Friday 4 February 2022

Fred T. Jane and The Deep Roots of D&D

There comes a point in any genealogical backtrace when you realise that everyone in the world is now an ancestor of whoever you are studying. Generally, the researcher, politician, or random nutjob on YouTube then slides the window forward a few generations so that they can continue to make arbitrary claims like being of African descent (like everyone else), from native-born English stock (except for all those Anglo-Saxon immigrants that were born in Denmark and Germany), or that their opponent is from genetic background that prevents them from being president of the United States of America (unlike, for example, all those people who actually lived there before the speaker’s closer ancestors arrived on boats to steal it).

So it is with games. By the time we get back to the 1800’s, it’s almost tautological that any given game can be found to have some influence on D&D, perhaps because it used dice, perhaps because it required players to speak, and possibly because it had a referee. And the latter is the link I’m looking at here, combined with the implied corollary that the rules are known to be, perhaps intentionally, incomplete.

Fred Thomas Jane was a geek (or nerd, if you prefer). He was just a typical example of the type: into science-fiction, fascinated by modern technology, and with a mathematical mind that appreciated applied physics and engineering, who read a lot. He also was a talented artist and a game designer.

Here’s one of his more expressionistic, even slightly futurist, images of the London Underground in 1893.

And another of an imagined Moonbase (in the year 2000) from 1894.

He also wrote a few science-fiction novels, including an alien abduction yarn where the spaceship is disguised as a “summer house” - could this have been a gazebo?! - and the excellently-titled The Incubated Girl.

He even illustrated some Sherlock Holmes stories.

But, of course, Jane’s claim to fame was built on his fascination with warships, in particular battleships and then dreadnoughts. Like many of us, he found himself pondering how to simulate the operation of these floating fortresses for the same reason that so many games continue to be designed on any number of real-world topics: to see which ships were best, all else being equal.

He first released his classic work Fighting Ships to the public in 1898 when he was 33 years old, and were an immediate hit in an imperial age where battleships were the pinups favoured by boys and young men. The ships’ vital statistics were included in a new and compact form, rating armour and arms with a letter code.

To modern eyes Jane picked the wrong method for these and in a foreshadowing of Arneson’s choice of Armour Class decades later, set the best armour as class “A” instead of that being the worst armour and E the best. As the imperial arms race continued, Jane was forced to add AA, then AAA, and so on until resorting to notation of the form A5 as shorthand for AAAAA and even higher. Clearly, ascending armour classes would have suited his purpose better.

At this distance in history it’s been hard to precisely order events but it seems that the rules needed to turn Fighting Ships into a game - the simply-titled “The Jane Naval War Game” - were released either at the same time or immediately afterwards and these sparked interest in Official Circles™.

These were quite wide circles - the rules were apparently playtested, or at least carefully-enough read for corrections to be suggested by Grand Duke Alexander Mihailovitch Of Russia, Prince (later Lord) Louis Mountbatten (the one murdered by the IRA), Captain H. J. May of the Royal Navy, and Lieutenant R. Kawashima of the Imperial Japanese Navy. There was some input from Australia too.

The rules went through a familiar pattern of a simple initial edition, a series of releases with more complexity, and then a “reset” in 1905 with an edition which threw much of this extra complexity back overboard and put the emphasis on the game referee to decide using their presumed knowledge of real-life naval combat; by now the game was solidly established as a teaching/training tool for the navies of the world.

I’m not suggesting that The Naval Wargame was a direct ancestor of D&D. When Jane died in 1916 at the age of just 50 and the game almost immediately went out of print, never to return. With the first world war in almost full swing (America would not join for another year and a half), the ability for tourists to wander around the naval dockyards of the world, even onto the docked warships, became a quaint notion never to be seriously entertained again. With the characteristics of the ships now much more secret than before it was hard to update the rules accurately, not to mention the rate at which ships were being deployed and, in some cases, sunk.

So the chances that Gygax had even heard of it in 1973 are slim. Arneson, with his life-long interest in sea-battles probably had heard of it but I doubt that he had seen a copy; I think the nearest publicly available copy was in Michigan, and no complete set (with all the markers, ship “character sheets”, and strikers used for the combat system intact) survives today.

Take 3000d6 damage

But the game’s heavy reliance on a referee is another example of the type of game that was common for many decades, and everyone involved with CHAINMAIL and hence D&D would have taken the idea of loosely-defined rules which are interpreted by a trusted game-master not just in their stride but as the normal format of a game which was simulating some reality.

Hex and counter games which did away with the referee were certainly around but they paid for that freedom with deeply detailed rules. CHAINMAIL was by no means unusual in being what appears, to an Advance Squad Leader player, to be a pamphlet which might be advertising a game rather than the thing itself. Such games had no influence of any note on D&D and, like Jane’s game, this would lead to problems when a wider audience held the rules in their hands, an increase in complexity followed by something of an Old School Reformation.

Jane was, to a large degree, a typical gamer who one could encounter at a convention today. Interested in science-fiction, even writing some of his own, and wanting to try recreating old battle or imagine “what-if’s” and “maybe one day” scenarios with a set of rules he’s put together under one arm and a source-book of stats he’s illustrated himself under the other. Rather like a certain Mister Arneson, in fact.

Jane’s ships floated on the primordial soup from whence D&D emerged.

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