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DnD adventure design pioneer Jennell Jaquays has died

Jaquays wrote ground-breaking early DnD modules, including one of the first megadungeons, and worked on Quake III and the Age of Empires series.

DnD adventure design pioneer Jennell Jaquays, a middle-aged woman with blond hair, wearing a purple shirt, holding a mobile phone, sits in a restaurant - photograph by her wife Rebecca Heineman

Pioneering DnD adventure designer and trans-rights activist Jennell Jaquays has died. Her wife Rebecca Heineman shared the news of her death on Wednesday, January 10, through the Bluesky social media platform.

Born in 1956 in Michigan, Jaquays encountered DnD in the 1970s, and formed ‘the Fantastic Dungeoning Society’ while studying for her Bachelor degree in fine art at Spring Arbor College. There, she co-authored The Dungeoneer fanzine, one of the first ever tabletop RPG publications. The ‘zine launched in the same month as the first issue of TSR’s ‘The Dragon’ magazine, to which Jaquays also contributed work.

Jaquays designed, wrote, and illustrated adventures full-time for several RPG companies in the late 70s, before moving into the videogames industry in the 1980s. She continued to work as a freelance RPG designer and illustrator part-time, and worked full time with then-DnD publisher TSR from 1993-97.

DnD adventure module 'The Caverns of Thracia' by Jennell Jacquays - cover art for a classic DnD module, with line art of three monstrous figures superimposed on a stalactite-rich cavern

Jaquays pushed the envelope of early DnD adventure design. RPG reviewer Gus L describes her 1979 adventure ‘The Caverns of Thracia’ as an early example of “a proper dungeon crawl with factions, unique setting, excellent maps, and coherence” that was “lacking in other early dungeons”. He calls the module “dazzlingly complex and multi-leveled, riddled with hidden passages, varied environments, and most impressively a sense of living, active possibility”.

Jaquays’ most influential work includes an early – arguably the first – mega dungeon, ‘The Dark Tower’, published by Judges Guild, and ‘Griffin Mountain’, a campaign setting and mega-adventure for Chaosium’s Runequest RPG. Both adventures were nominated for H.G. Wells awards. She was also a talented artist who produced iconic DnD art, such as her cover for TSR’s ‘Dragon Mountain’.

DnD adventure 'Dragon Mountain' cover art by Jennell Jaquays - a huge red dragon spreads its wings and roars in front of an enormous mountain peak

Her career in the videogame industry included work as a level designer at id Software, working on Quake II and Quake III Arena, as well as work on RTS games Age of Empires III and Halo Wars. In 2003 she co-founded, and co-authored the syllabus, for the Guildhall videogame development programme at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

In 2011 Jaquays came out as a trans woman and a lesbian. As the creative director of the Transgender Human Rights Institute in Seattle she campaigned against so-called “conversion therapy” being used on LGBTQ youth, organising petitions for a legal prohibition on the abusive practise.

In Autumn 2023 Jacquays was admitted to hospital suffering life-threatening complications from the rare Guillain-Barré syndrome, which affects the nervous system. She is survived by her wife, and two children from her first marriage.

The header image was taken by Rebecca Heineman and first used in a fund-raising campaign to support Jaquays’ healthcare.