Saturday, September 14, 2013

Remembering Featherstone

Since Donald Featherstone passed away last week a good number of people have posted remembrances, and in case you missed them, here is a small few:

While for many Featherstone was primarily an influence on their early experience of wargaming, Featherstone loomed largest over my own gaming experience in the last five years or so. This, quite frankly, because I was disappointed in the contemporary wargaming discourse and I was wondering what may have been lost over the years in terms of culture and ideas. The OSR, which to this point, to my knowledge, has only been in reference to roleplaying provides a model for this. That in going back to the roots of the hobby we can see the other paths not taken or abandoned and explore them. But I haven't seen it applied to much to wargaming.

There are people exploring these ideas in the public sphere, in places like on the Vintage Wargaming blog, but in the forums I frequent mention of the old ways is usually in passing and in the past tense, of the kind that begin something like, "I recall back when I was a lad we would...." or simply, "ah, Featherstone, those were the days..." and then after a sentence or two that's the end of it.

Anyway, back a few years ago I was looking for some historical gaming material, and thought it strange again, that very similarly to how there was little talk of the old ways on forums, there was little available on the web or file sharing networks in terms of old material, this is stark contrast again to roleplaying, where for anyone interested you can find the whole history and all the primary sources readily to hand. Maybe it's just more obscure and I haven't stumbled into the right spheres, so don't take my word for it that's not there. But I wound up going to the library where, at my library anyway, Featherstone was the only source on the shelf. That's how I came to Featherstone.

That there was just a single volume on wargmaming at the main library of a major metropolitan city was sad in and of itself, but Featherstone's Complete Wargaming was everything I had hoped it to be, a real window into a world that I saw reflected pretty much nowhere in contemporary wargaming. On the one hand there is a frame of reference that can be communicated in a book on the topic of wargaming as opposed to a set of rules itself, which affords fewer opportunities of this sort, but on the other hand there is a way that he is always moving between a historical reference to a particular tactic or a particular even to how you would start to build a game around it. There's a thin membrane between history and mechanics and a fluid exchange between them, with mechanics rough and custom-fit to serve the particular purpose at hand.

Since that trip to the library I've bought my own copy of that book in particular and read it several times. It's been a huge relief to me, and I've put a number of Featherstone's ideas to practice in my own designs my friends and I are playtesting.

Before anyone gets ideas, I want to make it clear I don't claim to be an expert on old school historical wargaming or on Featherstone in particular. I've only just begin to get my feet wet. But I think there is an awful lot of room for us to not just honor and remember the old ways and the forefathers of wargaming, but to give them the same treatment that roleplayers have given the D&D phenomenon and guys like Gary Gygax. While, surely, many will miss Featherstone, he's still with us, in print even. Here's to the man and may his legacy live on in our games.


  1. An interesting article. I suppose the 'Oldhammer movement' is to fantasy wargaming what the OSR is to roleplaying, although as you rightly point out historical wargaming - which is not only older than but also spawned fantasy gaming and roleplating - does seem to ignore its past somewhat. Perhaps because in covering the myriad of scales, periods and rules that it does it lacks the narrow focus and resulting unity of the others? In most respects, though, both the OSR and Oldhammer currents are driven by sheer nostalgia rather than a desire to explore alternative avenues. Not that that's a bad thing, mind...

    1. Thanks for your thoughts! I'm really not sure why but I see the dividing line is between roleplaying and miniatures, whether the miniatures are fantasy or historical. Roleplaying has a very robust discourse and games involving miniatures not so much. In my experience OSR and Oldhammer are very different, and OSR is exactly about going back to roots of the hobby to try other avenues, and the community has done numerous close readings of most of the original texts, have done extensive interviews with the original people involved, have dissected every rule a hundred times over, and moreover are playing thousands of different variations of the games each built on particular philosophical underpinnings. I really think you are selling OSR short in summing it up that way. Oldhammer, meanwhile, does have a few aspects you can compare, such as the interview portion, but for the rest, Oldhammer really comes down to being an umbrella term helpful to find other people interested in the look and feel of 3rd edition Warhammer figures--that is it's more a hashtag rather than a movement with a discourse. Keep in mind this is from someone who things 1st edition Warhammer already has most of the things I don't like about current edition Warhammer, and I think any kind of miniatures version of the OSR would need to completely file off GW serial number and go back further to Chainmail and Featherstone.

      I don't want to disparage Oldhammer too badly, though. I love Citadel figures from 1984-1991 dearly, and the art, and attitude, and some of the personalities. The old Warhammer rules, though, Jesus, they were little more than a recipe for the predicament we're in now with the Warhammerization of everything.

    2. Having played Labyrinth Lord a number of times (one day I will get a group together dedicated enough to run a proper campaign!) and as a follower of a number of OSR-centric blogs I would agree that the OSR exhibits greater profundity than Oldhammer (as well as being much more popular), but I still think the underlying motivation for many adherents is nostalgia: a return to the simplicity and innocence that existed when they first experienced these games. And in this regard there is a parallel with Oldhammer. Remember too that many early fantasy wargamers graduated straight from DnD, so in the early eighties at least there was a blurring of boundaries.

      Regarding WHFB: I first played 4th edition when it came out and stopped at 6th edition. I currently own copies of 2nd and 3rd edition. Aside from cosmetic changes to the mechanics here and there I agree that the rules - not necessarily the attitude! - have changed very little over the last quarter-of-a-century. It is an awful, clunky system which I find painful even to watch being played anymore. I can name numerous indie systems that do the job much better for a fraction of the price.

    3. Hey, cool, glad you're into Labyrinth Lord. I DM using the AD&D books but the campaign is OSRIC compatible so any player can just print out the relevant OSRIC portions.

      I started playing warhammer with 3rd edition and Rogue Trader about the same time and could never understand while hereto I had had tons of fun playing with toys, and going forward roleplaying was likewise fun always every time, but the warhammer experience was always a bust.

      On the motivation behind OSR I think there are quite a few out there and no one is a clear winner. When you here so many articulate their involvement in the game on a forum like Dragonsfoot I'm not sure how you could come away with the idea that for many it's mostly nostalgia and desire for innocence. Many, especially the designers among us, feel that the later versions of D&D were a development path that led to a dead end, and they are going up the development tree to create a branch further down the trunk with ruthless and unmistakable conviction behind their specific actions. I was not around for the original edition and had very little but disdain for the 2nd edition that was around when I grew up. It was only later when I returned to 1st edition after reading OSR blogs that I realized 1e was a complete coherent game where the later editions are not. There is a perception from outside OSR that old editions are somehow easier, lighter or more innocent, but this is a false perception. The truth is that since the very beginning there have been light/freeform versions and dense, complex ones, such as AD&D 1e. While nostalgia can be a motivating factor in getting someone to turn away from the contemporary maintstream, the truth of the matter is that the rules were better and more coherent for anything I and many others want to do with them. For me personally it's a matter of both playing the games "by-the-book" in the old style to learn about the play experience, and then in my own designs letting the influence of the old games merge with what little is good from contemporary designs, which is mostly what's in the story game community, to take us into the future. And though I'm well-read on what came between I can largely ignore it except in terms of being influenced by the aesthetics.

      My own involvement is both ways, in terms of wanting to preserve the aesthetics/revel in the nostalgia, but also in terms improving the rather sorry rules we use today through an injection of the wisdom of the past. And I can clearly compartmentalize these dual pulls. I definitely love anything owlbear related, and I my campaign inspiration folders I show to my characters are full of campy illustrations wonderfully marred with artifacts of cheap offset printing. But there are plenty of others who are on board for the rules alone, and prefer a more contemporary aesthetic, or a different aesthetic altogether, one they articulate to their specific players with an inspiration folder drawn from far outside the gaming spheres.

  2. In defense of Oldhammer, it's actually more of a movement towards Braunstein type games, reintroducing the GM, filing off the GW serial numbers from the (admittedly clunky and inelegant) system. Sure there are some involved who are just interested in archeogaming 3rd Edition, but I think they're just a vocal minority, look at the thread on Pony Wars and the positive reaction to be seen (along with the inevitable ponyderp).

    Personally I've been reading Tony Baths work on wargaming campaigns, Wargames Research Group rules pdfs, Thane Tostig and all sorts of wonderful earlier stuff, climbing back up the development tree to bring into my gaming those ideas.

    Things are still very much in the early stages, the phrase was coined 2 years ago, and the OSR has been running for years and has a much more developed community... If you want to start help shaping the Oldhammer discourse, then bring it :-)

    1. Thanks for your thoughts! I fear I come off as being down on Oldhammer--I actually love it, and especially the aspect that shows renewed respect for the figures, design and personalities and artists of the era. Also like you say OSR has been going for years, and I'd add that RPGs in general have a big head start on the navel gazing business in general after many years of places like the Gaming outpost, the Forge, and now the Story Games Community fostering all kinds of talk.

      I definitely look forward to participating however I can in the Oldhammer conversation or whatever we are calling it a year or two from now!

      Am a fan of your blog by the way, cheers!