Interview with Dave Arneson
In the spirit that the best way to remember a man is to celebrate his life, here is a slightly abridged version of the interview that appears in Kobold Quarterly #9. This interview is also available in a Spanish translation by José Montero.
Before Greyhawk, there was Blackmoor. Before the Dungeon Master, there was the Judge. Before d20s, there were d6s, and a lot of them.
The seed for what we now know as role-playing games (RPGs) was planted in the mind of Dave Arneson during a college class when the professor asked Arneson and his classmates to role-play historical figures. But it would take many years — and many collaborations — for that seed to grow into the earliest RPGs.
An avid wargamer since he received Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg as a child, Arneson was heavily involved with Napoleonic miniature campaigns when he was struck with a bout of his characteristic mischievousness. What if, he wondered, instead of moving armies around, we move smaller commando forces? What if we deviate from historical events and make up our own stories? What if, instead of just combat, we add “other objectives”?
The next time he got together with his gaming group, he had a surprise for them in the form of a whole new world.
And Blackmoor, Arneson’s signature setting, was born.
• • • • •
Where did you start with Blackmoor? [More…]
Arneson: See, I had this neat German plastic kit and I just imagined what sort of fantasy setting it would make. Oddly enough, even though it was actually a German kit, years later I learned that it was actually a model of a castle in Sicily. But when I started, I was thinking German.
After that it just grew and shortly it was too small for the scale I wanted.
But it was a neat kit and I didn’t want to abandon it, so the only way to go was down [into the dungeons]. All this happened a few weeks before the first adventurers caught sight of it.
We were doing a historical campaign in Holland so my map ended up with a lot of water. All that water also helped keep the players from wandering everywhere. (Not that that lasted very long.)
Maps. I love maps. I love to write the stories. The other paperwork is essential, but a drag. I usually start with the maps and then do the story.
What were some of your favorite times in the Blackmoor basement?
Arneson: One player wanted to be a Vampire. To the point of desperation. The other players went out of their way to kill the vampires. Finally, they were put in a situation where a wish spell was cast. (Generally, I discourage those kinds of spells.) The spell was cast and the player wished to be a vampire. They were passing through a garden in the depths of Blackmoor castle at the time. So he turned into a vampire rose bush. He couldn’t move very fast but often a new player character would stop to check out the bush and prick his finger.
What was it like in the early days at TSR?
Arneson: It started out being fun. But, as the money increased the fun decreased…
Pretty much my direct involvement with D&D ended with 3rd Edition. But even before then I have used the Blackmoor books by Zeitgeist Games and Code Monkey to present my ideas.
Mostly, I have tried to push character development complimented by the story line.
• • • • •
Arneson made up the rules “as [they] went along,” drawing heavily on the wargames and history he loved. In those early years in his basement, he introduced many of the formative mechanics of what would eventually become Dungeons & Dragons: armor class, hit points, experience points and levels.
By going downward instead of across the map, he gave us the dungeon crawl.
And they were no longer campaigns restrained by the events of history.
No longer was a player forced to stand back and control large groups of men from afar. Nor were players encouraged to focus mostly on personal combat.
Now, the character could move in closer to the action, take on the role of an individual character, and, along with his companion characters, tell his or her own story.
• • • • •
What is at the heart of a good game?
Arneson: As far as I am concerned it is the story. It can make or break a game quite easily.
What do you enjoy most about designing games? About playing them?
Arneson: Watching the players interact and do things that were not planned by the poor referee.
What do games mean to you?
Arneson: The mental challenges, not just rolling the dice.
Rules… strict or loose?
Arneson: I like loose so you can change things that are not working. I dislike “Rules Lawyers” intensely. I regard them as the enemy.
What role does improvisation play in game design in general?
Arneson: Lots. The rules cannot cover every possibility. And frankly speaking, they shouldn’t. The referee needs the freedom to keep making the game fun.
What makes for a really great encounter?
Arneson: That the players overcame the obstacle by wit and not muscles.
What’s more fun: a horde of weaker monsters or a pair of powerful monsters?
Arneson: Either. But generally one well-played monster is the most fun. Just combat alone is boring a lot of the time. But I usually prefer story and plot over a lot of combat anyways.
What makes for a balanced game?
Arneson: Challenges. Both mental (for the players) and physical (for the character.)
• • • • •
At the second annual GenCon in 1969, Arneson met E. Gary Gygax, the co-creator with Jeff Perren of Chainmail, a medieval miniatures game.
Arneson would eventually invite Gygax into Blackmoor. Gygax and Arneson shared ideas, experimented with ideas, and even wrote a nautical game together called Don’t Give Up the Ship! The pair shared an occasionally contentious collaborative relationship resulting, ultimately, in the co-creation of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D).
The original D&D was sold through Tactical Studies Research (TSR) in 1973. The company and the game evolved over time. Arneson drifted away from the company by the end of the 1970s.
But his personality remains indelibly stamped on the role-playing games in general and D&D in particular. The emphasis, he says, should always be on character development, story, and fun.
• • • • •
Has your understanding of game design changed over the years?
Arneson: Yes. “All people will play games. You just have to find the games that they like.
What has been your favorite character to play over the years?
Arneson: A lawful paladin. It is one of the toughest characters to play since you have to stay within the restrictions to do it right.
What is your DMing style?
Arneson: The players are there to keep the referee amused. If they don’t, he will find a way to make it entertaining. But seriously it should be fun for everyone.
But still, I do like to keep the game moving along.
• • • • •
Since splitting with TSR, Arneson has continued to design games, write adventures, and play the games he loves. Since the early 1980s he has taught and spoken in schools, promoting the use of RPGs in the classroom.
Until the summer of 2008, he taught game design at Full Sail University, an arts and design school in Florida.
• • • • •
Are teaching and DMing similar?
Arneson: He-he! That would be telling. I give all my students a 20-sided dice when they pass my class. Rubbed, by me, in my hair for luck if their hearts are pure. Otherwise, it’s just a plain old die.
What are some of the best uses for RPGs in the classroom? Or, put differently, if you were trying to sell a curriculum committee on the use of RPGs, what would you say?
Arneson: Generally, an RPG should be structured to account for a number of classes.
In California, a Japanese RPG began as part of the students’ Japanese language class. All commands and directions had to be in Japanese. (Fortunately, they gave me a translator to use.)
Then we included writing and spelling (in English) and later math.
You have to always figure out encumbrances. The student/players had to co-operate to overcome obstacles since I gave them all different skills. So we did language, spelling, grammar, math and social skills.
And this was in a non-competitive atmosphere and the students did quite well.
• • • • •
For 40 years, Dave Arneson has been teaching us about games and about ourselves. From the early days in the Blackmoor basement, to afternoons signing books at conventions, to his many hours in the classroom, Arneson has set the standards in game design, game play, and creative collaboration.
Most importantly, he has emphasized story, character, and the importance of responsiveness. Designers should respond to players. DMs should respond to players and to situations. Games and their rules evolve. Things change. The goal is to still have fun.
“In the early days of playing Blackmoor,” said Greg Svenson, a long-time friend of Arneson’s, “when Dave wanted to see how the players would react to a situation he would set it up so that it would seem like we were in that situation and then see how we react.
“For example, on my first dungeon adventure, Dave wanted to see what we would do when we first encountered “the blob”, so he took us (there were six of us) into the laundry area of the basement and turned out the lights saying a gust of wind had blown out our torches. Then he screamed as if a person was dying. He then turned the light back on to see what we had done.”
Today, Arneson continues to develop Blackmoor and, in association with Dustin Clingman, to run Zeitgeist Games, the developers of Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor the Massively Multi-Player Role Playing Game (MMRPG). In keeping with Arneson’s design philosophy, the Blackmoor MMRPG has, according to the promotional materials, “always been of and for the players! In that very tradition, the ongoing action of players worldwide is tracked and has significant impact on the ongoing plotline of the world. Your Actions count! Your decision may restore the very fate of Blackmoor from one of destruction to that of peace!”
Arneson is also working on Dragons in the Basement, a film about the first 10 years of RPGs.
“The hardest part is,” he said, “to stay focused and not get distracted by the nostalgia.”
For the complete interview, see KQ#9.
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