Thoughts on the Cinematic inspiration for Blackmoor Castle.

Author: DHBoggs / Labels: , , ,

Here is me having a little fun - don't take any of this as gospel, but rather as a speculative investigation.  I'm about to spin a "Just So" story that sounds good, but should only be seen as a possibility.

Arneson told his own story of the birth of his Blackmoor castle, dungeon, and it's immediate surroundings a hundred times.  Always this story involved the same 3 elements: popcorn, horror movies, and Conan.  Here is one early example:

"Some months after Mr. Wesley left, a local TV station had on several old monster movies, which I watched while eating popcorn and reading old Conan novels. It was then that Blackmoor
Dungeon was first conceived."  Wargaming #4 1978, p47

It's a fun story, but hard to pin down.  When asked about the dating of Blackmoor, Arneson almost always offered up 1971 as the year it started.  Here is one more example, this time with a slightly more specific date:

"I was sitting around... with nothing going on except the monster movie,... reading Conan and conceived of the idea for the dungeon. I populated it and the next time the boys showed up for a battle, they had a castle sitting in the middle of the board. That was the spring of 1971."  Game News #5, July 1985. p9

Sometimes he leaves us other little dating clues which might even be more reliable, for example:

"After Don't Give up the Ship I started in on Blackmoor" Knights of the Dinner Table #34, 1994.

Dave Arneson's version of DGutS was finished in the spring of 1971 and published in the IFW Summer of 71.

Here's another general clue:

"We were doing a historical campaign in Holland so my map ended up with a lot of water." Kobold Quaterly 9, Spring 2009 p31.

In Vol. 3 #5 of the Corner of the Table newsletter (the May 1971 issue), we read: 

"From June 11 to June 21, 1971 there will be a series of Napoleonic battles involving the Dutch for the spring of 1802 of the Napoleonic War Simulation.  The exact time and place have not been determined but contact Dave Megarry if you are interested in taking part as a Dutch or a non Dutch sub commander."  

Interestingly, this is the same COTT which, in the previous paragraph, announces "On Saturday May 22, 1971 a Brown Stein-type game set in the Middle ages will be held at Dave Arneson's home after the Napoleonic Campaign meeting is completed.  All those attending the Napoleonic meeting are invited to stay for this game."  This is the same meeting where Dan Nicholoson received his "Spanish Royals" character sheet I 'blogged about previously.

There's more circumstantial evidence for this general time too, coming in the form of Duane Jenkins Old West Brownstone campaign.  All the Twin Cities players - including Arneson - who mention Jenkins Brownstone, point to it being just prior to Blackmoor, and pioneering the novel idea of characters who survive and continue from game to game. 

In the same Vol 3 #5 of the Corner of the Table newsletter quoted above, Arneson relates the glorious and brief career of his "El Pauncho" character in Jenkins Brownstone.  El Pauncho's short life of banditry ran from late June to early August in the game's calendar - just over a month - before he was captured and Jailed by Sheriff Fant.  In real time, it is hard to say how many game sessions were involved - my guess would be anywhere from one to half a dozen, but probably not more.    In fairness, more adventures from El Pauncho were promised for the next COTT: "There will also be the continuing saga of El Pauncho and the start of the "Black Moors" battle reports..."  Presumably an escape was planned, but it isn't clear what this statement is really telling us about the state of these games.  Both of these promised reports could well be referring to things that may not have happened yet but are expected to, and will be reported on as they occur.  As it happened in fact, El Pauncho was never heard from again, but Black Moor certainly was. 

So it appears all these data points fit rather nicely and the signals from Arneson seem to direct us to the same general timeframe for the development of fantasy gaming in Blackmoor and the placement of the Castle/dungeon game - that timeframe being late spring of 1971.  However, there is one sort-of exception. One of the oldest references from Arneson is found in his First Fantasy Campaign publication where he said "The Dungeon was first established in the Winter and Spring of 1970-71."  If we presume he was being general and off-the-cuff, and that he meant "Sometime during" the Winter and Spring of 1970-71, then there really is no contradiction with a late spring date.  Hard to say.

Now here we run into a more significant problem.  Ross Maker, Dave Wesely, and Dan Nicholson have all said two things: First, they were introduced to Blackmoor in a scenario involving a Plane Crash in Iceland where they played versions of themselves, and second, that this game occurred after Arneson's trip to Europe in June/July of 1971.   

There are two ways around this problem.  The simplest is to just assume they are misremembering the timing.  It would be easy enough to be confused on whether you played the game just before or just after Arneson's European Vacation(TM).  

The other possibility is that we are simply looking at different participants in different games.  Dave Megarry says he was not at the May 22nd game.  He also says he was not at the Icelandic Plane Crash game, but that he was at Arneson's first Castle/Dungeon game, to which he arrived late. (Pers Comm 2017)

If Megarry is right, that would rule out the May 22nd date for Arneson's Castle/Dungeon game, but leave open the possibility that it was the date of the Icleandic Plane Crash scenario.  

So, in a couple places, I previously speculated that this May 22nd meeting is a good candidate for Arneson's Castle Dungeon game, one week after a weekend fueled with popcorn, Conan and monster movies.  However, as you can see, that would contradict Megarry, and seemingly be problematic in relation to the Icelandic Plane Crash scenario which appears to be earlier in character and timing.

In fact, if I may spin another Just-so story, placing the Icelandic Plane Crash game as the game played on May 22nd instead fits in a couple or three different ways.  

First, we could easily imagine Arneson being both a bit excited and a bit anxious about an upcoming flight to Europe.  

Second, Perhaps more interestingly, are the anecdotes about combat. The first reported "Black Moors" game isn't the May 22nd game, but an April 17th game with a troll at a troll bridge as found in the previous COTT Vol 3 #4.  This game seems to have had less participants, but Bob Meyer says he was one of them.  Bob Meyer's account of his encounter with the troll leaves little doubt about his disdain for the newly released CHAINMAIL combat system Arneson used for that session, which laid low Bob's hero with a single blow - the first to die in Blackmoor, according to Meyer.  Arneson had repeatedly indicated that the, um, lets say discontent, of the players at their characters easy demise is what led him to create his own combat system.

In David Wesely's account of the Icelandic Plane Crash scenario, he opined that combat consisted of only "arbitrary story telling" made up by the referee, and because they were playing themselves, "that they really can not die"  Wesely suggested that, like Fight in Skies, you take on a personality who gains experience and can be killed. (Pers Comm 2011).

Regardless of exactly when it was, the Icelandic Plane crash scenario seems most likely to fall sometime between the Troll Bridge game and the Castle Dungeon game.  If we accept that the Castle Dungeon game took place in "spring" 1971, and we accept that the Icelandic Plane crash is earlier, then it must also have been in the spring, prior to Arnesons trip.  If that sequence is correct and the Bob Meyer, David Wesely, and Dave Arnesons accounts are roughly accurate, we may be seeing an evolution in combat where Arneson begins with CHAINMAIL Fantasy, scraps that system because it is too deadly, tries (or resorts to) just arbitrary storytelling, scraps that because it is not deadly enough, and then comes up with a Hit Point based combat method. 

Like I said, it is a pretty good "Just So" story, but it does conflict with the report that the Icelandic Cave game came after Arneson's trip, so we will simply suggest that it may have been earlier, perhaps on May 22nd.

Let's consider Arnesons' European Vacation for a moment.  The exact dates for this trip have been elusive.  Generally it is said to be in June-July 1971.   No doubt you are wondering what difference it makes.   The main reason is that we (well I, anyway) generally haven't looked closely at what was going on in June because we assumed Arneson was overseas.  That includes the monster movies that were playing that month.  However, if he was home for most or all of June it means we can look for evidence that Arnesons castle/dungeon game took place in June, preferably on or before the end of Spring on June 21st, as we established above.

Arneson does have a few things to say about his plans for the trip in COTT Vol 3 #5 (May '71).  Right after the paragraph quoted above regading David Megarry's Dutch battles, Arneson writes:

"As the bulk of are officers are making trips to Europe about the middle of June, the time and place of the June Meeting will be difficult to arrange and there is a very good chance that it will be cancelled altoghether."

There is also this:
"The full rules committee will met June 12, 1971 at (fill in the blank) Hrs at (fill in the blank) Home.  Arneson wasn't on the rules committee, but as club Secretary and head referee of the Napoleonic campaign it seems somewhat unlikely he would fail to attend any of these meetings.

And Lastly this:
"The next issue of the paper will be prepared prior to my trip to Europe as well as they July issue so that if I do stay away from this nuthouse for two months there will still be a paper.  This is especially necessary since election results and ballots must be sent out to all the voting members."

My take-away from the above is that Arneson really had no idea exactly when his trip would be or exactly how long it would last when the May issue of COTT was prepared.

We (at least I) have been assuming that Arneson left on his European tour circa June 15 and returned a month or maybe 6 weeks later circa July 20ish.  Maybe that's about right, but maybe not.  Perhaps that information will come to light.  Meanwhile...

If Arneson's parents hadn't solidified their plans by April/May, it is not unreasonable to suppose they may have actually left a little later than "the middle of June".  The end of June or even early July seems at least as likely for their departure, if not more so.

There's tentative support for this idea coming from David Megarry.  I asked him about the Dutch campaign reported above.  He said:

"I seem to recall that very few people (if any) took Arneson up on the offer and I see myself and him being the only players. I think I attacked his forces but Arneson's more experience prevailed (though by 1971, I was getting better..;). I spent most of my time trying (and I think I was successful) to disengage from the battle. Arneson then Table T'd the campaign based on the outcome. Whether these memories were of the Dutch campaign or some other battles I am not sure. I would have just finished being a Junior at the University of Minnesota on those dates."

Arneson himself may have unknowingly provided us a corroborating clue both to his participation in the Dutch game with Megarry, and the creation of Blackmoor generally.  He said " We were doing a historical campaign in Holland so my map ended up with a lot of water." Arneson Kobold Quaterly 9, Spring 2009 p31.
He's talking here about the land map of Blackmoor, with all it's rivers, lakes and bays, as seen in the FFC.  

Nevertheless, and very importantly, this participation in a Dutch campaign (presumably Megarry's) appears to peg Arneson in the Twin Cites up to the 21st of June, working on Blackmoor material.

So, provisionally, lets presume that Arneson didn't go to Europe until no earlier than the last week of June.  Let's also presume that the monster/popcorn/Conan Saturday when Blackmoor dungeon was born was some Spring date after May 22nd as discussed above.  Lastly, let's presume that one of the movies Arneson watched that fateful weekend was inspirational in some way to the Castle and Dungeon mileu.

Before we cull through the candidate movies, lets consider what influences we might actually be looking for.  What are some of the outstanding characteristics of Blackmoor castle?  Here is a partial list:

The Castle:
Sits high atop a rocky hill
Overlooks the sea
Is creepy/haunted
Has at least one sealed/bricked up room
Has underground passages/tunnels with monsters
Has a passage leading to the cliffs above the sea
Has secret doors/hidden passages
Has a torture chamber
Has a laboratory/wizards workshop
Has a library
Lies next to a walled village
Has a graveyard positioned between the castle and village
Has secret tunnels that lead to various buildings in town and elsewhere

According to The Horror Incorporated Project(TM) website, these are the afternoon movies playing on channel 5 KSTP Minneapolis/Saint Paul:

Saturday May 29, 1971 - Werewolf of London (1935), The Black Room (1935)

Saturday June 5, 1971 - House of Frankenstein(1944), The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)

Saturday June 12, 1971 - House of Dracula (1945), The Man with Nine Lives

Saturday June 19, 1971 - The Raven (1935),  The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

Saturday June 26, 1971 - Murders In the Rue Morgue (1932), Behind the Mask (1932)

We can quickly dismiss most of these movies as no castle is involved.  We are left with three candidates:

Saturday May 29, 1971 - The Black Room (1935)

Saturday June 5, 1971 - House of Frankenstein (1944)

Saturday June 12, 1971 - House of Dracula (1945)

Taking each in turn:

The Black Room involves a castle in the Alps ruled by an evil baron with a good twin brother.  This movie has several interesting features:

There is castle, set high on the hill, near to a graveyard:

 There is also a village somewhere nearby:

Also, the castle does have a single secret passage leading to a bricked up room (the Black Room), and, like Blackmoor, the castle is ruled over by a baron.

These elements are intriguing, as is the fact that the villain of the movie chases and murders women, and Arneson's write up of "Facts about Blackmoor" in Domesday Book #5 1972 includes womenizing barons and numerous murders, however we are missing a number of other details. Especially notable is the absence of a dungeon, a sea, or any monsters.  

House of Frankenstein is a monster extravaganza.  It does briefly include a castle in ruins, where the body of Frankenstein lies frozen.   

Otherwise, there is nothing in House of Frankenstein suggestive of Blackmoor.

House of Dracula is the most intriguing of these three.  It has every single one of the points listed above, except for the last one.  Let's have a look.

There is a creepy haunted castle sitting on a craggy hill overlooking the sea:

It has secret passages leading to an underground dungeon maze populated with a werewolf and Frankenstien monster. The passages include tunnels to a seaside cave:

The castle also features a torture chamber and a mad scientist laboratory/workshop:

Outside, just like Blackmoor, there is a cemetery near to the castle, between it and the adjacent walled village.

As you can see, House of Dracula is strikingly similar in most of the basic and iconic details of Blackmoor, including monsters in a dungeon maze.  What are we to make of this?  It could of course all be coincidence, but it is an awfully big coincidence, considering the timing we talked about earlier, especially if one considers the possibility that Arneson had watched The Black Room merely two weeks prior to House of Dracula.  The shared elements of these movies might have increased their influence on Arneson's imagination.  

Now having said all that, I should point out that the reverse could actually be the case.  The June 12th airing of House of Dracula was actually the second time the film was shown by KSTP that year.  It had already aired 3 months earlier on March 6th.  Who knows.

What I would say, is that we have an alignment of data pointing to a spring 1971 date for the creation of Blackmoor dungeon and an intriguing cinematic hint suggesting that Blackmoor castle and dungeon may have been born on that June 12th Saturday when House of Dracula aired, or perhaps on May 29th when The Black Room aired, followed a week later with the famous castle/dungeon game set up on the ping pong table in Dave Arneson's basement.  


Charles Saeger said...

As an FYI, May 22nd would have been about two weeks before finals at the U. (The U started in late September until the end of the 1990s to accommodate the State Fair. This meant the school year went until about the first week of June.) I can’t decide if that would be a good weekend to screw around or not.

Umbriel said...

I'd bet on Arneson's story having been simplified over time, conflating two inspirational days to one. Even if House of Dracula contributed more to the physical setting, it seems pretty obvious to me that the name "Blackmoor" was chosen as an anagram of "Black Room".

DHBoggs said...

Charles - Thanks for that info. I was wondering where finals week fit in to that picture.

Hutch - Holy Sky Rockets! I never thought of that. Trouble is that The name Black Moors shows up in CoTT and elsewhere prior to the air date of the movie in June, so while that particular shoing could have inspired the setting it couldn't have inspired the name. Interestingly though, The Black Room had also been aired the previous January and before that, in June of 1970....

Justin Alexander said...

That Kobold Quarterly interview also mentions that he was working on a model castle.

"After that it just grew and shortly it was too small for the scale I wanted. But it was a neat kit and I didn't want to abandon it, so the only way to go was down [into the dungeons]. All this happened a few weeks before the first adventurers caught sight of it."

The key things I note here is that he was working on the castle (and some sort of wargaming/Braunstein scenario involving it) for "weeks" before conceiving of the dungeons.

It really doesn't take much to imagine him working on his castle kit in January (or shortly thereafter) and forming the name "Black Moor" as a simple play on "Black Room", using the movie's gothic milieu as inspiration. It's later that year that he's once again watching movies (perhaps even re-visiting the film that originally inspired the backdrop for his "medieval Braunstein") that the idea of adding dungeons beneath the castle occurs to him.

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