Braunstein, the world's first role-playing game
September 6, 2008 8:50 PM   Subscribe

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.
Braunstein: the Roots of Roleplaying Games by Ben Robbins. The first role-playing game was run by soldier David Wesely in 1967, his group including none other than D&D co-creator Dave Arneson. This past GenCon Braunstein was revived! Here's what the players had to say. Handouts from an earlier Braunstein revival. David Wesely's post-game comments. [via Rob McDougall]

David Wesely provides further background (posting as weseld1) including that his inspiration for introducing the figure of a "referee" (a.k.a. game master or dungeon master) came from Strategos, The American Game of War by Lt. Charles Adiel Lewis Totten. Rob McDougall tells the story of Totten. Wesely also mentions two books of game theory which had a great influence on him, one of which The Compleat Strategyst, was a bestseller put out by the RAND Corporation. Rob McDougall traces the history of roleplaying back to RAND.
posted by Kattullus (22 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
I never thought I'd match the geekery of my post about Claude Degler, the science fiction fan who tried to launch a eugenics project involving male science fiction fans and nubile young women, but I believe I just did.
posted by Kattullus at 8:53 PM on September 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, I can't believe I forgot to mention that David Wesely claims (in the "further background" link) to have invented polyhedral dice.

posted by Kattullus at 9:26 PM on September 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

My best friend played in the GenCon game. He has an audio recording of the entire thing. I'm trying to get him to edit it and put it online.
posted by vertigo25 at 9:34 PM on September 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hmm, yeah count me down to the Blackmoor level but not beyond. Looking forward to digging through these. Thanks, K.

vertigo25: that would be excellent.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:38 PM on September 6, 2008

Hmm...about the whole "inventing the polyhedral dice" thing... This Roman d20 auction circulated the internet a while ago so if that is true than that annihilates Wesely's claim.
posted by Deflagro at 9:45 PM on September 6, 2008

Excellent post, thanks for this.
posted by voltairemodern at 10:02 PM on September 6, 2008

Oh, and because the most concise description of Wesely's use of polyhedrons for dice is buried in the third page of the "further background" link, here's what he says:
Back in 1965, I read the rules to a game published in 1880 that said one could use a "12-sided teetotum" instead of a 6-sided die, for resolving odds of 6:1, 7:1 etc up to 11:1, but did not explain what a teetotum was or how to make one. I had seen a set of models of the regular polyhedra in my High School trig class, and decided that a "12-sided teetotum" must be the 12-sdied thingy (a regular dodecahedron) I had seen in the set. Wanting to try out the game, I went to school, got out the "Edmund Scientific Supplies" catalog, and ordered one set of the polyhedra from them for $6.00 (gasolene was $ 0.20 /gallon then, so that would be about $66.00 in today's money). This set of five polyhedra came with the faces already numbered, to make it easy to see that there were 12 sides on a dodacahedron, or 20 on an icosahedron, which made them easy to use as dice. So they became the ancestors of all the D4, D6, D8, D12 and D20 sets ever sold. There have been other shapes, and other ways of numbering them invented since, and there alwys were six-sided dice (though using the numbers 1-2-3-4-5-6 instead of pips or painted dots is a feature of the classic "D6" used by D&D, that I do not remember ever seeing before then).

Someone tried to patent using these solids as dice at about the same time that I started using them, and since I have never met this guy, I am willing to assume that - like the airplane and the lightbulb - a lot of other people could have thought of it, and he did not necessarily get the idea from me. I only learned of the 1965 patent application very recently, and was amused to find that he was granted a patent on not the idea but on his "design" for the five regular polyhedra (invented back in 150 a.d.) he sent in with the application, which were the same colors and numbering patterns that were already being sold by Edmund Scientific...
Rather like submitting a '59 Chevrolet when applying for a patent on inventing the Automobile, and being granted a patent on the shape of the tailfins.

I thought using them for dice was (1) already implied by the 1880 game rules and (2) so obvious that no one could get a patent on it. I guess I was wrong.

SO why are my dice the ancestors of all the D&D dice?

Well, while I only saw value in the D12 and D20, the other guys in our wargaming group thought they were all "cool", and we used them in our wargames (and kept buying these expensive sets from Edmund Scientific as they wore out). When Dave Arneson (one of the guys in our group) invented his fantasy role-playing game, and took it to Gary Gygax to be cleaned-up and published, they decided to use the cool polyhedral dice, even though I told them that they should just use regular dice, because "No one is going to buy your game for $10 if they then have to spend another $6 to get the special dice before they can play it". But they ignored me and of course, "Dungeons and Dragons" did not sell, and no one has ever heard of it.

By the way, a 12-sided teetotum is not a D-12! I finally found one in a game published in 1828, which I paid a lot of money for, just to get the teetotum (the game is REALLY stupid, but the teetotum is kind of clever).
Teetotum (a word I didn't know before).
posted by Kattullus at 10:05 PM on September 6, 2008 [4 favorites]

From Deflagro's link above:
Several polyhedra in various materials with similar symbols are known from the Roman period. Modern scholarship has not yet established the game for which these dice were used.
We can rule out GURPS right now.

Thanks for this bit of history, Kattullus.
posted by Loudmax at 10:31 PM on September 6, 2008

I knew about Braunstein, but I hadn't read about B-Stein 4 it sounds like more fun.
posted by Megafly at 11:05 PM on September 6, 2008

Final score: Dave Arneson, plus several thousand points.

Isn't that the Truth!
posted by SteveFlamingo at 11:52 PM on September 6, 2008

"(posting as weseld1)"

Given who it is we are talking about, shouldn't he have used something more like weseld20 or weseld100?
posted by mystyk at 5:58 AM on September 7, 2008

My inner geek approves of this post. Thanks, Kattulus.
posted by Harald74 at 6:08 AM on September 7, 2008

I didn't know any of this (ignorant whippersnapper that I am!), thanks so much for sharing it, brilliant post!
posted by emperor.seamus at 6:25 AM on September 7, 2008


Rolls 1d20 for critical flee.
posted by loquacious at 6:45 AM on September 7, 2008

posted by flabdablet at 7:40 AM on September 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

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?

Almost certainly, because surely this is exactly what kids do when they play cowboys and indians, cops and robbers, etc. They make up their own narratives and they drive the plot by narrating the story as they go along.

What kids don't have is the complex, die-based rule system, so the toughest or most charismatic kid gets to make all the decisions where conflicts etc. arise.

Whether you'd actually *want* to do this once you get past age seven is another issue. Having never played such a game, I guess that depends on how entertaining the people that you play with happen to be?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:23 AM on September 7, 2008

So who invented (or at least brought into popular gaming culture) the d10, which is not a regular polyhedron?
posted by Flunkie at 9:25 AM on September 7, 2008

On the second page of the "further background" link David Wesely mentions it was Lou Zocchi who invented the d10.
posted by Kattullus at 10:04 AM on September 7, 2008

On the second page of the "further background" link David Wesely mentions it was Lou Zocchi who invented the d10.
Woah. Flashback to the Eighties. Somewhere in my house, buried in stacks of old gaming stuff that hasn't seen the light of day in decades, is a Zocchihedron.
posted by Flunkie at 10:12 AM on September 7, 2008

"So who invented (or at least brought into popular gaming culture) the d10, which is not a regular polyhedron? posted by Flunkie"

I still have some original D20s marked as D10s. When I started all D20s were labeled 0-9 and you just used 2 different colors of crayon to mark the numbers high and low. for a d10 you just ignored the colors.
posted by Megafly at 10:32 AM on September 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh jeez, I also forgot about the existence of the d30, which is also not a regular polyhedron, and which I also own (several of, if I remember correctly).

And I see now that the young nerdlings of today are not limited to the choices of my youth - d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20, d30, d100 - but have all sorts of wacky things including d3, d5, d7, d16, and d24.

Back in my day, if you wanted a number from 1 to 3, you walked uphill in the snow to get your d6, then walked back home again uphill in the snow, rolled it, and divided by two.
posted by Flunkie at 11:02 AM on September 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

I also had not heard of Braunstein. I rate this post Awesome, plus extra Geekery, I take the Nifty feat, slide two points over to Intelligence....
posted by JHarris at 3:52 PM on September 7, 2008

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