Secrets of Blackmoor Part 1: Documentary Review

Time to cover a the first of a couple documentaries about the history of tabletop RPGs that I’ve previously backed on Kickstarter, starting with Secrets of Blackmoor – Part 1. There will be a video review forthcoming later this month if you prefer that.

For those who are unfamiliar, Blackmoor was the roleplaying game campaign played by Dave Arneson’s gaming group in the ‘70s, leading up to the publication of Dungeons & Dragons. Often described as “The first fantasy campaign”, the start of the game predates the publication of the original Dungeons & Dragons rules, also known as “The Brown Box” or “The Woodgrain Box” or “The Three Pamphlets”.

In particular, the overwhelming focus of this documentary is less on how Blackmoor became the Dungeons & Dragons rules, and more about how the Blackmoor campaign got started, with a heavy focus on what Blackmoor evolved from – the Braunstein games.

If you watched or read my past review of the book Playing at the World, you may remember that the Braunstein games were a series of miniatures wargaming campaigns where rather than all the players each being generals of individual armies, with conflicts exclusively being played out by miniatures battles, instead each of the players were significant actors in and around the fictional German town of “Braunstein” during the Napoleonic Wars, with some players being the town priest, or the Burgomeister, or the head of the local college, or even of a particularly notable group of students.

These games, and the variations on it, combined with Gary Gygax’s Chainmail rules, ended up becoming the Blackmoor Campaign.

The presentation of the documentary is great, combining interview footage and photographs with really good graphical presentations of some of the notes of Arneson and other members of the group, giving a really solid visual style that pops and brings out the sense of imagination poured into these notes.

To be upfront, Secrets of Blackmoor Volume 1 is a documentary that starts on a foot, starting with Robert Kuntz, basically giving a pitch that Dave Arneson did all the work, and Gygax didn’t do crap. Later in the documentary, we have other members of the various groups who dispute this and indeed the whole idea of this whole Arnesonian vs. Gygaxian debate, but that inclusion is far enough from Kuntz’s initial statements that it feels odd that they’re included.

Similarly, there are some Grognard-esque comments in the documentary slamming D&D 5th edition for not including Arneson and Gygax’s names on the cover of the game when… nobody’s names are on the cover of the game. The complete author credits are on the inside credits page, and both Arneson & Gygax’s names are there. It’s like saying the Marvel movies don’t credit Stan Lee because they don’t put his name at the front of every film.

My other real complaint is the sole interview subjects in the documentary are first hand sources – members of the Blackmoor and Braunstein groups. We don’t get any expert sources to help give a larger context. The guy who did the documentary, Paul Stormberg, is fairly knowledgable on the topic, given his background running The Collector’s Trove – an auction house that sells material related to the history of the tabletop gaming field, but it would have been really nice if he, or Shannon Appelcline – author of Designers & Dragons – or Jon Peterson, author of Playing at the World – would have helped with that context, particularly helping to moderate the biases that the firsthand sources have, as anyone who has done research will tell you, primary sources come with their own biases.

I did enjoy the documentary, and I would consider backing a Part 2, if they decide to do one, but as it stands, I can recommend this as a compliment to Playing at the World, if you want something a little less dry, but it doesn’t stand alone as well as I’d like.

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