I have recently been digging into the history of computational thinking for other projects and published an excerpt of that work over at Analog Game Studies. That article, titled, “A Tale of Dungeons & Dragons and the Origins of the Game Platform” is an attempt to situate D&D within the foundation of computer games. To me, it is an amazing intersection of make believe, wargaming (and as a result, systemic thinking), and early inspirations for kids and teenagers to learn how programming worked. Unfortunately, the impact of D&D is rarely a focal point of design work and its historical record is can be a little difficult to access. To that end, Secrets of Blackmoor is a documentary that you absolutely need to watch.
This history of the creation of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is a bit of a mystery with many different groups and personalities attempting to establish their version as truth. Books from curious, well-resourced fans like Jon Peterson (Playing at the World) provide us with a highly detailed, object-reliant history. Others like Lawrence Shick’s Heroic Worlds, provide not research, but recall events through memory. Between these two fragile poles is a smattering of essays, blog entries, books, and journal articles. Each of this pieces provide partial, yet incomplete accounts of the formation of TSR, the creation of D&D, and of the legend of Gary Gygax. What is often missing or under-represented in these accounts are other figures in the history of D&D.
Dave Arneson’s role in this regard is often missing or understated due to a reliance on stated accounts from TSR. Gygax himself retconned Arneson’s impact on the creation of D&D down to a sparse 18 pages of typed notes. Further, Gygax removed Arneson’s name from every version of D&D outside of the initial woodgrain and white boxes and actively minimized his work for much of his life. Yet, without Arneson or another oft-missing figure named of David Wesely, D&D would not exist. It is this story through which object-based (receipts, verifiable events, and other accounts) cannot fully engage and one that Arneson fans cannot reliably prove without a lot of evidence that those on the Peterson side would accept.
Enter Secrets of Blackmoor.
The documentary Secrets of Blackmoor tells the story of the Twin Cities wargamers who all had a hand in creating D&D. This story is constructed with interviews, accounts of events from those who saw them, objects, and fragments of objects that are attached to each event. The directors of this movie – Chris Graves and M. Griffith – very obviously love D&D. This movie is a labor of love and it shows. It provides an easy to access, easy to understand, easy to discuss history of the time just before D&D is released.
The time up to the release of D&D requires a close and careful sifting through Napoleonic Wargames to a specific geographic location in the United States: Minneapolis-St. Paul or the Twin Cities in the 1960s.
Secrets of Blackmoor begins by introducing us to the remnants of the group that played what would eventually become D&D. This section ends with what might be the most radical idea from that time, the question, “What do you want to do?” The enormity of this question provides the boundaries within which D&D is constructed.
This documentary then proceeds in a linear fashion from wargames to the publication of D&D. Wargames in the 1960s were a large business. Avalon Hill game company had established the wargame industry in 1959 with the publication of the wargame called Tactics. The resulting industry codified and routinized many different kinds of game mechanics that would become normal to the gamers in the twin cities. The first part of Secrets of Blackmoor provides this context.
Next, Secrets of Blackmoor establishes the relationship between David Wesely and Dave Arneson. Wesely found an old game called Strategos via inter-library loan. This game from the 1880s, suggested that wargaming required the use of a player to represent the system that the game took place in. This referee provided the context and scenarios that the players would play in. Wesely took this idea and developed it further. In many ways, Wesley created the foundation of what D&D would become. In Wesely’s version of Strategos, called Strategos N, Wesely notes that, “Anything which is physically possible may be attempted – not always successfully.” Wesely released this game in 1970.
Secrets of Blackmoor goes to great lengths to describe the various games of Braunstein, Wesely’s next game idea. In these games, Wesely in the late 1960s / early 1970s was assigning players roles to play first inside of a city called Braunstein. The fourth of these games took place inside of a place called Banannia. For this game, Arneson convinced Wesely to let him create his own character – the first character created for any RPG. It should also be noted that Arneson was also the first character killed In an RPG during the 1st Braunstein game.
The documentary then gets closer and closer to the creation of TSR and the publication of D&D. As the time gets closer, the events quicken and blend together. It is within this flurry of events that history often misses things or gets lost. To that end, Secrets of Blackmoor provides an excellently brief, concise history from first-hand accounts of people who were there.
Overall, this movie is worth your attention if you have any interest in roleplaying games. It also bears significant discussion for the linking of wargames to roleplaying games. This connection is often missing as much definition as that between roleplaying games and video games. The production quality is excellent and each of the interviews connects to a large message that the film is providing – the oral history of the creation of D&D sans Gygax.
I was left with a few questions after the movie finished. First, as someone who has recently entered into this space, I found myself wondering why Tekumel and MAR Barker were not mentioned. One of the things that I find myself thinking a lot about is how much Barker’s “game” influenced Arneson. Specifically, when did they meet? How did they start working together? But this is not necessarily important for the purview of this piece. It just didn’t serve me directly (how dare they!).
Next, I didn’t understand the voiceover choice. The voice was fine but it wasn’t something I would have expected in terms of a narrator. At times, the voice sounded more like a movie trailer voice and I kept expecting the phrase, “In a World….”
My last criticism is that throughout much of the documentary, groups breaking up, hatreds, and various pieces of inter-personal drama that would seem to be important to the context of how D&D ended up separated from Arneson are occasionally glossed over. At 1 hour and 51 minutes, this is already a long documentary though, so I can understand why this occurred. They are documented elsewhere in some circumstances but it may be years before we get more information. However, I would have loved to hear more about Arneson’s “frenemies” so that we might get a more complete picture of who Arneson was as a person and how this, “incubator” the movie frames worked.
This is about it in terms of criticisms. I generally feel this voice is needed and necessary as I doubt many know (or care) about this sort of cold war of facts and fact finding going on in and around D&D. You can see some of the posturing and discussion around the net. Some of my favorite discussions are:
- A Brief Discussion on Secret of Blackmoor’s Facebook Page
- A Discussion of a sort-of “Red Herring” RPG-like game from a game designer named Michael Korns.
- An article on gender in RPGS.
There are many more like this. I post these not as someone taking sides but as someone who has been trying to make sense of the sides, the posturing, and the in-groups out there. It’s difficult to unravel but this makes Secrets of Blackmoor much more useful. Watch it and dig into the fog to find out for yourself!