Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The "Blackmoor is Just a Chainmail Variant" Fallacy

The "Blackmoor is Just a Chainmail Variant" Fallacy


This is something I have been planning to write about for a while, but a recent discussion with my friend Brynjar and others on Facebook inspired me to finally get to writing. I am not really sure anyone has ever actually made the ridiculous claim that Blackmoor was nothing more than a variant of Chainmail, the miniature skirmish game by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren. On the other hand, gaming amateur historians, Wikipedia contributors and other fans have in recent years seemed obsessed with proving Dave Arneson wrong, when he claimed that he only used the Chainmail combat system during a few sessions and then pretty much discarded it completely.

It is true that we need to to be critical to claims made by Dave Arneson when the process leading up to the creation of D&D involved if we wish to know the truth. It is clear that he had stakes involved in this debate. But am I the only one with the impression that people aren't giving Dave the same benefit of doubt that we are giving the other side? The most common argument used to defend this line of thoughts is that we can find the truth based on written documentation. However, Gary Gygax had the full resources of TSR on his side. He was also active in publishing various fanzines in the decades before D&D was published. The fact that there is alot of documentation supporting the claims he made does not equal the truth however.


Ultimately we will never know how much of Chainmail Dave Arneson used. In the First Fantasy Campaign there are many references to creatures and units from Chainmail, so he clearly borrowed those. As to the rules themselves, Dave kept most of those secret even from the players, so that part will boil down to whether you trust his word or whether you don't.

However, I think this whole discussion misses some central points. What we should really talk about is the very nature of these games and how different they are from eachother. Chainmail (by Gygax and Perren) is a miniatures game for running skirmish battles between small units. It was also not primarily a fantasy game, the few pages dedicated to fantasy at the end were added as an afterthought. Blackmoor on the other hand was a game that featured single character roleplaying, a Game Master running the monsters (somewhat later in the campaign), dungeon exploration and level advancement. All in a living fantasy environment. Dave Arneson may have borrowed ideas from Gygax and Perren, but he also borrowed ideas from Dave Wesely's Braunstein games, his own long experience in Napoleonic Wargaming, various board games and many other sources. And, just like Gary did his game design, Dave used input and ideas from his players, many of whom went on to become prominent game designers themselves.

While there might be similarities between what Dave did and those other games he looked at did, it seems clear to me that he was very much doing his own thing with Blackmoor. Not only was Blackmoor a different game, but it was also a different genre of game. When Dave Arneson demonstrated Blackmoor to Gary Gygax in 1972, Gary was already looking for a new game to publish. After having played with Dave as a Dungeon Master, Gary was convinced that he had found what he was looking for. Dave and Gary proceeded to sit down and design a new game that they would call Dungeons and Dragons. They did not sit down to design Chainmail 3rd edition. Both men realized that they had something new on their hands, though I doubt either man realized how revolutionary that game would truly become.

This article isn't written as an attack on Gary Gygax' legacy. But I think we are doing both men a disservice if we ignore the radically new ideas that arose with Blackmoor and was brought into the world's very first published roleplaying game: Dungeons & Dragons.


More on this discussion here.


-Havard

13 comments:

  1. I've never understood the controversy over all these issues. It seems clear enough that both Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had a hand in the creation of the game, and the genre. I don't really see the point of debating how much either man did. It's occasionally fun to read objective articles (like this one) delving into the roots of the mechanics of the game, but the controversy just puts me off.

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  2. I agree generally with your post. The one point I would quibble is that The Fantasy Supplement of Chainmail is a mere aferthought. It is 14 of the total of 44 pages, so nearly a third of the content. That's a significant chunk of the product. I'd guess it felt like even more at the time since there was so little fantasy wargame rules available.

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  3. Let's make this simple: Direct line of descent through using backwards causality notes that if D&D is derived from any single source that that source must be able to reproduce the causes and effects as noted in the new source. When applied to Chainmail vs. Blackmoor this does not hold up, thus Braunstein and Chainmail are influences only and have nothing more to do with the leap that Arneson made to the original, what is now called, RPG engine. I detail this more concisely in my upcoming book.

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  4. I believe none of the "camps" have the utter truth here, and even the memories of the persons involved was somewhat shaded by their their shared history and disappointments with each other.
    Without Gygax' business savvy or Arnesons leap of imagination from wargaming to roleplaying we wouldn't have DD ... and maybe not the hobby as is ..
    :-)

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  5. "I don't really see the point of debating how much either man did"

    Thanks for the feedback Thorfinn! I agree that that discussion is pointless. However, it seems that even people trying to be objective gaming historians find themselves pulled into it whether they intend to or not. I hope this article can at least add a bit of a different perspective.

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  6. "I agree generally with your post. The one point I would quibble is that The Fantasy Supplement of Chainmail is a mere aferthought. It is 14 of the total of 44 pages, so nearly a third of the content. "

    Thanks for this very insightful comment Zenopus. I think it was actually Gary who referred to the Fantasy section as an afterthought, but I agree with what you are saying about 14 pages compared to 44. As you mention that is not really the main focus of this article though. Perhaps something you can help me look into with more detail later! :)

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  7. "Let's make this simple: Direct line of descent through using backwards causality notes that if D&D is derived from any single source that that source must be able to reproduce the causes and effects as noted in the new source. When applied to Chainmail vs. Blackmoor this does not hold up, thus Braunstein and Chainmail are influences only and have nothing more to do with the leap that Arneson made to the original, what is now called, RPG engine. I detail this more concisely in my upcoming book - Rob Kuntz."

    Very well put Rob! I agree with this analysis. Thank you so much for commenting here by the way. It is great to be able to hear from someone who was actually there at the time. I cannot wait to read your book! :)

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  8. ""I believe none of the "camps" have the utter truth here, and even the memories of the persons involved was somewhat shaded by their their shared history and disappointments with each other.
    Without Gygax' business savvy or Arnesons leap of imagination from wargaming to roleplaying we wouldn't have DD ... and maybe not the hobby as is ..
    :-)""

    Thanks for commenting! I totally agree with your conclusion. As to which camp has the answer, my main point was simply that both camps have been asking the wrong question. It doesn't really matter what combat system Dave Arneson used because it was not the combat system that was the revolutionary part of Blackmoor. Pretty much what Rob is saying I think.

    I think it can be very interesting to discuss the various influences that Dave Arneson and his group borrowed from. Also, the same question can be put to Gary and his group. But ultimately we need to recognize that Blackmoor and D&D were new inventions, different from what came before in spite of making use of various ideas existing out there.

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  9. Jan Egil BjuneMarch 2, 2016 at 5:28 AM, stated:

    "I believe none of the "camps" have the utter truth here, and even the memories of the persons involved was somewhat shaded by their their shared history and disappointments with each other.
    Without Gygax' business savvy or Arnesons leap of imagination from wargaming to roleplaying we wouldn't have DD ... and maybe not the hobby as is ..
    :-)"

    The idea of WE having a hobby or not is irrelevant in ascertaining the line of descent of the original RPG engine, which was being used several years prior to Gygax's, or my own, involvement with it. Who starts what and as influenced or derived from what is the issue, and not its end-point commercialization.

    Cheers!

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  10. @ Havard. Thanks! Yes. The combat system, all of Blackmoor's or D&D's "game systems," are the actual sub-systems of what became D&D (or remained Blackmoor). They are just different iterations (Dave's and then Gary's, and then my own, et al, forwarded to the present as individual "takes"). It's the conceptual system interface on steroids that Arneson moved to that makes it leaps above anything preceding it.

    Cheers!

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  11. Anybody who actually claims that about Blackmoor is a booger-eating moron and should be ignored as hard as possible.

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  12. Michael: Thanks for dropping by! I totally agree with you. I don't think many people are making this claim. But I see little hints about it here and there, which made me want to adress the topic.

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  13. Update: More discussion on this topic here for those interested :)

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