Fantasy Vietnam

When in doubt, quote Dylan:

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting, “which side are you on?”

Previously on the deep history of roleplaying games: When David Wesely created Braunstein, his seminal proto-roleplaying game, he was inspired, he said, by three books he’d found in the University of Minnesota library. One was a wargame by 19th-century crackpot Charles Totten. One was a primer on game theory by the Cold War eggheads of the RAND Corporation. And the third was Conflict and Defense, an assault on RANDian game theory by the Quaker peace activist, systems theorist, and mystical poet Kenneth Boulding. A catholic trinity, to say the least.

Like Totten’s Strategos and RAND’s Compleat Strategyst, Conflict and Defense is an odd duck. Written in 1960, it is a heartsick response to Cold War brinksmanship and a critique of RAND-style game theory, but it is written in precisely the same esoteric language of models and matrices the RANDies used. “Just as war is too important to leave to the generals,” Boulding concludes, “so peace is too important to leave to the pacifists.” The book is a forest of diagrams and equations, “indifference curves,” “bare-survival contours,” and “mutual submission equilibriums.” It seems to have been an effort to devise some universal geometry of conflict and peace, and in so doing save the world from nuclear war. Boulding was a prominent economist and a pioneer of general systems theory, but his quest for a unified ecology of knowledge ultimately became a kind of religious mysticism. The information revolution, he argued in the 1970s and 80s, was weaving us all into one planetary superorganism. (Which it is, but serious economists aren’t supposed to come right out and say that.)

I’m not claiming that all or even any of this found its way directly into David Wesely’s Braunstein, though I remain impressed at Wesely’s eclectic tastes, and consider the whole story yet more proof of the indispensable serendipity of open library stacks. But the fact that Braunstein was inspired by a spacey Quaker on the one hand and by the RAND Corporation on the other makes me wonder: which side of the culture war were roleplaying games on? Were the first D&Ders squares or hippies, hawks or doves? This was a hobby invented by young American men, men of draftable age, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Two of the biggest groups of early gamers were college students and the military. Is it strange that the conflicts of the era are not more reflected in the history of the hobby? Is it strange that the received history of roleplaying games barely mentions Vietnam?

Those aren’t rhetorical questions. I’d really like to hear the thoughts of anybody reading this. Especially (but not only) if you were a gamer back in the proverbial day.

“When you’re in an old-school dungeon you’re in @*%!ing VIETNAM. Check EVERYTHING. Clear out EVERYTHING. Don’t take ONE STEP MORE than you have to until you’re COMPLETELY SURE it’s clear. Check EVERYTHING for traps. Search EVERYTHING. … THE GM WILL USE IT TO @*%! YOU OVER. Be PROACTIVE: set traps and ambushes for the monsters before they do it to you. Find a position of tactical advantage and DUMP FIREBALLS, FLAMING OIL, AND BARRAGES OF ARROWS on your enemies. And even if you do everything right, you STILL might get screwed by wandering monsters.”
a post by “Calithena” on Dragonsfoot, an old school D&D forum

I shouldn’t assume everything was colored by the conflict over Vietnam. My Dad was a grad student at UW-Madison circa 1968-70–not too far from the birth of D&D in either space or time–and my parents always describe it as this peaceful, idyllic period in their lives. After I saw The War at Home, I was all, “how come you guys never talk about about the riots and the tear gas and the people blowing up post-docs?” And Mom and Dad were all, “Oh, none of that really registered with us. We did go see Hair once.”

Many key figures in the history of RPGs had military backgrounds or connections–no big surprise when talking about the wargaming side of things. Totten, we know, was an Indian fighter and professor of military tactics. James Dunnigan, founder of SPI, discovered wargames as a 19-year-old recruit on his way to Korea. And when David Wesely ran the first Braunstein in 1967 or 1968, he had either enlisted or was just about to enlist in the U.S. Army Reserves. Wesely reported for active duty in 1970, telling Dave Arneson to keep on running the game without him: “I … expected to go off to Vietnam and get killed,” he said, “so I did not really care a lot about who ‘owned’ Braunstein.” That’s a comment Major Wesely could make lightly in 2006, but in 1970 it must have had bottomless implications.

Vietnam floats around the edges of roleplaying history in weird ways. There were Vietnam games in the 1980s like Recon, which indulged the odd modesty of relocating to a slightly alternate world where a superpower called “Stateside” found itself bogged down in a country called “the Nam.” “Fantasy Vietnam” is the nickname for a D&D playstyle where the Dungeon Master is out to get the players so everything is boobytrapped and nobody can be trusted. Charles Swan Roberts, founder of Avalon Hill, says he got the idea of hex grids from a photo of wargamers at RAND. I suspect the photo was this one, which appeared in Life magazine in 1959. The man in the center foreground is none other than Daniel Ellsberg, who, for those of you just joining us, roleplayed the Berlin crisis with Walt Rostow before it happened, first informed Robert McNamara about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, leaked the Pentagon Papers when he saw Vietnam could not be won, and indirectly brought about Watergate and the fall of Richard Nixon.

“You might say that each and every one of us is a crewmember here on ‘Spaceship Earth.’”
“Ooh. When could we say that?”
“Anytime. Dinner. Literally, anytime.”
Wet Hot American Summer

But Wesely’s mention of Kenneth Boulding brings in the hippy heritage of the hobby too. Along with another brainy pacifist, Buckminster Fuller, Boulding promoted the holist-environmentalist idea of “Spaceship Earth.” Boulding and Fuller also rubbed shoulders in the “New Games” movement of the late 1960s, which rejected winner-takes-all wargames for a countertradition of peaceful, cooperative play. “It’s a pity that New Games are even less cool than D&D these days,” says Paul LaFarge in his wonderful Believer tribute to Gary Gygax. New Games ranged from hippy happenings like Stewart Brand’s “Earthball,” where an unorganized crowd bounced a huge inflatable globe around a field, to the cooperative classroom and theater exercises known as “role playing” years before Gary Gygax ever picked up a 20-sided die.

“In a society that conditions people to compete … Dungeons & Dragons is countercultural; its project, when you think about it in these terms is almost utopian. Show people how to have a good time, a mind-blowing, life-changing, all-night-long good time, by cooperating with each other! … The resemblance of this description, to, say, an old-school rave, experienced by a person or persons under the influence of Ecstasy, is not unintentional. Actually, a rave is one of the few things I know of that’s as massively and necessarily cooperative–and as fun–as a really good game of D&D.”
–Paul LaFarge, “Destroy All Monsters

Here’s what I think: The war games and the peace games of the Vietnam era were united in an unlikely place: the garages, basements, and dorm rooms of Midwestern hobby gamers.

The original Braunstein was a war game at heart, but Dave Wesely took from Boulding the idea of giving each player distinct but not irreconcilable objectives. Then, to oversimplify and invite angry emails, Dave Arneson added dungeons to the mix and Gary Gygax added dragons, by which I mean a grab bag of fantasy tropes from J.R.R. Tolkien and pulp authors like Robert Howard and Jack Vance. (These authors were in vogue on the campuses of the 1960s and 1970s thanks to a boom in paperback reprints.) Gygax and Arneson also moved from Braunstein’s chaotic free-for-alls to a cooperative adventuring party. And this is huge. D&D characters, by and large, work together. That’s a profound revision of traditionally competitve wargames, and it was one of the hardest parts of the hobby to initially explain. A game where you play for weeks on end but nobody wins or loses? Gotta be something pinko about that.

Old school D&D was thus a hybrid, a peacenik New Game bolted onto the chassis of a skirmish-scale war game. The fantasy setting and the cooperative play style allowed it to leap over the hawk-dove divide in a way that Braunstein or the Avalon Hill wargames never could. Just as the Tolkien fad of the 1960s and 70s embraced both hawks and doves, just like Star Trek or the Homebrew Computer Club or any number of geek culture touchstones, roleplaying games had a way of straddling the third rail of Vietnam and the generation gap and all that Forrest Gump mishigas.

And it was all there in 1967, encoded in the recombinant DNA of David Wesely’s three unlikely library books.


  1. Wow…that is just a mind-blowing analysis. Just read all your “history articles” back-to-back. Thank you for the research…truly fascinating.

    I only just found Wells’ Little Wars a couple years back and thought it was crazy that folks were playing these games so far back, but having grown up after Vietnam, I never considered the connection with the development of the RPG hobby.

    Truly…a lot of food for thought (next up: an analysis of the change in RPGs and RPG philosophy due to events of the last decade or two!).

  2. Great stuff in this series–you should know that I’ve now referenced you and this post in my official panel proposal for the 2010 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo.

  3. Thanks, JB & Rob! (And riprock, if you are not spam. 🙂 )

    Rob: I’d love to see that proposal if you don’t mind sharing. Better yet, the paper if it gets picked up.

  4. Congrats! I find the general systems theory links interesting, partially because my affinity for elegant unified mechanics matches quite closely their interest in unified models dealing in set theory and feedback. I suspect we could probably learn a lot from them about making semi-realistic quickplay mechanics if only we could work out how to produce an s curve quickly.

    I’m going to look up Boulding now! And “new games”. Thanks.

  5. I assure you that I am not affiliated with any spiced ham potted meat product.

    I do, however, have an obsessive and hard-to-justify interest in how AD&D got to be the way it was, because one way or another it ended up having a massive impact on the Western world’s approach to gaming.

    Unfortunately, the lawsuits make it hard to document exactly which elements got weird at which points in time, and the all-too-recent deaths of both Gygax and Arneson still have some people mourning, so I try not to discuss it as bluntly as I otherwise would.

  6. Hi Riprock: I’m sorry for suspecting your comment of being spam. I get a lot and often it contains no obvious spam links, just a generic comment like “Nice blog!” or “Thanks for writing this.” Thanks for reading, and for your very real comment.

    I hear what you’re saying about things getting weird when you try to trace the lineage of D&D/AD&D etc. The exact questions of priority of invention and who came up with what are extremely sensitive for many people.

    Again, thanks for reading and for being a real person!

  7. I encourage you to write up a real history of the roots. For the next two weeks, though, I should limit myself to one-line comments of “Go for it!” while I attend to various matters.

    What I would really like to find would be a nice searchable archive of Gygax’s online mailing lists for the 1990s. Most yahoo groups seem to start at 2000. I think the 1990s were a critical decade for changes in attitude.

    If I manage to get some good source documents, I’ll try to get back to serious writing around July 2009.

  8. Pingback: Airminded · History Carnival 77

  9. Rob, I only just found this; seems like I keep getting drawn back to your series when I do some more research. This time I don’t think I have much to add, though.

    Well, I will throw a couple of connections your way. You mention Steward Brand; it might be worth expanding a bit more on The Whole Earth Catalog as a cultural nexus where all those ’70’s and ’80’s nontraditional-but-homebrew phenomena intermingled. The Last Whole Earth Catalog did have articles on wargames and D&D if I recall correctly.

    Another book of that era was The Great Escape, ed. by Min S. Yee and Donald K. Wright. It was slicker but less well-known than Whole Earth; it had a whole chapter on games which included New Games, wargames, RPGs, and other entertainments.

    Finally, one element that I think you could touch on a bit more is the continuous nature of RPGs, which was as revolutionary as the cooperative quality. This had a number of effects, including making the games more “pervasive” (you were still “in” the game even when you weren’t playing) and, somewhat related, creating an expanding field of meaning outside the isolated scenario. The continuity of gameplay combined with the hierarchical “levels” of play–the 20×20 room skirmish, or the search for traps & treasure contextualized by the dungeon expedition; the dungeon expedition contextualized by the campaign arc and geography; those in turn contextualized by the PC narrative; and then the PC narrative contextualized by the “world” as a whole–this was an entirely new experience compared to nearly anything that had gone before, especially as an interactive activity.

Comments are closed.