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Before The Forge, there was the Forge. Founded in April 2001 and closing in 2012, the Forge was a community of 4,476 users making 266,041 posts about designing, publishing, and playing new and innovative role playing games (RPGs) (White 2020). Both sites aimed to develop the intellectual basis of their communities through quality user-generated content, and the lessons from RPGs can directly contribute to enhancing the intellectual edge for the profession of arms.


  • A game is an interactive structure, with a meaning derived internally, that requires players to struggle towards a goal (Costikyan 2002).
  • A wargame is a scenario-based warfare model in which the outcome and sequence of events affect, and are affected by, the decisions made by the players. At the core, a wargame is the players, their decisions, the narrative created, their shared experiences and lessons taken away (Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre 2017).
  • An RPG is unique, in that the medium of the activity is communication (usually talking), each player is a performer and audience, resulting in a shared narrative mediated by rules resulting in a predictable range of experiences ideally in line with the goal of the designer (N. D. Paoletta 2019).
  • A Larp (or LARP, ‘Live Action Role Play’) is an RPG where the medium is expanded from talking to actual physical performance or an agreed substitute, and the shared narrative includes significant physical representations like locations and props (Vanek 2009).

As an example, if you wanted to play a game related to Battlestar Galactica:

  • A wargame would use model Colonial Vipers and Cylon Raiders, moving on a board or a computer screen, to simulate a battle.
  • An RPG would let you play a Viper pilot like Apollo, Starbuck, or even Boomer, focusing on the personal stresses of wartime service in the Colonial Navy.
  • A Larp would be like game Project Exodus, funded with money from the German government, where 80 players on board a decommissioned destroyer for five days will act as various characters exploring issues of freedom, safety and humanitarianism (Robertson 2015).

Not the only game in town

Tabletop RPGs first started as an offshoot of hobbyist miniature wargames in 1974 with the fantasy-themed game ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ (D&D) by Tactical Studies Rules (TSR). TSR initially marketed D&D as ‘Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures’. D&D’s significant innovation from wargames was the focus on individual characters as opposed to formations, and the continual playing of the same character over multiple sessions of play instead of a one session game (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '70s 2014).

By 1991 with the release of ‘Vampire: The Masquerade’ by White Wolf Studios, RPGs had ventured from combat and exploration into focusing on story, politics, machinations, and internal conflict (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '90s 2014). While Steve Jackson Games published the first mass-market Larp ‘Killer’ in 1981 (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '80s 2014), White Wolf would transition Larp from isolated communities to the broader audience with ‘Mind’s Eye Theatre: The Masquerade’ in 1993 (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '90s 2014).

Also in 1993, Steffan O’Sullivan published the first Open Source game called ‘FUDGE’, a toolkit style game that could be adapted as needed (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '90s 2014). By 2000, D&D released its mechanics as Open Source. This democratisation of game publishing, increasing focus on narrative/story, combined with the low barriers to entry, helped the ‘indie’ design trend flourish primarily focusing on tight game design dealing with serious and particular subject matters (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '00s 2014).

D&D continues to dominate the RPG scene, with an estimated customer base of over 40 million people since 1974 and significant future growth expected (Whitten 2020). A leading online RPG service lists D&D games representing 59% of all games played (Roll20 2020). This level of success that D&D enjoys approaches the problem of genericised trademark, in that the brand becomes so popular that the brand becomes synonymous with the broader product (i.e. Hoover, Band-Aid, and Bobcat). Some professional wargamers have fallen into this trap, dismissing RPGs for use in tackling ‘serious’ problems (Brynen 2014). With a broader appreciation for the field, RPGs can powerfully develop narratives useful for analysis.

For example, the multi-award-winning game ‘Fate Core’ utilises a fractal concept to allow the same five mechanics that represent characters, to simply model anything else (Balsera, et al. 2013). This fractal concept is exampled most notably in ‘Fight Fire’, where the players are firefighters but the fire itself has characterisation mechanics to reflect its importance to the game. Fires are divided into types like open fire, void fire, and smouldering fires. Fires have characteristics to represent the ability to spread, burn, and generate smoke. The resultant smoke is modelled in its ability to choke and disorient (Morningstar and Balsera, Fight Fire 2013). ‘Fight Fire’ is an example of the game system being elegantly used to represent wide ranges of shared narratives.

Strengths against wargames

Matrix games,1 and especially Seminar games, have the problem of devolving into convergent thinking and conventional outcomes. Matrix games preferentially value expertise and seminar games by design value consensus. These issues are so prevalent that the term BOGSAT or ‘Bunch of guys sat around a table’ has entered into UK doctrine (Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre 2017). These wargames fail to take advantage of the concepts of fortune and distribution of authority (N. D. Paoletta 2019) found in more innovative RPG design. Again to use Fate Core as an example, there are four degrees of success within the mechanics, being failure, tie, succeed and succeed with style. Tweaks can mean that failure is changed to succeed at a serious cost, and ties are changed to succeed at a minor cost. Through negotiation with other players, authority for the shared narrative is distributed according to how much a player is willing to invest in an outcome moderated by the results of fortune (Balsera, et al. 2013). This distribution of authority leads to divergent possibilities in thinking and narrative well beyond Seminar games, and emergent scenarios beyond those provided by a simple binary result from Matrix games.

Game of war

The first major successful military-themed RPG was the post-apocalyptic ‘Twilight:2000’ published by Game Designer’s Workshop in 1984. There were many other releases in the 1980s, but by the 1990s military-themed RPGs largely disappeared from the marketplace. A notable exception was ‘GURPS’ by Steve Jackson Games published in 1986 and was the first successful RPG line designed to be flexible enough to be adapted to any thematic setting (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '80s 2014). GURPS published sourcebooks for law enforcement, espionage, religion, Russia, China, Special Ops and computer intrusion (GURPS: Cyberpunk). The last two are noteworthy, as GURPS: Cyberpunk was close enough to reality that it became infamous as ‘the book that was seized by the Secret Service’ (Blankenship 1990).

On 1st March 1990, the US Secret Service executed a warrant on Steve Jackson Games as part of its computer security mandate. A university student arrested in 1989 had part of the plans for computer intrusion attempts intermingled with his GURPS: Special Ops campaign notes. An associate of the university student was the lead author of GURPS: Cyberpunk. After the Secret Service raided the author’s house, they proceeded to Steve Jackson Games offices’ and seized the manuscript of GURPS: Cyberpunk as ‘a handbook for computer crime’. Steve Jackson Games successfully sued in 1993, discovering the seizure was opportunistic (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '80s 2014).

Relying upon the growth of the indie RPG movement described earlier, many more games have been released that deal with military themes and scenarios. A selection is in Figure 1 below.

Selected military-themed commercial RPGs
Figure 1: Selected military-themed commercial RPGs

Stepping into their shoes

RPGs through characterisation can internalise powerful lessons about real-world situations. A noteworthy example is Winterhorn, which is a Larp ‘about how governments degrade and destroy activist groups. By playing law enforcement and intelligence operatives working diligently to demoralise and derail, you’ll learn about the techniques used in the real world in pursuit of these goals’ (Morningstar, Winterhorn 2017). Winterhorn is a game designed by one of the best in the field. Morningstar has won what some consider ‘the most prestigious’ award in gaming, the ‘Diana Jones Award’ for excellence in gaming (Appelchine, Designers & Dragons: The '00s 2014). He’s also the only designer to personally win the prize twice since 2001 (The Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming n.d.).

Morningstar describes his motivation behind the game stemming from his fear regarding current American politics. While superficially modelled on Stasi or the COINTELPRO, he states he was more influenced by the FBI and Chicago Police in the late 60s. The players play the ‘bad guys’ or analytical agents of government security services, and a secondary design intention is to endear understanding and even empathy towards government works from an activist audience (Sheldon 2017).

RPGS and developing the intellectual edge

The ADF would be strongly advised to explore how RPGs can enhance our intellect edge. The value of RPGs are well proven and used in industries such as in business, education, military training, improvisational theatre, drama therapy, health care and entertainment. RPGs provide three fundamental benefits (Bowman 2010):

  1. Enhancing a sense of communal cohesiveness by narrative enactment within a ritual framework.
  2. Encouraging complex problem-solving and providing participants opportunities to learn an extensive array of skills (see Figure 2 for a small sample) through the enactment of scenarios.
  3. Safety to enact alternate personas through identity alteration.
Figure 2: Leadership lessons you can learn from roleplaying games - Chan 2018
Figure 2: Leadership lessons you can learn from roleplaying games (Chan 2018)

RPGs foster community. Within the military, ‘ADF Delta Two Zero’ is an association promoting RPGs as a ‘way to stimulate learning and aptitude in…literary aptitude, mathematics, problem-solving, risk analysis and teamwork’ (ADFD20 2019). RPGs can teach, safely, about the consequences of actions on other people and populations through the exploration of identity lenses like ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or nationality. For the military, when interactions with foreign nationals can have profound consequences (Bowman 2010), the low cost of designing and running RPGs can have immeasurable benefit.

Through the characterisation process within RPGs, military players can, with some relative safety, explore their own levels self-awareness and practice social interactions that might be new or difficult for them. Through a deliberate process of characterisation using the typologies modelled in Figure 3 below, military players can explore decision-making frameworks in fictional scenarios.

Typology of RPG characters as a relationship of identity between the player and character
Figure 3: Typology of RPG characters as a relationship of identity between the player and character (Bowman 2010)

For example, through the Doppelganger Self, military players can explore how they might make decisions under increased pressures of combat. Arguably our entire exercise doctrine utilises this practice. Through the Experimental Self, leaders may be able to understand the decision making of other individuals, to better to influence these targets more effectively. Through controlled use of the Taboo Self, we might be able to explore the contributing factors leading to unacceptable or criminal behaviours to reduce them.


RPGs, through the process of characterisation, provide safe opportunities to learn complex skills, develop internal & external cohesion, and explore shared narratives. While D&D is prominent, award-winning games like Winterhorn demonstrate the breadth of the medium and its applicability in topical issues. Military subject matter is well supported in RPGs, and through looking at the broader practice of RPG design, innovations can improve how the ADF examines future scenarios while concurrently developing its people. Through leveraging existing RPG groups like ADFD20, the ADF could explore how best RPGs can safely, and with minimal cost, contribute to developing the intellectual edge of its people.


Before LCDR Sean WEST MONEY joined the RAN in 2003, he started playing RPGs in 1997 with ‘Star Wars 2nd Edition: Revised and Expanded’. He married his wife in uniform but met her at an RPG convention. Before taking command as OC Joint Military Police Station, years prior he was a leader of a National Larp not-for-profit association. As an MP and qualified investigator, he is surrounded by questions, but the one he loves the most is ‘do you want to play with me’ from his two boys. His Twitter handle @ratmonkey181 continues the dichotomy between military and RPG scenes

Editors note

1 Note inserted by Editor - Definition of Matrix Game: ‘Matrix games are a form of structured seminar war game. Players propose an ACTION that leads to a RESULT that is supported by a number of REASONS that either enable the action and/ or provide a link between the ACTION and RESULT. The argument is the adjudicated (by a variety of means appropriate to the type of scenario) and the situation is updated to reflect the result. Previous RESULTS can be used as REASONS in subsequent arguments and this allows back tracing to analyse which arguments had the greatest influence on the outcome. From


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