The passing of the King Of Blackmoor

>> Thursday, April 09, 2009

So, I get offline from a Neverwinter Nights session with a college buddy, and when I check my RSS feeds I see on Monte Cook's blog that Dave Arneson has passed away.

There's a good chance you don't know who Mr. Arneson was: he was the less-known half of the collaboration that produced Dungeons And Dragons in the early 1970s, along with the late Gary Gygax, who died last March. Arneson was the less-visible collaborator, and it's hard for a gamer who didn't know Mr. Arneson not to instantly associate Mr. Arneson with the controversy that surrounded his contributions to the original roleplaying game: in the murky early days of the game, Arneson contributed extensively to the emerging rules set (there have even been controversial claims that Arneson is the one who originally introduced the twenty-sided die that has become the defining element of Dungeons And Dragons).

Here's kinda-sorta what happened: there was a group of gamers in Minnesota that included Gygax and Arneson, who were interested in various kinds of simulation games. In friendlier days, Gygax and Arneson co-created a naval wargame called Don't Give Up The Ship, and Gygax and a gent named Jeff Perren wrote a game about medieval combat called Chainmail. Now, the significance of these two games--which most people have probably never heard of--is actually pretty enormous, because Gygax and Arneson got kind of sick of playing them. So one or both of them started messing with the rules: for instance, instead of the miniature knights used in Chainmail representing groups of cavalry or footsoldiers, Arneson and Gygax started refereeing games where those minis would represent individual heroes; and maybe for one session, just to liven things up, this one mini might be a "wizard" or a "dragon" with special ranged attacks, or maybe in another session the ref would pull out some cheesy made-in-Japan rubber toy monster he got out of a gumball machine and that would be, oh, say a monster that could eat heroes' armor or whatever.

At some point Dave Arneson (probably--this is the stuff of lawsuits, after all) began running games where, instead of being on a battlefield, the heroes might be exploring a mysterious ruin. This was a way to spice up the usual terrain, but Arneson kept adding wackier and wackier SF and fantasy elements to it, eventually coming up with an entire world called "Blackmoor" in which ruinous places like the evil "Temple Of The Frog" could entice and kill the characters being played by his friends (their "player characters," if you will). As he went along, Arneson took the Chainmail rules as a starting point, but he also mixed in elements from the rules he'd cowritten for Don't Give Up The Ship, like a mechanic where all the various ships in that game had an "armor class" that determined how hard they were to hit.

What was played at Arneson's gaming table had an immense appeal--it really wasn't anything like any other game that had ever been played. It was sort of like a wargame, true, but it was also sort of like cowboys-and-Indians, only there were also all these other strange things, these monsters and mutants and magic, and maybe your in-game persona would interact in ways other than just hitting something with a sword, or even shooting lightning at it. You could try to negotiate with the head priest, or maybe your character would get sick, or maybe... well, anything could happen, couldn't it? It wasn't long before Gary Gygax was running his own "Greyhawk" setting, and not much longer after that, Gygax and Arneson coauthored another game together, one that incorporated Ship and Chainmail and the miscellany of rules Gygax and Arneson had come up with at their tables for Blackmoor and Greyhawk.

Do you even need to know what they called the new game? They called it Dungeons And Dragons. Duh.

This was the end of a beginning. The small run of Dungeons And Dragons box sets and the supplements--including supplemental rules devoted to Blackmoor and Greyhawk--sold so briskly it was worthwhile for Gygax to begin work on a massive consolidation and revision of the rules. For starters, since it would be mostly compatible with the Dungeons And Dragons box, Tactical Studies Rules (the game publisher Gygax co-founded with Don Kaye to publish Dungeons And Dragons) would publish a collection of statistics for threats to the player characters--a Monster Manual. But the larger revision project was hinted at in the corner of this new hardbound volume's cover: the whole final revision would be Advanced Dungeons And Dragons. Now here's the ugly part: because Gygax was at the helm of this massive revision, reworking the rules, explaining them, offering commentary, etc., he naturally (and understandably) felt entitled to claim authorship of the book--completely legitimate from a certain point-of-view, since he wrote every word in the core rulebooks. And in this process, Dave Arneson (who co-wrote the first version and co-invented the whole game and cogged together a lot of the rules from various sources) became somebody acknowledged as a contributor and consultant in the same block of text that included playtesters and people who offered moral or financial support during the revisions process.

Not cool, man.

This was where Arneson became marginalized from a game he helped invent (something that subsequently and ironically ended up happening to Gygax himself during the eighties, as TSR--formerly Tactical Studies Rules, natch--began to disintegrate during its second decade). Beginning in 1979, Arneson became embroiled in lawsuits with his former friends and gaming buddies and there was much bitterness all around, and the worst part may be the fact that one of the things Gygax and Arneson had in common beyond their love for games and one game in particular they made up together was that they were both these genuinely nice guys who were smart and funny and endearingly nerdy, and it's a damn shame that the product of their nerdy obsessions--their intellectual child--became a wedge that not only divided them but also led to outbursts of bitterness and hardness from good, genial men who otherwise wouldn't have had a cold word for anyone, least of all a former friend and colleague. In the end, their names would reappear on the title pages of the third edition and subsequent Dungeons And Dragons rules issued by Wizards Of The Coast after they swept in and salvaged the shipwreck TSR turned into: as the co-creators of the original game, fittingly together again in their rightful place.

Re-hashing all of this sad history and poking at old scabs seems wrong for a memorial. But I think it's necessary because Arneson was sort of the Syd Barrett or Brian Jones of D&D, the guy who arguably made this big thing what it became, or what it could become, only to vanish and to be nearly-forgotten by all but the cognoscenti. And so you have to slurch through all these years of awfulness to hold up this treasure at the far end of the swamp; there's all this awfulness between there and here, but at the end of it we have this precious gem of a game and the community that has bonded over it. For almost forty years, now, D&D has been not just the obvious escapist recreation but also a gateway drug to math, history, literature, folklore, comparative religion, architecture, and anything else besides; and, more importantly, it's been that fellowship mentioned in the previous sentence, this weird thing that's brought friends together around a table over piles of paper and strange dice and cans of Mountain Dew, boxes of cold pizza and bags of toxic-colored cheese-flavored air-puffed cornmeal snacks.

So Mr. Arneson will be remembered, by all of us who love this weird game and the strange men who invented it. Thank you Mr. Arneson, from the bottom of my heart, and may you roll twenties wherever you are. Requiescat in pace, Mr. Arneson.


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