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

History has this odd way of just being a set of facts.

Dave Arneson had this crazy idea and invented a game that all of you play in one form or another.

Go read the forward to the D&D supplement 2 - Blackmoor, where Gary Gygax says that Blackmoor was the first D&D campaign.

It's funny, in our film I literally say that Arneson's contribution to the creation of Role Playing Games is being suppressed to this day. Some people think I was a little heavy handed in saying that. I think I nailed it.
 

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History has this odd way of just being a set of facts.
It doesn't, really. Facts require interpretation to have any meaning.

Dave Arneson had this crazy idea and invented a game that all of you play in one form or another.
This gives him too much credit since it implies he created the idea from whole cloth, which ignores the role that David Wesely played in it.
 

teitan

Legend
Both? He was a visionary who needed an editor. He had a pretty cool idea and it was refined by Gygax but looking at his actual output and he is very inconsistent. His core idea doesn't fully resemble what became D&D but it has been a long time since I have looked at what his original idea (Dalluhn Manuscript: Has the Earliest Version of D&D Been Discovered? - GeekDad) was so I could be way off base there. Greyhawk supplement completely changed things like combat to what we know today in both the basic and advanced iterations and that was rather quickly after the original core rules released. He had great ideas, he just wasn't great at executing them.
 

Smackpixi

Adventurer
So today I discovered Hilma af Klimt who was doing modern abstract art a decade before Kandinsky. This obsession on who invented or created is pointless, who invented TTRPGs, who first did abstract representational art, what was the first punk rock band. Ideas are in the zeitgeist and they manifest, someday someone is gonna find stuff in grandpa’s basement doing DM run dungeon explorations a year before anyone else and it won’t matter.

Arneson’s style of play was what got into DnD and spread to us, but that’s just what happened, all credit to him. But like Gagax, just the most successful of many. All credit to them as innovators, but…if it wasn’t them, would have been someone else. People can be important to the development of a game w/o being the singular most important.
 
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teitan

Legend
I didn't know he coined that phrase.

Like I said, I've seen Monte's name, just never directly tied to DnD 3E. That could be entirely on me. I own that, I own the shame. But, I think it also helps to demonstrate that when talking about "does this person get too much credit" that very very rarely is that the case. It is far more often that people get too little credit and recognition by a wide audience, while only a small hardcore group knows the full story and might be giving them too much credit.
Necromancy!

Cook definitely doesn't get too much credit. I think today he doesn't get enough for his contributions to late 2e and 3.0 era that were/are such a heavy influence on how we play D&D now and especially the lore of D&D along with Wolgang Baur and Ed Greenwood. He wasn't as prolific as Ed Greenwood but he and Baur were generating lore about the planes and stories that are still key elements of D&D along with Zeb's contributions through Planescape. When you think of Orcus now, it's Monte Cook. Tharizdun in Critical Role IS Monte Cook through his Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. His Book of Vile Darkness was controversial but many of the ideas in it are still a key part of modern D&D and ToF for example.

Monte helped bring the quirk and weird back to D&D and not just through 3.0 but also his Malhavoc Press products and that continues in his newer products from Monte Cook Games that are 5e compatible such as the Numenera conversion books, Planebreaker, Ptolus for 5e etc. He is an innovating machine filled with ideas and encourages his team to come up with new ideas and concepts that push envelopes and encourage a very creative atmosphere and mindset for game masters as well. He wrote the 3.0, and majority of the 3,5 DMG by default, and it was the last truly useful DMG for D&D as much as I like the 5e DMG as a teaching tool for new DMs. The 3.0 DMG not only taught you how to run 3.0 but also inspired you and provided optional rules that kept the game in the DMs hands like Prestige Classes (most forgot quickly they weren't default).
 

Yora

Legend
I think what it ultimately comes down to is that Gygax is overrated. He's getting too much credit as a single creative genius, master game designer, and amazing gamemaster in what was really the work of several people.
I might actually still give him the number 1 spot in a ranking of most influential RPG creators, but there are several others coming not that far behind him.

The importance of Arneson depends on what you are looking at. As a creator of RPGs as a medium, I think he can not get credited enough. He's probably the most important person in that regard with no competition at all. However, when we are looking at D&D as one specific game system and style of a fantasy, then his personal role becomes much smaller. I believe, and that's based really just on very shallow and fragmented information, that what Arneson was doing was proto-D&D at best, and one could probably argue not D&D yet.

The big problem with saying how great he was as a designer is that his greatest contribution was to have an initial idea. At was a very good idea, but also quite a basic one that still had the potential to be greatly refined into something much greater. Which to my knowledge he never did. Maybe that initial good idea was the greatest extend of his creative capacity as a designer? And a great idea and a great execution are two very different things. To be truly an outstanding designer, great executions are what you're measured with.

That being said, I am a huge fan of Arneson's contribution to getting RPGs kicked off as a thing, while feeling very meh about Gygax's expansions on those ideas.
 

Aldarc

Legend
One thing that I often dislike about discussions around founding figures of roleplaying games is that there often feels like there is an underlying presumption that roleplaying games would never be a thing without them, discounting the possibility that roleplaying games may have still developed elsewhere by some other figures. It may have even been more popular had it originated from people other than the cited crew, as they may have had greater business, marketing, or even game design savvy.
 
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Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
Supporter
One thing that I often dislike about discussions around founding figures of roleplaying games is that there often feels like there is an underlying presumption that roleplaying games would never be a thing without them, discounting the possibility that roleplaying games may have still developed elsewhere by some other figures.

Viola Spolin absolutely created and ran what were recognizably role-playing games in the 1920s onwards. They were designed as theater exercises, but they are unmistakably games in that they can be won or lost and their main mode of play is role-playing and improvisation. There were no dice involved, and they never gained much currency outside the theater community, but we would absolutely recognize them as role-playing games.

I am sure that Gygax and Arneson were unfamiliar with her, and arrived at their games without knowledge of her games, but it's an example of exactly the kind of parallel evolution you're talking about. She was hugely influential, and basically what's now Second City, with all of its alumni and devotees, would not have existed without her.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Viola Spolin absolutely created and ran what were recognizably role-playing games in the 1920s onwards. They were designed as theater exercises, but they are unmistakably games in that they can be won or lost and their main mode of play is role-playing and improvisation. There were no dice involved, and they never gained much currency outside the theater community, but we would absolutely recognize them as role-playing games.

I am sure that Gygax and Arneson were unfamiliar with her, and arrived at their games without knowledge of her games, but it's an example of exactly the kind of parallel evolution you're talking about. She was hugely influential, and basically what's now Second City, with all of its alumni and devotees, would not have existed without her.
yes indeed and dice in war games were involved in ancient greco-roman eras... its not actually that much of a jump to tie more story into a war game.
 

Retreater

Legend
Arneson had a loose concept, without any of the factors necessary to share it with an audience (ambition, talent, perseverance, etc.) Had it not been for Gygax and others at TSR, Arneson's contributions would have been limited to a small group of players in Minnesota.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Viola Spolin absolutely created and ran what were recognizably role-playing games in the 1920s onwards. They were designed as theater exercises, but they are unmistakably games in that they can be won or lost and their main mode of play is role-playing and improvisation. There were no dice involved, and they never gained much currency outside the theater community, but we would absolutely recognize them as role-playing games.

I am sure that Gygax and Arneson were unfamiliar with her, and arrived at their games without knowledge of her games, but it's an example of exactly the kind of parallel evolution you're talking about. She was hugely influential, and basically what's now Second City, with all of its alumni and devotees, would not have existed without her.
This and other things are why TSR very got patents on roleplaying... it was just a concept which was in very near forms existing historically...
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Viola Spolin absolutely created and ran what were recognizably role-playing games in the 1920s onwards. They were designed as theater exercises, but they are unmistakably games in that they can be won or lost and their main mode of play is role-playing and improvisation.
Based on some admittedly casual research, I don't think you can compare Spolin's games to what we mean when we refer to role-playing games (i.e. TTRPGs) today. There's no continuity of characters over multiple sessions, no increases in personal ability or acquisition of resources that make a character more powerful or competent, and no use of a referee or judge.

It might be a form of proto-LARPing, and maybe can be compared to Braunstein, but it's hard to call this "recognizably role-playing games" in the vein of D&D.
 

Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
Supporter
Based on some admittedly casual research, I don't think you can compare Spolin's games to what we mean when we refer to role-playing games (i.e. TTRPGs) today. There's no continuity of characters over multiple sessions, no increases in personal ability or acquisition of resources that make a character more powerful or competent, and no use of a referee or judge.

It might be a form of proto-LARPing, and maybe can be compared to Braunstein, but it's hard to call this "recognizably role-playing games" in the vein of D&D.

I've trained with Viola Spolin's theater games quite a bit. I definitely am not implying that they are "in the vein of D&D" in terms of continuity of characters for multiple sessions or "leveling up".

Some of them do indeed use referees or judges, though.

And they are certainly role-playing games in the sense that they fit the definition of games and the mode of play is role-playing - they aren't just "acting" because there are rules by which they can be won or lost, and there is no set script. You pretend to be another character and in that role you are following the rules of the game in order to win it. A lot of the reason actors very easily pick up the non-mechanical aspects of D&D is because so much of their training is not dissimilarly structured.

There is a lot conceptually in common with D&D, but you've hit upon the two elements D&D really pioneered (leveling up, and continuing the same character's adventures in an episodic fashion for multiple sessions).

If you've ever seen an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway, you've seen some of Viola Spolin's games in play.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
I've trained with Viola Spolin's theater games quite a bit. I definitely am not implying that they are "in the vein of D&D" in terms of continuity of characters for multiple sessions or "leveling up".

Some of them do indeed use referees or judges, though.
Just out of curiosity, what do the referees/judges do? More specifically, do they arbitrate (or introduce/oversee a system of arbitration intended to resolve) conflicts between characters?
 

Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
Supporter
Just out of curiosity, what do the referees/judges do? More specifically, do they arbitrate (or introduce/oversee a system of arbitration intended to resolve) conflicts between characters?

They introduce scenarios - or alter ongoing scenarios - in a way that players must react and respond to. They enforce rules or make rulings when a point is in dispute. Due to the nature of the game, judges/narrators are more likely to do stuff that CREATES conflict between characters rather than resolves it, though. Some of the games are cooperative, like D&D, but in some the players are competing against each other or to eliminate each other.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
They introduce scenarios - or alter ongoing scenarios - in a way that players must react and respond to. They enforce rules or make rulings when a point is in dispute. Due to the nature of the game, judges/narrators are more likely to do stuff that CREATES conflict between characters rather than resolves it, though. Some of the games are cooperative, like D&D, but in some the players are competing against each other or to eliminate each other.
Given that, I suspect that we're running into an issue of semantics with regards to "games where the mode of play is role-playing" and "role-playing games." If the latter is D&D, and the former is a Spolin game, then there's clearly a greater area of differentiation than those two descriptions are necessarily making clear.

Of course, this gets back into questions of "what is a role-playing game?" which is basically Jon Peterson's The Elusive Shift all over again.
 

Clint_L

Hero
I loved Game Wizards, and similarly came away with a different opinion of Arneson (not to mention Gygax and Lorraine Williams).

Overrated is difficult to assess without context, but I do think Arneson generally gets more credit than he deserves. He definitely was the first Dungeon Master and came up with key ideas, like levelling. On the other hand, he did so as part of a gaming group that was sort of collectively building towards such concepts, and he was not the first in that group to act as a sort of DM-like referee for war gaming, if not specifically a fantasy dungeon crawl.

Nevertheless, it is indisputable that Arneson got the thing working that Gygax was able to turn into D&D, and so no Arneson, no D&D. However, after that his contributions diminish rapidly, and while he typically blamed others, especially Gygax, for this, in reading the actual records it is pretty clear that Arneson had trouble actually producing material. And not just for TSR - he had contract after contract in which he basically failed to deliver what he promised as far as actual work.

Ultimately, he comes off as a great ideas guy who wasn't very good when it became time to produce.
 

jolt

Adventurer
Many of the games initial ideas came from Arneson, but he was otherwise barely involved at all. He did none of the writing and fronted none of the money for production. I'm glad he ended up getting the money for the ideas that were his, but he was completely absent from everything that would end up making the game so successful.
 

Of the 6 people who were in the room when Arneson demonstrated Blackmoor in Lake Geneva all of them seem to think they were seeing something very novel.

Gary Gygax was taken with the concept immediately and tried to copy it with Rob Kuntz the next day unsuccessfully.

Rob Kuntz describes how Arneson did not have to have a written set of rules to demonstrate his concept because he had a functioning prototype.

Megarry already had been playing and he based his Dungeon! board game on his experiences in Arneson's game.
 

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