Thursday, October 1, 2020

Secrets of Blackmoor

The early history and indeed prehistory of roleplaying games is one of my primary interests, as it is of many others involved in this hobby. Consequently, when I first heard that there was a documentary being made about the gaming scene in the Twin Cities of the 1960s and '70s, I was immediately intrigued. There can be no question that Minneapolis and St. Paul were the crucibles of much of what we think of today as "roleplaying." So many of the founders of gaming hailed from or wound up in the area at this time – men like M.A.R. Barker, Mike Carr, Dave Megarry, Dave Sutherland, Dave Wesely, and of course Arneson, to name just a few – that it's not an exaggeration to say that the Twin Cities have as good a claim, if not better, as that of the more celebrated Lake Geneva to the title of "birthplace of roleplaying."

My only concern about the resulting film, which would bear the title Secrets of Blackmoor: The True History of Dungeons & Dragons, was that, as its subtitle suggested, it might be stridently revisionist in its approach. In the years since his death in 2008, it's become quite fashionable to denigrate the legacy of Gary Gygax, even to the point of claiming that his role in the creation of Dungeons & Dragons and, therefore, roleplaying games, was minor or that he "stole" everything he ever did from others. Corrective is useful, even vital, in historiography, particularly if previous histories leaned a little too much on a limited perspective. I've written recently about my own ignorance of Arneson's foundational role in the hobby, so I am very much in favor of a broader, deeper examination of the people and events that led to the creation of it. But my worry remained. 

I am happy to say that that worry was wholly unfounded. Secrets of Blackmoor, written by Griffith M. Morgan III and directed by Morgan and Chris Graves, is an affectionate, sprawling, and, above all, nuanced approach to its subject matter. Far from having any axes to grind, it is instead a serious examination of the confluence of events and people that led to the creation of the Blackmoor campaign and, from it, Dungeons & Dragons and the hobby of roleplaying itself. Despite a running time of 131 minutes, it moves briskly, thanks in large part to its emphasis on interviews with surviving members of "the Blackmoor Bunch" and significant figures from the period. It's a solid approach that both held my attention and humanized the stories behind the creation of RPGs.

I say "stories," because there are a lot of them in Secrets of Blackmoor. The film bills itself as a history and so it is, but it's primarily an oral history, as recalled by the men and women who knew Dave Arneson and played games with him, both before and after the start of the Blackmoor campaign. This is important to bear in mind, because it would be mistaken, I think, to treat every story, recollection, and memory as 100% factually accurate. I don't think anyone can doubt that, after five decades, the memory can play tricks and, without independent evidence, not every reminiscence can be taken at face value. Yet, these stories are are nevertheless invaluable; they give a far better sense of the fun, the wonder, and the exhilaration that suffused those early games around the table with friends than could dry exposition. 

The saddest part of watching Secrets of Blackmoor is the absence of Dave Arneson himself. Though the film is bookended with videos of Arneson teaching a class as an older man, as well as with photographs of him at various points in his life, he lives primarily through the stories others tell about him. Some of them are quite moving, none more so, in my opinion, than those told by his daughter and father (whom I did not know was still alive). Hearing others speak of Arneson, it's clear that he was a man of singular imagination and loyalty. That the Blackmoor Bunch still speak so highly of him and his accomplishments is a testament to what a remarkable person he was. It's this that is one of the film's great strengths.

Its other strength is the way that it situates the development of roleplaying games within the larger context of miniatures wargaming. We hear a lot about Charles Totten's Strategos, Michael Korns's Modern War in Miniature, Dave Wesely's Braunstein experiments, and other games, all of which contributed to Arneson's thinking as he laid the groundwork for his Blackmoor campaign. It's powerful, fascinating stuff that deftly establishes the intense creative ferment in the miniatures wargaming world of the period. This is useful, of course, in providing historical perspective, but what it also does is muddy the waters somewhat on the matter of who created roleplaying games and when. There are multiple moments throughout the film where it would have been easy to offer a definitive pronouncement that "this was the moment when roleplaying was born." To its credit, the movie shies away from such simplistic certitude, leaving it to the viewer to make up his own mind.

If there is a secret of Blackmoor, it's that roleplaying had many parents, even if some, like Dave Arneson, justifiably loom larger than others. For that reason alone, I highly recommend Secret of Blackmoor. If you are at all interested in the history of the hobby, you owe it to yourself to watch this documentary. You will not be disappointed.


  1. Agreed - it's a fantastic film. There's been footage shot for a "Volume 2", something I hope comes to fruition.

  2. My "aha" moment about the history of roleplaying games also came with the reading of Playing at the World. It also neatly shows that various ideas were floating around in (wargaming) circles during the 60s, but that one strand led to D&D as we know it today.
    I too take an interest in all those 'forgotten' cousins of D&D, they give a much broader view on how the hobby developed.

  3. Great documentary. At 1:46 Ross Maker talks about The Snider Variant of rules in 1972 with orcs, dwarves and a Balrog. No mention of Tolkien at all. I guess the adoption of those tropes was that seamless.