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What Do You Want To Do?


A "Secrets of Blackmoor" Review

This site is clearly not a review site, but occasionally I come across something truly special and I like to celebrate it. Chris Graves and Griffith ("Griff") Mon Morgan III have released their documentary film titled SECRETS OF BLACKMOOR: THE TRUE HISTORY OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS on Vimeo. SECRETS is a documentary on the history and origins of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS but, in many ways, is also a documentary on the evolution of role-playing games. And I think it's important to add that this is also the first volume. Filming of the second volume has just started.

Screenshot of OD&D from Secrets of Blackmoor

The short review (TL;DR) is this: If you have any interest in role-playing games, let alone their creation and evolution, this documentary is phenomenal and well-worth your time. Seriously, I cannot recommend it enough. You can find it on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/secretsofblackmoor and the film's official website is at https://www.secretsofblackmoor.com/

Rent it or buy it. Your choice. But watch it! 
 
The rest of this review will go into some detail about the film and also talk about why I find it so fascinating.

My Background

I got into role-playing games, like a lot of kids, when I was 8 or 9 years old (so around 1982-83). Interestingly, I never played D&D as a kid. I have a memory of being shown the rulebooks for ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS and I found them daunting. Big complex-looking hardcovers that really didn't speak to me at all. I was also big into comics and not that into fantasy of any sort at that time. What got me into role-playing was not D&D; instead, it was another product from the same company, namely MARVEL SUPER HEROES: THE HEROIC ROLE-PLAYING GAME. That led to games like FASA's STAR TREK: THE ROLE PLAYING GAME. I played a lot of these games as a teenager and really enjoyed them. Like comics and science fiction in general, they were a perfect escape from some pretty rough times.

And then, like a lot of young adults, I fell out of them in my late teens and early twenties.

D&D, or rather that style of fantasy gaming, didn't come until much later. How much later? Well, more like 2010 when I first came across DUNGEON CRAWL CLASSICS. That sparked an interest in fantasy role-playing and, through a pretty circuitous route, eventually D&D. This eventually led me to tracking down the original publications, published in 1974, and co-written by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

I say this for three reasons.
  1. I don't have a particular pedigree with D&D. I came to it very late in life, especially compared to most of its fans. I certainly don't have any particular childhood affinity to one version of the game over others (what is known colloquially as "edition wars"; I have no interest in that).

  2. I'm not in any particular "camp" (usually defined as fans of Gary Gygax versus fans of Dave Arenson). By coming to D&D so late, I missed all of that. And, of course, both men have died so I really have no horse in this race.

  3. The SECRETS OF BLACKMOOR film is directly in my "wheelhouse" because it was released at the same time I've been separately exploring the origins of the game. For me, it's a case of perfect timing.

What Do You Want To Do?


So what is it about the film that I find so compelling? It's a combination of a number of things.

The History and Development of Role-Playing


The history of role-playing games is part of it. All role-playing games are a comparatively new and the evolution of role-playing is a very modern development. I think David Wesely in the film says it best, "...you just can't seem to describe the game by just writing down all the rules. You actually have to have somebody talk you through what it looks like when people are playing it so they get a feel for the social interaction on a level that's very hard to describe as just simple flat statements."

The film proceeds to discuss not only wargaming, but how Charles Totten's STRATEGOS: THE AMERICAN GAME OF WAR (1880) tied so many of the Twin City gamers together. The film then develops the importance of the impartial referee. As Greg Scott notes in the film, "as the referee becomes more and more important, you have the kernel of the role-playing game. That's where role-playing games come from, because you don't have role-playing games without a referee."

Screenshot of Strategos from Secrets of Blackmoor


In fact, Wesely's role is critical to how role-playing games develop. Some of the most informative and most amusing parts of the documentary is when Weseley and his players describe the develop of BRAUNSTEIN, a wargame set in the fictional German town of Braunstein. BRAUNSTEIN combines elements of wargaming and STRATEGOS 'N' (Weseley's variation on Totten's rules, especially the involvement of a powerful but impartial referee). This is a part of the history of role-playing that I knew nothing about. 

Screenshot of David Wesely from Secrets of Blackmoor


Early in the film, Griff notes that "the referee invents a fantasy and describes everything about it to the players...The referee asks you, 'What do you want to do?' The story has begun and now it's up to you to decide, what do you want to do?...This pattern repeats endlessly, building a shared imaginary experience."

What do you want to do? 

That is, I think, a key factor in what makes a role-playing role-playing. Is it the only thing? No, I don't think so. Can it be more than that? Sure. Can it be less than that? That is an interesting question. Part of what I'm groping at here, something that the film really explores, is just what is role-playing? As Griff notes in the film, "what is even more confounding about the play-style is that you can play a role-playing game without any rules at all, but you can't play a role-playing game without the play method that is employed by all of these games."

This notion of just what makes a role-playing game a role-playing game is a huge and fascinating part of the film. It is well-framed and well-presented in the film itself and leaves plenty of room for reflection.

History of the Players


Role-playing is a shared experience. One of the things the film does is bring the players, especially those players from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul (Minnesota), to the forefront. Often we focus on who created a thing, especially in the formal sense of celebrity, fame, author credits, and so on and lose focus on all the other human beings who played key roles. It's a great credit to both Chris and Griff that they sought out so many people to interview and record. When watching the film in this light, I think the viewer really gets the sense of how important everyone was. All of these people were incubators and share credit on the creation and evolution of role-playing. To put it another way, if these players hadn't been there, would role-playing even exist?

As I've noted, both Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson have died (Gygax in 2008 and Arneson in in 2009). As a result, the film focuses on interviews with friends and family of both men (notably Malia Weinhagen, Dave Arneson's daughter; John, Arneson's dad; David Wesely, creator of the Braunstein RPG; David Megarry, creator of DUNGEON!; Bob Meyer; Greg Svenson; Rob Kuntz; Ross Maker; Gail Gaylord; Peter Gaylord; Jeff Berry; and on and on). The comments from Malia and John are especially poignant. I would argue that one of the most important things that the film does is give these folks an opportunity to have their memories, thoughts, and feelings about role-playing recorded for posterity.

The Conflict Between Gygax and Arneson


The least compelling part of it, at least for me, was the conflict between Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, though this is not a large part of the film's story. That said, I do think the comments from Barbara Keyes-Jenkins, Dave Arneson's accountant, are important and relevant. To be clear, I find the conflict immensely sad, in the same way I find the conflicts between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and Steve Ditko sad.

Why?

Falling outs between people do happen (I've had my fair share), but when it comes to the falling out between creative co-creators, it leaves a lot of "what ifs?" In the case of Arneson and Gygax, what if the falling out hadn't happened? What would the evolution of D&D look like? Would ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS have even been published? What if D&D had focused on developing and publishing game tools rather than hard and fast rules? A whole trajectory of the game, both wonderful and different, might have occurred.

Conclusion

SECRETS OF BLACKMOOR is a remarkable and wonderful film. It is educational in the best sense of the word and I am extremely pleased that the film was made and I had the opportunity to watch it. I can't wait for volume 2!

Do yourself a favour and see it. You won't regret it.

Epilogue


I'll leave it with this: Griff, in a podcast interview discussing the film, noted the following letter that he received from John Arneson, Dave's dad. It reads in part, "Congratulations for a job well done. The efforts, planning, time, and resources required were tremendous. Malia Weinhagen's, David Wesely's, and Greg Svenson's insight and input for the production added to the success of the endeavour. I was surprised and pleased to see and hear about the Hartford House, where I believe DUNGEONS & DRAGONS was conceived. The recognition of Dave Arneson, his talent and creativity, is long overdue. He is, indeed, the father of role-playing and has authored many articles about board games, rules, and procedures. Again, I thank you and appreciate the work of a multitude of people who made the documentary possible. My thanks to all."

Screenshot of John Arneson from Secrets of Blackmoor


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