Tuesday, April 7, 2009

In Memoriam

Correction: Dave Arneson is not dead.

Because I tend to write rather dense posts, I like to include illustrations or photographs with them to break up the walls of text. Usually, finding an appropriate image isn't too hard, but it was in the case of this entry. Type "Dave Arneson" into Google Images and you'll find comparatively few clear photographs of the man who co-created Dungeons & Dragons. Many of them are impromptu snapshots taken at conventions, often from a great distance.

In some ways, that's a metaphor for Dave's place in the hobby. Most gamers, even those who joined the hobby after its heyday in the 80s, have at least a vague sense of who Gary Gygax was. But Dave Arneson is probably a mystery to them. They might recognize the name from the title pages of their Third Edition rulebooks or see it as one name among many cursorily listed in Fourth Edition, but it probably doesn't really mean anything to them. Part of that is because Dave never had a company of his own or a regular magazine column to use as a bully pulpit. Even in this wired age, he rarely ventured forth to answer questions on forums or blogs. He was a very private guy, humble even, and he tended not to toot his own horn, even when he probably ought to have done so.

That's why news of his death hits me harder than I ever expected it would. Unlike Gary, with whom I did have personal interactions, I never met Dave or exchanged emails with him. The extent of my connection was a very brief stint working as developer for the 3e line of Blackmoor products, where he approved an outline for a product I submitted. Beyond that, I knew him only as other gamers my age did: through his writings. Dave's output was all-too-brief in the field of fantasy roleplaying games. Much of Supplement II is not in fact his work and very few gamers, even older ones, owned his First Fantasy Campaign or Dungeon Master's Index, let alone his Adventures in Fantasy. His earlier wargames work is even more obscure.

It's a shame that Dave was not better known and appreciated when he was alive. That's why news of his death hits me harder than I'd imagined it might. It was Dave, after all, who created the concept of the dungeon, without which D&D as we know it would not have been possible. Dave was also the originator of the cleric class, having added it as a foil for a vampire PC, Sir Fang, after having watched one too many Hammer horror films starring Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. Blackmoor was also the first campaign setting and its idiosyncratic character was an inspiration to many people in the early days of the hobby. Dave's masterpiece was surely "The Temple of the Frog" adventure in Supplement II. I know that, when I read it as a teenager, years after I'd been playing D&D, it came like a bolt from the blue, an amazing piece of creative genre-bending that made a profound impression on me. As I've gotten older, I can't help but think the hobby might have been richer had Dave Arneson's vision of fantasy not been relegated to the sidelines.

I had some hope that Dave's health might have improved and that he'd take the opportunity to step out from the shadows to tell his story to the gaming public. Goodness knows he deserved more time in the spotlight than he ever got during his life. Till the end, though, Dave remained very private and avoided self-promotion. Psychologically, I guess it just wasn't in his nature and I can hardly blame him for that, even if I selfishly wish otherwise. There are lots of gaps in our understanding of the early days and Dave was in a unique position to fill them in. That possibility is closed to us and I'm sorry for that, not least because it might have helped people understand the role this man played in founding our collective hobby. He was one of the Titans and now he's gone.

Farewell, Mr Arneson. Thank you for everything.


  1. That's a very fitting tribute to one of the under-appreciated giants of gaming history. Good job James.

  2. Dave's Blackmoor is my favorite professionally-published D&D setting. I love its dark science-fantasy feel. I try to capture some of that feel in my own campaign.

  3. Dave did start a company of his own, shortly after his breakup with Gary, to publish his short-lived RPG Adventures in Fantasy. Adventure Games also published the first versions of Harpoon and Johnny Reb.

  4. Dave is not dead.

    From the Arneson Family:

    As of this writing, Dave is still with us. We have moved him into a facility where we can focus on keeping him comfortable. We have been and will continue to watch the forums and blogs and are passing along everyone's thoughts and prayers. Right now our focus is on getting Dave into the best possible position to maintain his comfort and his dignity. We will update the community as we can. We want to thank everyone for your thoughts and prayers and ask that you continue to send Dave your support in whatever form that means to you.

    An address has been established to receive messages to Dave.

    Dave Arneson
    1043 Grand Avenue
    Box #257
    St. Paul, MN

    Primary Source.