Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Real Roots of Role-Playing...

With the release of "Dave Arneson's True Genius" by Rob Kuntz, we have a book asserting that Arneson did something special.  Well, no disagreement here!  In fact, that's probably an understatement.  Arneson pretty obviously did something incredible and for which our entire hobby is rightly indebted.  Glad to see that recognized...

Now, a disclaimer:  I haven't read this book yet, so I can't fairly comment on the substance of its arguments and won't try.  But the back cover does summarize his thesis:  

(1) D&D was not descended from Chainmail, as many have asserted.

(2) Arneson did something previously unheard of in 2,000 years of game design.

OK, so to the first point, I concur.  OD&D is credited to Gygax & Arneson, but that's not even the important part.  Gygax heard of Arneson's Blackmoor campaign, and the two men joined forces to create the game.  This is just a matter of fact, and there's no reason to think that Gygax was on the cusp of inventing the role-playing concept on his own...

Yes, D&D imports plenty from Chainmail, going as far as to suggest that combat be resolved using Chainmail's rules, but this borrowing was probably inevitable.

Now, to the second point, I'm not a systems/design wonk by any stretch of the imagination and can't speak to what Arneson may (or may not have) introduced to the hobby and won't even try until I read the book and the proper context of this particular claim...

These creative youngsters get it...

On the other hand, here's my thesis, for what it's worth:

Dave Arneson tapped into something abiding in humanity since before recorded history.  

Wow, OK.  Here's my context.  When I was a child back in the early 70s, we engaged in all manner of imaginary play, pretending to be the Six Million Dollar Man, Superman, and just about every other superhero badass popular at the time.  Indeed, my backyard was a LARP edition of Marvel Super Heroes, circa 1974!  We were, dare I say it, engaged in a structured form of role-playing.  We didn't roll dice, but we did follow rules.

Superman could fly.  But the Six Million Dollar Man could not.  And woe to anyone who tried to flip the script and change these around!  We imposed narrative rules, and any deviations were duly coordinated and informally approved in advance.  And talking to others over the last fifty years has yielded similar stories about play and its assumptions...

Blackmoor (and Wesely's Braunstein) added a referee player in charge of the setting and supporting characters and rules to simulate the abilities of the main characters.  Now we can create our own characters and (as an added bonus) never know if an attempted action will be successful.  But while this was both innovative and without precedent, it was also pretty much just a structured form of childhood play, which is better still. 

What possesses grown men (and women) to paint toy soldiers and move them around on a tabletop diorama?  I mean, this probably isn't gonna get anyone laid (and we're not sure we wanna hear about when it might have), but it speaks to a love of something...

And that's the love of imaginary play!  I look forward to reading Kuntz's book, and probably reviewing it here.  Who knows?  Dave Arneson might, in fact, have introduced something previously unheard of in the annals of design.  But it seems to me that, in addition to whatever else he may or may not have done, Arneson also added random numbers and structure to the play we're enjoyed for millennia, and that's cool, although Wesely's pivotal Braunstein (and wargaming in general) had already begun this...

Play is play is play.  And from where we're sitting, imaginary play is a fun thing indeed!          

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

When Gaming Went to War...

OK, so I was ambushed.  Only it wasn't my first time...

In April, 2003, I was deployed to Iraq as OIC of a small combat weather team embedded in the 159th AVN BDE of the 101st ABN DIV (sorry, the contractions stick with you).  We were part of a ground assault convoy headed towards An Najaf, and we were ambushed after a solid 18 hours driving.  First on good hardball in the south and, later, back roads covered with an incredibly fine powder we called moon dust.  And this is where it happened...

And sure as shit, part of our convoy came under attack.  And I thought it might.  We were on this narrow back road flanked by berms.  Perfect ambush conditions.

We felt like the Clampets going
north in this thing (our IMETS weather van)...
  
But it wasn't my first ambush.  Nope, that was 22 years earlier.  It was also late at night, and our party was travelling through a narrow mountain pass flanked by rocks.  It was also an excellent ambush point.  But by 12-year-old self hadn't learned that yet (hell, none of us were prepared for the goblin ambush that followed).  But I remembered it two decades later. 

No big story here.  No dissertation.  I was injured, but rode out the deployment, seeing a few more skirmishes and surviving an airstrike on a nearby enemy position that came close to taking our convoy with it (hours later, the fireball still glowed faintly like a setting sun on the horizon as we set up camp miles away).  But what I am saying here is that tabletop gaming prepared me for this sort of thing in its own small way, and probably saved me.

Yes, we spent the last two weeks explaining how Wesely and friends had to detour away from wargaming to create RPGs.  But I fully recognize that role-playing has a strong tactical element and owes much to the wargaming tradition.  Add that to math, grammar, and good problem-solving and communication skills; all the vital life lessons I owe to role-playing...

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Braunstein Experiment: Wesely Weighs In...

Last week we talked about how Wesely's Braunstein was the precursor to role-playing as we know it today because Braunstein directly inspired Arneson's Blackmoor, and Blackmoor inspired OD&D.  Hell, Arneson's earliest games were called medieval Braunsteins, for Pete's sake, which speaks to the very real connection between two friends who knew each other well and played in one another's games going way back...

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's took a major detour
from his Napoleonic games to our benefit...
(artwork by Jennifer Mei)

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!

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...