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




6 comments:

paleologos said...

I absolutely think you're on to something, here - very cool, also, that February 20 was a Saturday in 1971, as well!

I found a link to a preview of the movie on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWT2C3waUsc

Claytonian said...

sure you got the right movie/star? I can't google this

DHBoggs said...

Of course Claytonian:
https://horrorincorporatedproject.wordpress.com/2011/10/08/saturday-february-20-1971-werewolf-of-london-1935-the-black-room-1935/

Dick McGee said...

Boris Karloff was in the Black Room, not Vincent Price.

Greg Svenson said...

I think Dave Arneson was referring to the creature double feature that was also airing in those days, rather than this one.

paleologos said...

I actually rented "The Black Room" on itunes on Saturday night, after I read your blog post, and I'm glad I did - great fun (and that castle looming over the village bears a certain, striking resemblance to another castle we know...)

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