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David Arneson, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, developed the game in Minnesota

photo of rule set for 1974 dungeons and dragons
Copies of the original Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks printed by Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) in 1974.

David Lance Arneson was a game designer from St. Paul who collaborated with Ernest Gary Gygax to publish the famous tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) in 1974. Although the D&D property changed hands in 1997, and the game’s mechanics have evolved, the game’s core wouldn’t be what it is today without Dave Arneson.

Arneson was born on October 1, 1947, in Hennepin County. His parents bought him the Gettysburg board game in the early 1960s, and he became entranced with historical wargames.

While attending Highland Park Senior High School in St. Paul, Arneson joined the Midwest Military Simulation Association (MMSA). The MMSA’s members were high school and college-age wargame fans in the Twin Cities who gathered to play historical military simulation games. Some of them, including Arneson, were more interested in the game itself than in historical accuracy. This group, in Arneson’s parents’ basement, began playing individual character roles instead of controlling large armies.

Due to his interest in historical wargames, Arneson pursued a history degree at the University of Minnesota. He particularly liked the Napoleonic era. The organizer of the Lake Geneva Wargames Convention, Ernest Gary Gygax, also loved Napoleonic-era naval battles. When Arneson met Gygax at Gen Con (a tabletop games convention) in August 1969, Gygax gave him a draft of his medieval wargame, Chainmail.


Arneson brought Chainmail back to the Twin Cities and introduced it to his MMSA group. He modified the game to allow players to act as individual characters rather than large armies. These characters had backstories and motivations which the players would roleplay. To Arneson, what the characters did outside of combat was just as important as the combat itself. He also introduced fantasy creatures and magic, largely inspired by J. R. R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian series.

In 1971, after a year of playtesting (testing for design flaws) with his Twin Cities group, Arneson brought the game he now called Blackmoor back to Lake Geneva to introduce it to Gygax and his group of gamers. They loved the roleplaying Arneson had mixed with fantasy combat.

Over the next two years, Arneson and Gygax mailed their playtesting notes back and forth. It was difficult to iron out the Twin Cities group’s notes, since Arneson preferred improvisational rulings over codified rules. He found that these slowed down the game and the fun. Gygax compiled the original version of Dungeons & Dragons, and with financial help from his friend Don Kaye, he formed the company Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) in October 1973. Dave Arneson was not asked to join the company, in part because Gygax saw Arneson as a designer, not a businessman. Arneson received royalties from TSR until 1977.

In 1976, Arneson moved to Lake Geneva and briefly worked at TSR as a creative director. He was forced out of the company that same year, after he refused to lower his royalties. In 1977, TSR released a new version of D&D called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D). Thematically it was the same game, but rules were now more codified and less freeform, as Gygax preferred. TSR refused to pay Arneson royalties for AD&D, citing significant differences from the original version.

Arneson didn’t pursue legal action until 1979. After helping found two companies, 4D Interactive Studios and Adventure Games, and publishing Adventures in Fantasy, Arneson sued TSR for royalties. The lawsuit was settled out of court on March 6, 1981. Neither party was allowed to discuss legally the terms of the settlement. It is public knowledge that Arneson was paid his royalties for AD&D and is credited in all editions of D&D as a co-creator.

In 1984, Arneson was elected into the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design Hall of Fame. Gygax contracted him to write adventures for TSR based on his original Blackmoor setting in 1986. During the 1990s, Arneson worked in California, using games to teach special-needs kids. In 2000, he moved to Florida and taught game design at Full Sail University. He later suffered a stroke and was diagnosed with cancer. He retired in 2008 and moved back to Minnesota to be with his family and old MMSA friends.

Arneson died on April 7, 2009, in St. Paul. The surviving members of his original Blackmoor playtesting group still get together every year to play the same characters they’ve portrayed for almost fifty years.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Bob Alberti on 05/13/2019 - 07:39 pm.

    If you enjoy the history of role playing games from Minnesota, check out Arneson’s friend, Professor MAR Barker, who created the world of Tekumel (dot com). He was a U of M professor of South Asian studies, and he translated the Klamath language of the native Americans of the Oregon and Washington area. Der Spiegel referred to Barker as “The Forgotten Tolkein” in a 2009 article.

    https://www.spiegel.de/netzwelt/spielzeug/tekumel-schoepfer-m-a-r-barker-der-vergessene-tolkien-a-649336.html

  2. Submitted by Raymond Lugo on 05/13/2019 - 08:32 pm.

    I thought in 1986 that Gygax was out and the deal Arneson made was with the new decision makers at TSR. Any other details you can give in that regard?

  3. Submitted by Keith Dalluhn on 05/14/2019 - 09:31 am.

    Full Disclosure: Dave Arneson was my friend.

    About half of your article is incorrect. A documentary on the creation of roleplaying and of Blackmoor in particular just had it’s world premier last week.

    Chainmail was definitely not the impetus for Blackmoor.

    Roleplaying was actually “invented” by a different member of the MMSA, David Wesely, in a game he called Braunstein.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braunstein_(wargame)

    From that Dave Arneson created a fantasy version called Blackmoor.

    From 1977 onward Gygax did all he could to promote himself as the creator of the game and downplay Arneson’s contribution by making up alternative histories on how D&D came about and playing up his contributions. I.E. how D&D was born from Gygax’s game Chainmail.

    Here is a link to the Secrets of Blackmoor page with more information, a preview of the movie and links on how you can order a copy of the 2 hour documentary.

    http://www.secretsofblackmoor.com/

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