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Jennell Jaquays, who unlocked fantasy dungeons for players, dies at 67

Written by The Anand Market

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Jennell Jaquays, who made bright fantasy paintings, classic adventures for tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, and distinctive levels in popular video games like Quake II, died on January 10 in Dallas. She was 67 years old.

Ms Jaquays’ wife, Rebecca Heineman, said she died in hospital from complications of Guillain-Barré syndrome.

During Ms. Jaquays’ long career, gaming has evolved from a niche pastime to a cultural touchstone. But long before Dungeons & Dragons was adapted into hit video games like “Baldur’s Gate 3” and films like “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” and before it served as a nerd symbol in TV shows like “Stranger Things,” “The Big Bang Theory and Simpsons fans shared the adventures they created with other fans.

Ms. Jaquays (pronounced “JAY-quays”) discovered Dungeons & Dragons, often abbreviated to D&D, shortly after its release in the mid-1970s, while studying art in college.

In D&D, a group of players create characters who go on an adventure led by a Dungeon Master. The results of attacks and other actions are often decided by rolling multi-sided dice.


One of Ms. Jaquays’ most recognizable creations was the fierce red dragon she painted for the cover of the Dragon Mountain adventure.Credit…via Jennell Jaquays FB

The rules and context can take up entire volumes. Art like Ms. Jaquays’ promises excitement belied by the dense text of a game guide, and makes it much easier for players to imagine creatures like Beholders (imagine a big, mean levitating meatball with a maw full of teeth, a colossal central eye and numerous smaller eyes on the pivoting stems).

An artist can “show much more in a 3×4-inch image on one page than the designer can in two pages of description,” Ms. Jaquays said in the documentary.The Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons» (2019).

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For nearly five decades, Ms. Jaquays illustrated the covers and interiors of settings, modules, books and magazines for D&D and other role-playing games. In one, a red dragon roars while perched in front of a snow-capped mountain; in another, a nautilus-like spaceship floats above an alien world; in a third, two Ghostbusters prepare to face off with a field of animated jack-o-lanterns.

Ms. Jaquays also developed her own scenarios. Two of his early D&D modules, “Dark Tower” and “The Caverns of Thracia”, are renowned for their revolutionary designs.

In early D&D, many scenarios were fairly linear: enter a dungeon, defeat monsters, and loot, assuming your characters survive.

Mrs. Jaquays’ adventures were not so simple. They often contained several possible entrances and multiple avenues, some secret, through which players could achieve their objectives.


Ms. Jaquays designed the cover art for a supplement for a role-playing game based on the movie “Ghostbusters.” Credit…via Jennell Jaquays FB

“The result is an incredibly complex and dynamic environment: you can literally lead dozens of groups through this module and each of them will have a new and unique experience,” wrote game designer Justin Alexander of dungeons like this by Ms. Jaquays on her website. website in 2010.

Dark Tower” and “The Caverns of Thracia” are still available and still played, generations after Ms. Jaquays created them. Its name has also become a verb: “Jaquaysing the dungeon” means creating a scenario with a myriad of paths.

In the early 1980s, Ms. Jaquays went to work for Coleco and eventually oversaw the teams that designed games for Coleco Vision, an early home video game console; one notable project was “WarGames”, an adaptation of the 1983 film.

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Long after leaving Coleco, when video games were much more sophisticated, Ms. Jaquays designed levels for the first-person shooters Quake II and III and the military strategy game Halo Wars. She also created The War Chiefs, an expansion pack allowing users to play as Native American cultures vying for power against European civilizations in Age of Empires III.

Jennell Allyn Jaquays was born October 14, 1956 in Michigan and raised in Spring Arbor, Michigan and Indiana. His father, William, sold mobile classrooms; his mother, Janet (Lake) Jaquays, worked for a credit union.

After graduating from high school in 1974, she studied art at Spring Arbor University. His brother introduced him to D&D in 1975.


One of Ms. Jaquays’ first Dungeons & Dragons modules, “The Caverns of Thracia,” is renowned for its revolutionary design.Credit…via Jennell Jaquays FB

Ms. Jaquays eventually worked with gaming friends to produce The Dungeoneer, a fanzine of D&D content for which she obtained permission from TSR, the company that published the game.

The Dungeoneer developed a following, and Ms. Jaquays, who earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1978 and needed a more secure profession, sold the magazine and worked as an artist and game designer. She married Ruta Vaclavik in the late 1970s.

Ms. Jaquays got a job at Coleco a few years later, but she was laid off in the mid-1980s after a downturn in the video game industry. She spent years freelancing in art and design for role-playing game publishers before starting to work full-time for TSR in the 1990s.

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In 1997, Ms. Jaquays joined id Software, the company that created groundbreaking first-person shooter games like Doom and Quake.

But creating games with a small team in what Ms. Jaquays describes as a sometimes toxic environment left her exhausted. She left her ID in 2002, the same year she divorced her first wife. A subsequent marriage also ended in divorce.

Ms Jaquays said in a interview posted on Medium in 2020 that she was in her 50s when she “finally accepted that I was transgender and that I could do something about it.”

She added: “It took two marriages and two divorces and my children finally being established in their own lives for me to finally have the courage to face my truth. »

Ms. Jaquays knew Ms. Heineman through gaming, and Ms. Heineman, a video game designer and transgender rights advocate, helped Ms. Jaquays manage her transition. Ms. Jaquays also became a transgender activist who served for a time as creative director of the Transgender Human Rights Institute in Seattle.

Ms. Jaquays and Ms. Heineman were married in 2013 and lived together in Heath, Texas. In addition to his wife, Ms. Jaquays is survived by a son, Zach, a video game designer at Bungee, and a daughter, Amanda Jaquays, from her first marriage; a brother, Bruce; one sister, Jolene Jaquays; three stepchildren, Maria, William and Cynthia Heineman; and four grandchildren.


Before she died, Ms. Jaquays had nearly completed “Central Casting,” a collection of elaborate boards that allow players to roll dice to create complex stories for their characters.Credit…via Jennell Jaquays FB

After leaving id, Ms. Jaquays worked full-time for video game studios CCP Games and Ensemble Studios. She also helped create a master’s program in video game design called Guild Hall at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

In recent years, Ms. Jaquays focused on a huge project: “Central Casting,” a collection of elaborate story boards that allowed players to create character backgrounds by rolling dice.

She published the first of three volumes “Central Casting” in 1988, but it is out of print. She was almost done with “Central Casting” when she died, and Ms. Heineman said she was determined to get it back into the hands of players.

“I’m going to make sure that wish is granted,” she said.