The Spirit Of Arneson

Here’s an extract from Season Four Episode 20, recorded back in October 2019. Enjoy!

For me, Dave Arneson represents everything that I most miss about the early days of my own hobby. Arneson was a wargamer, first and foremost, and this is something to which I want to draw attention.

Roleplaying games, as we know them, arose out of the wargaming movement. As much as we might enjoy imagining that roleplaying games could have arisen from other directions – and there are entire episodes of podcasts on this pondering, if you care to listen for them – as much as we might enjoy that possibility, the fact is that roleplaying games came out of wargaming. It started with tabletop miniature wargaming. And games like Risk, Diplomacy, and those Avalon Hill hex-and-chit wargames too.

This was the stuff that my Dad was into throughout my own childhood. Arneson was one of the wargaming fraternity. Blackmoor arose from that tradition. And then transcended it. Arneson’s innovation left many gamers, my Dad amoung them, behind. Many couldn’t palate the “fantasy” elements. More still couldn’t “get” the man-to-man level of play. These days we’d call it first-person gaming.

Arneson’s spirit is one of innovation and exploration. He delighted to throw a challenge at the feet of his friends. He did it as a player – beautifully illustrated by his performance in the Braunstein game that involved his CIA character. Arneson played OUTSIDE of game time. He concocted an elaborate plan to not only win the game but also to do it in a way that screwed with everyone’s expectations. Yes, he was “that player”. I have never, honestly, played with anyone quite like that. I think the level of trust needed is so high that most of us would react badly to such incredible boldness and creativity. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because we can’t trust each other enough to let go of our preconceptions of what we think the game is meant to be.

But here’s the thing that niggles at my mind: when I think about Castle Blackmoor and the dungeons beneath, I wonder at how much Arneson defied expectations in wargaming circles. It’s little wonder that he lost some players for YEARS – literally, friends he drove away from playing Blackmoor, one reportedly because Arneson allowed their character to die in the first session they played in. And yet, those were friends who came back to his game years later. Now they sing his praises. At the time, I rather suspect they couldn’t see his particular genius. And that, my friends, is totally understandable. Arneson was off on his own journey.

And that’s the spirit that I wish I could discover at my own table. But I don’t think it arises from “just the right rules set”, especially one that pretends to emulate some imagined “original rules set” that we can’t recover from Arneson’s notes. I believe the Spirit of Arneson lies in his quest for a bloody good game with friends he trusted and loved. He was pushing the boundaries. He was testing the limits. Arneson wasn’t going to iterate for the purposes of publication – although he didn’t seem to mind when Gygax did so on his behalf. Arneson was iterating for his own amusement and for the sake of his fellow players. It was largely all in his head – which is why the notes are scant and scattered – but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t extensive.

The Spirit of Arneson challenges us to try new things. To take risks in each and every game. To push the boundaries of our imaginary worlds and to challenge our friends to play better. Roleplaying games are NOT the rules. Arneson shows us this truth better than anyone else I can think of. He winged it, by all accounts, and very little in the rules stayed fixed for very long. But that wasn’t his focus. I believe that Arneson wanted to create a good experience for his friends and for himself. And the true genius of Arneson was to bring to the wargaming table the first-person gaming experience he learned from Wesley and add to it a fantastic world from which he aimed to escape the literalist historical nitpickers. Arneson literally took his ideas underground, into the dungeons of Blackmoor. But more than anything, Arneson embodied the idea that anything can happen at the table.

What am I suggesting? I think that channeling the spirit of Arneson means to push at the boundaries. In the modern roleplaying hobby, I see a tradition that has grown out of Gygax’s particular interpretation of Arneson’s idea. It’s a tradition that has been sold and marketed. It’s also been blended with the concerns of people from outside of the wargaming tradition. And all of that is fine – after all, whether I like it or not, all of this is our hobby’s history. It’s what happened. It’s what shaped all of our understanding of what the roleplaying game has become.

But if you want to honour Arneson, you should be prepared to push at all those boundaries. Test all those well-established ways of playing. Iterate. Explore. Invent. And have fun with your friends. But, whatever you do, do it for the benefit of you and your friends. If you’re not having a good time, stop – rework it, reiterate, and fix that which seems broken.

For me, the journey I want to take is back to the original framework of the roleplaying game: a set of characters who enter a dark and dangerous underworld filled with mazey tunnels. I’ve never played a genuine Arneson-Gygax dungeon adventure, as described by Original Dungeons & Dragons and as illuminated by the descriptions given from the imperfect memories of those first players. Perhaps we can never, truly, recover the original way Blackmoor was played. But we can certainly build our own slice of Blackmoor – our own interpretation of that game – informed by the game structures that Arneson gave us.

To me, the real genius of Arneson was in inventing the dungeon crawl. His game rules were patchy and poorly recorded, but both the oral tradition and the written tradition of the dungeon game are pretty clear to all. When I read early issues of Alarums & Excursions, I see people changing the RULES all the time. But I also see everyone adopting the basic game structure of the Arneson-Gygax collaboration: they are all running their own dungeons. And, before long, folk are also running wilderness adventures using maps of the outdoors alongside the mechanisms of the dungeon – using stuff like random monster tables in the wilderlands. What’s important is that the game is played by all. That it’s an emergent story that arises from the choices of the players. And that it belongs to the players at each GM’s own table.

The rest, as they say, is detail.

Game on!

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