Basic and Advanced—Why Gary Gygax claimed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a different game (Part 6)

The Story of Basic and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Part 1: The time Dungeons & Dragons split into two games
Part 2: Dungeons & Dragons’ new audience versus its original rules
Part 3: Dungeon & Dragons goes two directions
Part 4: Dave Arneson takes a job at TSR
Part 5: Was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons a different game?
Part 6: Why Gary Gygax claimed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a different game

In 1975, a surging number of Dungeons & Dragons players craved products for the game. TSR head Gary Gygax hired his Dungeons & Dragons co-author to assist. In January of 1976, Dave Arneson moved to Lake Geneva and joined the staff. Gygax seemed eager for the help.

Dave Arneson (photo Kevin McColl)

During Arneson’s time at TSR, he produced little for the company and nothing for D&D. Through all of 1976, Arneson earned just three credits: for an article on WWII naval combat that appeared in Little Wars magazine, for an introduction to the Valley Forge war game, and for ‘special effort’ on the Lankmhar board game.

Arneson did manage to publish several issues of a newsletter for his Napoleonic miniature campaign. He even printed the March 1976 edition on TSR’s mimeograph. For Arneson, the Blackmoor campaign that turned into D&D just provided a break from his true passion: Napoleonic armies and especially sailing ships. He could not match Gygax’s fervor for fantasy or role-playing games.

At the same time, booming demand for D&D products left the rest of TSR’s tiny staff frantically busy. While Arneson took a big cut of D&D’s profits and contributed nothing new, TSR needed money to grow and struggled with cash flow.

Gygax had welcomed his long-time collaborator, but the relationship between D&D’s creators soured.

After 10 months, Arneson left TSR. Arneson’s friend Dave Wesely told one account of Arneson’s exit. When Arneson refused to accept a reduction in royalties, TSR demoted him to shipping clerk, leading him to quit. (See Empire of Imagination by Michael Witner.) Even if the account isn’t accurate, it probably reflects Arneson’s take.

Gary Gygax (photo Alan De Smet)

From Gary Gygax’s perspective, he had labored for years on D&D. He had turned 20 pages of notes into the original rules. He had bet every cent he could scrape together on publishing an odd, risky game. In supplements and magazine articles, he enriched D&D. He defended it in letters and editorials. His friend Frank Mentzer wrote that for D&D, Gygax “paid the costs in stress on himself, his marriage, family, and friends.” Arneson had only planted an idea.

Gygax wondered why Arneson should get a cut of royalties for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Even while working at TSR, Arneson had given nothing new to D&D or AD&D. “Gygax felt that Arneson was but one of many contributors, and felt that the revenues should go to those who built the company and fueled the D&D boom…himself first and foremost.”

When the AD&D Monster Manual reached print in December 1977, the book gave no credit to Dave Arneson. Perhaps Gygax considered the book a supplement. D&D supplements only credited their writers.

When the Player’s Handbook arrived August 1978, Arneson only gets a thank you among 20 other contributors. The Dungeon Master’s Guide never mentions Arneson. As it reached stores in 1979, Dragon published Gygax’s editorials positioning AD&D as a new and incompatible game. Soon, the TSR catalog featured listings for an “Expert” extension of the basic rules. Before, the basic rules led to AD&D; now they lead to a separate game.

In 1979, Dave Arneson sued TSR for royalties.

From Dave Arneson’s perspective, D&D came from his ideas. He had started with a sort of miniature game that had existed for generations and that appealed to nobody (rounding down). Then he had added the concepts that made a revolutionary game. With some help from Dave Wesely, Arneson invented a game where each player controlled a single character, and where a referee enabled players to attempt any action. With some help from Dave Megarry, Arneson discovered the fun of looting dungeons. Arneson’s fantasy game added characters defined by numeric attributes, and characters who could improve through experience.

Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax each argued that D&D’s success rested on his contribution. Both were correct, but that didn’t make sharing the wealth any easier. The court fight lasted until March 1981. The settlement granted Arneson a royalty of 2.5% of the cover price of core AD&D books. (In 1985, Arneson sued TSR again. His lawyers argued that the Monster Manual II—a collection of new monsters—rated as a “revision” of the Monster Manual. Stop laughing. The court agreed.)

Despite the legal battles, TSR gave basic D&D as much support as AD&D. Early in the 80s, the basic game outsold the advanced version. Even as players in the States started to dismiss basic D&D as a kiddie version, the basic line thrived internationally.

Creatively, D&D thrived too. While D&D played well as written, AD&D suffered from cumbersome rules that most ignored. Also, Gygax treated AD&D as his baby and kept strict control over its products, but when designers worked on basic D&D, they enjoyed more creative freedom.

In 1985, Gary Gygax set aside any animosity left in the wake of lawsuits and approached Dave Arneson to do modules for D&D. Arneson submitted 4, starting with DA1 Adventures in Blackmoor. The series sold well, but Gary soon lost control of TSR. According to Arneson, new TSR president Lorraine Williams “did not want Gary or me involved with TSR in any way anymore. So, no more Blackmoor modules.”

Many tout the Rules Cyclopedia as the best version of D&D ever to come from TSR.

In 1991, the last of the basic D&D product line, the Rules Cyclopedia, reached stores. TSR vice president James Ward later explained that the reasons for dropping the line were “mainly financial ones. TSR didn’t have to give a royalty to Dave Arneson if no product was made for D&D.”

Until 2000, all D&D products would appear as part of the AD&D line. After Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR, they dropped the “Advanced” brand for the game’s third edition. In 30 Years of Adventure, Wizards CEO Peter Adkison wrote, Arneson “was supposed to get a royalty off of any product TSR published in the Dungeons & Dragons line. Previous owners ‘got around’ this royalty by publishing everything as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. To me this seemed silly. I talked with Dave, and we agreed that he would release all claims to Dungeons & Dragons if I simply gave him a big check. I did.”

The split between basic and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons showed an unflattering side of Gary Gygax. But that side didn’t last. Gary founded TSR as a passionate gamer eager to collaborate—and share credit—with any fellow gamer in a tiny hobby. D&D’s success fostered an ugly side. James Maliszewski from Grognardia calls this persona TSR Gary. During this era, TSR Gary became a shameless promoter of TSR interests, a scornful dictator whose proclamations often defied common sense. In the early 80s, I saw TSR Gary at Gen Con, rushing through crowds, flanked by an entourage. My memory my be off, but I recall hearing the Imperial March play.

In his later years, Gary grew open and generous. Despite his standing, he always gave time to interact with gamers. On enworld, he humbly acknowledged every grateful fan and answered every question. At Gen Con, I spied him at an open table, behind the DM screen, taking fellow gamers into a dungeon. The man even invited random gamers from the Internet to drop by his house to game.

Sometimes, when I feel cynical, I suspect that people never really change. But aside from working with Dave to give D&D to us, the thing I like best about Gary is that he changed, and for the better.

14 thoughts on “Basic and Advanced—Why Gary Gygax claimed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a different game (Part 6)

  1. Steve

    “In the early 80s, I saw TSR Gary at Gen Con, rushing through crowds, flanked by an entourage. My memory my be off, but I recall hearing the Imperial March play.”
    You weren’t imagining, I was at Gen Con at UW Parkside in 1981, 1984, (thereafter at Mecca) and yeah, someone pointed out Gary to me in the exhibitors hall – same impression. I think they were pimping the D&D Beach Towels, for chrissakes.
    I suspect Gary was, like most of us, complex. I think he was a gamer, and like many gamers, both introverted and a little immature. He was probably a great, generous person but (as any long time gamer will have observed) in the DM seat a bit of a totalitarian who, when real life handed him power, wealth, and a sort of fame, couldn’t quite handle it and remain himself.
    I’m glad to hear that it sounds like maturity eventually found him, and he came to some grips with the rollercoaster.

  2. Daniel Boggs

    Yes, really a great series of articles David, but let me quibble just a little bit more…

    >>>From Dave Arneson’s perspective, D&D came from his ideas.

    True, but not just his ideas. I think it’s all too often forgotten that this was their second collaboration on a games rulebook. They had an established way of working together. Arneson knew full well that Gygax had received and made extensive use of his notes and letters, including but not limited to the first 18 pages. Gygax made a sincere effort at a collaborative edit of Arneson’s input into the game we know as D&D. The FFC has numerous instances of preserved draft material that Arneson wrote and sent to Gygax. In at least two cases, there is material preserved in the FFC and the Dalluhn/BTPbD draft and nowhere else. (FWIW, Much of this has been documented on my blog) It’s sometimes suggested, even by Gygax himself, that Arneson just sent gibberish and Gygax ignored it. Aside from the fact that we have written and published evidence to the contrary, it’s also a simple truth that both Gygax and Arneson had access to that wonder of modern technology – the telephone. I don’t mean to sound snarky, but sometimes it seems people forget there was an easy a ready to hand means of communication between the two, which, by their own admission, they availed of. Even Gygax admitted to phone conversations with Arneson about the game during the writing process. It’s simply not credible to think that Gygax never asked for an explanation to any material Arneson sent that may not have been clear to him, or that these conversations had no bearing on the game. Simply put, there are reasons why the court sided so quickly with Arneson, and it was never just a matter of “ideas”.

    1. David Hartlage Post author

      Hi Daniel,
      My original idea for a post ballooned into a six part series, but I still managed to skip plenty of details. Thanks for adding more nuance. I find this stuff fascinating.


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  11. Charlie Tibbs

    I think what everyone often misses, is that there was this guy who loved the game and had found himself assuming a protective posture, as he was not receiving appropriate credit for his work effort. For those that know the ‘better’ Gary, consider that he no longer needed to eat his meal with one arm in front of his food protecting it from others. I see Arneson as the ‘Trusty’ at the prison, smoking a butt with ashes falling over the stew and slopping it into Gary’s bowl. I am glad that (A)D&D has become what it is today and that Gary is able to enjoy and interact with fans. I think we all have had fun, regardless of the behind the scenes issues!

  12. David Houssain

    D&D is a kiddie version and it is a joke compared to ad&d, psionics, that is really all you need to say…eye of vechna, sword of kos. Come on, this article sucks obviously written by an SHJW non gamer.


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