Ancient Mysteries of Old Blackmoor

Author: DHBoggs /

Was there an ancient, technologically advanced civilization in Blackmoor? Tavis Alison wrote a piece a long while back on the Apocalypse Trope in D&D, and in that article he mentions the gigantic pipe organ found in the original (1975) Temple of the Frog.  The pipe organ was Steve Rochford's (Saint Steven) idea, but one that Arneson happily ran with.  To explain the existence of a mechanical modern-era musical instrument in an otherwise medieval setting, Arneson called it the last surviving example of its kind, detailed only in a "cryptic manual on artifacts found amongst the volumes in the Library."  The pipe organ then, is not some alien technology installed by the visitors from outer space who had taken over the temple, but a remnant of a distant time when there were builders with the technical skill to produce such a thing.  Does that mean Blackmoor once hosted a more technically advanced civilization?  Tavis wondered the same thing, so a year before Arneson's passing, Tavis asked him that question at a Gen con.  He asked "...whether this pipe organ implies a previous high-tech fantasy civilization or whether Blackmoor is a post-apocalyptic Earth."  Typically cryptically, Arneson answered "yes" to both, implying that he wasn't fully committed to either view, and that may be, but we can say with surety that back in the 1970's when they played  John Sniders Star Probe games or Arneson and Barker's crossover Tekumel games,  Blackmoor was considered to be a place distinctive from Earth.  

Now a single reference to a pipe organ may seem like pretty thin sauce, you might say, ah but there's more juicy bits to be had.

For example, we have this description in the FFC of the throne room of the  Egg of Coot, "...which is dominated by a huge old world artifact said to be an ancient war machine." (77:18)

What is this "old world" of which Arneson speaks?  It's a mystery of course except that undeniably there was once a civilization capable of building advanced machine artifacts, somewhere and somehow tied to present day Blackmoor.

The secrets of such technology might not be entirely lost either, at least, not all.  William of the Heath, an original Blackmoor character played by Bill Heaton, had among his possessions three blue items: the magical sword Blue, a mechanical horse named Bill, and mechanical blue armor.  Once again, neither the horse nor the armor appear to be space alien technology.  They are items with a history, having once been in the possession of a wizard and a dragon, and neither rely on rechargeable batteries or power packs as Arneson's alien tech usually does.  The text does not make it clear, but seems to hint the wizard made all three of these items, and if so he must have some bits of ancient knowledge.  There's really nothing definitive on the exact nature of the armor, but we do know the horse "never seems to eat anything and drinks lamp oil."  Drinking refined kerosene pretty clearly implies a mechanical creature, not an electronic one.

It's also worth noting that the d20/3.5 era Blackmoor books freely dip into steampunk, as exemplified by Clock and Steam wherein we find that "the titanium charger represented the peak of technological development in that it nearly perfectly replicated a horse, all the way down to its behavior and mannerisms, but improved upon the technology that powered mechanimals by making it a valuable companion in combat." (p124)  To my ears, the mechanical titanium charger seems meant to be an homage to "Bill".

While it is certain Arneson did see Blackmoor as having some sort of a lost "old world" advanced civilization, he never really pursued the idea beyond references like those above or to ambiguous "Technical Manuals" and "ancient books and manuscripts".  Even the steampunk creations in the 3.5 era Blackmoor books were attributed to gnomish and dwarvish inventors, perhaps a bit inspired by alien tech, without mention of an ancient, advanced civilization.

However, the idea of a lost ancient technological society in the region of Blackmoor was picked up by Greyhawk writers - eventually.  Perhaps the first hint of this was in The Living Greyhawk Gazeteer, "It is not known what, if any, civilization existed in the far northern land before the Ice claimed it, but the rumor of evil in the north was old even when the Oeridians and Suel were new to the Flanaess." (2000:34)

However it was Wolfgang Bauer who really ran with the idea in two adventures published in Dungeon Magazine The Land of Black Ice (#115) and The Clockwork Fortress (#126).

In the former adventure, we find a nimbleworks who is "a strange construct from an ancient realm that predated the Black Ice." (p32)  In the latter an entire fortress of this ancient civilization is detailed, and we learn that long before the Oridian migrations, "...a small fiefdom in the northlands reached the heights of civilization - its craftsmanship and knowledge of artifice were unmatched." (43).

Bauer goes on to conflate this ancient civilization with the City of the Gods in the second adventure, but we know that label usually refers to a crashed spaceship, not a lost civilization and attributing it to an incredibly old civilization causes a dating conflict with the information from the Codex of Infinite Planes in Eldritch Wizardry.  Of course, there certainly can be more than one City of the Gods, or the name of one could have been carried over to the other by people who didn't know the difference easily enough.

Whatever the role of the City of the Gods may be, the advanced ancient technology of lost civilizations found Bauer's two Blackmoor adventurers isn't coming out of nowhere but is rooted in a tradition that goes back to the earliest days of our hobby.

Monsters of Blackmoor - Supplement II, part 1

Author: DHBoggs /

I'm going to start this series looking closely into the monsters in D&D Supplement II, published by TSR in 1975.

Unfortunately I have to begin by discussing a confusion over authorship that has more to do with personal conflicts and internet drama than reality.  Simply put, there are folks whose negative assessments of Mr. Arneson finds expression in this case in asserting with no evidence beyond hearsay that Arneson wrote little of the booklet, instead ascribing it to various other authors including the editor Tim Kask or even Gary Gygax.

I'm not interested in any of that shit slinging.  The fact is that most of the text is Arneson's. Some parts are all his (TheTemple of the Frog) and other parts received more or less revising as the editor felt was needed to produce the product TSR wanted - as per usual.   I've touched on this topic before and it doesn't make gaming more fun to re-hash it.

What is certainly true is that the final editor Tim Kask cut certain section of Arneson's manuscript which he felt were not consistent with the published D&D rules (too Arnesonian).  Some of these cut pieces were apparently later recycled into the Judges Guild First Fantasy campaign booklet, but regardless, this cutting left room for more material, and provided opportunity to add several pages of cool underwater material that had been submitted to TSR by freelancer Steve Marsh.

For our purposes this presents a problem if we want to distinguish what monsters may be Arnesons and what may be Marsh's.  On  the other hand, as far as the "official" setting goes it doesn't really matter who wrote what monster since they were all published as "Blackmoor" monsters, and since at the time, anything  Blackmoor was considered a part of the Greyhawk setting - as was everything published by TSR for D&D up to that point.  

So we will take a look at all of it, but since we are all naturally curious about what sprang from the mind of D&D co-creator Dave Arneson, here is my take:

The Supplement II booklet provides us with a list of all the monsters on page 14.

This list is interesting because there is no apparent rhyme or reason to its organization; it's not alphabetical or ordered in any way, and it's definitely an interesting and curious mix. 

The arrangement of the monsters look like two or three separate lists that were simply tacked on to each other - and I think that's just what it is. Tim Kask has said the giant creatures were Arnesons, which certainly fits with his style and other monsters he created.  All of these giant creatures are listed before the entry for Sahaugin. Indeed, most, if not all the monsters before Sahaugin have similar wording and often reference each other.

When one entry references another it is a pretty strong indicator that they come from the same author.

The first monster in the list is the Merman. We know that the material Steve Marsh wrote was predominantly, perhaps entirely about underwater adventure.  But while Steve has said he *might* have contributed the Merman but wasn't sure, we can actually be pretty sure it was from Arneson.  First the Merman reads like an Arneson entry. A good bit of it is devoted to mermen attacking and grappling ships – an Arneson hallmark, and Mermen are closely referenced several times in Arneson’s giant monsters section, so there's that tie in.  Importantly we also have a short list of monsters from Arneson in the 3LBB that includes Mermen.  This list can be found in the Naval section Arneson wrote on pages 34 and 35 of  The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures.   Of course Gygax edited this section so we can't be sure he didn't add one or two of the monsters himself, but  of course Gygax could have - and did - put monsters he came up with in the regular monster list so there would be no reason for him to put extra monsters in this section. Here is the list:



Dragon Turtle 

Water Elemental

Giant Leeches:

Crocadiles (Including Giant Crocadiles) (yes, misspelled)

Giant Snakes:

Giant Octopi and Giant Squids: 

Giant Crabs

Giant Fish 

It is apparent that Arneson fleshed out this list as part of the material he created for Supplement II.  In fact, only four of the monsters listed here aren't repeated in Supplement II - Giant Snake, Giant Fish, Water Elemental and Dragon Turtle - and only the last one of these is actually a specific monster not covered elsewhere.   

In any case it is apparent that some of the water monsters are from Arneson, which no doubt made it easier to integrate Marsh's material. I think that there can be little doubt that the monsters in the list from Mermen to Fire Lizard are Arneson’s. The others after this are more problematic. The water monsters between fire lizard and Sahaugin do not have the exotic names Marsh used for his other monsters - like Ixitxachitl, nor do they have the within-type variations he favors, and there’s none of his unique wordings like “class VII armor”. I don’t think they are all his. They look like more of Arnesons, especially as some of them are more “giant types, but being mostly underwater creatures, its also possible that some come from other TSR sources. 

Giant sharks, for example, have a classic Arnesonian wording (such as hobbits being bite sized) and reference Mermen. Portuguese MOW have hit location (tentacles 1 point each) and Arneson favored hit location gaming, but being non-standard D&D it seems not so likely Marsh would have included it. 

Dolphins, on the other hand, are the first entry to mention Sahaugin and are followed by sea elves.  We know for a fact that both Sahaugin and sea elves came from Steve Marsh, so if I had to bet, I’d peg Dolphins as Marsh’s too and break apart the list this way:

Mermen to Portuguese Man of War – Arneson

Dolphins to Mashers – Steve Marsh

Okay, next we will look at the monsters more closely.

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