Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Retrospective: Adventures in Blackmoor

I'm not ashamed to admit that, when I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons, I barely recognized the name of Dave Arneson. Certainly, his name appeared prominently on the inside front page of the Basic Set I first owned, but, for some reason, it never really registered with me. That probably has something to do with the fact that, in the pages of Dragon and elsewhere, Gary Gygax was the spokesman and face of all things D&D. Arneson was relegated to little mentions here and there, if at all. 

Consequently, I was somewhat surprised when I saw an advertisement for the Origins Game Fair in 1983 that announced that the convention's guest of honor was Dave Arneson, "co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons games." After my initial bafflement wore off – after all, Gary Gygax was the creator of D&D, right? – I recalled seeing Arneson's name and started asking some of the older guys I knew about this mysterious Arneson fellow and why I'd never noticed his name before. 

This being before the Internet, precise information was hard to come by. Instead, I got hearsay and innuendo about a falling out between Arneson and Gygax, former friends and colleagues, a lawsuit, and more. It was all vague and unclear but it was my first sense that the history of D&D was a lot more complicated than I had believed. The game had not sprung fully-formed from the head of Gary Gygax but may have, in fact, involved others, such as this Dave Arneson fellow. I had to content myself with such fragmentary evidence for years. It was only when I obtained a copy of Supplement II: Blackmoor that I gained some confirmation of the story. Reading Gygax's effusive praise of Arneson in the foreword to that work made it clear that, at one time, the two men had indeed been friends and collaborators. Exactly what had sundered their relationship, I did not yet know – and wouldn't for many years – but I now knew it was true.

Around the same time, TSR began to publish the "DA" series of adventure modules for the Dungeons & Dragons line, the first of which was entitled Adventures in Blackmoor. I, of course, knew the name Blackmoor already, both from the OD&D supplement I had acquired just previously but also from the World of Greyhawk setting, which featured a Barony of Blackmoor in the far northwest of the Flanaess. This new module didn't seem to have any connection to Greyhawk, but the cover, depicting some frightful retro-tech machine with the face of a bull, intrigued me and I bought a copy. 

I was immediately enthralled. Though the 64-page module did include an adventure intended to introduce the characters to Blackmoor (here depicted as having existed 3000 years in the past of TSR's Known World setting), it was the gazetteer and sourcebook of the Northlands that was vastly more interesting to me. Here was, I had just learned, the first setting for fantasy roleplaying, and it was quite different from any of the D&D settings I'd previously seen. I already knew from Supplement II that Blackmoor included science fictional elements, much like Gygax's own Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Arneson's "Temple of the Frog" adventure from that book included an alien being – Stephen the Rock – genetic engineering, high-tech weapons and armor, and more. So, seeing that weird Jeff Easley cover piqued my interest mightily.

The appearance of Adventures in Blackmoor seemed to coincide with the departure of Gary Gygax from TSR and I doubt that was coincidental. That said, the module is fascinating in its own right, in that we get we get a decent amount of information about the Kingdom of Blackmoor, its history, present political situation, and notable personages, albeit through the lens of Frank Mentzer's D&D revision and the burgeoning Known World setting (later to be redubbed Mystara). The map by Tom Darden, depicting the Northlands, was, for me, the crown jewel of this module and I pored over it for many hours, pondering its many evocative place names (as well as noticing commonalities with names from Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk, such as the Duchy of Ten(h)). 

What Adventures in Blackmoor did was make me much more aware of and interested in the early history of Dungeons & Dragons and of the RPG hobby in general. Consequently, I have very fond feelings about this module and keep it within arm's length of my writing desk. It and two of its three sequels – I never owned The Duchy of Ten, alas – are among my favorite TSR products from the the late 1980s. If anything, my warm feelings toward them have only grown.

18 comments:

  1. Holy cow, you posted 100 new entries since I last checked? Welcome back, sir! >goes to read them all<

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    1. Among thée good things reading Grognardia Again, I feel 10 years younger ;)

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  2. The DA series map if Blackmoor was essentially a colorized trace of the Bob Bledsaw map of Blackmoor from the First Fantasy Campaign. It us actually Bob's interpretation of Dave's original map that is recognized as the Blackmoor of today. The Blackmoor documentary guys seem to gave access to Dave's original maps, but I've not seen more than they have hinted at in various ads.

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    1. The DA map isn't just a trace of the JG map, it uses the same textures. The DA map must have been made from the JG master, with the labels and other details removed.

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  3. Slow down, James, do not burn out. This has been an enjoyable read.

    back to Gygax, do you notice he cannot get along with anyone? the Blumes, Arneson, Lorraine Williams. Even, later, Rob Kuntz, when they were working on Castle Greyhawk for Troll Lords. Always falling out, always "Those guys screwed me"

    once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy fire. in this case, the enemy is Gygax himself.

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  4. The map is basically a color version of the Judges Guild First Fantasy Campaign map. The text on the map has been reset and there are text differences, and the JG settlement, castle, and keep symbols have been replaced, but the map geography is identical if now colorized. The map in Duchy of Ten adds some settlements and roads in the Southwest corner of the map. The map was originally designed to hook up to the Valley of the Ancients map from Wilderlands of High Fantasy, though the Blackmoor map at the time used 10 mile hexes to Wilderland's 5 mile hexes, so only the Western half of the Southern edge of the map mates up with Valley of the Ancients. City of the Gods included a brand new map for the Valley of the Ancients that does not resemble the Wilderlands Valley of the Ancients other than the terrain along the Northern edge to match the Blackmoor map terrain. The scale of the map changed over time, so the FFC map is 10 miles to the hex, the DA1 map is 12 miles to the hex, and the DA4 map is 24 miles to the hex.

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  5. "The appearance of Adventures in Blackmoor seemed to coincide with the departure of Gary Gygax from TSR and I doubt that was coincidental."

    It actually is. Gygax was the one who arranged Arneson's return during the brief period (late 84-mid 85) when he was in control at TSR, and it was only coincidental timing that the first of the Arneson supplements didn't appear until after Gygax was out. The post-Gygax management are the ones who cancelled the Arneson line in 1987.

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    1. Do you know anything about the circumstances behind Gygax's approaching Arneson? Was this part of his plan to right the ship after his return from Hollywood?

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    2. I don't. I suspect it was just as you stay - that Gary felt bringing Arneson and Blackmoor back would be a way to help revitalize the brand and emphasize its history and roots, along the same lines as finally releasing module T2.

      However, one of Arneson's lawsuits against TSR was filed in 1985 (I suspect but don't know because he felt he deserved a higher share of royalties on the D&D Companion and Master sets - the latter of which omits his name altogether), so launching an Arneson line of D&D modules may have been enmeshed with that as well - as part of or in lieu of some other settlement.

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    3. More food for thought. Thanks again for bringing this to my attention.

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  6. So what is the cover art supposed to portray?

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    1. Sadly, there is no explanation in the module.

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    2. "The First Fantasy Campaign" has a section under "Bleakwood" listing technological machines, one of which is named a "Borer"...

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    3. Good catch! I don't believe I would have noticed that. Thank you.

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  7. I haven't read or played this adventure but my gosh I love that cover! It reminds me of the sort of mad imagery you would get on low-budget fantasy movies on VHS in the 80's; the films themselves rarely lived up to the promise of those vivid cover paintings, alas.

    Look at it! Glorious!

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  8. Back in high school I wrote a whole novel set in Blackmoor based on my characters' adventures there. Still have it in a drawer in my office. It was called "A Kingdom Lost to Time."

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  9. Have you checked out "Secrets of Blackmoor" yet? A fine documentary on the proto-D&D days that covers Arneson's journey from the earliest days of wargaming through the Braustein game, meeting Gygax, and doesn't really take a side on the issue of "who created D&D". Great little flick available on Amazon.

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    1. I have! I made a post about it too. I agree it's a fine documentary, very well done.

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