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That the hobby of roleplaying grew out of the older hobby of wargaming is well known. The world's first tabletop RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, proudly proclaimed its origins on the covers of its 1974 rulebooks: "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures." In addition, D&D's text made frequent reference to Chainmail, Gary Gygax's 1971 medieval miniatures wargame, on whose rules it depended to varying degrees. For example, D&D's now-standard D20-based combat system was, in fact, the game's "alternative combat system," as the rules originally assumed most players would be using it as an adjunct to Chainmail rather than as a game in its own right.
Nowadays, it's easy to forget that wargaming, particularly of the "hex and chit" variety, was once a very popular pastime. The late 1960s and early 1970s -- the years immediately before the publication of Dungeons & Dragons -- represent a highwater mark for the hobby, when games of this sort could regularly sell hundreds of thousands of copies. While wargaming is still very much alive today, in terms of sales and popularity, it's a shadow of its former self. Consequently, the history of this hobby and its influence on tabletop RPGs is not well known. What follows is not so much a full history of wargaming so much as an overview of some of the individuals whose creativity and designs shaped the hobby and, by extension, the roleplaying games that followed in their wake.
Although games inspired by warfare have been around for centuries, games intended as simulations of warfare are a fairly recent innovation, often credited to the Prussian courtier Baron von Reisswitz. In 1811, during the Napoleonic wars, he created a wargame -- or Kriegspiel in German -- played on a sand table, which found favor in both his native Prussia and also in Russia. The baron's son, Lieutenant Georg von Reisswitz, refined his father's game and published it in 1824 under the lengthy title, Instructions for the Representation of Tactical Maneuvers under the Guise of a Wargame. Unlike the elder Reisswitz's game, this new game was quickly adopted by the military for training purposes. Its rules were complex, carefully representing movement and combat. Dice were used to simulate random elements, such as morale, inclement weather, and the like.
Verdy du Vernois
Reisswitz's game proved very popular and influential. One of its biggest proponents was Helmuth von Moltke, who had come into contact with wargaming while still a young officer. He founded a wargames club and even published his own journal dedicated to wargaming. Von Moltke became Chief of the Prussian General Staff in 1857, where he promoted wargaming as an important tool for training officers and preparing Prussian (and, later, Germany) for war. Moltke's patronage resulted in the creation of a new set of rules by Julius von Verdy du Vernois. These new rules were more freeform than were those of Von Reisswitz. This necessitated the use of one or more referees -- proto-Game Masters -- adjudicate marginal cases not explicitly covered by the rules.
In the 19th century, many nations looked to Germany as a role model in military matters, among them the United States of America. Charles Totten, an American military officer, noted the importance of wargaming in the German military, and introduced it into the US. In 1880, he published Strategos: A Series of American Games of War. Totten's wargames required the use of a referee, after the fashion of the then-current German paradigm. He used them to teach military tactics at the University of Masschusetts, West Point, and Yale University.
Nowadays, Englishman Fred T. Jane is best known for the publication he founded in 1898, Jane's All the World's Fighting Ships, descendants of which are still published today. What's often forgotten is that the information Jane included in his periodical was intended to support a naval miniatures game also included with it, a revised version of which he published in 1905.