Modern role playing has many antecedents, from childhood games of Make Believe to parlor games like Wink Murder to war games like free Kriegsspiel and Diplomacy. But perhaps the most direct precursor to modern tabletop RPGs and LARPs were David A. Wesely’s Braunstein games.
The first game of Braunstein took place in 1968 or 1969 in the Twin Cities. Dungeons and Dragons co-creator, then still a teenager, was in attendance. Wesely created Braunstein as an extension of the Napoleonic wargames his group was playing at the time. Instead of taking on the roles of generals commanding armies, players assumed the roles of various people within the fictional Prussian town of Braunstein town, including the mayor and banker. Arneson played a patriotic student and engaged it what might be the first RPG melee session.
“I’m off in my separate room with my charts and maps and stuff and the other guys are in the main room talking to each other and two of them walk in and say ‘hi we’re going to have a duel, how do we do it?’” Wesely said in an interview in 2016. “I said, well ok then, here you get 3d6 and you get 2d6.”
“The one with the 2d6 said ‘Wait I’m the captain of the fencing team, why do I only get 2d6?’ and I said ‘Well, this other guy is a colonel who’s been in the army for 20 years and he’s fought dozens of duels to the death and all you’ve ever done is stick people with blunt swords that dent their jackets,’” Wesely continued. The guy with only 2d6 was Arneson, who lost the duel badly and died.
Other versions of this story involved Arneson rolling only 1d6 versus the other person’s 2d6. Was this the first instance of Advantage in a TTRPG? Or was it more of a dice pool? Either way it’s pretty cool.
The first session was so chaotic that Wesely saw it as a failure. But the players wanted more. After two smaller, more orderly sessions, Wesely realized he needed to embrace the freewheeling spirit of the original. The fourth Braunstein game, which took place in a fictional dictatorship in Central America, went back to the more open-ended approach.
By the time Wesely left the Twin Cities in 1970, Arneson was running his own Braunsteins. By spring of 1971 Arneson was running his “Medieval Braunstein” campaign set in the world of Blackmoor. That lead to the creation of Dungeon and Dragons with Gary Gygax, and the rest, as they say, is history.
There has never been a published Braunstein rulebook (the Barons of Braunstein game has little if anything to do with Wesely’s rules or settings). But Wesely has continued to run Braunsteins both privately and at conventions since at least 2008. A wealth of resources exist online that those who want to learn more about this style of play or who want to run and play their own Brauntstein could use to emulate the experience.
Ben Robbins published Wesely’s handouts for his Braunstein 1 and 4 games at GenCon 2008. There’s no procedural information, but enterprising referees could probably use these to run their own games. They’re certainly interesting artifacts in their own right.
Character handouts for Braunstein 1 (Arneson played “Student A” in the original Braunstein session)
Actual Play Reports
David Wesely interviews
Chirine Ba Kal ’s Brauntstein Essays
Jeff Berry a.k.a. gamed with many of the Midwest Originals, including M.A.R Barker, Arneson, Gygax, and Wesely. He wrote a series of essays on how he runs Braunsteins set in Barker’s world of Tekumel.
Strategos and Other Influences
The wargame Strategos by Charles A. L. Totten (not to be confused with the strategy board game Stratego) was one of Wesely’s primary influences. Wesely created his own (also I believe unpublished) streamlined version of Strategos he dubbed “Strategoes N” that he used for his wargames including Braunsteins in instances where they reach mass combat.
Dungeon Master Zero, the first of a series of essays by Rob MacDougall on D&D’s wargaming roots. This one is on Totten, Strategos, and Wesely.
R&D, the second in MacDougall’s series, looking at another influence on Wesely, The Compleat Strategyst: Being A Primer on the Theory of Games of Strategy by John D. Williams, and more wargaming history.
Fantasy Vietnam, third in MacDougall’s series, connecting another Wesely influence, Conflict and Defense by Kenneth Boulding, to the politics of the late 1960s.
(Wesely’s response to Macdougall essays are in the comments here)
Additions or Corrections?
Got another link I should add? Or notice a broken link or other error? Let me know at email@example.com