David Nalle discovered D&D in 1975, after which he ran his first campaigns in Washington D.C., but he moved closer to becoming a publisher at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. There, he and his friends began creating their own variant D&D rules. Nalle first revealed those rules to the wider world in A&E #43 (March 1979) when he contributed a ‘zine called “The Ebon Unicorn”.

The early issues of “The Ebon Unicorn” were full of variant rules systems: first combat, then magic, then experience. They were complex and detailed. Combat included hit locations and damage-reducing armor — armor which codified coats and undercoats. Magic included 18 types of spell casters and a magic system that allowed failures and fumbles.

To a certain extent, this is just a window on roleplaying fan communities in the late ’70s. They were expanding and extending D&D. Many of those new rules brought complexity to the game — and Nalle was certainly aware of what complexity could contribute to a game from his own play of Chivalry & Sorcery (1977), which had lent his ‘zine its name. He embraced it wholeheartedly.

However, Nalle had a level of enthusiasm that went beyond even the productive excitement that was embedded in every ‘zine in Alarums & Excursions, and that enthusiasm was how he left his most notable marks on the industry. In early 1979 he was already planning a D&D tournament at F&M called “Tourney ’79” — which seems to have been run that Spring despite the Three-Mile Island Accident, which sent Nalle fleeing back to Washington D.C. at the end of March. By August, Nalle was publishing his own Abyss Magazine (1979-1990).

Nalle’s least-known endeavor of this period was probably a three-part article series called “Paper Warriors”, which appeared in Thrust: Science Fiction in Review #13 (Fall 1979), #15 (Summer 1980), and #16 (Fall 1980). Thrust was a fantasy & science-fiction ‘zine from Virginia featuring an impressive list of authors and letter-writers, including Isaac Asimov, Michael Bishop, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Charles Sheffield, and others. Nalle’s three articles overviewed the fantasy & science-fiction gaming industry, including wargames, board games, and roleplaying games, providing both a look at popular games and a bit of a history. It was an extraordinarily early analysis of the genre games, and a notable attempt at outreach.

And then there was Ysgarth (1979), the FRPG that was the end result of those A&E articles. It would be Nalle’s magnum opus. At various times, Nalle called it “Warlord I” and “the Tourney ’79 official rules”. He eventually settled on “Ysgarth”, based on his campaign setting.

It takes a good game to become popular, but it takes a rather extraordinary game to become a cult classic, and Nalle’s fantasy roleplaying game did that latter. But did Ysgarth change the industry? Maybe, maybe not. Nalle called it “VD&D”, presumably meaning “variant Dungeons & Dragons”, which tied it closely to the wellspring of fantasy roleplaying. That put it solidly into the category of other “VD&D” releases like The Arduin Grimoire (1977) and Palladium Fantasy (1983), both of which are better-known today.

But Ysgarth had something special going for it: its positioning in the primordial A&E community, where designers like Lee Gold, Wilf Backhaus, Dave Hargrave, Steve Marsh, Ed Simbalist, and Greg Costikyan were all reimagining what an RPG was. As Nalle later wrote when discussing the potential influence of Ysgarth: “ideas got thrown around very liberally” in ‘zines like A&E and there was “cross-pollination” as a result. It seems likely that some of Nalle’s ideas had their greatest influence on these other early designers, as he was corresponding with them monthly.

As for the game Ysgarth itself: Dave Nalle’s reimagination of D&D was every bit as simulationist as his early articles suggested. It was a skill-focused FRPG with some nods toward classes, resulting in a hybrid style of play seen in just a few other classic games, such as DragonQuest (1980) and Fifth Cycle (1990) — two games that have often been listed as possible by-blows of Ysgarth. Beyond that, Ysgarth is full of mechanical flourishes; Nalle was happy to build complex fatigue, magic, and combat systems alike. Lewis Pulsipher called the end-result: “the closest [he’d] seen to a simulation FRPG.”

Although simulation games of this sort became increasingly common in the ’80s, Nalle was on the leading edge, and some of his other design ideas were even more far-looking. He talked about a desire for “systemless role-playing” in A&E #80 (1982) and also advocated non-violent challenges in RPGs.

Ysgarth wasn’t Nalle’s only work, and some of his other, less-known releases pushed his innovative ideas further. To Challenge Tomorrow (1983) was a universal system that just barely trailed Worlds of Wonder (1982) and beat GURPS (1986) to press by years; while By the Gods (1986) extended the system to playing deities, predating more popular games in the category such as The Primal Order (1992) and Scion (2007)

Ysgarth’s inflence was the greatest on the East Coast, with its peak occurring in 1982-1984. That was primarily thanks to the efforts of Nalle and others to popularize it in their home states. By that time, Nalle had revised the game through four editions and released rules supplements and adventures alike. Ysgarth began to fizzle out in the mid ’80s. Nalle noted that the fifth edition (1985) was a bomb, selling just 1500 copies, and that the sixth and final edition (1992) was released mainly as a favor to the fans. The game, and Nalle’s publishing presence in the industry, faded away soon after that.

None of this quite speaks to Nalle’s presence as a person. As noted, he was extraordinarily enthusiastic, wanting to spread his ideas about RPGs, and his love for RPGs, far and wide. He was also blunt, opinionated, and outspoken. His gaming reviews could bring a grown designer to tears, and after he joined the internet, he was one of the earliest designers banned from some of its discussion groups. At times, Nalle even created sockpuppet accounts to fight for his creations. Later, Facebook just gave him the opportunity to troll his own followers.

Some of Nalle’s opinionated ideas were also decidedly conservative, such as a discussion of the “passive rearing” of women in A&E #52 (1979), which he felt kept them out of RPGs in general and led them to play Lawful or Good characters when they did join up. He said that the industry should work to make RPGs more popular among women, but simultaneously wanted to “educate” them to more styles of play. Nalle also felt that the roleplaying newcomers who entered the hobby as it grew in size tended to be immature and unimaginative.

With all of that said, Nalle’s curmudgeonly outspokenness didn’t necessary make him persona non grata. It was just part of his mystique.

Nalle’s last major gaming work was the Quest for the Grail CCG (1995), which like most of his games, he advertised mercilessly. A few years later, he distributed some playtest docs that might have revived some of his classic RPGs, but they were never completed.

In the years afterward, Nalle taught college classes and advocated for libertarianism. He was most prominently known for the latter, including a stint as first Vice Chairman then Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. Within the gaming industry, Nalle continued to have influence as a notable fontmaker, running Scriptorium and Fontcraft, producing numerous fonts that have surely ended up in roleplaying books. Nalle was a man of many talents.

David Nalle was a pioneer of the industry and and an imagineer. He was also an early influencer, with much of those interactions occurring in the melting pot of APAs like Alarums & Excursions and later on bulletin boards and USENET; the average designer probably knows more about Nalle than the average player.

Nalle created a very specific sort of game, and achieved a cult following for it. Today. Ysgarth is a legend from the early days of the industry, spoken of in whispers but little seen. But, if Nalle’s games are not widely known today, that’s in large part because he found his joy in creating them his way and didn’t worry about the rest of the world.

Nalle spent what turned out to be the last months of his life mocking delusional followers of Donald Trump, then succumbed to COVID-19, the disease that Trump had allowed to run rampant across the United States.

This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #45 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.

Partial Ludography

  • By the Gods (1986)
  • Challengers (1985)
  • Quest for the Grail (1995)
  • To Challenge Tomorrow (1983)
  • Ysgarth (1979, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1992)

See the RPGnet Index for a slightly more complete listing.


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