Everybody calls Rob Kuntz last, he says. Those who want to know about the history of Dungeons & Dragons start with co-creator Gary Gygax’s kids, one of Gygax’s biographers, or D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast. As they’re wrapping things up, they might get around to ringing up Kuntz, a 63-year-old game designer. And once they call him, he tells them the same thing: Everything they know about the creation of the tabletop role-playing game is, in his opinion, sorely mistaken or flat-out wrong.
“There’s a myth that’s been propagated in the industry,” Kuntz told Kotaku during an interview in February of this year. “If you keep digging into this, you’re going to come up with a story that will enrage people and expose the truth.”
A new documentary out last week, Secrets of Blackmoor, attempts to get to the bottom of who really incepted the world of fantasy role-playing. It’s a question that Kotaku has been investigating as well, as part of our ongoing research into the massively popular game, which also resulted in our profile of Gary Gygax’s widow Gail earlier this year and a series of interviews with the first women who worked on D&D.
“Certain questions will open up a shitstorm,” Kuntz said. “You’ll peel back the onion to the smelly part.”
When we first spoke, Kuntz made one thing very clear: He doesn’t buy the story usually told about how Dungeons & Dragons was born, because he was there to witness the reality that was spun into the mythos.
“We are in a mass delusion that it’s all Gary, that he’s the father of role-playing games,” he said. “Humans do not like to admit they’ve been hornswoggled, lied to, cheated, or fooled.”
Eight million people play Dungeons & Dragons every year. And when they talk about how it all started, the biographers and fanboys and panel speakers and local hobby shop owners and dungeon masters all tell the same tale, the by-the-bootstraps American dream story of Gary Gygax, progenitor of the role-playing tradition, the original dungeon master.
Rob Kuntz interviewed for Secrets of Blackmoor. (Photo: Secrets of Blackmoor)
Here’s how the story is usually told: Gygax was an insurance underwriter in Lake Geneva, in the US state of Wisconsin. As the legend goes, his love for miniature wargames and pulpy Conan The Barbarian novels inspired him to publish a game called Chainmail, a medieval wargame with a fantasy-flavoured supplement, in 1971. Soon after, a young Minnesota security guard named Dave Arneson, pictured in the featured image for this article, would adopt Chainmail’s ruleset for another fantasy wargame called Blackmoor. The pair would then collaborate to make Dungeons & Dragons, a name Gygax’s daughter Cindy would cutely conjure as she and her siblings ran through D&D’s earliest games. Gygax would whisk up a scrappy little company to sell D&D, and run it until he was unfairly pushed out in 1985 by some suits who didn’t understand his genius. By then, Arneson’s name would have long dropped out of the story, unless the person telling it brought up his lawsuits against Gygax for royalties.
Gary Gygax died in 2008 at 69. Dave Arneson died a year later, at 61. With both of the celebrated game’s creators gone ten years, it falls to those who were closest to them, like Kuntz, to fill in the gaps around the history—and, in Kuntz’s case, challenge some long-held assumptions about the origin story of D&D. He’d witnessed the great creation first-hand. He was there, and has come to know the power of the Gygax legend better than almost anyone. After all, Gygax had welcomed him into his family in October, 1968, when he was 13.
Kuntz’s mother had suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalised. His older brother Terry was already in foster care. At 13, he found himself living alone in Lake Geneva, in what had been their family home. Kuntz’s upstairs neighbours would check in on him during the week. On the weekends, his aunt would drive over from seven miles away to attend to him. Living across from the school he attended, Kuntz’ life followed a pattern: school, home, school, home.
One day, he was flipping through a copy of a neighbour's Playboy magazine when he saw something that captivated his 13-year-old imagination: an advertisement for board games. That Christmas, his aunt took him to the five-and-dime and bought him Afrika Korps, a wargame from Avalon Hill that reenacted the Nazi German forces entering North Africa in the early 1940s. The genre predecessor to Dungeons & Dragons, wargames involved pushing miniatures around a map, measuring bullet spread with rulers, and crafting historically accurate battlegrounds out of sand or fabricated terrain that resembled battlegrounds like Gettysburg or Stalingrad.
“We play these games with a group here in town,” Kuntz recalled the store manager telling him when he picked up Afrika Korps. “We’re joined by Gary Gygax.”
“He was jealous. Just stone-cold jealous.”
Gygax, then a 30-year-old man with thick glasses and a moustache, ruled the roost when it came to wargaming in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, in 1968. In his basement at 330 Center St., a white, modestly-sized home, Gygax welcomed all sorts of wargaming devotees from all over the midwestern US. Kuntz, who it turned out lived just a few blocks from Gygax, devoted himself to learning Afrika Korps’ ruleset, and a week later, he would enter Gygax’s home, where the man himself, having heard of the precocious new wargamer from a neighbour, was setting up Afrika Korps.
“They taught me how to play by watching them,” says Kuntz. “I was Gary’s student, co-author, almost adopted by the family.” Gygax and his then wife Mary Jo would invite him to church or bible study, to family meals. Gygax would read manuscripts to Kuntz while he sat on the guest bed in his study. Kuntz was all admiration and gratefulness. In 1969, Kuntz and Gygax wrote the words “ENTRANCE WARGAMES ROOM” on the cellar door leading to the basement. By 1970, Kuntz was at the Gygaxes’ house every day, often staying overnight on the living room couch.
“Role-playing games first began in 1971,” says Dave Arneson, a chubby-cheeked Minnesotan with a wry smile and a grey beard, in footage from 2009 that opens the Secrets of Blackmoor documentary. Speaking in a tone that sounds bored and a little defensive, he sits at the front of a classroom, atop the teacher’s desk, bouncing his legs off the back. “Don’t ask me why I know that because I’m the one who did it,” he says. “Backed up by court documents. Thank you.”
In the 1960s, Arneson, a University of Minnesota history major and part-time security guard, was part of a gaming group in the state’s Twin Cities area that operated more like a 2010 tech startup than a hobbyist clique. Just for kicks, they riffed on each other’s hard-headed wargaming rulesets and very seriously playtested the results, sometimes publishing their thoughts in periodicals and hobbyist magazines. If the ideas of “innovation” and “iteration” hadn’t been so co-opted by corporations today, Arneson’s little gaming group may have been more deeply inked into the history of Dungeons & Dragons.
Finding like-minded folks through ads in the classified section of wargaming fanzines, Arneson assembled his own gaming group. They’d meet at his parents’ St. Paul home and marvel at his huge number of painted gaming miniatures, which his father had bought for him, his only child, according to Secrets of Blackmoor. Taking bits and pieces of Avalon Hill games and sprinkling them with their own flavors, the Twin Cities gamers were entrenched in the Napoleonic wargaming tradition, but not particularly to its ubiquitous “rules lawyers,” a term Arneson would later use with derision to describe the sorts of people who would passionately litigate games’ rules in lieu of actually playing. Instead, Arneson’s group appointed “referees” for their games to adjudicate anything that happened covered or not covered by the rules.
A school photo of Dave Arneson. (Image: Secrets of Blackmoor/Dave Arneson Archive, curated by Paul Stormberg)
One of Arneson’s buddies, a US Army Reserves major named David Wesley, invented a game in 1968 called Braunstein, where two forces met in the Napoleonic town of that name. Braunstein advanced the wargaming format in multiple ways that echo the design of modern D&D by actually requiring a referee. And instead of having them play as an entire faceless army, it asked players to create and take up the roles of individual characters, maybe a town mayor or a protesting student. Once, Arneson and a teammate, in-game allies who did not get along together in real life, told Wesley that they were going to duel. Wesley, surprised and game, came up with duelling mechanics on the fly to accommodate, according to Secrets of Blackmoor.
“This was the first kernel of role-playing games,” Paul Stormberg, a role-playing game archivist, told Kotaku. Stormberg, a former archaeologist, now spends his days digging into the work of Arneson, Gygax, and other lesser-known deities of the RPG tradition. He said that the Twin Cities crew became very attached not only to Braunstein, but also to the individual comman that they created for the game. They wanted to evade situations where their beloved avatars faced death, or find ways to express themselves, or other, more heroic selves, while playing. That, of course, led to them going a little off-book.
“This guy Dave had a couple ideas, Gary saw what he was doing and was a genius, and figured out how to make it 20 times better. That’s the narrative.”
Braunstein got the Twin Cities crew’s fluids going, inspiring them to develop their own games with similar gameplay attributes. One of the players, Duane Jenkins, designed Brown Stone, a riff on Braunstein set in Texas. But it’s the game that Arneson designed after Braunstein that changed everything.
“Dave took a left turn when everyone else was turning right,” said Stormberg. “Blackmoor.”
“Arneson start[ed] this process of creating systems to handle what’s happening in the game, no matter what the players want[ed] to try,” Stormberg said. “Nowadays, when a dungeon master runs a game and a player says, ‘I try to jump a pit,’ the dungeon master says, ‘You have a 3 in 6 chance. Roll the dice.’ The system doesn’t exist in the game—they made something up. That’s the genius breakthrough of role-playing.” Stormberg defines role-playing as “playing a character that isn’t you and has different abilities from you, facing an ongoing set of circumstances or environments entirely defined by the game master.”
This, says Robert Kuntz, is where the narrative momentum picks up—when the rolling snowball of Gygax’s story begins to grow so large that it has eclipsed the truth.
Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson met at the second annual Gen Con, short for “Geneva Convention.” Today, the board gaming convention attracts over 60,000 attendees to the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis. In 1969, it attracted 187 people to Lake Geneva. Arneson and his gaggle of wargaming fiends drove eight hours to get there. Gygax and Arneson discussed their love for Napoleonic wargames, and their theories around wargaming rulesets. Soon after, Gygax and Kuntz would launch their own society for medieval wargaming, known as the Castle & Crusade society. Arneson would become a “Baron” of the society. Gygax was the “Earl of Walworth,” the Wisconsin county in which sits Lake Geneva. Kuntz, still a young teen, was named king.
Gygax had recently lost his job as an insurance underwriter. “I am working on a couple of board games for semi-commercial sale and trying to get some work in on miniature rules,” he wrote in a 1971 issue of Wargamer’s Newsletter during what he called his “forced vacation.” Gygax was barely making ends meet living on some combination of unemployment compensation and money from repairing shoes. He had five young children and needed cash, and if at all possible, he wanted to make it in the world of tabletop gaming. He just needed something noteworthy to come along, or to make something noteworthy himself.
Gygax began to edit other aspiring game developers’ rulesets for the publisher Guidon Games on a part-time basis. In the meantime, he began formulating his own: Chainmail, a wargame set in medieval Europe. Players fought with hand axes, morning stars, flails and two-handed swords, resolving scenarios with dice. To hit an opponent, a player had to roll the dice and modify the result based on any number of conditions or factors. Melee combat and long-range combat had separate mechanics. A unit of 20 men was represented by a single figurine.
Gary Gygax at home. (Image: The Dreams in Gary’s Basement trailer)
Later, Gygax would expand on Chainmail’s ruleset with a fantasy supplement, which injected trappings from Lord of the Rings and Conan the Barbarian into Chainmail’s world. There were wizards, fireballs, elves. There were magic swords and armour. The dragons came in red, white, blue, black, and green varieties. The dungeons would come later, but at the time, were notably absent. Gygax would call the supplement an “afterthought.” Notably, one-to-one combat was supported; just not the role-playing caprice.
Chainmail, or more specifically its fantasy supplement, is widely considered to be the prototype of D&D. This is stated in all the books: in the Gygax biography Empire of the Imagination, in the graphic novel Rise of the Dungeon Master: Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D, and in Playing at the World. It’s stated in the articles, the forum posts, the oral histories. Despite all of this, Chainmail was decidedly not a role-playing game. It wasn’t structured around campaigns. There were no experience points. Characters weren’t acted out, or represented as being anyone other than the player.
In his Minnesota basement games incubator, Arneson ran a game of Chainmail. He loved the medieval setting and the fantasy trappings in the supplement, and played the game consistently for amount a month. One day after the game of Chainmail had wound down, Arneson was at rest, bingeing five monster movies on Creature Feature weekend, gobbling down fistfuls of popcorn, playing with some graph paper, flipping through a Conan book.
Chainmail, he thought, could make for a solid combat ruleset for a more expansive sort of game, an ongoing one like Braunstein. That restful day, Arneson idly considered bringing Gygax’s new combat ruleset into the developing game tradition he and his friends were carving out: role-playing.
“There will be a medieval ‘Braunstein’ April 17, 1971, at the home of Dave Arneson from 1300 hrs to 2400 hrs with refreshments being available on the usual basis,” Arneson advertised in his wargaming group’s small-circulation newsletter, Corner of the Table Top. “It will feature mythical creatures and a Poker game under the Troll’s bridge between sunup and sundown.”
Players took novice characters—“flunkies” in their terms—and implanted them in Blackmoor, a medieval setting of Arneson’s own invention. Arneson’s map of the town perfectly resembles an early Dungeons & Dragons map, with roads and wilderness that eventually give way to a central, barricaded town. Giants roaming the land would send the players scrambling for the safety of the town. Later, there would be evil wizards and castles and gold, dungeon exploration mechanics. Chainmail’s armor class and hit point mechanics, Stormberg says, Arneson expanded on to fit Blackmoor’s gameplay.
According to Secrets of Blackmoor, on that April day in 1971, Arneson gathered his friends around his ping-pong table, on which he often taped down a layer of brown paper maps. What transpired there, three years before the creation of Dungeons & Dragons, could very well have been the first-ever session of a fantasy tabletop role-playing game. There were no complicated miniature armies, no rulers, no graph paper. It was dice and imagination. Arneson played the “referee,” like the one in the rules of Braunstein, who conjured descriptions of what the players saw. For the most part, the game existed in Arneson’s head.
Dave Arneson’s friends gaming on his ping pong table. (Photo: Secrets of Blackmoor/Dave Arneson Archive curated by Paul Stormberg)
One player was the king of Portugal, another a merchant. A third player, Mike Carr, took on the role of “personality coordinator” to manage the game’s burgeoning role-playing elements. Arneson even wrote up a Blackmoor Gazette and Rumormonger one-sheet newspaper to keep players and hangers-on up to date on the latest in-game news.
Sometimes, a player would come upon a magical item, which would remain attached to their character across sessions. Characters’ stats included brains, strength, credibility, courage, sex, health, and looks. Over time, these improved with the characters’ various activities. “Further tables and charts were then made to take into account player progress and experience,” Arneson wrote in Wargamer. “With these charts each player increased their ability in a given area by engaging in activity in that area. For a fighter that means that by killing opponents (normal types or monsters), their ability to strike an opponent and avoid the latter’s blows was increased.”
With the release of Secrets of Blackmoor last week, documentarian Griffith Morgan is pushing back against the popular narrative that Gary Gygax was the primary figure behind the creation of what we know today as the tabletop role-playing game, “the mythology that Gary Gygax created everything,” as he told Kotaku.
“People turn it into a thing,” Morgan said. “This guy Dave had a couple ideas, Gary saw what he was doing and was a genius, and figured out how to make it 20 times better. That’s the narrative. Actually, they were working on this role-playing thing for 10 years before Gary was even there. He came in late 1972. He still [didn’t] know how to do it until early 1973.”
The cover of Empire of the Imagination, a biography of Gary Gygax. (Image: Michael Witwer, author)
“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.”
“There should have been throngs of worshippers bestrewing his lap with rose petals, or a shaft of light from the Fifth Heaven, or an honour guard of bugbears.”
By this time, Rob Kuntz was busy with the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association, which put on weekly games, and the Castle & Crusades society. “I was a great dismay to many girlfriends,” Kuntz said. “I missed the normal teen episodes with all that had happened to me and that was happening around me.”) Arneson submitted an article to the Castle & Crusade Society’s newsletter, offering a top-down view of Blackmoor. He described the game’s underground caves, in which “the Elfs and Dwarves make their homes along with several unclassified inhabitants and denizens of darker places.”
Dave Arneson’s Basement circa 1971. Dave Arneson’s role-playing group, consisting of Bill Hoyt, Duane Jenkins, Pete Gaylord, David Megarry et al. Photo by Arneson. (Photo: Dave Arneson/Dave Arneson Archive, curated by Paul Stormberg)
“Dave described this fantasy medieval campaign he was running,” Stormberg said. “To express it to Gary, he expressed it as a variant to Chainmail, when in fact it was a completely new concept in gaming with some elements of Chainmail laid overtop it. The underlying concept of a role-playing game is what Dave Arneson created.”
Not mindful of the language of product sales, of intellectual property, Arneson apparently wanted to share his innovation with a likeminded, and well-connected, new friend. He and Gygax had already collaborated on another game, a Napoleonic naval battle ruleset called Don’t Give Up the Ship, and curious about the campaign and its ruleset, Gygax invited Arneson and one member of his gaming crew, David Megarry, who had designed the adventure board game Dungeon, to his Lake Geneva basement to demonstrate Blackmoor. To get there, they drove through a snowstorm in November of 1972. Megarry and Arneson arrived to find Mary Jo Gygax clearing away the dinner plates while Gary sat at the typewriter, Kuntz recalled. Rob Kuntz was there, too, and joined them as the sixth player in Gygax’s first game of Blackmoor, alongside his brother Terry, Gary Gygax, his son Ernie, Arneson, and Megarry.
A dispatch from Blackmoor. (Photo: Secrets of Blackmoor/Dave Arneson)
“Arneson set up his 3-ring binder as a screen between us and him,” wrote Kuntz in an unpublished work called A Tale of Two Daves, Two Gygaxʼs and Two Kuntzʼs, which he shared with Kotaku. “He noted that Dave Megarry, a regular in his game, would be our guide for the adventure. Megarry did most of the interfacing and explaining what it was we were about to do with imaginary characters. Arneson noted that we could be either heroes or wizards. Gary chose to be a wizard and the rest of us heroes.”
Kuntz continued, explaining how players received no rules and no maps. Mostly, it was Arneson rolling the six-sided die behind his binder. “Arneson controlled everything behind the scenes with a screen and told us what he saw,” Kuntz said.
“Arneson described a typical medieval inn and an affable innkeeper who served us; and he also warned us from starting any trouble in his establishment as its patrons were a quiet and simple folk. We all had drinks and checked out the surroundings. A little into this I informed Arneson that my character (we had no names, so it was Garyʼs character, Robʼs, etc.) was stepping outside to get some air.”
“Arneson said, ‘Okay. You come back in.’ I was confused while thinking that he had understood that I stepped out and got air and then, later, came back in. I questioned this and he clarified by noting that when I stepped through the entryway that I indeed found myself walking back into the inn. Magic! I had never exited the inn. We all caught onto the problem at once. We were trapped! Megarry and Arneson either smiled or snickered as we realised what ‘Come Back Inn’ really meant.”
Eventually, the group figured out how to escape the Come Back Inn. Kuntz went on to describe how the adventure continued, with Megarry playing guide, leading them into a castle, an encounter with some humorous magical elves, and then a battle with a troll.
"Until Gary Gygax gets a hold of it, it can’t be shared with the masses."
“After a brief struggle the five of us overcame it and Megarry started looking for treasure,” Kuntz said. “Here was encountered another aspect which we all take for granted today but which was foreign to us then. To vanquish an opponent was not new to us due to our grounding in wargames. But that the opponent could have treasure that we might immediately secure and use, well, this was a novel concept.” The group found a magical sword that could grant wishes. Megarry suggested the group keep the sword for the future.
The foursome played Blackmoor long into the night. Arneson and Megarry crashed on the couch, leaving at 9 am the next morning. At 9:15, Kuntz said, Gygax called him up. “‘I want you to come over. We need to discuss what we just experienced with Arneson,’” Kuntz said Gygax told him.
As Kuntz tells it, Gygax had taken out some paper and coloured pencils. They sat together at his dining room table. “I really believe what we experienced the night before can be turned into a game for creating stories,” Kuntz recalls Gygax saying. “Be the adjudicator. I’ll be the player.” Gygax and Kuntz ran through two one-hour sessions of Blackmoor, but as Kuntz recalled it, neither game proceeded to their satisfaction. Kuntz believes it is because Arneson had been running Blackmoor for months now and had been able to furnish players with an immersive experience from repetition and recollection. Regardless, Kuntz describes himself as the first “dungeon master.”
Kuntz remembers Gygax writing down his own recollections from the Blackmoor game in a frenzy. He remembers when Gygax later asked Arneson to send over his notes for Blackmoor. Arneson didn’t have a concrete ruleset; he was making things up as he went along. But, Kuntz said, he did manage to cobble together 18 pages of handwritten notes, a lot of which were simply stats for Chainmail monsters.
Arneson, who referred to himself as a “hunt and peck typist,” wasn’t much for polished rulesets. “The game was in Dave’s mind, in practice with his home players. It didn’t exist as a full-blown set of rules,” said Stormberg. “It was a eureka moment for Gary.”
Gygax read through Arneson’s notes. “Halfway through the reading,” Kuntz said, “Gary… nonchalantly said, ‘This needs to be rewritten.’ Not one nice thing to say about Dave, the adventure the rules. This is when it all switches.”
“He was jealous. Just stone-cold jealous.”
Gygax generated his own 50-page manuscript, expanding on Arneson’s notes and his own recollections of the game while adding in more concrete mechanics from Chainmail. To make a game system, a publishable game system, he knew he’d have to beef it up and commit it to written language. Gygax wrote what was then called The Fantasy Game, later accepting and integrating some notes from Arneson. At the time, the D20 could be purchased from a school supply company in Palo Alto, California; it was suggested for use in the wargame Tractics. According to Stormberg, Gygax thought they’d be useful mathematical models for combat, adding that he wanted an impetus to sell the dice, too. The spell system was inspired by Jack Vance’s book The Dying Earth. The trolls, from Poul Anderson’s book Three Hearts and Three Lions. The character alignment system, from the novels of Michael Moorcock.
Paul Stormberg displaying original “character sheets” from the Dungeons & Dragons prototype. (Photo: Cecilia D’Anastasio/Kotaku)
Just as the mythos of D&D is inexorably bound with the mythos of Gygax, Gygax’s own favoured mythoi coloured and shaded in the borders of D&D’s fantasy world. “Gary wove this ecology of fantasy creatures into this fantasy world, which is integral to Dungeons & Dragons—rust monsters, gelatinous cubes,” said Stormberg. “The ecosystem of D&D is by Gary. If Gary had loved Westerns, for example, the whole role-playing game could have been turned into a shoot-em-up Western scenario.” Gygax designed the original castle for Dungeons & Dragons, Castle Greyhawk, furnished with towers and an evil archmage.
Players, including Gygax’s young children, scrawled out attributes on note cards. They’d fight kobolds, giant centipedes, and scorpions as persistent fantasy characters in a persistent fantasy world. Kuntz was co-dungeon master of the original Greyhawk game, which involved “constant expansion and reiteration and experimenting with Arneson’s architecture,” he said—“fast and furious, trying to let no stone go unturned.” “In the end it was proven that Dave’s concept was infinite,” Kuntz said, meaning that “applied imagination has no boundaries.”
“Gary at this point is wanting to desperately latch onto some sort of game to make himself a success,” said Stormberg. “He really sees the potential in this and latches onto the idea to make it into something that can be shared. As it is, it’s something that can be enjoyed when Dave runs a game for his friends. But until Gary Gygax gets a hold of it, it can’t be shared with the masses.”
“It was intuited and put together by the genius Arneson, like a mad alchemist,” said Kuntz. “If there’s any good thing you could say about Gary, you could say he knew when to move on a good idea and had the wherewithal to make it happen.”
Wargaming publishers Guidon Games and Avalon Hill considered Dungeons & Dragons too weird, too open-ended, but Arneson and Gygax knew they had something. In 1973, Gygax and his Lake Geneva friend Don Kaye founded their own company Tactical Studies Rules, or TSR, to publish Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax would become the editor and co-founder. Arneson was creative director. Kuntz, then still a teenager, wanted to be a designer. Instead he was titled a “chairman” of the company, but said that functionally he was the director of shipping.
In 1974, 1,000 copies of the first D&D box set would go on sale for $10 (£8.18) each. It was called Dungeons & Dragons: Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figurines. The front cover credited the game to both Gygax and Arneson. Gygax’s deep focus on wargaming had seeped into the role-playing game architecture that Arneson had engineered. TSR would publish David Megarry’s board game Dungeon, too.
An original D&D set in its woodgrain box, sold on Ebay in 2016 for $22,000 (£18,000). (Photo: EditorJan_1/Ebay)
“It was very much a case of me providing various ideas and concepts but not having any say as to how they were used,” Arneson would later write in Different Worlds, a gaming magazine. He says he was not consulted on several aspects of the final, public D&D product. But Arneson subtly credits himself for the mechanic that made D&D not only the start of the role-playing game industry but also the inspiration for video games like Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda. He wrote in Different Worlds of D&D’s success in 1979, the same year the game grossed $2 million (£1.6 million) for TSR: “Why did it catch on so quickly? Because it offered almost pure escapism and the ability, in the game, to do anything and everything you wanted to do! Gads! Who wouldn’t get hooked on game playing nirvana like that after years of charts, tables, painting figures, etc.”
Arneson would work at TSR for just 11 months. If he produced any manuscripts there, their existence, and the reasons they were not published, remains unknown, although in 1975, a 60-page Blackmoor supplement was produced for D&D. During this time, he was credited on an article about naval combat in World War II for a wargaming magazine, the introductory text for the game Valley Forge, and some work on a board game called Lankmhar. In the meantime, Arneson may have served as a content broker between the heady and productive Minnesota crowd and TSR’s Lake Geneva headquarters. At some point during his brief tenure, Arneson was demoted from creative director to research director.
Robert Kuntz has written, but not yet published, a dense text called Dave Arneson’s True Genius. There, and in interviews, he describes the moment when his relationship with Gygax, who had been his beneficent father figure, who had given him dinners, religious study, a job and a calling, changed forever.
It was an early stockholder’s meeting. Dave Megarry said that, to the best of his memory, this meeting was where he and Arneson suggested moving TSR to Minnesota to capitalise on local talent. Gary was not on board. “Gary suggested that we poll the department heads present about whether there was misdirection with the company,” said Kuntz.
After the vote, toward the end of the meeting, Gygax “bolted from his seat,” said Kuntz, and “screamed at the top of his lungs in my face.” Hearing all the complaints and suggestions from various staffers, it seemed, had pushed him over the edge. Today, Kuntz thinks Gygax feared that Melvin Blume, the father of Gygax’s business partner Brian Blume, would be brought on and potentially overtake the company, while Megarry thinks that “Gary thought Arneson and I were trying to take over the company.”
Following this meeting, a group of TSR employees including Kuntz, his brother, and the Minnesota gang collected themselves at a nearby restaurant. “Arneson said very little,” recalled Kuntz. “This is the first time I’d seen a grown man crying.”
Megarry soon resigned. Kuntz wrote a memo to Gygax with his request to be moved to design. He said he got it back a day later with NO! written on it in red ink. He resigned, too. Then his brother Terry, who was managing TSR’s hobby shop, resigned. Then Arneson, who by then had been moved to the shipping department. “Some say Gygax dismissed him while others say Arneson resigned after a humiliating demotion and others say that he left in disgust with the stultifying profit-driven atmosphere,” wrote Jon Peterson in his book Playing At The World.
“I talked to people who were very informed and knew Gary or knew Gary and Dave,” said Griffith Morgan, the documentarian behind Secrets of Blackmoor. “Some of them will take sides. Some will try to not take sides. It gets really complicated. Then there’s a lot of resentment.”
Dave Arneson in 1982. (Photo: Dave Arneson/Dave Arneson Archive, curated by Paul Stormberg)
“The biggest problem with the whole Dungeons & Dragons thing is the desire to claim ownership for the invention of D&D created a schism between Arneson and Gygax,” Morgan said. The two even ran their own D&D games differently in 1975, Gygax wrote in an issue of Alarums & Excursions. “Dave and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the ‘rules’ found in DandD.”
Arneson had designed a way to organise the imagination and foster communal storytelling; Gygax had designed a way to ground it in wargaming traditions, package and sell that. Today, the Chainmail-inspired rules Gygax mixed in with D&D’s prototype are quite altered, while Arneson’s initial role-playing conceit, and the variability of rulesets encouraged by his Minnesota friends, is what defines the genre.
Shortly after D&D secured its cultural foothold in the gaming world, Arneson’s name disappeared from the books. TSR was now titling the game Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, calling it a totally separate work, and thus holding that it did not need to pay Arneson any royalties. Arneson disagreed with this, and sued Gygax and TSR in 1979, then again in 1985. In an interview circa 2003 interview with the now-defunct website Dungeons.it, Arneson was asked why his relationship with TSR deteriorated. “That happens when people do not pay you,” said Arneson. Arneson and TSR settled out of court.
Kuntz would go on to university and fall in love. His proclivity for game design, however, never faded. In 1980, he released Deities & Demigods, a lore book for dungeon masters published by TSR. Kuntz would contribute more to Gygax’s Greyhawk around then, too. In 1986, he founded his own game design company, which would publish several adventures in the decades to follow. He claims partial credit on some of D&D’s most defining books, including the Dungeon Masters Guide and the Monster Manual, although he was sometimes uncredited on these works.
Gary Gygax getting interviewed. (Image: The Dreams in Gary’s Basement trailer)
In Dragon magazine editorials, Gygax began writing Arneson out of the history of D&D—at least as anything other than a guy with some good ideas. “The idea of measured progression (experience points) and the addition of games taking place in a dungeon maze struck me as being very desirable,” wrote Gygax of Blackmoor in a 1977 editorial. “However, that did not really fit into the framework of Chainmail. I asked Dave to please send me his rules additions, for I thought a whole new system should be developed.”
“I don’t think it was his plan as a kid, as a young adult, to become some entrepreneurial game designer,” said Malia Arneson, Dave Arneson’s daughter, of her father in Secrets of Blackmoor.
Arneson started a computer company in 1979 and designed a video game called Basic. He continued playing Blackmoor, but with the slow, underground integration of gaming and the budding world of computer technology, also became enamoured of the prototypical computer RPGs known as multi-user dungeons or MUDs. He wasn’t much of a fan of the RPG genre that soon sprung up in video games, though. “Early role-playing games really were not much about role-playing. Just fighting with different characters that had different weapons. Lame. Today there is more online play,” Arneson said in a 2001 interview, always advocating for imagination and collaboration as true gaming mechanics.
“The mechanics don’t matter,” said Secrets of Blackmoor director Morgan. “The reason why I know the mechanics don’t matter when you’re looking at the research in roleplaying games is once D&D was released, you end up with a mass of copy games coming out and they all have different mechanics. But they’re all using the thing D&D does, and that’s role-playing.”
To be sure, there would be no Dungeons & Dragons without Gary Gygax. Chainmail is a clear influence for D&D’s famous combat rules, and Gygax’s particular tastes in literature and voracious reading habit helped populate D&D’s world with monsters, gods, and legendary beasts. Gygax saw the potential in Blackmoor, or the aspects of Chainmail it happened to bring out, and moved quickly and purposefully enough to put the idea into a publishable format. But what gets lost is that neither would there be D&D without Dave Arneson. And indeed, the things that D&D fans love the most about the game—the things that distinguish “role-playing” from “fantasy wargaming”—were Arneson’s vision.
In 2009, Arneson lost his battle with cancer. He was 61. Gygax had died a year earlier. In one obituary, role-playing designer Ken Hite recalled his first meeting with Arneson at Gen Con in 1997. It was just after Wizards of the Coast had acquired TSR. “He was sitting alone, near the Wizards booth, wearing a badge but otherwise inconspicuous. Certainly, there should have been throngs of worshippers bestrewing his lap with rose petals, or a shaft of light from the Fifth Heaven, or an honour guard of bugbears, or something.”
If Arneson taught gamers anything, it’s that there is room for more than one story. Both reality and fiction are best developed on the open prairie, which others might only witness from the windows of a railroad car. Personalities and histories bend around genius and around legend. Today’s Dungeons & Dragons credits no one on its front cover.
“It wasn’t a prototype,” Robert Kuntz said of Blackmoor. “It was a fully functioning game. Everything’s a prototype if you’re stealing these things. This is the history.”
Featured image: Dave Arneson (Dave Arneson Archive, curated by Paul Stormberg)