The Story Beneath the Wizardry of “Dungeons and Dragons” Revealed in “Secrets of Blackmoor”

Photo by Chris Graves

Dungeons and Dragons has become a constant in our culture but its official story, which you may be aware of, isn’t the only story. Dungeons and Dragons is also one heck of a success story as well, which means financially successful as well as widely played. A new documentary examines the untold story and the roots of the game, Secrets of Blackmoor – The True History of Dungeons and Dragons. It was a success not only because of great marketing but because the idea was an ingenious one to begin with.

Filmmakers Chris Graves and M. Griffith not only go back to the game’s origins in the Twin Cities in the 1960s, but they relate how gamer Dan Nicholson checked out a manual from the late 19th century titled Strategos from the University of Minnesota Library. This American military war-game guide would sow the seeds of the game that would take flight toward the end of the next century. Concepts D&D would come to be known for such as “open play” and a kind of refereed “reality”, would begin to emerge.
The inception of the game took place among a group of young Minnesotans who quested for a new kind of “play” in a physical basement and figuratively, in the mind’s eye. In other words, travel through the imagination. Decades before the internet, it reconfigured and deconstructed how games were perceived. As Graves puts it, it was “no longer a zero-sum game where’s a victor and a loser. You have six different objectives and each one cold be a winner. It’s like we’re all in this together.”
Indeed, it sounds like Secrets of Blackmoor could make one consider that maybe the name “game” is inadequate to really and actually describe what Dungeons and Dragons fully is. It’s more of a reality all its own.

Photo by Chris Graves

Griffith points out “it was revolutionary because it took the idea of make-believe and melded it with storytelling and created and open-ended adventure.” He recently met a psychologist who, in using Role-Playing Games (RPG’s) to treat bipolar disorders and autism in children, claims to have been getting “impressive results.” The filmmaker adds “it seems clear that there are underlying mechanisms in our behavior that are being leveraged and honed via role-playing games.”

That said, Secrets of Blackmoor doesn’t just deal with the bright, fun, and personal developmental sides of the D&D phenomenon. It speaks out on a controversy about its origins. Here’s the rub: Gary Gygax—a man ranked as one of GameSpy’s 30 Most Influential People in Gaming—is generally regarded as D&D‘s architect. However there are some who feel and think that credit should be given to its co-creator, David Arneson. Graves states that “Arneson wasn’t the type of person to talk about himself—it’s kind of that Minnesota-nice thing. Most of the people we talked with in the documentary are very humble good-hearted people. That’s just not their style. I think that’s why their story is untold.”
As for Gygax, Graves says, “He was the person who was in the right place at the right time. He was able to look at this and say this is incredible. But it would not have happened without Arneson either.” Ultimately, this meant that Gygax essentially became a market-savvy pop culture figure, if not an icon, with the advantages that come with that. His is the name primarily associated with D&D, not Arneson. Thankfully, Secrets of Blackmoor seeks to set the record straight.
However, role-playing is not merely only an amusement. Though there’s nothing wrong with that, gaming is nonetheless, a serious subject. It’s generally understood anymore that gaming can be a developmental tool for the advancement of technology. A Secrets of Blackmoor project scribe Peter Jones, so very helpful in providing information for this article, points out that some of the original Blackmoor group went on to develop medical devices, launch video companies, and one even became a NASA engineer. Therefore, the Gygax-Arneson endeavor was a fruitful one that came to benefit culture. It also served and still serves as a creatively intellectual outlet for youth.
Griffith muses “I think a common thread for those who discover gaming in their teens, is that it is a time of a lot of turmoil mentally and physically. The nature of what Arneson created by making the referee a combination of adversary and ally, and then making all the players be a part of  team, leads to bonds that do not go away. One of the Blackmoor Bunch, Greg Svenson, describes how he and his friends are like a band of brothers, in reference to the TV show and book; they may not actually have done any of the heroic deeds they took part in, yet the imaginary experience led them to unite and grow together.”
Graves says “it saved my sanity as a teenager. You could get together with friends and do this thing that didn’t cost too much money and I could be myself with people who were just like me. I don’t know what I would have done without it.”
Secrets of Blackmoor – The True History of Dungeons and Dragons
Wednesday, May 8
6:30 p.m. Red Carpet Events with cast & crew
7:30 p.m. Screening
9:30 p.m. Q & A
Heights Theatre
3951 Central Ave. NE
Columbia Heights, MN

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