David Arneson: a memorial
I lost a good friend on Tuesday night. David Arneson, father of roleplaying, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Dave to friends, Arnesama—spoken with great affection, and “Oh my God, do you know who that is?” to many at conventions. For many others, Dave passed unnoticed at those same conventions—people who did not realize that but for Dave, there never would have been a game industry, a modern Renaissance of fantasy, nor the careers of people like Tracy Hickman, Margaret Weis, R. A. Salvatore or even me.
Dave was not only the father of roleplaying, but the father of a slice of popular culture so huge that those touched by what he started won’t have any clue as to who he was, and why they should mourn his passing.
I first met Dave in 1980, at Dundracon. I was working for Flying Buffalo as a booth-monkey. I was helping Rick Loomis set the booth up when Dave walked over. The two of them started talking. I read Dave’s badge, instantly recognized the name, and was star struck. Dave Arneson. He was a rockstar in gaming. Only ten years older than me, but a god in the industry. I was introduced, then went back to working, awed by the fact that Rick knew him, and a bit jealous of that, too.
Back in those days Rick Loomis was one of the more forward thinking of game company owners. He actually paid his staff for working a convention. He also gave us money for food. $3, in fact. Rick figured that amount worked because he could get a Mountain Dew and a hot dog in the hall for it. Not grand economics theory, but it worked.
I took my $3 and wandered off to the coffee shop. I got a table alone and studied the menu. Dave walked in, got a table by himself. Being men of the world, we nodded cordially. But I kept stealing glances over there. I mean, this was Dave-freaking-Arneson!
And Dave noticed, smiled indulgently, waved me over to his table. We had lunch and chatted, and that was the start of a friendship that lasted twenty-nine years.
There are some men, usually villains, who are rehabilitated and sanctified in death. But the men who were saints in life often go into history with their loss lamented by those who knew them; and unknown by those who have only heard the hype about others. Dave Arneson was such a saint. I say that as a man who was his friend—and I am a fierce and loyal friend—but I don’t expect you to take my word for his virtue and kindness.
The history of Dungeons & Dragons is well know to those of us who lived through the decades of the industry’s growth. Without question, TSR’s treatment of Dave Arneson was shameful. Most everyone knows that Dave sued the company, won, and TSR was required to refer to Dave as the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons. And most folks assume that this was the end of things.
It wasn’t. Even after Gary Gygax lost control of TSR, Dave was treated in a shabby manner. I recall Dave once asking me to ask of TSR what their plans were for D&D, since I was going to be at a trade show that he couldn’t attend. I was, in essence, an Ambassador without portfolio, but I told Dave I’d ask. When I asked one TSR official, a vice president, if he could get me five minutes with the CEO, I was told no, under no circumstances and, furthermore, Dave should be happy with what he was getting from TSR because they wouldn’t be so generous in the future.
I was shocked and stunned by such vehemence and venom. As I noted above, I am a fierce and loyal friend. I did have my revenge on that vice president later in that year. And, again, several years later. But it wasn’t until Wizards of the Coast bought TSR that Dave had a chance at an even shake.
When Dave won his initial court case, he was offered the choice of owning TSR, or getting a settlement. He chose a settlement. He was a nice guy, and didn’t want to get Gary kicked out of TSR, no matter how poorly he had been treated.
During the 1980s, the game industry faced some very tough times. Dave started his own company, Adventure Games, using the settlement money. What most folks don’t know is that Dave also underwrote a number of other game companies with that settlement, despite the fact that he knew he’d probably never see that money returned. He so loved gaming that he was willing to do that for friends.
Dave, too, was a fierce and loyal friend.
Dave took that concept of friend very seriously. Deeply Christian, Dave had that rare quality among people that he could be truly happy for his friends. We all know faux-friends who are just the opposite. They say they are happy for you, yet the glint in their eyes betrays jealousy and bitterness.
Dave was never like that. He was always and enthusiastically positive about things I’d done. He actually liked my books, and kept up with what I was writing. He’d call to talk about the books, and to keep abreast of what I was doing. I even heard hints of pride in his voice when he’d tell me I’d done well. Maybe he was thinking back to that kid in the coffee shop, amazed at how I’d come along.
Dave also had a wicked sense of humor. About twenty years ago at some convention I was running a Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes scenario for friends, Dave included. It was a pulp adventure set in the 30s and I was using a Shadow-esque non-player character called the Green Spectre to stir things up. Dave, as a detective, was working another angle of the situation that put him in opposition to the Green Spectre.
As we neared the end of the scenario, which I was making up on the fly, Dave figured out how the Green Spectre was getting out of a building—the man was hidden in a big wicker laundry basket. Dave’s character dashed for a car, intent on running the basket over. He announced his intention.
I told him the car wouldn’t start.
He hit the ignition again. I told him he’d flooded the engine.
He fixed me with a stare. We exchanged glances. We were the only two aware of what was going on and, being a gentleman, Dave let me finish the scenario—which required having a non-squashed Green Spectre.
And then, down through the years, he’d occasionally mention things about laundry baskets and The Green Spectre and about “next time…”
But now there will be no next time.
At least, not for me and Dave.
But there will be a billion or so next times for everyone else, because Dave Arneson, the father of roleplaying, had an idea, brought it to fruition, and shared it with the world.
Having known Dave was one of the greatest thrills and honors of my life. Someday, when I grow up, maybe, if I work really hard at it, I can approach being the sort of man he was.
Rest well, David. You earned it.