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Secrets of Blackmoor Review

Dungeons and Dragons eludes complete understanding. Secrets of Blackmoor offers one step on your way to enlightenment.

Despite re-reading the 239 pages of the 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide as a kid, the game remained inscrutable. Despite this, I recall my first encounter with the game as effortlessly joyful. Though it was easy to catch on to the varied and vigorous opinions about proper play in The Dragon magazine, some force drove me onward, compelling me to re-read pages. Somehow, I aimed to solve the disconnect between the game as played by my friends versus the outlandish ideas in the books.

The written word, however erudite or evocative, can only suggest the experience of artwork. It cannot reproduce the feeling of gazing meditatively at The Starry Night. I thought if I could just decipher the jumble of thoughts in the rule books, I’d reach some nirvana of RPG mastery. Eventually I concluded, playing is a craft you learn by doing, hopefully with the guiding hand of a master, in the same way you learn to build a fence with your dad.

I have read Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World. It’s deep. It’s essential. And it illuminates a thousand other paths to explore. I’ve read Jeffro Johnson’s APPENDIX N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons. It inspires, offering additional twisting trails to follow. Two aspects of Secrets of Blackmoor make it uniquely compelling: the focus on Dave Arneson and the experience of first hand accounts.

The confident voice of Gary Gygax echoes across the years. Though sharing equal billing with Arneson on the original little brown books, the misconception that the D&D was his invention is easy to understand. By the time AD&D arrived, it was the Gygax name alone on the front cover. By the end of the 1980s, it’s as if he gave birth to the genre and all other games descended from his wisdom. Fortunately, historians are uncovering the complete story.

The more we learn from the originators, the better our play today. I am completely happy to spend weeks pouring over 720 pages of thick, comprehensive history. At the same time, I’m grateful for a 2 hour documentary I can share with my sons. It offers a concentrated impact to receive the legends related by the heroes themselves. It communicates an infectious passion for the hobby.

As this film is labeled as the first volume, I do look forward to a continuation of the series. The more we all enjoy this work, the more it will encourage and enable the creation of additional volumes in the series. As I write this, physical copies are still available from the Secrets of Blackmoor store. You can also stream the film from Vimeo or Amazon.

2 replies on “Secrets of Blackmoor Review”

I much liked your comment “the game as played by my friends versus the outlandish ideas in the books.” The books were written by people with great imaginations, but who were often uncritical of their own inspirations- [As Lewis Carrol had the Caterpiller say in Alice in Wonderland “When I use a word, it means exactly what I intend it to mean, nothing more and nothing less”] – which led to rules that sprang unreviewed from the mind of the creator, and a plethora of rules written later to amend and contradict the first and second and third… pass at getting it exactly right. When Arneson told Gygax “Rules? There are no rules!” he was not admitting to having done no work, but trying to explain what professional wargame authors a century before had called “Frei Kriegsspiel” (free wargaming) with limited rules, where a referee (AKA DM) provides the answers for anything that comes up not already in the rules, vs the “Rigid Kriegspiel” model that was reintroduced by Fletcher Pratt, Avalon Hill and the host of hobby wargamers in the mid 2th Century, where an ever growing set of rules tries to spell out every thing that can possibly ever happen. The natural tendancy for any hobby game designer in the 1960’s or 70’s was to keep digging up more data about whatever war he was trying to simulate, and writing ever-more complex rules to reflect his research. It was what I was trying to get away from in Braunstein, and where D&D went back to through AD&D and successive editions and issues of the Dragon… Fortunately the style of play that beginner DM’s learned from playing with older, better DMs, and ultimately from David and Gary, rather than the written rules, imparted the Frei Kriegsspiel method not well explained in the books. I am glad that Secrets of Blackmoor has helped you to see so much more of what is behind the creation of D&D, and “the engine under its hood”

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