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D&D General Dave Arneson: Is He Underrated, or Overrated?

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Welcome to the second in an occasional series: Snarf Presents Hawt Taek Thursdays. The first was a reevaluation of Lorraine Williams, which was not controversial at all, so I thought I'd do something equally banal.

Again, if you read my review of Jon Peterson's new book, Game Wizards, you remember that I had a brief aside about Dave Arneson. Without going too far into the weeds, I put Arneson in the "Stock Down" category after reading the book. Here's what I said at the time:

Arneson. Always seen as the counterpoint to Gygax, this book, using his own words, does him no favors. After seeing his history repeat itself over and over again, you quickly realize that Arneson's greatest problem was Arneson.

So I wanted to put this in more specific terms- Dave Arneson has become overrated in terms of his influence on D&D.

This is going to be a controversial statement to many, so I want to make sure I provide an adequate understanding of this. Let me start with the traditional narrative that has been usually received regarding Arneson over time-

First, Arneson was viewed as the co-creator of D&D with Gygax.
Then, Arneson was viewed as someone who was wronged by Gygax by parts of the community- he had his work taken from him.
Later, Arneson was forgotten, as Gygax was increasingly viewed as the sole person responsible for D&D.
Eventually, the circle came around, and people began to discuss Arneson's contributions again.
Now, we seem to be back to a cycle where some people claim that Arneson invented D&D and Gygax just took some notes and stole the game from him.

People will argue about this, but I think that it is inarguable that we are experiencing an Arnessaince. To the extent that there is a Yin and a Yang of D&D, Arneson has always been positioned as the counterpoint to Gygax. The roleplayer to the wargamer. The rulings to the rules. The unexamined potential (just imagine if Gygax hadn't done X, Y, and Z).

But after reading Game Wizards, I did not have that same appreciation of Arneson. The more he popped up, the more I disliked his presence (in terms of his actions regarding D&D especially). So I wanted to briefly examine the reasons why.

First, some caveats-
This isn't about who truly gets credit for the creation of D&D. The more I learn, the more I keep going back to the phrasing used by Jon Peterson- "...Gygax and Arneson were co-creators of D&D, in at least the crucial sense that Gygax would never have worked toward such a game without incorporation of Arneson's vision, and Arneson would never have realized the publication of such a game without the structure that Gygax provided it." That sums my opinion up. D&D would not have happened absent either of them.
This doesn't mean Arneson is a bad person. One thing I've learned is that it's a fools game to judge most people you don't know, outside of horrendous actions (murder and that type of stuff). In many ways, Arneson seems like a wonderful and lovely person, but I'm more interested in how his growing reputation w/r/t D&D does not seem to match the more I learn about him.
This isn't about Arneson v. Gygax. Obviously, there has to be some comparators. But the reason I don't think Game Wizards is that big of a hit on Gygax is because I already knew about most of his issues. Honestly, the most interesting parts to me weren't his many terrible decisions (or feuds, or prevarications), but the ways in which he managed to leverage the upstart company into something. The guy was working part-time as a shoe repairman.

Most importantly, it's interesting to dive into the history and discuss it. But in the end, the legacy of Arneson and Gygax will be a game and a hobby that has given so much joy to so many people. And that legacy is amazing, and why we continue to talk about them.

Okay! Good?


A. The Traditional Narrative of Dave Arneson and the Arnessaince.

So prior to getting into why I am re-evaluating my own thoughts on Dave Arneson, I think it's helpful to look into both the traditional narrative regarding Arneson, as well what I would now call the Arnessaince. What I would call the "settled wisdom" regarding Arneson is this (in an abbreviated form)-

Arneson enjoyed a new style of game with David Wesley (Braunstein). Taking ideas from that game home, he began to run a roleplaying game, where he was the referee. Arneson had previously worked with Gygax on some wargames, and Arneson showed Gygax his game- running him through it. Gygax and Arneson worked to create the first D&D from that ... OD&D. TSR was formed to sell D&D. Arneson worked for TSR for a while, but was later fired/quit. As D&D became more popular, Gygax wanted to stop paying royalties to Arneson, so came up with the idea of AD&D. Arneson sued TSR and Gygax and, a few years later, got his royalties on AD&D since he had been the co-creator of the game.

That's pretty much it. That's the abridged, not fully accurate gist that people have generally understood.

However, I would say that we have also been experiencing the Arnessaince recently. A documentary. Fledgling min-movements (FKR) that refer to Arnesonian play. General reconsideration of his place in the history of D&D, and a concomitant elevation of his stature. From this perspective, we get a slightly different version of the above story. In essence, that Gygax effectively stole D&D from Arneson. Marginalized him at all times. Screwed him out of fame and fortune. And probably wrecked the development of RPGs in general.

Which is a cool story! Especially as Gygax's reputation has taken something of a hit recently. But ... how true is it?


B. Understanding Arneson light of Game Wizards.

So the main thing I realized while reading Game Wizards is this- most narratives about Arneson are very heavy into mythologizing the period before D&D was released, and then there are usually some scant details (a few driblets about working at TSR, maybe), and perhaps a mention of First Fantasy, then maybe the lawsuits, and ... that's it. Maybe you might have heard that he ended up doing a little teaching. So what gives? What was the story?

The thing is- it's not flattering. From what I understand, as a referee (or GM/DM) Arneson was inventive, fun, collegial, and entertaining. But as a person in the hobby ... or as someone you might have to do business with, he was insufferable.

The thing is- Arneson and Gygax were never "friend." They were colleagues. People who had some respect for each other in the small hobbyist world. But the fascinating thing is that as soon as TSR had the money, Gygax moved to hire Arneson (who didn't have much in terms of employment prospects). And Arneson was terrible. He was a terrible employee. He was a terrible worker. He made promises for delivering things and just couldn't produce. Eventually, he just started leaving work and "working" from home (with no work to ever show for it). And the entire time, he was complaining about everyone else.

And this continued, over and over again. He leveraged the notoriety he received in the small community to keep getting offers and contacts. And he burned them. Whether it was haggling for months or years over an employment contract. Or promising things he could never deliver (he always required an "editor" to deliver work, which is to say ... someone to do the work).

The entire time, of course, he considered it his mission to take down Gygax and TSR. Which is bizarre and self-defeating, given that is where his royalties would come from. Oh, and the lawsuit? While I appreciate that Game Wizards is one the few books to mention Nimmer, the repeated impression is that Arneson's claims were kind of a long-shot, and that Arneson repeatedly engaged in the exact prevarication that Gygax did- overstating his contribution until the lawsuit was settled, before acknowledging that it wasn't as much as he made it out to be (fun fact- that Arneson ended up contributing a few illustrations to OD&D ... may have mattered. Go figure!).

Finally, if you keep looking back at his work, you see that for the most part, he just kept on churning out the same material, based on the brief moment of discovery, for years. Well, by churning out, I mean promising it to people, failing to deliver it, getting into fights about it, and having other people do the work. ;)

And that's most of what he produced- either material with his name on it that was largely other people's work (such as the Blackmoor Supplement) or work that was just other people helping him to compile his notes from long ago.


C. Cool story. So what?

This is somewhat more complicated. What does it mean? Well, I don't think it makes Arneson a bad person- far from it. There are many people who are great at spitballing idea and running games that just aren't good at sitting down and writing them. I do think it makes statements about Arneson's influence on D&D somewhat overstated. The other big thing is that I definitely have a very different impression regarding Arneson and the lawsuit than I did before; whereas I believed the earlier story that Arneson was cheated out of royalties, I think that the specifics of the events make the story much more nuanced. It's not that I would begrudge anyone money from a corporate entity, but it also seems that given the law and the facts, Arneson was able to parlay the confluence of a poorly-worded contract with the leverage of an upcoming trial to attain a windfall.

What am I saying? Good for him! ;)

Anyway, throwing it out for discussion. Arneson- whaddya think?
 

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Chaosmancer

Legend
I have to say that my first thoughts are that he isn't overrated... because I haven't experienced this Arnessaince. I've spent the majority of my time as a fan in DnD in a single part of this saga, which is that Arneson was forgotten. It wasn't until a few years of being on this site, (so maybe 5 years ago?) that I learned that Arneson ran a thing called Blackmoor... and I still don't know much of anything about that.

So, I think he should be talked about more, the good and the bad, because many fans have no idea who he is. Or that third guy (Brian Blume?) who I also don't see talked about much at all.


I'll also add another controversy log to this fire... we may want to talk more about who made 3e, 4e and maybe even give a bit more credit to the creators of 5e. Honestly and truly... I have no idea who helped bring 3E to life. I know I could look it up, but considering that 2e and TSR were dying, you'd think the people who designed the product that saved DnD in a very real way would get name dropped occasionally.
 


ECMO3

Hero
This isn't about who truly gets credit for the creation of D&D. The more I learn, the more I keep going back to the phrasing used by Jon Peterson- "...Gygax and Arneson were co-creators of D&D, in at least the crucial sense that Gygax would never have worked toward such a game without incorporation of Arneson's vision, and Arneson would never have realized the publication of such a game without the structure that Gygax provided it." That sums my opinion up. D&D would not have happened absent either of them.
This one paragraph is really all you need to pass judgement.

If you believe the man co-created D&D (and you say you do), then it is not possible that he is overrated. He is the man who literally co-created the greatest RPG of all time and the RPG all others would be modeled after.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
"...Gygax and Arneson were co-creators of D&D, in at least the crucial sense that Gygax would never have worked toward such a game without incorporation of Arneson's vision, and Arneson would never have realized the publication of such a game without the structure that Gygax provided it."
I think that quote is key. But it points directly to the view that Arneson invented D&D and Gygax published it. Gary never would have invented D&D on his own. Dave never would have published D&D on his own. There’s a clear line between creator and publisher or popularizer. I’m glad both were involved because I got to grow up playing these games, but it’s fairly clear one man created the thing itself...while the other put it out into the world.
 


Parmandur

Book-Friend
I'll also add another controversy log to this fire... we may want to talk more about who made 3e, 4e and maybe even give a bit more credit to the creators of 5e. Honestly and truly... I have no idea who helped bring 3E to life. I know I could look it up, but considering that 2e and TSR were dying, you'd think the people who designed the product that saved DnD in a very real way would get name dropped occasionally.
This site runs news about Monte Cook Press all the time, and Jonathan Tweet has even done articles for the front page.
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
I think that quote is key. But it points directly to the view that Arneson invented D&D and Gygax published it. Gary never would have invented D&D on his own. Dave never would have published D&D on his own. There’s a clear line between creator and publisher or popularizer. I’m glad both were involved because I got to grow up playing these games, but it’s fairly clear one man created the thing itself...while the other put it out into the world.
There's also a big difference between "publishing" and "developing." Arneson came up with a concept and demonstrated a protoype, but Gygax had to work hard to develop something usable from the prototype.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I think that quote is key. But it points directly to the view that Arneson invented D&D and Gygax published it. Gary never would have invented D&D on his own. Dave never would have published D&D on his own. There’s a clear line between creator and publisher or popularizer. I’m glad both were involved because I got to grow up playing these games, but it’s fairly clear one man created the thing itself...while the other put it out into the world.

I do not agree with that, or think it accurately captures the nuance of the quote. I'll be brief, given I already stated I didn't want this to be about credit for the creation, but I think that the evidence strongly indicates that "D&D" (what we think of as the original LBBs, or OD&D) was primarily shaped by Gygax, not by Arneson.

Yes, it's true that Gygax would never have done it without Arneson. But it wasn't Gygax putting together Arneson's notes and publishing a game. It was more akin to hanging out in a dorm room, and Brad saying, "Woah, I hate zippers. We shouldn't have them. Maybe we should just get cool little hookie things." And then you say, "Great idea Brad!" And you go off and invent velcro.

Yeah, you and Brad co-invented velcro. You couldn't have done it without Brad. But c'mon ... it's not like you didn't do anything.

EDIT: ninja'd by @Parmandur
 

darjr

I crit!
I think if you limit yourself to D&D, it's tropes and traditions, it's definitely Gygax and TSR and the folks that came after with a dash of Arneson. The glimpses of how Dave ran a game and how is game worked and the rules we do have that he actually used both before Gary and after paint a bit of a different game with different traditions and almost a different style of game. Some of which D&D tried to adopt at the begining but quickly left behind. I've talked to folks who gamed with Dave and they often will state little things that seem way out for the traditions of D&D but bog standard normal for them.

If you think of the hobby as a whole, then not nearly enough credit is given to Arneson. Not for the details per se but in that long moment of inspiration that sparked all of this.

Edit to add: Go to GaryCon. Seek out the folks that played with Dave, ask them about it. They love to tell stories about it. It's fascinating. Maybe they'll tell you secrets not known to the wider world.
 
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As it stands, Arneson is owed credit for coming up with the concept of an RPG. However, he didn't have as much of an impact on the full creation and publication of the game as some seem to believe. The game certainly would have gone in different directions if he had, as his interpretation of "roleplay" is closer to our modern view than Gygax's.

While I haven't read the book (I know this makes my opinion a bit questionable in these things), it's my understanding that Arneson could have been more involved in the finalization and publication of D&D. Gygax required him to pony up the investment cash that he and Blume put forth, but either he couldn't or wouldn't, which is why Blume's father (?) fronted the remaining third of the investment. I think history would have been significantly different if Arneson bought in, since he would have also been part of the steering of the game and the debacle that ousted Gygax probably would have happened (ideally Arneson's influence could have kept Gygax in check, but the ability to out buy Gygax probably wouldn't have been there without Blume Sr's shares).
 

TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
This seems to add details to the known story.

Arneson certainly invented the core concepts. Gygax made them into a game that could be sold.

Then Arneson checked out.

The fights over money are very normal and natural. There is no unique solution to a situation like that.

I could certainly see why, say, he would expect some royalties after AD&D came out. And of course, Gygax did hire him again.
 




aco175

Legend
If your whiting is what actually happened, it makes him look like a jerk and poor worker. Wonder if Gygax could have fired him?
 


Rune

Once A Fool
I'll admit though... I didn't know those were the people involved. Maybe for you guys it was obvious, but I've never really seen their names brought up as the creators of 3e.
Their names are on the books!

Probably not the 3.5 books, though.

If you’re interested in the 3e-development era, you could look into the history of EN World. The archived pre-3e articles and interviews from Eric Noah’s site would be a good place to start.

There’s plenty of other good stuff to be found in the “Features” section of EN World, too. Like the archived Q&A threads with Gary Gygax, for instance.
 
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