Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Blackmoor and Me

Happy Dave Arneson day!

Blackmoor, of course, dates back to the beginnings of Dungeons and Dragons.  The introduction of the Original Dungeons and Dragons (ODD) booklets mention it in conjunction with the Great Kingdom Chainmail campaign (circa 1971) and cites it as the start of Dungeons and Dragons.

Although there is a great deal of controversy how much Dave Arneson’s role-playing game derives from Chainmail, the Great Kingdom Map seems to be the first appearance of Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor. The second supplement of Original Dungeons and Dragons Blackmoor is the next appearance. Like the first Greyhawk supplement Blackmoor is in the majority extra rules and magic, and magic items. However, unlike it does contain a complete Dungeon in the Temple of the Frog. The Temple of the Frog is a high-level dungeon with an emphasis infiltration as when it is on high alert there are hundreds of troops available. Please note, however, in the original games I played Magic-Users with spells of missile deflection, Fireball, and Cloudkill routinely handled hordes of 100 to 400 bandits by themselves. I was glad to see the Dungeon in the book since it gave more insight into how the designers of the game played it. There are large quantities of sea creatures in the monster section and underwater combat rules which are useful if you’re into that thing. However, Monk and Assassin are some of the worst classes mechanically of ODD.

The next appearance of Blackmoor is the First Fantasy Campaign supplement from Judges Guild in 1977. It is one of my most treasured modules being a collection of Dave Arneson's campaign notes including both the actual Blackmoor dungeon, as well as the campaign map. The module includes instructions for how to connect Blackmoor to the Valley of Ancients in the Judges Guild’s Wilderlands of High Fantasy campaign. The map itself is based on a Renaissance map of the Netherlands so it is very soggy. The map scale always seemed a bit off things described as mountains barely covering the area of foothills. Cultures changing from Vikings to Steppe Nomads in the space of less than 200 miles.

The actual dungeon of Blackmoor itself is fascinating. I am always amazed at how many different ways dungeon designers can start with a piece of quadrille paper and draw unique things. Blackmoor contains lots of diagonal corridors and very few doors. Most of the monsters seem to be just standing around in the hallways. Note that the monster population is the Dave Arneson convention loadout, updated to the published ODD rules rather than his original population. The staircases between levels needed some sort of key. I spent a week with a piece of tracing paper trying to line them all up. Some of the levels have tunnels that lead off the map, something which I used in my campaign. The random yearly events table was completely fascinating as well. Some people object to the lack of organization, however, it is not significantly worse the ODD books. The ODD trained me to hop, skip, and jump around the rules picking up the parts I needed rather than reading rules cover to cover. This has served me well through all the editions since.
In 1980 the Greyhawk Gazetteer includes a region known as Blackmoor, although whether this is Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor is unclear. There an interesting analysis and comparison between the First Fantasy Campaign and the Greyhawk Blackmoor’s on this blog.

In 1986 Dave Arneson got another chance at Blackmoor with DA1 Adventures in Blackmoor. Other than the weird linkage to Mystara it is one of the best Blackmoor modules. However, the weird properties of the Comeback Inn definitely reflect the Jokey Gonzo style of early D&D. DA2 Temple of Frog revisits the adventure from the Original Blackmoor supplement. If you are going try running the Temple of the Frog run this version. DA3 City of the Gods reveals one of the dark secrets of Blackmoor, a crashed alien spaceship. DA4 The Duchy of Ten explores western Blackmoor. These modules intrigued me although most of them were higher level than I was running at the time. Their Jokey Gonzo style is not for everyone, and several items in the modules are campaign breakers (especially City of the Gods). However, they finally give a complete view of several key elements of the Blackmoor campaign. The Egg of Coot remains unexplained. I find Gary's invitation to Dave to write Blackmoor modules a refutation of the eternal rivalry narrative between Gary and Dave current on some websites. It seems the bitterness of the lawsuit of the late '70s (mostly about royalty payments) had faded by the mid-'80s. After DA4 due to upheaval at TSR after the departure of Gary Gygax. Blackmoor goes radio silent. 

The 2000s saw another revival of Blackmoor. The D20 open license led to a joint venture between Zeitgeist games and Dave Arneson. Blackmoor and Blackmoor Dungeons are re-visitations of the material in First Fantasy campaign. Several other expansions were published but these were written by others than Dave Arneson and jarred with my sense Blackmoor. I remember being annoyed that the “Riders of the High Hak” shifted the Hak from Mongolian to Native Americans. I was intrigued by the “Living Blackmoor” living adventure, but was too tied up running “Living Greyhawk” to be able to do much with “Living Blackmoor”. Unlike “Living Greyhawk” all the “Living Blackmoor” Adventures have been archived on the Blackmoor.Mystara.net forum. Follow the instructions here to gain access. Unfortunately, Dave Arneson’s death in 2009 followed by the third to fourth edition transition debacle seemed to have taken all the wind out of this effort. Several very active fan efforts continue to the present day.

Blackmoor remains an important touchstone to the early days of Dungeons and Dragons. The limited range of the campaign map has led it to be shoehorned into other campaigns rather than having it as its own campaign. It, however, packs a great deal of content into a small area being able to match much larger campaigns in depth. If you have the adventure sense for notes in the raw get the First Fantasy Campaign( perhaps hard to find). If you like a more modern approach get the DA adventure series(all available on Drivethrurpg). The Zeitgeist publications(also available on Drivethrurpg) didn’t quite click with me, although I should give them another look.

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