Game design pioneer Jennell Jaquays passes away at 67

Jaquays broke ground in tabletop, video, and PC game design, and was a prominent advocate in the LGBTQ community.


Jennell Jaquays, a game design pioneer who lent her talents to games from Dungeons & Dragons to Quake 2 and Quake 3: Arena, passed away early this morning after battling a series of illnesses over several months. She was 67. Her wife, acclaimed game designer Rebecca "Burger" Heineman, shared the news on Facebook.

Jaquays designed games at an early age, although like many, she had no idea such a hobby could become a career. "My younger brother was an avid wargamer—still is, actually—so it wasn't until college that I discovered fantasy roleplaying games, or any roleplaying games, because it didn't exist before then," she told me when I interviewed her for Rocket Jump, a Shacknews long read chronicling the making of id Software's Quake trilogy and other influential first-person shooters of the '90s. "Before then it was just tabletop wargaming. I played stuff like that with my brother; we used to [wage] miniature battles on our dad's pool table. In fact, not long after he built it, he never got to play pool on it again. We just co-opted the surface and would set up armies, and have these massive battles." 

Like many of her contemporaries, Jaquays fused her love of wargaming and tabletop RPGs with a keen interest in sci-fi and fantasy stories. She worked on the production side of her college newspaper and partnered with a couple of friends to publish The Dungeoneer, one of the first magazines to provide materials such as campaign scenarios. "We only worked on the magazine for […] I'd say it was a year and a half, until the end of 1977, but we learned a lot about creating magazines and even more about how to get a magazine into the hands of people who might be interested in buying it," she told me during our interview. "We learned how to shorthand, how to teach people to fill out a room, drawing maps that you could print. A lot of [what we learned] was production oriented. […] Not much money, even in 1976 terms, but we were able to do it and make enough money to pay for the printing and distribution." 

Jennell Jaquays (left) and her wife, Rebecca
Jennell Jaquays (left) and her wife, Rebecca "Burger" Heineman. (Photo Credit: FPS: First Person Shooter documentary.)

Jaquays' multifaceted skill set caught the eye of companies such as Judges Guild, a game publisher founded in 1976 that provided tabletop RPG adventures and periodicals similar to The Dungeoneer. Two of her officially licensed D&D campaigns, Dark Tower and Caverns of Thracia, are still popular today. Dark Tower received a nomination for the 1979 H.G. Wells Award for Best Roleplaying Adventure and was included in Dungeon magazine's 2004 round-up of the 30 greatest D&D adventures of all time. 

Cover illustration for
Cover illustration for "Dragons at War," an illustration by Jaquays for TSR's Dragonlance series of novels.

Her burgeoning talent and growing network of fellow creators led her to a job at Coleco Industries, a company that started out supplying leather and shoe materials used in repairs before pivoting to video games in the 1980s with handheld electronic games and the ColecoVision console. "I was one of the designers of record on their tabletop electronics: [conversions of] Pac-Man, Galaxian, Donkey Kong—that was the one I had the most input into," she told me. "Coleco, as a company, their corporate philosophy was, 'See what other people are doing. If it's successful, imitate it for cheaper and make money.' They figured they would jump into the market by licensing arcade consoles […] and they'd already found out from the tabletop electronics they'd sold that people knew what Pac-Man was, people knew what Donkey Kong was, people knew what Galaxian was. [Consumers] liked the games and wanted to play them at home. That is the experience that, as ColecoVision designers and artists, we were expected to reproduce." 

In the 1990s, one of Jaquays' contacts, Doom and Doom 2 level designer Sandy Petersen, told her about an opening at id Software designing levels for Quake 2. "I took a week of vacation I had coming at TSR; that's when id flew me down and I stayed with Sandy Petersen for a week. I went into work with him and edited maps for the week. I learned [the tool] that would eventually become Quake2Edit, and made my first Quake 2 map. At the end of the week, they sent me home. That was around Valentine's Day. I think it was Monday before they offered me a job." 

Jaquays was on the ground floor of Quake 3: Arena's designer when id Software co-founder John Carmack announced he wanted the game to require a 3D accelerator card (known today as a GPU)—among the first games to do so. The idea held enormous appeal for her as a level designer. "We knew it was radical, and we knew it would upset some fans, but we also knew that this is the thing we wanted to do," she told me during our interview. "The idea of not having those damn polygon limits that software rendering required—that was a godsend." 

Olympica cover artwork by Jennell Jaquays.
Olympica cover artwork by Jennell Jaquays.

Beginning in 2002, Jaquays worked as an artist at Ensemble Studios, creating art for the Age of Empire series and Halo Wars until Ensemble closed in 2009. She co-founded The Guildhall at SMU, a curriculum dedicated to game design and development. Jaquays was a co-founder of game developer Olde Skuul alongside her wife and was the owner of Dragongirl Studios. Jaquays authored many books in the RPG space such as Central Casting: Heroes of Legend, published in the 1980s and retooled by Jaquays through the 2010s and early 2020s; Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide, a companion tome for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which she co-authored; and many more. In 2017, she was recognized for her contributions to roleplaying games as an inductee into the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design. 

Jaquays was an activist in the LGBTQ+ community. She was the creative director of Seattle's Transgender Human Rights Institute and was involved in the petition to create Leelah's Law, named after teenager Leelah Alcorn who committed suicide after she was forced to undergo conversion therapy, that moved to ban the therapy in the United States. The petition gained hundreds of thousands of signatures and came to the attention of President Barack Obama. Online magazine LGBTQ Nation recognized Jaquays as one of the top 70 famous transgender people to know. 

In my interview with Jaquays for Rocket Jump, she shared a sentiment common among game designers just starting out in the industry. "We didn't realize at the time that we were making history," she said regarding The Dungeoneer. "For us, it was just a hobby. It was something fun to do, and we found out other people were interested in it and were willing to give us money to do this."

Jaquays is survived by her wife, Rebecca; her two children from a previous marriage; and five step-children.

Long Reads Editor

David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Stay Awhile and Listen series, and the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults. Outside of writing, he enjoys playing Mario, Zelda, and Dark Souls games, and will be happy to discuss at length the myriad reasons why Dark Souls 2 is the best in the series. Follow him online at and @davidlcraddock.

From The Chatty
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    January 10, 2024 8:30 AM

    David Craddock posted a new article, Game design pioneer Jennell Jaquays passes away at 67

    • reply
      January 10, 2024 8:48 AM

      Damnnnnn. Worked wuth her way back on Q3 stuff and then we worked together at CCP.

      I knew she was sick but hadn't talked in a few months.

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      January 10, 2024 9:12 AM

      The Caverns of Thracia and Dark Tower are my two favourite dungeons. RIP.

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      January 10, 2024 11:41 AM

      Shit. I’ve been keeping up with Rebecca’s posts on her condition but it really didn’t seem like it was going well. This just sucks.

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      January 10, 2024 12:08 PM

      RIP :(

    • reply
      January 10, 2024 12:30 PM

      Was following Becky's posts about this for a little while now and woke up to the news :(

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