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Dungeons & Dragons' Arneson: The Lost Interview

Dungeons & Dragons' Arneson: The Lost Interview

April 10, 2009 | By Alex Handy

April 10, 2009 | By Alex Handy
More: Console/PC

[Following the passing away of Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Dave Arneson, Gamasutra is printing a previously unpublished interview with the RPG legend, discussing his influences and design philosophy.]

The late Dave Arneson is the father of Dungeons & Dragons. With Gary Gygax, he designed the original rules for what was to become the world's first role playing game.

This all began when a couple of war geeks had decided to lay out some rules to allow their soldiers to move between games played. using sand pits to mark the movement of pewter miniatures, Gygax, Arneson and friends reenacted the battles of Napoleon.

But in the mid 70s, Arneson created Blackmoor, a fantasy setting which used rock, paper, and scissors to resolve combat situations. As time passed, the rules of Blackmoor gave birth to the rules of Dungeons & Dragons.

Since that time, D&D has grown and expanded, changing the face of gaming forever. With countless games based on the D&D property, and literally thousands of others influenced by the concepts from the game, D&D is an institution.

In this unpublished interview, originally conducted in 2004 but only now made available, Arneson discusses the genesis of the D20, the inspirations behind Dungeons & Dragons, and his views on game design.

So, where did you get 20-sided dice from?

We were in the very beginning using the six siders, but when we started doing the fantasy games, I dug out some 20-sided dice I'd purchased in England in the mid 60s.

I went to a game store -- well, a historical miniatures store -- in London, right off of... I think it was at Picadilly, I'm not sure. And I went upstairs to their gaming area and they had these little boxes of 20-sided dice, and I thought "oh, how cool!"

And so I picked up three pair, and I came back home with them and tried to introduce them into our military games, but the guys would have nothing to do with them.

We had several mathematicians, and working out percentages for six-sided dice was child's play for them, but it gave me a headache. So really, the dice sat there for three or four years.

Then we did fantasy, and I said "Hey, let's use this stuff for it." So when we started on Blackmoor, we started using 20-sided dice at the same time. Go figure. They're gamers, you know?

How did you decide on probabilities and percentage chances of the various things you could do? How did you translate real world probabilities into dice rolls?

Well, I could tell you I had it all planned out, but that wouldn't be true. And I could tell you I faked it all, and that wouldn't be true either. We adapted.

We started out using the Chainmail combat system. They had a fantasy supplement for Chainmail. I think we used that for two games. We quickly discovered it didn't work for what we were doing since they were mass-combat rules, not individual rules.

We were doing role-playing and they weren't role-playing. We started off our monster list, and I think Chainmail had only seven or eight monsters. So we quickly came up with twenty or thirty.

We tried setting them up in a matrix, but that didn't work because it was quickly taking up an entire wall. So, I adopted a combat system I used for Civil War Ironclads because they had armor class, hit points, all that stuff.

And we did that for the monsters, we assigned values to them: giants are big, orcs are little. We tried to make the creature's power similar to what its size was.

We tried to give each monster a special power that wasn't overwhelming, which was harder than I thought. It's easy to come up with incredibly powerful abilities, not so simple to make small ones.

What sort of computer games do you teach about?

Our students are required to produce a beta version of a game in order to graduate. I've been, in some respect, involved in somewhere around 200 games over the last four and a half years, games of all shapes and sizes.

I prefer the real-time strategy games. As I say when I talk about first-person shooters: my twitcher doesn't twitch quick enough to have me survive.

Of all the places that orcs appear, do you have a favorite? Tolkein? WarCraft? D&D?

I prefer David Sutherland's pig-faced orc myself. He's the original orc with a very pig snout on him. Because I thought it was so ridiculous it was cute. When they're used properly, I'd say the D&D orc.

When I say properly, that's not when they make them big and powerful. All too often the referee simply decides that they don't want to throw endless waves of orcs so let's just make them big and powerful.

I think that's a weakness on the part of the referee. I think they should be able to find a way to use them even if they're relatively weak.

What do you think the most important aspect of game design is?

Game mechanics. Making a balanced game. It doesn't happen very often, especially in computer games. The problem in computer games is they've got sequel-itis up the wazoo! Good grief.

We did a survey in class and the kids, all thirty-aught of them had to admit that there's very little under the sun out there. A lot of it's the publishers. They want to play it safe. They don't want to do anything experimental.

Look at the problem Will Wright had selling Maxis on The Sims. I mean, if my best game designer came up to me with a really weird off-the-wall idea, I wouldn't argue with him!

When I started gaming back in the 60s, there'd be one new game a year from the Avalon Hill Company. And it was a very good game, and again, good game mechanics is central. But you couldn't pick and choose.

But today, we figured out that, including shareware games, there's about 10,000 games produced, of which maybe a few hundred actually get into a store someplace. And maybe about a half dozen are worth playing.

These guys are under a lot of pressure to get the games out, and often times what happens is they don't really test them ahead of time. They have a lot of bugs and stuff. We get after our students about that. We know they've only got four guys and six months to get a game out. We've had some good ones, and we've had some that were so buggy they barely ran.

If you could jump on a development team and direct a project, who would you join?

Oh, I'd probably like work with the Neverwinter Nights people [BioWare] at some point. They seem to have a good notion about what to do.

I've learned enough about computers and programming from this school to understand this better over the last four and a half years. It's easy to say "Oh, they're not doing it right." But, could they do it any other way? Well, the answer is probably no, at this point. Also, you've got to get the game done in a couple of years.

What do you think of MMORPGs?

Well, at one time my entire family -- my son-in-law, daughter -- we were all playing Everquest. So obviously we've tried it out. There were some limitations in Everquest when you were trying to cooperate as a group.

Then we played Dark Age of Camelot, and that was better. It's getting better. When people can actually interact with each other and can be identified as participants, not just as an anonymous guy with a credit card, it makes it fun.

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