Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Master Class in Refereeing

You should watch this interview with Dave Wesley, the inventor of Braunstein, the war game that led directly to Dave Arneson's Blackmoor and thence to Dungeons & Dragons.

Wesley describes how a refereed game changed his wargaming: once there was a referee, players could take ad-hoc actions. He describes how players in one wargame scenario decided to take apart a barn and use the timbers to build a bridge across a river to move their troops. And Wesley as the referee had to rule on how long it took the troops to deconstruct the barn and move the timbers. He also goes on with a few thoughts on how crossing rivers might work in a wargame, including randomly determining its depth and making rulings from there on what can go across.

This is an adaptation of the principles of free Kriegsspiel – the open war game method used in 19th century Prussia – based on Wesley's reading of Charles Totten's Strategos rules. (You can buy a facsimile of Strategos online now.) The historical progression that Wesley describes is logical and compelling; his desire for more complex refereed scenarios and his severe time constraints combined to create what would become Braunstein.

Wesley describes three basic things that make part of his rulings. First, there's the question of what he had decided secretly before the scenario; he may already know that the river is only a foot or two deep and cavalry and infantry can wade across (although artillery cannot follow). Second, there is random determination, where Wesley would throw a die to decide how deep the river is at this point. And third, his own knowledge often factors in, as he describes the results of the river's depth. There is no formal rule for this. so he comes up with appropriate descriptions.

He also describes a touch of classical irony that sometimes happens in gaming as well as war, where soldiers fought to take a bridge when they could as well have waded across. I'm sure this rings true for many referees.

Although Wesley focuses on the river scenario in this discussion, the lessons (and indeed, much of the ideas of free Kriegsspiel) are generally applicable in RPGs. One thing I think adventures benefit greatly from are details like the barn that properly motivated PCs can use to try and gain an advantage.

The other detail that Wesley gets into that applies in obvious and not-so-obvious ways to RPGs is when he talks about the persistence of details across games. While it's mostly obvious, the idea I particularly liked is using notoriety as a way of changing how a PC is perceived. Dave Arneson's bandit starts off as a no-name Mexican but once he blows up the bank there are "Wanted" posters plastered across the town. (Of course, it's also a delightful gaming story that he blew up the bank.)

The specific resolution that Wesley arrived at for a duel in the first Braunstein game (a simple roll-off where one participant had 3 dice and the other 2) is too simplistic for RPG combat, but most of the ideas can translate directly. Wesley is a brilliant referee and this is a great peek into his mind.

(The photo at the top of this article is referenced during the discussion.)


  1. I took a good long break from the OSR and gaming in general, broken a little but not much. Probably about 2 years.

    I'm glad to see you're still here. (Not that you wouldn't be. I'm just glad.)

  2. Believe me: a "master" class in role-playing has the potential to go a hell of a lot farther than just these points.

    1. A "master class" is typically an event where someone who is a recognized practitioner sits down and teaches techniques to students. Watching Dave Wesley's interview felt like that.

    2. Yes, but I see "recognized" as something more evident than "has done this a long time."

      While Wesley's description was evidently competent and full of rich stories and examples, I did not find the hard content of the discussion went any further than any discussion would with any individual who had played roleplaying games for ten years or more. Regarding insight, I wasn't startled or particular shaken by anything that he said - rather, it is all old hat.

      Undoubtedly, anyone with much experience in gaming would find themselves nodding along and in full agreement with Wesley . . . but that isn't a "class," is it? A "class" would suggest that he has something remarkable to teach me, that his fundamental knowledge goes a lot further than simply agreement with commonly held ideas about game play. I didn't find any of that.

      This is why I say there is MUCH, MUCH more to game play than what Wesley has to say. He may be experienced, but I wouldn't call him especially earth-shaking in his opinions. A "master" ought to challenge me.

      All too often, we equate "agreement" with "learning." Learning happens when we hear something forces us to question our premises. The examples that you drew out in your post, Patrick, are and have always been fully understood. Where is the game-changing enlightenment here?

    3. When you habitually approach learning opportunities with the conviction that no one could possibly teach you, then they won't.

    4. This is true, DHBoggs. But when I habitually find information that I have read before and elsewhere, that has already been incorporated into my game and my philosophy, that also fails to teach me.

      Don't misunderstand. The content of the video has MUCH to teach and is very valuable. A fresh, inexperienced player would gain a great deal from the content and I would highly recommend watching it all the way through.

      My contention isn't that there isn't material here that teaches. My contention is that this isn't a "master" class. Surely, defining adjectives matter.


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