D&D General Dave Arneson’s Pitch for the future of TSR and D&D in ‘97 to Peter Adkison

Following his 1997 application for a job at WotC, D&D co-creator Dave Arneson wrote a second letter to WoTC founder Peter Adkison and made a pitch about how he'd run TSR and D&D.

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Despite his excitement his plans seem underwhelming.

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My heart already bleeds for Arneson. The man has never received his due as D&D’s co-creator. He never made CEO. He wasn’t on Futurama. TSR and Gary Gygax did him dirty. (This has been explored in my prior post and in Game Wizards by Jon Peterson.)

This letter is Arneson’s moment. If he wants to make D&D for a living again, he has to put points on the board, and he has to do it with this letter. Now. But he hasn’t even bothered to check his punctuation!

Six pages of his research and plans follow. Here’s a summary, but I’m pasting the letter below if you want to thrill to every misspelled word.

In the main, Arneson’s thoughts are nothing you wouldn’t have heard hanging around a game store in the spring of 1997. He said that all of TSR’s projects were “dead in the water,” which the whole world knew as the company hadn’t published anything for months.


See Ben Riggs article for the full letter and more of his observations.

 
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I think there's context that's not being recognized, with regard to Gary's writing style: that he was trying to emulate the pulps that he enjoyed, and which played a strong influence on his development of D&D. His writing here on EN World, that I recall, wasn't quite so florid.
I agree. Great for a narrative story. Awful for a rule book that is supposed to instruct you on how to play a game.

In fact, most of us in the 80's learned D&D from the Basic/Holmes box sets, which were MUCH better written, and just cherry-picked stuff out of the AD&D hardcovers to add to the game.
 

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Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
I agree. Great for a narrative story. Awful for a rule book that is supposed to instruct you on how to play a game.

In fact, most of us in the 80's learned D&D from the Basic/Holmes box sets, which were MUCH better written, and just cherry-picked stuff out of the AD&D hardcovers to add to the game.
Oh, man, I wish we had been that smart. We just gritted our teeth and powered through the PHB and DMG. Sage Advice in the Dragon was really useful for untangling Gary's prose and the eccentric organization in each book.
 

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There is some sympathy to be had for him.
There's at least two sides/slices/sides of the coin of Dave in all this.

On one side, there is Arneson the creator who from a very early part of the game lifespan was cast as the lessor creator, perhaps one who didn't really contribute that much to begin with or that his contributions weren't really that special and perhaps ought only be considered co-creator at the footnote/technicality level. That just plain stinks, and perhaps, worse, is most likely predominantly based not on the contribution itself, but what he vs. Gary did well past the point of that contribution happening. I can't find it now, and it might be apocryphal (and whether it is real doesn't matter for the illustration), but I remember hearing of an interview with Paul Simon where the interviewer kinda asked if he resented having to share credit on his early works with the clear unequal partner Art Garfunkel and Simon saying, in effect, 'you're mistaken, we both wrote those songs, and his later career-non-flourishing doesn't retroactively negate his contribution.' Arneson definitely could have used someone saying that earlier on, but the lawsuit and his alienating the rest of the witnesses* with his workplace issues early on and Gygax's own tendency to impulsively grab credit when possible made that non-feasible. This part is vaguely tragic.

The other main side is the Arneson the creator that thought he was in the league of the business persons needed to run D&D as it would be when purchased by 90s hot-off-MtG's-breakout-success Wizards of the Coast (and then Hasbro). This side, in combination with the letter, is more comic to tragicomic.

It's interesting that Peter turned down Gary as well?
Fundamentally, I think that's the larger point. Arneson's amateurish letter highlights that he wasn't ready for D&D the polished professional corporate project, but it certainly isn't the dominant reason, and the real reasons were ones he shared with Gary. They both still were reacting to the game and audience and such from far in the past at that point.

At that point, it's not clear that he had something specific* to contribute to the game. And in that he definitely is right there alongside Gygax. Be it Arneson's The First Fantasy Campaign or the Goodman Games Blackmoor material or Gygax's plans for 2nd edition (Montebank class, etc.) or I think at some point he was asked what he'd add if he had the game still and he talked about 10th level spells. Both men continued to have ideas, but nothing that would make them naturals for running D&D for WotC at that point, nor even the go-to persons to ask about where the game needed to go.*other than that which anyone has to offer which can be achieved through hard work and diligence and learning and listening to the audience

But it also speaks to why I don't come down too harshly on Arneson for this letter. I'm a manager in a large, faceless corporation. Every once in a while when looking to fill a Req someone passes along what we've taken to calling 'unclear on scale'-mismatches -- be it someone finishing up their bachelor's applying for a senior programmer position or someone trying to jump from analyst 2 to a principle position or the like. It's usually painfully clear that they misunderstood exactly what the position they were applying for entailed. Arneson's letter reads like this to me, and that I find really human and kind of relatable (not that I think they should have hired him for that role, just that I'm not going to be overly critical of him making the mistake, especially because of my next point).

It's worth realizing that it might not have been as obvious at the time (as it is in hindsight) exactly what level of rigor and professionalism WotC was going to be implementing with D&D when they acquired it (especially if Arneson didn't know how much they paid to get it). D&D had been 'dying' or 'so over' or 'that kids game you play before moving on to GURPS or Vampire' for a decade or so at that point. It's possible Arneson thought they just wanted someone to come in and make a not-lose-money product. We all know that instead they went with the rather exhaustive 3e push, but I can't tell you exactly when that became publicly communicated.
IME, that's not a salesman thing, that's the mark of someone who doesn't feel their intelligence has been properly recognized over the years.

I think it's fair to say that, in another world, Gary would have made a great college professor, which I think would have suited him better, but circumstances meant that, until he co-created D&D, his world was much smaller.
As others have mentioned, he was also emulating the Appendix N prose to which he aspired. That said, there are lots of things likely going on in Gary's word choice. He was a nerd before the modern nerd was fully conceived, and likewise shared a lot of traits we (well, most of us I assume) find familiar. There's using big words because we treated learning as a big deal so expanding your vocabulary is natural. And then there's the 'use big words to try to sound smart' component. Gary certainly had a vein of that in there (including the 'even when it hinders, rather than enhances, communication'). Beyond any of that, Gygax was choosing a style at a point when there were no rules about how to go about making a TTRPG book, so on some level, he was just fumbling about for an authorial voice with no stars to guide him. I do agree with their world being smaller, and I think both men are rather defined (fortunately and unfortunately) by being small-town/small-time participants of the established-but-niche hobby of wargames being thrust very unprepared into the role of figureheads to an entirely new pastime.
 
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ENWorldUser

Explorer
Agreed - that’s quite an incorrect, and frankly more than a little insulting generalization to make.
I know a ton of creative types and I don't find this generalization to be at all true.
My comment was not generalized, but based purely on my personal experience of editing (fictional but non-RPG material) for nearly 20 years.
Those I have worked with are absolute geniuses for the most part, but what comes out as a first draft is regularly the equivalent of verbal diarrhea. I once encountered a sentence that went on for 5 pages. Those who would know enough to polish it are too busy moving on to the next thing they need to get out of their system. Dave's letter simply reminds me of this.
I am astonished at how this has been perceived as being insulting when it wasn't directed at you. I don't know you or your work at all?
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
My comment was not generalized, but based purely on my personal experience of editing (fictional but non-RPG material) for nearly 20 years.
Those I have worked with are absolute geniuses for the most part, but what comes out as a first draft is regularly the equivalent of verbal diarrhea. I once encountered a sentence that went on for 5 pages. Those who would know enough to polish it are too busy moving on to the next thing they need to get out of their system. Dave's letter simply reminds me of this.
I am astonished at how this has been perceived as being insulting when it wasn't directed at you. I don't know you or your work at all?
Because my response was based on being a professional writer for nearly 30 years and working with a variety of other creatives, in multiple disciplines, that entire time. And I just don't encounter this at all. (Photographers and visual artists sometimes have absolutely terrible grammar and spelling, but the majority of them do not.) I have a hard time even picturing the scenario you're describing.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
I'm currently reading Flint Dille's autobiography The Gamesmaster: Almost Famous in the Geek '80s. He and Gary became friends in 1982, right when Gary was setting up shop in southern California to try and turn TSR properties into multimedia franchises. While I'm not done with the book yet, Dille does a good job painting a picture of what was, by all accounts, the most wild and profligate chapter of Gary's career, with fascinating vignette after fascinating vignette.

There's also a few interesting bits of obscure D&D lore in there as well. For instance, the very first tale of Gord the Rogue was published in Dragon #100, "At Moonset Blackcat Comes." In the story, Gord has a barbarian friend named Chert, who's noted for his 6'6" frame and unruly hair. In point of fact, "chert" is (geologically speaking) a grade of flint, and Flint Dille is 6'5" and self-admittedly hated combing his hair.

Little things like that which would otherwise be lost to history are absolute catnip to D&D aficionados like me, and I recommend the book to anyone who enjoys such tidbits.

Now I have to read the Flint Dille book.

Alzrius also sold me on it. I just ordered it. The titling I found it under was slightly different, though:

The Gamesmaster: My Life in the '80s Geek Culture Trenches with G.I. Joe, Dungeons & Dragons, and The Transformers
 

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