Is The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons 1970 - 1977 worth getting?

Author: DHBoggs /

Released as part of Wizards of the Coast's promotion of the 50th anniversary of the publishing of D&D, The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons 1970 - 1977 has hit the shelves and begun arriving in pre-ordered copies.


I have heard a number of folks express reservations because of the price or the content, and thought it might be worthwhile to lend my thoughts to the matter since I have the book.

The answer to the question of worth for you, is going to depend on your expectations and your interests.

If you were expecting a glossy corporate history prepared without the involvement of any actual Historians, lionizing the corporate founding father while giving the obligatory acknowledgements of modern social progress, you will find expectations met.

If you were expecting a book brimming with early documents, both published and previously unpublished, and with succinct but often thought provoking commentary you will also find your expectations met.

In other words, the book is meeting everyone's expectations.

I'll expand on the critique first. The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons is not a scholarly work, but it is a work for the scholarly minded, both amateur and professional, to pour through and ponder over. 

True, the book exposes no cracks in the usual Pater Families image of Gary Gygax and also true Arneson is presented in accord with the usual grubby-handed lout trope. It is best to keep in mind the long-standing "Papa Gygax" and gollum-like Arneson narratives are well suited to the story Hasbro wants to tell about the past of its popular property. There should be no surprise that The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons doesn't challenge these tropes in what is essentially a coffee table book, not meant to ask probing questions.

For example, a brief letter from Arneson to Scott Rich published in Great Plains Game Player's Newsletter #9 is mentioned but unfortunately not included. In this 2 paragraph letter Areneson covers only two things - Dungeon stocking and Hit Point generation - that he had wanted done differently in D&D and failed to convey to Gygax convincingly, but the commentary overdraws the un-shown letter as an example of Arneson lacking any interest in supporting D&D - an odd conclusion given that he was running public demos of the game shortly after publication. The loutish Arneson trope perhaps comes through more strongly in the noticeably unbalanced treatment found in the section on Supplement II Blackmoor. The commentary strings together hearsay from persons notably unkindly disposed toward the man with the singular rebuttal that one of these assertions *might* be "uncharitable". The commentary also raises the expectation that of a copy marked by Gygax with notations will inform who the true author was. The choice to present this particular marked version in this 50th anniversary book is itself interesting (and appreciated, frankly), but in looking at the actual text we see only a few sections in the first 13 pages are so marked, and the new information to be gleaned there, is that apparently both Rob and Terry Kuntz contributed some of the monsters, seemingly some of those we formerly presumed were Steve Marsh's.  As we learn from a new-to me quote from Steve Marsh that many of his submitted monsters were missing or "simplified". 

The earliest texts are not presented in chronological order, but rather in groups. This choice of materials and the order in which they are presented strongly insinuates the primacy of the Gygaxian chain of creation, from writing about Dragons to the production of CHAINMAIL, but we do get a decent amount of Blackmoor material interrupting the chain, some of it very hard to come by, and the commentary here is interesting. I could continue with examples of the Gygax as Pater Families trope, but I'm not interested in beating this horse and I think you got the point. 

Regardless of the implications of the selected content and order, it is material that is great to see in its original and all collected together. While I have tossed out a fair bit of criticism, including that of reductionist tropes found in the commentary, in fact one of the beauties of this book are the little nuggets here and there in the text of information not widely known. Jon Peterson, the principal author of the text, has access to a wealth of written material, some of it very closely guarded, and his commentary often reflects the deep knowledge he has of the extant documentation.

It is inevitable that researchers will have differing perspectives on past events and people - that's not a reason to avoid discussion, and in this case, not a reason for avoiding this book. There is a great deal of information, and ideas and I certainly don't want to leave the impression that it's all flawed - far from it - and it is all important data.

Anyone interested in the growth of the game is going to find a treasure trove, both in the rare and wonderful (to quote Smaug) documents printed, and in the contextual information presented in the commentary.  I suppose what I'm saying is that The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons 1970 - 1977 if treated as a Resource and not a Bible is wonderful.

And speaking of wonderful, let me say a few things about the physical book. I don't know what may have been foreshadowed concerning the book because I only watched the one WotC video, but I have to say the quality of the book was a really pleasant surprise. The first surprise upon pulling off the shrink wrap was to discover a flyer over the back cover that has on its reverse a full size reprint of an original blank OD&D character sheet - sweet!  The book is thick and heavy due to the use of heavyweight semi-gloss paper. The layout is crisp and easy to read. It is smith-sewn and separated by pleasantly muted edge coloring into five sections, which are also divided by four colored ribbons - again sweet!

Jon Peterson is to be greatly thanked for the very existence of this book. I believe it was his idea from the start, and he certainly worked closely with Hasbro to make it a reality.  Regardless of what I might have liked to have seen done differently, The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons is a fantastic work full of ur documents long sought after by those interested in understanding the development of the game.  

The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons 1970 - 1977 guides the reader to also investigate The First Fantasy Campaign booklet published by Judges Guild in 1977. Of course I agree, but would insist that anyone purchasing The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons should also acquire Blackmoor Foundations as a necessary companion book. Having both will give one a much more complete and rounded understanding of the early days of the game. I might also humbly suggest, less insistently, The Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg.

So there you have it. Hopefully I have conveyed a frank but insightful critique of a book I generally think is a must-have. I should mention that my name does appear in the book, and in Blackmoor Foundations just as well, should that influence your purchasing decision at all, but I did not have any communication or opportunities to review The Making of Original Dungeons and Dragons 1970 - 1977 prior to publication. YMMV.




Blackmoor Foundations: Upsetting the Applecart

Author: DHBoggs /

 Now that the "Fletcher Collection" folder as it is known by us in the Northern Marches Historical Society - our informal little research circle - has been published as Blackmoor Foundations, I will be providing some historical analysis of the content.

The most interesting of these documents can be firmly dated to 1971 and early 1972. In the circa May 1971 Corner of the Table, Vol III No. 6 is the Following:

"The June issue will feature an article by Ross Maker on the Boer War as well as the start of the Napoleonic War simulation battle reports. There will also be the continuing saga of El Pauncho and the start of the "Black Moors" battle reports, a series dealing with the perils of living in Medevil Europe, (or at least as much as is possible when a wargamer cum fantasy nut creates a parallel world that includes perils from a dozen Fantasy plots plus a few of his own)."

That's what it says, but that's not what happened.  No more el Pauncho or Brownstone stories were published, and perhaps more importantly, there were no "Black Moors battle reports" published in CotT either.  

None.

The closest thing is the Nov 71 Blackmoor Gazette & Rumormonger #1, which was published as a separate little newspaper kind of thing with no battle reports or narratives like the el Pauncho reports.  BG&R #2 is arguably a battle report, but that doesn't come until over a year after this announcement and covers then-recent events (2nd Coot invasion), skipping past nearly a year of play.

Yet, among the Blackmoor Foundation papers and articles we find "Return to Black Moors", a detailed and unfinished battle report clearly and firmly a very early document which details the heretofore barely detailed "Icelandic Cave Adventure".   The Icelandic Cave adventure was among the first, if not the first Blackmoor adventure.  

I will dive deeper into the dating and related details in future posts, but here I want to set the tone of what to expect in these documents.

The documents confirm much of what has been said in this blog for many years, yet somehow I think some will be shocked to learn that early Blackmoor was as much about overland adventures as dungeons, that it was not primarily a wargame, that the earliest battles did not utilize the CHAINMAIL rules nor was Blackmoor born as a variant CHAINMAIL campaign, oh and yes, the land of the Red Coven was the same as the Land of the Egg of Coot.

In short they challenge many of the oft repeated detractions directed at early Blackmoor as being somehow merely derivative of CHAINMAIL or that play in Blackmoor was not "real" adventuring as it was and is in D&D.

Next post I will breakdown the 2nd dungeon report  (because I already have the maps prepared, and because the original scans for this section were easier to read...)  

It started with Blackmoor - Firsts

Author: DHBoggs /

 Apparently there is a shirt for sale with the logo "It started with Blackmoor - 1975".  The date indicates they are referring to Blackmoor supplement II for OD&D, which was published in late 1975, but that makes the caption a bit strange and I don't think there is a similar shirt for Greyhawk Supplement 1, also published in 1975.

However odd the shirt may be, it brings up a good occasion to point out things that fans of Blackmoor often take for granted to the point of not realizing that not everyone knows them.  So, at the risk of pointing out the obvious to some, here is a list, no doubt incomplete, of things that actually started with Blackmoor:

The Dungeon

The 1960 edition of the classic Funk & Wagnalls standard dictionary of the English language defined dungeon as "A dark underground prison." Prior to Dave Arneson sitting down with paper and pencil and sketching out 6 levels of chambers and passages descending below castle Blackmoor, a dungeon was thought of as little more than a dank hole in the ground.

The Castle

Of course, castles in a fantasy game are a given and it was only natural for Arneson to use his lovely model of castle Branzoll in his Northern Marches game, but by doing this, and placing his extensive dungeon under it, he created the Castle/dungeon trope ubiquitous in D&D. In the real world, castles do not have multi-level underground labyrinths. In D&D they all do thanks to Dave.

What Arneson envisioned was new, but not unfamiliar, drawing on the images of caverns, catacombs and secret passages in monster movies, and the labrynths of mythology to create an amazingly complex vertical and horizontal underworld peopled with monsters. 

The Home Base

Also above the dungeon, the town of Blackmoor - apparently based on the wooden model of Cuidad Rodrigo as discussed in other posts - was almost certainly not initially conceived of as a home base where players could recharge and resupply between adventures.  I suspect rather we see Arneson once again replicating his beloved classic horror films. For what is a dark castle without a nearby village - a place where the protagonists can be forewarned of the danger and from which can spring a mob of angry villagers to storm the castle?  Of course there is also the fact that when Arneson began the Northern Marches campaign it was conceived of as a development of their "Braunstien" games which were always set in a town or city.  Nevertheless, functionally the town served exactly as a "home base" in D&D terms and the players, and for that matter Arneson, naturally understood the advantages the town provided for them. 

The Tavern

"You meet at an Inn". Surely this is the most used trope in fantasy role playing games ever and of course it is a trope that starts with Blackmoor.  Inspired by a real Come Back Inn in the Melrose Park neighborhood of Chicago, Arneson used his ComeBack Inn in the town of Blackmoor as a place for his players to gather to plan activities and gain information, just as thousands of GM's have after him. 

The General Store

There is no particular reason why characters in an adventure RPG should have to go shopping, yet it is a fundamental expectation of D&D.  Early in the Northern Marches campaign, Arneson created the general store, price lists for weapons and equipment, and placed Dan Nicholson in charge as "The Merchant. This sort of "local functionary" character was typical of their previous Braunstein games and a role Nicholson would have been familiar with.  He quickly took advantage of his de-facto monopoly to set up an underground shakedown network to ensure all the profits stayed with him - but that is another story.  In D&D, merchants and store-clerks were relegated to the GM as NPC's yet the activity of going to the store to haggle with the merchant over goods and services remains a typical part of the game.

The Cleric

Blackmoor had no classes, excepting, of course, all the classes Blackmoor had. Say what now? There were no classes as we know them in Blackmoor at all.  All characters were statistically the same regardless of what they did and a person could be pretty much whatever they wanted.  Thus at various times Dave Megarry played a thief, Dan Nicholson a merchant, John Snider was an imperial Inspector, etc., etc.  These roles didn't have mechanical components associated with them the way D&D classes do now, but differences began to arise that made some roles stand apart.  In particular wizards and priests grew to be "different".  For wizards the main difference was in how they advanced in spell levels and possibly in how they gained experience points.  For priests, the differences were more distinctive.  Priests gained the ability to cast healing spells and even to resurrect the dead.  This last ability appears to be tied to the deliberate and ultimately fatal risking of Greg Svenson's character by the other players while Greg himself was away in the summer of 1972.  As this death of a beloved character was not really fair to Greg, Arneson invented the idea that "The Great Svenny" could be resurrected by the clergy.  Subsequently a lot of resurrections occurred in the Northern Marches. Later, as vampires plagued the land, Priests also gained some abilities against undead - presumably skill at turning them. These distinctions set priests apart as effectively a different class.

Non-human Player Characters

Some of the earliest Blackmoor adventures were hexcrawls wherein the characters played themselves as transportees to the magical Northern Marches.  However players began to also play local characters and some of those local were not human. John Soukup, for example played a Balrog, Phil Grant played an elf prince, Walter Oberstar played a dwarf, Mel Johnson played a hobbit and Fred Funk played an orc. While today it is simply taken for granted that fantasy RPG have all sorts of non-human player character options, in the early 1970's this was an entirely novel idea.

Gothic Horror and Dune Salad

D&D players today take it for granted that they might face a medusae and a vampire in the same adventure - that's all due to Arneson's kitchen sink approach to the game.  If you look at CHAINMAIL, the fantasy wargame booklet that provided many monsters for the Northern Marches campaign, you will find only the classic monsters of Greek and Norse mythology with Tolkien flavoring added.  Arneson once again drew on his love of monster movies to mix such disparate monster types as Greek medusae, Gothic vampires, Fremen-like desert raiders and alien blobs in the same game.  Not only did such a crazy mix work, it worked brilliantly and is the basis of every monster manual and every D&D campaign since. 

Experience points for Killing Monsters and Treasure

Lastly, let me mention something that didn't quite begin with Blackmoor but for which Arneson is often credited - gaining levels of experience.  Arneson may well have coined the term "levels" and "leveling up" for growing more competent and powerful by stages, but in truth, the concept of advancement was a core part of the Strategos N rules for units.  "Green" units of recruits who survive a certain number of battles will improve to veteran status and can even become Elite.  Similarly, in Duane Jenkins Brownstone game started a few months just prior to Arneson's Northern Marches campaign, a character could go from being a nobody to a somebody over the course of several games. Jenkins doesn't seem to have had a unified mechanic for advancing player, and some roles appeared static, but Arneson seems to have solved or at least simplified that problem by awarding experience points for killing monsters and finding magical treasure.  He also created a system for wizards to gain new spells. It thus became a goal for all characters to "level up" to become better at killing monsters and to gain a bigger role in the game.

Supplement II Blackmoor by TSR didn't really start much, but the caption of the shirt isn't wrong. It did all start with Blackmoor.

Xandering, Jaquaysing, or Arneson-ing the Dungeon?

Author: DHBoggs /

 Yet another gamer firestorm arose shortly after the passing of Janelle Jaquays when it was noted that Justin Alexander had changed a rather well known post he had made in 2010 regarding dungeon design attributes he gathered from studying the games made by Jaquays.  In late 2023, as Jaquays was breathing her last, Alexander changed the term from Jaquaying to Xandering reportedly at the request of his publisher for his book "So You Want to be a Dungeon Master." Alexander also stated that Jaquays had requested that he change the name, which is true, but the request was only to change the spelling from Jaquaying to Jaquaysing because Alexander had left off the s. Thus the kerfuffle.


Okay, this post isn't a polemic on the rights or wrongs of what Alexander did.  In fact it's an old post I dusted off and finished in light of the controversy.  Jaquays deserves all the credit in the world for innovative game design. I'm a fan. The Catacombs Sourcebook is a favorite reference of mine and The Hell Pits of Nightfang is dear to my heart.  I'm quite sure that Jaquays deserves to be recognized for pioneering creative dungeon design.

I am going to say though, that seemingly unbeknownst to everybody including Jaquays, Arneson did it first.

There's a trope in science fiction of the old master years ahead of his time.  We see it in Highlander for example in the movies iconic katana impossibly made by a legendary master sword smith, Masamune in 593 B.C., or in Star Trek TNG, with the Master of Tarquin Hill who designed ceramic objects that were three hundred years ahead of their time.  This trope doesn't often have real world equivalents, the most obvious real example being Leonardo Da Vinci.

While Da Vinci was certainly appreciated in his day, the revolutionary and prescient nature of his more creative ideas was unappreciated until more recent times. Was Arneson the Da Vinci of dungeon design?

Below I've copied all the principles Alexander cites as core to "Xandering" a dungeon and examine each one in light of Arneson's principle early dungeon's  - Blackmoor Castle Dungeon (1972), and the Temple of the Frog Dungeon (1975). For good measure I will also throw in a few mentions of Tonisborg (1973) because as creator Greg Svenson will readily tell you, he copied Arneson's methods in designing the dungeon.  Here is the list:


MULTIPLE ENTRANCES: 

Blackmoor dungeon has more entrances than any dungeon I know.  Here is a partial list from the top of my head:

The Elf Stump

The Graveyard

Basement of the Silver Dragon Inn

Basement of the Church of the Facts of Life

The Wizard's Pit

The Well in the castle courtyard near SE corner of outer wall

Main Stair in the Throne room

Western corridor that leads to the hillside west of the Castle

The Temple of Id

Dragon Isle

Etc. etc.

The temple of the Frog dungeon has more than half a dozen entrances to the first level and at least 3 that go directly to the second.  Tonisborg also has multiple entrances.

LOOPS: Branching paths hook them together into a loop. 

I mean, have you seen the maps for Blackmoor, or for Tonisborg for that matter?

Here is a more or less random snip of one level:



MULTIPLE LEVEL CONNECTIONS: 

I did quick and dirty count of the Stairs in Blackmoor dungeon and came up with 73.  There are also about a half dozen fireshafts, multilevel caverns and so on.  The same is true of Tonisborg to a lesser scale.  Temple of the Frog dungeon has around a dozen connections between the two levels.

DISCONTINUOUS LEVEL CONNECTIONS: (connections that skip levels)

Blackmoor dungeon may well be the most vertically complex dungeon in existence to this day.  The 73 or so interconnecting stairwells, dozens of shafts and pits, vary from connecting only one level to another, to connecting at least ten levels.  Stairs also skip levels, sometimes only one, and sometimes several.    Tonisborg dungeon mimics this on a smaller scale.  

SECRET & UNUSUAL PATHS: 

Secret and unusual paths? Yes, in abundance.  Have a look at the tunnels for instance, secret entrances through the graveyard, the well, the wizards Pit, and various hidden caverns. There is also the hidden elevator shafts in a couple of the pillars of the Main Gallery.

Here is one Unusual Path on the first level:



SUB-LEVELS: 

This is a little harder to characterize.  Blackmoor, and Tonisborg have isolated sections that could be sublevels or not, depending on how you characterize them vertically.



DIVIDED LEVELS: (a level that cannot be completely traversed without going through the levels above or below it)

There are level sections in both Blackmoor and Tonisborg that can only be entered by going down one stair and up another or by finding, in some cases, a very difficult secret passage or in other cases by digging through a cave in.  Here is a small section example from level 2 entered only be secret doors or a stair:



NESTED DUNGEONS: 

Similarly, there are what one might call nested lairs only accessible through a secret entrance, for example from level 3:



MINOR ELEVATION SHIFTS: 

There are a couple of sloping areas in both Blackmoor and Tonisborg.  Temple of the Frog dungeon has both chutes and a sloping corridor covered with slippery slime.

MIDPOINT ENTRY

Tonisborg Dungeon's main entrance puts you on level 2. The well entrance to Blackmoor dungeon ends at level 3.  If you go in through any of the Blackmoor town entrances it will put you on level 4.  If you go in through the Wizards Pit you will enter on level 4 or 5.  etc.  The temple of the Frog has exterior entrances that put you on the bottom level (2).  So yes, not simply a midpoint entry, but multiple entries to multiple levels.

NON-EUCLIDEAN GEOMETRY

No this one I have to concede, isn't found in Blackmoor.  The references is to upside down rooms and M. C. Escher like passages.

EXTRADIMENSIONAL SPACES

There is really nothing like this in Tonisborg or TotF, but Blackmoor does have one instance technically falling into this category, in that the Orcian Way staircase only goes down from level 1 but if you try to go back up, it will magically extend upward for a great distance to a trap door, which will transport characters to hundreds of feet up in the air above Blackmoor Bay.

A final point not to be missed is that all these design elements were incorporated by Arneson in the very first dungeon ever made. I'm not sure sure I can stress the enormity of this fact.  Arneson didn't need the years of trial and error that resulted in the design principles of "Xandering" that everyone else did. He intuitively grasped what would make a fun and challenging, repeatable dungeon experience from the moment he first put pen to paper in 1972.  I really find it quite amazing.  Blackmoor dungeon is truly a wonder of the fantasy world, like finding a digital camera in a 1972 time capsule.

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Game Archaeologist/Anthropologist, Scholar, Historic Preservation Analyst, and a rural American father of three.
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