Secrets of Blackmoor Volume 1 is a two-hour video history of the Twin Cities gaming innovations that resulted in Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor — and beyond that OD&D (1974).
Arneson Revisionism: Take II
Around the 45 minute mark of Secrets, the narrator states: “Many write [Dave Arneson] off as someone who did not contribute much to the invention of these games. Others want to glorify him and say everything that he developed for his Blackmoor games came to him in a sudden rush of creative genius.”
This statement pretty much matches my thesis in my review of Rob Kuntz’s A Look at Dave Arneson’s True Genius. Though I hope our industry is beyond its early ignorance about Dave Arneson’s crucial role as the co-creator of D&D, I agree that Arneson Maximalism, where he’s given all of the credit is at least as bad.
I had concerns that Secrets was going to fall into the latter category, in part because one of their major interviewees was Rob Kuntz, whose revisionism in A Look at Dave Arneson’s True Genius was horrible. Thankfully, that’s not the case at all. If anything, Secrets is the exact opposite: it certainly intends to bring attention to Arneson’s place in the design of D&D, which was indeed neglected in the ’80s and ’90s, but it does so only as part of a long history of game design that dates back most of a decade in the Twin Cities region, and which includes several other notables, especially including Dave Wesely.
With that said there are two bits of overenthusiastic revisionism in Secrets.
The first is an overly expansive definition of roleplaying that includes any sort of player agency or “open” gaming. It’s unnecessary, and it muddles the narrative, because instead of tracing the separate evolution of player agency, open rules, character roles, personal goals, and cooperative play — all of which were exciting innovations in the Twin Cities — Secrets too often places them under the core rubric of roleplaying.
The second is the decision to totally skip over the question of Chainmail‘s usage in Blackmoor, as if it were never there at all — even though Arneson himself said otherwise.
Fortunately, these issues are both minor enough to not spoil the overall narrative.
The Contents of the Video
The video starts with a somewhat long (and somewhat chaotic) introduction to roleplaying and Dave Arneson.
After about 15 minutes it settles into a more chronological narrative of how game design was evolving in the Twin Cities, with major titles including
- Mustering the Troops (11:30)
- Resurrecting the Referee (21:45)
- The War Game RPG (34:45)
- Change of Command (42:15)
- Imaginary Worlds (44:10)
- Braunstein: A Prussian Fantasy (53:10)
- Gary Gygax (1:17:40)
- The Domain Game: The Military Campaign RPG (1:20:54)
- Brownstone Texas: The Western RPG [1:32:00]
- The Emergence of Blackmoor: The Adventure Game (1:36:30)
It’s a nice progression that steps through the development of a variety of design ideas across a variety of games. The most notable thing about these contents is that, despite the name of the video, it gives really short shrift to Blackmoor. There’s very little about how it played (which in part is how Chainmail got entirely omitted). That would be almost a fatal flaw for this video if not for the fact that there’s supposed to be a volume 2, and that’s supposed to be about the Blackmoor Campaign itself.
What We Learn About the Evolution of Blackmoor
Secrets thus ends up being all about how Blackmoor came to be, and it’s an entirely fascinating trip. Much of this skeleton has been floating around before, especially in Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World and in Dave Wesely’s 2006 posts on the Acaeum, but here we get a solid throughline. more backstory, and a lot of additional depth on Dave Wesely’s Brownstein games.
Here’s some of the main parts of the storyline, which you may or may not know from elsewhere:
There’s great backstory on how the wargaming play in the Twin Cities went back to the 1963 creation of the Midwest Military Simulations Association (MMSA) by Ray Allard. There’s also discussion of how their wargaming tradition was largely focused on Charles Tottens’ Strategos (1880), a wargaming book that could be found in the library of the University of Minnesota. That was then developed by Dave Wesely into Strategos-N (1970), which was published after it had been in use for a few years.
(As a caveat, saying that the MMSA dated back to 1963 is actually not technically correct, but there were a web of intertwining gaming clubs in the Twin Cities, and they eventually came under the rubric of the MMSA. Just be aware that the originating clubs in 1963 and 1964 had different names at the time, a nuance that Secrets ignores.)
Secrets nicely points out the main innovation from Strategos was the referee: an impartial rules adjudicator who interpreted freeform orders from players and also created scenarios, gave missions, managed secret movement, and provided intelligence from local civilians. Innovations continued to pile on from there including a strong focus on player agency and a “macro” campaign where battles were determined not by historical data but instead by troop movements within the games.
From there the majority of the film focuses on Dave Wesely’s Braunsteins, which are described better than I’ve seen anywhere else. Wesely even lists three sources for them:
- The Compleat Strategyst (1954), which led Wesely to game theory and the idea that games didn’t have to be zero sum: folks could win without other people losing.
- Conflict and Defense (1962), which suggested to him that conflicts could be resolved peacefully.
- Strategos (1880), which of course provided ideas of referees and player agency.
It’s a nice expansion of our common understanding of Wesely’s Braunsteins that puts them in their historical context, as part of another stream of game development.
Considerable attention is given to the first four or so Braunsteins, placing each historically, and giving them details. What I found most notable is how obviously they’re not just proto-RPGs, but Live-action Roleplaying Games (LARPs) — at least the non-costumey sort. Wesely talks about feeling that he lost control of them when players started talking with each other. It took him until he fourth Braunstein to realize that letting go was a goal. Now, most LARP referees would be thrilled by that result.
The one other bit of Secrets that provides some nice new insights is the too-brief discussion of Duane Jenkins’ Brownstone Texas game, which appears to have pedigree as an even earlier proto-RPG/LARP than Blackmoor itself.
A lot of this material is already out there, but Secrets does do a number of things successfully. First it brings together the material about Strategos, Braunsteins, and to a certain extent Blackmoor together into a single narrative that doesn’t delve off into larger issues like Playing at the World (or Designers & Dragons) does. Second, it gives depth to some of these topics, through details and other insights that just weren’t available before the hundreds of hours of interviews conducted by the Secrets crew.
The format feels somewhat less successful. It’s great to actually see and hear the players of the Twin Cities talk in their own words. But, the format doesn’t provide us with a careful chronology nor does it fill in the holes that historians (and history buffs) might like, whereas a book would have been able to. To each medium, its own strengths I suppose.
In any case, Secrets is well-worthwhile for its uninterrupted story of wargaming evolution in the Twin Cities. I hope we get to see that second volume.
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #50 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.