter of the US Department of Defence Modelling and Simulation Coordination Office (MSCO) is now available online:

This issue presents articles ranging from maximizing the educational value of virtual training to the design process of the velodrome used in the London 2012 Olympic games. Additional articles feature a new simulation and game institute at George Mason University, simulation based training, combat convoy simulator training, and the U.S. Air Force demonstrating energy resiliency in a mission critical environment. This edition also includes a list of upcoming events within the M&S Community.

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The April 2014 edition of the Journal of Defense Modelling and Simulation is now available.

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The latest news from the folks at Reacting to the Past:

We are pleased to announce that Jose Bowen and Judith Shapiro, both champions of active learning in higher education, will be our keynote speakers at the Fourteenth Annual Faculty Institute at Barnard College (New York, NY | June 5-8). Jose Bowen becomes President of Goucher College on July 1, 2014, and is the author of Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning, winner of the Ness Award for Best Book on Higher Education (2013) from the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Bowen has won teaching awards at Stanford, Georgetown, Miami, and Southern Methodist University, where he was Dean of the Meadows School of the Arts. Judith Shapiro is President of the Teagle Foundation, where she promotes curricular reform and broader dissemination of successful pedagogical initiatives. She supported “Reacting to the Past” from its inception, and is President and Professor of Anthropology Emerita of Barnard College. In 2002, Shapiro received the National Institute of Social Sciences Gold Medal Award for her contribution as a leader in higher education for women.

Interested participants are encouraged to register early in order to ensure their space and game preferences at the institute. Faculty and administrators with experience teaching “Reacting to the Past” are also invited to submit a concurrent session proposal.  Proposals will be considered on a rolling basis, space permitting.

We also invite faculty and administrators to participate in our Regional Conference at Schreiner University (Kerrville, TX | April 25-27).  This regional event will feature two game workshops: The Trial of Anne Hutchinson: Liberty, Law, and Intolerance in Puritan New England andVictory or Death! The Consultation of 1835 and the Texas War for Independence (game under review).  Priority registration ends April 11, 2014. Visit the conference page to learn more.

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Existential Comics has had a couple of recent strips involving famous German philosophers playing boardgames. You’ll find examples here and below.

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D&D historian Jon Peterson on Reddit today

On this, the 40th anniversary of D&D, you can ask D&D historian Jon Peterson anything on Reddit—courtesy, appropriately enough, of Gygax Magazine:

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Happy Birthday, D&D!

Expy-birthdayAccording to Jon Peterson—author of the seminal history of Dungeons & Dragons, Playing at the World—the best guess as to the birthdate of the role-playing game is tomorrow:

Many sources, including Playing at the World, assign to Dungeons & Dragons an initial release in January 1974. Our best evidence comes from contemporary notices like the one above, a letter written by Gary Gygax late in 1973 that foretells the imminent release of the game. Now, with the fortieth anniversary nearly upon us, a burning question arises: when exactly should we celebrate? While there is no shortage of anecdotal accounts describing when, and to whom, the first copy of the game was sold, there is little concrete evidence to indicate any particular birthday….

Jon being Jon, he of course then goes on to provide a detailed chronology of the genesis and publication of the game, concluding:

For all the reasons listed above, it’s probably impossible to narrow in on one date and say with any certainty that this is when the game was released. But if we need to celebrate somewhere in the neighborhood of late January, then the last Sunday of the month (this year, the 26th) seems like the best candidate. As the El Conquistador advertisement above notes, Sunday was the day when Gary invited the world to drop by his house, at 1:30 PM, to have a first experience of Dungeons & Dragons. Since it’s a weekend, many of us can clear our schedules to revisit some classic tabletop. So this coming January 26th, 2014, do take the time to celebrate the birth of Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing games.

I was a serious wargamer before I was a D&D player, refighting World War II before I ever first fought Orcs or a relieved a nobleman of a heavy coin purse. However, I can also claim to have been a fairly early convert—we in the “Lymington & District Wargames Club” started playing around 1977 or so, using the original three booklet “white box” edition of the game. I have played every edition since (and a great many other RPGs as well).

While my overriding reason for playing D&D has always been the sheer fun of it, the game has also had implications for my professional career. It probably contributed to my self-confidence in groups, and a certain degree of organizational skill. It absolutely contributed to my professional work on serious games and simulations in far too many ways for me to count. My Brynania conflict simulation is, in many ways, a giant, week-long 120-player game of D&D set in the context of a country emerging from civil wars—but with UN agencies, NGOs, insurgents, and governments instead of wizards, fighters, and rogues. I have also borrowed from D&D game techniques to help organize a workshop for Libyan rebels, facilitate my civilian role-play contribution to a special forces irregular warfare exercise,  run a planning exercise for a UN humanitarian agency, and do a great many other things that lacked both dungeons and dragons. Playing D&D, and even more so, organizing and running a campaign, tells you a great deal about the importance of narrative, engagement, immersion, and group dynamics in a successful serious game or simulation. One of my current gaming group, who designs money-laundering and corruption simulations for the World Bank and anti-corruption agencies, similarly got his start in professional simulation design as a player and dungeon-master.

For more on the 40th anniversary of the game, see also articles in The Guardian and SalonAnd, in the meantime, a very happy birthday to D&D  from a trio of famed halfling rogues—Arnold Schaeffer, Arnold Wurzel, and Arnold Brandyken—as well as  Finius T. Stormfroth, the pirate warlord!

 

h/t Excellent image above by AvatarArt, via Dungeon Mastering blog.

 

Review: Ewalt, Of Dice and Men

David Ewalt, Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons (New York: Scribner, 2013). 264pp+ index. $26.

DiceMenAbout 35 years ago, one of my then high school gaming group showed up one day with a simple, but undeniably magical, cardboard box. It contained the original, three volume edition of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, which had first been published just a few years earlier.

We started to play—and play, and play. That D&D campaign, in what we termed “just off-centre Earth,” would continue on through high school, college and university on two continents, and later was dusted off for exploration by my children and their friends. D&D proved  to be both the progenitor of, and gateway to, an almost infinite variety of table-top roleplaying games. Its influence can also be seen in almost every digital RPG and MMORPG today. Game mastering skills honed in D&D contributed in countless ways to my own later professional educational and policy gaming. And I’ve still got a halfling rogue called Arnold adventuring in an ongoing campaign, not to mention two bookshelves full of various editions of the rules.

David Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men is an attempt by a fellow D&D enthusiast to explain to a broader audience what the game is all about. His style is enthusiastic and highly readable as he describes the game, its players, its history, and its broader cultural significance. This is not an academic volume or detailed history of the genre—for that, one would be better served by Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World. Rather it is written as a joyful tour guide for the interested but largely uninitiated.

How well did Ewalt succeed? It is surprisingly difficult for me to tell, precisely because I’m an enthusiast and not a non-gamer. Certainly I enjoyed most of it, especially his discussion of the game’s history and evolution.

I did rather think, however, that the book sometimes excessively decorates its topic in eccentricities. After all, we’re really not all that strange, nor is the idea of an RPG as culturally unfamiliar as Ewalt seems to suggest. Over half of all Americans play digital games (with an average age of 30), and role-playing games are among the most popular types, from the Sims to Grand Theft Auto to World of Warcraft. Collectively, tens of millions of people are RPG gamers of some sort. And, while most console and computer gamers may have never rolled a d20 in a pencil-and-paper version of the genre, almost all of them understand the principles and mechanisms that D&D first embodied.

The author’s periodic habit of enlivening the text with somewhat cutesy D&D or geek references —”We’ll get back to D&D in two shakes of a lamia’s tail” (p. 44) or “Making a Monty Python reference in a room full of geeks is like bringing brownies to a Weight Watchers meeting” (p. 21)—does not help. (In fairness, I understand the impulse that led him to do this—I’m tempted to write this review laden with self-referential comments too, and keep editing/deleting/rewriting that his book is intended for “the NPCs (non-player characters) among us.” ). My fear is that the book’s style might sometimes  contribute to a textual distancing of RPG gamers from mainstream culture and “othering” them as somehow exotic and unfamiliar.

Or does it? It all rather reminds me of the debate over the TV comedy Big Bang Theory. Does it promote and popularize geek chic? Does it stereotype it and hence marginalize it?  Both? Neither? Does it matter?

I’m not sure. I enjoyed the book. I’m not entirely sure I would recommend it to a non-gamer friend.

Or then again I might, and then ask them to write their own review for PAXsims.

 

 

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