I speak for both Chris, myself, and the entire Blackmoor family in conveying sad news.
I’ve been struggling to come to terms with the loss of a great person from the Blackmoor Bunch. He is perhaps the least celebrated of all of them. He wasn’t a young guy in the Arneson basement and he wasn’t even a gamer. He was Dave Arneson’s father, John Arneson.
His grand daughter, Malia nicknamed him ‘Grumpy.’
Chris and I met Grumpy while making, Secrets of Blackmoor. He was a complete surprise to us because we were expecting a fairly calm and normal interview, after all, John was already in his 90’s when he sat with us for his interview.
In one of my first comments to John, I said, “You look like your son.”
And he responded with, “I feel sorry for the guy.”
John set the tone for the entire interview. No matter what we wanted to get from it, he was there to have fun.
I was with my own family when I got the news. Malia’s husband, Luke phoned and quickly told me the bad news that John Arneson was no longer with us. I sat at my dining table and cried while trying to explain to my own family what John means to me. All I could say is that the people I have met while making the Blackmoor movie are very close to me. They are my extended family. I care about all of them and I feel a duty to all of them. And that my feeling over John’s passing away shatters my heart.
He was the fly on the wall when Dungeons & Dragons was being invented in his basement on Hartford Avenue.
It is his retelling of those days when his son would gather with his friends in the basement that is most revealing about that time because his experience comes from outside the group of gamers. He was an adult who saw glimpses of what transpired. His voice can take us back to the time before role playing games were a household activity. When he tells us, “I had no idea what was going on down there… It was way over my head,” as well as,” It evolved - slowly,” he gives a look into a past where RPGs would be completely alien and not easily understood.
He infuses his retelling with his own perspective of the activities and people in that time. There is no glorification of events with an epic and grandiose tale about the invention of this new RPG game. In his voice It becomes almost banal. It was just a bunch of goofy teenagers wasting their lives playing games in his basement when they could have been out doing something more useful.
No one else could describe it like he does.
I suppose one would want to know more about John.
One can read obituaries where selected facts are reviewed.
These sorts of things: John married his high school sweetheart Maxine. Not long after, his wife gave birth to their only child a son they named David. He worked for the telephone company all his life. He is part of the greatest generation, which fought nazism and imperialism around the world. A decorated veteran, John was a marine and was at the battle of Pelellu. He could tell you stories about what it is like to land on a beach while being shelled by the enemy. He also served in Korea.
Within the inner circle of the Blackmoor Bunch we’re all just trying to make sense of losing John. As you get older, you experience these losses more, and perhaps too often. We try to get a little tougher about it. Yet, in moments of private reflection it can feel like one is alone in grief, or that no one else has ever had to deal with this kind of feeling. Everyone deals with these times in their own way.
I am trying to give you a feeling of who John is, yet, I am also trying to express what he means to the Blackmoor Bunch. His place within the group is singular.
Most of you only know John through having seen him in the documentary, Secrets of Blackmoor. You may not know just how significant John is to everyone who walked down the stairs to game in the Arneson basement.
Every one of those older people who we interviewed for the film was just a kid when they met John Arneson. Going to someone’s house to game also meant greeting their parents and making sure to say those please and thank you’s for all the free soda that was being provided at the game session. As the adult, along with his wife, John commanded respect.
When we interviewed John we invited David Wesely to sit with John during the interview. At one point John looked at David and you could tell by the way he addressed him, that for John, and despite his being ‘all grown up’, David was still one of those kids who used to come over to game in the Arneson basement.
I can also tell you that the one story I heard from nearly everyone in the group regards the bottles of booze sitting in the basement bar. It is a note of pride for all of them that not one of them tried to steal a nip of something from one of those bottles.
They were all guests in John’s house and no one was going to be breaking any rules if they wanted to keep coming back to game there.
John Arneson is the de facto patriarch of the Blackmoor Bunch thus he symbolizes many things which may be hard to put into words for those former kids.
I do feel that a sense of continuity is broken and it can never be repaired.
When a dear one is lost to us it can feel as if I we are the only one who truly acknowledges this loss. The only one to know. As if the entire planet is moving along in its daily routine and the greatest person who had ever lived has just left the planet. How can no one else seem to know. Yet, for us, nothing can ever be the same. No one else will ever get to experience what it is like spending time with the greatest person who ever lived.
The Blackmoor Bunch are never public about personal events past and present. Perhaps it’s a Minnesota thing, they just are not bombastic. Yet privately, we talk to each other, especially at times like this when our world is changed. I was pondering this, when I got a message from Malia this morning.
“He was such a pillar in my life. I welcome the distraction of planning the funeral because I can not fathom the massive hole/gap that I will have to face and feel when the dust settles.”
It’s good to be sharing our heartbreak. It is part of how we honor our loved ones.
I love how Malia splits the word cannot into two words. I feel I am with her in losing John. Time has slowed down and long words become longer until they split into two words. I wonder if she was even aware she was doing that. Yet, it is in times like this when anything more complicated than the most basic thought or action becomes as simple as possible. Everything is smaller. Loss is always a reduction.
Those of us who know John will tell the stories and remember the little things.
My favorite recent story about John happened during the Covid lock down. His great grand daughters missed him and were worried that John was all alone. They would color pictures and mail them to John. John liked receiving these letters so much that he joined a coloring group at his assisted living facility and sent back his own pictures to the girls through the mail.
Up to his last days, John was fully in his own mind and brimming with the can-do attitude of his generation. He decided to start working out. We’re talking about a 97-year-old man deciding to work out. He even told his trainer that twice during each work out he wanted to be timed and that he would go as fast and hard as he could for 30 seconds.
That is what I like about John the most. It is his toughness, mixed with humor and caring. He is the kind of person who takes up a lot of space when he enters a room.
The Blackmoor Bunch are a big family and it is hard for all of us to see our family grow smaller.
We want you to know that the greatest person who ever lived just left the planet.
He will be remembered.
I’ll leave you with a short message Stephen Rocheford wrote to his fellow military man - “Time to rest, Marine.”
Love and prayer to all, Chris, Griff, and the Blackmoor Bunch
GaryCon is long over with, and yet, a very good feeling still lingers from having had a chance to go this year and run some really cool games.
My drive to Gary Con is always long, 14 + hours of driving according to Google, but when you add my need to stop and stretch my legs, eat, and even wake up my brain, it can be around 16 hours by the time I finally walk in the door.
I even slept in the back seat for about 50 minutes at one truck stop and ran around the car 10 times to wake up at another. :)
I refer to the annual driving experience as my, Suicide Ride To Gary Con.
This year I drove through the night and arrived on Thursday around 10am a bit sleepy and worn out. It didn’t help that I neglected to read the fine print for my hotel and I did not call or check in ahead of time. When I left after my first day of convention fun and got to my hotel at midnight to sleep, there was no one in the office. I slept that night in a chair in the lobby for maybe 5 hours.
Thankfully I know of a good place to grab breakfast one town over and managed to refuel before day 2 of the Convention Marathon.
Despite my mishaps, it is always worth it, as nothing compares to introducing RPG gamers to vintage war games, in the Legends of War Gaming room at GaryCon.
Day 1 was simple. All I did was wander around the convention and chat people up until I was due to run my first game, Fletcher Pratt’s Naval War Game.
This is one of those games that to me is truly special. It has a long history. As far as I can tell, Fletcher Pratt invented it around 1937 and it was published in 1940.
It is like a combo of Lou Zocchi’s, Alien Space, and Star Fleet Battles set in WWII.
The game system is fairly simple too. It uses mathematical equations to create Ship Record Sheets. The sheets list the ship name, tonnage, weapon types, and a damage track for keeping track of how your weapons and speed get reduced when you take damage by enemy hits.
A turn is comprised of everyone moving their ship with rulers and then making note of what weapons they have chosen to fire at what targets.
We used post it notes to mark what was being shot at by whom.
Each player has to guess the enemy's range and writes that down, thus you end up with cryptic notes for how far the salvo will reach, with another value for the spacing between shell hits. i.e. Main Armament at 47 inches, with a half inch spread between shots.
The game system is dice-less, yet it provides a very good simulation.
It is the referee who then measures the distances for the salvos and places markers for shell hits. The rules specify using golf tee’s for the splashes, but I have a jar of buttons I found in a thrift store for about a dollar, and they serve just as well. Red buttons signify shell hits and white ones are splashes.
That’s pretty much all a player needs to know to take part in this game.
There are some other details in the rules, such as the gun caliber vs. range vs. armor thickness chart, that limits how far you can shoot and effectively do any damage. This too is easy enough to comprehend.
Did I forget to mention that the entire battle is played with really big 1/1200 lead ship models, and that these particular models I bring for the demo games are the Dan Nicholson collection of ships? The vary same Dan Nicholson who played the merchant in Blackmoor!
That is another historical detail about this game. Fletcher Pratt was very popular with the Twin Cities gamers and many photos exist of them playing games in the U of M library back in the 60’s and 70’s.
For our battle we had 5 players show up to the game out of 6 available places - which is not bad. Sadly, one player left early leaving a single player to run the entire German fleet in the scenario, She didn't do too bad considering how much paperwork she had to deal with as the captain for three ships.
One thing I do when I run these old games is get out of the way and let the players do everything. The game is supposed to have a referee, but since the game is a demo, I tell the players to do all the referee tasks of measuring salvos and placing splashes and hit markers. I feel this helps players really learn the game.
With only 20 or so pages to the rules, they can even read any pertinent passages as they play to help clarify any questions that may arise.
It quickly becomes very apparent that the players are fully engaged by the game as you watch them crawl around on the floor moving ships and measuring shots.
I also emphasize that the game is for everyone to study, appreciate, and learn from. Not to worry too much about winning or losing. Marking off damage on your own ship when someone scores a hit is very revealing, even if it is your ship getting blown apart.
Although the battle was not completed, everyone really enjoyed their chance to captain a large battle ship or cruiser for a little while.
I think next year I will open it up to more players as I expect word to get out about how fun this game is.
I hope you enjoyed this recollection on Naval War Gaming at Gary Con.
Some of you War Gamers may not realize you are also playing an RPG and some of you Role Players may not realize you are also playing a War Game.
If you are interested in finding out more about the overlapping elements between War Games and Role Playing Games - WATCH SECRETS OF BLACKMOOR!
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Secrets of Blackmoor is a Feature-length documentary about the birth of the “Mother of all Games;” Dungeons & Dragons.