Rob on the Prehistory of Roleplaying

Rob MacDougall has begun to post previews of the article he’s writing for Push 2. I am ever so excited.

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, 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 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.”


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