Wednesday 24 July 2019

How Walter Scott almost invented RPGs 200 years early

I recently read Walter Scott's autobiography - an unfinished fragment that I found bundled in with my grandfather's edition of Lockhart's Life of Sir Walter Scott. Scott's fiction isn't much read these days: he wrote in an age that considered length to be a virtue in novels, and modern readers often find his works maddeningly slow as a result. But his influence is hard to overstate, and even today, when most people think of 'the Crusades' or 'the Middle Ages', what they imagine is likely to owe at least as much to Scott's novels as to actual medieval history. Fantasy fiction, in particular, owes an enormous debt to Scott, and to the fictional world of knights and kings and barons that he first popularised two hundred years ago. (The basic line of inheritance runs Walter Scott -> George MacDonald -> William Morris -> Lewis and Tolkien -> everyone else.) I was thus intrigued to discover that, as well as laying the groundwork for the subsequent invention of fantasy fiction, Scott seems to have come surprisingly close to inventing the RPG.

Related image
Scott as a young man, by Henry Raeburn.

Scott suffered a childhood illness that left him lame in one leg, excluding him from participation in the ordinary sports of the day. Instead, like many physically infirm boys before and since, he immersed himself in reading, especially in old stories of chivalric adventure. His best friend, John Irving, shared his passion for such stories. Here's how Scott describes their favourite pastime:

My greatest intimate, from the days of my school-tide, was Mr. John Irving, now a Writer to the Signet. We lived near each other, and by joint agreement were wont, each of us, to compose a romance for the other's amusement. These legends, in which the martial and the miraculous always predominated, we rehearsed to each other during our walks, which were usually directed to the most solitary spots about Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags. We naturally sought seclusion, for we were conscious no small degree of ridicule would have attended our amusement, if the nature of it had become known. Whole holidays were spent in this singular pastime, which continued for two or three years, and had, I believe, no small effect in directing the turn of my imagination to the chivalrous and romantic in poetry and prose.

This is essentially the same social context from which innumerable D&D campaigns were born two centuries later: nerdy, socially awkward teenage boys sneaking off to tell one another interminable stories of war and magic and adventure, taking turns as narrators, riffing off one another's ideas, and spending entire holidays developing the larger-than-life exploits of the imaginary heroes they created together, all while hiding from their peers from fear of ridicule. (Yeah, I know, D&D is cool now. But it certainly wasn't when I was a kid.) But it gets better: Scott's health worsened, and he spent several months stuck at home. Here's how he passed the time:

My only refuge was reading and playing at chess. To the romances and poetry, which I chiefly delighted in, I had always added the study of history, especially as connected with military events. I was encouraged in this latter study by a tolerable acquaintance with geography, and by the opportunities I had enjoyed while with Mr. MacFait to learn the meaning of the more ordinary terms of fortification. While, therefore, I lay in this dreary and silent solitude, I fell upon the resource of illustrating the battles I read of by the childish expedient of arranging shells, and seeds, and peebles [sic], so as to represent encountering armies. Diminutive cross-bows were contrived to mimic artillery, and with the assistance of a friendly carpenter I contrived to model a fortress, which, like that of Uncle Toby, represented whatever place happened to be uppermost in my imagination.
Just as Scott and Irving's story-telling sounds as though it was only a character sheet away from D&D, so Scott's re-enactment of historical battles on the floor of his own bedroom sounds as though it was only a few dice away from wargaming. The pieces were, quite literally, all there: he'd even been playing chess, itself a gamified representation of the clash between two armies. All it would have taken was for Irving to drop round one day for a visit, and for one of them to have the idea of using Scott's seed-and-pebble armies to reenact a battle from their shared stories rather than a battle from history, and for the other to glance at the nearby chess board and suggest making the battle a game rather than a predetermined narrative, and bam: fantasy RPGs and tabletop wargaming would both have been born in the 1780s.

But that's not what happened. Scott's health rallied, and his social skills improved, and he learned how to dress himself properly and stop being such a nerd all the time, and he ended up becoming a successful lawyer and novelist instead. The tiny crossbows and seashell armies and cooperative romance-writing were left behind - but not before they had instilled in him a fascination for tales of medieval adventure and daring-do that would lead him to write novels like Ivanhoe, The Monastery, and The Talisman. These novels became, in turn, the grandfathers of modern fantasy fiction, and thus the great-grandfathers of the modern fantasy RPG.

What I found most interesting about these anecdotes was their familiarity. It's hardly a surprise to discover that bookish, socially awkward, and physically infirm teenage boys have always gravitated towards fantasies of power and magic and violence, and towards idealised figures of masculine heroism with extremely strict honour codes: that was as true of Scott in the 1780s as it was of me in the 1990s, and doubtless for all the same reasons. But until I read this autobiography I would have guessed that the specific form taken by these fantasies - the knights and castles and wizards and whatnot - were more historically local, a matter of grabbing onto whatever available cultural bric-a-brac happened to fit the specifications. I was thus somewhat surprised to discover that the causality actually ran the other way around, and modern adventure stories about knights and wizards were first popularised by a man who did so because he fell in love with them during his own days as a nerdy teenager in search of escapist fantasy.

It couldn't have happened any earlier, within a cultural context in which the institutions of feudal chivalry was still held in deadly earnest: that culture first had to wax, and wane, and fall away, and become available for re-discovery and re-appropriation as a fantasy rather than a reality. Scott was a child of the Gothic revival, not of actual medieval Gothic culture. But Scott's autobiography suggests that once it was possible, at least part of its appeal stemmed from the fact that it was what we might now call 'gameable': much more easily adapted than, say, Classical mythology to improvised co-operative storytelling, or to refighting battles on your bedroom floor. And the much-remarked-upon dominance of medieval fantasy in RPGs and computer games - the fact that forms that could theoretically do anything keep gravitating back towards the same imaginative landscape of knights and wizards and castles that Scott half-excavated and half-created two hundred years ago - may have something to do with the fact that it was a landscape that was created for something very close to gaming in the first place.

I mean, tell me this doesn't sound like a scene from a D&D scenario:

"Lo, Warrior! now, the cross of red 
Points to the grave of the mighty dead; 
Within it burns a wonderous light, 
To chase the spirits that love the night: 
The lamp shall burn unquenchably, 
Until the eternal doom shall be.' 
Slow moved the Monk to the broad flag-stone, 
Which the bloody cross was traced upon: 
He pointed to a secret nook; 
A bar from thence the warrior took; 
And the Monk made a sign with his withered hand, 
The grave's huge portal to expand. 

With beating heart, to the task he went; 
His sinewy frame o'er the grave-stone bent; 
With bar of iron heaved amain, 
Till the toil-drops fell from his brows like rain. 
It was by dint of passing strength, 
That he moved the massy stone at length. 
I would you had been there to see 
How the light broke forth so gloriously; 
Streamed upward to the chancel roof, 
And through the galleries far aloof! 
No earthly flame blazed e'er so bright: 
It shone like heaven's own blessed light; 
And, issuing from the tomb, 
Shewed the Monk's cowl, and visage pale; 
Danced on the dark-brow'd Warrior's mail, 
And kissed his waving plume. 

Before their eyes the wizard lay, 
As if he had not been dead a day; 
His hoary beard in silver roll'd, 
He seemed some seventy winter old; 
A palmer's amice wrapped him round, 
With a wrought Spanish baldric bound, 
Like a pilgrim from beyond the sea; 
His left hand held his Book of Might; 
A silver cross was in his right; 
The lamp was placed beside his knee: 
High and majestic was his look, 
At which the fellest fiends had shook; 
And all unruffled was his face-- 
They trusted his soul had gotten grace. 


  1. Fascinating - I'd never heard of him before and now I feel like I should certainly read more about him.

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  3. Fascinating stuff. I didn't know this before. :)

  4. Great insights. Your intro resonates, in school I liked Ivanhoe but it was so damn long. Scott's "game" of exchanged stories reminds me of what I've read of the Brontes' Angria and Gondal world-building activities, another almost RPG. And his work had an influence on them; their wiki page has this: "The Brontës were also seduced by the writings of Walter Scott, and in 1834 Charlotte exclaimed, "For fiction, read Walter Scott and only him – all novels after his are without value.""

    1. The Brontë siblings are definitely another example of isolation-driven escapism. They went even further towards a proto-RPG, in that each of them had a toy soldier who represented a character within their collaborative fictional universe for whom that person had special responsibility - a sort of PC, in other words, complete with a miniature. I don't think they moved them around to indicate the positions of those characters within the fictional world, though.

      I've read nine and a half of Scott's novels, and every one of them was a slog. His narrative poems - e.g. 'The Lay of the Last Minstrel', quoted from above - are a little bit pacier, though.

    2. Proto-RPGs from Walter Scott and the Brontë sisters, that's fascinating! I knew that H.G. Wells had his "Little Wars", and I'd vaguely heard of the Brontë's "Glasstown". There's an interesting recent blog post on that here, actually:

  5. ivanhoe is part of my personal appendix N

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