Today is an important day for Role Players. Yet, after searching my news feed it also seems to be yet another secret history day. No one in the news media has bothered to do an article. Most gamers are just plain unaware of how significant today is, because Gary Gygax's and Dave Arneson's names are no longer on the game book covers.
Without that connection between the names and the game, the two creators of D&D are fading into obscurity despite all they have done for the hobby.
Today we really need to talk about Dave Arneson and his role in the invention of RPGs.
Allow me to explain.
The Blackmoor Bunch (1971) photo by Dave Arneson
50 years ago today, a group of gamers gathered in the basement of the Arneson home in St.Paul, Minnesota.
They were there for the monthly meeting of their war game club, the Midwest Military Simulation Association. For the gamers who played with Dave Arneson, this night would be similar to every other game night. No one could have known that this would be the beginning of Fantasy Gaming as a hobby industry worth billions of dollars.
It is easy to romanticize an event such as Arneson’s first foray as a fantasy game master. To the Blackmoor Bunch it was just another Braunstein role playing game which was already a very familiar play style to them.
They had also been given some idea that this game would be different from the historical wargaming they had been doing due to a tiny announcement in the previous issue of their fanzine, The Corner of the Table Top.
Excerpts of early Blackmoor notices from Corner of the Table Top (1971)
The announcement was an invitation to try something that did not even have a name and is best described as fantasy wargaming. But the methods being used would go far beyond a standard war game. It’s also likely the game set up on the table wasn’t much different than what it looked like every weekend that they gathered to play miniature war games. Dave Arneson’s ping pong table would have been covered with brown butcher paper that was marked with rivers and other important landmarks. Small HO scale buildings would be used where needed; we can only assume there was a plastic bridge placed somewhere on the table.
Little is remembered about this first Blackmoor game. While making our film we were careful to not mention details or names of events during the interviews. We did not want to poison our subject’s responses by loading questions with information. Thus our inquiry of early Blackmoor was vague. We would ask: Can you remember your first game session in Blackmoor?
Only one gamer from the Blackmoor Bunch can remember the card game under a troll bridge.
Blackmoor's dragon, Gertie. Hand made sculpture by Dave Arneson. (c.1971)
Bob Meyer describes the game as being frustrating because he had no references as to how strong he was in comparison with a troll. He then proceeded to attack a troll single handedly and got killed with one die roll because there weren’t any rules for hit points to give him a small chance of survival.
Perhaps most significant about this game is that Bob Meyer is the very first person to die in a Fantasy Role Playing Game. Yes, older gamers brag about how their characters died while fighting bravely against poor odds. Bob even says that he was so disappointed in the game that he refused to play Blackmoor for some time after. The excitement over Blackmoor from the other players would lure Bob back to Arneson’s imaginary Blackmoor world. He would end up becoming the first player in an RPG to reach 20th level as Blackmoor’s most powerful Wizard, Robert the Bald.
This is literally all that we know about this most significant of game events. We know what day it was scheduled and we know that Bob died.
Things will ramp up quickly in Arneson's games.
While doing research for Secrets of Blackmoor we found this little slip of paper. This alone is a huge discovery. Then D.H. Boggs made the astounding connection that at the April 22nd game session, Dan Nicholson was handed this very same piece of paper listing the Spanish Royal Family in a napoleonic era campaign. We can see that Arneson is already beginning to do something seen in every RPG today, as these personas all have character attributes.
The Spanish Royals Character Matrix. 1st example of Arneson's use of Character Attributes. (1971)
Almost every invention begins with tiny almost imperceptible little steps. Yet, to diminish or undermine the importance of this one experimental home brewed game that Arneson put together for his friends, is to misunderstand the significance of both Arneson’s inventiveness and his invention. Encouraged by his friends, Arneson would keep working on Blackmoor. He would invent new stories, and try different rules, as he sought to refine his adventure games.
His friends loved Blackmoor and the world setting became a collaborative creation with some players helping out by being some of the bad guys.
Eventually Arneson joined forces with Gary Gygax and his group of gamers in Lake Geneva Wisconsin. In 1974 a little boxed game called Dungeons & Dragons was published for the very first time. It would capture the imagination of a generation becoming a world wide phenomenon.
Original Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets. Early wood grain and later white box.
It is the way of all products. What begins as experiments in basements and garages, then becomes a corporate commodity. Arneson’s creation is different. It is best described as the Adventure Game. It doesn’t exist within any of the rules and it does not exist in descriptions of places, people, and creatures.
The only place one can find how the game is played is within the example of play that is included with every role playing game since Dungeons & Dragons.
In fact, after D&D is published anyone who understands how to play a role playing game can make their own adventure and even publish their own version of Arneson’s adventure game. Thus a year later, Tunnels and Trolls is published, and not long after, an entire genre of games is born.
This is the most important element one should consider as we celebrate 50 years of Blackmoor. All you need to play are the game methods created by a bunch of kids in Minnesota and your own imagination.
The Blackmoor world setting is still being explored to this day, It is the very first Fantasy RPG Campaign ever created and will be with us forever.
More reflections on Blackmoor's genesis can be found here on D. H. Bogg's, Hidden in Shadows blog:
You can watch Secrets of Blackmoor FREE by purchasing Posters, T-Shirts, or DVDs, in our STORE:
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Secrets of Blackmoor is a Feature-length documentary about the birth of the “Mother of all Games;” Dungeons & Dragons.