Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Essay On The Braunstein - Part The First, For July 15th, 2014 - Art or Science?

Braunstein meets the Petal Throne - the usual chaos

I was markedly cheered up by an e-mailed request from a reader; it's a wonderful change from the sort of 'current events' news that I am being inundated with, and I thought I'd have a run at answering the request - this will be a long post, and there will be follow-up posts coming as well. So, anyway:

[A reader from The Big Easy e-mailed:]

I started looking over your blog and watching some of the videos from your games. Right now, I'm not so much looking for info about the nitty-gritty mechanics ( though  love that stuff too), I'm more looking for advice and info on planning one of these big table, multi player games. No one has written much about that stuff. It really seems more art than science ( which I'm down with!).

Any chance you could write a blogpost about that stuff?

Well, I think you are right; the Braunstein style of game -for an overview of which please see:

- may very well be more art then science, but let me make a stab at giving you some information on how I practice the arcane art.

First off, the game is based in whatever world-setting or period you like. It's completely open; pick what you like, and run with it. (I happen to prefer Barsoom or Tekumel, but that's a personal choice.)

Next, think about how many players you'd like to have at the table. Braunsteins are a cross between free Kreigspiels and poker games, so having more then two players is a must. Each potential player gets to play a 'side' - in these games, there are a lot of different factions, all with their own goals and objectives. The more the merrier; I have found that six 'sides' seems to work well, and one can have multiple players on a side - for even more fun and mayhem, give the individuals on a 'side' or 'team' goals and objectives of their own. The idea is to give players a chance to work for and against each other, so give them reasons to negotiate and ally as much as possible.

Think about how long you have to play the game - this is actually really important! I am lucky that I have a dedicated game room, where I can leave games set up for as long as we need to, but you will probably not have that luxury. So, think about how fast you want the thing to go - and I should also say that the faster and more furious the game, the better it is for everyone to play and to run! Players who get rushed often make the funniest mistakes and decisions, which simulate the confusion you find in the real world quite nicely!

Consider what size table you are willing to deal with. I have a 48" x 48" table always set in the game room, which uses my modular terrain system; I also have three 30" x 60" folding tables, and I use these to make a 60" x 60" or 60" x 90" table. Larger tables are not always better, by the way; if you do not have the players or the factions to use the space, it gets wasted and ignored. My largest games happen on a 60" x 120" table, which seems to be the biggest useful size; my June 2013 game was done on this size of a table.

If I may, I'd like to offer a sort of table of 'Suggested Table Sizes for Players":

Four to six players:  48" x 48"
Four to six players:  60" x 60"

Four to eight players:  60" x 90"
Four to eight players:  60" x 120"

Six to twelve players:  60" x 120"

So, having got the size and shape of the game thought about, let's move on to structure.

The idea is to get the players scheming and plotting, as a big chunk of the fun of the Braunstein is having the players negotiate and deal with each other. Let's take an example, my "Saving Serqu's Sisters" game...

The one common goal for all of the players is to find the two sisters / McGuffins; each 'side' has different goals for wanting to find them, mostly involving a hefty ransom. This gives one source of conflict and negotiation; we add more to the mix to keep things lively. Let's assume that we have six players; we write up short and simple little notes for each, telling the players what they have 'on the table', and what their goals and objectives are. In the case of this particular game, I had four 'teams' of mercenaries out looking for the girls, and one large 'team' of locals who were not keen on having the visitors get all the money. The idea of having this large team was to be able to add more players to the game if more showed up; at the actual event this team had four players, for something like ten people playing around the table - some of the mercenaries 'doubled up', with more experienced players helping less-experienced ones.

Everyone has, more or less,  the same goals: Get as much loot as you can. Keep everyone else from getting it. In addition, I also specified who liked and didn't like who, as a guide to alliances and hostilities. The large team was made up of some of Tekumel's vast collection of hostile non-humans, who had the goal of killing as many humans as possible; the humans, as one might guess, then got the additional goal of not getting killed by them.

Set things up to that the players have a reason to connive and plot; have one team allied with another, but hostile to a third. This is vital - use a large sheet of paper or a white board to plot this out, and you won't regret it.

Okay; that's the general plan. Next post, I'll look into the murky waters of more detailed planning...


  1. A fascinating read, thanks for this. Looking forward to "part two".

    Also, thought you'd like to know that while visiting a garden centre at the weekend I purchased an "Ancient Egyptian statue", meant for an aquarium, of course, for use with my Dark Fable Miniatures' Ancient Egyptians :)

    1. And there you go - keep your eyes open, next time you stop by the pet shop getting something for the bunny. You'll see all sorts of stuff in the aquarium and terrarium sections that will get you thinking... :)

      - chirine

  2. Now I have to run one of these! Thank you so much for posting it and I can't wait to read the follow up.

    1. You're very welcome! These are a scream to run, and you can have a lot of fun with them.

      - chirine

  3. The genre of player-specific objectives has been well explored in miniature wargaming ever since, ... nobody calls such games "Braunsteins" though?

    1. I think Braunstein has stayed with us in the rpg hobby, since that specific game and those similar to it has had big significance.

    2. I think Blogger may have eaten your comment; I'll take a guess at what you were getting at, if I may. (Please do feel free to re-comment, too!)

      I'd agree that that individual objectives in war games have been around for quite a while. I've played and run many such games in the past forty years, and had a lot of fun doing it.

      Dave Wesley's 'Braunstein' games started out in that same genre, but mutated right after the start of the very first one into something else - due, in no small part, to his players: guys like Ross Maker, Pete Gaylord, and Dave Arneson.

      Yes, *that* Dave Arneson.

      What has made the 'Braunstein' games unique over the past four decades that we've been running them here in the Twin Cities is the element of what came to be known as 'role playing'; unlike 'straight RPGs', there is a strong miniatures / war game element in these games, and unlike 'straight war games' there is a strong element of role-playing in them as well. They fall into the yawning gap between the two much more well-known genres, and I've found that both RPG gamers and miniatures gamers are uncomfortable with that - until they actually play in one, and then they're hooked.

      'Braunsteins' are unique, which is why we called them that all those years ago, and still do so. It's like when Dave, Phil, or Gary would ask "Hey! I'm running some Blackmoor / Tekumel / Greyhawk on Saturday - wanna come over and play?"

      I think that Andreas is right - the RPG connection is what RPG gamers remember us for, hence the term of art... :)

      - chirine

    3. I totally agree with you, and I was certainly not implying that that specific genre of a game was not original.

      However, I think the concept of a game halfway between a miniature game and a roleplaying game (as we know them now), has become well-known since then. If you look in miniature wargaming magazines, such scenario setups with specific player objectives for multi-sided games are published regularly. I do agree though that they are certainly not mainstream. Perhaps such games are still called "Braunsteins" in your gaming group, since they originated in your area and gaming group, but I doubt whether that specific name is widely used, although people have been playing such games all over the world.

      When reading up on the history of wargaming and roleplaying, the original Braunstein indeed influenced a lot of thinking surrounding the early prototype rpgs (I only know this because I read about it, but you have firsthand experience :-)), so I am certainly not arguing that part :-)

      But - if you look at miniatur e wargaming pre-WW2 and upto Tony Bath's Hyboria, it seems that roleplaying and personalized objectives always have been a part of miniature wargaming. It was probably with Don Featherstone in the 60s that wargaming lost that particular roleplaying element, to be re-introduced in the 60s with those famous Braunstein games.

      In a sense, pre-60s wargaming was really about world-building (cfr Hyboaria, cfr. Stevenson), and that particular aspect of the hobby was transferred to roleplaying in the 70s. But, it is recently rediscovered, cfr old-school-wargaming, again with a lot of emphasis on building your own imagi-nations, and filling them with all sorts of personalities that are featured on the battlefield.

      Anyway, my apologies for my slightly incoherent ranblings. To summarize - I am a big fan of this type of game. I was only surprised some gaming groups still explicitly referred to them as Braunsteins.

    4. Phil, thank you for an absolute gem of a comment!!! I think Blogger ate your original one, which is a pity.

      Yes, I agree with everything you said - you've put what I do into the proper historical context, and have - in my opinion - hit the nail on the head about the place of Dave's games in the history and development of RPG games.

      I could not agree more about your comments about pre-1960s 'wargames' being about world-building! My tattered copy of Wells' "Little Wars" is full of this kind of thing, and the 'Imagi-nations' folks are carrying it on to this day. I think you are right about the inadvertent shift in focus when we started to get more sets of published rules out there - we moved away from that, I think, in part to get away from the perceived stigma of 'playing with toy soldiers'.

      And I think that the term 'Braunstein' may really only be current in the-history-of-RPG circles, too. I still call them that simply because that's what we called them here in the Twin Cities. I often joke that I'm the 'Jurassic Park' or the 'living fossil' of gaming, and I think this may be an example of that... :)

      Thank you again - superb comment!!!

      - chirine

  4. I need to keep this in mind for games I run at conventions. Too many wargames these days (SF and historical) are so tournament-focused, they carry all the narrative weight of a game of chess.

    I'm curious; what rules have you used to run a Braunstein game? Your own, or someone else's?

    1. Agreed! I hate 'tournament-style' games, myself, and got out of historical miniatures due to them; I sold off over 12,000 figures after watching the HMGS people at Origins in Baltimore in the early 1980s claim that a Sung Dynasty Chinese chariots vs. French Gendarmes cavalry game was "a historically accurate simulation".

      I've found that people who play a lot of tournament games get into rules-lawyering very quickly, and all the fun goes out of the thing. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we'd solve that here in the Twin Cities by making the more notorious rules-lawyers run the games; it solved the problem in very short order...

      Convention games are a lot more fun if there is a back story of sorts to get people involved in what's happening on the table. (I'll tlak about this in the second part of this essay.) Convention games need to be fast, fun, and simple, otherwise they bog down and never get finished - and people walk away from them.

      As for rules, I'll talk about this some more; in the meantime, I've used quite a few sets of rules over the years, mostly by other people. (I'm lazy.) Original "Chainmail", "Tractics", "Empire of the Petal Throne", "Bireme and Galley", "Don't Give Up The Ship", "Planetfall" "Starguard", "Down Styphon", "Space Marine", "Clear For Action", "The Sword And The Flame" all figured in my games. I'll use anything, as long as it fits the scenario and the plot.

      Does this help?

      - chirine