A hooded figure stalks silently down a corridor toward a room at the end of the hall. Voices can be heard from just beyond the door discussing matters of state and war. Creeping silently forward, the hooded man stops for just a moment, then swiftly kicks open the door. With cat-like graces he flings a dagger to his right, striking one aristocrat right between the eyes. Continuing that one fluid motion he draws two more daggers sheathed at his belt and, leaping toward the other man in the room, crosses both blades over his neck, killing him instantly. Twirling the blades twice he resheathes them and looks for the documents he is supposed to steal.
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Roleplaying game mechanics have invaded nearly every genre of video game. Skill upgrades, conversations with NPCs, and multiple storyline endings are proudly touted on the back of boxes. It’s not just a video game phenomenon, either. Countless board games allow you to play solo or offer a continuing campaign of connected storylines to play through with a group. For younger players these roleplaying game elements have become so fundamental and so expected, it may be nearly impossible to imagine playing a game where they don’t exist. Even the original Metroid from 1986 involved slowly upgrading the protagonist’s abilities against the backdrop of exploring what is more or less a science-fiction dungeon to reach the climactic battle against its evil mastermind. Yet, a scant fifty years ago, almost no one in the entire world had ever heard about or knew what a roleplaying game is.
Secrets of Blackmoor is a documentary film released in 2019 which chronicles the “true history of roleplaying games.” Perhaps if you know just enough about RPGs you would assume the film is primarily about Gary Gygax, the man best known as the inventor of Dungeons & Dragons. However, the film is actually about Gygax’s lesser-known original partner, Dave Arneson.
From the time Arneson was a teenager in the 1960s, he belonged to a creative and masterful group of wargamers in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. As this group explored the wargaming genre and played with new ideas, Arneson wove those ideas together into the first roleplaying game, called Blackmoor. Their contact with another group in Lake Geneva, WI, headed by Gary Gygax, eventually led to the creation of Dungeons & Dragons based on the ideas Arneson had put together to form Blackmoor.
If you love roleplaying games or other games strongly influenced by them, then Secrets of Blackmoor will prove to be an interesting and insightful film. However, if you have little interest in such things, don’t expect rousing entertainment. Unlike most recent documentaries, Secrets of Blackmoor does not try to create a dramatic narrative arc as, for instance, The King of Kong did in 2007. Rather, Secrets of Blackmoor follows a much more authentically journalistic format. Numerous interviews were conducted with the men from Arneson’s old wargaming group, most of whom were also the original players of Blackmoor. The narrator largely stays out of the way and lets the primary sources speak for themselves.
However, the astute observer of political theory will also notice that something fascinating has happened here that maybe even these wargame enthusiasts are unaware of.
The natural forces of Italian Elite Theory (as summarized in The Populist Delusion by Neema Parvini) played out in an almost perfectly predictable pattern to propel roleplaying games as the foremost influence on most other games. However, that is only one layer. Those same forces played out in the dynamic between Arneson and Gygax which eventually led to Gygax becoming well-known and Arneson becoming more of a deep lore figure.
The Twin Cities wargaming group was essentially comprised of wargaming elitists of the highest and most esoteric sort. They were among the few men in that city–perhaps in the whole world at that time–who had sought out and read a wargaming rule book written in the late nineteenth century named Strategos: The American Game of War. This 340-page rulebook took the basic ideas from H.G. Wells’ Little Wars and other classics in the tradition to a whole new level. Those few wargaming elites in the Twin Cities who had read Strategos became the leaders and primary influencers of all other players.
Not only did they retain an elite status, they eventually weeded out–one might say, “purity spiralled”–those who could not keep up or were unwilling to accept their expertise. It was under the tutelage of these elite wargamers that Dave Arneson was growing in maturity from a high schooler to a young adult. Arneson himself was inspired to join these elites and take their ideas to their next natural conclusions.
In other words, the natural forces of Italian Elite Theory played out just as Mosca, Pareto, and Michels would have predicted. A small, organized group of elites within the broader genre of gaming and wargaming held its own members to a strict adherence to their particular ideology of wargaming. They zealously propagated their ideas across not only the Twin Cities, but beyond into the greater Midwest. As their ideas spread and gained influence, the small, organized elite, was able to gain force multipliers that has brought the hobby Arneson conceived to the prominent position it now holds–and all of this in only fifty relatively short years.
However, as I said, that is just one layer. It turns out there was a rival group of elites at a crucial moment in roleplaying history.
Arneson had effectively “invented” the roleplaying game. However, over in Lake Geneva, WI, Gary Gygax wanted to do more than simply play games.
A gracious view of Gygax (one I believe people should be inclined to take) is that Gygax wanted to take Arneson’s ideas and make them easily usable by others. Gygax wanted to take the enjoyment Arneson’s group was having and make it repeatable for others. Arneson was disinclined to have hard and fast rules for his Blackmoor game, where as Gygax wanted to codify everything so that he could have an understandable product to sell to others.
Originally, the two worked together to sell the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set game in 1974. Yet, at some point, the two had a falling out. Creative differences arose. In the conflict, Arneson and his group from the Twin Cities was effectively bumped out by Gygax and his group from Lake Geneva, WI.
A circulation of elites took place. Since Gygax owned the company publishing Dungeons & Dragons, and Arneson simply had non-copyrightable materials, Gygax was able to take control of not only Dungeons & Dragons as a business asset, but also the entire genre and the story people tell each other about the genre. This is why you have probably heard of Gary Gygax, but there’s a good chance you have not heard of Dave Arneson.
Essentially what happened is that while Arneson was just having fun and playing with ideas, Gygax was building up the business which published Dungeons & Dragons. By way of analogy, Gygax had all the instruments of “war” and “propaganda” whereas Arneson had little to bring to bear, mostly because game rules cannot be copyrighted in the USA. Even worse, since Arneson wasn’t particularly interested in a rules-heavy game, he had little to stand on anyway. When the clash came, Gygax’s work in consolidating and growing his power was the deciding blow against the very elites who had once had to introduce him to the concept of roleplaying to begin with.
All of these things happened as an inevitable outcome of the basic principles of Italian Elite Theory. They also are a beacon of hope for those who pray for better times. A small group of wargamers, dedicated to their passion, brought about a sea change in gaming. This happened not because their goal was to change the majority of games, but because they were passionate about their ideas and their ideas were just better ideas. A rival elite (Gygax) was able to take the reins of power not because he set out to do a hostile takeover, but because he did the hard work to make a real, tangible foundation for his influence and power. If all this happened not as a pre-planned conspiracy, but as a natural consequence of their actions, then how much more can men like you pave the way for a sea change and a circulation of elites if you actually, intentionally, know what you’re doing?