Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Volume I of original Dungeons & Dragons (1974) includes this little tidbit that has long intrigued me:
Number of Players: At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be handled in any single campaign, but the referee to player ratio should be about 1:20 or thereabouts.
There are a lot of ways to read this. One is to assume that the 1:20 ratio is an atavism, a throwback to the way the wargames out of which D&D had grown were played. Another is to treat it as a guess based on how the authors believed the game would be played. Yet another is to see it simply as a reflection of the experiences of Gygax and Arneson, whose home campaigns included exceptionally large numbers of players by today's standards.

What I find interesting is that most interpretations of this passage take it as given that the 1:20 ratio is no longer tenable; it's at best an artifact from another time. There's a lot to support this notion. In my three decades (!) of playing this game, I never had more than 8-10 regular players at my table and the norm was usually 4-6. Back in the faddish days of the hobby, I participated in pick-up campaigns that were run at local game stores or at "game days" sponsored by public libraries. Those campaigns often had close to 20 people participating in them. I remember one rather fun campaign run at a library, which used this giant conference table to seat us, with the referee seated at one end -- the chairman's position -- and the bunch of us players on the other seats. It was a lot of fun and far less chaotic than one might expect, but that probably had a lot to do with the referee, who was a grognard of the original sort, well-known for his lengthy and well-organized wargames campaigns.

Reading that passage now, I don't think it's meant to be understood that there'd be 4-50 players participating in any single session at the same time. Rather, I suspect the idea is that a campaign, encompassing many sessions over many different days, might encompass that many players. The assumptions seems to have been that there'd be many different groups of players, all of whom shared a referee and whose adventures all took place within the same world. One of the reasons why the early megadungeons may have been so huge was to accommodate multiple groups of adventurers tramping through them on a regular basis. These places had to be big or else the referee would soon find himself without anything to occupy his many players.

I've long wanted to be able to run a campaign along similar lines, but I've never had enough players to make a serious go at it. I think it's a pity really, since this style of play had a big influence on the early development of the game. Understanding the dynamics of having several adventuring groups in the same campaign is knowledge many of us don't possess and I think it skews our understanding of the hobby's origins and subsequent growth. Unfortunately, I'm not sure this style could be recreated easily nowadays. The older campaigns drew heavily on already-existing game clubs, things that, in my experience anyway, are much rarer now than they used to be. The pool of available gamers is still quite large, but they seem to be more diffuse and insular than they were back in the day (again, at least in my experience).

Still, it's an intriguing thought.


Rob Kuntz said...


Most of what you note is correct and none of it is actually wrong, of course.

The game was meant to be extensible into campaign play, that is, the building of PCs to the point that they had their holdings on the outdoor. This is a wargaming, campaign feature that was familiar to the players of that time in both LG/Minneapolis.

Thus the well-rounded campaign assumed PCs playing in both backdrops (higher with outdoor adventures, etc, ie, higher challenges), as well as a new cadre of players always coming into the game. This was always true, in fact. The original players worked up levels and were pretty ahead of any new participant, thus by that time they had started another PC (Tenser>Erac, Terik>Monk with No Name, etc.) This did not per se retire the older accomplished PCs, but these were placed on the outdoor and could in fact still adventure due to whim, or by chance run-ins by other characters (all of which happened at various times with Robilar and Tenser, for instance).

Thus the game was divided by campaign notions and adventuring notions, all of which mixed or matched.

What EGG and Arneson refer to here is their top-heavy number of participants for the actual game as opposed to the numbers that a referee might tackle in a single session, and then I would assume as a group; though in campaign play that would differ by time allotted for each participant to receive back from the ref reactions to previously submitted written orders, and could perhaps take as long as 15-30 minutes per player in those cases.

For example, when EGG, myself and Don Kaye very early on participated by mail in Dave Arneson's DGUTS campaign run by Dave from Minneapolis, we convened at Don's house to go over the inputs and to craft orders for the next few months of "game-time" play. We were the United States in the game (Napoleonic era). EGG was the president, Don the Secretary of State and I the treasurer and the one who had to finalize what we were doing and thus balance the budget and send it to David along with our orders for the upcoming time period.

Now, transfer that to game play in D&D. That's how we played, more or less, once reaching higher levels. Sure, we had henchmen that were sent into the dungeons, too, there to build (cf, Gary's UoaSB retellings are rife with these instances).

Though I have strayed a bit from the original point, there is much to understand from a player's view then that is indeed missing now. Yes, the group in LG was large and made larger by the actual advent of the game (important point, it was new and in demand) and because of
EGG's proclivity to network with folks and invite friends, family and associates to play. Having me as a DM and others planning events managed the flow a bit better, of course.

Convention turn outs at that time gave way to large groups as well (average 10-20). On the average, however, the number of participants in our game(s) was no greater than they are today (4-8), it's just that there were greater possibilities of this number increasing at any given moment due to many volatile factors as I've noted.

E N Shook said...

A jotty reply to your interesting post, James!

During the periods when I've run my campaign I recruited from among smart, open-hearted folks who had no previous D&D experience. I've always found this expands the player base rapidly. New players often invite other new players. As well, new folks introduce new questions that refresh my awareness of my assumptions. Due to this constant refreshment, I’ve found myself able to break into the new and unthought more easily on my own, yet, I am constantly amazed how new players still refresh my sense of the game! There is almost no limit to our human ability to shift perspectives into spaces we are unfamiliar with, and therein much of the magic of thought can be caught.

When a DM has becomes engaged in this process of continuous refreshment, they ask themselves questions that break down assumeds, such as, “Why is it that humanoids like dwarves and orcs have such different and well expressed natures, yet red and white dragons are just a different color with a different breath weapon, but are otherwise quite generic? The answers create new material just by being answered. Similarly, a new player dares to ask questions you wouldn't have thought about, revealing a whole new set of answers that expand the playing field.

Many of today’s new rules systems and the campaigns associated with them are limited to a set of themes, as if one were playing within a novelized world. For example, Gary's Land Beyond the Magic Mirror could be reconstructed as a campaign world, wherein we find ourselves limited to adventuring in Lewis Carroll's Wonderland world. But, a full-fledged fantasy campaign embraces the concept of the multiverse and is not limited to a particular domain. The background multiverse represents the unlimited power of magic, as all things may intrude and inform the campaign space, which is interconnected with everything else. Without the multiverse informing Greyhawk, the campaign concept becomes a very limited adventuring tool, since magic's doors are not yet thrown wide open.

A campaign could be anything that cumulates experience. Unlike "level", "campaign" did not yet require disambiguation, because it subtly shifted meaning across a gradual scale as fantasy role playing deveioped and all of its participants filled out its form. We can now clearly see a slippery slope, where one end is an intellectual commitment by the DM, and the other end is merely the act of serializing play. Serialization was inherent in the initial game, as shared by the idea of a military campaign, brought from war gaming. Fantasy war gaming still lends itself to role playing, due to its heroic nature, regardless of how many people play both. Whereas, the expansive mindset required by the best fantasy campaigns has developed over time and is not automatically present in the mind of any gamer by virtue of their partiicpation in war games. In fact, the domain of most war games are limited to the cast of the initial scenario, which people then fight to complete.

This openness is more obvious when we consider the mind boggling idea that a fantasy role playing campaign has no end, at all. Players technically don’t win or lose (although one can easily debate this, it was heralded as an oddity compared to most other games in the early years of FRPGs. One could debate that the idea of a game includes an end. It’s just that the end, in the case of FRPGs does not complete play. I would argue that play is open, but it still has an end.)

The multiversal aspect of the campaign prevents 1E fantasy role players from snuffing their imagination out as they tend to covet the subset of dusty scapes and grimy dwarves found in the early material. Instead, we gravitate toward the limited medieval tropism while it is pierced with an extensive magic. Without this tension of the ordinary and basic held as background to the odd and amazing, we do not so clearly delight in the magic. So, while a strong campaign might be expansive, it also operates upon the known in order to draw a contrast.

I think this also partly answers the question of why Greyhawk is so attractive and what constitutes its atmosphere. It is a range between the conservative setting and the unlimited that pierces it.

Rob Kuntz said...

"Whereas, the expansive mindset required by the best fantasy campaigns has developed over time and is not automatically present in the mind of any gamer by virtue of their particpation in war games. In fact, the domain of most war games are limited to the cast of the initial scenario, which people then fight to complete."

Nicely worded expose, my friend; but the idea of Wargaming Campaigns, as noted in the example I provided about Dave's Napoleonic Campaign we played in for years, set the stage for non-scenario driven game-play that lasted ad infinitum, in fact, just as do nations (for the most part, and in considering our relative view of these as we are mortals constricted and limited by time passages). Each group of participants in fact played nations and thus the armies and economics thereof, and as can be noted therefrom, the campaign idea was extended into Fantasy games as then designed by its two biggest adherents, Gygax and Arneson. Of course participating in same was to note same, as I have already done. Nice commentary otherwise.

E N Shook said...

Thanks for the kudos. Sorry if I could have been more clear.

I'm certainly not saying that a Napoleonic campaign doesn't qualify as a campaign, and I'm certainly not saying it's not the origin of the term's initial use in fantasy role playing.

By scenario I take that you mean a small event, where I’m intending scenario to mean an initial set of assumptions limiting the scope of play, such as what one would find in WWII or during the Napoleonic Wars. Thus, you can maybe better see what I meant when I said, “limited to the cast of the initial scenario.” I don't think it disagrees with your points in any way.

Rob Kuntz said...

Ah yes, clarity is always the path to understanding. Good points all around.