Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Let's Read: Dave Arneson's Introduction to Blackmoor

This past weekend I picked up a copy of Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor from Zeitgeist Games at McKay’s Used Bookstore. The book is a lot more detailed than Supplement II: Blackmoor that Dave had offered for free from his website years ago. So I’m kind of digging on the thing right now and hoping that it’ll be something that rocks my world.
 Anyway, I cracked the bad boy open and there was this wonderful little introduction from Dave that I want to discuss.

The Introduction to Dave Arneson's Blackmoor

"One day, a little over thirty years ago, I discovered that I was bored. Faced with a long weekend without gaming, I turned to the television. I tried to occupy my time sitting on a couch watching cheesy 50’s monster movies and reading “fantasy hero” novels until I could find something better to do.

I noted that the hero in the movie I was watching had again failed to pick up the gun and blast the monster. Even if such a puny weapon did not stop the critter it would probably slow it down. Why didn’t the heroes make better decisions?

The fantasy hero in my novel had once again dodged the magic spell and solved his problems with a sword. All this in the face of clear indicators that told him, and the reader, exactly what he must do to destroy the evil menace through an easier route! Even I could write better junk than this . . . (Arneson, pg. 7)
One of the things that I've noticed about both Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson from reading their writings is that both men were utterly unsatisfied with the way that things were being done. Each man, after his own fashion, tackled the problems in their own way creating what they considered to be the better way. Gary was more structured and formalized in his views on how to accomplish this; while Dave proceeded to do whatever seemed best at the time, slowly formalizing things as he went but always fluid. This difference in their approaches to how things should be done is an underlying reason why they had their falling out.
". . . I began to reflect on the latest bad translation quoted from an obscure historical tome that would call for major rule changes in the Napoleonic Miniatures campaign. The campaign that I was running had become a drag. It was consumed with these long tedious battles and constant bickering over historical details. These most recently uncovered details would mess up next week’s battle. Curses on all such books! Why not just use one source and be done with it!


Graph paper, pencil, the old 20-sided dice we never used, some really poorly sculpted plastic monsters. . . I began to imagine a dungeon. My mind raced . . . I began to draw. Maybe I can fill it with critters and gold! This dungeon needs a name? Hmm, it’s a dark place in the wilds of wherever. Ahh! Blackmoor!

By Sunday night the first six levels of the dungeon were done and the gaming table in the basement had been transformed into a small medieval town with a castle. A dungeon seemed like a good idea since it would keep the players from running all over the place. We still needed some more details . . . Ah! I drew a map of the town and the country around it. These last details took me most of the rest of the week to complete. I was really excited about this idea. Now everyone could be a hero like in a book but without a tight (and often dumb!) plot. They could do just about anything that they wanted to do, for better or for worse . . ." (Arneson, pg. 7)
While it sounds like Dave is being a bit of a trite prig here the truth is probably not all that far from what he's written.

Dave was an incredibly inventive guy who could realize the importance of little things everyone else had overlooked. This talent was one that Gary Gygax noted for its hand in the origins of the Dungeons and Dragons game. In Role-Playing Mastery Gary described a little, inconsequential portion of Chainmail that Dave Arneson expanded on to create the earliest form of the game. He wrote: ". . . One other seemingly inconsequential portion of . . . [Chainmail] must be brought to your attention. In a short section pertaining to siege warfare, I instructed the reader to use paper and pencil when dealing with the underground aspects of such battles. The mining, countermining, and secret escape routes employed during sieges were to be drawn out on graph paper. David L. Arneson, then of St. Paul, Minnesota, didn’t miss that. Soon Dave and I were corresponding and exchanging ideas, and a new game took shape . . ." (Gygax, pg. 20).

While some people would have you believe that Gary Gygax created the game of Dungeons and Dragons out of thin air, immaculately conceived and perfect in form; the truth is that he, Dave, and a slew of others worked on the game for weeks refining it for publication. Even after they refined the game and published it the game wasn't perfect as it underwent several renovations over the years under the efforts of Holmes, Moldvay, and Mentzer.

At any rate Dave should be given credit for the aspects of the game he invented. So let's call them out here in the open: he invented role-playing as we understand it today; the use of a neutral judge or Dungeon Master in game play; conversations with non-player characters; hit points; and experience points.
". . . In that short time, Blackmoor was born. I had a few rules and no plans for anything beneath the 6th level in the dungeon, or beyond the tabletop boundaries into a greater world. With the basic idea laid out, there were still questions to answer.

Where did the players meet? Inns were popular in a lot of books and it was logical that the guys would meet in a public establishment. And there had been this neat medieval restaurant in Chicago called The Comeback Inn.

What was their goal? Why money of course. They sought great treasure and cool magic items. These were quite popular quests in fantasy novels, and movies. Maybe they will quest after the “Magic McGuffin Amulet!”
The campaign setting now known as Blackmoor was done within the month with additional details added as needed. Both the setting and the rules continued to grow over the weeks. Most, but alas not all, the guys liked the game and wanted to keep playing. So the next few weeks were spent fleshing things out and trying to maintain the structure. In a very real way I have continued to “flesh things out” over the last thirty years . . ." (Arneson, pg. 7-8)
Just sit there for a minute and imagine that you and a buddy were sitting around the table playing some boring board game and your buddy suddenly gets the idea that maybe you could talk to the dog instead of having to pay him for landing on his property. Maybe he'll give you a break this time if you'll help him out the next time he stops on your lands? It's a wild leap, and yet here is Dave, years before Greyhawk, doing just that same sort of thing with war games and dragging along his compatriots.

Reading how quickly he started working towards the goal of expanding the world that his players could enjoy just reinforces the notion that he was unafraid of failure for me.
". . . Major combat changed from rolling a pair of dice that resulted in victory or death to one where the hero could fight on beyond the first swing just like in the movies! Killing critters in one blow was fine but not when it meant getting your character killed. Within the first month the players were getting quite attached to their characters. Then came the next big questions . . . "Shouldn’t we be getting better at killing stuff like experienced troops on our Napoleonic campaign?" Ok, lets work something out.

Many major adventure quests were planned out into new areas of the map such as the Temple Of The Frog, City Of The Gods, The Quacking Dragons, etc. Complement these adventures with invasions by evil forces, migrating hordes and you have a good amount of fun on your hands.

Some things worked and other didn’t go so well. The Frogs were supposed to be a one shot adventure that everyone loved so much that I did sequel adventures for them. Nefarious enemies like The Egg of Coot weren’t popular opponents at first. The Egg was OK while it stayed out of the mainstream, but no one liked adventuring near it. Some new weapons were added as the same Napoleonic guys that had hassled me before about assorted minutia came around with tomes on medieval weapons! “So Dave what can this device do?” I thought that I had escaped that stuff . . ." (Arneson, pg. 8)
I love all the versions of the Temple of the Frog, but none more than the one from Supplement II: Blackmoor. While the adventure would be expanded and refined in later products the original published version just has a sort of unhinged glory that makes me weak in the knees. You have to be so quick and smart when you run that adventure, and when you play in it, that it is always one of my favorites.

One of my favorite versions of the City of the Gods can be found in Oerth Journal 6 (be sure to download the pdf before you attempt to read it as it is a bit crap in the browser) in the article Robilar Remembers: Journey to the City of the Gods by Robert J. Kuntz (you can find the article on pg. 44). The adventure was run by Dave Arneson for Gary Gygax and Robert Kuntz and it is just fantastic.
". . . Some new weapons were added as the same Napoleonic guys that had hassled me before about assorted minutia came around with tomes on medieval weapons! “So Dave what can this device do?” I thought that I had escaped that stuff . . ." (Arneson, pg. 8)
Things haven't changed much since Dave started all this years ago. Only today we have hundreds of books with more weapons, armor, and paraphernalia then you can shake a stick at.
". . . There was no master plan at the start and portions of the campaign have had to be updated over the years. At least once a year many of the old players get together and journey again through the land of Blackmoor. I continue to run the Blackmoor campaign in the games I judge at conventions and in my classroom. Over the years some 5,000+ people have adventured in Blackmoor in excess of 1,500 game sessions. The roads are well traveled but the adventures never end . . ." (Arneson, pg. 8)
I wish so often that I had, had the pleasure to meet and play in one of Dave's games. I know that there are some people out there who thought he was a tool, and that's fine; but I still think that it would have been outstanding to play just once on those old roads that Dave's first groups trod down under the hand of the man who laid them out.

This introduction has made me so very glad that I found a copy and that I can start exploring it over the coming weeks. I hope you enjoyed this read as much as I did.

-- Charles

Works Sited 

Arneson, Dave. Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor. USA, Zeitgeist Games, Inc., 2004: pgs. 7 - 8

Gygax, Gary. Role-Playing Mastery. New York: Perigee Books, 1987: pg. 20


  1. Thanks for writing this. I don't know much of Arneson's early involvement besides borrowing Armor Class from Ironclads so this was very informative for someone without access to the book. After your excerpt I'm considering picking up a copy myself.

    1. It really is a great book!

      I wish that Dave's website was still up so that you could read more about his involvement from the man himself, but sadly, that is not the case. Have you checked out the Comeback Inn forum and Harvard's Blackmoor Blog? You'll find loads more information on him there.

    2. I have not but I'll be sure to given them a try. I was hoping Supplement II Blackmoor would be available in pdf format but it seems the collectors edition is the only way to go outside of used sales.

  2. Nice piece. :) One thing to correct, D&D was developed by Gygax and Arneson for a little over 1 year not weeks. Dave Arneson and Dave Megarry (Dungeon! boardgame) visited Gygax in late fall of '72.(Nov, according to R. Kuntz) and Arneson ran a Blackmoor dungeon crawl for Gygax and friends. Gygax loved playing the game and worked with Arneson on writing up the rules, creating new rules, and developing the game, which was published in Jan of '74. You should also realize that Grey+Hawk is a deliberate emulation of Black+Moor which is itself a deliberate emulation of Braun+Stein (brown stone) the role playing game created by Dave Wesely in which the concept of single character, open ended play was pioneered. Arneson was one of Wesely's players.

    Personally, I'll just note that Gygax's contention that Arneson's idea for a dungeon came from CHAINMAIL's siege map section to be a bit far fetched. Using maps has always been central to wargames and Arneson's first games involved a castle interior which naturally would have a mysterious dungeon as per standard hollywood fare. He created it as a way to limit what players could do and where they could go and to focus their goal (get treasure) because that had proven to be one of the big challenges of the Braunstein games.