Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

We're Still Not Convinced That RPG's Were Originally Converted Wargames (Braunstein Edition)...

Several months ago, we posted our assertion that modern role-playing games weren't really converted wargames after all, and it met with pushback given that D&D billed itself as rules for fantastic medieval wargames, and that the hobby's pioneers were all wargamers and simulationist of some stripe.  And they made some valid points, so we'll soften our position very slightly (but not by much) to (re)stress the obvious: 

Role-playing is undeniably linked to wargaming, and to say otherwise ignores the essential elements of its history.  But it would also be a huge mistake (and factually wrong) to assume that Wesely simply converted his Napoleonic game to a man-to-man scale.  Or that modern role-playing represents a neat (and linear) progression from wargame to RPG when, in fact, he needed to step away from wargaming to create Braunstein; the hobby's precursor. 

Braunstein was a game.  But was it a wargame?  That's at the heart of the matter, because games, simulations, and wargames overlap considerably...

Yes, David Wesely was an active wargamer.  So what?  I'm a (retired) meteorologist.  Does that mean our Pits & Perils is a weather forecast?  It just doesn't follow...

A long time ago, in the
fictional town of Braunstein (Brown Stone)...

And yes, the eponymous Prussian town of Braunstein did lay between two opposing armies in his other (ongoing) wargaming campaign.  Fair enough, and I guess we could call it a spin-off from his usual game.  Still, Braunstein didn't require the other's rules to execute and could have easily existed without the events of that parallel game.  

Moreover, the successful execution of combat was never a condition of victory in the original game, where players became bankers and/or students (among other occupations) who found themselves embroiled in decidedly non-combative actions at the table.

To underscore this point, Wesely, despite (presumably) having multiple combat mechanics at his disposal, was completely thrown when a duel broke out.  Indeed, he thought his creation was a failure because it seemed so freeform.  And it was freeform.  Aside from the division of play into turns, there was very little beyond on-the-spot rulings.

Now, much was made of Wesely's inspirations.  He got the idea for a referee preparing the evening's battle from Strategos, The American Game of War by Charles Totten.  But does that make his Braunstein a wargame?  D&D has a referee, and no one considers 5th Edition a wargame.  The Compleat Strategist by J.D. Williams also plays a part, but this is a book about game theory and not some wargaming reference beyond the inevitable overlap...

All wargames are simulations.  But are all simulations wargames?  And where do we draw the line?  Monopoly is a real-estate simulation for sure.  But is it wargaming?

A signed copy of a limited-edition
print of Barons of Braunstein (from Chirene's Workbench)...

I'd say that, at a minimum, wargames should be about actual war and the execution of the same through effective strategy and tactics.  And in order to do this, you need to simulate a world where terrain and weather, among other things, are taken into account.  But we need to ask ourselves if a game where you have to get your (non-combatant) banker out of town with their gold counts as anything close to a true wargaming experience.

Of course, the lines get blurred because Arneson converted the original Braunstein concept into a fantasy milieu that absolutely required detailed simulation.  And wargaming stood at the ready with the rules and mechanical structure needed to make it happen...

And so, D&D was briefly a wargame.  At least until it wasn't.  Or put another way, Braunstein wasn't a wargame so much as a deviation from wargaming by a wargamer interested in trying something different.  It's essential structure (one player per character) and freeform execution were retained, with simulationist mechanics added because the need to introduce special powers and abilities obviously demanded it.  But it quickly became role-playing once it was clear that armchair generals had little to do with the emerging hobby! 

More importantly, given the execution of Braunstein, it owes more to the sort of imaginary play that predates modern (and probably ancient) wargaming by millennia, and this chicken definitely came before the egg, although I'll concede that a close kinship exists.  

But perhaps the best proof of this is that David Wesely, himself, didn't view his creation as a true wargame, preferring instead "adventure game" to describe his innovative idea, and our hobby owes literally everything to one wargamer's foray into something very different...      


  1. Your comparison of his hobby to your career, is not apt. I would argue he would not have created Braunstein at all if not for the fact that he was a wargamer already.

    All of which is moot, when you get to D&D, the actual precursor to modern rpgs. No one thinks of some obscure, one off experiment when they think of the origins of rpgs. D&D was directly influenced by wargaming. The point was to narrow combat focus from squads and armies, down to individuals. The non-combat rules arose from that as you cannot be in combat 24/7.

    1. The career bit was a response to a specific argument made by someone else, and so we disagree about the true precursor of the hobby. No Braunstein, no Blackmoor. No Blackmoor, no D&D. That was our point...

  2. Per Wesely (I played in a Braunstein with him at Gary Con last week), Braunstein wasn't a one-off; he ran it multiple times & when he left for the military, Arneson specifically asked permission to take over running the Braunsteins...

    1. Absolutely (and thanks for the pics)! There were four Braunsteins, including a Banana Republic one that sounded awesome...

  3. What exactly are you arguing? That Braunstein and the original Blackmoor campaign did not have it's roots in the wargaming hobby?

    The original players were wargamers. And you could add emphasis by actually saying that they were avid wargamers. The connection between Arneson and Wesley, then Arneson and Gygax was through wargaming.

    The influence of the wargaming hobby can easily be seen in the written text (not just the intro) of both the LBB's and the FFC.

    Wargaming has a long evolving history. Experimental approaches to play is not a novelty unique to Braunstein. The hobby has tried many different things over the years- some of it with an eye to simulation and some of it just for fun.

    Let me suggest that you take a look at Engle Matrix Games, then let me know if you feel it would fall into your definition of a wargame.

    1. Well, we have conceded the IMMENSE influence wargaming had on the hobby; so total agreement on that one...

      I guess we're arguing that (1) there's considerable overlap between different games, especially simulation games, (2) role-playing wasn't a simple matter of converting a wargame to a man-to-man scale (mechanically, Braunstein wasn't anything of the sort), and (3) the hobby is equally indebted to a tradition of imaginative play that predates wargaming. Yeah, that's it...

      We'll check out your suggestions. Thanks for the tip!

    2. I think you would have a stronger argument that Braunstein would not have existed without the wargaming hobby rather than what you seem to be proposing.

      I am not desirous of minimizing Wesley's contribution, though. The part he played by exposing Arneson to his Braunstein's should be acknowledged. I believe it is recognized by those who know a little about how D&D developed.

      But, your points of argument do not seem to coincide. They do not all point to the same general conclusion. I'll try to respond to them individually.

      1) I think all people would agree that games are similar (overlap) because they all fall under the same broad category of "a game".

      2) roleplaying with wargames did exist before Braunstein. It just was not the central mechanic. Look into some of the early Diplomacy zines for examples. It was also not uncommon for players to give favorite or leader-type figures a persona.

      3)All games are indebted to a tradition of imaginative play. It's part of what makes a game a game. I think you are looking at the wargaming hobby too narrowly. Generally, I would not agree with you that "all wargames are simulations". But I think you are (mis)using the term "simulation" in a very loose manner. Consider that the game of chess has little of what you would categorize as a wargame in your article. Yet, it is one of the oldest examples of a game of war that is still played.

      Also look into the role of the referee in Von Verdy's Free Kriegsspiel for some comparisons with the idea of a referee determining outcomes in a game instead of hard-fast written rules. You can trace some lines from Kriegsspiel to Totten's Strategos to Wesley.

      Overall, I think you are over reaching in your attempt to elevate Wesley's Braunstein as not being a part of nor being indebted to the traditions of wargaming.

    3. I think we're saying a lot of the same things, and we can both come together and agree that RPG's have many interconnected influences...

      By the way, I've been to war (as a commander) and find chess to be a lousy simulation of it beyond the spatial. And it appears you agree.

      Great discussion and great points. Thanks for posting your thoughts!

    4. OHR wrote: "we can both come together and agree that RPG's have many interconnected influences..."

      Yes, still, what you are not readily conceding to is that those many interconnected influences all have one common theme- wargaming.

    5. Childhood imaginative play can (and certainly does) exist independently of wargaming. Playing barbies isn't a wargame...

    6. Are you honestly suggesting that Westley's Braunstein and the original players of Blackmoor had more in common with playing with barbie dolls than wargames?

      Wargaming DOES involve imaginative play. Ignoring this fact is the crutch of your argument.

    7. Not at all. Only that an abiding love of PLAY is what compels adult men to paint and move around miniature figures on a tabletop playing war...

      And this love of play goes back to their childhood's WELL BEFORE they became wargamers. They played policeman and teacher...

      And, yes, perhaps Barbies too (cause' girls play as well), and your focus on the Barbies, but not the point behind it, is to your detriment.

      Are YOU honestly suggesting that this impulse doesn't predate wargaming, whether historically or in the lives of individual people? Cause' I'm pretty sure Wesely engaged in such play LONG before Braunstein...

      I NEVER said RPGs weren't ALSO influenced by wargames and in important ways. Only that in order to make that first critical step to running individual characters, Wesely tapped into something that objectively exists in most children and ABSOLUTELY predates wargaming by a country mile!

    8. I am not proposing that either predates the other. I am suggesting that they are not mutually exclusive.

      Now I know people like to think "let's pretend" pre-dates wargames. It seems their evidence is purely speculative and nostalgic in origin though. The game of chess is over 1500 years old. War and games associated with the making of war, including sports, have been around since the beginning.

      There's no point in me going into a long ramble about ancient cultures and infant mortality. It would add little to the idea that roleplaying grew out of wargaming in the 70's. Suffice it to say that your perspective is jaded by the luxury and benefits of living in our modern era. To the point, your argument lacks evidence.

    9. I never said they were. Read it again:

      "Role-playing is undeniably linked to wargaming, and to say otherwise ignores the essential elements of its history." From the second paragraph...

      And the fact that 20th century children played things like doctors, policemen, or teachers (all contemporary professions) suggests that the play impulse is tailored to the child's environment, and it's generally agreed that this stems from a desire to imitate adults and is an important developmental stage.

  4. Wesely runs both Braunstein I (Prussia) and IV (Bananania) at Garycon every year. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

  5. Check this one out, probably the first published RPG (1966), Modern War in Miniature, by Michael F. Korns: I've only seen one copy. It's WWII themed. The play description in it is more RPG than wargame.

  6. Try actually, you know, TALKING TO DAVE WESLEY.

    Because oh brother, you are full of crap. Actually, you have a conclusion begging for a question.

    1. We know Dave personally. We've even Licensed a game through him (Barons of Braunstein). And yes, I believe he knows how we interpret his creation and why we hold the position that we do about it...

      We think Wesely did something INCREDIBLY important that transcends a simply linear translation of a wargame and hold him in HIGH REGARD as a FOUNDING FATHER of the hobby when many others don't. Please explain to me why this is a problem or merits such an angry introduction on your part.

  7. I think tying the creating of RPGs to Braunstein isn't very constuctive. Not only were similar games (individual characters with varying objectives) popular in England at the time, but they all worked in a manner similar to other free action games in that the time to resolve all these actions was long and done in turns (by my recollection, the first Brauntein game only got through 3 turns in the entire day play session).

    The big advance came when Arneson moved into the dungeon. By greatly reducing the variables involved (range, terrain, lines of sight, etc) it allows, for the first time really, for the referee to respond to a player's action in real time. A player can walk around a room, search a chest, listen at a door, check around a corner and the DM can easily tell the player what happens.

    This fundamentally changes the game play flow from strict turns taking several minutes to resolve into an endless series of small micro turn that are resolved in real time. At this point, the turn structure falls away and the game takes on a conversational tone.

    That is the point where a new type of game was created.

    1. True. But Arneson played in Wesely's Braunstein and asked to take it over when he left for the Army. And it's unclear whether he would have done something similar without Wesely's Braunstein influence. Maybe he would have, but maybe not. And it doesn't matter, because things happened the way they did, and I don't think we can write Wesely out of the history...

    2. >>>The big advance came when Arneson moved into the dungeon. By greatly reducing the variables involved (range, terrain, lines of sight, etc) it allows, for the first time really, for the referee to respond to a player's action in real time.

      Hedge, that's an inaccurate characterization of Braunstein play. All the various Braunstein games involve player characters responding and being responded to in real time situations. The dungeon does make a nice framing device for gaming, true, but it doesn't effect how the referee interacts with players, otherwise there would be no such thing as a town based adventure. As for "conversational tone" even Braunstein I had that, as the players interacted and colluded with each other in character - something they were used to doing from their wargames, especially via "in character" correspondence.

  8. Whew. There's much extraneous, semantic, and counterfactual sand being thrown in the air around here, so let's go back to basic facts and disabuse ourselves of false assumptions.

    Folks can argue about specific denotations as much as they please, but it is INARGUABLE that a Role Playing Game, is a game where people play roles. To be more precise, it is any character centered game wherein personal traits are inherently effectual to the outcome of play.

    That Braunsteins are and were Role playing games is simple fact. Braunsteins are games where players take on effectual character roles.

    Likewise, wargames are games wherein armed conflict is simulated through impersonal rules.

    Dungeons & Dragons was and is a wargame. That too is simple fact. One need only crack the cover on any D&D rulebook and see all the weapon tables and attack charts. So, on this one point I must completely and totally reject the OP notion that "no one considers 5th Edition a wargame."

    "Wargame" and "RPG" are not simplistic, either or choices. The world doesn't work that way.

    The question that should be asked is not whether Braunstein is an RPG or whether D&D is a wargame, it is obviously the exact reverse.

    Since no one doubts that D&D was and is also an RPG, the remaining question is whether Braunsteins were also wargames, or even wargames at all.

    There were numerous Braunstiens played over a period of 2-3 years before Blackmoor, involving 3 or more referees. These Braunsteins were set in at least three different centuries and a half dozen of more wildly different locations. Of the dozens of Braunsteins we know were played, few if any of them ever involved the simulation of conflict between armies. Yes, it was Wesely's initial intention that the very first Braunstein merely serve as a set up for a wargame, a tabletop battle of armies.

    But that battle never happened. It was the set up that quickly grew into a new kind of game itself - a game where the players assumed all kinds of roles, most of them having nothing to do with any kind of armed forces. These characters then used their role to navigate with and against each other in a social setting, to achieve their personal goals. They were role playing always; wargaming on ocaision.

    Perhaps the closest a Braunstein game ever got to being an actual wargame is the game wherein Dave Arneson played "El Pancho", a mexican bandit on the run from authorities. It is true that most of the games had some military overtone, sure, such as a foreign army just being days from the town, or in a couple of the Banana republic cases, the streets about to erupt in revolt, but other "Braunsteins" had little or no military component, such as the "Brownstones" set in the old west. Hell, one of the first "medieval" Braunsteins set in yet another new location called "Blackmoor" involved a poker game under a troll bridge.

    In short, if you going to a Braunstein in the hopes of doing some wargaming, you were in for a disappointment. To be clear, Braunstien, like any other RPG, could of course engage in wargaming as a part of play, historically though it didn't do that all that often and there was and is typically less combat in a Braunstein than in a typical D&D game.

    1. I agree with most of what you have to say here Dan. But I think you are also defining "wargames" too narrowly. In my opinion, wargames are any game that develops, resolves, and/or analyzes conflict.

      What sets Braunstein apart from this idea that this was simply a group of people playing "let's pretend"? It's the fact that Westley did create a scenario and the players did have overlapping or conflicting objectives. This was not impromptu. Also, it seems that Westley was at least passingly interested in the historical aspects of his game. These are elements that he carried over from wargaming.

      Yet, his success with Braunstein hinged on the open nature of the game that allowed players to attempt anything in character in obtaining their objectives.

      Of course the boundaries would be pushed the more times it was played and Arneson would take it in new directions.

    2. Wargames have a "war" and "game" component...

      I think you might be defining the "war" part much too broadly and denuding it of meaning. The Merriam Webster definition is: A state of armed conflict between different nations or states or different groups within a nation or state. And when we extend the designation to all games of conflict, we denude conflict of meaning as well.

      As a retired commissioned officer and combat-disabled veteran, I can assure you that war is horrific, but also that it has a specific meaning professionally recognized by the service academies and international community...

      The psychological and/or management communities, alone, are rife with all manner of conflict-resolution exercises, and to call these wargames robs what they do of meaning just as easily. The term, at a minimum, should indicate something of its scope and purposes or else it becomes too broad to communicate anything meaningful. And simulating elements of armed conflict per the definition of war succeeds in doing just that.

    3. You are confusing the idea of a simulation with that of a wargame. Not all wargames are simulations. And Merriam Webster needs to get with the times. We now live in an age of cyber warfare.

      Attend a Miniatures Convention some time. I don't find my definition broad at all. It seems very concise and to the point, even if it does not fit your predilections.

    4. Yes, cyber warfare is certainly an element of armed conflict, especially when used to compromise weapon systems and/or vital intelligence. It changes nothing about the definition of war. I retired in 2010, and this was something that mattered GREATLY to all the services by then. You can dismiss Merriam Webster, but probably not the U.S. military quite so easily...

      By YOUR definition, a wargame can be:

      (1) Tic-Tac-Toe (because it creates conflict)

      (2) Role-playing exercises in marriage counseling (they analyze and resolve conflict as its central purpose)

      (3) A WWI armored simulation (because it, too, creates and resolves conflict on the tabletop). This is something I'd call a wargame.

      Wargames are games of war. They have a GAME component, a WAR component, and a SIMULATION component, although to varying degrees depending on their scope and purpose. I guess we'll agree to disagree about it, friend...

    5. Really, though, you have a definition that works for you, and I respect that even if we don't agree. I think passion about the hobby is good, and since I don't hit a lot of miniatures conventions, I'm open to any reasonable defense of your position and realize you have your own background. But I'd be careful about arguing the definition of real-world war to a retired military officer...