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The Dueling Essays of Arneson & Gygax

A recent article and documentary about Dave Arneson's involvement in Dungeons & Dragons shares a different perspective on the game's creation, with a particular emphasis on Rob Kuntz's testimony. Some of it contradicts what Gary Gygax positioned as D&D's origins. Fortunately we can read what both designers thoughts in their very own words -- published in the same book.

heroicworlds.jpg

Alzrius pointed out that both Arneson and Gygax contributed essays to Lawrence Schick's Heroic Worlds. What's startling is how their essays contradict each other just pages apart.

Heroic Worlds, published in 1991, was an attempt to catalog every tabletop role-playing games publication. It was a massive undertaking that was possible only because of the limited scope of the hobby. Thanks to electronic publishing, the Open Game License, and the Internet, tabletop gaming products have exploded -- DriveThruRPG has over 30,000 products alone -- making it impossible to produce a book of this scope ever again. It also provides a snapshot in time of the thoughts of various game designers, including Steve Jackon, Jennell Jaquays, Tom Moldavy, Sandy Petersen, Ken St. Andre, Michael Stackpole, Greg Stafford, Erick Wujcik and more.

Arneson kicks off the D&D controversy on page 131:
My first set of miniatures rules was for fighting out battles with sailing ships. This led me to meet several people, including Gary Gygax, at an early GenCon. These people later participated in a historical campaign I refereed. When I began refereeing what later became D&D in Minnesota, I mentioned it to them. They were interested, and when some of us went down to visit we all played this strange game...the lads in Lake Geneva got turned on to it. Tactical Studies Rules, a Lake Geneva-based game company, was already publishing historical rules and was willing to do D&D.
Gygax follows up on the origins of D&D in a short one-page essay on the very next page:
In the late 1960s a club called the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association met weekly at my home for military/naval miniatures gaming. From this activity sprang Chainmail. The D&D game was drawn from its rules, and that is indisputable. Chainmail was the progenitor of D&D, but the child grew to excel its parent.
This point is disputed by RPG archivist, Paul Stromberg, in the Kotaku article, "Dungeons & Deceptions: The First D&D Players Push Back On The Legend Of Gary Gygax":
“People think that Blackmoor arose from Chainmail, and thus Chainmail gave rise to Dungeons & Dragons. That is not correct,” said Stormberg, the RPG historian. While Chainmail, amongst other things, was an influence on Blackmoor, Arneson’s game was “entirely new,” he said. “It’s a game entirely unlike Chainmail. It’s like saying a Rodin uses red and a Picasso uses red so they’re the same style of painting.”
This perspective is shared by Arneson himself in his first essay:
Contrary to rumor, the players and I were all quite in control of our mental processes when D&D was designed. I also hasten to point out hat the Chainmail connection was the use of the Combat Matrix and nothing more. Find a first-edition Chainmail and compare it to a first-edition Original D&D someday and you will see that for yourself: not a hit point, character class, level, or armor class, much less any role-playing aspects in Chainmail.
Arneson's perspective on the game industry comes through in the other essays scattered throughout the book. Here's his version of how Blackmoor came about:
I originally began with a simple dungeon and expanded it into several dungeons loosely organized as a campaign. The rules were not really an organized set, more notes on what I had earlier. Today people expect a lot more detail, coherency, organization, and story.
Here's Arneson's thoughts on writing a scenario:
When I design a scenario, sometimes the plot or situation will come from books I read, and sometimes it just pops into my head...Changes are made, and then the work is sent off to be butchered--er, ah, edited, I mean...The original Blackmoor supplement included what was the very first published scenario. My intention was that it would serve as a guideline for other GMs to design their own. Instead, it spawn an entire "service" industry. Oh, well...
And finally here's what Arneson thought of the game industry:
My serious advice to the would-be role-playing-game author will sound cruel and heartless, and most will be offended and not listen. To would be game designers I say: seek useful employment in another field...play your own house rules with your friends and associates; it will be less painful and far more fun. (On the other hand, frankly, I wouldn't have listened to an old fogey like me.)
Gygax's thoughts on the subject of D&D are well-known; Arneson's less so, and Heroic Worlds is a trove of his perspective on tabletop gaming and publishing, undoubtedly informed by his legal tussles with TSR. The difference between Arenson and Gygax's approach to gaming is starkly illustrated in their essays. And yet, despite their long and sometimes antagonistic history, Gygax ends his essay on a hopeful note:
Dave Arneson and I have spoken frequently since the time we devised D&D. We don't plan to collaborate on another game, but just maybe one day he'll decide to combine talents again.
Did Gygax mean "we'll" instead of "he'll"? Gygax ends the essay with our only answer: Who knows?
 
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Michael Tresca

Comments

AriochQ

Explorer
Ugh! Another book I now need to read to quench my thirst for early D&D history!

We actually just interviewed Griff Morgan, who co-created Secrets of Blackmoor, on my podcast (The Grognards, found under the LAG Radio Network) and I am finding the arguments that Arneson deserves far more credit than he currently receives to be pretty convincing. I was pretty firmly in the 50/50 camp, but I am thinking Gary less impact pre-1974 than I had assumed.
 
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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Thanks for the shout-out, talien! As a reference, I mentioned before that none other than Shannon Appelcline (author of Designers & Dragons) takes the position that Chainmail was fundamental to the development of D&D, and refers to those who believe otherwise as "Chainmail denialists." You can find the actual quote from him on that in his review of Dr. J. Eric Holmes' book, Fantasy Role-Playing Games:

Fantasy Role Playing Games isn't a history book, but Holmes does devote a chapter to the topic, and it's pretty much what we know today: Gary Gygax published Chainmail (1971), which Dave Arneson used to run his Blackmoor game. Arneson then brought the idea back to Gygax who began running Greyhawk adventures. TSR published their work as Dungeons & Dragons (1974). None of this is new, but it's nice to see the same story that we know told just several years after the fact — especially given the 21st century advent of Chainmail denialists, who insist that Chainmail either wasn't used or wasn't important to the creation of D&D.
(There's a post on Appelcline's Facebook page where he uses that label again, and he and Stormberg get into a minor debate over it, but I can't find it now.)
 

Reynard

Adventurer
I am curious what is driving the current trend to attempt to strip Gygax of his legacy. It seems mean spirited at best, and outright vindictive at worst. As far as I know, no one has ever suggested Arneson was not half of the team that ultimately developed the earliest version of D&D, but it seems like people want to elevate Arneson at the expense of Gygax.
 

SMHWorlds

Explorer
I am curious what is driving the current trend to attempt to strip Gygax of his legacy. It seems mean spirited at best, and outright vindictive at worst. As far as I know, no one has ever suggested Arneson was not half of the team that ultimately developed the earliest version of D&D, but it seems like people want to elevate Arneson at the expense of Gygax.
I have never met any of the people involved, so I cannot give a personal anecdote. I do think that Gygax tends to get more credit even though Arneson was equally important to the creation of the game. And we as fans have a hard time giving credit to more than one person, because that might change how we perceive our games.

However, I think it is clear that Gygax was the catalyst who turned the potential of D&D and rpgs in general, into the kinetic phenomena that it is. Not alone, for sure, and I suspect the way he put himself forward as the primary expert likely rubbed people the wrong way. But his role cannot be denied. There should be room to give DA a little more credit, without setting EGG in shadow.
 

Wolfpack48

Explorer
Ugh! Another book I now need to read to quench my thirst for early D&D history!

We actually just interviewed Griff Morgan, who co-created Secrets of Blackmoor, on my podcast (The Grognards, found under the LAG Radio Network) and I am finding the arguments that Arneson deserves far more credit than he currently receives to be pretty convincing. I was pretty firmly in the 50/50 camp, but I am thinking Gary less impact pre-1974 than I had assumed.
It's a great book. Lots of great essays plus wonderful snippets on early RPG products.

As far as Arneson/Gygax, I think Arneson must be given credit for creating the idea of roleplaying, but Gygax must be given credit for editing and publishing it and making the game we all know and play possible. I doubt we'd have D&D without them both, but Arneson must be given credit for the original idea.
 

Wolfpack48

Explorer
I am curious what is driving the current trend to attempt to strip Gygax of his legacy. It seems mean spirited at best, and outright vindictive at worst. As far as I know, no one has ever suggested Arneson was not half of the team that ultimately developed the earliest version of D&D, but it seems like people want to elevate Arneson at the expense of Gygax.
I don't know that it's stripping him of his legacy, but it is a bit like Lennon/McCartney. Gygax was important and even responsible for D&D as we have it today, but Arneson was the original creator of "roleplaying" as we know it.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
I am curious what is driving the current trend to attempt to strip Gygax of his legacy. It seems mean spirited at best, and outright vindictive at worst. As far as I know, no one has ever suggested Arneson was not half of the team that ultimately developed the earliest version of D&D, but it seems like people want to elevate Arneson at the expense of Gygax.
That's a very good question.

I think there are two separate impulses that go on. One is, for lack of a better word, good, and one ... isn't.

I happen to appreciate the historical approach that individuals like Jon Peterson have taken; digging into the various documents, the interviews, and attempting to determine in a holistic manner what happened. Not assigning credit, or blame, but generally trying to understand what the historical record might be in the face of various competing narratives.

On the other hand, there is, for some people, a strong desire to assign blame. For example, if you don't like the way that early D&D handled representation, or believe that it was too rule- or combat-bound, then Gygax is the visible face for the problems. Arneson, however, can always be used as the "what if," as in, "What if Arneson's amazing (whatever) had carried the day?"

Kind of a Jobs/Woz sort of thing. IMO.
 

Jer

Adventurer
I am curious what is driving the current trend to attempt to strip Gygax of his legacy. It seems mean spirited at best, and outright vindictive at worst. As far as I know, no one has ever suggested Arneson was not half of the team that ultimately developed the earliest version of D&D, but it seems like people want to elevate Arneson at the expense of Gygax.
I actually don't get this read at all. First because in the popular culture at large that knows of D&D, Gary Gygax created D&D. It's only those of us who have been around for a long time or who like to dive into the history of the field who may have even heard of Dave Arneson. Given how much the game has grown in recent years there are a whole lot more people who don't know the history at all, so stories introducing that history to the new generation are going to happen. And boosting Arneson is of course going to come at the expense of Gygax in these narratives because of the ugly falling out they had, the lawsuits over Arneson's compensation for D&D after they fell out, and the fact that as I said in the popular culture Gygax's name is so synonymous with the creation of the game that his status can only be driven downward by making other people's stories public to a wider audience.

It reminds me of when Jack Kirby really started to get recognized for his role in creating Marvel's comics. It came at a big expense to Stan Lee for exactly the same sets of reasons - outside of the hardcore Kirby fans, Lee had been the guy who got all of the credit for being the architect of the Marvel universe, he and Kirby had a pretty dramatic falling out, and Lee was the one who was the boss so he and his people got to create the narrative. When Kirby started getting boosted again in the 90s and people were trying to set the record straight, it came at Stan Lee's expense because he had long been getting all of the credit for what was really a shared creative endeavor - reevaluating the contributions of both creators of course was going to lead to a loss of esteem for Lee because he went from "sole creator" in the eyes of the public to "shared creator who took sole credit for decades" - not a great place to be.

Eventually it will shake out, as it mostly has with Lee and Kirby among those who know comics history (though even that still remains contentious).
 

Arnwolf666

Explorer
I don't know that it's stripping him of his legacy, but it is a bit like Lennon/McCartney. Gygax was important and even responsible for D&D as we have it today, but Arneson was the original creator of "roleplaying" as we know it.
Boy do I disagree. I thing Gygax was equally creative in forming the game if not more so. But I see Gary as the personification that arnedon was not capable of doing. And very few people can do that kind of perspiration. I know I couldn’t even if I had a few good ideas.
 

kenmarable

Explorer
Kind of a Jobs/Woz sort of thing. IMO.
I was just thinking about how so many creative endeavors start with a pair of equals, but often the more charismatic and/or business minded one winds up being remembered as the central creator.

Gygax & Arneson, Jobs & Woz, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, Bill Gates & Paul Allen, etc. (and I'm sure many more I can't think of at the moment)

Just seems like an interesting pattern that crops up a lot with this small endeavors that become so successful they impact the culture.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
I was just thinking about how so many creative endeavors start with a pair of equals, but often the more charismatic and/or business minded one winds up being remembered as the central creator.

Gygax & Arneson, Jobs & Woz, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, Bill Gates & Paul Allen, etc.

Just seems like an interesting pattern that crops up a lot with this small endeavors that become so successful they impact the culture.
Eh, I think every situation is a little different; part of it is that we remember certain partnerships, whereas we tend to not think too much about the many non-partnerships. After all, what makes for a better story/drama that the falling out between partners?

But yes, you often see this in business, where there can be a divide between an idea and the execution; famously, Ray Kroc and McDonald's would be a great example of this.

Another way to think about this is to remember that this isn't just Gygax and Arneson; early D&D was shaped by numerous hobbyists, and artists, and players, and editors (Kask?) and this interplay, more than just Gygax or Arneson, in a particular place and a particular time, is what made the game.
 

Prakriti

Hi, I'm a Mindflayer, but don't let that worry you
I am curious what is driving the current trend to attempt to strip Gygax of his legacy. It seems mean spirited at best, and outright vindictive at worst. As far as I know, no one has ever suggested Arneson was not half of the team that ultimately developed the earliest version of D&D, but it seems like people want to elevate Arneson at the expense of Gygax.
It's just a sad element of human nature. People get a kick out of diminishing others and their great accomplishments. And iconoclasm is all the rage right now, so anything challenging accepted norms gets automatic attention and approval. We've seen it all before:

Shakespeare didn't write his own plays.
Thomas Edison stole his ideas from Nikola Tesla.
Harper Lee couldn't write To Kill a Mockingbird without Truman Capote's help.

And on and on. Now it's Gygax's turn, I guess.
 

Celebrim

Hero
While I agree with Arneson that based on the evidence, the game being played at his table was only partially inspired by Chainmail and had largely departed from the Chainmail rules, the truth is that that game that he was playing was, while it was recognizable as an RPG, was probably not D&D either. Indeed, attempts to reconstruct exactly what was being played and what it's rules actually were have been extremely difficult, and it seems likely that the rules were very fluid and quite possibly based partially on Strategos N. Regardless, Arneson never published the not-D&D game that was being played before D&D existed, and we only have weird references to it in some of the language that Arneson uses to describe the rules that suggest he's thinking about them in ways that have nothing to do with D&D or Chainmail.

Why does Gygax think that Chainmail was central to the creation of D&D? Well, aside from the self-serving reason, I suspect that the Blackmoor game was demo'd to him using Chainmail based rules, so naturally he will think that this is largely an extension of Chainmail. It's unclear if Gygax ever really saw the Strategos N based game that Arneson thought of as the Blackmoor game, and as no one was able to understand Arneson's notes on that game, I don't really know how many people have ever played it.

Personally, I don't think that you can ever disentangle this. They are both critical to the development of RPGs and I don't see how you can say one or the other created the RPG. Arneson clearly played the first one that was ever played, but to this day we know almost nothing about that table, and my perception of it is that Arneson primarily wanted to run a fantasy domain management game, partially using Strategos N, wildly at variance with the experience of what we think of as an RPG and more in common perhaps with those play by mail wargames whose scale was overly ambitious for anything prior to the development of home computing.

The only way I would see Gygax as unfairly receiving joint credit is that Arneson had been able at some point been able to independently bring the larger community the Blackmoor game that owed almost nothing to Gary's Greyhawk game that became the basis for D&D. But since he was not able to do that, and as far as I know never tried to do that ever after leaving TSR, I think that they both have to share equal credit, and if Gygax is the more famous of the two, then it shouldn't be surprising given how much more stuff his name was on compared to his less prolific partner and frenemy(?).
 

Wolfpack48

Explorer
Boy do I disagree. I thing Gygax was equally creative in forming the game if not more so. But I see Gary as the personification that arnedon was not capable of doing. And very few people can do that kind of perspiration. I know I couldn’t even if I had a few good ideas.
Sure, though I think the narrative has been, for a long time, that Gary "did it all." I agree 100% he really did the hard work of codifiying the rules, bringing forward the gameplay, and marketing the game. I think what this is all about, is the pre-Gary creativity that often gets left out. Arneson saw the connection to playing out a role with an individual character and played this in a free-wheeling manner long before Gygax got involved. Gary married the wargaming rules (Chainmail) with the individual play once he saw what Arneson was doing. That Arneson didn't gamify and market his idea might have been more his personality than anything, but he did have the original idea. I think the Woz/Jobs comparison is apt.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
I purchased the first two dozen issues or so of A&E a little while back, and it might just be me but I found them very hard to read. It wasn't an issue of anyone's writing, but rather the format of the PDFs. The old scans of low-quality typeface, no real table of contents or index, and issues that ran for substantial numbers of pages meant that you really had to dig through them in order to absorb what was there.
 
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Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
I purchased the first two dozen issues or so of A&E a little while back, and it might just be me but I found them very hard to read. It wasn't an issue of anyone's writing, but rather the format of the PDFs. The old scans of low-quality typeface, no real table of contents or index, and issues that ran for substantial numbers of pages meant that it you really had to dig through them in order to absorb what was there.
I haven't seen the pdfs just the originals (some of the writing wast necessarily pretty then either) ... I do not remember exactly when I subscribed but in the early hundreds I contributed a cover shot with a Dragon in a Nuclear mushroom cloud. I think it gives some very interesting gist about what was happening in rpg design at the time.
 

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