Basic and Advanced—Dave Arneson takes a job at TSR (Part 4)

Early in 1976, Gary Gygax decided that Dungeons & Dragons needed new rules that beginners could understand. He planned a complete revision of the game, but realized creating one would take years. Such a long wait would stifle D&D’s growth and encourage competitors. Then “as if by divine inspiration,” Dr. J. Eric Holmes volunteered to create introductory rules.

J. Eric Holmes MD as pictured in his book Fantasy Role-Playing Games (1981)

Starting with the original rule books plus the Blackmoor and Greyhawk supplements, Holmes made D&D comprehensible while keeping “the flavor and excitement of the original rules.” As much as he could, he reused wording from the original game. Where D&D left the order of events in a combat round ambiguous, Holmes adopted a sequence from Warlock—the D&D variant Holmes originally used to make sense of D&D. Like Warlock, Holmes relies on Dexterity to determine who strikes first. He even tried to convince Gygax to adopt something like Warlock’s spell-point system. Ultimately, Holmes created a clear, concise 48-page handbook.

Meanwhile, in May or June of 1976, Gygax visited the office where Tim Kask edited The Dragon magazine. Gygax wanted Kask’s help on a design. “Gary told me that this new project would begin the following Monday and to wear my thinking cap,” Kask remembers. “I had no idea what he had up his sleeve, but I figured it was bound to be fun.” Kask delivered The Dragon to the printer in record time.

Gygax filled his own office with bulletin boards from other rooms. He collected several sets of the most worn D&D books, issues of The Strategic Review, and The Dragon. When Kask arrived on Monday, Gygax ordered his staff not to disturb the two except in dire emergency.

Gygax planned to create blueprint for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and he needed a collaborator.

Dave Arneson

Dave Arneson

As TSR’s first employee, Kask had turned a basket of notes into the Blackmoor supplement. He now edited The Dragon. Gygax and Kask shared offices next to each other in an old, gray house in Lake Geneva. Kask had earned Gygax’s trust. He made a natural choice for the job.

But when Gygax recruited Kask, he passed up D&D co-creator Dave Arneson.

In January 1976, Arneson had moved to Lake Geneva and become an employee of TSR. When Gygax announced the hire in The Strategic Review, he seemed eager to gain Arneson’s help. “His function will be help us coordinate of efforts with freelance designers, handle various research project and produce material like a grist mill,” Gygax wrote. “Crack! Snap! Work faster there Dave.”

With D&D’s co-creator now working at TSR, why did Gygax pick Tim Kask to collaborate on a new edition?

Dave Arneson’s creative energy shined during his games. Gary Gygax lauded him as “the innovator of the ‘dungeon adventure’ concept, creator of ghastly monsters, and inscrutable dungeon master par excellence.” But Arneson struggled to capture his ideas on paper. Arneson started his Blackmoor campaign when he wanted a break from the rigid rules in his Napoleonic games. For Blackmoor, he made up rules at the table and put a few in notes so he didn’t contradict himself too much. In Different Worlds issue 3, Arneson explained that he closely guarded his fantasy rules so they could “change without notice if something got out of hand.” Dave wrote his fantasy rules for an audience of Dave.

Inspired by Blackmoor, Gygax asked for Arneson’s rules. Arneson thought “Rules? What rules!?!?” Gygax “received 18 or so handwritten pages of rules and notes pertaining to his campaign.” Those notes became Arneson’s written contribution to D&D.

While Dave Arneson invented the style of play that made D&D a smash, the specifics came from Gygax. In Pegasus issue 1, Arneson recalled that Gygax and his Lake Geneva group “had a lot more spare time than I did and they had a lot of ideas, so they came up with their own version of the rules.” Arneson said, “D&D had not come out the way that I envisioned it.” By 1979, he tried to capture his own vision in the Adventures in Fantasy game.

When Arneson started work at TSR, Gygax looked forward to help with coordination and research projects. But when Gygax needed help reworking his version of fantasy role playing, he recruited Tim Kask.

Next: Was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons a different game?

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2 Responses to Basic and Advanced—Dave Arneson takes a job at TSR (Part 4)

  1. Steve Williams says:

    Interesting stuff. I think I was probably 6 or 7 years old when this was happening and it’s fascinating having an insight into something that had a massive impact upon my life.

  2. Daniel Boggs says:

    >>>Those notes became Arneson’s written contribution to D&D.

    I’m afraid that’s not accurate. While we can’t know the exact content in its entirety, we can be relatively sure of particular content that was and was not in those 18 pages of notes. The Daluhn/Beyond This Point be Dragons draft does not contain several sections of content found in the 3lbbs that we know were drafted by Arneson, including most notably the magic sword rules. The draft is dated firmly to the fall of 1973. Thus, aside from the testimony of both Gygax and Arneson who maintained both written and verbal correspondence throughout the writing process, we have published proof that Arneson continued to contribute material right up to the last couple months before publication.

    If interested, I have a detailed analysis of the content of the 18 pages here http://boggswood.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-mystery-of-18-pages-of-notes.html

    >>>But Arneson struggled to capture his ideas on paper.

    I’m not sure what you have in mind here. Arneson actually wrote quite a lot of material, both before and after his brief stint at TSR. He published his own fanzine, wrote a number of games, scenarios, adventures, worked as an editor and publisher, was a college instructor etc. He certainly wasn’t the most organized or eloquent of writers, and he wasn’t the gristmill that Gygax was, but to say that he “struggled to capture his ideas on paper” is hard to justify.

    Arneson’s job at TSR was, by title and by his understanding of it, to bring in and develop gaming matertial – exactly the first part of that quote from Gygax. “His function will be help us coordinate of efforts with freelance designers, handle various research project…”

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