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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Braunstein Experiment: Wesely Weighs In...

Gaming historians (usually) agree that David Wesely's Braunstein birthed role-playing as we know it today because Braunstein directly inspired Arneson's Blackmoor, and Blackmoor inspired OD&D.  Indeed, his early campaign was refereed to as a medieval Braunstein in recognition of the fact.  A new form of play had emerged; and for a while, Wesely's stamp was indelibly affixed upon the idea.  Dave Arneson agreed...       

And in order to pull off this amazing feat, Wesely had to step outside of wargaming and tap into something different; namely, what we'd call role-playing these days!

But Robyn and I were only just born the year Wesely ran his first Braunstein (there were four of them in all), and it seems silly to speak for him when we have access to the undisputed expert on all things relating to his creation.  So the good major weighed in, and we're all the better for his sage advice.  Modern role-playing was born out of an experiment more turbulent and undeniably fun than any of us could have ever imagined: 

Wasn't Braunstein just a setup for some planned wargame?

No. it was not my initial intention.  If the “adventure game” I had planned turned out to be a dud, I was ready to switch over to a Napoleonic wargame, and just hope no one would remember how I had wasted their time.

Was there any connection to your wargames?

While I let them imagine that we were gathered at my folks basement to fight out a Napoleonic battle, I really did not use anything from our Napoleonic rules (since only a few Prussian troops even got onto the table, and no French arrived to fight).  I was ready, if the "adventure game" I had designed turned out to be a flop, with everyone complaining “Aren’t we ever going to fight?” to just give up and have a column of French cavalry and artillery show up and start attacking the town, and turn the evening into a “normal” Strategos-N wargame.  However, that did not happen, so the link with our Napoleonic wargame rules was pretty thin. [Note: We're sure glad it was a hit!] 

Wesely took a major detour 
from his Napoleonic games to our benefit...

OK, so how did role-playing figure into your earlier experiences? 

The one thing in common was that I had done little bits of proto-role playing in earlier Napoleonic battles, pulling out some late-arriving player to tell him “You are the owner of the tavern in this town, and the local Spanish guerrillas visit you a lot.  Last night they were boasting about planning an ambush of the next French supply column that comes through the pass west of town.  The French have sent  a cavalry patrol into your town looking for the guerrillas.  They are offering a reward for information.  You should decide what you are going to tell them.” And then I would tell the French cavalry commander to talk to the tavern owner.   After which I would assign  a command (French, Spanish or British) to the “tavern owner” player.  This kind of livened-up the proceedings in our battles.  It increased the “fog of war”, and saved me from having to invent all of the dialog between the French player and the local civilians. [Note: This really speaks to the hobby's evolution]

But weren't some of the other games you played doing this?

Again, this role playing was not spelled out in my Strategos-N Napoleonic rules nor was it in Strategos: The American Game of War the 1880 US Army wargame rules that inspired me, beyond a very loose suggestion that the referee could provide information that might be obtained by talking to local civilians.  Much of what we now expect in an RPG, the interactions between player and GM (or as I called him, the referee), the referee telling the player to roll dice rather than just declaring the result, players being given a LOT of room to come up with tricky ideas, and so on, was not planned in the first Braunstein, but evolved as I floundered forward through the two flops (Braunstein 2 and 3) and then got it working well in Braunstein 4 and its successors from June 1969-September 1970.

We thought the division of play into turns might be one thing you retained.

[The] division of play into turns was one idea in the first game which quickly broke down when the players started wheeling and dealing between themselves without asking (or even telling) me about it.  My first Braunstein ran for about 12 hours, and so a lot more than three turns, though the players were not bothering to take turns, so who could count?  My planned scoring system went right out the window.

But wargaming got added to your later Braunsteins, right?

Braunstein 4 contains more rules for combat between Army, Air Force Paratroops, Navy Marines and the Guerrillas of the MRAB (Marxist Revolutionary Army of Banania) if any of those players decide to go to war – but ¾ of the players do not have any troops under their command, and games usually end with a coalition taking power, rather than a civil war.   The wargame side of later Braunsteins got reduced to an external threat, more than a chance for tactical play – “If you assassinate the manager of the Imperial Banana Company, will the UK send in HMS Jingo and her Royal Marines to restore order?”

That's Wesely on the left and
Arneson (pre-Blackmoor) at the far table...

Modern War in Miniature always seemed like a proto-RPG.

While Modern War in Miniature, by Michael F. Korns: was a step toward being an RPG, it did not involve any more role playing than any other skirmish-level modern wargame: It does not suggest that players even name the anonymous soldier they are telling to run across the street, let alone create a backstory for him, or have him do anything except try to stay alive and kill the enemy.  It was much like my Strategos-N rules, with a referee talking each player through a brief period of combat, and providing quick rules resolution.  Korns also did not take it any further.  It did not evolve into Brownstone Texas, Blackmoor and Greyhawk, but remained a modern minis game with interesting play mechanics. I had not seen a copy of Modern War in Miniature before I developed Braunstein, so it was not part of the ancestry of Braunstein, and thus of D&D.  Rather it was a parallel prototype, like Count Zeppelin’s airship, which flew before the Wright Flyer, but did not become the ancestor of all airplanes.

Cool!  And finally, we understand you didn't like the term role-playing?

I did not call Braunstein a “role-playing game” because there were already two other things called “role-playing games” and I felt it would be stupid to over use the name, when I was not trying to create another version of either of them.   What were these other things?   

Well, one was a form of group therapy in which patients  would be asked to pretend they were animals and then asked how their animal felt, or thought about  one of the other animals: the idea being that people would be willing to tell you about problems their imaginary animal had, which they would not admit to having themselves: “Say doc, I have a friend who has this problem...”.  The other “role-playing game” was an improvisational theater training device for actors: For example, in the “Cheese shop game” one player is the customer, who asks for any kind of cheese: “I’d like some cheddar, please”, and the other player is the store owner, who tells him he cannot sell it to him: “Sorry, fresh out” This dialogue goes on until one of them repeats himself, at which point the other rattles off a few more cheeses or reasons to clinch his victory.  You may remember this from the Monty Python show, where Michael Palin and John Cleese star in the Pet Shop skit.  SO after trying “multiplayer multiple objective game” (or MPMOG for short!) I settled on “adventure game”.  Unfortunately,  people who had never heard of the Cheese Shop game decided to use “role-playing game” as the generic name, when TSRs lawyers told them they could not call their imitations “games like D&D”.

And there you have it!  Wesely had precious little but vague and unformed suggestions to role-play from his wargaming inspirations and imported very little mechanically into his first Braunstein game.  Apparently, even the division of play into turns didn't pan out, and it took several tries to get the right balance by his own estimation...

Now, this is important, because it appears that Wesely introduced role-playing as a formal element and on an unprecedented scale.  Why else would Arneson be so enamored with the concept if it was already being done in any serious way?  But even if it was, history tells us it was the friendship between the two men, and the fact of their close proximity, that allowed one to influence the other.  So if you have the good fortune to meet Major Wesely at some local convention, be sure to shake the hand of our hobby's founding father!


  1. This was a great article up to that last line.

    1. Thanks! Understand, we fully recognize that in terms of execution and fantasy content, Arneson WAS the linchpin...

    2. Major Wesely is most definitely one of the founding fathers and an innovator in RPG design. A name that we all should know! Thank you for sharing this with us.

  2. Wonderful. You deserve a big thanks for your efforts!

    1. Thanks! Wesely is a fantastic person; oh, and he liked a lot of your comments on our previous post. Said they rang true...