Posts Tagged ‘Braunstein

12
Oct
11

Dave Wesely on D&D Was a Wargame

Last year prior to Gen Con I wrote to Major David Wesely about a re-creation of his Braunstein I game he organized via commenting at Ben Robbins’ ars ludi blog:

I had the pleasure of being introduced to you by Col. Zocchi in 2008 and sat in on your seminar on Braunstein, but sadly had a scheduling conflict that kept me from playing. I’m hoping that I might get another chance this year – and even if my busy schedule rules that out, perhaps I can buy you a drink or a meal and pick your brain about the early history of adventure gaming, which I find endlessly fascinating.

I have yet to write about the insights I took away from that lunch, but for now I’ll share some things I learned from the correspondence that followed Maj. Wesely’s kind response to this initial sally. In a subsequent email, I took the opportunity to point him to “some pieces I’ve done inspired in part by hearing you talk in 2008”, Random Events Make You Say Yes and D&D Was a Wargame: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means. Rather than direct you to go re-read these – especially since the former is available in full only in Fight On! – I will repost the bits that he responded to, with his replies in bold. From the Random Events essay:

Were Arneson, Gygax, Bledsaw, and Hargrave aware of improv techniques when they stuffed their early work chock-full with just the kind of random tables that make dice-driven invention shine? Could be. In talking about about his early-70s Braunstein games and the evolution of D&D, Dave Wesely points out that “role-playing” already described several other kinds of games. One is an improv exercise in which two actors each assume a character and try to force the other into a pre-agreed defeat. In Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch, John Cleese wins when Palin says “yes, sir” twice in a row. We don’t have to posit that Wesely’s awareness of improv techniques was widespread or in the forefront of anyone’s consciousness when D&D was taking shape. What we do know people were thinking about, from Wesely’s revisions of the Braunstein scoring system to rein in the chaos to Arneson’s development of the dungeon, was the problem of how to allow players free action without overwhelming the referee’s preparation.

So in my email to Maj. Wesely I asked: “I’m wondering if the awareness of “role-playing game” being an improv comedy technique meant that an awareness of improv comedy techniques, like the “always say yes” principle that I find so useful in running RPGs, was part of the intellectual environment of the Braunstein-Blackmoor period.”

He replied:

I did not see the Monty Python cheese shop skit until long after Braunstein (the show it is in probably first aired in the UK well after Braunstein, and even later in the US). An actor friend pointed out that meaning of “Role Playing Game” to me back when it was first being suggested as the generic replacement for saying “D&D-type-games” which usage T(c)S(c)R(c) was trying to stamp out. When I saw the cheese shop later, I recognized it.

By the way, so is the “Pet Shop” (“It is, in short, a Dead Parrot!”) skit – the pythons were just as willing to reuse a good idea as Edgar Rice Burroughs.

About D&D Was a Wargame I asked:  “I’m curious to know where I take it wrong, where I didn’t take it far enough, and where I’ve confused things you said with ones Dave Arneson did.”
He replied that he very much agreed with the central argument of the post, that “The genre of wargames encompasses enormous diversity in theme, content, and playstyle. Wargames have a considerably longer history than RPGs, and have undergone at least as much change over time“:
“Wargame” is a very big tent.  Redefined to exclude or include anything the speaker does not like, depending on whether he thinks wargames are good or bad. When D&D arrived, there was an ongoing feud over miniatures  AKA “real Wargaming” and board games “just pushing cardboard around.”  The first time anyone saw lead figures being used in D&D it was instantly denounced/recruited as being Miniatures Gaming (and hence not entitled to get a Charles S. Roberts Award: they invented the H.G.Wells Awards so it could get something as a Miniatures game).  It was like classifying float airplanes as a new kind of sailing ship because they don’t have steam engines.
In the D&D Was a Wargame post I wrote, based on my memories of Arneson’s 2008 seminar, that
Arneson said that the first wargaming group he joined played with a kriegspiel developed as an officer training exercise by the Prussian military. Like many gamers past and future, they were drawn to using the most comprehensive, complex, and incomprehensible set of rules they could find. The fact that what they had was a bad and incomplete translation from the original German meant that anything a player tried to do could touch off an endless string of arguments about which rules applied and how they should be interpreted.
Arneson and Wesely eventually decided that what this group really wanted to do was argue and rules-lawyer. They wanted to play, so they formed a group of their own. Did they react to the everything-is-subject-to-interpretation environment fostered by the kriegspiel by choosing a system with more clear-cut rules? Many such options were available, polished and throughly play-tested efforts by Avalon Hill’s professional game designers. Instead, what they choose to do instead was keep the parts of the rules they liked, but create the role of a referee to interpret them.
Maj. Wesely replied:

“Avalon Hill’s professional game designers” makes me laugh. In 1965 they were down to (I think) three people who had admittedly designed a number of games and were doing it for a living (one step up from sleeping on the floor in the office and eating beans at every meal). AH had gone bankrupt and been taken over by Monarch Avalon industries, whose president , Eric Dott, saw a great future for Wargames and was willing to keep the company going as a captive account to his printing business. They really did not take off until 1969 when they bought Squad Leader, an outside design. I loved the early AH games, but the skill level of the people who were writing hobby games rules at the time was very low.

Charles S. Roberts (in his address on the 25th Anniversary of the founding of Avalon Hill) said to Tom Shaw, his original partner, “Tom, tell the audience how much play-testing we did on our games back then.”

Tom: “Playtesting? What’s that?”

They had Africa Corps already printed up and were assembling the copies for their first shipment when Charles Roberts had a flash of insight that allowed them to reprint the rules and save the game, which was previously impossible for the Germans to win.

As for miniature wargames rules, they were being churned out by eager gamers with great romantic historical national enthusiasm, and poor understanding of history or technology…

The real professionals were working at the Navy War College or the Rand corporation and were not putting their work on the market.

Strategos, our original guide, was a free-kriegspiel that assumed a strong referee… the first pass at creating rules from it ran aground on our experience with using all the other wargames rules on the market, which were all rigid kriegspiels with no ref, just a rule book full of loopholes. It’s the Code Napoleonique vs. common law.

In one of the comments to the wargame post, I said:

I think that it’s important for us to understand the nature of the wargames that Arneson’s group were used to because it yields insights into what they thought D&D was about, and what they designed it to do well. But of the millions of players across the history of the game, an infinitesimally small fraction knew or cared about the way the original campaign approached it! So I think it’s equally important for us to remember that from the moment that the first wood-grain boxes were sold, people began trying to take D&D in different directions.

Maj. Wesely said:

Very good observation.  With thousands of copies scattering out by word of mouth, and inconsistent (or should I say imaginative) referees teaching the game to their friends the way they thought it should run, and the vagueness of the OD&D rules on so many points, it is not a surprise that the OD&D experience was wildly different for all the people who had it.  TSR saw huge economic reasons to standardize and dictate that everyone had to keep buying the flood of official rules changes… Knights of the Dinner Table did a good strip on that… Arneson had favored a wide-open system that put a lot of burden on the ingenuity and style of the ref.  Most gamers, I think, lacked that ability and wanted rules that would tell them what to do (were most of those gamers under 15? Maybe so).

I’ll close by thanking the Major for his enlightening responses, and apologizing to you the reader for taking so long to share ’em!
05
Mar
10

D&D Was a Wargame: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

It’s common to see people saying that old-school games like Dungeons and Dragons (1974), or its new-school sequels like D&D 4E, or indie games like Burning Empires, are like wargames. In at least one case, that’s incontestably true: the covers of all three original D&D booklets announce that these are “rules for fantastic medieval wargames campaigns playable with paper and pencil and miniatures figures.”

However, the meaningfulness of drawing a parallel between any given RPG and “wargames” as an abstract, monolithic entity is hugely overstated. The genre of wargames encompasses enormous diversity in theme, content, and playstyle. Wargames have a considerably longer history than RPGs, and have undergone at least as much change over time. People who talk about something being “wargamey” based solely on their experience of the contemporary wargames industry are talking out their ass. If someone says “Yu-Gi-Oh and poker dice  are like RPGs; I know because I’ve seen people playing the Warhammer Fantasy RPG in my game store, and it uses cards and dice with different things printed on each face,” their ignorance is obvious because we’re familiar with the essential nature of RPGs, the diverse ways that can be expressed, and the ways its mass-market expression has changed over time.

I’m not a wargamer. My formative experiences were part of a gaming culture where Diplomacy, Starship Troopers, and Advanced Squad Leader were played alongside Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Stormbringer, and The Fantasy Trip, but I never really got into that side of things. Unlike RPGs, I wasn’t motivated to keep up with more recent wargame designs, or seek out and play predecessors like Little Wars. But having that interest in the roots of RPGs means that I’ve spent a couple of hours reading about the history of wargaming on the internet and going to  seminars at Gen Con 2008 (Dave Arneson’s on “My Fantastic Gaming Group” and David Wesely’s on Braunstein). Sadly, this is more than enough experience to dispel at least those commonly-asserted fallacies which relate to D&D and the specific wargaming culture from which it arose.

Wargames aren’t all about combat and death.

The game that was published as D&D grew out of the house rules Dave Arneson was using for his Blackmoor campaign. Although the combat system he used was adapted in part from the Chainmail wargame, the essential gameplay grew out of the Braunstein wargames refereed by David Wesely and, later, by Dave Arneson. Here’s how a participant in the 2008 recreation (which, sadly, I wasn’t able to play in) described the experience:

We then played a game that falls somewhere between a LARP, Diplomacy, boardgame and tabletop RPG. The players were given character roles, turn-based order sheets and some plastic WW2 miniatures to represent our units. After the initial rules explanation and set up phase, players spent the bulk of the game milling around in the hallway outside the room in various groups, negotiating with and plotting against each other. Each of the characters had hidden agendas that required us to betray someone, but we also had to work with others in order to achieve these. A few seemingly random crises events popped up as well, such as a smallpox outbreak and rumors of a looming invasion by Banania’s hostile neighboring state. At the end of the game, each player was asked to vote on who they trusted and distrusted the most. I tallied Dave’s spoken results up on a whiteboard so we could see who would have come out on top in the next government.

The essential concern of a wargame is conflict, but there’s nothing in the form that says what form that conflict has to take or what mechanics will be used to resolve it. One of the proponents of the fallacy that wargame = hack and slash says “the absence of skill system and rules pared back to basics for everything except combat, and a very abstract level of combat resolution, are hall marks of a wargamey system… that’s what you have to get if you return to that system.” Looking at the earliest D&D fanzines, it’s clear that the same people who were interested in this “wargamey” RPG were also playing a lot of Diplomacy, where the absence of any rules except a highly abstract combat system leads to… intensely social play centered around scheming, hidden deals, bluffing, and backstabbing.

Wargames aren’t all about moving figures around a tabletop.

Although players in the Braunstein recreation were given miniatures, they weren’t used (in the original, they tracked which characters were in the same location, like pieces in a game of Clue).  The Napoleonic miniatures campaigns Dave Arneson had been playing prior to Blackmoor had been exploring similar directions, using his power as referee to introduce an element of the unknown that tabletop battles could not. He talked about telling one player ““Wait, don’t set up your army just yet. Your situation is that coordination has gone awry; the force you were supposed to link up with wasn’t at the rendezvous point.” He’d take the player into another room and draw him a sketch of the area: “Here’s the river, here’s a road, here’s where you think the sound of cannons is coming from, figure out what you’re going to do while I go see what the other players are up to.”

This  is the kind of wargaming that the original D&D rules grew out of. Sure, you could find other wargames that feature tactical maneuvering of figures on a pre-published battlemap. But saying that D&D 3.5 or 4E is like OD&D because both are like wargames is like saying that Minneapolis is like New Orleans because they’re on the Mississippi River.

Wargames aren’t all about choosing between pre-defined options whose outcome is rigidly defined by the rules.

Arneson said that the first wargaming group he joined played with a kriegspiel developed as an officer training exercise by the Prussian military. Like many gamers past and future, they were drawn to using the most comprehensive, complex, and incomprehensible set of rules they could find. The fact that what they had was a bad and incomplete translation from the original German meant that anything a player tried to do could touch off an endless string of arguments about which rules applied and how they should be interpreted.

Arneson and Wesely eventually decided that what this group really wanted to do was argue and rules-lawyer. They wanted to play, so they formed a group of their own. Did they react to the everything-is-subject-to-interpretation environment fostered by the kriegspiel by choosing a system with more clear-cut rules? Many such options were available, polished and throughly play-tested efforts by Avalon Hill’s professional game designers.

Instead, what they choose to do instead was keep the parts of the rules they liked, but create the role of a referee to interpret them. Unlike a simple and clear-cut set of rules laid down in advance, the referee could provide flexible and intelligent adjucation of specific situations. Players could try doing anything  at whatever level of detail the group wanted to get into, and create new rules and modify existing ones as play demanded. Unlike interpretation by committee the referee’s decisions were fast and final.

This DIY hobbyist style of wargame play demanded many things of its referees, and downplayed the importance of purchasing new systems for doing different things. Not surprisingly, this is not the direction game publishers followed. Parallels between modern RPGs and modern wargames may be accurate because both reflect commercial pressures and contemporary tastes. That tells you  nothing about the kind of wargames that RPGs actually came from and the style of creative referee  adjucation and open-ended player freedom that both originally shared.

Wargames aren’t all about abstract gameplay instead of simulating the imagined world.

Giving the referee authority over the rules and how they were applied didn’t end quibbling about the outcomes of player actions in Arneson’s Napoleonic wargame campaigns. If anything, the promise of a referee whose adjucation could take into account everything you could imagine empowered quibbling about historical accuracy. Clearly, the muzzle velocity of a cannon in 1802 meant that my troops could not possibly be taking fire from an enemy position that far away! No, I can totally shoot you because this source it says that the new black powder formulation was available to elite troops on this front!

Arneson said that he was drawn to create a “fantastic medieval wargames campaign” because no one would be able to tell him what a dragon could or couldn’t do! Of course, anyone who’s ever heard RPG players argue about of the game implications  of the performance of longbow troops against mounted knights at Agincourt knows what became of this. Still, to say that D&D 4E players argue that of course an ooze can be tripped because the system is wargamey makes as much sense as saying that Silver Age issues of Dragon Magazine devoted so many pages to the aerodynamics of falling human bodies because the system was wargamey.

I don’t think that word means what you think it means. I think it means focused on social play, in which negotiations and alliances are as important as combat; enriched by, but not reliant on, tactical maneuvering of figures on the tabletop; allowed players to try anything they could think of; and emphasized imagination over rules as the key to figuring out what happened.

07
Oct
09

Random Events Make You Say Yes to Links

I’ve been writing an expanded version of my post at Finarvyn’s OD&D boards, which sparked some interesting discussion. The long version will hopefully be in Fight On! magazine #8 – while you’re waiting, go read the other seven!

One thing that doing this made me realize is how much I like using hyperlinks to support digressions and scholasticisms. Not having been able to do that in the essay, here is a repost of the original thoughts about random events, followed by a collection of related links.

I flew back from Gen Con on the same plane as nerdNYC’s jenskot, who turned me on to an e-book by Graham Walmsley called Play Unsafe about using improv techniques to become a better player. I was particularly primed for this, having just played in a game run by my old Ars Magica homie Bob Karcher, whose Second City long-form improv chops let the scenario seem both beautifully planned in advance and responsive to our choices, when in fact he admitted later that he had nothing more than three broad ideas to start with!

Three of the things Walmsley talks about strike me as particularly relevant to old-school play, which uses dice to achieve / reinforce the goals he identifies:

– Always say yes. Accepting that the dice have spoken is very useful training in this. Instead of rolling a random encounter/treasure/etc. and rejecting it as nonsensical, find a way to make it fit. Instead of fudging to make the players succeed, say yes to the possibility of failure and see what the next step in the story is.

– Don’t plan in advance. Having random event tables goes a long way to making me feel comfortable with this. Using raw dice rolls to determine things like morale checks and NPC reactions that can have a huge impact on how a situation plays out forces me to be open to the unexpected. The first time I started using these old-school techniques it was extremely liberating to have a dice roll say to the players and myself “look, I’m not invested in any particular way this encounter might turn out, there’s no wrong answer, let’s all see together where this is going to go.”

– Hold ideas lightly. It’s OK to do some pre-planning if you accept that your plan might never happen. For me, making my own table of random events is one of the easiest and most potent kinds of old-school world-building, and it’s a great exercise in coming up with a bunch of ideas that might or might not be used in any given session.

Lots of the other things in the book, like saying the obvious and using reincorporation to make earlier random events into meaningful closure, also strike me as very useful techniques for participants in any kind of RPG.

Chgowiz’s accounts of games played with these ideas in mind are here and here at his kick-ass blog.

Some evidence that you can trace just about any possible thread of human intellectual history through Major David Wesely appears in the “Fantasy Vietnam” post in The 20′ By 20′ Room blog. A good place to get started on the history of Braunstein and its relationship to Blackmoor and D&D is Ben Robbins’ ars ludi post.

Soon I’ll find a good link to Arneson talking about dungeons as a way to constrain player choice.

Kellri’s CDD #4: Encounters is mentioned in the comments below, and it is awesome, so I linked it here – also the random name generator I used to get Philomena’s name.

Also Tables for Fables, Jeff Rients’ Miscellaneum of Cinder, and the OD&D boards Resources for Randomness thread all deserve links.




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