With Dave Arneson's recent passing, our hobby lost one of the most important links to its earliest, formative days. Arneson & Gygax will be forever remembered as the coauthors and founders of Dungeons & Dragons, but there is so much more to Mr. Arneson that we were never truly allowed to learn while growing up in the 70s, 80s and beyond while playing the game that his Blackmoor campaign spawned. I've read with wonder the stories that Greg “Svenny” Svenson shared with readers at his website before it was taken down*. As a player in the original Blackmoor campaign, Greg is one of only a handful of gamers who were present to witness the fledgling game sessions which eventually gave rise to the entire table top role-playing genre (and beyond).
I believe that remembering the magnitude of Dave Arneson's concept, and his Blackmoor campaign, is perhaps more timely now than ever before. As someone who is interested in the influences and inspirations that went into Mr. Arneson's Blackmoor campaign, I felt that being able to pose some questions to the Great Svenny himself might be an opportunity I couldn't pass up. I wasn't sure that my random email to his site's address would even be answered, let alone read considering that it was sent not long after Dave Arneson's passing. I had no idea that Greg had attended Dave's funeral, nor that he had delivered the eulogy. I was wary about pursuing this Q&A considering the nature of its less than appropriate timing, but Greg assured me that he would be happy to take a look at what I had drafted up and let me know what he thought of the idea.
During our various correspondences I learned that at the funeral Greg had seen another Blackmoor player from the early days, Stephen “Rocky” Rocheford**. Greg was able to later email Stephen and have him look over the answers below. Stephen was kind enough to confirm Greg's recollections of those events from the early 70s in the Twin Cities, before Dave Arneson had taken a position with TSR in Lake Geneva, WI in 1975.
My reasons for this Q&A were multiple, and I will let the answers speak for themselves. I think that Greg did an outstanding job in answering these questions considering that nearly four decades have transpired since that very first Blackmoor game in 1971.
Greg: I haven't really been interviewed like this before, so I shared my answers with one of the other guys who was one of the players on that original dungeon adventure in Dave Arneson's basement back in 1971, Stephen Rocheford (later known as St. Stephen from the Temple of the Frog adventure). He was probably just as active as a player as I was though the early years of the Blackmoor campaign and D&D. I saw him for the first time in over 25 years at Dave Arneson's funeral. He agreed with my answers to all of your questions except for the date when Dave Wesely got home from the Army which I have corrected in my answer.
Sham: First of all I’d like to thank Greg for taking the time to read and consider these questions, and allow me to share his responses for the readers of my web log. Greg, when did Dave Arneson actually begin his Blackmoor games, to the best of your knowledge? When and how were you introduced to Blackmoor?
Greg: You are welcome; hopefully I will be able to answer your questions. Nobody is really sure when we started playing Blackmoor. My recollection was that we played the first adventure over the Christmas holidays during the winter of 1970-1971; but, I am not really sure. The first documented Blackmoor game was on May 21, 1971. Dave Arneson found that in an old “Corner of the Table” newsletter article a few months ago. The “Corner of the Table” was Dave’s newsletter for our Napoleonics campaign. Dave recently came across a complete set of them.
Sham: Were you around for Dave Wesely’s Braunsteins that helped introduce the concept of role-playing and a referee? Was Dave Wesely a player in any of the Blackmoor sessions you were a part of?
Greg: No, I was not part of that. Wesely was in the Army Reserves and was activated and sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and later to Alaska during the early years of the Blackmoor campaign. He came home in the October/November 1973 timeframe. We did play together at least a few times when he was on leave as well as after he came home.
Sham: I’ve theorized that the concept which Dave Arneson formulated was based on a combination of wargame combat simulation, the ongoing wargame style campaign, the role-play/referee idea that Wesely introduced, and fantasy/medieval inspiration. In other words, wargaming meets role-play meets fantasy. Do you have any thoughts to offer on this assessment?
Greg: Well, that’s basically true, but it really isn’t that simple. The fantasy/medieval elements of Blackmoor were totally new to me at the time (although, I had read Tolkien and some other fantasy literature). However, in the Napoleonic campaign that we had been playing before that first adventure was a combination of miniatures and diplomacy. Dave Arneson was the referee and each of the players represented the sovereign, a political faction, a general and/or an admiral in their respective countries. So, for the campaign we would try to correspond player to player and write battle reports “in character”. We were responsible for our nation’s diplomacy and even the national budget down to buying food, forage, powder and shot, as well as running the military campaigns and fighting the battles that came about as a result of our actions...We had also been playing “Fight in the Skies” where each player was a WWI fighter pilot tracking his missions and kills and getting better with experience. Before I joined Dave Arneson’s gaming group my home gaming group in Excelsior, Minnesota had been playing Korns*** for several years. Korns was a set of WWII rules where each player was a single soldier and we had a referee keeping track of both sides and resolving actions as the game progressed, at least that was the way we played it. I am sure that others in the group had similar gaming background experiences to mine.
Sham: Your character rose to great prominence in Dave’s Blackmoor campaign. Your character, The Great Svenny, is now a full fledged legendary NPC in published Blackmoor games. What would be the Great Svenny’s proudest moment during those many Blackmoor sessions? Aside from the Great Svenny’s accomplishments, what are some of your favorite memories from Dave’s Blackmoor games?
Greg: Yes, I have been startled to surf the internet and find web sites where they described how the Great Svenny was involved with that gaming groups adventures. That was a really weird experience for me...The two greatest moments that stick out in my memory are the two adventures I described on my website; surviving the first dungeon adventure and the raid on the lair of Fred Funk’s Orc tribe on the 10th level of Blackmoor dungeon. I participated in literally hundreds of adventures between early 1971 and 1975, but those are the two I have the clearest memories of. I hardly even remember the famous “Temple of the Frog” and “Valley of the Ancients” adventures. I know I was there, but they were not as memorable for me.
Sham: For how many years did you play as The Great Svenny in Blackmoor, and what exactly is the Great Svenny up to at this very moment?
Greg: I was actively playing Svenny from the beginning up until when Dave Arneson moved to Lake Geneva to work for TSR in 1975. I played with him again at GenCon in 1976 and at a reunion game in 1991. When I started gaming with Dave again in Orlando in 1999, I played Svenny’s son, Sol, although I called him Svenny Junior at first, until I put together Svenny's family history. I am currently playing Sol in an online play by post game (the Tomb of Rahotep in honor of Gary Gygax on the Wayfarer's Inn website). I have also been playing one of his grandchildren, Sven, in another play by post game (the Grim Winter campaign on the Zeitgeist Games MMRPG website)...Svenny is currently the Lord High Regent of the Regency Council of the Kingdom of Blackmoor in the D&D 3.5 Edition version of the Blackmoor campaign. I am currently working out what Svenny’s family would look like for the D&D 4th Edition Blackmoor campaign which is set some 270 years later.
Sham: In reading your stories of those early Blackmoor days, I learned that certain important monsters or villains were often controlled by other players. Was there ever a point in Dave’s Blackmoor games where the emphasis became the adventuring group, or was it usually adversarial between the players who mostly pursued their own individual goals?
Greg: We switched from the good guys versus the bad guys sessions to just one adventuring group fairly quickly. We realized that it was more fun if everyone was on one team working together. There were still people playing the bad guys, but that was usually in their own gaming sessions separate from the ones I was in; although, sometimes Dave would still ask for a volunteer to play the monster during a battle.
Sham: I’m aware that Blackmoor was much more than simply a dungeon crawl, but I enjoyed your telling of the First Dungeon Adventure and how your character survived it. After that adventure did the dungeon setting become a major focus of the campaign?
Greg: Well, we stopped making dungeon maps when the group realized that I had much of the dungeon memorized. Of course, that led to problems when Svenny was incapacitated and unable to tell everyone how to get back out of the dungeon. It was the major emphasis for a while, but we quickly moved out into the wilderness. We also had a period of several months, after some of us read the “Tarnsman of Gor” books, where we were traveling around on tarns (think of Rocs in the “Lord of the Rings”). That was after Gary Gygax had started his campaign because one of our adventures was to travel to Grayhawk on tarnback to rescue Gary’s players who had gotten into trouble.
Sham: I understand that as you gained knowledge and experience playing in Dave’s game you also took some turns behind the referee’s screen, running Blackmoor adventures for other players. What was that like? And do you ever have the opportunity to play or run Blackmoor these days?
Greg: In the fall of 1972 Dave Arneson gave me some of his notes and let me referee a couple of times when he was busy with other things. Dave tells me that I was the third DM ever. Later I developed a town called Tonisborg, complete with two dungeons. I didn’t think that I was very good at it. I guess I was comparing myself to Dave. At any rate, I didn’t DM very often; although, I must have DMed more often than I remember from what Bob Meyer has told me about the days when we were roommates in 1973 & 1974. Unfortunately, I loaned my Tonisborg materials to a friend to use for a game day and he never returned them, which was around 1980 or so when I lived in Boston. I have not run any Blackmoor (or other D&D) games since the early 1980's when I ran games for my church's youth group.
Sham: Would you say that Blackmoor evolved, in both rules content and as a campaign world, as a result of the player/character courses of action?
Greg: Of course, it evolved and very quickly. Using Chainmail rules on the first adventure, when you got hit the first time you were dead. We didn’t like that much, so the next time we played we had hit points. Within a month Dave introduced armor classes. There were many changes over time. One time when we were off adventuring the bad guys attacked and captured the then defenseless town of Blackmoor, leveling Zvenzen’s Freehold among other things. We all got banished to the swamps of Loc Gloomin for that one…
Sham: While refereeing Blackmoor for other players, how did you handle actions by the characters which were not covered by the rules? Was referee ad-libbing a vital aspect of the Blackmoor games?
Greg: I quickly came up with what the possibilities might be and either had the players roll dice against a related character attribute for success or on a table I made up in my head on the fly. This was an area that I felt I was not very good at, however, because Dave would just tell us to roll the dice and he then told us what happened.
Sham: You were playing in Blackmoor before D&D was published, and again afterwards. What impact did the release of that version of the rules have upon Dave’s personal campaign?
Greg: As soon as a draft was available we started play testing with them, but I don’t think it really changed how the game went when Dave was the DM. That’s just my opinion. The big difference was that others (like me) were more easily able to DM. All of the sessions I DMed were part of the same Blackmoor campaign that Dave was running. Often I was helping players get to a higher level so they could survive with the other higher level players.
Sham: What was Dave’s early opinion of TSR’s 1974 D&D game? For that matter, what was the general opinion of you and the other players in Blackmoor when you finally saw the original D&D game?
Greg: Dave was excited about it, but I am not sure what he actually thought about it, I don’t remember him ever talking to me about it in that way. I thought it was one and the same thing with what we had already been doing for several years. So, I didn’t really see much of a difference.
Sham: I’ve developed great respect for Dave’s impact to the gaming world. In my opinion he is often unfairly discredited in certain quarters for his lack of actual input to D&D. If you can recall, what were the major differences between Dave’s Blackmoor, and D&D in 1974?
Greg: Like I just said, I thought they were one and the same. They had just been organized, to make it easier for other people to use to run games. The individual levels and things like that were new, but the way we played we didn’t really notice the difference. Attributes were different, we had used two d6’s to get a number from 1 to 10, where we changed to three d6’s and a range from 3 to 18, but most were just changes in mechanics...We were not keeping our own records or character sheets as they are called now. Dave had an index card on each of the players (and NPCs) with their attributes, HP, possessions and other useful notes. I only remember seeing Svenny’s character card a couple of times. Unfortunately, it never occurred to me to copy the information off of it for my own records. Dave told me a few months ago that he had been going though one of his boxes and discovered what he thought were all of our original character cards. I don’t know what happened to them after that, however.
Sham: From what I gather Dave’s major accomplishment was combining the essential elements of what was to become fantasy role-playing with Blackmoor, the same elements that were subsequently found in D&D. Would you agree that each of the essential elements was present in pre-D&D Blackmoor?
Greg: Yes, of course.
2. Ability Scores
Greg: Yes. I am not sure when Dave added them since he kept our character cards, but we were definitely using them during the spring of 1972, because I have definite memories involving ability scores that happened before I went away for the summer of 1972.
3. Hit Points
Greg: Yes, within the first month.
Greg: Yes, although handled differently. Fighters went from flunky to hero to superhero. We didn’t track our experience points as is done now. Dave simply told us when we had transitioned from one level to another. I do not know if wizards and clerics had different levels of ability or not.
Greg: Yes, but again handled differently. Sometimes, we would roll against our related ability to resolve a task. Other times Dave would just say we were successful or not after we had described what we intended to do (he might have made a roll at the time, it may or may not have had any bearing in what happened).
6. Adventuring Groups
Greg: Yes, the first adventure involved two groups.
Greg: Yes, we didn’t have maps of the area. Anytime we traveled we had to find our way, even just leaving the town of Blackmoor itself and going into the nearby countryside was a major adventure. Part of the adventure was getting lost. Sometimes that was the adventure.
Greg: Yes, problem solving was a big part of our gaming sessions, really the major part.
Greg: Yes, we found money, stuff and magic items in the lairs of the monsters we killed.
10. Fantasy Setting
Sham: I’d also like to specifically ask about certain D&D features and whether or not they were present in the early Blackmoor games, to the best of your recollection.
1. Saving Throws
Greg: Yes, maybe with different mechanics. Dave just told us to roll and he would tell us what happened…
2. Clerics vs. Undead (Turning Undead)
Greg: Mike Carr**** played the Bishop of Blackmoor pretty much from the beginning. I think of him as being able to heal and on one or two occasions resurrect the dead. I do not recall when turning the undead came into it, but it was not a concept that was unfamiliar to me, either. I have to say that I am not sure.
3. Wandering Monsters
Greg: They were there from the first adventure on. We could see Dave rolling before he would announce an encounter.
Greg: Absolutely, we had good and evil characters in the very first dungeon adventure; if fact, Dave’s perception of our alignment, as it is called now, affected whether we were able to hold the magic sword we found during that first adventure. Several of the players were injured when they picked it up. In fact, I was the only player who didn’t try to pick it up. I was afraid to try after seeing what happened to the other unsuccessful players. When I was the last one standing and the battle was over, I picked it up and wrapped it using a piece of leather, so that I would not come in contact with it and then carried it out of the dungeon and immediately sold it to the baron of Blackmoor for a whopping 150 GP.
5. Spell Levels
Greg: I was never a magic user in the original campaign, so I don’t really know the mechanics of how spells were handled. Pete Gaylord, Kurt Krey or Richard Snider would have a much better idea of how that worked.
Greg: Yes, after Svenny became a “super hero” I was able to hire soldiers and servants. That was how we were able to staff Zvenzen’s Freehold, for example. Slavery was also an option, at least initially. Svenny bought a slave once.
Sham: What was it about D&D that made it such a smashing success, in your opinion?
Greg: The limitless options for the players made it so much fun that it was hard not to enjoy yourself even when your character died in the adventure.
Sham: What other role-playing games have you had the chance to run or play in? Do you have a favorite role-playing game besides Blackmoor?
Greg: Blackmoor is the only D&D setting I have ever run a game in. I have especially enjoyed “Space: 1889” and “Traveller” (CT, MT and T4). I have played many others, including “Powers and Perils”, “Adventures in Fantasy”, “Shadowrun”, “Star Wars”, “GURPS” (fantasy, Traveller & WW2) and “Twilight: 2000”.
Sham: What do you feel Dave Arneson’s legacy to the hobby will be? Furthermore, what do you feel Dave Arneson’s legacy to the hobby should be?
Greg: To me, Dave Arneson is the father of modern role-playing games. They didn’t really exist before we played Blackmoor. They were a new concept at the time and he is the person who put it all together.
Sham: Have you ever worked in the role-playing field, or has it always been simply an entertaining diversion? What details can you tell the readers about yourself since those days playing in Blackmoor with Dave Arneson?
Greg: Not really, I made an attempt to edit John Snider’s “Star Empires” RPG rules back in 1983 for Adventure Games while I was working for 4D Interactive Systems (both companies were primarily owned by Dave Arneson) as a video game programmer, but it never got published. John had written it back in the mid-1970s and it had languished at TSR for years. By the time I looked at it, it was really out dated, although, in my opinion, if it had come out before or at the same time as “Traveller” it would have taken the Sci-Fi RPG market hands down...As for me, I am a computer geek. I have been in Information Systems/Technology for over thirty-two years. I spent a year and a half writing video games for 4D Interactive Systems back in ‘83 and ‘84. The rest of the time I have been with large companies, mostly in the aerospace industry. I am a Christian. The Lord has been very good to me. I am married to a wonderful woman, Paula. We have five children and two grandchildren.
Sham: Greg, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, including the many D&D related inquiries. My goal has been to not only learn more about the early Blackmoor games, and your role in helping shape that famous campaign, but to also further the legacy of Dave Arneson and remind readers of his impact on our hobby. Are there any details about Dave Arneson that you would like to share with the readers?
Greg: You are welcome. I am glad that I was able to answer most of your questions. With Dave’s passing, I have had lots of chances to think about him. His daughter asked me to do the eulogy at his funeral service, so I have thought a lot about his life. Dave was a humble man. I never saw him push his agenda at someone else’s expense or put himself ahead of others. He was always concerned about other peoples well being. He wanted everyone to be happy and have fun. He was generous and thoughtful, both with me and my family. My wife thought of him as a kind and gallant gentleman. He wanted to live at peace with everyone. I know that in the last few years he attempted to reconcile with those who had issues with him, including Gary Gygax and Tim Kask.
I hope you and your readers are edified by reading this.
I'd like to thank Greg, as well as Stephen, for taking the time to answer these questions about not only Blackmoor, but also about their good friend Dave Arneson who sadly left us far too early. It was very touching to read Greg's heartfelt answer to my last question, and I hope that readers can come away from this Q&A with a better appreciation of not only Dave Arneson's legacy, but also of the man himself.
* - Per an email from Greg, his early Blackmoor stories will once again be available as they are to be hosted at Havard's Blackmoor site in the near future. Stephen and Greg have just started collaborating on the First Dungeon Adventure story in order to bring back even more of the details. In the meantime you can read Greg Svenson's First Dungeon Adventure in Fight On! Issue 2.
** - Stephen Rocheford had the perhaps singular honor of actually reviewing Dave Arneson's original manuscript, detailing Blackmoor, before it was sent off to TSR and transformed into Dungeons & Dragons.
*** - Michael F. Korns Modern War in Miniature, 1966.
**** - Mike Carr, designer of Fight in the Skies, author of B1: In Search of the Unknown, Editor of AD&D Monster Manual, Player's Handbook, and Dungeon Master's Guide.
~Sham, Quixotic Referee