Imagine, if you will, a band of our ancestors planning an attack on a neighbouring band. Huddled around a diagram crudely drawn in some soil, each member of the band wordlessly expresses their proposed strategies by pushing the soil around with their fingers (or perhaps a stick).
These were the very first wargames. Given that wargames are a type of role-playing game, it follows that it’s very possible that role-playing games precede speech as a human invention.
Just take a moment to let that sink in: Role-playing games most likely precede speech as a human invention.
Wargaming Evolves Into Something Else
Millions of years later, wargaming was still useful to mankind.
One particular miniature wargame (a wargame that uses miniature figurines to represent armies), Strategos, is the literal ancestor of the most popular role-playing game series, Dungeons & Dragons. Strategos was first published in 1880, which is possibly one reason why many wargamers consider that era to be the start of modern wargaming.
In the 1960s, a game designer named Dave Wesely discovered and repopularized Strategos, and evolved it by creating multiple editions with new rulesets. He soon realised he’d taken Strategos about as far he could without changing it into something wildly different, so he created Braunstein – a wargame with a completely new ruleset, named after the fictional German town in which his proposed adventure took place.
Michael J. Tresca’s book, ‘The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games’ describes one fateful Braunstein session:
Wesely’s group normally consisted of eight people, two of whom played while the other six watched. In an attempt to be more inclusive, he developed roles for the other players beyond the usual wargaming army commander. Wesely invented a mayor, banker, university chancellor and more, each role with its own objectives and goals. When nearly twenty people showed up, Wesely created roles for them too.
It was telling that the players received their order in a separate room, where Wesely briefed them, and were not allowed to share the information with each other. What was supposed to be an orderly set of instructions fell apart when two of the players [both from different factions] told Wesely that they had challenged each other to a duel. Wesely was once again forced to improvise; he rolled some dice and declared that one had shot the other, with the winner imprisoned. The game continued well into the night, at which point Wesely realized that the players had taken over the game – his carefully crafted rules that would ultimately help determine who won no longer applied. To Wesely, the game was a failure.
Imagine Wesely’s surprise when the players considered it a resounding success, and asked when the next session would be!
Wesely wouldn’t be taken by surprise this time. He further tweaked the Braunstein rules again, this time arming himself with certain teaching tools used by math teachers at the time: Different dice with a different number of sides – 4, 8, 12 and 20.
Modern Gaming Is Born
A fellow game designer, Dave Arneson, attended the next session run by Wesely, and eventually began running Braunstein games on his own. Similar to Wesely’s experience with the Strategos game, Arneson soon felt limited by the Braunstein rulesest and eventually created his own, which was called Blackmoor. Being a fan of Lord Of The Rings, Arneson took this opportunity to introduce fantasy elements to wargaming.
In 1971, Arneson met another game designer named Gary Gygax at a gaming convention, and showed him Blackmoor. Gygax was impressed with what he saw, and together they’d both go on to write the ruleset (including races, classes, and abilities) that would eventually become known as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D).
The role of the referee in Braunstein evolved into the Dungeon Master (DM) role in D&D. Eventually, so that DMs didn’t have to always create adventures from scratch, pre-packaged adventures known as ‘modules’ soon became available. Modules would become so prevalent that non-module D&D sessions needed a new term to describe them, and the role-playing community eventually landed on the phrase ‘homebrew’.
Dungeons & Dragons is by far the most popular of the pen-and-paper role-playing games available to us in modern times, and has only become more prolific with the advent of computer role-playing games. From the early days of adapting the Hillsfar module to the upcoming Baldur’s Gate 3, Dungeons & Dragons computer games are often considered very successful, if not widely acclaimed.
The idea of the variables of a die roll being represented in a mathematical formula can also be seen in the combat sections of non-D&D games such as the Final Fantasy series, Divinity: Original Sin, and XCOM. It could even be argued that all games with any form of combat use similar systems, from the Mario series to the Street Fighter series.
So if you’re a DM and the players take over your game – don’t worry, you might just be making history!