Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Robert Louis Stevenson: Wargamer
The first book my dad ever read to me was Stevenson's Kidnapped (even though I was too young to understand it). A favorite bedtime book of my childhood was this beautiful abridged edition of Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. Stevenson was a part of my childhood, not to mention being instrumental in creating the kind of "normal guy goes there and back again" sort of adventure structure so common in fantasy and adventure literature, from Dorothy Gale to Alan Quartermain to John Carter.
So I was pleased to learn that Stevenson shared a strong interest of mine - gaming. In reading Jon Peterson's Playing at the World, I've learned that Stevenson created a wargame with toy soldiers and pop guns, with his primary stomping ground being an attic floor marked with chalk, and his primary opponent being his American stepson, Lloyd Osbourne. This was, in fact, the chief way he bonded with his new stepson.
Stevenson left few written notes about the rules for his game, but we know it wasn't just about knocking down toy soldiers. Lines of supply for the pop-gun "cannon" were required, and the nature of individual units could be hidden, by moving numbered cards across the floor until the enemy was close enough to spot them: then the cards would be flipped to reveal the troop type and strength, the the corresponding toy soldiers set out.
What we do know about the game comes from an article Osbourne wrote years later in Sribner's Magazine in Dec. 1898. Luckily, you can read a high-quality facsimile of that article right here. If you're interested in the history of wargaming, or are a Stevenson fan in search of some insight into his character, it's worth a read!
It should be noted that Stevenson never published these rules, possibly due to embarrassment at the idea of a grown man playing with toys. It was relatively early in his career when he created the game, although he played it until he died with a generation of step-grandsons and other family members. Most intriguing to me about this game - and it's an important step in the creation of fantasy gaming - is that Stevenson and his stepson created their own imaginary country to fight over, and detailed it rather meticulously in notebooks (though none of this has ever been published, and only tantalizing hints about the nature of this fictional country remain). Furthermore, the duo (somewhat presciently) incorporated a bit of what would later be called "role-playing" into their games, as "General Stevenson" and "General Osbourne" were represented by mounted toy soldiers as well.
H.G. Wells, a bit later, would create his more famous "Little Wars," and he felt no scruples about going public with his habit. However, he was already famous and had made a fortune as a novelist by that point, so perhaps he had greater confidence.
Both Stevenson's and Wells' games made use of toy guns or cannon that shot projectiles to actually knock down miniature soldiers, and the primary playing surface was the floor - this is not a method used by wargames today, which favor tabletops, odds and dice in the German kriegspiel tradition. However, the concept of making the manual dexterity and aiming ability of the player as important as his tactical ability is an interesting one, and if you're going to play a wargame with a young child, I think "knocking guys down" is a great way to do it.
Still, it's nice to know that two authors I admire share my fascination with the hobby of serious gaming, and were instrumental in its foundation.