Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games

When creators dream up imaginary worlds, they can go in two directions. They can build their world from a curated set of ideas, and then fit these pieces together into a logical and consistent manner. In a fantasy gaming, these creators worry about how magic affects society and culture, and then wind up with worlds like Glorantha or Tekumel.

Dave Hargrave’s campaign world of Arduin was not built; it was piled. To create Arduin, Hargrave took every fantastic element he dreamed up or fancied and piled them into one work of love. If Tekumal is a museum, with treasures for contemplation, then Arduin is a dragon’s horde, with everything shiny heaped to the walls.

Dave Hargrave pictured in Different Worlds issue 31

Dave Hargrave pictured in Different Worlds issue 31

Inspired by the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, Hargrave printed his house rules, lore, and advice in a little, brown book named after his world, The Arduin Grimoire. In 1977, his unofficial supplement to Dungeons & Dragons debuted at California’s DunDraCon II convention. The book’s success led to the sequels Welcome to Skull Tower (1978) and The Runes of Doom (1978).

In a look back on the trilogy, Ryk Spoor called Arduin “one of the most absolutely concentrated essences of the fun of roleplaying games ever made.” Jonathan Tweet, the lead designer of third-edition D&D, called Arduin the “the coolest RPG book ever.”

The Arduin TrilogySometime in 1979, I found the series on the shelves of The Hobby Chest in Skokie, Illinois. The pages teemed with fresh ideas. The author suggested strange pairings of science and fantasy. He tore up the D&D rules and offered wild changes. It all seemed a little subversive. I became enchanted. I haven’t found a game book that proved as enjoyable to read. At first I thumbed through the books at random, discovering gems, then I turned to page one and read. (Due to the books’ random organization, both reading orders felt the same.) As Hargrave wandered through Arduin lore and free-associated RPG wisdom, I learned three lessons.

Fantasy gives freedom to imagination.

Arduin advertisement from The Dragon issue 6, April 1977

Arduin advertisement from The Dragon issue 6, April 1977

As D&D’s audience exploded, in the days before Appendix N, most new players’ experience with fantasy started with Tolkien and ended with a few imitators. The sort of science-fantasy found in say, Jack Vance, seemed wrong. To us, Hargrave preached bigger imaginary playgrounds. “The very essence of fantasy gaming is its total lack of limitation on the scope of play, both in its content and in its appeal to people of all ages, races, occupations or whatever,” Hargrave wrote. “So don’t limit the game by excluding aliens or any other type of character or monster. If they don’t fit what you feel is what the game is all about, don’t just say ‘NO!,’ whittle on them a bit until they do fit.” (Vol. II, p.99)

Evidence of his creative abandon appears everywhere, from the “Multiversal Trading Company” to descriptions of the world’s 21 hells. For instance, the 17th plane of hell features blasted futuristic cities and space ports under a blue-black, moonless sky. Most vegetation is petrified. This hell’s most common inhabitant is The Black Wind, a fog of shifting shadows, lit by crackling, blue lighting bolts. The wind envelops and attacks psychically, taking over the body, and “forever making it alien.”

Hargrave welcomes a variety of character types. “Do not be a small player in a small world, embrace the whole Alternity and give different types a chance. I think you will find that the world your game is in will become a lot more fun if you do.” (Twenty years later, Dave Hargrave’s portmanteau “Alternity,” from alternate eternities, would become the name of a Wizards of the Coast RPG.)

The rules belong to players.

Jonathan Tweet noted the weakness of the Hargrave’s rules. “The Arduin system is usually unbalanced and often unbelievably complicated.” Still, some mechanics would fit a modern game. For example, he offers rules for touch attacks and a hit point system that resembles fourth edition’s. But the specific rules hardly mattered. Hargrave encourages players to own the rules and their games, to tinker, to playtest. On presenting his magic system, Hargrave advises readers to “take whatever I have that you like, use the old established fantasy gaming systems…and put together whatever you like in a magic system. Who knows, it may end up with such a good system that people will want to publish your fantasy world.” (Vol. I, p.30)

Detail makes game worlds come to life.

In an era when state-of-the-art setting design consisted of the Wilderness Survival map and some encounter tables, Hargrave opened a world with detail that rivaled any setting that came later. According to Ryk Spoor, “One of the strongest and most powerfully attractive parts of the Arduin series was that, within and around the game mechanics, the statistics for demons and items and spells, Dave Hargrave wove tales and hints of his campaign world, giving us a look at the life of a world that didn’t exist, but … perhaps… could, elsewhere.”

The impact of Arduin

To gamers today, Arduin’s three lessons seem banal. New games seek freshness by colliding genres, so cowboys meet the undead, magic meets cyberpunk, and so on. Endless setting books lend detail to world building. When the fifth-edition designers explain their hesitancy to tweak the published rules, they say the rules belong to the players now. Arduin’s Phraints seem to have become Dark Sun’s Thri-Kreen.

After reading the books in 2008, James Maliszewski mused that most of Arduin “generated a resounding ‘meh’ for me,” mostly because its better ideas “were readily accepted and incorporated into gaming.” He concludes, “It’s nearly impossible to read the Arduin Trilogy now and see any of its ideas as original as they once were.” True, but in 1978, Arduin’s lessons demolished barriers that would never stand again.

Gary Gygax versus The Arduin Grimoire

In the 70s, Gary Gygax resented products that rode his and D&D’s coattails. The man had 6 children to feed! Arduin aped the little, brown books and tore down D&D’s rules, so the grimoires earned particular ire. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Gary added the Vacuous Grimoire (p.155) as a dig at The Arduin Grimoire. Read it and lose 1 intelligence and 2 wisdom. In the pages of The Dragon, Gary attacked spell points, critical hits, and other rules that Hargrave offered as improvements.

TSR issued a cease and desist letter to Hargrave, who responded by blanking references to D&D. My printing splices in mentions of “other popular systems” and “old established fantasy gaming systems” where D&D was mentioned. Hargrave took to calling Arduin a completely different game, although it skipped essential rules that readers must find elsewhere (in D&D). Rules sections are labeled as changes or revisions to an unnamed game (still D&D).

Over the years, Hargrave created the missing rules needed to make a stand-alone game. But no one cared about his rules. Dave Hargrave never realized that his rules hardly mattered.

His feverish invention mattered. Arduin’s lessons mattered—and they changed role-playing.

Related: For an affectionate and funny tour of the first Arduin Grimoire, read “Arduin Grimoire cover to cover” from the first post at the bottom of the page.

Emperors Choice Games offers Arduin products for sale. The original trilogy now appears in a single volume, although the price seems high for anyone but a passionate student of RPG history.

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12 Responses to Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games

  1. Bob says:

    You continually post such great content and thought provoking articles. With how enormous the internet is, I am so glad I stumbled onto your site and blogs.

    I am a bit envious though of any people that know you personally and get to play D&D with you as the DM. From all I read you seem like the official Dream DM where everything would just be an awesome blend of well thought out role playing and action packed combat… man I wish I could play in your group!

    • DM David says:

      Bob,
      Thanks for the kind words. Feedback like yours keeps me writing. I typically serve as a DM at the biggest three conventions for tabletop RPGs. If you ever find yourself at Gen Con, Winter Fantasy, or Origins, I would love to have you at my table. I’ll tweet my Gen Con schedule in a week or so.

      Dave

  2. Mark says:

    Fantastic post. Thanks DM David for such great history!

    • DM David says:

      Mark,
      Thanks! My posts on old, non-TSR products always attract less interest, so I’m happy to learn that someone other than me likes reading about these old gems.

      Dave

  3. All from a book originally proposed by Chaosium as an introductory volume (they eventually published Basic Roleplaying instead as Arduin really did not fit what they were looking for).

  4. Pingback: Blog Watch: Pulp Fantasy’s Nabokov, Supplanting the Canon, Sword-and-Soul, and Radical Heterogeneity | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

  5. ironface says:

    I’ve said it before and i’ll say it again: the Arduin Adventure is a good entry level RPG that’s easily on the same list as Homes and B/X . It’s neither over-the-top nor monty hall and reflects Hargrave’s lower level campaign that he use to GM. If there was ever a redux version of the game, I’d buy it in a minute.

  6. Ryk E. Spoor says:

    Wow, I’ve been quoted!

    Arduin’s influence extends through writing, too; the expansiveness and all-inclusiveness of the Arduin implied in Dave Hargraves’ work was surely a major influence in the construction of my own FRP world Zarathan, which is the setting for my Balanced Sword trilogy (Phoenix Rising, Phoenix in Shadow, Phoenix Ascendant).

    • DM David says:

      Ryk,
      I’m delighted to see you in the comments. For a couple of years, I wanted to write about Arduin, but your tribute said so much so well that I struggled to find anything to add. I intend to read your Balanced Sword books the instant I can lay hands on a copy.

      Dave

      • Ryk Spoor says:

        Well, the first two are easily available on Amazon, the third comes out in March.

        Your article is much more scholarly than mine. And illustrated.

        I first encountered Arduin about a year before you; one of my first GMs had a copy of the first printing, and one of my longest-running characters Druyar Moronovich got the “born of a normal mother and efreet father, you are 100% fireproof” perk in that game.

        It would be hard to overstate Arduin’s influence on me — or my game.

  7. Mable says:

    Don’t depend on only your deals.

  8. Timothy Park says:

    Much of what you put here is why my preference remains “sandbox” settings.

    In the 80s if you were brave enough to take the DMs seat the real challenge was to offer a “campaign” or what’s called a “sandbox” now. We played modules. Some were still running mega-dungeons. And there were a few masters of the extemporaneous who would spin wild adventures out of the City State flying by the seat of their pants. But if you got some of the grognards to grudgingly talk about D&D what became clear was that mazes were OK, and modules were for those who weren’t creative enough to come up with their own stuff, but the Acme was to somehow make a world, let characters land in it and handle whichever direction they went in.

    Freight training, gross channeling, and the horrid “in the local inn you hear rumor of haunted ruins about 5 miles south of town …” If you “had” to role play (because, for the grognards, Avalon Hill and SPIs efforts were still poor substitutes for “real” games which involved great expanses of table or floor and a quantity of lead that threatened structural integrity) then be ready to step up and *remove every limit* from your players.

    In 1985 to my amazement and great honor I took up he gauntlet after about a month of thought and prep and pulled it off over the course of about 8 years. There were few limits. I controlled spells as the DMG suggested. I limited races a bit. And there were “realistic” limits that helped the environment become significant. But I didn’t have one particular set place they *had* to go or there wouldn’t be and adventure that night. I may have set several “hooks” but I didn’t reel in the lines, ever.

    Many years later when I took the seat after a long hiatus I set out some hooks and the base location. Gave people who’d just come through Phandelver and Hoard the freedom to do whatever they wanted … and got blank looks. “You want us to go into Neverwinter and go shopping or something?” There seemed to almost be agoraphobia at the prospect of not being led carefully from encounter to encounter.

    Thankfully I had some materials from an alternate adventure that I had abandoned because it was precisely too much a freight train (which was everyone’s complaint of Hoard) and without missing a beat (much) had my character arrive with a request from a mysterious patron ….

    It still amazed me four sessions later when they had gone far and had a mass of handouts full of hints on where to go next and how to get there that a pause in the action triggered a long head scratching session about what to do next.

    I’m beginning to think that video games have sapped all initiative and creativity and joy in freedom and wonder from players.

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