Saturday, January 10, 2015

Braunstein! An Appreciation

Disclaimer: I have no connection with James and Robyn George or with Olde House Rules. I purchased Braunstein! on a whim on 4 January 2015 — before it went on sale! — in large part because several RPG bloggers whose tastes resonate with my own had written positively about Pits & Perils, a game produced by the same authors which I have not yet read.

Braunstein! Rules for 1:1 Scale Historical Adventure Games, by James and Robyn George.  N.p.: Olde House Rules, 2014.

Braunstein! is a rules-light, easy-to-learn role-playing game intended for adventures and campaigns set in medieval Europe. 

It takes its name from the fictional nineteenth-century German town that served as the setting for an early experiment in role-playing conducted by wargamers in the Minneapolis-St Paul area in the late 1960s. Wargamers took on the roles of individual inhabitants of the town and played out scenarios incidental to the Napoleonic Wars campaign in which they were embedded. Dave Arneson played in the original Braunstein run by David Wesely and later created his own medieval fantasy variation called Blackmoor. To handle conflict in Blackmoor, Arneson adopted a set of rules for simulating medieval combat written by Jeff Perren and Gary Gygax. Gygax would eventually play in Arneson’s game and the rest, as they say, is history. The Braunstein era was the critical moment that brought the future co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons together and created the conditions for the emergence of an entirely new game genre: the RPG.

Braunstein! with the exclamation mark does not claim any connection to those early experiments, other than in spirit and style. Indeed, the old typewriter font and no-frills layout in which the interior text is presented recalls someone’s typed-up houserules from the 1970s, or perhaps the first edition of Tunnel & Trolls or an early Judges’ Guild product.

In content, however, Braunstein! is entirely new. It is not in any sense a “retro-clone” or effort to emulate an actual game. It might better be described as a set of generic rules for running a game set in Europe between Late Antiquity and the Renaissance: roughly from AD 300 to 1500.

The system is very basic. The core mechanic involves rolling 2d6 to meet or exceed a target number determined by the judge’s estimation of the difficulty of a task. Seven is easy, nine is moderate. (Landing a telling blow in combat is considered moderately difficult.) This mechanic is to be used to determine the result of any action whose outcome may be in doubt.

Character creation is similarly streamlined. Player characters may have, of course, whatever backstory the player desires, but in game terms they are defined by three key attributes: Literacy, Social Class, and Luck.  The first is an either/or kind of thing: literate characters receive a bonus to knowledge checks; illiterate ones, a bonus to Luck. 

In addition, each character must belong to one of three Social Classes: the clergy, the nobility, or the commons.  (Braunstein! assumes all player characters begin as itinerant adventurers and borderline outcasts; thus, one does not play an archbishop, an earl, or a wealthy merchant, but rather a priest, bastard child, or peasant.)  Although Braunstein! does not tell us this explicitly, many readers will undoubtedly recognize this tripartite scheme as reflecting the notion of the Three Estates. Itself of ancient Indo-European origin, the division of society into those who pray (oratores, sacerdotes), those who fight (bellatores, milites, pugnatores), and those work (agricultores, laboratores) was fundamental to the way medieval society saw itself. It was never an accurate description of social solidarities or dynamics and became less and less so as time went on, but it was essential to the way people saw the world they lived in. Incorporating it into the lineup of character traits is a nice touch. (The term Social Class is a rather unfortunate one, however, as “class” inevitably connotes distinctions based on wealth, which misses the idea of the Estates entirely.) Although there are no specific mechanical effects from Social Class, this character trait encourages players to acknowledge — and, it is to be hoped, roleplay — a central element of the medieval worldview.

The last, and most important, player character trait is Luck. Luck is a resource which players draw upon to improve their characters’ chances of success in risky situations; it is also the meter that determines how close a character is to death. To use gamerspeak, it is both hero points/bennies and hit points. As a player, you draw points from your character’s Luck pool to gain a bonus when attempting a dangerous task, even after the dice have been rolled. You also spend Luck to prevent your enemy’s attacks from becoming fatal ones. You may keep on adventuring when you run out of Luck, but if you then take damage, you will die.

And that’s pretty much it. There are many other details, of course: the mechanics of armour and arms (including early black powder weapons), a rudimentary magic system which boils down to summoning spirits to do one’s bidding, a simple encumbrance system, means for improving a character through the accumulation and spending of experience points, and guidelines for beasts, NPCs, poisons, traps, and other adventuring hazards. All of these subsystems are very simple. Armour, for example, is an either/or proposition. If you have it, it will prevent an otherwise fatal blow from killing you, but then requires repair or replacement.  (This recalls the “Shields Shall be Splintered” houserule that is popular is some OSR games.) There is no messing about with armour types, which in my view is a very elegant simulation of a basic reality of medieval warfare: any protective gear that had a real chance of protecting you from a direct blow from weapons of war had, by definition, to be heavy armour. “Light” armour was just what was worn by people who couldn’t afford the real stuff, and no one in their right mind would wear it into a serious fight if they had an alternative. Wisely, then, Braunstein! doesn’t attempt to distinguish between mail, lamellar, or plate armour of various designs; if you have armour appropriate to the setting, you are protected, you are slower, and you cannot sneak around. Simple.

The rest of Braunstein! is devoted to creating a setting for a campaign, or “chronicle.” The authors propose a simple periodization of the medieval period: six centuries of Dark Ages followed by about five centuries of the Middle Ages. They also provide, in an appendix, a brief timeline of events from AD 313 to 1500 which they hope will be useful to the GM or “judge.” I suspect it will not.  The timeline is too brief, the events lack explanation, and their selection seems too arbitrary. (There is at least one egregious error as well: the completion of the Reconquista is Spain is pegged in 1212; the actual date is 1492, when the last Muslim stronghold of Granada fell to the forces of Aragon and Castile.   Note: This has been fixed by the authors in a recent update. — Peter C.)  The importance of some events, such as the Black Death, is indisputable, but it seems odd to mark the Norse raid on Lindisfarne in 792 yet make no mention of the Hunnic or Mongol invasions.

In the end, such shortcomings hardly matter, for the authors encourage us to seek the trappings of the setting in history books — and rightly so, for as they write, “history is the best, and most richly-detailed, setting of all!” This is an injunction to hit the library and to create your own campaign setting — something I wish more RPGs would do. Another plus: Braunstein! invites players to create characters originating from outside European Christendom — a great way to encourage players to experience a medieval European setting as strange and exotic (and potentially threatening and intolerant).

Braunstein! is written in clear language, although an additional round of proofreading would have caught a few typos, awkward constructions, and missing words. The text is accompanied by woodcuts and early engravings from early modern printed works now in the public domain.  The overall aesthetic is, to my eye, very charming.

In sum, Braunstein! is a well-crafted rpg that compares favourably with the many other recent efforts to create extremely rules-light systems.  Quite a few of these are free; Braunstein! is not, but nor is it prohibitively expensive. It costs less than a coffee at Starbuck’s and will bring you considerably more pleasure.  Braunstein! would be an excellent introduction to RPGs for novice players, as the rules are brief and easy to learn. It could also be used in educational settings to create historical simulations.

Ideas for Braunstein!

Braunstein’s elegant simplicity opens the path for minor tweaks that could adapt the game to your players’ tastes.  Here are three ideas:
  • adding ways to recover Luck, other than resting. Luck was a character stat in the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks of old, and in those it was often possible to regain Luck in the middle of an adventure by drinking potions or accomplishing certain quests. Perhaps a stiff drink might provide temporary Luck points. Another possibility might be to allow players to spend experience points (XP) to replenish Luck.
  • incorporating the possibility of success with consequences. The core mechanic could be tweaked such that, say, rolling the target number exactly indicates success but at a cost, to be determined by the judge (sort of à la Dungeon World).
  • adopting something like a D&D 5th ed.-style death saving throws subsystem to make taking damage when you have 0 Luck less final for player characters.

Finally, I think Braunstein! could serve as a fine interface between rules systems in FLAILSNAILS games.  While spur-of-the-moment translation between OSR-type game mechanics takes place fairly easily in most FLAILSNAILS games, characters created using very different systems might be difficult to manage. It would take all of 30 seconds to convert any PC to a Braunstein! character — essentially, it would mean assigning the PC a Luck score — and then it would be ridiculously easy to use Braunstein’s core mechanic to handle task resolution. In fact, I like this idea so much I may just try it someday....

Braunstein! is available at Drivethrurpg.