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Jennell Jaquays is a fantasy artist who created classic adventures for tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, and distinctive video game levels like Quake II died on January 10 in Dallas. She was 67.
Ms. Jaquays’s wife, Rebecca Heineman, said she died in a hospital from complications of Guillain-Barré syndrome.
During Ms. Jaquays’s lengthy career, gaming grew from a niche hobby into 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 signifier of nerdiness on television shows like “Stranger Things,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “The Simpsons,” devotees shared the adventures they created with other hobbyists.
Ms. Jaquays (pronounced “JAY-quays”) discovered Dungeons & Dragons, often abbreviated as D&D, shortly after it was released in the mid-1970s, when she was studying art in college.
In D&D, a group of players create characters who go on an adventure run by a dungeon master. Many times, the results of attacks and actions are determined by rolling multiple-sided dice.
The rules and background information can fill entire books. Art like Ms. Jaquays’s promises excitement belied by the dense text of a game guide, and makes it far easier for players to envision creatures like Beholders (imagine a large, nasty, levitating meatball with a toothy maw, a colossal central eye, and many smaller eyes on swiveling stalks).
An artist can “show so much more in a 3-by-4-inch picture on a page than the designer can do in two pages of description,” Ms. Jaquays said in the documentary “Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons” (2019).
Over 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 of them, a red dragon roars while perched in front of a snow-capped mountain; in another, a nautiluslike spaceship floats above an alien world; in a third, two Ghostbusters prepare to tangle with a field of animated jack-o’-lanterns.
Ms. Jaquays has also created her own scenarios. Two of her earliest D&D modules, “Dark Tower” and “The Caverns of Thracia,” are renowned for their pathbreaking designs.
In the early days of D&D, many scenarios were fairly linear — enter dungeon, defeat monsters and plunder, assuming your characters survive.
Ms. Jaquays’s adventures were not so straightforward. Many of the games had multiple ways to achieve their goals, including secret ones.
“The result is a fantastically complex and dynamic environment: You can literally run dozens of groups through this module and every one of them will have a fresh and unique experience,” the game designer Justin Alexander wrote about dungeons like Ms. Jaquays’s on his WebsiteIn 2010,
“Dark Tower” and “The Caverns of Thracia” are still available, and still being played, generations after Ms. Jaquays made them. Her name has also become a verb — “Jaquaysing the dungeon” means creating a scenario with myriad paths.
Ms. Jaquays began working for Coleco in the early 1980s, and eventually she oversaw the teams who designed games for the Coleco Vision – an early home video console. One notable project was WarGamesA remake of the 1983 film.
After leaving Coleco in the days when video games were far more sophisticated, Ms. Jaquays created levels for the first person shooters Quake III and II, and the military strategy Halo Wars. She also made The War Chiefs expansion pack, which allowed users to compete as Native American civilizations vying for control against European civilizations in Age of Empires III.
Jennell Allyn was born in Michigan on October 14, 1956. She grew up in Spring Arbor and Indiana. Her father William sold mobile classrooms, and her mother Janet (Lake Jaquays) worked for a local credit union.
After graduating in 1974, she studied at Spring Arbor University. Her brother introduced her to D&D in 1975.
Ms. Jaquays eventually worked with gaming friends to produce The Dungeoneer, a fanzine of D&D content for which she secured 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 Václavik in the 1970s.
Ms. Jaquays was hired by Coleco a couple of years later. However, she was laid off mid-1980s due to a decline in the video games industry. She worked as a freelance artist and designer for RPG publishers for many years before joining TSR in the 1990s.
In 1997, Ms. Jaquays began working for id Software. This company was responsible for the groundbreaking first-person shooters Doom and Quake.
She was burned out by the toxic environment that Ms. Jaquays described. She left id the same year that she divorced her wife. A second marriage ended in divorce.
Ms. Jaquays stated in an Interview posted on Medium in 2020 that she was in her mid-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 kids finally being established in their own lives for me to finally have the courage to confront my truth.”
Ms. Jaquays met Ms. Heineman while playing video games. Ms. Heineman is a transgender rights advocate and video game designer. She helped Ms. Jaquays with her transition. Ms. Jaquays was also a transgender rights activist and worked as the creative Director of the Transgender Human Rights Institute, Seattle.
Ms. Jaquays, and Ms. Heineman were married in 2013 in Heath Texas. Ms. Jaquays has a son Zach from her first marriage, and a child, Amanda Jaquays. She is also survived by her brother Bruce and sister Jolene Jaquays.
After leaving id, Ms. Jaquays went to work full-time for CCP Games and Ensemble Studios. She also helped create a master’s degree program for video game design called GuildhallSouthern Methodist University is located in Dallas.
In recent years Ms. Jaquays focused on one huge project: “Central Casting,” a collection of elaborate back-story tables that allowed players to create character backgrounds by rolling dice.
She published the first of three “Central Casting” volumes 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 into players’ hands.
“I’m going to make certain that wish is fulfilled,” she said.