Review – “Dave Arneson’s True Genius” by Robert J. Kuntz

Rob Kuntz’ brief monograph, Dave Arneson’s True Genius, is:

  • The most important work written about what constitutes an RPG to date
  • Quite likely the most important work about what constitutes an RPG that will ever be written
  • Unlikely to be read by the people who need to read it the most

I first played the game that would become D&D in October of 1972 at Gary Gygax’s house in Lake Geneva. I wasn’t one of the original group of Greyhawk players who started in August of 1972, but I was part of the “second wave.”  I still remember going home after my first game that night.  My overwhelming emotion was “I’m not sure what kind of game we just played, but it’s the greatest game ever.”

Since then, many, many words have been written on “what is a role playing game,” and, frankly, most of them are utter bullshit.  Kuntz’ monograph, however, finally and accurately describes what made Dave’s “BLACKMOOR” game different from every game before it.  It earns this distinction by being the only description that accurately fits the observed data.  After reading this my greatest reaction was “Eureka!”  Finally, at last, somebody actually had figured it out, and stated it well.

THE BAD

I have known Rob Kuntz (RJK) since we met in 7th grade arithmetic class.  He is one of my oldest and dearest friends.  Dave Arneson’s True Genius (hereinafter DATG) contains elements that Rob and I have discussed here and there over the decades, and I found myself almost 100% in agreement with.  On the other hand, I also respect Rob, and our friendship, too much not to be honest.  Nobody, and nothing, is perfect.  I have two major criticisms of this work.

Firstly, I believe it contains too many references to his yet unpublished work.  If one is going to bring up a point, then one has the obligation to explain that point in the current work.  I feel this work would be stronger if self-contained, with a single reference to the upcoming works included in the preface.

Secondly, DATG is written in a very dense, academic style.  I have a fairly good vocabulary and quite solid reading comprehension; however, I had to read DATG carefully three times through to really understand it well.  I believe that a less formal style would be helpful in making his thesis clearer for most people. This is borne out in my opinion by reading the negative feedback on this work; overwhelmingly, the chief complaint I have seen is that the language is too difficult.  Furthermore, even those who claim to understand it and then give negative criticism show clearly in their criticism that they do not, in point of fact, understand the work.  (We may dismiss the fatuity of the reviewers who complain about the price vs. the page count, who resort to ad hominem challenging RJK’s “right to write about systems theory,” or the reviewer who ended his lengthy negative review by admitting he had not actually read the work.)

Speaking of writing about systems theory, I have also heard several times “Dave Arneson (DLA hereinafter) never used that kind of language.”  No one is claiming he did; that statement, while true, is utterly irrelevant.

Normally, I would not worry much about those people who are unable to understand this work; to quote C.S. Lewis, “people who can’t understand books written for grownups shouldn’t talk about them.”  But DATG is such an important, fundamental piece that it truly needs to be read and understood by everyone with any interest in RPGs.

THE GOOD

To paraphrase Henry Higgins, “By George, I think he’s got it!”  The greatest achievement of DATG is as I have mentioned before; RJK nails, clearly and concisely, what made BLACKMOOR different from all other games before it.  Anyone who reads and understands this monograph will never look at RPGs in the same way again, whether as a referee or as a player.  This booklet changes everything.

OVERVIEW

The monograph consists of three sections.  The first is basically a historical overview; it describes the advent of Blackmoor, its introduction to the Lake Geneva gaming society, the LGTSA, the creation of TSR, and the initial success of Dungeons & Dragons.  RJK’s emphasis in this section is that D&D started as a wide-open, creative game where referees were encouraged, nay required, to make the game their own, and the products TSR sold – the original rules, supplements, “Monster and Treasure” assortments, “Geomorphs,” hex paper, and the like – were designed as aids to referee creativity and individuality; and within a few years, TSR moved to a “consumer oriented” model of offering ready-to-play modules and a circumscribed world view of “what the game is about.”

RJK has stated, repeatedly, that he thought D&D modules – prepackaged, “read and play”, ready to go – were the worst thing that ever happened to D&D.  Let me say right here and now that I agree with him on this point absolutely and completely.  I frankly don’t care how many modules sold; they turned the emphasis of the game from imagination to mechanics, and the referee from creator to text reader and rules parser.  Yes, the modules made TSR a ton of money, and God knows, I’d find a wad of cash that big hard to resist myself.  But money does not equal quality, and the game has become much the poorer for its commercialization.  TSR could, and very likely would, have become a “moderately successful game company” (rather than undergoing a bacterial growth/dieoff curve) by continuing to offer products to help referees create and imagine.

The second essay is the heart of DATG.  In this essay RJK analyzes what DLA did to create BLACKMOOR, and how it was new, different, and exciting.  I am not going to do violence to RJK’s thesis by attempting to condense it into an aphorism that fits on a bumper sticker; any such attempt would result in mere nonsense.  I will make the attempt of showing the merest tip of the iceberg, however, by saying that RJK describes DLA’s breakthrough in terms of separating the “mechanical” from the “conceptual” systems in RPGs, and that DLA’s innovations were in the conceptual realm.  (Notice again the “tip of the iceberg” description.)

This may seem like a scant description of something I’m claiming is so important.  But much like those critics who say War and Peace is “the greatest novel ever written,” at some point I can only answer the question “why” by saying, “Read it yourself and you’ll see!”

The third section is RJK’s analysis of how and why Blackmoor was more than just a variation of CHAINMAIL and/or Brauntstein games.  Though accurate, I found that once I really understood the thesis of Part 2, this section was self-evident; I have played both CHAINMAIL and Braunstein, and Blackmoor is obviously much, much more than a mere “variant” or “descendant.”  If you’re not familiar with CHAINMAIL or Braunstein, though, this is a very useful section for that reason.  For that matter, I’ve seen various “authorities” and “experts” try to derive Blackmoor from any number of sources, including “Diplomacy,” the “Strategos N” Napoleonic miniatures wargames rules, and Michael J. Korns’ WW2 game “Modern War in Miniature.”  My comment above about CHAINMAIL and Braunstein apply to these other games as well.  I have played them all… and a myriad of others, to boot… and it is once more self-evident that Blackmoor went far, far beyond any of them.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

One of the drawbacks of growing older… besides physical diminishment, loss of sexual energy, greying hair, sore muscles and joints, flatulence, memory loss, death of friends and family, and lots of other things…

Ahem.  I’ll start over.

One of the drawbacks of growing older is that it is very, very difficult to describe the effect of paradigm shifts one has witnessed.  “Star Wars” exploded in 1977, in a way I can’t really describe.  Lord of the Rings was everywhere in the late 60s and early 70s in a way that was truly astonishing at the time.  The advent of the first Web browser in 1993 changed the world in a fundamental way.

Dungeons & Dragons, in its original appearance, changed the way people thought of and played games in much the same way.  And most importantly, people grasped on an instinctual level the supremacy of the conceptual parts of the game over the mechanical.  A few days after that first adventure in “Greyhawk,” I nabbed some graph paper from math class and drew up a dungeon level and started running it for  a couple of high school friends, using dice I swiped from a Yahtzee game and rules I made up as I went along.  Other kids at high school did the same thing.  I started running it at college in 1973, and within weeks most of my other players had “dungeons” of their own… ultimately, including Professor M.A.R. “Phil” Barker, who created Empire of the Petal Throne.

And it wasn’t restricted to existing gaming circles.  People would play a game or two and start running it on their own at home, or at science fiction conventions, or in college student unions, or in any venue where there was any interest in the fantastic.  In those first few years the game spread like wildfire; people would see it and couldn’t wait to start exploring their own conceptual realms of imagination.

The emphasis on an “official” game killed that.  Products were sold to be consumed, not used for building.  With the emphasis on the “assembly line” of the tried and true money making modules, exploration of conceptual space ended and the emphasis became on game mechanics.  When one of the writers at WoTC stated that the key to D&D 3rd Edition was “system mastery” of the rulebooks, this served as the epitaph of everything Dave Arneson invented.

Further, this emphasis on mechanical rules mastery has resulted in the referee turning from an imaginative creator into a “Final Encyclopedia” style holder of huge volumes of rules.  “I can’t be a Game Master, there are too many rules to remember” is a sentiment that fills face to face discussions, convention panels, and dozens of RPG online forums.  And who can blame them?  When the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons consists of three volumes of hundreds of pages each, what sane person is going to look at that and say “It’s easy to run this game?”

The original D&D rules of 1973, published as three digest-sized booklets, would have fit in 58 pages full sized.  Total.  Including rules for aerial combat, naval combat, building a castle, and running your demesne.

The important thing was not what was written down on paper.  The important thing was what was in the imaginations of the players.

That has been thoroughly banished from RPGs.  Mechanics have won.

DENOUEMENT

I find it very, very difficult to be optimistic about RPGs at this point.  The emphasis on mechanics has destroyed the very soul of the game; rules don’t just provide support for the imagination, they supplant it.  Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.  “Everything not permitted is forbidden.”  Rules, rules, and more rules are the order of the day.  It reminds me of the researches of Hell as described by C. S. Lewis’s devil, Screwtape: “more and more complicated theories, fuller and fuller collections of data, richer rewards for researchers who make progress, more and more terrible punishments for those who fail.”  The authors of D&D 3rd edition admitted that there are “traps,” choices in the rules that will penalize new players.  They have stated that rules have to “protect players from the arbitrary whims of the game master” instead of collaboration between game master and players to explore the imaginative realms.

Saying “D&D was better in 1974” is not, in point of fact, an opinion.  The game was freer, more open, more supportive of the imagination.  That has died.

If every D&D player read Dave Arneson’s True Genius, there might be a chance that conceptual ideas rather than mechanical ones might become paramount once again.  But, frankly, that’s not going to happen.  WoTC has a huge advertising budget, and Rob Kuntz has none.  Furthermore, the simple fact is that convenience sells.  McDonald’s isn’t the largest selling restaurant chain in the world because they’ve got the world’s best food; far from it.

So the world of Dave Arneson, where the game is about mutual exploration of the imagination, is going to continue to be the disregarded, discredited provenance of a few old men and women who will talk about “the good old days” and be roundly ignored.  Neophilia is not confined to gaming, by a long shot.  The admonition to “hold fast to that which is good” is as extinct as the dodo.  The best we can hope for, I fear, is that we old farts, we last survivors – we few, we happy few, we band of brothers – will pass on our love of wide open conceptual spaces to a few younger people so that Dave Arneson’s innovation – Dave Arneson’s True Genius – does not disappear completely.

That is my hope – but, honestly, not my expectation.  I expect laziness to win, and Dave Arneson’s true genius to be consigned to the dustbin of history, unknown but to the rare historically curious gamer.

Ozymandius am I, King of Kings.
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 
Dave Arneson’s True Genius is available at https://www.threelinestudio.com/store/dave-arneson-s-true-genius/

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14 thoughts on “Review – “Dave Arneson’s True Genius” by Robert J. Kuntz

  1. Hear, hear!

    I couldn’t agree more, I started with the ‘White Box’ D&D back around 1977 and always found packaged adventures or slavish adherence to rules completely stifling to the wonderful creativity Role Playing games can engender. It certainly takes some skill and quick wit on the part of the ref, but having the players making decisions based purely on their situation rather than pouring over thick tomes of regulations makes for a far better experience all round.

    • DerKastellan says:

      I find that once one finds the right group, one can drop a lot of the pretense. But the mechanics-driven mindset has become so prevalent that building such a group takes a long time.

      • Yes it was probably easier in those days because what rules we had were far lighter then those today and as such easier to abandon. I fairly quickly moved to a ‘just in time’ or ‘make it up as you go’ method that I even used for full scale miniatures battles and 1 day military campaigns.

        Our group was a fairly stable one and our main ref moved on D&D and C&S to his own systems, the mechanics of which we never saw and never cared to as we ran civilizations in a galactic space opera and even gods creating their own realms (as well as meddling in others of course!… 😉

  2. vishalicious says:

    What are your thoughts on other games that put storytelling first, and rules-lite games? It could be that they’re the true successors to Arneson’s legacy.

    • Well, I think I answered your question about rules-light in the review, with my comment about original D&D’s 56 pages for everything.

      As far as “storytelling first” games, the ones I’ve seen lose the game aspect. Dave Arneson was first and foremost a wargamer. If there can’t be a TPK without the players’ consent, it’s not Arneson.

  3. DerKastellan says:

    I found DATG a really good book but a frustrating read. I got used to the phrasing and terminology but when reading it I wondered if that other, broader upcoming book ever gets released. The author is probably not the youngest after all… So many of the ideas in the book actually do not get fully expanded. This book left me hungry… but maybe that’s not a bad state of mind? Seeking answers than feeling one had one’s fill.

    It inspired me, however, to experiment with playing games more. Before I had played a great variety of systems, but this was the first time I ever dared running a game to the players where the whole interface was abstracted. I didn’t tell them the rules, they had a synopsis of their characters, and over time I managed their characters in three different rules systems I ran behind the scenes for them. Since the chosen world was Star Wars I could pick from a variety of adaptations.

    In doing such an experiment you quickly run into some quirks baked into longterm players – like all of them wanted to roll the dice themselves. So I rotated three different dice systems but they got to roll. I would have never guessed that this would be the line they draw! It would have been much more interesting to do this with absolutely new players instead, though.

    Interestingly this interlude completely reset the trust relationship of the group. Instead of arguing rules so much in future D&D games some antagonism the group had long carried around subsided and even returning to 5e D&D was much more joyful.

    • “Don’t worry about the rules, just tell me what you want to do” was the standard way to play for the first several years… especially when Dave and Gary were the only ones with the rules!

    • Dice rolling is a crucial part the roll playing experience, it gives the players a visceral sense that they are doing something. Even in games I ran where there where no actual rules, just my judgment on the likelihood of an action succeeding, I made the players roll dice.

      Interestingly all they wanted to know was ‘is good high or low?’, actual odds and the like didn’t seem to matter, they were totally involved and most of the time behaved like they were at a craps table!

  4. Really enjoyed reading that a lot Mike. This quote “The best we can hope for, I fear, is that we old farts, we last survivors – we few, we happy few, we band of brothers – will pass on our love of wide open conceptual spaces to a few younger people so that Dave Arneson’s innovation – Dave Arneson’s True Genius – does not disappear completely.” is exactly the reason we are working on Tonnisborg. The more you and others of the old guard leave us holy writ like your post above, the better chance Arneson’s little gift to the world will live on. As with Ozymandius, at least the pedestal remained….

  5. gavin reid says:

    I started in 1975 with Empire of the Petal Throne and our GM deliberately kept us away from the mechanics so it was a wild ride of imagination. I can still remember with absolute clarity much of the the first couple of missions we played.
    The group was mainly wargamers and the groups I have played with since have usually had a couple of wargamers (including me). BUT we have always drawn an iron line between wargames (very precise rules, historical simulation, play to win) and fantasy gaming, which is, well fantasy, which is all about imagination, character interaction, acting, myth making etc. Maybe this is why we find younger players fit in well. And why the gender distribution of the group is unusually even.

    I do mix it with EPT minatures with a couple of the RPG players, where the set of rules I have written is very precise (though with heavy emphasis on flavour) but every battle has a proper background story, and sometimes I run a role playing session before the battle which has an effect on the battle.

    So overall pretty much every word in this review (and a lot of the comments) ring entirely true. The mad genius of the early days gradually turned into tedious paint by numbers rules grinding. The contrast between the brilliance of the earlier Faerun books and the well produced but utterly tedious stuff now being knocked out is painful.

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