Len Lakofka was one of the founders of the roleplaying industry, acting as a crucial early influencer on D&D despite never working for TSR. His contributions to the game, and thus to the roleplaying hobby, were in equal parts thoughtful and creative, innovative and groundbreaking, and if they are somewhat more invisible today, that’s because they became so much a part of the structure of our entire hobby.

Wargaming Beginnings: 1960s & 1970s

Len Lakofka got his start in wargaming playing Avalon Hill games and correspondence Diplomacy. He then entered the larger world of games when he answered an ad for the International Federation of Wargamers (IFW), through which he met Gary Gygax, who was then Vice President of the group.

Lakofka’s friendship with Gygax would be core to his influence on the D&D game, but his influence on the scattered wargaming community of the ’70s was growing as well. Through Gygax and the IFW, Lakofka learned about Gen Con, where he played an early version of Chainmail, which Gygax was still working to get published.

Meanwhile, Lakofka also increased his support for the IFW, becoming its president by 1971 and so encouraging and supporting an entire generation of wargamers — Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson among them.

Early D&D Adoption: 1980s

Len Lakofka’s heavy involvement in the early wargaming community put him in a prime position to be an early adopter of D&D. By 1975, he was publishing game variants in his own Liaisons Dangereuses Diplomacy ‘zine. He also ran at least a few major campaigns in Chicago, the best-known being the Nystul campaign, which ran from 1978 to 1985, and which included Brian and Mike Nystul, themselves also minor luminaries in the roleplaying field. In fact, Lakofka had a knack for encouraging game designers: William John Wheeler, who went on to be one of The Companions (and also did design work for FASA and TSR), also emerged from one of Lakofka’s Chicago campaigns. Of course, Lakofka played some as well, taking on the role of the character of Leomund.

Lakofka’s friendship with Gygax led the designer of D&D to send him early manuscripts of the core AD&D books. As a result, Lakofka wrote quite a bit of material that ended up in the published Players Handbook (1978) and Dungeon Masters Guide (1979), most obviously the Leomund spells — with the exception of “Leomund’s Lamentable Belaborment” (which Lakofka said was a joke about his tendency to add “detail” to his writing because TSR paid by the word). However, Lakofka says that his biggest contribution was convincing Gygax not to include a “system shock” roll on the Hold Person spell, which would have been a saving-throw-vs-death on a second or third level spell.

Lakofka’s most famous and well-known contributions to the hobby take the form of articles and adventure modules produced for TSR. The most notable of these are a trio of adventure modules commissioned by Brian Blume, reportedly for the princely sum of $10,500 — which demonstrated the respect that the entire TSR staff had for Lakofka. They would eventually be published as L1: The Secret of Bone Hill (1981), L2: The Assassin’s Knot (1983), and L3: Deep Dwarven Delve (1999).

L1: The Secret of Bone Hill was notable for a few reasons.

First, it was the earliest D&D adventure produced by someone outside of TSR, a truly notable milestone.

Second, it was the first major expansion to Gary Gygax’s World of Greyhawk by someone other than Gygax himself. In fact, at the time Lakofka’s Lendore Isle (and the small town of Restenford, on hex B-78 of Darlene’s famous Greyhawk map) was one of the few civilized areas in Greyhawk that was detailed as a campaign setting, the only other being Gygax’s village of Hommlet. (Lakofka was also tapped to design an eastern continent for Greyhawk, but that never came to be, likely due to Gygax’s loss of control at TSR in the ’80s.)

Third, it was a notable (and successful) attempt to expand the scope of D&D play. Bone Hill was just the second TSR D&D module to detail a town, again following Gary Gygax’s T1: The Village of Hommlet (1979), but it took the design a step further: Restenford was actually a an adventure location, which meant that it took D&D adventuring out of the dungeons for the first time ever.

L2: The Assassin’s Knot was just as innovative, and perhaps moreso if you consider that it was written around 1980, years before its publication. This time, the adventure was entirely set within a town, focused on a murder-mystery. Even in 1983, this sort of investigation was both rare and groundbreaking. The fact that Lakofka conceived of it years earlier shows how forward-thinking his game design was.

Lakofka’s other major contributions came through Dragon Magazine. His “Gods of the Suel Pantheon” series (1984) was another of the biggest additions to Greyhawk ever by an external designer, but he’s better known for “Leomund’s Tiny Hut” (1979-1986), a regular column that was a source of wondrous lore and near-official house rules that changed the way an entire generation thought about the D&D game.

Unfortunately, Lakofka’s relationship with TSR ended when Gary Gygax’s did. The story has always been that, just as with Dave Arneson, the connection to Lakofka was purposefully severed by the new management. However, Lakofka had also moved to California in 1985, putting him far from the Midwestern heart of D&D.

Old-school Support: 1990s, 2000s & 2010s

As is true with many RPG designers of the ’70s, Lakofka enjoyed a second act in the ’10s thanks to the rise of electronic publication and many old-school magazines and semi-pro publishers. L4: Devilspawn (2010), L4C: The Lendore Island Companion, and the massive L5: Kroten Campaign (2013) were all-new sourcebooks and adventures, full of Lendore Isle lore, written by Lakofka and published by Dragonsfoot.

However, just listing those complete designs would be minimizing Lakofka’s support of the latter-day RPG community. He began talking about his roleplaying life and continuing his Greyhawk development in the ’90s and the ’00s in fanzines like The Oerth Journal and Footprints. He was also a constant presence in old-school communities of all sorts, conversing with fans and continuing to reveal his innovative, yet now-classic take on D&D. He attended the Virtual Greyhawk Con in October 2020, just weeks before his death.

Roleplaying has lost another of its founders.

My condolences to friends, family, and fans.

This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #39 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.

Further Reading

Lakofka, Lenard. 1999. “Leomund’s Life”. The Oerth Journal #10https://greyhawkonline.com/?smd_process_download=1&download_id=5679.
Lakofka, Lenard. 2005. “The Nystul and Lendore Isle campaign”. Footprints #5https://www.dragonsfoot.org/php4/archive.php?sectioninit=FT&fileid=156.
Maliszewski, James. 2009. “Interview: Len Lakofka (Part I)”. Grognardia.http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2009/11/interview-len-lakofka-part-i.html.
Maliszewski, James. 2009. “Interview: Len Lakofka (Part II)”. Grognardia.http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2009/11/interview-len-lakofka-part-ii.html.
Maliszewski, James. 2009. “Interview: Len Lakofka (Part III)”. Grognardia.http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2009/11/interview-len-lakofka-part-iii.html.
Various. Retrieved 2020. “Index Contributor Search: Len Lakofka”. RPGnet Gaming Indexhttps://index.rpg.net/display-search.phtml?key=contributor&value=Len+Lakofka&match=precise&match=precise&sort=year&type=pictures.

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