Monday, February 17, 2014

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. 

Dave Arenson

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.

Gary Gygax

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.

Ryan Dancey

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


  1. The fact that all of your Mount Rushmore heads are TSR/WOTC based is a bit unfair. Where is Sandy Petersen, Steve Jackson, and Marc Miller? The list is huge and I think that Weis and Hickman, while contributing to TSR, have no business on the monument. I could also argue with your inclusion of Dancey. I might put up Peter Adkinson instead, as he's the one that, in my opinion, saved the hobby.

    1. I didn't include Peterson or Miller because their influence really isn't that large. They made great games (CoC is awesome) but they don't have the reach and influence on the wider hobby that the guys I included did.

      Steve Jackson is a bit of a different animal as he has a big presence across a wide spectrum of the hobby, and I could see exchanging him for Weis and Hickman - except for the fact that Weis and Hickman's 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 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.

      As for Adkinson he didn't push for the OGL, Dancey did. Without someone making the determination to open the game up to all of us it would never have gone where it is today. Adkinson did a lot for the hobby, but without Dancey there would have been no OGL, and that puts him on the list.

    2. For what it's worth it's probably safe to argue a vast majority of RPG novels are focused on TSR/WOTC properties and I severely question how many of those novels brought readers into gaming and how many of the readers were simply gamers to begin with.

      Also, ask most companies besides WOTC that had a roleplaying property before 2001 what they think of the OGL and you'll probably find it nearly universally negative. I recall one of the reasons why Steve Jackson didn't go for an OGL type license for GURPS 4th Ed. was because they didn't want to head a repeat of how low-quality OGL-compatible "shovelware" shipped in such numbers as to taint the RPG industry as a whole due to a perception of poor writing and editorial control.

      I personally think the OGL did more damage to the industry - at least the d20-based products in the mid-2000s - than anything like MMORPGs could hope to do. The fact WotC cut it off at the knees for D&D 4th Ed is testament to the fact they didn't even like the beast.

    3. I think Call of Cthulhu's influence cannot be overstated. There's hardly any D&D module coming out nowadays that doesn't have at least some Lovecraftian elements. Most of those are influenced by the CoC game, not from the original fiction.

      As for Dragonlance, although it was very influencial in the 90s, nowadays it's not that big. Only one company is doingadventure paths in the vein of the DL series of modules, and not that many are publishing fiction.

    4. Colin,

      You're completely forgetting Games Workshop's best selling novels which have helped keep that company in the black for years.

      "Also, ask most companies besides WOTC that had a roleplaying property before 2001 what they think of the OGL and you'll probably find it nearly universally negative."

      And yet if you didn't have the OGL you wouldn't have Pathfinder - currently the industry leader in sales - or any of the retro-clones. I'm sorry, the opinions of pre-ogl companies will not change the fact that it changed the industry and the hobby.

    5. Jasper,

      I absolutely think that you can overstate Call of Cthulhu's influence on the hobby. While Lovecraftian elements are present in many modules you could point just as easily to Bruce Cordell for that trend as he brought in those weird monsters when he started working on the Far Realm back in 2ed days.

      Weis and Hickman are in there more for their works of fiction which helped established the viability of book lines based on role-playing games than anything else. Without them you would have the glut of novels from Wizards or Games Workshop (and god knows GW has put out some outstanding novels over the last few years).

    6. Cordell is a big Call of Cthulhu fan, and his work on the Far Realm is a good example how the Chaosium game influenced designers of other games.
      If it weren't for Sandy Petersen, not only Lovecraftian cosmic horror wouldn't be as common in gaming as it is today, it would be practically non-existent as a subject in roleplaying games.

    7. A very good point Jasper.

      The CoC guys still aren't making my list as I think the folks I already have are more influential, but there is no denying their impact on the hobby.

  2. So, what you're really saying is "The Mt. Rushmore of D&D Game Designers", which would mean you're still overlooking some big names. Dr. J. Eric Holmes for starters. His version/vision of D&D is a cornerstone of the game as we know it. Tim Kask, Frank Mentzer, Jim Ward! Whoa, that's just the tip of the iceberg. If it were to include other RPGs, there are many like Steve Jackson. Inspirational designers that are worthy of recognition. This looks like a D&D monument though. So, well done.

    1. We're not talking about the Hall of Fame here, we're talking about Mt. Rushmore. It is supposed to represent the most influential people, and it should only have four or five people on it.

      You can't have everyone.

    2. And besides, Mentzer's version of Basic is far more influential than Holmes as it had the longest time on the market and reportedly had the most sales (which means more people were exposed to it).

  3. This is a brave post. :)
    I'm no fan of Hickman & Weis but you're probably right about their influence. Everyone I knew who was into D&D in them id-late 1980s was reading them, though I never met anyone who got into RPGs via D&D novels AFAIK. Steve Jackson did a lot to bring tabletop gaming to the masses -- I know people who love Munchkin who had never played D&D, and Car Wars brought a number of people into the gaming world in the 1980s, IME. So while I'd rather see SJ there than H&W, I understand your reasoning.
    I totally agree that CoC is overrated in terms of influence. Never, ever met someone who started with CoC, or moved on to other games because of it. Maybe some HPL fans have only ever tried CoC and not D&D but that is a very small number of gamers and more part of HPL fandom than gamerdom.

    1. Jackson is the odd man out. :/

      I kept going back and forth on him but finally decided on Weis and Hickman because their success launched a huge sub-industry that's still thriving today.

  4. Wow that's a biased line-up.

    Not to take away from what any of these people achieved by with room for only four heads, well, I would disqualify Weis and Hickman automatically.

    Arneson and Gygax were innovators and I think the other two heads should be innovators as well. It's tricky, since there are so many names to choose from but a little diversity of theme couldn't hurt.

    1. It's not about diversity, it's about influence.

      Weis and Hickman were able to launch the entire role-playing novel industry through their efforts. An industry that still thrives as we can look at the New York Times best sellers list and see Games Workshop and Wizards of the Coast novels on the list. That's a huge contribution to the hobby.

  5. I'm disappointed that MAR Barker and Bob Bledsaw weren't included in place of Hickman and Weiss. Barker created the world of Tekumel, the first published setting. Bledsaw founded Judges Guild that published the first adventure modules, and his "Known World" which many hundreds of gamers got their start in RPGs, specifically D&D. These two belong with Gygax and Arneson in RPGs' "Mt. Rushmore."

    1. I went back and forth a lot on those two, but in the end I felt like Weis, Hickman, and Dancey had a bigger impact on the hobby.

  6. Sandy Petersen is not just responsible for Call of Cthulhu and its influence on Roleplaying. He was also part of the team that developed the first Real Alternative to the class-and-level approach to rpgs. RuneQuest deserves recognition as such, and Sandy was a major contributor in that gamed, producing the seminal supplement TrollPak, which has rarely been matched as an example of exploring a "monster" race and making it plausible with understandable goals and motivations. This "greying" of the monsters into a coherent setting has been copied by almost every system since, including D&D with its "Ecology of" articles, but rarely matched.

    He was also behind the highly influential "Ghostbusters" RPG, that may well be the first example of a more "narrative" style rpg. There is probably more that could be said, and I am not clear if he was involved with the design of Pendragon, another game that pioneered aspects of gaming that have become more significant in recent years, namely personality mechanics, but this should show that he and the Chaosium crew are deserving of more recognition than usually given, beyond just Call of Cthulhu.

    1. Of course, even saying all that I feel that Sandy's place could be superseded by the main guy behind a lot of Chaosium's work - the ideas powerhouse that is ... Greg Stafford.

    2. I have also just read that Greg Stafford was also one of the designers of the Ghostbusters rpg, the first RPG to use Dice Pools. It also had system manipulation points which could alter the dice rolls. This innovations were built on later by some famous games such as the World of Darkness line by White Wolf. So there's even more reason, if it were needed for Greg Stafford to be on your Mount Rushmore. Heck, one of the main 3.5 designers admits Prestige Classes were directly inspired by some of the concepts in RuneQuest.

    3. Ghostbusters' dice pool system devised by Chaosium was also the foundation for West End's D6 system, as used by the first Starwars RPG.


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