Dave Arneson's True Genius (Review)

Half way through reading Robert J. Kuntz's book, DAVE ARNESON'S TRUE GENIUS, I wrote the following response on the Ruins of Murkhill BBS

You have, I feel, given the best definition of what it is that we do. Describing to others why we sit around a table and play pretend either ends well or it doesn't. You also identify and clarify thoughts that I have had about the system for years but in a concise way which both strengthens and expands what I have been grasping at for so long.

I had taken a very long break from gaming, and when I came back to it, I played MUCH differently than I did as a youngster. The game functions better, we took our time and just did what we wanted to. You go into a house to search it, there is no dice for that now, I make the player search it. One of the club's founding members returned for a game, he had heard that it wasn't just a hack and slash anymore and he got curious about it. During play he'd try old tactics that rely on dice, and would get frustrated when I forced him to use his brain instead; however, the very next session he came back ready to go.

I had a hard time grasping what I did, what was different, and I finally figured it out! I allowed the player's thoughts and ideas to become more important to the game than the dice. If the player can't mentally accomplish a goal, or just becomes overwhelmed, we can always use the dice, but we don't have to. People come first, not the system. This philosophy, once it takes hold, changes the dynamics of the game in a positive way. This book really reinforces this principle, and even extends my personal awareness of how far this knowledge can really take us.

Thank you!

Copyright Three Line Studios
After finishing reading the book, my thoughts about it really haven't changed. The book contains a bit of personal history from an original designer; but, it isn't a history book. The book has no mechanics, nor does it tell you how to design worlds; what this book does do is that it describes the engine that makes the game so addictive and allows you, the reader, to understand the engine for yourself. True Genius is much longer than the page count, it is interactive as it requires you to take the ideas presented to continue the thought processes and what they mean to you personally.

The engine itself is larger than Dungeons & Dragons, in fact, Dungeons & Dragons places limitations upon it to stop it from reaching its full potential. The purpose of the game system isn't to help you, the end user, nor does it govern or improve the engine, the primary purpose of Dungeons & Dragons is to sell you Modules and to pretend that it is the best at what it does, when this is far from the truth.

If you are ready for this book, it is here, but beware that it will challenge what you know and encourage you to evolve. It exposes things that other designers know but don't want you to. The only critical issue I have with the book is that I feel that it could had been improved by a harsher editor, I sure wouldn't want that job! On average, most people have a 9th Grade reading level, however since this is a hobby primarily made up of readers, that average is probably somewhere in the collage level, still, I find it to be a bit too academic minded at times. Some find his word choices to be either intellectually intimidating, or thought provoking. The man is describing something that has never been fully described yet, with ideas as large as this (the engine), language itself is slow to catch up. This barrier has always been an obstacle, going right back to Arneson.

What I was hopping from this book were some insights on Dave's behavior while in the company, which are addressed, very clearly. I also wanted to know what Mr. Arneson's lost notes said, they, regrettably, are gone, but Rob does elude to some motivations of why this is. While those notes have no doubt been destroyed, Rob Kuntz, I believe, does his best to describe the contents of them. They didn't describe D&D, there was no D&D, they attempted to define the engine itself, which, like I said, is the exciting part of this book. This engine is the focus, and it, my friends is a very large yet illusive concept. The intent of the engine wasn't to recreate games that had already happened, it can do that, but as a resource, it is capable of so much more; how much more will only be discovered once we unshackle ourselves from the influences of people who aren't even at our gaming tables.

The target audience for this title is for those who are very very advanced. Those who have noticed the limitations set in place by their system of choice; any system. It is also of interest to those who study the history of our hobby, the information presented here is first-hand accounts, however that is not its goal, outside of helping you grasp what the engine is and how it was restricted right from the gate.

If you are serious, or just on the fence about developing your own designs, as I was; this book will provide motivation and direction. It defies my normal grade standards as it isn't a DM or Player Guide, it isn't something that you can apply to your current system, it is it's own thing. I will, however, state that this book is important. It's ultimate goal overshadows the status quo and forces you to question it. It also sets out to, hopefully, allow the hobby to grow beyond its current stagnation set in place by traditional formulas and be allowed to take greater leaps into future innovative designs. Wouldn't that be nice? 

The book itself is only available on the Three Studios webpage if you are waiting for it to come out digitally, I've been told that that isn't going to happen. A Kindle version would had been nice, but for the small press, Amazon takes a huge bite and leaves the Author unfairly compensated.


DerKastellan said...

Thank you for this review. Already the cover blurb suggests the writing style you have mentioned.

Currently reading Hawk & Moor I so I wanted to actually read more about Dave Arneson and am delighted to find this timely book!

RipperX said...

Arneson is elusive. I never read Hawk & Moor; I really enjoyed "Playing At The World" though. It is good to see more people taking interest in the history.

Pedro Obliziner said...

You definitely let me curious. Unfortunately the book is quite expensive for buyers outside the US, an ebook would be a great solution for this, and doesn't even have to be through amazon/Kindle, I'd buy a PDF sold on their website.

RipperX said...

I am with you, Pedro. Hopefully this changes, I know that he has published some work in digital formats.

DerKastellan said...

I'm reading this book right now. I find it both intellectually stimulating and very frustrating.

It is stimulating and frustrating because I do feel that it mostly just teases ideas without expanding on them.

It is frustrating because it is couched unnecessarily in a language that detracts from the content. I'm not a native speaker and find that it would behoove an author better to frame all ideas in simple language where possible. Or explain terms instead of just pointing to another book. I can't help but think that Rob Kuntz wants to make it sound as academical as possible.

I don't like the long lists of concepts without substantiation, explanation, or diving into them. I also don't like that the book constantly teases at an unpublished book the author is trying to write and publish that I right now cannot buy or read... And finally, 20$ (and international shipping) is quite a bit to ask for less than a hundred pages...

Be that as it may, I do find the book intellectually stimulating even if mostly by bringing forward ideas that are kind of (for now) left to the reader to expand on and truly understand. I'm not finished yet, having been swamped with work while being half-way through. I still consider this a worthy investment of my time, money, and patience, and I think that says a lot given the above. ;-)

RipperX said...

It is a great book, since reading it my games have ran much better, I'm not fighting the systems anymore, knowing when to open up a system really improves the flow and my involvement in the game.

Rob hangs out at the Murkhill board, if you've got a question, he'll be more than thrilled to talk about it with you. He opened up a dialog with this book; a dialog that couldn't wait for the larger book to be finished.

In regards to a digital press release, he is going to wait awhile but eventually publish it in that medium.

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