From the time I entered the hobby of roleplaying games in the Fall of 1979, the name of Gary Gygax loomed large in my imagination. Why shouldn’t it have? After all, Gygax was the man whose name was on the cover of my Players Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Masters Guide. He was the guy who had a regular column – “From the Sorcerer’s Scroll” – in the pages of Dragon magazine. And he was the head of TSR Hobbies, the company that produced Dungeons & Dragons, Gamma World, Top Secret, and all those other RPGs I loved so much. As a kid of 10 years old, it was pretty hard not to think of Gary Gygax as the Source and Summit of All Gaming, given the foregoing evidence.
Of course, the truth was more complicated than that, as I slowly began to discover. The version of D&D with which I started was the one edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes in 1977 – the “Blue Book,” as it’s sometimes called. That book includes the following byline “by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.” Dave who? Somehow I’d never really noticed the name before, so overwhelmed was I by the prominence of Gygax’s own in my perception of the hobby. I was genuinely perplexed, as I believed that D&D had sprung fully formed from the head of one man and his name was not Dave Arneson. If Arneson had played a role in my beloved game’s genesis, why were there so few references to him anywhere? Why didn’t he have a column in Dragon? Why couldn’t I buy adventure modules with his name emblazoned on the front covers?
By chance, I eventually came across a funny little brown book that bore the Dungeons & Dragons logo, along with a title, Supplement II: Blackmoor, and beneath that title, a name – Dave Arneson! I’d never seen a D&D book like this before; it was small and rather dingy looking, not at all like the attractive hardcovers I associated with the game. I was later informed by my more knowledgeable elders in the hobby that this book was a supplement to the original Dungeons & Dragons published in 1974. I was vaguely aware of the existence of a version of the game published before my Holmes-edited basic rulebook or the Advanced D&D manuals I viewed as sacred scripture, but I’d never actually seen any of the books, so this was a revelation to me.
Cracking it open, I read Blackmoor‘s foreword, written by Gary Gygax, in which the Dungeon Master intones the following:
Dave Arneson … Is there really such a creature? Yes, Gentle Readers, there is, and shudder when the name is spoken. Although he is a man of many talents who has authored many historic rules sets and games (which TSR will be publishing periodically), Dave is also the innovator of the “dungeon adventure” concept, creator of ghastly monsters, and inscrutable dungeonmaster par excellence. He devises complex combat systems, inexplicable dungeon and wilderness areas, and traps of the most subtle fiendishness. Herein you will get a taste of these, but he never reveals all. This writer always looks forward with great anticipation to an adventure in the “BLACKMOOR” campaign, for despite the fact that I co-authored the original work with Dave and have spent hundreds of hours creating and playing DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, it is always a fresh challenge to enter his “world.” I can not recommend him more highly than simply saying that I would rather play in his campaign than any other – that other dungeonmasters who emulate Dave Arneson will indeed improve their games.
I was dumbfounded. Here was Gary Gygax – “Mr. D&D” himself – singing the praises of a man I didn’t know existed and who had apparently co-created Dungeons & Dragons with him back in 1974. How was it then that I’d never heard of him or that he’d managed to keep such a low profile in the hobby a mere five years after he founded it? I would in time learn more of the story – Arneson’s involvement in miniatures and board wargames, his membership in the Castle & Crusade Society of the International Federation of Wargamers, along with Gary Gygax, with whom he’d co-authored a naval wargame called Don’t Give Up the Ship!
Most interesting of all, though, was the Blackmoor campaign, from which that funny little book had taken its name. Arneson had created this imaginary medieval fantasy world as a staging ground for a new kind of miniatures game, one where literally anything could happen and where individual heroes carried the day, rather than platoons or regiments of soldiers as in traditional miniatures games. It was in Blackmoor that many of the concepts and mechanics gamers now inextricably associated with Dungeons & Dragons and, by extension, roleplaying games generally (including their electronic descendants) were born. Armor class, hit points, dungeons – they all first appeared in Blackmoor, as even Gary Gygax alluded to in the foreword I quoted above.
As with too many creative endeavors, the fruitful partnership between Gygax and Arneson that led to D&D and the foundation of an entirely new hobby foundered on the rocks of money. Disputes over royalties and other related issues led to bad blood between these two founding fathers for years. It also contributed to the marginalization of Arneson, who largely ceded the limelight to Gygax, who proved to be a far more charismatic and effective advocate and pitchman for the hobby he’d brought into being with him. Arneson continued to be involved in the hobby, founding his own company, Adventure Games, in the late 70s, in order to produce and sell RPGs and wargames that he created, but none of his efforts ever managed to catch fire the way that D&D did, which likely explains my own early ignorance of him.
DAVE ARNESON DIED A YEAR AGO YESTERDAY (APRIL 7, 2009) AT THE AGE OF 61. HIS PASSING WAS NOTED IN NUMEROUS PLACES, INCLUDING HERE AT THE ESCAPIST, BUT, IN GENERAL, THE TESTIMONIALS WERE MORE SUBDUED AND LESS WIDESPREAD THAN THOSE OF GARY GYGAX, WHO DIED THE PREVIOUS YEAR. THIS WASN’T THROUGH ANY MALICE BY ANY MEANS, BUT, EVEN A YEAR LATER, IT’S DIFFICULT NOT TO FEEL THAT DAVE ARNESON IS NO BETTER KNOWN TO THE WIDER GAMING PUBLIC THAN HE WAS WHEN I ENTERED THE HOBBY OVER THREE DECADES AGO. THAT’S A PITY, GIVEN HOW MANY OF THE MAN’S IDEAS FORMED THE FOUNDATION ON WHICH OUR COLLECTIVE PASTIME RESTS. HERE’S HOPING THAT, IN THE YEARS TO COME, DAVE ARNESON WILL FINALLY GET HIS DUE AND BE REMEMBERED FOR THE TITAN THAT HE WAS.
James Maliszewski is a writer currently living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. His blog, Grognardia, explores the history and traditions of the hobby of roleplaying.