Heroes Fighting Critters

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The late Dave Arneson (left) at a convention with former REHupan (and currently popular writer) Mike Stackpole.

The death of Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Dave Arneson last week brings to a close another chapter in the early history of role-playing games. What perhaps isn’t well known is the degree to which Arneson imbued D&D with a distinctly Howardian scarlet glow, an episodic sense of adventure that immediately reminds one of those original Weird Tales-era Conan stories. Here is Indy Cavalier, writing about Arneson in The Cimmerian V4n5 for October 2008:

Dave Arneson — D&D’s other creator, who has habitually avoided the spotlight shining on Gygax — also credits Howard’s Conan as an influence. Arneson was a tabletop miniatures wargamer who expanded on Gygax’s Chainmail miniatures rules, giving personalities and statistics to the small lead soldiers who delved into a keep to steal supplies. Arneson says his part in creating a breakthrough in the wargaming/fantasy aspects of role-playing (and the mapped-out dungeon) happened thusly: “I had spent the previous day watching about five monster movies on Creature Feature weekend, reading a Conan book (I cannot recall which one but I always thought they were much the same), and stuffing myself with popcorn, doodling on a piece of graph paper.” At Gen Con 1995, I asked Mr. Arneson directly about Howard’s influence on the creation of Dungeons & Dragons. He said he had read the first six books in the Conan series and felt they were all pretty much the same. But he was attracted to the “looting, pillaging and killing” aspect of the Conan character, and “the hero fighting critters.”

“The hero fighting critters.” That’s the kind of playfulness that lies at the heart of the success of D&D, and of RPGs in general, over the last forty years. Sometimes I feel that modern fantasy fiction has lost much of that, concerned as it is with portraying realistic civilizations awash in political intrigue and bitter anti-heroes at the expense of both heroes and critters. In a way, fantasy is currently in its dystopian phase, where every sub-created world reeks of Blade Runner-esque decay and dissolution. I think the time is ripe for a recalibration towards a less bleak and more traditionally robust civilizational worldview.