Tags: The Cold War avante-garde, from R&D to D&D, the secret origins of hex paper, KAAAAHN!

Really, Cheney should be the Dungeon Master.

Mathematicians, physicists, historians, psychologists … all have something to offer the modern warrior. … Now, in the early days of the Atomic Age, there is developing a scientist-soldier team whose joint function is to outguess any conceivable enemy in any conceivable future situation. … Huddled around an electric brain that helps the fighter to fight and the thinker to think, they are beginning to work–or play–together in the most elaborate war game imaginable.
–“CORG plans Tomorrow’s Army Today,” Army magazine, 1956.

Let’s take another run at the deep history of roleplaying games.

My previous post talked about “Braunstein,” the proto-roleplaying game run by David Wesely in 1967, and how Wesely was inspired in part by Charles Totten’s Strategos, a book about wargaming from the late nineteenth century. On a D&D collectors’ forum called The Acaeum, Wesely recalled two other books that inspired him:

I created all the non-military roles for the first Braunstein game, not because I had too many people for the game, but because I had become interested in the concepts of N-player strategy games (where N is > 2) discussed in Kenneth Swezy’s [sic – see below] book The Compleat Stategyst and of overlapping and conflicting, but not directly opposite, objectives laid out in [Kenneth Boulding’s] Conflict and Defense.

Totten’s book led us from the roots of roleplaying to 19th century theosophy, the Lost Tribe of Israel, and the U-Mass Amherst fencing program. What might we learn from Wesely’s other two books?

The first thing we learn is: Dave Wesely was no slouch! I have both books in front of me and they are brainy, chewy stuff: page after page of “game theory matrices” and “Richardson process models” and formidable looking graphs and equations. Neither book jumps out at you as obvious fodder for your next beer n’ pretzels gaming night.

The next thing we learn is: D&D’s lineage is more complicated than the standard wargames + wizards story would have it. Wesely’s two books are at once similar in their assumptions and very different in their provenance. The gap between them says something interesting, I think, about where roleplaying came from, and maybe about geek history more broadly. This post spins off of the first of those two books; I’ll come back to Kenneth Boulding another time.

The Compleat Strategyst

Wesely seems to have misremembered: there is no book by “Kenneth Swezy” called The Compleat Strategyst. I am fairly certain (and Wikipedia’s entry on Wesely seems to have reached the same conclusion) the book he read was The Compleat Strategyst: Being A Primer on the Theory of Games of Strategy by John D. Williams, a bestselling introduction to game theory published by the RAND Corporation in 1954 and republished in 1966, just in time for Wesely to find it in his university library the next year. (So who is Swezy? Patience, grasshopper.)

John Williams was RAND’s chief mathematician, the very first person hired after the Air Force spun RAND off from Douglas Aircraft in 1947. That the preeminent think tank of the Cold War military-industrial complex could publish this book, “compleat” with cutely spelled title and cartoon illustrations, and that it could become a bestseller, is a reminder that Cold War eggheads were kind of hip once. With buckets of money to attract brilliant minds in nearly every scientific field, the RAND Corporation epitomized what Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi calls “the Cold War avante-garde.” RAND theorists like Herman Kahn (the subject of an inspired, funny, disturbing, terrific biography by Ghamari-Tabrizi, from which large swaths of this post will be taken) were atomic age celebrities of a sort.

From R&D to D&D

The line from R&D (RAND is simply an acronym for Research and Development) to D&D doesn’t only run through Dave Wesely’s library books. Roleplaying simulation games, some strikingly similar to what Dave Wesely, Dave Arneson, and Gary Gygax would transform into Dungeons & Dragons, become one of the RANDies’ signature methods of “thinking the unthinkable” and planning for nuclear war.

In Charles Totten’s day, miniature war games had been an accepted part of officer training, but by the First World War they went out of vogue, left to hobbyists like the writer H.G. Wells, who published Little Wars, a set of rules for playing with tin soldiers, in 1913, and Fred T. Jane, whose famous series of military reference books (Janes Fighting Ships and the like) began as sourcebooks for his own naval wargame. (Which goes to show what my gaming buddies already know: if you want an exhaustively-written reference book, get a gamer to write it.)

RAND analysts revived the practice of serious wargaming in the 1950s, but they moved away from miniatures-style gaming with model ships and airplanes towards more free-form political games where participants role-played world leaders in crisis scenarios. Herbert Goldhamer, in RAND’s Social Science Division, ran four major “role-playing crisis games” between 1955 and 1956 that will sound awfully familiar to anyone who’s ever slain an orc. Players sat around big tables covered with maps, rules, tables, and dice. They took on the roles of various world leaders, while Goldhamer, as game director, played the role of “God” or “Nature,” devising the scenario to be played, adjudicating player actions, and introducing chance events.

This is the same move away from hex maps and miniatures that Gary Gygax and the Daves would make in the late 1960s. Instead of having a strictly limited set of options–move this piece or that piece, fire this missile here or there–players in these games could order any action that might be taken in real life. Briefs for Goldhamer’s simulation games read a little like the back of the Red Box D&D set I got for Christmas 1980: possibilities were limited only by the players’ imaginations.

The Sims

Simulation gaming fit the moment. It reflected the mid-20th century’s faith in the models and abstractions of social science, and the alluring vision of a “closed world” in which all possibilities could be seen, all variables controlled. Yet gaming was also a kind of improvisation, “serious play” where visceral experience mattered more than rational analysis. Ghamari-Tabrizi compares it to bebop jazz, abstract expressionist painting, beat poetry. “You had to be there,” the RAND gamers would say when narrative descriptions of their games fell flat. Finally, gaming seemed one of the only ways available to “think about the unthinkable,” to devise any kind of predictions or strategy for the nuclear holocaust of World War III. When men like Curtis LeMay grumbled about the rising influence of civilian eggheads, who were still in short pants when he was firebombing Tokyo, Kahn would shoot back, “How many thermonuclear wars have you fought, General?”

Wargaming as a hobby also enjoyed a renaissance in the 1960s. While its evolution was largely distinct from what was happening at RAND, the two streams touched here and there. Charles Roberts, founder of Avalon Hill, the company at the center of the wargaming hobby in the 1960s and 70s, claimed that he was approached by RAND with much skullduggery and questioned about the source of the Combat Results Table used in most of his early games. I have my doubts about that story, but there’s no reason to doubt that influence went the other way: once Roberts saw a photograph of a RAND wargame, possibly in a Life magazine feature from 1959, and noticed the RAND gamers were using a hexagonal grid to measure movement on their maps, as opposed to the square grid used in hobby games. Avalon Hill adopted the hex grid for all its subsequent games. Hexes are now ubiquitous in wargaming, practically a symbol for the hobby.

After a few years, the RANDies moved away from gaming, finding it too time-consuming and intense. “Even short periods of game activity elicit a considerable drain on intellectual capital and resources,” read one 1956 report–which is code, judging from my own experience, for “eventually, the RAND analysts got girlfriends.” Yet by then, RAND’s gamers had spread the word to other places, like the Army War College, the State Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and various Ivy League schools. Ghamari-Tabrizi follows the spread of RAND-style gaming to the highest levels of power. In September 1961, mere weeks after the construction of the Berlin Wall, Harvard economist and RAND associate Thomas Schelling ran a roleplaying simulation of the Berlin crisis for a group at Camp David including McGeorge Bundy, Carl Kaysen, Henry Kissinger, and Walt Rostow—surely one of the most high-powered clusters of geeks ever to gather around a gaming table. A year later, when events during the Cuban Missile Crisis began to look scarily like the events of Schelling’s game, Daniel Ellsberg said to Walt Rostow,“This shows how realistic the Berlin game was,” said Ellsberg. “Or how unrealistic all this is.” Rostow answered. (Schelling went on to win the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in game theory.)

On Halloween 1963 (and there’s got to be a Clio’s Nightmare in that), Schelling ran another game for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the director of the U.S. budget, the commander of the Marine Corps, and–wait for it–Attorney General Robert Kennedy. (And if I’d asked you which Kennedy brother was most likely to spend Halloween night rolling up a character with a bunch of other eggheads … you know it would have to be Bobby.) Bobby was intrigued, and excitedly proposed running a game about, bless his heart, civil rights. But it never happened. Twenty-three days later Bobby’s mind was on other things.

Most of the above is from Ghamari-Tabrizi’s The Worlds of Herman Kahn, and if you’ve read this far, I urge you to check out the book. I’ve plundered the chapter on gaming for this post, but the whole thing is full of marvels I’m not even mentioning.

The Hexagon Papers

Simulation gaming spread from RAND and parallel think tanks like the Army’s Operations Research Office into other fields. In 1956, the American Management Association teamed up with IBM and the Naval War College to construct the first serious business game. By 1958, simulation gaming had reached the Harvard Business School, and leading corporations would devise such rollicking-sounding amusements as Allied Chemical’s Maintenance Management Game, Boeing’s Operation Federal Reserve Game, and General Electric’s Dispatch-O Game. Roleplaying also spread into undergraduate and high school education, shedding its crewcuts and hornrims heritage to turn up in 1960s encounter groups, theater games, and counterculture happenings. So by 1968 or so, when Midwestern wargamers started mutating Napoleonic miniatures into Dungeons & Dragons and its ilk, roleplaying of one kind or another was already all around them.

My friend and hero James Carroll published a book last year called House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power. Jim shares his birthday with the Pentagon; his own life and its are intertwined in many fascinating ways. He sees the Pentagon as an engine out of control, a central force driving American policy for more than sixty years. Hexagons have played a bigger role in my own life than the Pentagon. How strange to find the hexagon had a pivotal place in that Cold War story too.


  1. You didn’t mention the most popular wargame of them all: Risk.

    About 6 months ago, The New York Times reported that W just couldn’t get enough of Risk while at Yale. Shockingly, he was known for aggressive, reckless play and for behaving badly when losing. (The article is TimesSelect, but it is excerpted here.

  2. OK, so did you like design this post with the WAAGNFNP in mind, or were lil’ Gojira and lil’ Astaroth on your shoulders while you wrote it, or what?

    Perhaps for an encore you’d like to try your hand at that ultimate strategic/tactical war on nature game (I mean, sport): golf. Mostly Harmless’s first Take Your Blog to the Course week starts on 6/25 to promote the U.S. Women’s Open…. You in?

  3. Pingback: Davos Newbies » Blog Archive » Children and thinking the unthinkable

  4. Hiya there!
    Awesome blog.
    I´m unconvinced about the RAND influence. Military (staff) exercises have been using roles and a GM-equivalent since the days of Reisswitz at the very least.
    Although it´s interesting how the wargaming hobby came to be.

    Keep up this impressive series!

  5. Pingback: Rob Runs RAND « Bleeding Play

  6. Very interesting. I wonder, though, if another type of academic role-playing had some influence on RPGs. From the 1940s, there seems to have been a burgeoning literature on role-playing in sociometry (and the journal of the same name). The term was also bandied about in discussion of the training of managers and nurses. Of course, lawyers had been doing moot court for centuries before this, but calling that sort of thing ‘role playing’ seems to have been a relatively new thing in the 1940s.

    I wonder if any of this approach to role playing influenced the RAND folks and in turn, indirectly, early entertainment RPGs?

    Finally, re hex paper–does this derive from the game hex invented by the mathematician John Nash? Or was it just convenient?

  7. Settembrini, you’re right about the referee being a long-standing feature of wargames – that’s what my previous post, Dungeon Master Zero, is about.

    DFF, absolutely there are other kinds of “role-playing” of the sort that goes on in moot courts and theater games and so on. What I think distinguishes the RAND games and D&D (and many wargames) from that lineage is the combination of sort of free-form “assume a role” roleplaying and at the same time fairly mechanical resolution systems involving dice or charts or maps. But I’m still working all this out, and I’m not claiming a 1:1 correlation or that this is the only lineage. Just trying to show that roleplaying’s history is longer, deeper, and more interesting than many might think.

    Thanks very much for reading, and even more for commenting!

  8. Again, the Reisswitz Kriegsspiel has mechanical resolutions, involving maps and charts.
    For a more thorough history of wargaming for fun and military training with a look at the US, look here:



    Sorry, if you already checked those out. I really appreciate your effort, actually, I´m a bit envious that you did all the legwork, that´s still on my reading list (Weseley´s ispirational reading etc.).
    Keep going!

  9. Pingback: Airminded · War games

  10. Pingback: The Deep History of Role Playing Games | RolePlay Gateway: WeBlog!

  11. Pingback: Vin Diesel on D&D « High Adventure Games

  12. One of the interesting features that I always run into when reading a history of military simulations, is the fact that the first Airplane Simulator, the Link simulator, is often included in the list.

    For those that don’t know, this was a miniature airplane, that looked like a $0.25 ride from in front of a department store, big enough for a pilot to sit in. The stubby wings and tail are laughable. But the whole thing was moveable on a pedestal, and motions would be used to help pilots learn how to react (at the controls) to different air and wind conditions. It was considered in the between-the-wars era to be a Great success by the US Department of Defense.

    My confusion is over including this in a list of military simulators. It did not offer anything at all related to combat, but WAS developed for use by the military. Is that enough to warrant its inclusion in a history of wargames/simulations?


  13. Pingback: Old School, New Histories

  14. Pingback: The Vietnam War and D&D « Fire in the Jungle

Comments are closed.