Tuesday, October 26, 2021

"Arnesonian" play

I have come across a number of discussions among those who seek to discover and recapture an original, "natural," unbounded, or otherwise pristine form of role-playing game. Some of them find the roots of this mode of play in the person of Dave Arneson, one of the two original authors of Dungeons & Dragons. These fascinating discussions have two things at stake. One is the quest to find a style of play that may add more to your current game, a never-ending quest. The other is the implicit, and occasionally explicit, notion that original is better, purer, more pristine gaming as intended, as originally conceived. Intended by whom? By the founders, by the discoverers of this new form of game, that's who. It's Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Or else it's either Gygax or Arneson. Take your pick.

Generally, the pervasive notion seems to be that Arneson was a referee who made rulings on the spot, that he favored a "free-wheeling" kind of game. Gygax, by contrast, wrote about how he wanted a game that "controlled" its audience (which would be Advanced Dungeons & Dragons).

The term "Arnesonian" play, drawn up in recent years, evokes notions of free-wheeling fun, unfettered by a grown-up fetish with rules. Gamers are released into a childlike Eden of the imagination if they follow Arneson's spirit, and gaming becomes fresh again, even for jaded, middle-aged gamers.

It sounds good to me.

I have been curious about the attribution of a free-wheeling style of imaginative play unfettered by rules to Dave Arneson. After all, he did write rules: rules for miniatures warfare, rules for Dungeons & Dragons (where he gets credit for introducing experience points and levels, for example), and rules for the fantasy role-playing game he wrote (with much struggle and delay) after leaving TSR, co-authored with Richard Snider: Adventures in Fantasy (1979).

Take a look at Adventures in Fantasy. You can't tell me Arneson was all about playing "rules-light" or free-form. You'll find, for example, very complex rules for "taking courses" to learn skills, involving a formula with several variables:


Or check out the "combat matrix" from Adventures in Fantasy, in which the "body type" of the fighter contributes to determining the likelihood of hitting. What's your chance of hitting a "snake body type"?


There's a lot of this kind of thing in the game, which Arneson posited as the sort of system that he wished D&D had been, if it weren't for Gygax's role in writing it.

You can also look at the publication of sundry materials from his original Blackmoor campaign, that pre-existed D&D and which was released in 1977 by Judges Guild under he title The First Fantasy Campaign. Lots of rules, lots of keeping accounts.

These were not best-selling games books. They remind me of Gygax's Cyborg Commando.

Arneson published warfare rules, too. This is hardly "free Kriegsspiel," seat-of-your-pants gaming.

The common idea of "Arnesonian play" must therefore be a kind of myth.

So where did people get the idea that Arneson was a rules-lite guru?

It turns out they got the idea from Arneson himself, despite the many arcane game rules he published.

The answer is found in the context provided by Jon Peterson's new book, Game Wizards (which I just reviewed here). One topic the book covers is the acrimonious legal disputes over royalties from D&D sales. In that dispute, Gygax claimed greater credit for D&D by pointing out that Arneson and his Minnesota players had based their earlier Blackmoor campaign, which included the first D&D-style dungeon, on the Chainmail rules, miniatures battle rules of 1971 that Gygax had co-written with Jeff Perren.

Gygax argued that the basis for fantasy gaming was in his rules, and that Arneson just tinkered with them. This would mean that Gygax was the true founder of fantasy gaming, and that Arneson's role was trivial.

Gygax stated that Arneson had sent notes about his Blackmoor campaign to him, and that he (Gygax) had written them up.

Arneson's response was to say that his Minnesota group didn't really depend on Chainmail, but that they were more into "role-playing" (a term that had not yet been applied to these games when he was running Blackmoor). The term role-playing didn't start to show up in use for these games until 1975, after D&D was published, becoming more widespread from 1977.

There is a history to Arneson's shifting point of view. It was about money. Would Gygax get rich alone, or would Arneson have due credit, in the form of cash (a lot of cash), as co-author of record? How could Arneson make clear to the world what he had contributed?

It was only after Gygax insisted that he wrote the D&D rules and that Arneson had sent only notes that Arneson started to deemphasize the importance of rules and to claim to have invented the concept of this kind of game. As Peterson writes (pp. 156-7), discussing events of 1979:

The notion that rules mattered little became a common talking point for Arneson, a way of denigrating the process of actually writing the game, which Gygax had appointed to himself. The rules were an inessential development next to some ineffable role-playing concept that emerged from play; but the more Arneson stressed the argument, the more he implicitly acknowledged that his original contribution to D&D had not been to authoring its text.

I hope that readers will immediately see what this means.

Arneson loved rules. Just see the two little snippets I pasted above. Heck, what he sent to Gygax as his contribution to D&D was rules. Arneson did also love role-playing. He loved stories. But his argument that it was all really ultimately just about role-playing, not rules, was the product of his experience fighting for a fortune in royalties. Of course he would say that the rules didn't matter. Of course he would say that the he did not depend on Gygax's rules, that it was all about the spirit of role-playing. It mattered because he wanted to be rich, too. He had already been cheated out of royalties for his collaboration with Gygax before, when Don Lowry of Guidon Games managed not to pay Arneson any royalties for the game Don't Give Up the Ship!, which he had co-written with Gygax.

I think that Arneson deserved the royalties he received for D&D. But the idea that there was an "Arnesonian" rules-lite style of play that the man preferred is directly contradicted by the record. I'm sure he had his own style at the table. Like all referees, he certainly made rulings on the spot. But it wasn't rules-free or even rules-lite. They may not have been player-facing rules, but the records he published about his own play show that he also loved a different kind of table: tables upon tables of statistics and rules. And that's pretty typical wargaming stuff.

The idea that Arnesonian play is free-wheeling and rules-lite and entails a more unfettered imagination is based on the rhetoric around Arneson's legal battle. It's romantic wish fulfillment to think that the games started "pure" and trapped us in a cage of not-fun rules over time until the original style could be resurrected by rules-lite visionaries.

Now, all this is not to say that your rules-lite preferences are bad. It's how I myself play. And it's not to say that Arneson shouldn't get immense credit in the history of role-playing games.

What I'm saying is that the claim to ground one's favored rules-lite style in the antecedent of Arneson as a founding figure, as "the original role-playing style," the "natural" way to game, or another permutation of that, is misplaced. Nobody needs to resort to Arneson's claims, devised to win royalties, to justify playing without lots of rules and game mechanics, or to feel good about jettisoning useless stats and game-stopping procedures. Just play as you like.

Players who like lots of rules and mechanics are doing just fine, too. There's nothing wrong with their games, they're not "less original" in the sense of "less authentic."


There's another thing that comes out of Peterson's book worth mentioning while on the topic of Dave Arneson.

Already by late 1976, Arneson had conceived of something like GURPS. That is, he envisioned a genre-free universal system that would have its core rules in a "basic book." Then there would be "a line of role-playing game booklets" for each different "period or mythos." (Game Wizards, p. 104.) With this idea, he foresaw how much of the commercial side of the hobby would develop. He saw how role-playing game companies would keep players hooked and buying new products: core rules plus a long line of supplements with setting-based modulations. He was already imagining a multiverse of game settings for play based on a common set of mechanics, one rule-set to rule them all. As we know, it never happened, although there have been contenders over the years.