Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

On Gaming's (Flawed) Makers...

Disclaimer: This posting is about real people with complex feelings, hopes, dreams and desires; and perhaps some reading this actually knew them.  To be clear, I think the loss of friendship was tragic and frankly depressing.  With that out of the way...    

The growing popularity of D&D (and the recent Secrets of Blackmoor film) have piqued the interest of a new generation.  How did our hobby begin?  For the newcomers, many of whom weren't even alive in the last century (Jesus, how old does that make me), these facts are buried in the myth-shrouded past, when cell phones didn't exist yet and if you forgot to grab (insert grocery item here), your spouse couldn't call or even text.

Those were dark times when we couldn't answer every nagging trivia question by pulling a phone out of our pocket, but we got by somehow.  And given just how much information is at our fingertips (or resting in our pockets and irradiating our vitals), it's all too easy to dismiss the youngster's lack of understanding.  But we were all newcomers once...

That said, there's been a trickle of new articles by young journalists shedding light on the mysteries of our hobby's past.  One Kotaku article in particular reads like a Watergate-esque expose of what the evil industry has long hidden.  You mean Gary Gygax wasn't the sole creator of D&D?  Some guy named Dave Arneson was also involved?  Yeah, it's all too easy for us greybeards to snort at this, but we shouldn't.  We were all young once and should applaud (and stoke) the interest of the hobby's next generation.

Truth be told, a certain mythos has emerged, one where Gygax became the central personality behind a certified cultural phenomenon.  But if you played the original game back when it came in digest form, you'd have to work hard not to know that it was a joint affair forged by a creative duo, especially if you owned the Blackmoor supplement.  Indeed, you could buy the B/X version as late as 1982 and see Gygax and Arneson credited.

But AD&D was attributed to Gygax alone, the result of that timeless money changes everything and not for the better shtick that ended an era.  By second edition, Arneson was a fading memory, and third was the nail in the coffin.  I won't speculate on the motives of Hasbro and Wizards in perpetuating this; but by 1986, money changes everything forced Gygax out of the picture as well.  Anyway, if you're a 15 year old who started with 5th edition purchased through Amazon, you can easily be forgiven for not knowing.

So much for the kids.  What about the grognards?  I've heard the Kotaku article variably described as an anti-Gary hit piece or long-overdue justice depending on who you happen to ask.  Those who actually knew the pertinent parties have taken sides; for instance, Robert Kunz's Dave Arneson's True Genius.  As for this blogger, I began playing in 1978 and never once met either of the hobby's leading lights, although I've been fortunate enough to know David Wesely (Braunstein's maker) later in life, so my take is suitably nuanced... 

Here goes: Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were imperfect human beings.  

That's right folks, the founders of the hobby we love don't have to be these perfect, semi-divine figures with pure intentions. That's nonsense, and the imperfections of these two men were probably vital to the hobby's cultural advancement.  The ugly stuff matters...
Dave Arneson, who forged the first fantasy campaign and reshaped the culture, was undoubtedly a visionary of the highest order.  That's to his credit.  But he clearly lacked the businessman's motivation.  This reality may (or may not) also be to his credit, although it guaranteed that he wouldn't be the one to successfully market his creation.

Gary Gygax had marketing savvy as well as creative ideas of his own, although often borrowed from others.  This was to his credit.  But he was clearly also a hard-nosed businessman, which may (or may not) also be to his credit.  His efforts are why I have the OD&D rulebooks framed and hanging over my desk, which speaks to his legacy.

We don't live in Candyland.  People are greedy, selfish, and sure to act in their own best interests whenever a cash cow stumbles into view.  Now I'm not suggesting that either man was personally awful.  I can't (and won't) presume to know.  But if I can be a card-carrying asshole from time to time we all can, including the hobby's founding fathers...

And this joining of flawed personalities was probably the only reason our hobby exists as anything more than a quaint local phenomenon.  Chemistry is messy.  It often involves explosions and sudden trips to the eye wash station.  But amid the fire and chaos discoveries are made.  If we like being able to role-play, we can thank Arneson; and if we like actually owning nice commercial products made by people who can justify the effort in creating them, we owe Gygax big.  Pulling this off meant serving two masters, which is challenging.  

Arneson needed Gary's discipline and focus as much as Gary needed Arneson (and other's) creative input.  And the hobby insisted that both men suffer greatly in childbirth...  

Still (and redemptively) time and loss are humbling, and Gygax and Arneson reconciled eventually.  Fame and especially, money, are corrupting influences, and while we'd all prefer to think of the hobby's founders as laid-back gamers, this clearly wasn't always the case, especially once sales surged.  In the end, we can appreciate the contributions of both flawed humans, even if we're occasionally disappointed by them.  Their chemistry was real.


  1. Jack Kirby invented the Marvel Universe. Stan Lee was the company man who sold it.

    1. Well said, although I'd guess that Gygax was more (much more) than just a salesman, as he had his own substantial output...

  2. Nothing to object to here, except to note that Arneson was credited alongside Gygax in the 1983 D&D Basic & Expert sets and 1984 D&D Companion set as well (and those remained in print through around 1989-90). His credit did disappear in the 1985 D&D Master, which I suspect was the triggering incident for one of his lawsuits against TSR.

    1. You're right about the Expert and Companion Sets, where Arneson is credited on the inside cover, although the rest of the BECMI set sadly relegated him to the acknowledgements section among many other names, presaging his gradual erasure from the popular mind. Moreover, Arneson's lawsuits were completed in 1981 with an agreement. There were no further actions, certainly not in 1985, when Arneson was preparing the BA modules for TSR. He'd leave not long after Gygax was ousted, the sad end of an era...

    2. The linked Kotaku article mentions a 1985 lawsuit: "Arneson disagreed with this, and sued Gygax and TSR in 1979, then again in 1985." I don't know any details about that suit (including whether it actually happened or is an error in the article), but the conspicuous "by Gary Gygax" credit in the D&D Master Set where the other sets in the series had all said "by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson" seemed like a likely catalyst if there was a lawsuit that year.

    3. It's convoluted stuff. The 1979 lawsuit decided that Arneson would receive royalties for the D&D line but not the AD&D product. The Immortal Rules were attributed to Mentzer and the Master to Gygax, but the 1979 decision still required that Arneson receive royalties. Anyway, Arneson began developing modules through TSR again in 1985, which seems like a strange way to treat a litigant. The only corroborating account of any 1985 lawsuit was yet ANOTHER Kotaku article written about Gail Gygax, and that offered ZERO explanation, so who knows. Anyway, thanks for getting me back into my old BECMI sets!

  3. Nice to see an article placing the fact that the creators of D&D were just human beings (with all the marvellous flaws and benefits that entails) like the rest of us. Great read.

    1. Thanks! It's painful when friends fight, and I suspect many gamers feel a kinship with both men through their work...