We go through life not always realizing how much a given person has influenced our lives. We don’t realize that many projects that we have enjoyed over the years have been touched by that person, and we don’t realize how many foundations have been built on their work. This is a story about one of those people and how they affected me. Keep in mind, this is not exhaustive. It’s a moment in time from a person’s life that touched so many people.

Starting the Story after Chapter One

In 1987, I picked up the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, the original boxed set for that setting. I didn’t get a lot of adventures in those days, but I jumped on the bandwagon for getting the Forgotten Realms sourcebooks that came out. Waterdeep and the North was heavy with its density, but it was very much in the same vein as the original boxed set. I liked it, but was still getting comfortable with the idea of running games in a detailed campaign setting.

When The Savage Frontier came out, I was wondering if I was going to enjoy it. Waterdeep and the North already started to touch on a few of these locations, so how much detail did I need? Once I started reading the book, I was floored. This sourcebook was amazing. This wasn’t just “it’s northern Europe but with lots more magic.” It had strange, quirky things nested in all of the corners. Not only did it introduce some very unique material, but there were also several places where these elements were tied into locations, plots, and factions mentioned in other Realms sourcebooks. It introduced some of the deep history of the Realms, not in a dry manner, but in a “here is the heart of a failed god” kind of way. There was a barbarian tribe whose patron spirit was a brontosaurus! The original Forgotten Realms boxed set had alluded to the portals that connected the Realms to other worlds, but several adventures had been retconned to be set in the Forgotten Realms. This sourcebook took the nature of the Realms, and that fact that it touched on multiple other worlds, and said “this NPC from the Egg of the Phoenix adventure is here now . . . the adventure didn’t happen here, but this is where in the multiverse that NPC settled.”

But I think what really hammered all of this home was how the information was presented. Yes, we got the same setting information/NPC commentary/adventure hook format that was established in the campaign setting book, but this time around, our point of view character wasn’t Elminster. Sure, they were sending letters to Elminster to keep him updated, but these were new voices with new perspectives. Our point of view characters were a sage and his sidekick, providing information along with banter, and a definite feeling that these weren’t distant experts with lots of contacts to draw on, but people that learned by doing . . . and getting into trouble.

So not only was the content great, and not only did it give me more of what I wanted from the Realms, it taught me an important lesson. You can learn about the tropes and conventions of a setting, and instead of trying to follow the template established, you could try to iterate in a manner that feels in line with the setting. You can respect the setting without being constrained by what has or hasn’t already appeared. By introducing a different narrator, the sourcebook taught me that the key to having fun with this setting was making it your own, using the details as tools and guidelines, but not a rigid mold to pour your game into.

Right there, my love of the Realms was cemented, and additionally, my idea of what I wanted from the setting was established. I didn’t want the setting to be too close to any historical setting. I wanted weirdness and spectacle. I wanted the Realms to be a place that was actively a place connected to multiple other worlds, not passively as an excuse to add D&D rules elements to the setting. I wanted the people of the Realms to know that they lived in a wondrous place.

And all of that was because of Jennell Jaquays.

Long and Interconnected Shadows

I was a scant 15 years old, and I didn’t know about a lot of the history of D&D at that time. I didn’t know that Jennell Jaquays was one of the first people to contribute to D&D as a third-party developer for Judges Guild. She was the prototype for the era we currently live in, where a lot of what guides our perspective of D&D doesn’t necessarily come from official content that is published by the current owner of D&D.

Jennell’s adventures pioneered the concept of telling stories by introducing elements in the dungeon. Her adventures weren’t just about adding synergistic challenges in an interesting order, but included storytelling elements which could then be fed back into the approach that adventurers employed to navigate the location. In an era when it wasn’t as common for the designers to explain why adventures were built the way they were, Jaquays could communicate intentionality with her descriptions and interconnected elements.

Dark Tower is one of the most acclaimed adventures for D&D’s early era, and it wasn’t produced by TSR. When Paizo compiled their list of the top D&D adventures for the 2004 30th anniversary of the game, Dark Tower was the only adventure to make the list that was not produced by TSR or Wizards of the Coast. Jaquays’ adventure design created a legacy of casual complexity and variety that doesn’t feel overwhelming. It created a number of potential interactions, none of which are “expected,” but none of which break the conceit of the overall adventure.

So obviously, Jaquays’ history of creating detailed and approachable adventure content, and her ability to convey game elements as a means of explaining use cases must be the end of how I was affected, directly, or indirectly by Jaquays’ history, right?

But Wait, There’s More

It took me way too long to realize how much RPG artwork I had encountered that came from Jaquays. The first time I ran across her artwork was in the AD&D Legends and Lore hardcover, illustrating the Nehwon mythos. I can honestly say that that artwork may have been what eventually led me to read Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. Dungeon Magazine, Ghostbusters RPG, Spelljammer, Dragon Mountain . . . there is no way I can list all of them, and even trying to find a definitive list of Jaquays’ art is difficult. It’s easy to find more that you never knew about.

While Jennell Jaquays was a legend in the tabletop RPG industry, that’s not the only place she was a legend. It was only in recent years that I realized several video games that I loved were touched by Jaquays’ work as well.

  • I loved Donkey Kong, and the port of the game that came out for the Colecovision helped me to realize that home video games didn’t need to be synonymous with Atari–Jennell Jaquays was on that team
  • One of the first online multiplayer games that absorbed an inordinate amount of my time was Quake III Arena–Jennell Jaquays was on that team
  • When Quake III Arena taught me that maybe my aging reflexes weren’t quite the same as when I made it to level 78 of Ms. Pac-Man or beat Castlevania, one of the games that taught me how much I appreciated real time strategy games was Age of Empires–Jaquays was on that team as well

 Jennell made an impact because of her talent with art, with words, and with code, and she made an impact because of her compassion and humanity. 
I knew that Jennell Jaquays was a trans woman that had transitioned in the time between when I first became aware of her work, and when I became aware of her work in the video games industry, but I didn’t get to see her fire and passion for defending the marginalized until I began to follow her on social media. The more I knew about Jennell Jaquays, the more it was respect built on top of respect, on top of respect. Jennell made an impact because of her talent with art, with words, and with code, and she made an impact because of her compassion and humanity.

What Might Have Been

Years ago, Jennell Jaquays created a series of system neutral RPG supplements called Central Casting, which were revolutionary, but didn’t always reflect her current feelings, reflecting attitudes, in some places, which were pervasive and wrong. Jaquays was working on creating a new version of those resources when she was diagnosed with Guillain–Barré syndrome. I am sad that not only will we not get to see her work on this updated product, but we won’t get to see her reaction to the D&D 5e adaptation of Dark Tower being produced by Goodman Games.

When we look at a lot of the people that shaped early D&D, and when we look at those we have lost, it is easy to focus on those that were “on the inside.” It’s really important to realize how much Jennell Jaquays contributed, not only because she was on the outside, but because the “inside” of the established D&D community was so influenced by her “outside” work.

Jennell Jaquays is one of those people who could easily be forgotten by history, and I desperately hope that is not the case, because among those of us that were of a certain age and a certain degree of obsessive in our love of science fiction and fantasy gaming, she was foundational. She is a luminary that I hope is allowed to shine as more histories of gaming are written.