Dave Arneson, RIP

The roleplaying world has lost the other half of its founding duo this week. Dave Arneson, who introduced Gary Gygax to the possibility of roleplaying gaming, succumbed to cancer on April 7th, at the age of 61.

Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax met in 1969 at one of the early GenCon wargaming conventions. They hit it off, and collaborated on a set of naval battle rules in the early ’70s. It was one of those really productive partnerships, each seeing potential in the other’s contributions and helping draw it out. But before proceeding to their more famous collaboration, some context.

The wargaming scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s was rich in experimentation: in alternative approaches to consolidating and distributing arbitration power, in the choice of scenes of engagement beyond strictly historical moments and eras, in the incorporation of factors besides the strictly combat-orientated in simulating a battle scene. One such experimenter was David Wesely, who hosted a multi-player battle event simulating a Napoleanic-era battle in the fictional Prussian town of Braunstein.

He began with two players each commanding one of the armies, and then added in players who’d control the mayor, local revolutionaries, and others who might affect the outcome. It turned into a free-for-all, very much to his surprise. Given rudimentary goals for their assigned characters, players went to the hilt, wheeling and dealing, working out schemes that ended up surprising referee Wesely as much as anyone else, and in general completely trashing his plans.

Wesely tried it again. The second and third Braunsteins were, from all accounts, flops. He tried centralizing authority to keep the exuberant invention in check, only to learn that it was really the point of the game for participants. Then, in 1970, came the fourth Braunstein, this time set in a banana republic in mid-coup, with Wesely accepting his discovery and planning for it this time. And in came, as one of the participants, Dave Arneson.

Arneson came prepared. His character was a revolutionary, who got points for distributing his radical leaflets. Arneson mocked up CIA ID and used it to convince other players that his character was actually an undercover agent. The game ended with him sailing off in a helicopter with much of the nation’s treasury entrusted to his care and him emptying out suitcases’ worth of leaflets over the riots and skirmishes below.

There are two great questions for inventors to play with: “What if…?” and “Why not…?” Arneson was already busy having fun with both.

Wesely went on to serve in the army (and later to help port Zaxxon and Spy Hunter to the ColecoVision, among other things). Arneson started running Braunsteins of his own. At first he recycled Wesely’s scenarios. Then he added in some of his own ideas, taken from other wargames he’d enjoyed and from fantasy sources like Conan stories and the Dark Shadows gothic soap opera TV series. The medieval-esque, monster-haunted realm of Blackmoor emerged out of collaborative play and brainstorming, piece by piece.

In 1971, Arneson decided to show this thing to Gygax. He and some of his regular players put on a show. Gygax was hooked. The pair built out from Arneson’s existing framework. The end result was the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons, which made it to market in 1974. Right from the beginning it had a mix of features that remain norms today, in numerical ratings for character qualities and competencies, hit points for measuring damage given and received, and the monster-laden dungeon as the center of play.

It bears noting here how little of any of this was the specific result of anyone’s plan to make a game that would accomplish these particular objectives. It emerged out of a whole lot of experimenting and fooling around at levels of seriousness from deadly earnest to completely goofy, with players discovering as they went what it is they found most fun and rewarding and referees (and then designers) scrambling to respond. What makes D&D distinctive isn’t that it created so much out of whole cloth but that it usefully blended a lot of elements circulating in the creative community around Arneson and Gygax, who took it all and kept at it until something like a complete game emerged. Other people in the same scene could have crystallized something related but different out of the same mix; Arneson and Gygax were the ones who actually did, putting their distinctive mix on the available possibilities.

And that’s how Dave Arneson co-created a genre of gaming and also a genre of fantasy.

There is, of course, more to the story than that. Relations between the partners went from good to bad and then to very much worse. In 1979, Arneson filed the first of five lawsuits against Gygax and his company for money from the sales of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and for credit for his role as co-creator. They settled in 1981, under terms that remain sealed; what we know for sure is that thereafter Arneson was indeed properly credited.

Arneson did a few more projects in roleplaying design, including First Fantasy Campaign. (For a look at that, you could read James Maliszewski’s appraisal and appreciation.) In the mid-1980s, Arneson went on to computers. He programmed, did business consulting, and taught for almost two decades at Full Sail, a university dedicated to entertainment industry work, computer game creation and production alongside video and audio production, and the like. He had a stroke in 2002, but recovered. In the end, cancer overwhelmed him this week.

His published output was small, but his influence was vast. A huge horde of tabletop and computer game designers, programmers, authors, and others credit him with influence, inspiration, and encouragement. As is so often the case, Ken Hite puts it quite well in his memorial post at Indie Press Revolution:

I first met him at GenCon 1997, right after Wizards took over TSR. He was sitting alone, near the Wizards booth, wearing a badge but otherwise inconspicuous. Certainly, there should have been throngs of worshipers bestrewing his lap with rose petals, or a shaft of light from the Fifth Heaven, or an honor guard of bugbears, or something. But I got to shake his hand and thank him for inventing my spare time, and my career.

And now he has leveled up.

Some words keep coming up in descriptions of Arneson’s approach to gaming: “collaborative,” “relaxed,” “impressionistic,” and the like. He seems to have had no interest in being an authority, and certainly didn’t wish to be thought of one. In interviews, whenever he talked about what he was up to in gaming, it was full of “we” and “my players and I,” repeatedly emphasizing the group as a whole as what counted. He loved to experiment, and he loved helping others to do it.

Looks like he succeeded.


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