Secrets of Blackmoor: The Movie
Posted On May 28, 2020
One for the wargames, oddly enough.
The birth of Dungeons and Dragons is a strange and fascinating story of how creatives can draw forth order from the froth of chaos.
I went into this film expecting a lot of defensive snark about how Gary Gygax was a Johnny-come-lately who yoinked the idea of RPGs out from under Dave Arneson’s nose. A fraudulent Edison to Arneson’s Tesla, if you will. And there are hints of that within this film, but only hints.
Most of the run-time focusses on the small tabletop wargaming community within the Twin Cities area. It was here that Arneson learned how to wargame, and what led him to create Blackmoor – a game that was arguably the first ever tabletop role-playing game. But he didn’t sit down and create that game whole-cloth. Instead, he took elements of what he saw within the wider wargame community and combined them in some new and interesting ways. And his game offered some inspiration to Gygax, to be sure, but it was one of many ingredients. In the same way he showed Gary what RPGs could be, he took inspiration from one David Wesley, who took the role-play elements of the standard Napoleonic wargame table and carved off everything else from the game to create Braunstein. Braunstein was a bit of sleight of hand played on his wargaming crew in which Wesley explained that they would first play out a face-to-face political game within a University on the border of post-Revolution France and then Bavaria. The results of the skullduggery in this game would have ramifications in a tabletop wargame that Wesley had no intention of ever running. The result was a game of Diplomacy on steroids, and a game that led to several imitators including a Wild West game called Brownstone, TX, and Arneson’s own contribution to the genesis of D&D.
As is so often the case, the problem with finding the “creator” of modern tabletop RPGs is that it relies on a definition that is not just hard to agree upon, but one that changes depending on how you look at the situation. Arneson was no businessman. Gygax was. Gygax was able to take one goofy little social game, press it into a wargame mold, and sell it to military buffs who were well-read of the Western canon. In the sense that Gary sold the idea of D&D to the world, he created it. If you take the definition to be whoever played a game explicitly revolving around role-playing, then you’re left with David Wesley as the First Man. But Wesley’s game lacked the campaign nature of Blackmoor – his were all frustrating one-off games! The first on-going campaign would have been the wild west Brownstone game.
Which leaves the film only christening Arneson as the creator of the Blackmoor, the first “tabletop fantasy RPG campaign”. A perfectly tidy way to thread the needle.
These are the guys we know about because Gygax’s creation was built on their work. Knowing how culture is shaped and birthed, and knowing how powerful word of mouth was even back in the pre-internet days, I have a strong suspicion that there was a lot of cross-fertilization going on at the time. Particularly given that so many of these guys were university types bouncing around the country every few months. My guess is that there were a dozen other Braunstein games at play in the late-1960s that we’ve never heard of. Those players pushed the limits of “what would a French general really act like” in their own ways, but didn’t take the next leap, or didn’t have a Gygax ready to monetize their experiments, package them, and popularize them. They didn’t keep detailed notes or logs, but moved onto other pursuits. I wonder about those guys. What they think of films like Secrets of Blackmoor. Like all those cultures that carried oral traditions and left no written word, the fault lies with them. But still I wonder what hidden gems are lost to our knowledge, games that might have preceded and perhaps unknowingly inspired the Twin Cities guys.
We’ll never know. But what we do know is fascinating. If you’re any kind of history buff or wargaming buff, Secrets of Blackmoor is well worth a watch.