What I Learned from Secrets of Blackmoor: Part II

In this post, I’m going to lay out some concepts I picked up, in part, from the documentary . These lessons align with an important observation made by Rob Kunst. That observation is this; Role playing games are a combination of open and closed systems.  Role-playing games are games in which players can do things that are not in the rules. Dave Arneson’s genius was in making this leap, according to Kunst. I don’t think Arneson had a “Eureka!” moment where his lateral thinking led him to that understanding. I think it was a series of experiments by Arneson and his friends who were trying to make their war games more enjoyable that led to a discovery. That discovery is that the combination of open and closed systems allow for a depth of play that cannot be matched by a pure closed system or a purely open system.

The documentary lays out some important discoveries or developments made by Dave Wesley, Dave Arneson and the other members of the MMSA. These discoveries led to the invention of the RPG. Without these discoveries you cannot have an effective marriage of the open and closed systems.

The Referee:

In the early days of the war gaming hobby, there were always disagreements about rules or the interpretation of a rule in specific situations. Games would be completely disrupted by the outbreak of an argument. Dave Wesley noted in the book Strategos: The American Art of War by Charles Totten, a referee was needed to adjudicate the rules. Wesley and the Twin Cities gamers decided to start using a referee to run their war games. When a situation developed where the rules were not clear, a judgment could be made by an impartial (hopefully) referee which allowed the game to continue without further disruption.

The addition of the referee allowed for asymmetrical information and the “fog of war.” With a referee, each player can have different information about the situation on the battlefield which is a more realistic simulation of a tactical situation in combat. Players could hide troop movements behind terrain or hold units in reserve. They just had to tell the referee what they were doing so that when the trap was sprung, it was a fair game. This ability to control information allowed the referee to introduce complications outside of the control of players such as difficult terrain, bad weather, saboteurs and civilians with useful information about the enemy or the battlefield.

We can see how these discoveries led to the role of game master. The game master creates the scenario, adjudicates the rules and controls what information the players have about the situation their characters are in. These are fundamental elements of role-playing games.

Elements of Story

RPG’s have elements of story but are not stories in themselves, as I have previously asserted. The MMSA intuitively gave the commanders of their units names and a personality of sorts. From what I gather from the stories in the film, this occurred in a post hoc fashion when something unexpected happened in the game.  They might even modify the miniature that represented the commander or a particular unit to express in game events. They were adding features which made for great stories, after the game was over. This made the game more fun and created emotional tension. They gave an identity to and became attached to what was physically just a pewter miniature with associated game values.  However, in the imaginations of the players, that bit of pewter was a dashing commander leading his troops into battle. This created dramatic tension in the game because a single die roll could mean that commander who had survived several battles might finally die gloriously in battle.

In some of the games, the players took on the roles of sovereign rulers. Greg Svenson played the King of Spain in one of their games. He wrote letters to other players as if he were the King of Spain and they were the actual person they were playing in the game. These elements of “make believe” added to the enjoyment of the game and it is obvious how this was adopted into RPG’s.

Persistent Characters and Setting

The MMSA and LGTSA were involved in long running wargame campaigns. These sorts of games involved units which persisted from battle to battle. A campaign might last months or years. Previously, games would be single battles. The outcome of the battle would have no bearing on the next game. They were discrete events. With the adoption of campaign play, a unit would perform well in a battle and gain experience and become veteran troops with better morale and thus were more effective on the battlefield. These features were adopted into Blackmoor. The characters persisted from adventure to adventure. They gained new abilities as they had more adventures. They had an effect on the situation in Blackmoor. They built castles, made enemies and allies, destroyed certain forces or monsters. This persistence has been a primary feature of RPG’s since the beginning. Though we do have one-off games, particularly at conventions, the most typical style of play in RPG’s is the campaign.

The Open or Conceptual System

The quintessence of role playing games is the question, “What do you do?” That single question means you can attempt anything that your character is capable of. This simple concept is at the heart of RPG’s and only RPG’s have it. In chess, you can only move the pieces as the game allows. In a computer game, your avatar can only do the actions or go to the places the developer has written into the code. In an RPG, with a human game master, your choices are nearly infinite. Improvisational comedy and children’s make believe games have this open system but lack the sophisticated closed systems of role playing games. RPG’s are the only games that have both open and closed systems.

Having the referee allowed players to do things which were not part of the closed system. A perfect example is in one of the Napoleonic games, Arneson asked if he could send one of his cavalry units into a river bottom to scout the area. His unit discovered that the river bottom was a swampy mess. Seeing a single unit in a vulnerable position, Arneson’s opponent, who did not know what the terrain was like, sent a superior force of cavalry down wipe out the scouting force. The opponents cavalry got stuck in the mud and were no longer an effective fighting unit, giving the advantage to Arneson. There was nothing in the rules that said Arneson could send a unit to scout the terrain but having the referee who ruled that this was possible allowed Dave to avoid a bad situation and use it to his advantage.

Dave Wesley combined the closed rules systems, the referee, elements of story and the open system when he ran the first Braunstein game. To me, this was first role playing game. From the early Braunstein games, Dave Arneson iterated and experimented until he came up with the idea for Blackmoor. The players who were involved in Blackmoor utilized the insights they had gleaned from years of war gaming to create an entirely new form of game that had not previously existed.

This combination of an open and closed system with persistent characters, a persistent setting (or milieu if you prefer) interwoven with elements of story by a game master and a group of players was the most important invention in 20th century pop-culture history. It has had an influence on every form of human creative output since its inception.

I am glad that The Secrets of Blackmoor documentary was made. I don’t think Dave Arneson, Dave Wesley, Dave Megarry and the members of the MMSA get nearly the due they deserve. Gary Gygax was clearly a key figure in the development of RPG’s. He added his own insight and experiences to the RPG and then brought Arneson’s concept into the world so the rest of us could enjoy it. This is undeniable. However, it is also undeniably clear that Dave Arneson and his friends created the concept which Gary contributed to and made available in the form of Dungeons and Dragons. Both Dave and Gary should be celebrated for their valuable and massively important contributions to gaming.

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