Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Retrospective: Blackmoor

Since last week's Retrospective was about Greyhawk, it seemed only right that this week's should be about Blackmoor. It's also appropriate because Supplement II to Original Dungeons & Dragons occupies a special place in the story of my explorations into the history of the hobby of roleplaying. When I was in high school, my father told me about a hobby shop near his workplace that was selling off all their "old D&D stuff" and he asked if were interested in any of it. I told him that, without a list of the titles they had on offer, there was no way I could answer. The next day, he went back to the store and brought me "samples" of what they had, among which was Blackmoor.

At the time, I think I'd seen the occasional references to Blackmoor, such as in the preface to the Monster Manual. And, of course, I was familiar with the land of Blackmoor as it was briefly described in the World of Greyhawk. However, that was close to the extent of my knowledge, this being several years before the publication of the DA-series of D&D modules that began with Adventures in Blackmoor. Consequently, I was very excited to read this weird, little, brown book and see what secrets it might reveal.

I can't say for certain that Blackmoor revealed any secrets to me at that time, but I did find it a very peculiar book nonetheless. Gary Gygax's effusive foreword included references to Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign, as well as how he "would rather play in his campaign than any other." This certainly whetted my appetite for information about the campaign itself. Indeed, I was hoping that this little book might shed light on the mysterious northern land mentioned in the World of Greyhawk folio.

Instead what I found was a collection of disconnected rules, many of which looked like early versions of material I'd later see in various AD&D books. There were write-ups for the monk and assassin character classes, sages, diseases, and aquatic monsters – all stuff I'd seen previously in slightly different forms. The only rules in Blackmoor I hadn't seen before were the "Hit Location During Melee" sections. Though they intrigued me, I also found these rules somewhat out of place in Dungeons & Dragons, which conceived of hit points in a fairly abstract manner. 

I was feeling a little confused and even let down by all of this. That's when I decided to look more closely at the sample adventure that took up almost twenty pages of Blackmoor. Entitled "The Temple of the Frog," it was quite different from any adventure I'd seen before. For one, its maps were clearly hand drawn, unlike the much more polished maps with which I was hitherto familiar from TSR's products. For another, its primary antagonist, the high priest of the Temple, Stephen the Rock, was described in great detail – including the fact that was "an intelligent humanoid from another world/dimension!" This really grabbed my attention, especially after it became clearer that Stephen possessed high-tech weapons and armor of a science fictional sort.

By this point, I'd already read Gygax's own Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, which also mixed the peanut butter of science fiction with the chocolate of fantasy, so the ideas presented in "The Temple of the Frog" weren't completely unfamiliar to me. At the same time, Arneson's adventure had a very distinct feel to it, one that differed considerably from Gygax's. The crashed alien spaceship in Barrier Peaks is basically a one-off dungeon, a weird locale separated from the wider world. The Temple of the Frog, though, is an active player in the world of Blackmoor; the Brothers of the Swamp are a rising power, whose ideology of batrachian supremacy over mankind might one day threaten the order of things. That their new high priest just so happens to be an alien possessed of advanced technology only makes the situation more potentially volatile.

When I first opened the pages of Blackmoor, I expected I'd probably find some new rules and ideas derived from Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign. Instead, what I got was a mishmash of ideas I'd mostly seen before and that, as I later learned, were largerly the work of other hands (Steve Marsh primarily). But then there was "The Temple of the Frog." Though it's almost completely lacking in larger details about the Blackmoor setting, its ideas and presentation took me by surprise. After reading the adventure, I wanted to know more about Arneson's odd setting and the way it might have mixed elements of science fiction and fantasy together.

That would have to wait a few more years, of course, but Blackmoor was the first step I took down that road. Prior to this, Dave Arneson himself was just a name I'd occasionally see in the credits of my D&D books and Blackmoor was just a mysterious land at the top of the World of Greyhawk map. Now, I knew a little better and for that reason I'll always be fond of OD&D's Supplement II.

9 comments:

  1. They were selling off all their D&D stuff while you were still in *high school*? I think we are about the same age...if so that seems an odd time to get out of RPGs...ahh well.

    Did you ever buy the rest of it? ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The store was getting rid of its "old stuff," which is to say, all the pre-AD&D books and modules more or less. I did eventually buy the whole lot of it, which is how I ended up with my White Box and all the supplements.

      Delete
  2. That's what I get for not parsing that sentence better...it is perfectly clear now!

    I will have to return to Supplement II at some point...I found it very confusing and a letdown--similarly to your first read I guess--and I had certainly built it up in my head. I started to wonder if Dave Arneson's world just did not translate well to paper without Dave to run it and bring it to life!

    ReplyDelete
  3. BITD, we found it pretty much useless barring the new monster section. Our sole copy of BM stayed fresh and crisp, but GH and EW were tattered and taped.

    Today, I enjoy "temple" more than I did back then, but still only utilize the monster section.

    ReplyDelete
  4. DM David offered a post at his blog back in 2015 that called out The Temple of the Frog had been written as the lair of a Bond villain, and that players needed to approach it with stealth in order to win. https://dmdavid.com/tag/why-the-temple-of-the-frog-dungeons-dragons-first-printed-dungeon-seemed-unplayable/

    ReplyDelete
  5. James, please tell me next you review The First Fantasy Campaign ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I already reviewed it some years ago. Just use the search box on the right.

      Delete
    2. you cannot possibly expect me to remember all the items you have reviewed...

      but I did find it

      Delete
    3. I sometimes forget what I've reviewed, so I can hardly blame anyone else for forgetting :)

      Delete