What I Learned from The Secrets of Blackmoor: Part 1

The new documentary about the invention of fantasy role-playing is out on VOD on Vimeo. I was a Kickstarter supporter and I am very pleased by the final cut of the film. My comments on it are going to focus on what I learned from the film more than what my thoughts about how it comes together as a film.

Film making is far more complex and difficult than most people imagine. Congratulations to Griff and Chris for just getting this thing done. The whole enterprise of film making is a risky proposition to say the least. Good on them for doing the work and seeing it through to the end.

That said, there are a few things about the film I didn’t care for. There was a sequence with Dave Meggary and Ross Maker where there is audio and the video is some sort of blurry still shot. I don’t know if the video got screwed up at some point and they felt the audio was too important to the story to cut out of the film. It was jarring and didn’t feel necessary. There were a few other moments where I felt like they were jamming information into the film that was cool but not essential to the story of Dave Arneson’s creation. These are minor quibbles and I’m sure someone with more knowledge of film production would have other more useful things to say than I do on the subject of the way the film was put together.

I do feel that if you aren’t willing to read the massive Playing at The World by Jon Peterson then The Secrets of Blackmoor is a great way to learn how fantasy role-playing came about. The essential elements of the story are all there. Dave Arneson’s deep involvement in the war gaming hobby; Dave Wesley’s discovery of Totten’s Strategos and his later experiments with Braunstein; the observation that a skilled referee could not only keep a game from devolving into a battle of rules lawyers but could also make the game more entertaining; the observation that allowing player agency (you can do anything you want if the troops are capable of it) made the game far more enjoyable and immersive; the iterative experiments from the players and referees that allowed Dave Arneson to make the final leap to the role-playing concept with Blackmoor.

For me, the most important element that I took away from this film is the same as everything I’ve learned in various books, articles and interviews I’ve consumed on this subject over the last ten years. That is this…

The creation of fantasy role-playing was a group effort.

It wasn’t just Dave. It wasn’t just Gary. Dave and Gary made the critical contributions of developing the concept and publishing it so that the rest of us could grasp it. We should continue to remember and celebrate their contributions but we have to remember that without players and other war-game designers/referees within their groups, there would be no D&D. You can’t theory your way to role-playing. The actual play method is just difficult to grasp unless you experience it.

To me, the rest of the MMSA and LGTSA and the gamers who came before them contributed in their own way. One of the reasons why the film is probably longer than it needed to be is the fact that there were so many different people involved. I’m sure it was a difficult choice to limit just how much time to spend on the individuals who were part of Dave’s circle of friends and players. You don’t want to leave them out because they all contributed but you can’t make the film 4 hours long either. I think the film did a good job of educating us about Dave’s contribution while recognizing he didn’t do it alone.

In part 2, I have some other observations about the discoveries that the Twin Cities gamers made in the iterative improvement of their war games. It was these discoveries that led, I think, to RPG’s.

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