Fog of War: A History of Keeping Players in the Dark

With its roots in wargaming, Dungeons & Dragons has always had a history steeped in graph paper and dungeons, but the element of the unknown was as much an important factor in adventuring as the dungeon itself. Through the decades this "fog of war" became easier to simulate in games thanks to technology that has become increasingly adept at keeping players in the dark.

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Picture courtesy Pixabay.

It's All a Little Foggy

Player ignorance of an objective reality on the battlefield has a tradition dating back to wargames using a mechanic known as "fog of war." The term originates in 1896, described by Colonel Lonsdale Hale as:

...the state of ignorance in which commanders frequently find themselves as regards the real strength and position, not only of their foes, but also of their friends.

The fog of war was an integral part of the chess variant known as kriegsspiel, as Jon Peterson explains in Playing at the World:

In the military tradition of umpired kriegsspiel, however, secret information abounded, including limited maps for players and authoritative ones for referees— yet from Reiswitz onward, the wargaming maps of players and referees differed not in topographical data, but only in the placement of forces on the landscape. The referee served to shield each player from knowledge of opposing troop placement, but not to obscure from players the terrain itself. Totten followed the Reiswitzian precedent in his Advanced Game in Strategos, encouraging that the game be played upon three maps where “each commander will have upon his map only such pieces as represent his own troops, those being drawn from the Referee as needed.”

Similarly, Fletcher Pratt's Naval War Game, published in 1943, made use of fog of war. An accomplished fantasy and sci-fi author in his own right, Pratt's comprehensive war game featured submarines, which by necessity were concealed from surface ships. Peterson believes that this is the connective tissue to Chainmail's later siege rules:

As Rule 6c in his wargame states, a “player handling a fully submerged submarine is sent out of the room and marks his moves on a sheet of paper.” In this manner the referee tracks, on paper, the location of vessels below the surface which cannot be revealed to the rest of the players, who merrily push their ships around in plain sight. Pratt does not actually maintain a secret map of the underwater zone, but nonetheless his system may have inspired later games that took things to that next logical step.

Dungeons & Dragons' wargaming roots originate with Chainmail, which was influenced in turn by Pratt's game. Peterson believes dungeon mapping has its precedent in Chainmail's military mining to undermine a castle's defenses:

Crucially, Chainmail continues that “a third party is necessary to act as judge” for these operations, since the attacker and defender would not be cognizant of the exact position of opposing subterranean digging parties. Although tunneling below walls and exploring underground structures have little in common as endeavors, in a game system they do share a common need for a referee to maintain the obliviousness of players. In both Pratt and in Chainmail, the judge became responsible for explaining the state of the secret information about events below ground, using words in lieu of showing a board.

Dungeons were already unknown corridors with the possibility of the ceiling collapsing on adventurers at every turn. It was only a matter of time before monsters were added into the mix.

...and a Ten-Foot Pole

Dungeons & Dragons adventures have moved beyond dungeons, encompassing everything from wilderness exploration to dimensional travel. Although it's recently come back into vogue with the Old School Renaissance, mapping every ten feet in a dungeon eventually became an easily-mocked trope:

The ease with which a dungeon generally forces players to follow one path through a game and keep them tied up for a long time in a small space, all without having to resort to illogical barriers, is all too easy for developers, and annoying to players. Dungeons, after all, are reasonably expected to be fully enclosed structures whose walls are well reinforced — often by the very earth itself, if located underground, as they often are — making a single, static path through them more or less "justified". Dungeon Crawls often cheaply limit options for traversing them using a spaghetti strand of enclosed corridors, keys and doors, and other barriers requiring unique items to surmount them — all of which are less realistically implemented in a wide-open setting.

Peterson reminds us that mapping a dungeon was a critical part of how Dungeons & Dragons was played:

Rather than revealing a visual depiction of the world, the referee instead provides a verbal description of the immediate environs, in response to which the players propose where and how they attempt to move. Throughout Underworld & Treasure there are many hints to referees for designs intended to “prevent players from accurately mapping a level,” causing “fits for map makers among participants” and “frustrating those setting out to map a level”— implying, though never explicitly directing, that players must literally draw their own maps as they go.

The secrecy of the dungeon is integral to D&D. Many monsters were specifically created to confuse the player's perception of the actual dungeon, ranging from the gelatinous cube to the trapper. Likewise, traps rely on player ignorance lest they be avoided. And of course, secret doors change the structure of the dungeon itself so that the walls themselves aren't necessarily a barrier. This intentional filtering of player knowledge was a new innovation for gaming. Peterson emphasizes just how revolutionary this concept was to previous wargames:

In Dungeons & Dragons, the referee similarly hides from the players the location of opposing forces— namely monsters— until their discovery in the course of play, but the practice of obscuring the very dungeon terrain leads to a novel and intuitive gameplay mechanic for adventuring.

Beyond making changes to dungeon map, game masters keep players guessing by also verbally editing descriptions and selectively providing information. All this requires a significant amount of effort on behalf of the game master to keep both versions of reality -- the players' and the actual dungeon -- straight. It's enough to make you wish there was some automated means of handling it all.

Dungeons & Dragons' unique mixture of exploration combined with a filtered perception of the fantasy universe was difficult to reproduce without a human agent, but Mattel was willing to try.

Lost in the Labyrinth

As technology advanced, keeping players in the dark got a little easier. Mattel released the Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth game in 1980, and although it was relatively crude by modern standards, it featured a dungeon, a dragon, and two adventurers dumb enough to try to steal its treasure. Mattel's electronic board game hit all the beats of D&D without having a game master: miniatures, a tactical map, and a crude mapping mechanic developed by listening to sounds as the warriors bumped into walls exploring the dungeon.

Just as a dungeon master in pen-and-paper D&D described the world through verbal descriptions, Mattel's game described the dungeon's dimensions and the movement of its resident dragon through electronic beeps. Toby T. Gee describes the game:

The game casing resembles a castle, which is pretty cool when you think about the fact that you are exploring a dungeon, of which the game board in the center of shell represents. It also has a storage “Dungeon,” that slides out from the side, to hold the rules and playing pieces. The playing area is composed of 64 red, touch sensitive squares, each decorated with fantasy art; 16 different images that repeat in 4 quadrants. The playing pieces consist of a bunch of plastic wall pieces, three green markers (one for each players’ secret room and a treasure marker), and what might have been the coolest component – four metal miniatures.

More importantly, the electronic game allowed solo play, as Gee recalls:

How could you not be excited to have an electronic version of the game you couldn’t play because you didn’t have enough people? This was the secret key I was looking for. The key to solo play!

The game retails today for $70, which is approximately the price it debuted at in the 80s. If you prefer instead to play a more traditional board game, it's possible to reproduce the game's electronic board using these tiles and these rules, including variants that actually put the various pictures on the board game to good use. Board Game Geek features a Flash variant as well.

Tabletop games simulate the fog of war without a dungeon master through randomization -- in essence, there isn't really two different versions of the dungeon, just one that is slowly revealed to the player. Randomization, coupled with intentional player ignorance, replicates the feel of the fog of war but with less structure and sometimes bizarre results. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide used tables and dice to generate a random dungeon, and the Fifth Edition DMG has carried on that tradition. Dungeonmorphs merge tables and dice into one randomization mechanic.

Digital Dungeons

Once computers got into the mix, fog of war became much easier to replicate, as Tom Cheche explains in "Carrier Force: The Fog of War at Its Foggiest":

Military Commanders have always been forced to make decisions based on information that was, to one degree or another, incomplete or inaccurate. The problem in board wargaming has always been finding a realistic method of parcelling out that information in such a way that the opponents experienced a "fog of war" as close as possible to the actual situation. The computer wargame dispenses that information in the most realistic and playable method available.

Mattel's efforts to replace the dungeon master took another step forward with Epyx's Temple of Apshai. Released in 1979 on the TRS-80 and Commodore PET, it was released on a wide variety of other personal computers throughout the 80s. The Temple of Apshai series of games (known as Dunjonquest) featured D&D-style mechanics, with instructions to import characters as the game's instruction manual explains:

If you have played other Adventure Games - either on computers or with published "Dungeons and Dragons" games - and wish to bring one of your favorite characters from another game into The Temple of Apshai Trilogy, you are welcome to do so; instead of having the Innkeeper create a new character for you, enter the attributes of your old one. (Note, however, that these must be within Dunjonquest's "human" range of 3-18). Depending on the game system you are used to using, you can substitute Intuition for Wisdom, Luck, Power, and Charisma for Ego; while these are not exact correspondences, this is the easiest method of "translation".

There were limitations however:

If you are bringing in "high-level" characters, you should be aware of certain important differences between DUNJONQUEST and other systems. Neither attributes nor "hit points" are raised wholesale with increases in experience. A 10th-level fighter is formidable but not a Sherman tank. Also, the limits of a microcomputer-based system do not yet permit the use of all the different sorts of magic items you may have picked up in published "Dungeons and Dragons" games.

Dunjonquest featured the two elements necessary to control and conceal the dungeon environment: a map that was gradually revealed as the game progressed and narrative descriptions keyed to each room. Instead of a game master reading them aloud, the player was instructed to read the text that corresponded with each room in the computer game. Jimy Maher explains the game's appeal:

In fact, Apshai plays better in some ways than it has a right to; there’s a real tension to navigating through this labyrinth, deciding whether to press your luck and venture onward or turn for the exit, dreading the appearance of the next wandering monster as you do trudge back heavily wounded, having perhaps pressed your luck too far. There’s a visceral feel to the experience that many later dungeon crawls would fail to capture. This quality owes its existence partly to the real-time nature of play but hardly to other choices that have no counterpart in tabletop D&D. As your character loses health, for instance, he moves more slowly, gets fatigued faster, and becomes less effective, bringing home his state in a palpable way. Freeman’s design is a very smart one, in many ways very original even in comparison to games that would follow.

The Dunjonquest series would go on to be a commercial success, consistently placed in the top ten selling games throughout the 80s, until it was replaced by another giant of the mapping genre: Rogue and its successors.

Going Rogue

Rogue takes digital dungeons to their logical extreme: a perpetual dungeon-crawl generated by a tireless computer game master. Rogue debuted for Unix systems in 1980 by Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman and it featured all the elements D&D made popular, including a randomly generated map gradually concealed through exploration. Epyx eventually ported it to other personal computer platforms.

Like Dunjonquest, mapping is an important part of Rogue, as Hartley and Pattie Lesser explain in their review of the game in Dragon Magazine #112:

A map is revealed on the screen as your character explores the dungeon, displaying all the areas on a certain level that have been traversed. If you leave a level and return to it later, all the areas you previously explored will be redisplayed without your having to traipse through them again just to get the map back on screen. This mapping feature is obviously of great assistance to the player, who does not have to spend valuable time penciling a map on graph paper.

Wichman chimes in on why Rogue was such a success:

...I think Rogue's biggest contribution, and one that still stands out to this day, is that the computer itself generated the adventure in Rogue. Every time you played, you got a new adventure. That's really what made it so popular for all those years in the early eighties.

Rogue's legacy is long-reaching. It created an entire genre of games called rogue-likes and would go on to influence massive multi-player online role-playing games' "instance dungeons," replicating Rogue's perpetual dungeon crawl.

Be it played on a board or on a computer, all of these games utilize a crucial element of surprise that Gygax and Arneson included with the debut of Dungeons & Dragons: keeping players figuratively and literally in the dark.
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca



EbbTide808

First Post
I think Adventure (Colossal Cave Adventure) written in 75 by Will Crowther, and Zork written in 77, both for the DEC PDP-10, should be recognized here too. Both games kept the map from the player, slowly revealing each area via text description as it was explored. The player moves through a virtual map, picking up items, solving puzzles, and fighting monsters. These games were hugely influential on the adventure / RPG games that followed, as well as playing integral roles in spawning the interactive fiction movement.
 

Big J Money

Adventurer
In my next campaign, I'm going to try my hand at the old ways. That is, the verbal description of the dungeon only. And more than this, it will only be described by the meager light and shadows of their lamps. Everything beyond will be walls of darkness, glowing eyes and glints and glimmers in the distance.

Wish me (nay, my players) luck.
 

In the campaign I'm running (5e), I'm telling players that if their characters make a map (using supplies and the mapping exploration task), then I will supplement my verbal (and hopefully at least slightly evocative) descriptions by showing them a map (which I reveal with...fog of war!)

If they choose not to make a map, then I will just describe what they see, and they will have to make sense of it and put it together in their own heads.
 

talien

Community Supporter
I think Adventure (Colossal Cave Adventure) written in 75 by Will Crowther, and Zork written in 77, both for the DEC PDP-10, should be recognized here too. Both games kept the map from the player, slowly revealing each area via text description as it was explored. The player moves through a virtual map, picking up items, solving puzzles, and fighting monsters. These games were hugely influential on the adventure / RPG games that followed, as well as playing integral roles in spawning the interactive fiction movement.
Excellent point! Basically, if you look at gaming using the media channels it provides, text-based games had a distinct advantage because you could only use words. I'll have to write a different article about the importance of interactive fiction at some point.
 

EbbTide808

First Post
BTW, just wanted to say great article! Usually prefer to provide positive feedback as well as constructive criticism. :)

I have fond memories of my dad bringing home from work a portable dumb terminal with an acoustic coupler on it. We'd dial into his work VAX (at 1200 baud) and I'd play adventure on it. It used thermal printing paper instead of a screen, so he'd give me grief about using whole rolls of paper playing adventure. :)

I think when writing an article on interactive fiction, you probably have to extend that conversation into MUDs.
 

talien

Community Supporter
BTW, just wanted to say great article! Usually prefer to provide positive feedback as well as constructive criticism. :)

I have fond memories of my dad bringing home from work a portable dumb terminal with an acoustic coupler on it. We'd dial into his work VAX (at 1200 baud) and I'd play adventure on it. It used thermal printing paper instead of a screen, so he'd give me grief about using whole rolls of paper playing adventure. :)

I think when writing an article on interactive fiction, you probably have to extend that conversation into MUDs.

Most definitely. Interactive Fiction and MUDs were a key party of my book, The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games. I'm also an administrator on a 20-year-old MUD, RetroMUD (http://www.retromud.org), so you can be sure I would cover both!
 


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