Fifty Years of Fantasy Role Play Table-top games.

Author: DHBoggs /

 Today marks an interesting, possibly momentous, anniversary.  It has been 50 years since the Boris Karloff movie The Black Room aired as part of a double feature with Werewolf of London on Channel 5's Saturday run of Horror Incorporated in the Twin Cities.  

This marks the second time that the Minnesota station had shown The Black Room, but it may be the most significant.  Lets take a step back and remember what Dave Arneson said:

"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. Starting with a few sheets of graph paper, the upper levels took shape. The next week was spent laying out my wargaming table to represent the castle and countryside around Blackmoor."  Wargaming #4 Jan/Feb 1978

The quote above is perhaps the oldest telling of a tale told many times, with much the same detail.  He could never seem to remember the exact books he read or movies he watched, but it seems far to great a coincidence that the pun-loving Arneson called his land the Black Moors in his May 1971 Corner of the Table Newsletter Vol 3 #5, at a time when The Black Room had already aired twice on his beloved Horror Incorporated (January 16, 1971 and February 20, 1971).

So why am I calling particular attention to the February 20 showing?  We have talked before about the Northern Marches map and accompanying letter Arneson mailed in March of 1971 to Rob Kuntz as king of the Castle & Crusade society.  This letter represents the earliest datable record connected directly to Blackmoor.

It is also a matter of only two or three weeks after the February 20 showing of the The Black Room that Arneson mailed this letter.

It's the closeness of the Feb 20 airing date to the composition of the letter that makes me wonder about the precise details of Arneson's genesis story.  Mind you, I'm only speculating, but what if, in trying to call up how he started the whole thing some 7+ years afterward, Arneson muddled it a bit.  What I'm suggesting is that watching movies and reading Conan novels inspired the creation of Blackmoor, just as he said, but perhaps it wasn't the dungeon maps he drew that first weekend, but the Northern Marches map sent with the letter to Kuntz?  Perhaps the dungeon maps came a few months later, as seems to be the case from the scant records we have.

There is another hint in the letter itself suggesting this may be the case.  In telling his story Arneson always made sure to point out the influence of Conan novels.  Looking at the early descriptions of Blackmoor Castle, village, and dungeon, there is nothing suggesting a connection to Conan or the Hyborian Age.  We could suggest that those initial connections were lost, overwritten by the Tolkienesque material of Chainmail, but that seems at odds with Arneson's habit of recycling gaming ideas.  We'd expect those hints to still exist in the dungeon if ever they were there.  However, when we turn to the short March 1971 letter to Kuntz accompanying the Northern Marches map, we see a different picture:

"...to the east lay the forested domains of the ERAKS, a breed noted for their cunning and banditry. To the North lie the domains of the SKANDANARIANS, a savage band of sea raiders whose ferocious nature brings them into constant conflict with all their neighbors. To the [northwest] lie the accursed lands of the unholy RED WIZARDS COVEN, whose lands are more dangerous than even the wizards themselves. Finally, to the west and south west lie the lands of PICT'S, a savage band of uncivilized barbarians noted for their cruelty and fierce loyalty to the abomination they call king."

The influence of Conan on the Northern Marches map is abundantly clear in that paragraph.

Whether The Black Room really had anything to do with the genesis of fantasy roleplaying games or not, or whether it was really the Northern Marches map and not dungeon maps Arneson drew after his movie, novel, and popcorn binge,  there is one thing we can say with absolute certainty: by March of 1971, David Lance Arneson had created the idea for a game that would change the cultural landscape of planet Earth.


For more fun on movies and the genesis of Blackmoor, have a look here: More Thoughts on the Cinematic Influence




Education for Character Variability

Author: DHBoggs /

 A complaint voiced toward OD&D and traditional D&D in general is that characters are all the same, whereas "modern" games offer a delicious variety of options for customizing and "building" characters.  Dave Arneson echoed these sentiments in a radio interview:

A lot of the changes between second edition and third edition are actually changes in so far as what I originally wanted to do with the (game) system. For instance with the different classes and the different fields you could learn. I wanted to do that originally, but it was considered too complicated and people couldn’t handle it. Well now that’s come back, you can do that. You could really make a unique character class with the variability; and I always wanted to do that and I do that in my original campaign even today…. Because the players in the original campaign could learn different skills and different abilities, virtually everybody who was a fighter also wanted to be able to throw magic.  And it seemed like everybody who was a magic-user also wanted to be able to fight.

Dave Arneson, Mortality Radio interview, July 9th, 2004.

Back in the day, Arneson's solution for being able to "really make a unique character" was to create an education process where characters could learn the things they needed or wanted.  We can see the roots of his thinking on education in how he initially set up his mechanics for learning spells:

"Progression reflected the increasing ability of the Magic user to mix spells of  greater and greater complexity. Study and practice were the most important factors involved. A Magic user did not progress unless he used spells...  So to progress to a new level, one first learned the spells, and then got to use that spell."

Breaking this idea down generically, a character could progress in "class" skills through learning and subsequent successful practice.

It was an idea that could be applied to much more than magic.

Arneson took it further in his collaboration with Richard Snider, the Adventures in Fantasy ruleset.  He described his thinking in an interview in Pegasus 1:

"I also wanted to get in something on educating your character so one could learn different skills."

Interestingly, while Gary Gygax developed the AD&D system along the rigid class based lines we are all so familiar with, when writing his Gord the Rogue novels he described his protagonists growth very much in keeping with an education based method.

Gord doesn't develop his abilities naturally as a consequence of leveling up and gaining XP.  Initially, Gord is a nothing, but he spends several years learning to climb, pick locks, hide in shadows and so on in a sort of boarding school under the tutelage of master thieves,  Later, he seeks out and hires fencing masters to learn fighting skills and he spends time with Rhenne acrobatics instructors learning tumbling, jumping, juggling and so on.

In game terms Gord begins on the thief class and then becomes a fighter/thief and fighter/theif/acrobat.  The class system as it evolved in D&D is all very complex and all very artificial, and all very uniform.  For Gord, that uniformity is strange, because the novels present him as a uniquely individual character learning his new skills one at a time under instruction.  No doubt, most players want their character to be just as individualized as Gord, so shouldn't they be able to learn through schooling just as Gord did? 

Some may argue, as Arneson was implying in the opening quote, that contemporary games offer character individuality to players as part of their class structure.  However, it has been pointed out more than once that such character customization is largely illusory since players in particular classes are given particular options which often result in players choosing the same "best" options that most other players choose.  The design pressures of today's games funnel players to create very similar "individual" characters.  

Furthermore, because the characters choices occur automatically at certain stages of the game - usually when leveling up, flexibility to craft the character in unique ways is limited.

A character with something like all of Gord's abilities and variability could be better modeled through an education system within 3 broad and encompassing classes - the original three - Fighter, Cleric, Magic-user.

Gord is obviously not a cleric or MU, so he is a fighter.  Using the money he got from thieving, for example, Gord sought out fencing instructors of a particular sort and this particular training can be reflected in his character sheet through education. 

To be clear, what I'm advocating here is something more than a skill system.  This idea is a bit more radical and it is simply this: 

ANY ACQUIRED FEATURE, BONUS, SKILL, ABILITY, POWER, FIELD OF KNOWLEDGE, OR DEVELOPED TRAIT AVAILABLE AS A BENEFIT OR OPTION OR ATTRIBUTE AT ANY POINT IN ANY CHARACTER CLASS, SUB-CLASS, OR PATH IN ANY VERSION OF D&D, CLONE, OR VARIANT OF ANY SORT CAN BE REPLICATED AND LEARNED THROUGH AN EDUCATION PROCESS.

Sorry for the all caps, but it's a fairly radical thesis.  The only exception to the above statement is abilities that require the character to be of a certain nature that they aren't.  A human can't learn to flap their arms and fly like a bird or self immolate on command like a balrog, but they can learn to kick open doors like a monk or assess the value of jewels like a jeweler.  Likewise a Magic- user can't learn to turn undead like a Cleric, but they could learn to backstab if they wanted to.

For how this might work, we can look to the ideas in the AiF education system and see what might be gleaned from there for a D&D game.

Sure, folks can adopt wholescale the education system in AiF or for that matter, some other rule set, but these tend to be fiddly and specific, whereas what we need is a ruleset that will cover any characteristic we want a character to acquire. 

The first thing to note about AiF's education system is that it isn't simple.  Not surprisingly, it is designed to fit a particular system.  It also attempts to "realistically" asses how hard it will be and how long it will take to learn each particular subject and a laundry list of subjects is provided, each with it's own statistics.

Characters are assigned a formula to asses how well they can learn, that is based on the presumed difficulty of the subject and the length of time spent studying and the character's Intelligence score.

For a game, the simulationist approach taken in AiF is really overkill.  We really don't need to do all that. Instead, we can take the basic principals that Ability Scores and practice time are key factors and rather than guessing this and that length of time for this and that subjects, an average learning time will work just as well for game purposes.

So here is what I do, and here is what I recommend.  For any thing a character wants to learn or any skill they wish to acquire, I assume it will take them a number of months of continuous study to master.   The number of months is equal to 20 minus their Intelligence score for any cerebral subject, or minus their Strength score for any purely strength based activity, or minus their Dexterity score for activities requiring a steady hand and a quick eye.

A character with an 18 Dexterity could learn to pick pockets efficiently in a mere 2 months, but a character with an 8 intelligence would take a year of dedicated study to learn a new language well enough to carry on a street conversation.  Some negotiation between referees and players is inevitable, but will also ensure that each character will truly have their own unique qualities.

This method is very flexible and you can add layers of expertise and skill to any subject.  A character might learn basic cooking skill and then go on to expertise in orc cuisine, for example.

You could apply this method to weapon specialization rules or technical skills, to going berserk or learning to heal - anything.



 

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