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An Arneson Clapback, or The Distortions of Axe-Grinding Revisionism

David Wesely, Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson (l-r)

I posted the below on Facebook recently, and it is a sentiment I'm compelled to express all too frequently in discussions about the creators of Dungeons & Dragons on Facebook's gaming discussion groups in response to the gratuitous Gary Gygax bashing I see these days.

"Dave Arneson gets way too much credit these days. David Wesely latched onto the role playing idea from germinal variations found in early kriegspiels, and Arneson repurposed Gary Gygax’s Chainmail rules to emulate Wesely’s idea in a different setting. Arneson was no game designer and could never hope to organize and codify a rule set for publication. You just have to look at what he produced in the field to see that (try reading and using that mess called First Fantasy Campaign). While Gygax was churning out huge hardcover tomes that became the foundational bedrock for the game, Arneson was so useless at producing anything around the TSR offices that he eventually was put in charge of the mail room in the hopes that he might be of help filling orders since he wasn’t actually concentrating on developing any gaming material when he managed to show up at HQ. Arneson, if anything, deserves less credit than the current fad tries to bestow on him, undoubtedly inspired by that amateurish Secrets of Blackmoor video. The case for lionizing Arneson is weak-sauce revisionism."

My above argument against Arneson is cast in pretty much the simplest terms--and is admittedly pretty harsh--though I don't think there is anything inaccurate there. Was he an important part of the equation? Absolutely. But I think, from what I have read and seen, that it is a huge distortion to give him out-sized credit for the development of the game beyond some loose ideas that emerged from Chainmail and the Wesely-inspired homebrew basement games. None of this happened in a vacuum for Wesely, Arneson, or Gygax...there was a rich gaming history that preceded and surrounded all of it (before even entering these debates, please at least read Jon Peterson's Playing at the World). This post is mostly a clapback against the recent push to disproportionately elevate Arneson and relegate Gygax to the role of merely being a "good businessmen" or, even less charitably, a thief of some sort (an idea the shoddy video Secrets of Blackmoor not so subtly tries to peddle). Frankly, the evidence for Gary Gygax as "good businessmen" is hard to find; he was, however, an obsessive gamer and game designer who was driven to try to make a living doing what he was passionate about. Gary has plenty of faults, and I'm certainly not trying to deify him, but as Wesely himself has said, if it wasn't for the multitude of skills and determination Gygax brought to the table, D&D would never have been anything more than a loose RPG-like game played by a group of guys in a couple of St. Paul basements.

I will also note that a friend made the worthwhile point to me that Arneson could have very easily struggled with some issues (ADHD, autism?) that may have made it hard for him to be more focused and productive (as a special ed teacher, this is my friend's area of expertise, not mine). This struck me as a very fair point, which also makes me a little uncomfortable that my framing of Arneson might sound mean spirited. I certainly don't mean to imply he was shiftless or lazy; game design, development, and codifying rules in a coherent way just may not have been in his personal make up, which certainly isn't a character flaw. And creative writing, which adventure design is at its heart, is another skill set that Arneson also didn't seem to have a knack for. But it does sound like he had an excitable imagination and could run a fun table in the right context.

Personally I'm looking forward to the seemingly far more fair-minded examinations promised in the upcoming documentaries, The Great Kingdom and Dreams in Gary's Basement. I'm hoping that those will serve as something of an antidote to the axe-grinding distortions found in Secrets of Blackmoor, especially for those who insist on expounding on the history of the hobby having only watched the latter without investing the time to actually read Peterson's book.

Anyway, I've got that off my chest. Happy to hear other's views...

Apologia: This post jumps right into the deep end of the current state of the debate over the history of the role-playing game hobby, so it might not be of interest to everyone. I didn't do a lot of context setting here; this is mostly for folks who know these personages and at least something about the events that led to the development of Dungeons & Dragons. I wanted a link that I could point to in these debates on Facebook rather than having to reformulate these ideas every time I feel compelled to weigh in.


  1. Replies
    1. This American does not hate you, Joe. He is a disabled veteran who served his nation proudly, but would understand if you were troubled the many divisions in our nation now and the immature way our citizens and media are handling our many problems. I would add others to that list, but I did mention that I'm a disabled vet, didn't I. I believe that the creation of Dungeons and Dragons was even more of a group effort than most people are willing to believe. Just where would we be without the original play testers and the feedback they provided to Mr. Gygax et al?

  2. I enjoyed Secrets of Blackmoor. I went into it knowing that it had a strong perspective, and that the makers of the project were going to try to convince me of something. That's fine. What I liked about it was the input from those who were around Dave (and to a lesser extent Gary) back when all of this was getting started. I thought segments on Braunstein hewed rather closely to the narrative that can be found in Peterson's book.

  3. A big part of the push for revisionism with Gygax is a psychological sign of the times. It is not as if the rumblings of "yea but" hasn't been around for three decades with TSR and Gary. The seed finally gets some water, fertilizer and the soothing whines of the mediocre.

  4. Late to this post, but had to say: thank you. Thank you for making feel like I wasn't alone in my distaste for the Arneson-deifying/Gygax-villifying trend I've been seeing. Nice to see there are still at least a few sane people in the world...


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