Interview with David Arneson by Ciro Allessandro Sacco
This interview was conducted by Ciro Alessandro Sacco of www.dungeons.it. It is presented here with his permission.
David (Dave) Arneson is one of the most important figures in gaming, because he was co author of Dungeons & Dragons, that little game who spawned an entire industry (or two, if we count videogames). Despite this, he doesn't enjoy the immense recognition given to Gary Gygax, the other author of Dungeons & Dragons. This is perhaps explainable with the fact that Gary Gygax had a long and high profile career as game designer and manager of TSR Hobbies (then TSR) for many years and for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons' creation. Anyway, Dave remains a sort of 'unsung legend' of the gaming world and after interviewing Gary Gygax himself, I jumped at the chance, courtesy of Dustin Clingman, to interview Dave Arneson himself and launching another array of probing questions. Due to the many activities of David and some health problems, this interview required a long time (more than a year) to be completed, but here is at last!
Thank you very much Dave for accepting being interviewed. Could you give us some details about yourself: age, occupation, hobbies and so on so to help our readers to 'identify' you?
I am now 55 years old. I have been teaching Computer Game Design at Full Sail University here in Florida for almost five years now. I still play games with military miniatures a few times a month for relaxation. I am still active in playing D&D with my local gaming group and hard at work designing new games for Zeitgeist Games.
When and how did you discovered gaming?
I got my first wargame in the early 60's and was hooked! I started to design my own games shortly thereafter.
In his October, 2002 interview (The Ultimate Interview to Gary Gygax, you can read it in English from the www.enworld.org web site N.d.R.), Gary Gygax said: "Arneson contributed ideas for the D&D game. Also, some of the contents of the D&D game supplement, Blackmoor, contained his concepts and writing, as developed and edited by Tim Kask". In the interview you did in The Space Gamer #21 (January/February 1979), you state: "[Game design] was done by phone and correspondence. There were also a couple weekends in Lake Geneva, but the final draft was done by phone and mail". This answer clearly implies a much greater role in the D&D creation then the simple contribution of ideas. Could you tell us, especially for the benefit of Italian readers, what was your role in the development of the game?
Unfortunately I cannot explain this in a way that will satisfy your readership. It is all covered in court documents that are presently sealed. Any comments that I can make are in violation of those settlements. What I can say is that we started playing in Blackmoor Castle in 1971. We first visited Lake Geneva the next year and got them into playing Blackmoor. The game that became D&D was published in 1974.
We know there were a lot of tension between you and TSR, at the time managed by Gary Gygax, Kevin Blume e Brian Blume, about proper credit and royalties for D&D and later AD&D games. You were involved in a suit in 1979, then settled (out of court) in 1981 as we can see in The Space Gamer magazines #21 and #39. Why your relationship with TSR degenerated su much to require legal action for the defence of your rights?
That happens when people do not pay you. There was more than one court case by the way. All were settled to my satisfaction out or court. Otherwise refer to my earlier comment regarding the sealed documents.
It seems a lot of tension existed between you and TSR Hobbies at the time. You state in an interview in The Space Gamer #21: "At the awards ceremony [for the Charles Roberts and H.G. Wells awards, two awards at the time given during the Origins convention N.d.R.] I went up to receive the Dungeons & Dragons awards. This was disputed by a representative of TSR at the ceremony. As a result I only received one of the awards (...). After the ceremony TSR protested to the people running the convention that I return the award". What kind of awards were they? And why did the TSR representative question your acceptance?
The award was for "All Time Best Game" or something like that. At that time the awards were usually, but not always, awarded to the publisher and not the designer. The convention made up another copy for TSR. I never returned the one I had.
In 1984, during the Origins convention, you were introduced in the gaming 'Hall of Fame'. Did it was the event where you was named "Father of Role Playing"?
No that was a few years ago at an Origins convention. I am sorry I do not recall which one.
In 1979, if I'm correct, you created your own fantasy RPG, Adventures in Fantasy, published initially by Excalibre Games and then by Adventure Games, your own company: the game is mentioned in the "1980 Game Survey" of The Space Gamer #35 (January 1981) and again in the "1981 Game Survey" results in The Space Gamer #51 (May 1982). When and how did you decide to create your own adventure gaming company? Was Adventures in Fantasy, which somebody at the time defined "D&D as seen by Dave Arneson", a successful game?
D&D had not come out the way that I envisioned it. The only answer was to present my system under a different title.
Was Adventure Games a successful company? I know it was still active in 1983 because in The Space Gamer #61 (March 1983) an impressive line up of products is announced, such as the Pentantastar fantasy board game and Mutant, a science fiction RPG.
In its history Adventure Games did a number of games. However Adventures in Fantasy was the only game that I did for the company. I felt that if we only published stuff that I wrote than it would be nothing more than a vanity press. AIF did well at the time but had no "Legs". Overall, Adventure Games made some money but it was a lot of work. Having gotten married and with a daughter, the company was just taking too much time. Pentantastar was our last game. Mutant was to be next but was actually never published.
The Space Gamer #76 (September/October 1985) writes: "Adventure Games effectively became a division of Flying Buffalo earlier this year, when company founder Dave Arneson was sent on a one year religious mission to San Francisco". I think this clearly marks the ending of Adventure Games as a separate company (I have read in FBI recent catalogues that they still have copies of Pentantastar for sale!). Why did you choose FBI for the management of your company's warehouse and orders' fulfillment?
I am a part owner in Flying Buffalo, and I have been so for several years before I founded Adventure Games. When I decided to terminate Adventure Games, Rick Loomis (president and founder of Flying Buffalo) agreed to take over my remaining stock. It is a reputable company with a wonderfull President and he is also a good friend: the choice was natural.
In 1986 TSR published the first module of the DA (David Arneson) series, Adventures in Blackmoor. This module introduced D&D fans to the past of the Known World (then Mystara) and especially to its pecular technomagical society in its very beginning. This series was surely the most unusual D&D line ever produced, with starships and laser swords. How was born this unusual idea?
The published modules represented actual adventures and areas from my Blackmoor campaign. Because of the adventures that were chosen, there is a popular misconception that technology was a major part of my original campaign. It was not that way. Rather, technology was always there but generally in the background. In 1986 Gary Gygax had taken over the leadership of TSR and approached me to do the series. The modules that were published were the first ones submitted. Yet, even these were heavily edited. Since within a few months Gary lost control of TSR, the series was terminated. Up until that time, the modules sold as well as any other TSR modules. But the new president (Lorraine Dille Williams, the infamous "Dragon Lady" N.d.R.) did not want Gary or me involved with TSR in any way anymore. So, no more Blackmoor modules. By then I was out in California becoming quite involved in computer games and so I 'turned my back' on paper & pencil games for several years.
The DA series had four modules (Adventures in Bklackmoor, Temple of the Frog, City of the Gods and The Duchy of Ten N.d.R.) and a fifth one (City of Blackmoor) was announced but, alas, never produced. Perhaps the sales of the series were not good enough do deserve a continuation, albeit the DA modules fetch very high prices in the collectors' market? What should have been the contents of this fifth module?
The fifth module will appear in its entirety at some point next year. I must state again that the sales figures were not a factor in terminating the original series. The sales on eBay would bear this out.
What was the role of David J Ritchie in the DA series? Was he a codesigner or 'simply' a writer?
For the first four modules he was the editor. The work that he did was never passed back to me for my approval. Not to criticize David, but there were changes made that I did not like. He was heavily involved in doing the last module. But, again, I was given no say in the matter and my relationship with TSR was already brewing into anther suit. Again, I am sorry, I can provide you with no details.
The press release concerning the upcoming Blackmoor setting has generated a lot of interest in Mystara and Classic D&D fans, hoping to see at last the Blackmoorian technomagical society and the ancient D&D world fully described. However, we don't know if copyrights might permit this. Will the new Blackmoor setting give us some light about the past of the D&D world?
Yes it absolutely will do so!
Tell us something more about the new Blackmoor setting.
It is not just a rehash of the old modules converted over to d20, nor is it just 'old syle'. All of the old stuff will be present - at least the better parts. There will also be a wealth of old information that was never published as well as new material to expand and enhance the world as well. We have taken the existing world of Blackmoor and resucitated it with a more contemporary styling. Those gamers who know all about Blackmoor will recognize the people and places, but we took steps to set Dave Arneson's Blackmoor apart so that it could stand on its own. It was important to make sure that the world wasn't just another cookie cutter setting. You have to remember, Blackmoor is the world that started this whole game genre over thirty years ago. A direct copy of the old style would probably not be met with as much applause as we would expect.
When the book will be released?
The book was slated for release in August but has been pushed back till November/December as we finalize some existing agreements regarding the release. Earlier this year we came to terms with Wizards of The Coast regarding the sale of the Blackmoor rights that they own and we are awaiting final completion of the paperwork. That agreement is currently in place and allowed us to move forward in production of the book. All should come along nicely in a couple of weeks.
Will it be hardback or softback? Will it use color, for the maps at least?
It will be hardback and will feature a Larry Elmore cover. The interior of the book will be black and white.
What is your opinion about the current state of the d20 market?
The d20 market has been pretty full of people ready to try their hand at publishing. I think that's great! In the old days, TSR pretty much had say over who could and could not publish for D&D. Now with the OGL, you have the advantages of using the D&D system, which I generally like, as well as the ability to take things the direction you want (for the most part). I applaud WotC for opening things up, but I am also concerned about recent changes in the license and the impact that it may hold for the fringe designers. D20 has proven itself and those who exert considerable resources deserve more advance notice of changes so that they can alter or modify products to comply with the licensing agreements. I expect to see many publishers looking for other vehicles for their intellectual property, but d20 will continue strong as ever.
Do both of you share the concern (hope, in some cases) that the industry will see a consolidation, with a smaller number of publisher with better production values and, hopefully, sales?
The number of companies that started doing d20 products has already been reduced. The good ones will stay around. D20 is a great idea and allows the little guy to have his chance in the sun. My only major concern is rising prices as a result of fewer sold books. It's hard to stand out in the d20 field without some gimmick or license.
What do you think about the 3.5 edition of Dungeons & Dragons?
It looks good so far. I have introduced 3.5 into my own campaign. The playtesting for Blackmoor exposed a few minor concerns, but nothing terribly troublesome. I will have a more informed opinion after a few more months of playing under the system.
You formed with Dustin Clingman a new company, Zeitgeist Games, with the purpose of publishing Blackmoor as a setting for the d20 system. This year however we were told that Goodman Games would have been the publisher of the setting, still designed by Zeitgeist Games. Why did you make such a decision?
The decision to work with Goodman Games was spawned from our perceived need to partner up with another publisher who could use the leverage that they already had to help the book into prodution. Part of the plan with Zeitgeist Games is to build a production house to create and develop interesting games and properties for ourselves and other publishers. Our choice to allow Goodman to handle the publication was centerered around this core business strategy. Joseph Goodman is an excellent businessman and has my full confidence.