Thursday, April 09, 2009

Dave Arneson 10/1/1947 - 04/07/2009 R.I.P.: Another Gaming Legend Passes Away

If it weren't for Gary Gygax and David Arneson, my Saturdays would look very different. Between the two of them, they created a game (and hobby) that has altered the face of recreation. When Gary and David organically created the role playing game called Dungeons & Dragons, I don't think they could ever have guessed that it would lead to the creation of so many exciting games. Without them there would have been no Champions, no Tunnels & Trolls, no Magic the Gathering, no Space Hulk, no Ultima, no World of Warcraft.

Without these men and their creation, the world would be less fun. Given the number of heated arguments about which edition of various role playing games is superior, the world would also be less interesting.

As I read the words, "these men" and "their creation," I realize that I am doing one of these men a disservice. It is true that the combined activities of these two men led to the creation of the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game. They are after all the acknowledged co-creators of the game, as Wizards of the Coast's website so eloquently remembers. But in many ways Dave Arneson is the creator of the role playing game and of the continuing dialectic between mechanics and persona that moves innovation in role playing game design.

Role playing lore tells us that Major Wesely's Braunstein was the ur-roleplaying game. Major David Wesely was the first Dungeon Master (or Game Master), but role playing games may have died in their seedling state if not for the efforts of the first "role player." That gamer was David Arneson. I can try to describe what happened or what it meant for gaming, but I doubt I could do a better job than Ben Robbins from Ars Ludi. Ben writes:

Dave Arneson: Gamer Ex Nihilo

“Peaceful revolutionary. Gets points for printing and delivering leaflets to each of his revolutionaries, and more for handing them out to other civilians (who may be agents or guerrillas of course…). Starts at home. (B-4)”
–Braunstein 4, Banana Republic

When you started gaming you read all these books, and they told you you could be a cleric or a thief or an elf (or a vampire or a Prince of Amber) and they told you you should probably pick a caller and set up a marching order and listen at doors and all that other stuff. You marched your character around and talked in funny voices. Sooner or later you may have realized that the rules didn’t drive the game, your imagination did.

But what if you never had any of those books? What if no one had ever explained to you what roleplaying was? Were you a good enough gamer to become a gamer without even knowing what a gamer was? Could you have just started being a gamer out of thin air, without anyone ever telling you how to do it?

Dave Arneson did.

He lied, swindled, improvised, and played his character to the hilt. He came to the game with fake CIA ID he’d mocked up, so when another player “captured” and searched him he could whip them out. Other players were still moving pieces around the board and issuing orders like a wargame while Dave Arneson was running circles around them and changing the whole scenario. He was winning the game entirely by roleplaying.

You may think of Dave Arneson as one of the godfathers of GMing, but even before that he was the godfather of players. He was, literally, the proto-player.

###

“You’re the student revolutionary leader,” Wesely says “You get victory points for distributing revolutionary leaflets. You’ve got a whole briefcase full of them.”

Much later, having convinced his fellow players that he is really, perhaps, an undercover CIA operative, and that the entire nation’s treasury is really much safer in his hands, Dave Arneson’s character is politely ushered aboard a helicopter to whisk him to safety.

Far below the streets are still churning with fighting, plastic soldiers colliding with innocent citizens and angry rioters. In his lap sits the forgotten briefcase of revolutionary leaflets. “I get points for distributing these right?” And with a sweep of his arm he adds insult to injury, hurling reams of pages into the downdraft of the helicopter where they scatter and float lazily down upon the entire town…

Final score: Dave Arneson, plus several thousand points


Big whoop, you say, this is all old timey stuff. We modern gamers are way beyond dungeon crawls and listening at doors and all that primitive stuff. We have indie games and story games and narrative control and yadda yadda yadda.

Yes indeed. But even skipping the “standing on the shoulders of giants” argument or the “know your roots” argument, look again at what happened in that game: Dave Arneson was winning entirely by roleplaying. He isn’t doing tactical combat or playing some dumb-ass linear quest, he is making his own rules and being, for lack of a better word, an excellent player by any modern definition. He is making the game.

Don’t think Dave Arneson would kick your ass in some Sorcerer or Dogs In The Vineyard? Then you haven’t been paying attention. He would, as the kids say, take you to the net.

Modern gamers are pushing into new territory, but they’re also reclaiming old territory whether they know it not — the lands of their ancestors. If you’re an indie gamer or an avant garde gaming revolutionary, old school titans like Dave Arneson and Major Wesely are your peeps. They were trying things that had never been done before in their day too. They are your guys.


It is rare that people come along and create something truly new. The cliche that there is nothing new under the sun is very often true, but when it isn't we can be inspired and entertained in ways we never thought possible. Role playing games were (and still are) such a new concept in play that theorists debate whether role playing games are merely games or whether they are also a form of art. When you look at a group of gamers moving pieces around a board and rolling dice, role playing games certainly seem to fit nicely into the niche of game. But when you see those same people, descendants of Arneson's CIA agent, acting out their actions and creating entertaining narrative experiences -- some semi-scripted like a Christopher Guest film and others completely improvisational -- the argument that role playing games can be art gains some traction.

One thing is certain, role playing games can move the soul by being immensely pleasurable experiences. They can have this effect no matter how you play them -- hack and slash or persona immersion intensive -- the games make for good friends and good stories.

To repeat a thought above, they make the world more fun.

Thank you Dave for making the world a more interesting and entertaining place.
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