Thursday, August 7, 2008

Wesley and the Braunsteins

An interesting, if typically myopic, article on David Wesley and his "Braunstein" game. I'm glad to see Wesley's contributions to the hobby recognized. Much like Arneson -- but even more so -- Dave Wesley's ideas and innovations are poorly known, even by people with an interest in such things. I myself didn't know a great deal about the man until late last year, when I began my researches into the history and development of the hobby. I'm of the opinion that this hobby of ours has no future if it doesn't understand its past and Wesley and the Braunstein game are a past few know, let alone care about. That needs to be corrected.

(That said, I also hold the opinion that Wesley's contributions, while real and foundational, are often overstated, both by himself and his partisans. There's a certain amount of revisionism going on here, I think, in an effort to downplay the role Gary Gygax had in creating and developing the modern RPG. Such revisionism is reasonable; I don't think anyone can deny that Gary was a master of feathering his own nest, especially when doing so helped promote TSR and/or D&D. At the same time, I think it's disingenuous to claim Wesley as the "father" of roleplaying games, when, in my opinion, it might be better to call him the "grandfather" or something similar -- to denote the real but distant descent RPGs have from the Braunsteins -- but that's a contentious topic for another day.)

7 comments:

  1. I had first learned about Wesley and the Braunstein games through Sean Patrick Fannon's Role Playing Gamer's Bible in the mid 90s. At the time it was really cool to have a greater insight into how the hobby developed into role-playing, espcially since it was my first exposure to any history of the hobby.

    However I agree with you that there is a big enough difference between wargames that were developing a RP aspect and RPGs in general that Wesley's solid contribution can be overestimated. This is further emphasized when you read the ars ludi article and note that Wesley did not find Arneson's Blackmoor appealing. It outlines the philosphical differences between Wargames' emphasis on historic realities to RPG's tendencies for fantasy.

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  2. Yes, it's interesting to note that, by all reports, Dave Wesley didn't have much interest in fantasy and indeed didn't think much of Blackmoor. It's one of several reasons why I think that, while Wesley was important in providing an impetus toward the birth of the RPG as a type of game distinct from the traditional wargame, he can't rightly be called the "father" of roleplaying.

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  3. I can see Wesley's contribution, but that's far from unique. What makes it relevant is not that it was different from the time but that it directly involved (and influenced) one of the people who did start the hobby.

    Skirmish games already had developed systems that today we'd call warbands and experience. Sniper! from SPI in 1974 was initially slated to include such a system, but it was delayed to the later Patrol.

    I think it's important to understand all those elements because they not only impacted how the older games were designed but who played them. I, like I suspect many people my age, were playing hex games before D&D (I started in 1977 with Starship Troopers and Starforce).

    However, what makes Gygax, Arneson, et al different and deserving of credit is not that they created these elements but synthesized them. Had they not done so RPGs would have developed, probably as a WWII tactical simulation where you portrayed one soldier in a squad trying to survive the war and played using something similar to Sniper!. In fact Commando, a follow-up to the two earlier games, advertised it's roleplaying module a few years early and Dunnigan bragged about how he almost published the first RPG with Sniper!.

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  4. In terms of assigning credit for the invention, here is how I expressed it when I learned about it:

    Check out the roots of roleplaying, in which David Wesely talks about how he invented polyhedral dice. Then here is described "The Secret History of Roleplaying" (scroll to about the middle of the long page). And then the dungeon crawl is described by the sole survivor of the TPK. They even LARPed a little bit.

    When you read all that, what you find out is that David Wesely created a roleplaying game by accident, and after the session thought it was a disaster and didn't want to do it again, but his players insisted. Then Dave Arneson picked it up and added to it, made it more complex, then Gary Gygax came along and joined in and together they really started it up. Then the two of them split up and now both each claim to have started it. Gygax took it, but thought too big and all his dreams for it failed, and now you find all sorts of roleplaying in the strangest places.

    So basically roleplaying was created by a guy whose condom slipped off, it's the bastard child of wargaming, and it got adopted by a same sex couple who then split up and both claim custody, one of them got custody and then had such big hopes for his kid that he pushed 'em too far, and now it's a complete slut and ends up in the strangest places.

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  5. I point to Weseley's Braunstein because, first, he does deserve credit for being in the directly lineage of RPG development, and second, because Braunstein illustrates the culture and the "social expectations" out of which RPGs arose, in contrast to what many people think RPGs are supposed to be. The divide is especially strong in the area of "GM prerogative", and IMO it's a major reason why a lot of post-80's roleplayers and "theorists" misdiagnose "traditional RPGs" as being "broken".

    I agree that Gygax and Arneson turned hobby roleplaying from an exercise for eggheads and military buffs into something with mass appeal, and not just by having the gumption to market a game. The combination of literary influences, the basic "adventure scenario", and the idea of ongoing play with persistent characters and world--both of which developed in the course of play--were key.

    (No offense to eggheads and military buffs; I consider myself a member of both groups.)

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  6. It just occurred to me that Wesley & The Braunsteins would make a great name for a band.

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  7. So basically roleplaying was created by a guy whose condom slipped off, it's the bastard child of wargaming, and it got adopted by a same sex couple who then split up and both claim custody, one of them got custody and then had such big hopes for his kid that he pushed 'em too far, and now it's a complete slut and ends up in the strangest places.

    Perhaps the strangest analogy yet to grace the virtual pages of this blog -- but an interesting one nonetheless.

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