For Gold and Glory!

Branzoll Castle in N. Italy; the ‘real life’ Castle Blackmoor

(map below courtesy of Zenopus Archives)



Way back in the 1970s, before Gary Gygax had written down the rules to what later became Dungeons & Dragons, there were, as I understand it, a bunch of guys in the Twin Cities who were friends with Dave Arneson and who played war games together.  I think they used to gather regularly in the Arneson family basement and used little lead soldiers or model ships to re-fight various historical battles.

Apparently, Arneson was a bit burned out on the whole Napoleonics/historical battles thing.  He wrote that he spent a few days reading Conan novels, eating popcorn and watching monster movies and came up with the idea of a fantasy campaign with wizards, fighters, etc., where everyone controlled just one guy rather than an army. This was apparently inspired by David Wesley’s famous ‘Braunstein’ game. I think they used Gygax & Keogh’s “Chainmail” rules as the basics and expanded from there.

Arneson told his players to pretend that they were all castle guards who had been ‘volunteered’ by their ruler to go into the dungeons of the castle and find a renegade wizard. Unfortunately for them, the dungeons were vast and unexplored, so they had to go carefully, with torches out and sword drawn, exploring as they went.  Arneson had various inventive methods of resolving different issues.  At one point, when wind blew out the guard’s torches while an enemy attacked from the cover of darkness, Arneson switched off the lights, told the players they were under attack and they should try to get into the position they wanted their character to be in and then switched back on the light to see who was standing where after they had all gotten done stumbling over one another in the dark.  By the end of the night the wizard and his pet demon had killed off most of the players with only one survivor who returned to sell the magic sword he had found to the king for the fabulous sum of 100 gold coins.  Arneson’s experiment was a success and the players clamored for more.


Assuming what I read in things like ‘The First Fantasy Campaign’ (Judges Guild) is accurate,  Arneson developed more and more of the rules as he went along. One player, inspired by the Dark Shadows TV show, wanted to play a vampire, so Arneson made up rules for vampires. Other players wanted to beat dragons into submission and force them to serve them; again, Arneson (or his fellow players) invented rules.  As they invented the rules, they wrote them down. Arneson claims that this eventually became the skeleton that was fleshed out to become Dungeons & Dragons; Gygax tells a different story.  Because of a court case and settlement, we may never know the truth (and I question if it matters).


One of Arneson’s original maps from the First Fantasy Campaign book.

Arneson and his friends also ran ‘fantasy’ game versions of the battles they had played in Napoleonics, substituting orcs, elves, dragons and wizards for artillery, cavalry and grenadiers. In this domain level game, the rules were expanded to include allowing players who raise armies and attack the castles of other players.  In order to build castles and hire armies, the players needed money.  One way of getting money was to ‘improve’ your kingdom. Arneson had guidelines that a road cost x number of gold per mile, and inn cost y, etc.  If you built roads and inns and canals and towns, you could attract traders and craftsmen and villagers who could be taxed and allow you (the player) to gather taxes and raise an army, build castles, etc. It was like a computer game like ‘Stronghold,’ but played exclusively with pencil, paper, maps, words, dice and minis rather than the computer. The in-game accumulation of gold, then, was a means of allowing players to move from being adventurers scrapping around in dungeons to being generals and conquerors (which may have led to the idea that ‘gold’ should equate experience points — in the FFC, Arneson says he gave XP for gold spent in various fashions rather than just accumulated; players could trade XP for gold by spending it on “wine, women and song,” or on expensive hobbies like collecting art or exotic animals).

None of what I am writing here is ‘news.’ People with even a passing familiarity with role playing games will know all this as a matter of course (and will probably be able to offer a lot of details and corrections). But I find the concept of the original Blackmoor game fascinating, especially since it involves players engaging in both the one player = one player character style of dungeon and wilderness exploration AND the larger scale campaign/resource management game; a duality of scale concept that I find fascinating.

Major David Weasley (on Braunstein): “The key thing was letting them (the players) do whatever they wanted to do and not worry about who won or lost the game.

I’ve wondered if this “Strangler of Castle Blackmoor” movie has anything to do with inspiration for Arneson’s original Castle Blackmoor game.

2 Comments on “For Gold and Glory!”

  1. Funny, I just posted some completely stolen ideas for doing kingdom-building with friends over email:

    http://antithesisofweal.blogspot.com/2012/11/houses-of-gygax.html

  2. Stefan: FYI, I annotated that Blackmoor map with the red writing – it's not on the original and it's just my best guesses, so there could be some inaccuracies.


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