A lot of what we know about the beginnings of role-playing games is a muddled mess. Like most of the world’s great mythologies, the very first chapter of RPGs is shrouded in mystery. I’ve been wondering about this for years, dissecting whatever fragment of information I could get my hands on. Sometimes I understand what those biblical scholars must feel like: “According to Matthew, Jesus said that and then did this, but according to Luke, Jesus said this and then did that – which one is it?” Frustrating indeed. Maybe more frustrating than Blackmoor and Arneson... but not by much.
The year is 1971. The place is Saint Paul, Minnesota. The day is Saturday. The exact date, I honestly don’t know. The usual suspects arrive at Arneson’s house, say hello, get to the basement, and instead of seeing the miniature wargaming replica of Leipzig or Waterloo on the ping pong table, they see bits and pieces of a plastic castle. “What is that?” they ask. “This is the ruined castle of the Barony of Blackmoor,” says Arneson, “and today, you are going to explore it.”
First DM commentary ever.
Those lucky original Blackmoor players were David R. Megarry, David Wesely, Greg Svenson, Bill Hoyt, Duane Jenkins, Pete Gaylord, Ken Fletcher, Cliff Ollila and Richard L. Snider.
Question #1. Did they all attend that first session, or did some of them join in at a later time? Also: is that list of mine missing any names?
Question #2. Is there a picture of that very first dungeon, and if so, who has it? Who inherited Arneson’s papers and stuff? His daughter? Any surviving proto-character record sheets in there?
Question #3. What happened during that historic first game? Why don’t we have a blow-by-blow account of it? There is mention of “magical monsters”, but what were those monsters exactly? What was the first monster ever killed by a party of player characters? Black pudding? Ought to be quite simple, because there were absolutely NO monster miniatures available back then... Did Arneson patiently wrap up a Napoleonic figurine in white sewing thread and say: “You see a mummy.” Did he glue together three lead soldiers, melting just the bottom half of them in a hot pan, thus creating a blob with six jutting arms plus three heads, and then painted the whole thing an eerie shade of mauve, and called this abomination a vorghthock? I’m just speculating – but I’d really, really like to know.
Imagine having an exact and thorough account...
“First room, 30′ x 40′, with two 15-foot pits in the middle. PCs retrieved a golden effigy from the bottom of one pit. Room otherwise empty. Second room, 20′ x 30′, tripwire trap, five crossbow bolts shoot from southern wall, two characters were hit, but survived. First aid a success. Then, corridor leading up to old rusty double doors. Third room, behind double doors, 30′ x 50′, lit by a lone brasero, 3 monsters: 1 vorghthock, 2 mummies...”
Six full pages like that. Wouldn’t that be fucking great?
Physicists would be excited to have a precise account of the Big Bang? I’d be excited to get an account of the first ever RPG sesh!
What I’m really waiting for right now is John Kentner’s completed documentary, Dragons in the Basement, supposed to come out later this year, with interviews of Arneson and his original Blackmoor crew. It’s finally happening, y’all.
The truth is out there.