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Monday, November 7, 2016

RPGs Weren't Originally War-Games...

Last week, we talked about combat tables in D&D and wondered why things didn't start out simple and gradually evolve into the greater complexity that really appears to have characterized the earliest editions of the game.  But we also acknowledged that systems tend to become more streamlined over time, implying that the earliest state of the hobby looked more like its middle period MIGHT have; simple at first, clunky in the middle, and more streamlined at the end.  

This time, we'll delve a little deeper...

Now, many readers (rightly) pointed out that the combat and other tables were derived from the original war-games from which our hobby was born.  This is accurate, sort of.  Anyone introduced to the pastime in 1978 couldn't easily escape this fact and probably learned from people who still played historical simulations and had a table in their garage or basement complete with rolling hills and model terrain.  Indeed, an eleven-year-old me remembers playing in a friend's garage on a Saturday night in August of that year.  "Kiss You All Over" by Exile was booming on someone's car radio, and we debated the wisdom of missing our 70s television lineup.  But this game, which already seemed to have a long and storied history (an impressive four years on the market), had us hooked!

War-gaming was always an important part of D&D's development.  So much so, in fact, that it might come as a surprise that role-playing DIDN'T ACTUALLY BEGIN AS A CONVERTED WAR-GAME...

No, role-playing sprang from David Wesley's original Braunstein game(s), which were every bit as free-form and simple as I argued the first RPGs SHOULD have been.  For the uninitiated, and because we like the story, here goes:  Back in 1969, Wesley took a break from his usual Napoleonic games and prepared something a little different.  The game was set in the eponymous German town of Braunstein (Brown Stone), and the table was set out with model buildings and railroad parts in typical war-gaming fashion, although here's where the similarity ends.  Each player was given a prepared character, perhaps the town mayor or a student radical, complete with their own motivations and conditions of "victory" in a game that emphasized role-playing and personal interaction over combat and the formal imposition of history on their choices.  Indeed, there were no charts (beyond the notes Wesley prepared for the session) or personal statistics.  The characters were described QUALITATIVELY, and their abilities and aptitude for certain tasks were derived from THIS as a judgment call.

At what point did gaming become
a technically complex and convoluted mess?

Knowing Wesley as a friend has yielded sweet fruit, as he's a great person and a veritable font of gaming wisdom that's always fun to hear.  So we'll quote HIM on this matter:        

"I would resolve most doubtful questions by letting the player roll dice: The banker jumps into the river to escape the angry student mob:  I say “roll 2d6: being a fat old man, you need a high number”.  He rolls 7, and I say “Do you drop the bag of gold?” and he says “Oh yes” and I say “Roll again” he rolls 12 and I say “you grab a floating body and it keeps you from drowning while you drift downstream away from the falls.  You lucky devil” or he rolls a 5 and I say, “Too bad you didn’t drop it before you dove in.  Your body will be found in a few days.”

Now, this left much to the referee's rulings, but these were DEFENSIBLE rulings because they cited the qualitative facts of the character.  Of course a fat old banker isn't going to swim as well as an athletic young student, especially when weighed down with gold!  This is standard fare, in fact...

But there are TWO important points here.  First, this was an ORIGINAL concept almost completely divorced from traditional war-gaming with all its charts and tables.  At the same time, even the SIMPLEST attempt to formalize its mechanics would have resulted in the kind of ultra-simple system we advocated for!  

Our rhetorical question has already been answered.  Gaming DID start out simple.  Super-simple, in fact!

Our attempt at a basic timeline
totally open to revision, dear readers!

So how did war-games, with all their complexity (and we mean charts and tables here), come to predominate in the early hobby?  Once again, there are good reasons for this:

(1) WESLEY JOINED THE ARMY because Vietnam was still a thing, and he was called to serve, leaving his regular Braunstein games to his friend, Dave Arneson.  And boy did he run with it!  

(2) ARNESON'S BLACKMOOR was a "medieval" Braunstein that introduced fantastic elements to the game and was also, incidentally, a play on its naming convention (Brown Stone, Black Moor), which you may or may not have noticed.  And yes, Grey Hawk follows in its footsteps!  Out of sheer necessity, special powers and abilities were introduced, both for monsters and the player-characters, and more effort was made, in general, to distinguish the characters from one another.  Inevitably, this led to greater complexity.  How do you simulate these things?  Luckily, traditional war-games already had the necessary architecture, and this was happily incorporated into an exciting new concept.

(3) GYGAX'S CHAINMAIL offered a separate attempt to create a medieval war-game and introduce fantastical elements.  Indeed, many of D&D's trademark flourishes are found here, making this required reading for anyone interested in the history of everyone's favorite role-playing game!

(4)  WHEN GYGAX AND ARNESON got together to develop a commercial product, they (inevitably) drew elements from both sides, and since each had a war-gaming background, charts, tables, and the general complexity of that hobby weighed heavily.  The minimalist game that MIGHT have been, sadly, never ended up happening...

Although, to be honest, we're tried like hell with our own products, including a Licensed Braunstein RPG! 

Of course, that was then, and the trend towards simpler, more streamlined systems is evident, especially in the latest iteration of the game, which continues to strive for the optimal balance between complexity (always needed to support mechanics which, in turn, support the many powers and abilities present in a fantasy world) and ease of play.  After all, it's HUMANS pretending to be elves and wizards, and sometimes, the BEST complexity really does come from their personal interactions!  See you next week...     


  1. Facinating. Did Wesley cite any sources for his game? He sounds like a great game master.

    1. Nothing specific. I'll definitely have to ask him about the Napoleonic system his group was playing prior to his little Braunstein experiment. He DID draw heavily upon his own knowledge and research into the period, clearly.

    2. A big influence on his mind at the time was his own adaptation of Charles A. L. Totten's 1880's book "Strategos: A Series of American Games of War." Weseley condensed this into a set of Napoleonics rules callec Strategos N. The Strategos game relies on a referee, and that idea was part of what lead to the Braunstein experiment.

  2. I'm don't really follow the logic here. Rolling dice to determine the outcome of a situation not covered by the rules is most certainly a tradition in wargaming.

    1. But is any game where you roll dice in situations not covered by the rules a war-game? Even if there's no actual combat or emphasis on tactical movements and the like? I argue, and Wesley seems to believe, that something NEW emerged with his Braunstein game. It's a matter for debate.

  3. Very intersting. I wonder if you could comment more about Chainmail and to what mesure it was needed to play OD&D?
    In Blackmoor, Arneson writes he started using a D20 to base his rulings. I assume it was after Wesley did his Braunsteins right?
    Wheren't the Braunsteins also ocasion for wargame battles?
    I find all those thngs interesting.

    1. OD&D suggested that Chainmail be used, but provided an alternate system that quickly became the norm. Wesley's Braunstein used a 12-sided die (dodecahedron), although he seemed to enjoy the 2d6 we used for our Barons of Braunstein RPG. And yes, the d20 came later. As for war-games coincident with Braunstein, I'll have to ask Dave. Hope all of this helps!

    2. Tom, if you search the forums, (like ODD74) you'll find that's a much debated question. Really, it comes down to what kind of game you want to play. The 3lbb's can be played without CM, but the books themselves do expect the referee to have CM and adapt it's rules to the game, and doing so adds a certain richness. As to Arneson's use of dice, you might be interested in some of the posts I have on my 'blog Hidden in Shadows .