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Once Upon A Time: The Secret History of RPGs

by Wilf Backhaus


As covered a bit later in our letters page, PTGPTB was recently contacted by Wilf Backhaus. Wilf is the author of Chivalry and Sorcery, one of the very first roleplaying games to be published. Wilf gave us some comments on the History of Roleplaying (published in Issues 1-9 of this magazine), and then went on to fill us in on some very ancient pre-history that very few people would know about. This is the story of one of the very first steps along the line to the creation of our hobby, and makes a fine addition to the History.

I was always interested where the idea of the RPG conversation originated. It did not originate with either Gygax or Arneson - they merely applied an existing idea to fantasy material.

Way back in 1967, I and a couple of friends were heavily involved with miniature war gaming. We were experimenting with various rules for modern WWII tactical level rules when one of my friends bought a newly published set of rules by Michael Korns called The Modern War in Miniature published in Kanas City in 1966.

Korns' idea (appearing on pages 9 to 20) was for a War Game involving two players and a judge. The players sat in separate rooms contemplating maps upon which they marked the positions of their men. The Judge was in a third room with a large sand table upon which all of the miniatures were laid out. Every so often the players were allowed to come and look over the situation on the sand table but most of the time the Judge would come and chat with the player:

Judge: Your man behind the building hears the distinct noise of tank treads coming from the other side of the building. What do you want to do?

First Player: He will walk over to the corner and have a look. What does he see?

The Judge goes back to the sand table moves the man and goes to talk to the second player:

Judge: Your tank commander sees the glint of a helm from the corner of the building. What do you want to do?

Second Player: He will swing the turret machine gun over and fire at the location.

Judge: Does he start firing in an arc before bearing on the corner or does he wait to fire until he bears?

Second Player: He will start firing now...


The Judge then goes to the sand table to review the situation, makes a couple of calculations, rolls some dice and goes to first player:

Judge: Your guy sees a tank coming along the side of the building and it looks like the tank commander has seen him. He swung his gun around and starts firing in an arc toward your guy. What does he do?

First Player: Ducks back and reaches for a grenade

Judge: His reaction is a little slow and he got caught by fragments coming off the building from the machine gun bullets. He is having trouble seeing at the moment...

Well you get the idea. Korns' innovation appears to have come from existing tactical training exercises used by the US military at the time. Korns provided extremely detailed information about weapons and psychological/physical reactions of soldiers under fire, etc. It was extremely difficulty to play the game as Korns wanted and none of us ever thought to exploit the Judge/Player distinction in that way.

Now, in the early 70s, TSR got into the gaming business as producers of miniature rules including a set of WWII Tank rules called Tractics.

In the late 70s I got a photo-copy of the the very set of Korns' rules we tried to play with in 1967 and upon review it struck me that maybe this was the secret origins of the "conversation" which is the essence of RPG. In 1981 Arneson confirmed that he and his buddies were aware of and had played the "Kanas City Rules," so called by all who knew of them because that was where Korns had published. I suspect that the influence of Korns rules was indirect rather than a conscious application of an aspect of WWII miniature gaming to fantasy but the chronology is intriguing.

Reference: Michael F. Korns, The Modern War in Miniature: A Statistical Analysis of the Period 1939 -1945, Lawrence, Kansas: M & J Research Co. 1966.


Wilf Backhaus is the creator of such legendary RPGs as Chivalry and Sorcery (1976), Warrior (1980) and Mage (1981). His most recent work is the KISS D2 online RPG.

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