Dungeon Master Zero

Tags: Timothy Burke and I, Napoleonic miniatures on acid, the first Dungeon Master, God versus the Metric System, the Lost Tribe.

Timothy Burke and I at the AHA in January:*

Me: It seems like 2006 was the year that a lot of academic bloggers came out of the closet as online gamers.

Tim: Definitely. There used to be a real social stigma attached to gaming in academia, but now with World of Warcraft and Second Life and so on, it really can’t be denied that online roleplaying games are a social phenomenon worthy of serious critical study.

Me: I’m just waiting for the same thing to happen to tabletop roleplaying games.

Tim: You mean like Dungeons & Dragons?

Me: More or less.**

Tim: Yeah, like that’s ever going to happen… loser.

It’s not much of a secret, if you’ve read my LiveJournal or just triangulated from my other interests, but from 1980-1990 and then again from 2001-2005, I played a lot of roleplaying games. Which today are called tabletop roleplaying games or pen-and-paper games, in the sort of prefix addition (think dial telephone, snail mail, liberal Democrat) that generally implies the object in question, while once the norm, is well on its way to the boneyard.

I’m writing something on the history and pre-history of tabletop RPGs for Jonathan Walton and his excellent journal Push: New Thinking About Roleplaying. You can see my original sketch of the article at the top secret Push forum, but it keeps getting longer and weirder than I’d planned. And although I just emailed Jonathan to tell him I’m going to miss his already generous deadline, what follows is something I’m not sure I can fit into the article and that I wanted to share right away.

Some Daves I Know

It’s impossible to name any one inventor of tabletop roleplaying, but it’s fair to say that in the Midwest, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of guys, many of them named Dave, started doing some very innovative things with miniatures war gaming. One of the Daves was Dave Wesely, who ran a game in Minneapolis in 1967 or 1968 about the fictional village of “Braunstein.” The Braunstein game was Napoleonic miniatures on acid. Each player had one figurine representing one character, and rather than recreating some grand military battle, each character had a personal goal to be pursued by means of negotiation and intrigue.

Braunstein begat Blackmoor which begat Chainmail which begat Dungeons & Dragons, or something like that [Edited to add: OK, so Blackmoor did not beget Chainmail, I have been informed on that score, please see comments below], but that tale has been told elsewhere, and will be part of my Push article besides, so I won’t repeat it here, except to remind you (since I’m sure you’re all up on this stuff) that one of Wesely’s key contributions to tabletop roleplaying was the re-introduction of an impartial, all-powerful referee who devised the scenario for the game and adjudicated the results of each conflict: i.e., a Dungeon Master. (Except that Braunstein featured no dungeons as yet; Wesely’s friend Dave Arneson would introduce that wrinkle in 1970.) I say re-introduction, because complicated war games had long enlisted neutral referees. The “thinking the unthinkable” nuclear war games that Herman Kahn ran at RAND in the 1950s and 60s had similar game masters–but that’s a story for another time. Wesely got the idea for such a referee from a dusty old book he found in the University of Minnesota library: Strategos: The American Art of War, published in 1880 [Edit: first published in 1871 oh no, it wasn’t either.] by Charles Adiel Lewis Totten. (You can pick up your own copy at that URL, complete with dice, compass, maps, and hundreds of playing pieces, for a mere $7,500.)

The First Dungeon Master?

Charles Totten ca. 1892

Who was Charles Adiel Lewis Totten? Now the fun begins. Totten (1852-1908) was a West Point graduate and a professor of military tactics, first at the Massachusetts Agricultural College in Amherst (today U-Mass Amherst) and later at Yale. He probably developed his war gaming system from the Kriegspiel conducted by Prussian military officers, which puts a funny spin on that subtitle, “The American Art of War.” As a lieutenant in the U.S. Artillery, Totten fought against the Paiute Indians in the Bannock campaign of 1878 and the Apache in the Chiricahua campaign of 1881. He also seems to have founded the U-Mass Amherst fencing program. But “the ruling motive of his life,” according to a biographical (and I suspect autobiographical) sketch written in 1890, was “the desire to get at the root of all that savored of the mysterious.” Totten, the grandfather of Dungeon Mastering, was himself a walking Suppressed Transmission, an old, weird American of the 33rd degree.

“His chief idea in going to college,” Totten, or his biographer, reported in 1890, was “to find out the secrets of some representative American fraternity.” He succeeded in joining the Delta Psi, known in the nineteenth century as the most secretive of college fraternities, through which he made the acquaintance of Henry Steel Olcott, founder and first president of the Theosophical Society. (In later life, Totten adopted the pseudonym “Ten Olcott” for some of his works.) After flirting with German “freethought” and giving a Fourth of July oration at West Point that earned him a reprimand for its atheistic implications, Totten became a Swedenborgian, a Cabbalist, a numerologist, and a pyramidologist. Oh, and a Freemason, but that almost goes without saying, and he soon left the Masons in order to pursue his own studies “upon independent and rather transcendental lines.” Ahem.

Totten was the chief American promoter of Charles Piazzi Smyth, the Scottish astronomer obsessed with the Great Pyramid who found in its every measurement some prophecy from God. Totten, like Smyth, campaigned against the Metric System in favor of the “god-given” pyramid inch. He wrote a book about the Great Seal of the United States (and you know he didn’t give a shit about the eagle–it was all about the you know what on the reverse) which I came upon, without recognizing his name or making the Braunstein connection, in MIT’s Archives of Useless Research. He wrote another book “proving,” through astrological calculations, that the Earth was twenty-four hours “out of schedule” as a result of the biblical Joshua making the sun stand still. (If you Google Totten’s name, among the first hits will be articles about a rumor that NASA computers in the 1960s had “discovered” the same thing.) And he left Yale in 1892, predicting the imminent arrival of the Antichrist and the end of the world in 1899. But Totten’s most ardent cause was the theory of British Israelism, the pseudohistorical belief that Anglo-Saxons are the descendants of the Lost Tribe of Israel and therefore the true chosen people of God. I guess that anti-atheism reprimand at West Point really stuck. He published twenty-six volumes on this subject in a series entitled Our Race: Its Origin and Destiny, still refererred to by modern “Christian Identity” groups.

Which is where the fun ends, I’m afraid. Because while it might be possible to regard 19th-century Anglo-Israelism as quaint Gilbert-and-Sullivanian crackpottery, since at least the 1940s this belief has been the province of racist, anti-Semitic thugs. This is a recurring problem for students of historical oddballs: what looks whimsical and eccentric from the distance of a century gone by can be quite unpleasant at closer range.

So Dungeon Masters and former Dungeon Masters like myself might not rush to embrace Totten as a forefather. And I know it’s anachronistic to refer to him as “the first Dungeon Master.” Still, the gamers I know will recognize his type, the tell-tale markers of geek DNA: a war gamer, keen on secret societies, a prolific writer of pseudohistory, given to drawing intricate maps of pyramids and tombs. (And didn’t I say before that modern geek culture is all shot through with a discourse on Jewishness?) Totten was wrong about the Israelites, it’s more than safe to say, but he was clearly one of our tribe, and his blood, metaphorically speaking, still runs in the hobby’s veins.


*Paraphrased from memory, and possibly embellished. Tim is way too nice to say that last part out loud.

**Gamers have spilled billions of pixels debating how best to define or describe the hobby, but we’ve yet to come up with anything that says as much to as many as quickly as, “you know, like Dungeons & Dragons.”


  1. The Military Tactics department at UMass Amherst is woefully underfunded these days.

    Fantastic piece, as always. How *do* you find this stuff? I’m honestly curious about your research method. Like, how did you first encounter Totten’s name, or heck, even the Dave Wesely/Braunstein stuff?

  2. Thanks! My research for this was not too esotoric: Google, read, repeat. I read about Braunstein in Lawrence Schick’s book Heroic Worlds, recommended to me by Ken Hite. Then I found (via this LiveJournal post) a thread on some D&D collector’s forum where Dave Wesely reminisced about Braunstein and its influences. (Apparently he gave a talk about Braunstein at the 2005 GenCon.) In it, Wesely says:

    Look up Charles Adiel Lewis Totten on the internet. After he wrote ‘Strategos, The American Game of War’ he wrote a bunch of other stuff, sometimes under the pen name, “Ten Alcott”. As his great-grandson said to me once, “Well when he got older, he got a little strange”

    So I did as instructed and hit weirdness.

    I find it interesting that Wesely was in touch with Totten’s great-grandson. I wonder if he’s related to the “Charles Adell Lewis Totten” who got married in 1994 and who is apparently also the great-grandson of General George S. Patton.

    The Military Tactics department at UMass Amherst is woefully underfunded these days.
    Another thing to add to the complaints against Jack Wilson. Western Mass. will be in dire straits if the Paiute attack!

  3. Great post Rob! Your research of roleplaying partially overlaps my continually expanding research of educational computer simulations – specially studying history roleplaying simulations in Second Life and earlier examples of history simulations starting with the Oregon Trail computer game.

    In early educational roleplaying games or simulations, have you found any that dealt with roleplaying the “Wild West”? Games like Boot Hill were along these lines, but not designed as educational tools. I’d be interested to hear about anything you may have come across.

  4. I heard the conversation pretty much the same way you did, Rob, though I don’t remember the last word….

    I had my own D&D era in the ’80s, along with my whole family. My father was a wicked DM because he was the only one of us with a sense of plot.

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  6. So, we historians who tabletop AND online game are really the cutting edge of the new revisionist history, right? Right?

  7. Hm.

    So, Model UN. Simulation games, of course; they date back to the League of Nations, if Wikipedia is accurate. Certainly Harvard’s Model UN goes back to the founding of the real UN.

    Another origin trail, separate from the RAND military sims?

  8. Yes, definitely. Is that “Hm.” meant to imply dubiousness? Because I would never seriously claim that RPGing has only one trail of ancestry. The history of LARPs in this book also cites Model UNs as part of the LARPing tradition, and that makes a lot of sense to me.

    Now, do Model UNs and Model Parliaments (which could well predate them) ever have any kind of “resolution mechanics” beyond people talking to each other and voting? Because the innovation I think the Kriegspiel – Totten – RAND – Avalon Hill line of origin provides is the idea of simulation mechanics: rules, separate from the role-play interaction of the participants (Lumpley Principle notwithstanding) meant to model reality or some aspect of reality (like combat).

  9. Nah, in this context “Hm” is thoughtfulness.

    I’m not aware of any resolution mechanics beyond the parlimentary procedure rules. There are often rules for deciding who “wins” a Model UN, defined as which delegates get the awards at the end. But that’s not modeling reality, that’s a meta-game issue.

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  11. OK, I don’t have $7500, but I’d love to take a look at Strategos and see what the included stuff is. I’d totally do a retro reprint of the game. It sounds like it’d be real fun.

    It’d also be great to get more details on how Wesley ran his Braunstein games.

    Fun stuff,

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  14. “Gamers I know will recognize his type, the tell-tale markers of geek DNA: a war gamer, keen on secret societies, a prolific writer of pseudohistory, given to drawing intricate maps of pyramids and tombs.”

    He also displays two distinct, yet radically different, styles of “nerd classic” hair:

    1) up top, the slicked-down 1950s-ish Poindexter, known to chess clubs and debating societies the world over, and,

    2) ’round the chops, an excessive and untamed affair favored by Comic Book Guys, 1980s modem jockeys, and that fella on Mythbusters.

    No mean feat, bringing those two together on a single human head.

    — S

  15. Hee. You’re right! What’s that they say about the mullet: “business in the front, party in the back”? This is like “business on top, party on the chin.” Or maybe “slide rule on top, Society for Creative Anachronism on the chin”.

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  17. “Blackmoor which begat Chainmail”

    Be sure you get this right in the published article. Arneson and Gygax are both still around and Gygax regularly answers questions at Dragonsfoot.

    For example: the Great Svenny from Blackmoor, who played in the very first dungeon adventure, claims that Arneson used Gygax & Perrin’s Chainmail rules to run single-man (instead of 10- or 20-man unit) games. That makes the lineage Jeff Perren – Gary Gygax – Dave Arneson – Gary Gygax.

    Citation: http://web.tampabay.rr.com/gsvenson/FirstDungeonAdv.html

    Also, Michael Mornard, who posts as Old Geezer at rpg.net and elsewhere, actually played in the original Greyhawk and Blackmoor campaigns, and I’m sure could help out with more details.

  18. MP: Thanks for the correction and the link. I will absolutely follow up – though, truth be told, I don’t want to get too caught up in the thorny question of priority of invention. I think it’s safe to say this was a bunch of creative guys bouncing ideas off one another in an extremely fertile period, and there’s plenty of credit to go around.

    I say a bit more along those lines in the original outline here: http://plays-well.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=19

  19. “The sort of prefix addition (think dial telephone, snail mail, liberal Democrat) that generally implies the object in question, while once the norm, is well on its way to the boneyard.”

    These are often called “retronyms.”

  20. TS: Yes! That’s the word. I kept wanting to call them “back formations,” but that’s something different, like “burgle” from burglar, or “gruntled: from disgruntled.

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  23. Interesting article.

    I still own an original copy of Totten’s Art of War. It served as the basis for the rules I developed with Dave Wesely (yes, the Dave you reference) for our Napoleonic minatures games in Baltimore from 1969 (when I met Dave) through 1972, when I graduated, got commissioned, and when off to do other things. I hired Dave to work for me around 1984 in Tacoma. After that assignment ended, I lost track of him.


  24. Thanks for this info about Totten. Very interesting.

    As I understand it, Chainmail did have some influence on Blackmoor, but Arneson discarded it pretty quick. Braunstien begat Blackmoor begat Greyhawk begat D&D is how I’d put it. Tho’ any summary like that of necessity leaves out a lot of stuff.

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  26. “Zero” seems like a much higher number than is warranted here; I would put this guy somewhere way into the negatives.

    “Blackmoor begat Chainmail”? Don’t know if I heard it that way, so I’d want to see some corroborating evidence.

  27. Alex:
    Thanks for visiting the site, and for the comment. I have been corrected (by email and in comments upthread) on the Chainmail/Blackmoor lineage. I’ll add this comment as an asterix to that effect. If this ever gets published anywhere else, I’ll correct it, or more likely, take the whole line out. As I say in my followup on the subject, the exact order of priority is not especially interesting to me: the history of RPGs is far too complex to be reduced to a series of begats.

    As for Totten, your point is well taken. But besides the Patient Zero, Guinea Pig Zero, Ground Zero reference, I like “Dungeon Master Zero” because of the acronym it makes.

  28. The articles in RPG history are very, very interesting. The context of Totten is a bit thin however and there is really no merit to the idea that he was somehow a pioneer of RPGs any more so than hundreds of other military wargamers in the 19th century. Sure Wesley got some ideas from him but he could just as well have cited the prussian kriegspeil games that Totten and other military wargame designers were essentially copying. Totten doesn’t deserve being singled out as a prototypical Dungeon Master. On a different point. you might be interested in this interview with Greg Svenson, where he discusses some of the other wargames – particularly Michael F. Korns Modern War in Miniature, 1966 – that influenced Blackmoor. http://shamsgrog.blogspot.com/2009/05/q-with-greg-svenson.html

  29. Daniel: Thanks for the kind words, and especially for the excellent Greg Svenson interview. That is good stuff.

    On Totten, what you say has come up before, so it’s probably worth clarifying: I think people are reading more into my article than I intended. I’m not really trying to make a case for Totten as a key innovator in the history of wargaming. When I say things in that essay like “the first Dungeon Master?” I am playing around. I think I was careful to always put the phrase in quotation marks or with a question mark after it, and I do say right off the bat that Totten adapted his game from the Prussians.

    My reasons for writing about Totten were: a) Dave Wesely specifically cited Strategos as an inspiration for Braunstein – yes, he could have cited the original Kriegspeils, but in the post I read, he didn’t, b) Totten was _to me, at least_ an unknown figure in the lineage of the hobby, and most importantly, c) Totten is a glorious kook! I just think it’s fascinating and cool that this guy with a small but not insignificant role in the history of gaming is such a splendid example of the 19th century crank. That’s my main justification for all of the above.

    Anyway, thanks for reading, and thanks especially for commenting.

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