Gygax vs. Arneson – Who Invented Dungeons & Dragons?
Who really invented roleplaying games? New information has come to light.
Hear how an internet argument turned into a feature length film, Secrets of Blackmoor.
This is an interview with the directors of Secrets Of Blackmoor, which is a controversial look at the alleged true origins of the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons.
Watch a sneak peek trailer for the film at the end of this article.
Secrets of Blackmoor: First off. Thanks for doing this interview with us Nathan.
Nathan: You’re very welcome. I appreciate you taking time out of post-production to chat. How would you describe this movie?
Secrets of Blackmoor: It’s the story of a bunch of college kids in Minnesota in the sixties and seventies. All these kids are war gamers. Somehow they stumble onto an old game manuscript from after the civil war. They try it out and immediately discover that the rules aren’t working for them, so they make up their own rules to fix what they think is broken. In time they develop a unique play style that is all their own. Their ideas evolve into a game called Dungeons & Dragons, by Gary Gygax and David Arneson.
There, you don’t even need to go see the movie now.
Nathan: So along the same train of thought, how did you stumble into this project? What inspired it?
Secrets of Blackmoor: Henceforth, the filmmakers shall answer all your questions thusly: When the Owl Bear guzzles a moth finger’s eyebrow.
It’s embarrassing to admit that the whole thing began as an argument online. How’s that for stupid? Can we go back to the previous answer now?
Nathan: As much as I love owlbears, let’s stick to your embarrassing story.
Secrets of Blackmoor: Both of us were gamers when we were teens. Neither of us had been in touch with the gaming community for a long time. We weren’t aware of the whole Gygaxians vs Arnesonians drama; to us, D&D is Gary Gygax and David Arneson, because that’s what it says on the little white box.
One of us wandered into a gaming discussion online, and made the biggest mistake you can make on a public forum — he brought up Dave Arneson. The discussion immediately exploded into a flame war. People were even calling him dirty names.
All this rage is really interesting and this makes you ask questions. Why do people hate someone that they don’t even know? What are all these people scared of?
That argument brought us to the attention of someone who knew Dave Arneson, Kevin McColl. He put us in contact with the guys who run The Come Back Inn blog, Havard and Raphael.
That kind of sums it up, it was all an accident that can be attributed to an internet flame war, and a chance meeting with someone who actually knew Dave.
And then of course we made the really dumb mistake of revealing that we are filmmakers.
It’s just an accident. We like to blame Kevin. Damn you Kevin!!!
Nathan: So now you’ve got the catalyst for your subject. Why did you decide to do a movie about Dave Arneson and not Gary Gygax?
Secrets of Blackmoor: Gary Gygax is the star of Dungeons & Dragons. His story is out there already. It is an easy story to tell.
Dave Arneson is a mystery. That makes him more compelling. It’s like mapping a dungeon; what’s behind the door? It just draws you in, and you want to find out more about him.
Nathan: Having seen portions of a number of the interviews you’ve done, and the supporting documents and artifacts you used to tell the story, you’ve clearly taken the task of telling Dave’s story seriously. What made you want to tell the story of these gamers with such great care and detail?
Secrets of Blackmoor: We’re not sure about care and detail. We’re mostly just faking our way through it.
Nathan: C’mon now! I’m not buying it.
Secrets of Blackmoor: Ok, Kevin had Dave’s address book. So we picked up the phone, and cold called all these people who were somehow involved with Dave, either through business, or as friends.
Neither of us has done a feature length documentary, so it was a learning process. There was a lot of kick yourself in the pants, and make things happen. Sometimes you wake up and your day can seem daunting, so all you can do is say to yourself, “I am going to make one really important phone call today, or I am going to review those notes today.” It’s always just baby steps. Before you know it, you’ve been working on a project for years and all those little baby steps add up to something massive.
Sorry, we’re going off subject huh?
Nathan: Like any project worth doing, it should seem daunting; and I agree that baby steps are the key. But let’s get back to the phone calls. What was that like?
Secrets of Blackmoor: Our first cold call was to David Wesely. Put yourself in our shoes, you’re a gamer and you are calling the inventor of role playing games; who also happens to be one of Dave Arneson’s best friends.
You feel really small, your heart is pounding, and your mouth goes dry.
That’s what it was like.
And then it turned out that Wesely was more than pleased to talk with us, although he probably didn’t think we were really going to make a movie. We’re pretty sure he thought we were just gamer fan boys scoring bragging points with our friends.
Nathan: Yea, I can imagine he’s had his share of that from the conventions he’s visited, although he just loves to talk. It’s a Minnesotan thing I think (that’s where I’m from too). So what was next?
Secrets of Blackmoor: After 6 months of doing research on the internet and harassing people all over the country, we decided that our next step was to go to Minnesota and shoot interviews. Up to this point we weren’t sure we would even do a movie.
Once we got there, we tried really hard to keep a bubble of indifferent objectivity going. We were trying to act how we thought journalists should act.
It didn’t take long for that whole plan to fall apart. If you sit with David Wesely and chat about everything under the sun, you just end up liking him so much that you can’t be distant observers anymore. The same goes for all the other people from that group of gamers. They are all very wonderful and kind people, and you get to know them and they get to know you.
Nathan: I’ve also had the privilege of gaming with a number of those gents and they do quickly make their way into your heart. Do you think these positive interactions changed the movie?
Secrets of Blackmoor: Completely, the gamers forced us to change how we did it.
After the journalist act failed, we didn’t have any barriers between us, we even gamed together. These are our friends. We care about them. You can tell that by watching the interviews.
When you watch the trailer, their eyes are smiling, you can’t fake that.
Nathan: Could you tell me more about the people you interviewed? Was there a theme that you discovered during the interview process?
Secrets of Blackmoor: At this point, we’ve sat with many of the original war gamers from the core group. We want to keep the names of some of the people secret for now. We love secrets.
The really big themes are pretty easy to define. There is a pathology in the evolution of these games, and it’s been lying in plain sight for decades; only a few people seem to have noticed. That would be the main theme, but there are also other themes.
Nathan: Did these themes help you make the film?
Secrets of Blackmoor: When you make a film, knowing what the story is going to be about isn’t good enough. You need to establish a process for your inquiry. We began with overarching questions.
Is the popular mythology about these games going to stand up to the documents and interviews we conduct? How are these two things different?
It’s the differences that matter.
Nathan: Did you discover some “myths” that needed to be dealt with?
Secrets of Blackmoor: It really comes down to these:
- Gary Gygax invented role playing games when he created Dungeons and Dragons.
- David Wesely was the originator of the role playing concept with Braunstein.
- Dave Arneson and his Blackmoor game had nothing to do with the invention of Dungeons and Dragons.
Those are the core statements that drive the whole movie. It’s almost a logic puzzle.
Nathan: Gamers get into near religious wars over these statements!
Secrets of Blackmoor: Yeah, these are sort of boring circular arguments, but you end up with a lot of these types of assertions that you want to test. You also have to ask yourself the inverse of every premise, or you can end up blinding yourself. Sometimes the popular mythology in these stories reveals something that isn’t necessarily a binary answer.
Nathan: What do you mean by non binary answers,could you say more about that?
Secrets of Blackmoor: Here is a good example:
Are the individuals who created these games the most important element for this process?
We found that the players are just as important as the game designers in creating a game. This is not a yes/no result. It points to synergy. It’s creator multiplied by players.
Sure, there are people within the group who create the ideas for role playing games, yet it really takes the entire group to preserve that knowledge and make it flourish. There are several places in their history where someone invented something and it didn’t work. In fact, this really is a story of games that didn’t work; otherwise they wouldn’t have needed to keep changing them.
With every game they did, it’s the same story. Everyone in the group is willing to try it, and after it’s discovered that it did not work, they make suggestions that produce more refined attempts with the idea; so there are feedback loops in how the group functions as an organism.
When you examine the Twin Cities gamers as a whole, they are what we call an “incubator” in contemporary terms. In their case it is spontaneous and intuitive. They “incubated” ideas as an organic process within their group. You see it in the way each of their games is produced; Wesely’s game Braunstein has the same development process as Arneson’s Blackmoor game does, the same goes for every design that came out of that group of gamers.
Maybe this isn’t a theme, but a mechanism. What we see are patterns in how the group is solving problems.
We hope we aren’t being too wonky with that answer. It’s really hard to talk about what these guys do in layman language. The amount of study they did in game theory and history is expansive; so when you try to explain what is going on with them, you end up talking about behaviorism and cognition. That is what makes this so compelling for us, and has kept us focused on this project.
Nathan: What surprised you the most in the making of this documentary?
Secrets of Blackmoor: We’ve been working on this project for several years now. Perhaps the hardest thing to comprehend at first, is that although RPG’s germinate with this bunch of players, none of them seems to have a vocabulary to describe what they have done. They all use coded gamer babble; it doesn’t explain a thing, it’s useless in a movie.
At the same time, we’ve both been gaming since the 70’s, and we never could explain what a role playing game is to anyone either. Go ask a friend to explain to you what a role playing game is — they can’t do it!
This was a problem for us as film makers. We needed to explain what these games are through our interviews. The guys weren’t doing a good job of it at all. They can talk about war game rules and concepts, but role playing is a complete mystery to them. It was frustrating. Then we got this odd thought: we decided to focus on what their wives were saying. We went back and reviewed their interviews, and that’s when we got a break through in our research.
Go watch the trailer, and you’ll see Gail Gaylord say, “There was so much make-believe; that was the best part.” No guy is going admit that he plays hours upon hours of make-believe; us male gamers have collectively expunged that phrase from our brains, it isn’t macho enough.
We will add that Rob Kuntz does talk about children’s games; he is seeing that connection. He is an exception, but he is also a very lateral thinker; which makes him fun to be around, by the way.
Back to the dude-ness problem. Both directors on this film are men. Our approach is limited by that filter. We’ve now added an editor to our crew. Our editor is a woman. It wasn’t planned that we would use a woman editor; she was just the best fit for our team. She is showing us important elements that we seem to have missed, and she isn’t a gamer.
To answer your original question: The ladies didn’t have any preconceptions about what was going on, so their insight into the story is different; that was what blew our minds.
You can expect to see several of the ladies in the film.
Nathan: Did you know Dave Arneson? If yes: What do you remember about him, and what do you hope people will remember about him? If no: How would you describe him and the legacy he left behind?
Secrets of Blackmoor: We never met Dave.
Ooph! That’s kind of a tough question. Would you want someone to sum you up as a person in just a couple sentences?
We only know Dave through his friends. We can infer a lot about Dave from knowing them. Dave is one of the good ones.
As far as his legacy is concerned. His legacy is still under attack, so it is actively being obfuscated and denied. How long has it taken for people to know who Nikola Tesla is?
Nathan: So how do you start to tackle that controversy? Where does the truth lie in relation to the rhetoric that’s out there today?
Secrets of Blackmoor: If you really listen to people you can find out a lot about how things were within gaming circles back then.
When we were with Rob Kuntz, we brought up Bill Hoyt in conversation. Rob’s face lit up. He was in shock, “You talked to Bill? I haven’t seen him in ages, he’s always fun to hang around with. How’s he doing?” Bill and Rob lived in different states back then, but they knew each other via gaming. It shows you how connected all the original people are, from back before Dungeons & Dragons even exists; so it’s tough to be harsh on Gary, even if we are doing a film on Arneson. All of these guys are part of this little community of gamers and are part of this story.
Before things go bad between them, Dave and Gary are thick as thieves, they are constantly talking on the phone; people need to remember that.
If you do a lot of interviews you get a sense for when you are just talking, and when a deep truth is coming from someone’s heart. We’re paraphrasing, but here is nice quote from the movie, “All we want, is for people to know that these two brilliant men came together, and created something wonderful for all of us to enjoy.”
Nathan: Can you tell me more about when we will be seeing the full-length film, and how can people learn more?
Secrets of Blackmoor:
See a sneak peek trailer for the film here: