Saturday, May 2, 2020

Dave, Gary, And The Geneva Convention

No, not that convention, and not that Geneva...

I had a really interesting question come in via text message the other day, and I asked the sender if I could use it s the basis of a post here; I thought the answer might be of interest to people who are readers of this blog and who like Ye Olde Games...

From T. S.; Monday, April 27th, 6:26 PM -

"Hi, so would the world created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson have something like the Geneva Convention?"

My e-mail in reply:

   Yes, in both Dave and Gary's campaigns there was a very good set of 'Laws of War' that were in place. Both of them were historical gamers, and this was an extension of what had been in place in warfare since ancient times. One did not casually kill prisoners, for example, as they were often mercenaries and could be hired to work for you - so killing them was a waste of valuable trained soldiers. And, to be blunt, if you got a reputation for atrocities, there was a pretty good chance that if you lost a battle, you'd get killed in various interesting ways by the people you'd been nasty to in the past. There are lots of examples of this. There is a lot of 'enlightened self-interest' in this, where if you let your army get out of hand there was a good chance it'd get wiped out, so keeping the troops in hand was a practical idea.

    The exception to all of this were sieges. If you held the castle to the last, then you were likely to get killed by the attackers, who would have much preferred you to surrender 'under terms', where you negotiated the terms of surrender and got out of the castle in one piece. Once 'the ram touched the wall', to use the Roman phrase, all bets were off and it was going to get messy.

    Popular uprisings were also a nasty business; the usual rule of thumb was that anyone captured with a weapon in their hands would be killed. So, again, you had to keep the troops in hand and not allow them to get nasty with the locals.

    And there's ransom. Everybody would be happy to pay ransoms instead of getting killed, so if you offered terms and cash, there was an excellent chance that you'd get away with your skin intact.

    All of this in their games was known to us, because we were all historicals guys, so that's the way we played. Same in Phil's campaign, where 'noble action' tended to keep the players in check.

    Does this help?

I'd like to add some more to this, if I may, and as always my observations are based on what I saw and heard in games at specific times and places. Published articles and texts may vary, of course.

I think that it's kinda gotten lost that the originals of what's now called 'TTRPGs' were derived from the authors' experiences in historical miniatures gaming, and how that genre of gaming - now referred to entirely as 'wargaming' in some gaming circles - influenced how Dave and Gary thought that their worlds should work. Gary talked about this in his 'Appendix N', where he cites his reading materials. Dave had much the same thing to say - and so, for that matter, did Prof. Barker, who was an Ancients and Medieval scholar of some note.

All three of them, being seasoned players back in a time where one read a lot of books to learn things, were familiar with the historical 'Laws of War' that were the ideals promoted by various philosophers on the subject. And, as all three were very good researchers, they knew quite well that a lot of these ideas were just that - warfare was, and still is, a nasty business. When we gamed, we expected casualties, and we tried to make sure that we took as few losses as possible - the basis of 'long-term campaign gaming' - and we carried that over into our RPGs when we got to those. Chirine and his friends lasted for over a decade of game play in real time, and well over that in game time, because our standard was playing for survival; goodies like treasure, position, and status were all nice, but not much good if you were dead.

When we played, we didn't play out the nastier sides of warfare in history; we didn't game it because we all knew how nasty real history could be and we didn't think it had a place at our tables. I've been told that we were young and naive, and that if we wanted to be 'real gamers' we'd have done this kind of thing. Well, sorry, but we didn't; we thought that the 'code of chivalry' applied to our little lead knights and men-at-arms; in Phil's campaign, we thought that our little metal legions should follow the way of 'Noble Action'. Yes, it may all have been romantic fiction - but we were John Carter, Holger Dansk, Dejah Thoris, and all Four Musketeers; we were Heroes and Heroines, and we acted like it.

So, while there was no formal 'Geneva Convention' in these games, we acted as if we were people living in that time and place, and followed the codes of honor that those times and places believed in.

In a while, after we get out of lock-down, I'll be running my very first Eastern Front game. I know quite well how nasty a war of extermination that that was, for everyone involved, due to my extended family. We won't be playing it that way; we'll be playing it the way those three guys did at their tables.


  1. War is still a nasty business. Some places still have massacres of innocents, Nigeria, Bosnia, Iraq/Syria.
    It wouldn't be good to wargame those events

    1. Agreed. There was a Wargames Illustrated article about this last year, which I thought was interesting.

      We just didn't play this way.

    2. I don't think a massacre is the same as playing a military battle, no. But real battles between military forces of opposing nations is certainly what wargaming is all about. It's the classic "what-if" scenario: if we can accurately simulate it, can you take control and change the historical outcome? That's a game. It doesn't glorify any particular aspect of any particular conflict.

    3. Oh, yes, very much so. We all had the same approach to this back in the day, and most of the people I game with feel the same. Some stuff we just didn't game, and still won't. And the history we learned about was a very big part of our gaming, too. A lot of the new folks that game with me hadn't known at all about the Night Witches, for example.

      Very good discussion, everyone, and thank you! :)

  2. Thanks for the great post! Sometimes, we forget about some of those little tidbits of information.

    1. Agreed. We never really thought that there was any big difference between our RPGs and our other games, so the current distinction between genres is pretty baffling to me.

  3. A good point. As an "old guy," I play in the same style. Funny that you mention ransom. This was an explicit part of the Runequest / Glorantha back in the day. It must've gotten lost in the plethora of editions though, because when I have a character call out, "My ransom is..." the younger players are baffled. Completely.

    1. Wow. Just wow. There's all sorts of accounts where a rich person would call out their ransom, and their attackers would start fighting amongst themselves over who would be the one to capture them. On occasion, these 'wealth enhancement opportunities' would cause more casualties then the actual battle that was supposed to be being fought.