?

Log in

RPG theory/design/philosophy journal
Braunstein, RPG roots, and the role of the GM 
6th-Nov-2006 10:56 pm
chiang 2
Settembrini first pointed me to the fact that RPGs have as their earliest identifiable hobby roots, not Chainmail, but a multiplayer wargame designed/organized by David Wesely in the 1960's. Lately I've been referring people to THE PERFECT PLANET: Comics, Games and World-Building, by Dylan Horrocks, who summarizes some information from a print source, Heroic Worlds.

Even better is this recent thread from the Acaeum in which Wesely himself gives his account and answers a few questions. Some interesting tidbits:

• Wesely based his original Napoleonic miniatures games not on Prussian/German Kriegspiel but on an American equivalent (no doubt influenced by the Germans) found in a book entitled Strategos, The American Game of War.

• Wesely co-designed Source of the Nile, of which I own a copy. It's a board game of 19th-century exploration of Africa, in which the terrain is unknown (you generate it randomly as you go and draw it in with crayons) and the action is driven by random tables and paragraph lookups. (Similar games include Barbarian Prince and Voyage of the B.S.M. Pandora.)

Weseley also says some interesting things about the role of the GM:
The idea of having an all-powerful Referee who would invent the scenario for the game (battle) of the evening, provide for hidden movement and deal with anything the players decided thatthey wanted to do was not taken from Kriegspeil but was mostly inspired by 'Strategos, The American Game of War', a training manual for US army wargames Lt. Charles Adiel Lewis Totten, USMA 1871, publshed by Doubleday in 1880.

Combined with what Dave Arneson had to say in an interview I linked some time ago, I think we can see that the initial role of the GM in the 60's and 70's was limited in terms of what might today be called "narrative prerogative"--that is, "telling a story" wasn't something the GM actively did in the course of a game, while players would interact with the games as a means of exploring the interaction of characters' motivation and information. Glenn Blacow's "Aspects of Adventure Gaming" is still the first written documentation--that I'm aware of--of a "storytelling style", circa 1980.
Comments 
9th-Nov-2006 01:22 am (UTC)
You wrote, "Settembrini first pointed me to the fact that RPGs have as their earliest identifiable hobby roots, not Chainmail, but a multiplayer wargame designed/organized by David Wesely in the 1960's."

I disagree, at least universally. For me, the roots of role-playing lie in playing with toy cars, playing with action figures, and playing games like cops and robbers as a child. I played a lot of board games as a child and I quickly realized that role-playing game was less like a board game and more like playing with toy cars and action figures. In fact, my earliest role-playing games didn't have a GM and closely resembled the play with did with toy cars and action figures before role-playing games.

What did role-playing games add? Rules to help determine what happens when the character do things. Dice to decide success and failure in random and surprising ways. Lists of stuff to spark creativity when designing characters and equipping them. A way to design and record characters and what they can do. Later, for me, came the concept of a GM to run the non-character setting details.

You'll notice that what I'm describing doing isn't wargaming or about winning. It isn't about creating a story or telling a story afterward. It isn't about exploring the character's motivations. It was about vicariously acting out the lives of fictional characters in a fictional setting and the joy is in doing it.

Do kids not play cops and robbers or house anymore? Because years ago, it was fairly common to find analogies with those activities in "What is role-playing?" descriptions.
9th-Nov-2006 01:41 am (UTC)
Gosh, I don't know. I played cops & robbers, and cowboys & indians, not to mention working out scenarios with GI Joe (the old Adventure Team guys, not the later superheroish dudes who fought against C.O.B.R.A.).

Sure, those elements are related to roleplaying. I've also read that the Brontës engaged in some sort of play that was similar to a proto-RPG; Fritz Leiber may also have independently developed some RPGish activity with his friend Harry Fischer before WWII. But the roots of an identifiable hobby with at least some cultural recognition go through Braunstein. And the GM was a key element.

What I'd like to ask you is, what is the benefit to you of having the GM run non-character setting details? Is it just a matter of having someone to share the paperwork with?
9th-Nov-2006 04:55 am (UTC)
By the way, if you've worke dout scenarios for your GI Joes and played cops & robbers and cowboys and indians, you've done diceless and GMless role-playing, in my opion. That's why I'm amazed when people discuss those ideas as if they are novelties. I presume everyone forgets how to do what they did when they were kids and didn't need rules or dice to play make-believe.
9th-Nov-2006 04:53 am (UTC)
To me, role-playing is more like playing cops and robbers than playing a board game, wargame, or creating an interactive story. I agree that the cultural lineage officially goes through wargames and the GM is a key element, but I think that the original role-playing games were so sparse that every group made them their own. While Glenn Blacow's article appears in Different Worlds in 1980, it's important to remember that he was describing styles that predated his definition by several years. In other words, as soon as role-playing expanded beyond the wargaming grognards into the more general public, it evolved and transformed in different ways as people likened it to different things and played it for the different reasons detailed by Blacow and others. Further, the GM roll is not the same for every style and that, too, evolved beyond referree.

The main benefits I see in a GM are (A) surprise and (B) the ability to focus on characters rather than setting. The GM can keep secrets, create thematically linked encounters, and give NPCs motivations unkown to the players. The GM also frees the player from having to worry about the metagame issues required to make the setting work around the characters.

My hometown had a style of role-playing game that several of us fell into that we called "solo Traveller". Essentially, it consisted of creating characters and using random event characters to create adventures for them. While it was interesting, it pales in depth to what a GM can do.

For example, in the D&D game that I recently ran, I ran the party's rogue as an NPC. For the most part, I kept traps simple or ignored them. Why? Because creating traps and having my NPC find and disarm them was incredibly boring. It's much more interesting to have one person create the traps and a different person react to them. YMMV.
9th-Nov-2006 09:59 pm (UTC)
Yes, there's no doubt that Blacow was documenting something that had a prior existence.

To a certain extent I'm engaging in the same thing that I suspect Ron Edwards of doing in his "A Hard Look at Dungeons & Dragons" article--that is, postulating a Golden Age Before the Fall. In his case, he postulates the existence of a largely-undocumented activity of roleplaying prior to D&D in order to construct a story of Narrativism as a vibrant activity which was betrayed by post-1980 hobby/publishing developments. In my case I point to a documented line of development from miniatures to Braunstein to Blackmoor, with perhaps a secondary infusion of miniatures (from Gygax) to yield D&D. My thesis is that the methods of the hobby, as represented by the rules texts that were used and the distributions of authority/responsibility that were transmitted textually and culturally--in particular, the idea of the GM as keeper of secrets, rules authority, and final arbiter--is a natural consequence of a certain set of goals, or mindset. The "dysfunction" that we keep hearing about in "traditional games" is largely a result of shoehorning a different set of goals, a different mindset, into the Braunstein paradigm.

In short I tend to agree with someone who says that "traditional games" are unsuited to storytelling, but my feeling about that is pretty much the same as hearing someone complain that a blender is unsuited to flying, in spite of superficial resemblance to a helicopter. It doesn't mean a blender is a bad tool.

Related to this, I agree with someone who says that GURPS has some pretty crappy GMing advice, which tends to encourage fudging and even negating the possible impact of actual player decisions on the outcome of a scenario. However, the criticism that I see of GURPS, coming from Forge-ish quarters, doesn't distinguish GMing advice from rules. It excludes the possibility that so-called "Simulationist" design mechanics (essentially, rules-as-physics, without formalized metagame mechanics) can be played "functionally" without leading players through pre-plotted scenarios.
19th-Nov-2006 10:03 pm (UTC)
My point is that the Golden Age Beofre the Fall, the largely-undocumented activity of roleplaying prior to D&D, includes kids playing cops and robbers and imaginative games with their toys. I suspect that the imaginative play that almost all children engage in loomed much larger in the minds of many D&D players, once the hobby escaped the wargaming community into the larger college community in the 1970s, than wargaming did, since it was always a niche hobby.

I would argue that the "referee" (GM) was not only embraced by non-wargamers (because those imaginary games of cops and robbers had the same problem that referee-less wargames did -- "I shot you!" "Did not!" "Did, too!") but evolved into what we now think of as a GM even before it left the wargaming hobby.

The wargame referee acted as an arbiter between two players who were opposing each other, with (in theory) no position or interest in victory in the game, which is much like how a referee works in a game of football or an umpire works in the game of baseball. A more significant transformation takes place between wargame and role-playing game and, again, it was something that got mentioned a lot in early descriptions of what a role-playing game was. The players moved from playing positions in opposition to each other to playing with the referee acting as arbiter to all playing on the same side with the GM acting as the opposition. Many early descriptions of role-playing games took great plains to explain that the players were all on the same side and that they weren't trying to win against each other. That was considered strange enough that they assumed the players would have trouble understanding that paradigm shift.

So if you want to look for the Golden Age, I think you need to look not at the role-playing referee but at the transformation that took place between referee as an arbiter between two opponents to the players playing on the same side and the GM being all of their opponents and the related transformation from players playing a side or entire group of people (e.g., "The British", "The XXII Legion") to players playing a single character as their position. Once that happened, I think the model and influences changed and already including more than simply wargaming sensibilities and also included the sensibilities of other games, such as copy and robbers, that almost all people have experiences with as children.

At the point at which the GM transformed from referee between the players to opponent of the players, the authority/responsibility transformed and that's where you'll see the entry of the "keeper of secrets" role. It's as if a football referee transformed from making rule interpretations and calling fouls on the field to setting up obstacles on a field and they playing the opposing plays to both teams playing on the same side. I think that the earliest role-playing groups understood the distinction, which is why the referee became the "Game Master".

As such, I think that if you want to look at the cause of the "dysfunction", you need to look less at the traditional wargaming referee, which certainly wasn't on the mind of many early role-players who didn't have roots in the wargaming hobby as the D&D game took off in colleges, but at what the Dungeon Master was about in those earliest role-playing games during the Golden Age. While there is certainly a line back to the wargaming referee, even the earliest role-playing GM's had aready adapted that role well beyond what it was originally used for in wargames.
19th-Nov-2006 10:13 pm (UTC)
As for "traditional games" being unsuited to storytelling, I disagree. They are quite well suited to an active GM creating a story and using the role-playing game as a medium to tell the story to the players. The GM role is suited for all sorts of role-playing styles.

What it's not suited for is distributing authority and giving each player a role in controlling the game. That's because the GM was designed to take that authority away from the players, to avoid arguments about control. So I see the conflict as being less about storytelling and more about control. In fact, that's the core innovation of Forge theory, in my opinion, buried beneath bad terminology that doesn't deal with control.

What the Golden Age assumed was that players were happy being players and GMs were the "Masters" of the games. They ran games for their players, not with their players. And that was true no matter which of Glenn Blacow's categories a gamer fell into. I think that the problems that many people have with "traditional games" are because either (A) they want more control over how the game goes even as a player (personally, my response to a lot of the suggestions that players get to decide things like, for example, how their character fumbles is, "But I don't want to decide that!"), (B) they've had experiences with GMs who don't run the sorts of games that they enjoy and want to force the GM to run the sort of game they want to play, or (C) they've experienced GM's who abuse their authority and want to reign that authority in. But all of those are control issues, not style issues in the storytelling vs. wargaming sense.

It's not that they are trying to use a blender as a helicopter. It's that they like chopping food by hand and the blender isn't letting them do it. It's that they like chunks and the blender is giving them well-pulped mush without chunks. It's not that they want a helicopter instead of a blender, it's that they want to take over some of the chopping and mixing and do it themselves by hand.

As for the GURPS GMing advice being "pretty crappy", of course it's not crappy for everyone. Again, you are assuming control preferences that are not universal. There are players who expect the GM to fudge and who don't really care about the impact of their decisions on the outcome of the scenario, any more than they care about the impact that their choice of seating in a theater has on the outcome of the movie. It's really a non-issue for a lot of people (I'm not one of them, but I've played with such people).

I know that a lot of people who hear that like to ask, "So why are they role-playing instead of watching a movie?" The reason is that role-playing games give them a unique perspective inside of the story, a unique encouragement to identify with a single character's story, and a unique ability to make the character their own, even if that doesn't mean deciding how the story turns out.

In other words, a lot of player don't have the desire for control that you assume they have. They don't need it to have fun. As such, the GURPS advice is a lot of fun for them.

The reason why the GNS is "broken" and confuses "simulation" from "railroading" is that the GDS Dramatist style does not distinguish between distributed authority storytelling and railroaded storytelling. Ron wanted to focus on distributed authority storytelling, banished railroading and almost all other storytelling styles into the Simulationist category (which I personally think he never really understood), and changed Dramatism to Narrativism. As such, Narrativism has confused storytelling objectives with distributed control almost from the get-go, just as it has confused GM authority with railroading, and so on. It's was an advocacy model with a garbage dump, not a balanced and objective model.
20th-Nov-2006 08:08 pm (UTC)
Okay, sure, there are probably people who want the GM to fudge or otherwise manipulate things to steer the outcome in a certain direction, or simply to make the players happy. (Such as the "don't let a character die unless the player's okay with it" idea.)

The issue I see, though, is that some people want all that manipulation to happen--but they want to do some of it themselves, as players. Oh, wait, that's what you're saying in your second paragraph, above.

In that case, let me clarify: traditional RPGs aren't well-suited to "collaborative storytelling", but it doesn't follow that the players have no control over "what happens" in a traditional RPG. The GM can negate the players' impact through various means, but the GM doesn't have to. Conversely, the players can have a significant impact on the overall direction and outcomes, without actively assuming out-of-character stances or authority. In short, under the "traditional GM-Player split", the players can lead play if the GM views his role in a manner which allows the players to lead play.
21st-Nov-2006 02:32 am (UTC)
Correct. The conflict you are trying to put your finger on is one of control, as you seem to recognize when you talked about "distributions of authority/responsibility", earlier. But the form that control took in the earliest role-playing games was not the same as the form it originally took in role-playing games and the distribution of authority/responsibility for the players changed as things switched from players controlling a side in a conflict to players controlling a single character. Thus by the Golden Age of role-playing when the early games spread through college campuses, the role of GM was already something very different than a wargaming referee and I think you'll only get minimal insight looking to wargaming to understand how early role-players viewed and embraced the idea of a GM.

When you say that "traditional RPGs aren't well-suited to 'collaborative storytelling'", I would argue that it's the "collaborative" that's the problem, not the "storytelling". And even then, it's only a problem when "collaboration" demands a relatively equitable distribution of control over most aspects of the game. More specifically, the more control that the player wants that isn't excercised through the actions of their own characters, the further the player wanders from the traditional player role (which is to control their own character) and the more they usurp the traditional GM role (which is to control things beyind the control of the player's character).
8th-Jan-2007 10:27 pm (UTC) - Off-topic

I've just tagged you. We share many interests including, apparently, a commitment to reading things through (even if poorly phrased).
8th-Jan-2007 10:40 pm (UTC) - Re: Off-topic
Thanks. My posting here has entered a lull, but you really ought to stick around theRPGsite if you can work around the personality clashes with JimBob and RPGPundit.
8th-Jan-2007 10:46 pm (UTC) - Re: Off-topic

I will do so; most of the discussion there is exactly the sort of thing I enjoy.

As for the two you've mentioned. As others have pointed out, I don't really have "control issues" in playing, which does seems to suggest that perhaps JimBob protesteth too much. As for the Pundit, well sometime he does say the right thing if one can get past his tirade of school-yard language and attempts at verbal bullying.
29th-May-2007 05:29 pm (UTC)
Thanks for pointing me to that Acaeum thread! I used it to write a blog post with a bunch more information on Charles Totten, the author of Strategos:
http://www.robmacdougall.org/index.php/2007/05/dungeon-master-zero/
29th-May-2007 07:31 pm (UTC)
You're welcome, and thanks for the link (as well as the link back in comments).

On a somewhat different line of development for RPGs, you might find this thread on Story-Games, about "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, to be of interest. We've talked about gamebooks on Story Games a few times before (< href="http://www.story-games.com/forums/comments.php?DiscussionID=388">here</a> and here.

But in this latest thread I turned up the fact that there were CYOA-type books before D&D was published (though perhaps not before Braunstein, depending on how narrowly you define the genre). I also speculate on connections with somewhat less "first-person" hypertext literature, programmed-learning technical books, and the popularization of computer programming skills. in the 60's & 70's.
29th-May-2007 07:45 pm (UTC)
Hah, and now I'm remembering that a rudimentary form of hypertext was practiced by kids in my middle school. It consisted of writing notes in the margins of textbooks telling the reader to turn to page XXX (sometimes with a meanful note, sometimes just the instruction), which would then give another reference and so on untll, of course, you reached a final bit of profanity.

Kids also experimented with "maze games" and "race games" (chutes & ladders derivatives) that "told a story", providing various means of instructing the player what would happen if they landed on a certain space. (Die roll, card draw, etc.) Of course these went back in commercial publication as well. Early dungeons can perhaps be seen as borrowing from these.

Then there are various prayer books (at least in Jewish services) that refer the reader to different sections depending on the holiday. I.e., they're not meant to be read linearly.

The top image here is a sort of visual hypertext/maze/didactic narrative. Not really legible on the web, it's a poster that hangs in the Berkeley chain of Top Dog restaurants, and shows the various diversions and pitfalls in life. Not sure of the date.
30th-May-2007 01:39 am (UTC)
which would then give another reference and so on untll, of course, you reached a final bit of profanity
Oh yeah, I remember that. A final bit of profanity or else an endless loop.

The media scholar Henry Jenkins has written (I don't have the citation handy, but will track it down) about how game design = narrative architecture. He talks about "spatial stories," and mentions chutes and ladders, but especially about the dungeons of D&D and Zork, which map story choices literally into twisting, forking passages.
30th-May-2007 01:35 am (UTC)
Neat stuff. I like the computer idea. One thing I'm seeing in the RAND/military simulation games of the 1950s and 60s is how closely intertwined the development of computers and sim gaming are, from a really early period.
12th-Jul-2007 09:24 pm (UTC)
Over at theRPGsite, John Kim recently linked A Brief History of Roleplaying Games, by Victor Raymond. I hadn't seen this before and it contains stuff relevant to this discussion. Unfortunately he doesn't cite references.

Hm, I found a better link for Raymond's article here. Still no references...

Of course robotnik has also posted a couple excellent articles in the last few months, which I understand will eventually be turned into a piece for Push.
13th-Jul-2007 12:00 am (UTC)
And still more accounts:

Once Upon A Time: The Secret History of RPGs, by Wilf Backhaus at PTGPTB

The Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons, by Don Whetsell, cribbed from somwhere else (probably the now defunct and unarchived dndmovie.com) but currently at theminiaturespage. This provides an especially vivid account of how the earliest Braunstein was run.
4th-Apr-2008 07:00 pm (UTC)
Both links to Victor Raymond's article are now defunct; web.archive.org isn't much help at the moment :(
11th-Aug-2008 02:08 am (UTC) - Update
You can now get to an archived version at web.archive.org. Here's the link.
This page was loaded May 1st 2017, 6:23 am GMT.