The Mt. Rushmore of Role-playing Game Designers
Recently Lebron James struck up a bit of controversy in the sports world when he talked about his Mt. Rushmore of basketball players; and while I have no interest in discussing that list (seriously, no Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?), it did get me to thinking about a different Mt. Rushmore: the Mt. Rushmore of Gaming. Now the four Presidents who were chosen for inclusion on Mt. Rushmore were chosen due to their overwhelming influence in the history of the United States, so it stands to reason that the people chosen for the RPG Designer Mt. Rushmore should be picked for their influence on the history of gaming as well.
While Dave Arenson has often been maligned for his prickly personality and for his disorganized presentation of his materials it cannot be denied that without Dave Arenson there would be no Dungeons and Dragons.
Inspired by Gary Gygax's Chainmail rules Dave created his Blackmoor games in the Twin Cities which, in turn, would get Gary Gygax to work with Dave in the creation of a new game: Dungeons and Dragons. From the disorganized pile of notes, rules, and ephemera that Dave presented for the game Gary would go on to formalize and expand the system far beyond what Dave envisioned and into a useable system that would launch the role-playing game industry.
Dave's incredible creativity brought about role-playing, level progressions for characters, and perhaps most importantly, dungeon exploration. To deny him a place on the mountain would be akin to denying Gary Gygax a place.
While some will foolishly argue that Gary Gygax stole the whole idea of Dungeons and Dragons from Dave Arneson, the truth is far better. Dave Arneson had been inspired by Gary's work in Chainmail (specifically the Fantasy Supplement section), and then Gary was inspired by Dave's Blackmoor games when he encountered them at GenCon. Together they worked on the game that would become Dungeons and Dragons. Yet the effort between the two wasn't equal.
Dave provided his loose approach to the game and Gary waded into the mess finding much of it unusable. So he did what only he could; Gary tossed out everything that was unusable and started with the best ideas from both Chainmail and Dave's notes. The end result was a game that changed the world.
Gary would go on to write novels, articles, countless beloved modules, gaming books and even after leaving TSR his voice would help shape the industry. No other designer, or presence in the hobby has as large a place in our history and in our future.
Tracy Hickman and Margret Weis
While Gygax and Arneson created the game no two authors did more to popularize and change the hobby than these two.
Together Hickman and Weis created the wildly popular Dragonlance setting and have written multiple New York Times bestsellers set in the world they created. Through their combined efforts they were able to help take the game beyond the old maxim, "Kill the dragon, save the girl, loot the treasure" and into a world where the story of your games mattered.
Their works of fiction helped established the viability of book lines based on role-playing games. Their fiction helped raise the profile of the hobby and brought in many new gamers. More than that, their Dragonlance line of modules helped establish a real story to the game (for better or worse), something that was essentially lacking from the hobby prior to the line's publication. On the whole they fundamentally changed our understanding of what a role-playing game's setting could be and where it could go.
In the years since leaving TSR the two have continued to publish gaming materials, best selling books, and to inspire millions of gamers.
You might be asking yourself who is Ryan Dancey, because unlike the other names on this list he isn't a household name - but he should be. Ryan Dancey was the driving force behind the d20 Open Gaming License and the System Reference Document. He is the reason why we had the explosion of third party products when Third Edition was published. He's the reason why we have Labrynth Lord, Swords and Wizardry, OSRIC, and all the retro-clones that have come out in the last few years. He is the reason why we have Pathfinder.
While Gygax and Arneson created the hobby, Ryan Dancey is the man we should all thank for saving our it and for making it ours.