I have been playing some form of Dungeons & Dragons on and off for more than 15 years and always am in search of enriching my knowledge on the game and its creators. I feel it is a travesty that the co-creators of one of the most influential games of all time are not taught in schools and that they are not deemed worthy of praise on a yearly basis from the industry itself and major media outlets. This review will have me expounding on how too few creators are given their dues and roses in life. Wizards of the Coast, the owners of the copyright of Dungeons & Dragons and all of TSR’s catalogue have done little after paying out Dave Arneson shortly after they acquired the IP. Gary Gygax was also given some compensation and recognition for his works but WOTC have never featured their names on the cover of any of the subsequent editions of the game including the reprints we saw over the last 10 years.
The Secrets of Blackmoor is not so much a documentary about Dungeons & Dragons as much as it is a biographical piece on one of its co-creators and his experiences with his own setting of Blackmoor. Though Dungeons & Dragons does play a big part in the documentary the goal of the producers was as much to keep his game and memory alive as it was to set the record straight of the now billion dollar industry. The documentary was compiled over years with 200 hours of interviews along with 20’000 documents and photos use in the investigation to reach the conclusion they are presenting. After receiving support of fans the project is now available for purchase and streaming on their website and I tip my hat to this great work of independent art and journalism. One thing the producers did say was that they intend for this to be in two parts and this first one was more on Dave’s early life and has a large portion of the narrative discussing war games and his contribution to the hobby. Do not go into this expect it to be all D&D because you will be disappointed because Secrets of Black is about much more than a single game but the inception of the entire format of gaming.
Many of they younger roleplayers have very little if any knowledge about Gary Gygax and even less is available for his partner in pen and paper Dave Arneson. What you can find online is that the once two friends and gamers had a legitimate beef and their once promising friendship would never heal after bad business and tempers on both sides reached a boiling point. If one were to build an opinion based on what is readily online in the form of amateur videos on YouTube and article excerpts most of which came from TSR publications such as Dragon magazine are often one-sided or in the prior wholly uninformed. Why is Mykal giving us all this context you might wondering? We it is a big part of the documentary and frankly its still surprising how little there is out there for fans to find on one of the biggest feuds in gaming.
The facts are that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson worked together on creating the first ever edition of D&D which is now known as the Brown Bag edition which included the historical white booklets. This first iteration is a far cry from what gamers are playing today as things such as dice, classes and game mechanics were still not wholly fleshed out but what was there was amazing. The runaway success of Dungeons & Dragons would lead to the company growing fast and their reputation also growing within the industry. The first print runs were shipped out of Gary’s basement while Dave was away at college but selling out so fast gave the struggling gamers confirmation that they were onto something with TRPGs.
As time passed Dave Arneson would enjoy generous royalties from TSR as the company was cash poor during its inception so for the means of retaining talent the company offered high royalties compared to other publishers in the industry. It was this approach that Gary really championed early on after years dedicated to a hobby where profits never came and wanted to be able to provide for creators.
It is also is a fact that D&D was typed up and written by Gary Gygax and though the system was compiled with the aid of Dave Arneson’s notes the majority of the work and heavy lifting was done by Gary. I cannot entirely defend all of the actions of Gygax nor those of TSR it is understandable that the party that ponied up the finances and put in the work to make it a success would believe they were entitled to majority ownership.
Uninformed folks online have this habit especially recently where celebrities and performers publicly complain about their contracts and claim unfair treatment at the hands of studios, publishers and production companies despite knowingly entering the agreement and relationships obligations at the time. What is seldom mentioned is that all of these individuals signed legally binding contracts and were monetarily compensated as per the terms of the contract and thus do not have grounds for lawsuits so opt for external pressure in the form of bad publicity. Something many of us have witnessed of late with creators falling short and choosing to virtue signal and drum up hype by other means instead of their primary job resulting in poorer and poorer products and less than truthful reviews. When Dave Chappelle condemned Netflix for uploading a show they legally purchased the rights to because he felt cheated by Comedy Central it sent out a message that creators will complain publicly as a tactic to leverage consumers against them and not merely for political reasons.
In more recent news Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman would sue Wizards of the Coast over the corporation attempting to get out of their contract for the next 3 Dragonlance novels which received some coverage within the blogosphere and YouTube. Dungeons & Dragons has a past of creators of suing them and as of yet I have heard that there was an out of court settlement and with a Dragonlance script in the works fans of the franchise can look forward to seeing their characters return to the page and screen in the future.
Though it is common practice for most corporations to take advantage of artists and authors it is a very different situation in the case of Arneson vs Gygax. From my research and what is also confirmed within this documentary is that Dave Arneson was young at the time and came from a family with means while Gary was already a father struggling to create a career and successful publishing company. Their different places in life and needs drove a wedge between them and the documentary sheds light on how Dave’s aversion to confrontation and solid royalties perhaps made it easier for him to not have that discussion while Gary was under tremendous pressure to keep TSR moving and with payroll and deadlines to meet one could see he reason for frustration. In an era where men did not really open up about their feelings this conflict would snowball into an avalanche and the fallout would reverberate well into the next decade.
Prior to the publishing of D&D the men would correspond using letters and for a while long distance phone calls which later became too expensive for Gary to pay for. It is sad that many commentators online side with Arneson and I feel they do this because they are under the impression that he was the underdog the entire time. Numerous TSR staff members testified and confirmed that his typing was atrocious, his output minimal and was not willing to adapt to the way things were done at TSR. Generous royalties perhaps made him less motivated and inclined to work on new games and other projects when his first one became a bestseller.
His employment at TSR did not even last a year with him receiving a demotion prior to a flat out termination short of 12 months. It is most likely at this time that the relationship soured and Gary and TSR had no choice but to move in another direction. When approached to renegotiate his royalty agreement Arneson refused and this is rumored to be part of the lead to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
Anyone who has even just briefly skimmed the pages of both handbooks would realize how vastly different they are as systems. Yes, both are D&D but they play different with the latter being more complex and leap from the original brown bag and red box sets of which many mechanics were created by Arneson. Big differences between D&D and AD&D included
- D&D only having 3 classes whereas by 1977 you had 6 core classes and dozens more introduced
- There were little combat characteristics and modifiers in Original D&D
- Dice were introduced along with more features including an entire setting of Greyhawk by Gary Gygax which also introduced more weapons, spells and creatures over all to the game
- Skills and non weapon proficiencies were introduced by 2nd edition AD&D making the two versions vastly different in how they were played and refereed
Though the game evolved the foundation of the the giant that became Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was still in the the basics and separating those mechanics would be impossible. The argument would become to what degree and how much was used from the original and this lead to messy court appearances and the two creators never getting to truly iron out those differences both privately and publicly. The producers like to hint at it laying the blame mostly on Gary and paint the picture that much of D&D was imagined by Dave but the truth I believe is somewhere in the middle as there has not been a Gary Gygax documentary telling his side which did take me out of the narrative having also read Empire of Imagination and knowing what I do just felt unbalanced and rubbed me on the wrong way.
For a product that claims to be the true story of Dungeons & Dragons it feels dishonest considering the facts many could find out online. Dave Arneson never worked for TSR in a fulltime professional capacity after it had become a runaway success and their suggestion is that he should get most of the credit. I will let viewers decide how they feel about it but to me as a reviewer attempting to be objective this documentary should be marketed as ‘the untold story behind the creation of DnD’ but that would not have the same ring to it. Believe me I can understand how hard it is making a project like this but I did not get what I expected from the marketing and look forward to seeing what the follow up documentary will talk about.
To me this is something you will want to stream as the extra features did not draw me in but if you are obsessed go ahead and splurged for the collectors DVD. I would give this a 7.5 out of 10 and they loose 1 whole point for their misleading marketing but that is a solid score for an independent product which failed to give a balanced narrative. They succeed introducing the viewer to the legend that is Dave Arneson and get insight into his personal life and the history of miniature war games but I would have rather seen more about Dungeons & Dragons and seen more interviews with other employees from TSR and WOTC who could chime in with their 2 cents.