The Battle Over Dungeons & Dragons Was the Ultimate Geek War

Following the unexpected success of Dungeons & Dragons in the late ’70s, game designers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson waged a decade-long battle over who should be considered the true creator of D&D. Gaming historian Jon Peterson chronicles that struggle in his new book Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons.

“I managed to find enough sources that most of the questions I thought were interesting I can at least shed some light on,” Peterson says in Episode 489 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “A lot don’t have definitive answers, but I think I can at least paint enough of a picture.”

Game Wizards may come as a shock for many D&D fans. Peterson’s account quotes extensively from primary sources, including letters and legal documents, many of which paint Gygax and Arneson as deeply flawed people. “It’s not fun to write something that is, ultimately, pretty negative,” Peterson says. “But at the same time, I think it’s necessary. If you don’t get the nuances of these business and legal circumstances, there are just causes and effects that you’re not going to understand.”

Peterson tried hard to treat all of his characters with respect and sympathy. “Everyone made mistakes, and everyone had their egos and everything else,” he says. “But I think they were trying to make the best of a situation nobody expected they’d be in. Suddenly they’re in it, and what are they going to do? So I hope no one comes across in this as a villain.”

As for the question of who should be considered the true creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Peterson believes the game was clearly a group effort. “It’s drawing on all these different sources and experiences, and all these different inputs that went into it—whether that’s Braunsteins, whether that’s all these different phenomena that were going on in the time leading up to D&D,” he says. “It’s never the right thing to break down the invention of something with this kind of cultural significance to one single individual.”

Listen to the complete interview with Jon Peterson in Episode 489 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Jon Peterson on Dave Arneson:

“There were three awards that were given to D&D [at the 1978 Origins Game Fair], including the award for “Best All-Time Role-Playing Game Rules.” It’s an awards ceremony, and it’s not a huge one, but TSR employees would go up and get their trophy, and thank people, and sit back down. Arneson actually ran up on stage to grab that all-time greatest role-playing rules trophy, and there was a bit of a dispute. Should these trophies go to the company that published the game, or should they go to the designer? Arneson ran this whole publicity campaign to try to convince people that awards like this should go to designers and not to companies. … But ultimately there wasn’t a lot of sympathy, even among the wargame publishers in the industry, for his position, and he did not end up getting all three trophies for himself.”

Jon Peterson on Gary Gygax:

“Gygax was great in person. Everybody who met him—before he became ‘Gary Gygax’ and everyone had all this anger over the success of D&D—just remarked on how eager he was to help, how he wanted to sit down and play games with you, help you design games, help you perfect your own rules. He was a really gregarious, outgoing, friendly guy. … It’s just once those skills start having to be applied to running a medium-sized business, where now there’s a lot of people on staff, there’s many layers of management, there’s process, and this group needs to agree with this group, and they need to go execute on this general strategy, and you can’t micro-manage everything, as soon as it became that kind of company, he just hated it. He wanted out.”

Jon Peterson on the Satanic Panic:

“You see people [at TSR] saying things like, ‘Yes, there’s all this gnashing of teeth about the occult, but the reason people find the occult compelling is that there might—just maybe—be something to it.’ I don’t think they meant anything more with that than they do with, say, astrology. When you read your horoscope in the newspaper, is there something to it? Probably not, but there was just this background level, especially coming out of the 1970s, of crystals and New Age-ism and American watered-down spiritualism. And I think they did want to tap into that—or at least they were aware it was part of the market that was out there. But Gygax and Arneson identified as Christians—strongly—so as a consequence of that I don’t think they were really trying to take some provocative stand about the possible veracity of occultism.”

Jon Peterson on Ben Riggs:

“Ben Riggs is putting out a book that will come out next year, which is called Slaying the Dragon. It focuses mostly—though not exclusively—on the period after Game Wizards ends. … As soon as Game Wizards was announced, a lot of people who follow Ben, who knew that his book was coming, were like, ‘Oh my god. Is somebody trying to beat you to the punch? Is Peterson trying to sneak this in before you?’ So we did a video at Gen Con this year just to say, ‘Actually, we’re buds. We have known that we’re both doing these books forever, and we’ve been coordinating about this to make sure that they’re going to be on the same page.’ This isn’t going to be something where you’re going to be asking, ‘Is Riggs right or is Peterson right?’ Hopefully we’ve aligned these pretty much as well as we can.”

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