In 2017, I happily paid $28.70 to Three Line Studios for a copy of Dave Arneson’s True Genius, by Rob Kuntz. Oh, it felt overpriced for a mere 69-page booklet, but as an original piece of writing by one of the near-founders of the hobby, I was thrilled to have it. Within a few weeks, I’d received it, read several pages, determined that it was virtually unreadable, and put it to the side.
I only picked it up again last month when I began working on an article on Dave Arneson’s Adventure Games for The Designers & Dragons Patreon (and eventually, for Designers & Dragons: The Lost Histories I). There was one bit of information from the booklet that went into my history. Otherwise the book was, unfortunately, as I’d left it in 2017.
So now it’s May, and for me that’s Dave Arneson month. April is notable because it may be when Arneson first ran Blackmoor and is when he sadly passed, back in 2009. But May is when Arneson’s players got together to game for many years, even following his demise.
To remember Arneson this month, I’ll be looking at two of the histories regarding him, the first of which is Dave Arneson’s True Genius, and also releasing the Adventure Games history over at my Patreon.
Arneson Revisionism: Take I
Once upon a time, a hobby was created by two men, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, with the creative support of many others, most notably Jeff Perren and Dave Wesely.
Unfortunately, due to financial limitations, Dave Arneson was not able to work for TSR, the company his game created, until 1976. Even then he only stayed there for a year, with the exact reasons for his departure being much speculated and little documented. Though Dave Arneson’s name appears on OD&D (1974) and Basic D&D (1977+), Gary Gygax felt that he could scrub it when he rewrote the game as AD&D (1977-1979), leading to a pair of legal battles, which resulted in TSR having to pay Arneson rather considerable royalties for most of AD&D’s core books.
But that didn’t mean that Arneson got much recognition. Not only was Gary Gygax the name on AD&D, he was also the voice of AD&D, while Arneson was working with relatively small companies such as Heritage Models and Judges Guild. This discrepancy got even worse as the ’70s entered the ’80s. Arneson started his own company, Adventure Games, but focused it almost entirely on wargaming. Then, he ceded the battlefield entirely when he left the industry.
So, a generation of players likely thought that Gary Gygax was the sole creator of D&D. One could call them Gygax Maximalists, but more properly, they were the industry’s average fans. This only began to change in the late ’90s and the ’00s. Wizards of the Coast’s recognition of Arneson seemed to help, and the advent of roleplaying history scholars (and later publications) certainly changed things too. Designers & Dragons is just one of many to give Arneson his due. Whether the understanding of Arneson’s co-design role for our hobby has moved into the larger fandom is a different question, but Dave Arneson’s increasing presence at gaming conventions in the ’00s, prior to his untimely death, does speak for itself.
Unfortunately, the deaths of Gygax and Arneson have been followed by a wide swing in the opposite direction, resulting in Arnesonian revisionism. Fans, friends, and would-be scholars of Arneson have begun to state that he wasn’t one of the two forces behind D&D, but rather the only force of note! This has appeared in two forms:
First, there are the Arneson Maximalists, who quite simply state that Arneson was the creative force behind D&D, and that Gygax was little more than a glorified editor. Given the limited scope of what Arneson turned over to Gygax, we absolutely know this is not the case.
Second, there are the Chainmail Denialists, a group that literally made my jaw drop the first time I encountered one, in the comments for an article I wrote for Wizards of the Coast, “Dungeoneering and the Art of War” (sadly, the comments got deleted at some point). Therein, I talked about the evolution of D&D from Chainmail via Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor, and an anonymous coward in the comments laughably claimed that not only did Arneson create Blackmoor without using Chainmai., but that I might face legal repercussions if I ever said so again!
What does Dave Arneson say about the recently created controversy? In Different Worlds #3 (June/July 1979), when speaking of the origins of Blackmoor, he said: “Rules? What rules!?!? Chainmail to handle the combat at first.” The Great Svenny, one of Arneson’s early players, has also explicitly said that Chainmail was used for his first Blackmoor game, where he got killed by a troll.
Now, we’re certainly learned some nuance in recent years, that Chainmail may have only been explicitly used early on, and that perhaps a popular Twin Cities rules system called Strategos might have formed the basis of Blackmoor, but the bottom line is, unless you think Arneson was lying, Chainmail was there too. There’s been some great analysis to this effect.
So, the Arneson Maximalists and the Chainmail Denialists are both provably wrong, but they’ve become a problematic area in the otherwise cooperative area of roleplaying history, where we’ve been learning the story of a hobby together. Unfortunately, they’re muddying the water for anything related to one of the most important creators in our hobby, Dave Arneson, forcing us to take everything written about Arneson with a grain of salt.
Some Arneson-focused histories are just what we’d hope: great research on an important figure. Others spin their wheels trying to prove things that just aren’t true, and unfortunately Dave Arneson’s True Genius by Rob Kuntz is one of those — though at least he spins his wheels with philosophical game theory, rather outright denial of reality.
The Contents of the Booklet
True Genius contains three essays and one set of excerpts. They’re all somewhat disorganized, wandering, and difficult to read, so it’s hard to entirely encompass what they’re saying, but here’s an attempt:
“From Vision to Vicissitude: The Rise and Reversal of Arneson’s RPG Concept” seems to focus on the fact that D&D changed from its Blackmoor origins, from being an “open”/imaginative game to being a “closed”/less-imaginative game, primarily due to market pressures.
“Dimensionality in Design: An Examination of Dave Arneson’s Systems Thinking” focuses on what Kuntz calls Arneson’s First Law, “This is what it is” (not something that Arneson ever actually said). It seems to say the same thing as the first article, but tries to prove it logically.
“Debunking the Chainmail/Braunstein ‘Derivation’ Claim” is exactly what it sounds like: Chainmail Denialism and worse Braunstein Denialism. It claims that Blackmoor couldn’t possible be derived from Chainmail or Braunstein because it’s too original.
The fourth section is an outline and excerpts from an upcoming book called “A New Ethos in Game Design”, which is apparently 150,000 words expanding what’s here!
Now I do want to offer a caveat. I may have misrepresented or misunderstand what those essays said. That’s because, as I wrote in my intro, I find the booklet almost unreadable. It doesn’t use a one-syllable word when there’s a polysyllabic word that could be used. Worse, it tries to create a game-design and/or logic language that is mostly not defined and that often redefines existing words in new ways. This excerpt is pretty typical:
“I will begin with the cognitive yield by Arneson through juxtaposing it with Simon’s views as quoted above; and as these yields were initially promoted as a synergistic whole by TSR. Therefore I aim to expose the growth on both sides of the issue, cognitively & monetary, at its most dynamic stage of linkage when the two, now exclusive, ideas had not yet become separated.”
What We Learn About the Design of Dungeons & Dragons
With all that said, Kuntz does offer some interesting analysis about D&D, or rather Arneson’s Blackmoor.
He notes that it wasn’t created for the market.
He discusses, as noted, that it was a very open system under Arneson, and became increasingly closed first through AD&D (obviously) and then (according to Kuntz) through D&D 3e.
Kuntz also writes a lot more about what he considers the unique elements of Arneson’s design, but unfortunately a lot of that is unreadable, such as: “Design component << >> matures << >> creative component (multi-directional, positive feedback channels)”.
What We Learn About the History of TSR
There’s just one bit of actual history in True Genius, found on pages 20-25. Kuntz talks about Arneson’s isolation at TSR, then recounts a stockholder’s meeting at GenCon IX, where Dave Arneson, Dave Megarry, and Mike Carr requested that Melvin Blume be brought on a third director for the company. According to Kuntz, Gygax flipped out, later called it an “attempted takeover”, and as a result Arneson and Megarry soon left the company. (So there’s one explanation for Arneson’s departure; Kuntz promises more in his future book.)
It’s an otherwise unknown bit of history that, though it needs to be taken with a grain of salt, highlights a possible Minnesota-Wisconsin divide at TSR in 1976. I’d pay to read more of Kuntz’s insider stories like this.
True Genius tries to create a logical system to prove something essentially unprovable, but worse tries to swing back the pendulum from Gygax Maximalism to Arneson Maximalism by pretty much deifying Dave Arneson as the most creative genius of the last 2000 years.
There are five interesting pages of history and a few interesting thoughts on design, but it’s really hard-going to get to those few nuggets.
I have respect for Kuntz’s historic place in the industry and for some of his fun designs, such as Maure Castle. I’m hoping to have more luck with his “Lake Geneva Days”, but definitely not “A New Ethos in Game Design”.
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #49 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.