Braunstein: the Roots of Roleplaying Games

In 2005 I was standing near the registration booths at GenCon, flipping through the event catalog while the posse debated where to go first. I had already scoured the listings online, but as I glanced across the pages I spotted a word I had somehow missed before: Braunstein.

I knew what Braunstein was (sort of) so I dragged my whole crew to the far, far outer reaches of the con, to a seminar in a very quiet room with very few attendants. And we sat, and we listened.

What did I know that made me drag them all that way?

I knew that Braunstein was the world’s first roleplaying game. Ever.

Most gamers have never heard of Braunstein. Sad but true. In the hierarchy of self-awareness you’ll find the circle of gamers who know what D&D is (a very, very large circle), then inside of that is the circle of gamers who know what Greyhawk is (large but smaller), and inside that the circle who knows what Blackmoor is (smaller still). And then in the very center, vanishingly small, are the people who’ve heard of Braunstein. Which is a pity, because Braunstein is the granddaddy of them all.

Major Wesely: The First GM

“French Lancer Colonel. His unit is hiding off the board at (B). He has infiltrated the town in civilian clothes to check out its defenses, and been arrested during the student riot last night. Starts in jail.”
–Braunstein 1

Once upon a time, tabletop gaming meant wargaming. Roleplaying games did not exist yet. Wargamers met and played out famous battles, recreating the last moments of Acre or the charge at Crecy and seeing if maybe with skill and clever tactics they could alter the course of history.

Major David Wesely took his usual wargaming group and tried something a little different. Instead of having them command armies he set down the two opposing leaders in a Prussian town before the battle, their troops nearby but not on stage. To give the other players something to do he let them control other people around town: the Mayor, a school Chancellor, some revolutionary students, etc. The humble town was the eponymous Braunstein, “brown stone” in German.

With that one small shift, playing your guy instead of moving your guy’s armies, Major Wesely and his players took a step into roleplaying. No, Major Wesely wasn’t a Major back then. And no he wasn’t called a GM or a DM, because Game Masters or Dungeon Masters didn’t exist yet.

But a GM is exactly what he was — the very first GM.

Try, Try Again

If you jumped in a time machine and asked Major Wesely how the first Braunstein game went, he would tell you it was a failure. A total mess.

In what was to become a familiar pattern to all GMs that came after him, he had prepared a game that he expected to go a certain way but once the players got their hands on it all hell broke loose. People running all over the place having secret meetings in corners, planning things the referee knew nothing about — total chaos. A referee’s nightmare.

To his surprise the players demanded more. So be it, thought not-yet-Major Wesely, but this time there will be order! Again setting a precedent that GMs would follow for generations to come, he clamped down with an iron fist to prevent the unpredictable chaos that had (he thought) ruined his game. Careful monitoring of player interactions! Limited communications! Basically eliminating all the things the players liked.

The history books tell us the next two Braunstein games were met with weeping and gnashing of teeth. The players were not pleased. They missed the freedom of the first Braunstein game.

And so still-not-yet Major Wesely prepared Braunstein 4. He moved the venue to a tropical dictatorship, complete with secret police, student revolutionaries, corrupt treasury ministers, and the grand leader El Hefe himself — a full-blown banana republic.

On paper Braunstein 4 looked like a wargame or a boardgame. Most of the players controlled units (army, the inland navy or the secret police) and filled out order sheets to send them places each turn. Want to take over the radio station? Send some soldiers!

And it might have stayed that way, except for the nefarious wiles of one player: Dave Arneson.

Dave Arneson: Gamer Ex Nihilo

“Peaceful revolutionary. Gets points for printing and delivering leaflets to each of his revolutionaries, and more for handing them out to other civilians (who may be agents or guerrillas of course…). Starts at home. (B-4)”
–Braunstein 4, Banana Republic

When you started gaming you read all these books, and they told you you could be a cleric or a thief or an elf (or a vampire or a Prince of Amber) and they told you you should probably pick a caller and set up a marching order and listen at doors and all that other stuff. You marched your character around and talked in funny voices. Sooner or later you may have realized that the rules didn’t drive the game, your imagination did.

But what if you never had any of those books? What if no one had ever explained to you what roleplaying was? Were you a good enough gamer to become a gamer without even knowing what a gamer was? Could you have just started being a gamer out of thin air, without anyone ever telling you how to do it?

Dave Arneson did.

He lied, swindled, improvised, and played his character to the hilt. He came to the game with fake CIA ID he’d mocked up, so when another player “captured” and searched him he could whip them out. Other players were still moving pieces around the board and issuing orders like a wargame while Dave Arneson was running circles around them and changing the whole scenario. He was winning the game entirely by roleplaying.

You may think of Dave Arneson as one of the godfathers of GMing, but even before that he was the godfather of players. He was, literally, the proto-player.

Modern Gamers: Teach Your Grandmother to Suck Eggs

“You’re the student revolutionary leader,” Wesely says “You get victory points for distributing revolutionary leaflets. You’ve got a whole briefcase full of them.”

Much later, having convinced his fellow players that he is really, perhaps, an undercover CIA operative, and that the entire nation’s treasury is really much safer in his hands, Dave Arneson’s character is politely ushered aboard a helicopter to whisk him to safety.

Far below the streets are still churning with fighting, plastic soldiers colliding with innocent citizens and angry rioters. In his lap sits the forgotten briefcase of revolutionary leaflets. “I get points for distributing these right?” And with a sweep of his arm he adds insult to injury, hurling reams of pages into the downdraft of the helicopter where they scatter and float lazily down upon the entire town…

Final score: Dave Arneson, plus several thousand points

Big whoop, you say, this is all old timey stuff. We modern gamers are way beyond dungeon crawls and listening at doors and all that primitive stuff. We have indie games and story games and narrative control and yadda yadda yadda.

Yes indeed. But even skipping the “standing on the shoulders of giants” argument or the “know your roots” argument, look again at what happened in that game: Dave Arneson was winning entirely by roleplaying. He isn’t doing tactical combat or playing some dumb-ass linear quest, he is making his own rules and being, for lack of a better word, an excellent player by any modern definition. He is making the game.

Don’t think Dave Arneson would kick your ass in some Sorcerer or Dogs In The Vineyard? Then you haven’t been paying attention. He would, as the kids say, take you to the net.

Modern gamers are pushing into new territory, but they’re also reclaiming old territory whether they know it not — the lands of their ancestors. If you’re an indie gamer or an avant garde gaming revolutionary, old school titans like Dave Arneson and Major Wesely are your peeps. They were trying things that had never been done before in their day too. They are your guys.

Missing History, Missing Meaning

What happened after Braunstein 4? Major Wesely went off to the army and Dave Arneson started running his own “Braunsteins” in a little patch of imaginary world called Blackmoor. He sent his players into dungeons. To resolve combats he used a miniatures rule system called Chainmail. The rest, as they say, is history. [save the usual “who invented D&D” debate for another time] I’m not sure, but I’m guessing that Braunstein set the color-noun trend in early D&D (brown-stone, black-moor, grey-hawk).

So why didn’t Major Wesely stay involved in RPGs as the hobby blossomed? Why don’t you know who he is?

When he came back from the army the “braunsteins” had moved from real world situations to fantasy battles against orcs and frost giants. He lost interest because while wargaming is an examination of history, fantasy looks a lot more meaningless. What can you learn about the real world playing a game with fire-breathing lizards?

Major Wesely, the first GM, may actually have been the first person to pan fantasy gaming as escapist nonsense. He was certainly not the last. In a way he was completely right, but what he may not have foreseen was that even the most blatantly escapist or mundanely tactical game can still be enlightening (not just entertaining) because we play it with other humans. The content of the game might not teach us anything about life, but the method, sitting around a table interacting with other people, does. Of course I can say that thanks to thirty years of gaming hindsight that he didn’t have, so big whoop for me.

Carry that forward and look at modern indie games, games that tackle ideas like slavery or destructive love or moral doubt. The question is the same as Major Wesely asked all the way back then: the desire to have real meaning or examine real issues in the content of the game.

Your Turn

This was a very difficult post to get on paper, because no matter how hard I try, this is still a fictional account. These are my memories of stories I was told about a game someone else played 40 years ago. It’s probably nowhere close to the literal truth, but hopefully it’s very close to the spirit of the truth. All errors or misrepresentations are solely mine, not the fault of Major Wesely, who is clear, informative and a hell of a fun guy to talk to. I also make it sound like Dave Arneson was the only player in the game, or the only good player, but of course that’s nonsense. Like any game there’s more sides to it than you can easily sum up.

So now you’re asking, what do I do with this slice of history?

Gary Gygax is no longer with us. Don’t you wish you’d talked to him? Don’t you wish you asked him questions?

So here’s what you do. Find the guys who are still here and talk to them. When you’re at GenCon this year, hunt down Major Wesely or Dave Arneson and pigeon-hole them and make them tell you these stories. Do what we did and corner Major Wesely in the lobby and don’t give him food or water until he spills all the beans about TSR’s dark past. Drop by Lou Zocchi’s booth and make him tell you about the limits of platonic solids. Put on your historian hat, not to venerate the past but to learn from it.

They are gamers just like you. Buy them a beer, take them out to dinner or just corner them in the hallway — do not let them escape! It will be an experience you will never forget.

Update: results of the GenCon 2008 Braunstein, game handouts, and pictures in Braunstein Memories.

    Ben Robbins | August 6th, 2008 | , , | show 61 comments