A fascinating new documentary, “Secrets of Blackmoor” tells the story of the inventors of “Dungeons & Dragons,” the role-playing phenomenon that transformed gaming into something organic, non-mechanical, and deeply imaginative.
When the fantasy-role playing game Dungeons & Dragons first appeared in 1974 as a full product, it listed two authors: Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Gygax, ever the marketing genius, favored his co-author with great praise in his introduction to the supplement, Blackmoor.
Dave Arneson… Is there really such a creature? Yes, Gentle Readers, there is, and shudder when the name is spoken. Although he is a man of many talents who has authored many historic rules sets and games (which TSR will be publishing periodically), Dave is also the innovator of the “dungeon adventure” concept, creator of ghastly monsters, and inscrutable dungeonmaster [the game narrator and referee] par excellence. He devises complex combat systems, inexplicable dungeon and wilderness areas, and traps of the most subtle fiendishness. Herein you will get a taste of these, but he never reveals all.
By 1977 or so, however, Arneson’s name was conspicuously absent from Dungeons & Dragons’ books and products—now, by and large, rebranded as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,—but Gygax’s name was listed everywhere. From that point until the present, almost every person who knows anything about Dungeons & Dragons, associates it with Gary Gygax.
This fascinating new documentary, Secrets of Blackmoor: The True History of Dungeons & Dragons, from The Fellowship of the Thing (Chris Graves and Morgan Griffith), should change all of this. Not, in anyway, does this excellent film seek to diminish Gygax as a person or as a creator—he was, truly, an American original—but, rather successfully, the film seeks to give all due credit to Arneson, another American original.
The films tells the story of Arneson in the 1960s and the 1970s, following his war gaming club centered in the Twin Cities and out of the many colleges of the area, but especially the University of Minnesota. Convincingly, the film explains that what would be Dungeons & Dragons—coming to game stores in 1974–actually originated in Arneson’s basement between, roughly, 1969 and 1971. The war gamers, all avid and intelligent, began to experiment with actual individual personality in games. Rather than simply moving troops around a map, why not send in a spy or an assassin?
The critical question that Arneson and others began to ask during the game: “What do you want to do?” These six words transformed the game (and gaming) into something organic, non-mechanical, and deeply imaginative. “What do you want to do?”
A Kickstarter project initially, Secrets of Blackmoor project raised over $48,000 while only asking for a mere $25,000. 892 persons backed the project overall, and Messrs. Graves and Morgan just released the film to Vimeo, with the intent of also releasing it, soon, on DVD and Blu-Ray.
If nothing else—and there is a lot else!—this film is filled with absolutely fascinating people, all of whom came together around the native Twin City genius, Dave Arneson. And, to be sure, he was a genius, combining the game play of traditional war game, such as Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg, and the fantasy worlds of H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Lieber, and J.R.R. Tolkien. To make matters even better visually, as a kid, Arneson looks like he could have been the model for Gary Larson’s genius/gifted Far Side kid! I exaggerate not at all!
Arneson’s whole family looks like one of the notable eccentrics. His only daughter, enthusiastic, beautiful, and intelligent, appears to possess more than a bit of Elvish blood, and Arneson’s curmudgeonly dad serves as the rather humorous comic relief of the show. “What the hell are those kids doin’ down in the basement?” the perplexed father clearly thinks. “They could spend this same amount of time getting real jobs!”
Another unsung hero of Dungeons & Dragons—and my favorite talking head in the documentary—is war game designer, Dave Wesely, a man of seemingly unlimited intelligence and perceptiveness, but also endowed with an avuncular, humble, upper-Midwestern charm. Having designed the game, Braunstein, Mr. Wesely might be the first game master in recent history to allow his players negotiate the rules and introduce individual choice and personality into a war game.
All you need to play the game, the narrator of the documentary tells us in his silky voice at the beginning of the film, is a pencil, some paper, some dice.
Though admittedly amateurs when it comes to filmmaking, Messrs. Graves and Morgan, have done a brilliant job of putting the documentary together. The story holds together perfectly and is quite convincing; the visuals add to the story narrative very well; the pacing is well, again, perfect, allowing for the gripping narrative to move along at a clip, even after two hours; and, most importantly, the talking heads are a blast. Frankly, I’d love to get to know and hang out with every one of these folks—film maker as well as talking head. When I envision the ideal community, these folks embody it. Arneson must have possessed a rather fetching charisma to bring together and hold together such a group of women and men.
Secrets of Blackmoor is a smart documentary about smart people and written for a smart audience. While I hope and pray that Chris Graves and Morgan Griffith sell numerous copies on DVD and Blu-ray, I also hope that the major players in the television streaming field—in particular, Netflix and Amazon Prime—pick this up and place it into regular rotation and permanent access. As I noted above, Dave Arneson is an American original, and every intelligent citizen should know his story. Arneson, Mr. Wesley, and others gave us a game that allowed for, as the filmmakers so rightly note, “a shared imaginary experience.” Messrs. Graves and Morgan have now invited the rest of us into Arneson’s basement, and we’re all the better for it.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Moonlight – Chepstow Castle” (1815) by John Martin (1789-1854), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.