Review of Dave Arneson's Blackmoor

Review Summary
Capsule Review
Written Review

October 31, 2005


by: Jeremy Reaban


Style: 4 (Classy & Well Done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

The fantasy setting that started it all gets a d20 re-launch! While it does prove to be a decent setting, it fails to use its place in history to its advantage, consisting mostly of more d20 rules than anything else. Also unlike the original Blackmoor supplement for D&D, this is almost entirely frog free.

Jeremy Reaban has written 125 reviews, with average style of 3.51 and average substance of 3.94. The reviewer's previous review was of Demon Hunter's Handbook.

This review has been read 10201 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: Dave Arneson's Blackmoor
Publisher: Goodman Games, Zeitgeist Games
Line: Dave Arneson\'s Blackmoor, d20, Blackmoor
Author: Dave Arneson, Dustin Clingman, Jeffrey Quinn, Richard Pocklington, Ari Marmell
Category: RPG

Cost: $34.99
Pages: 240
Year: 2004

SKU: GMG4500
ISBN: 0-9728738-2-1


Review of Dave Arneson's Blackmoor


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Dave Arneson's Blackmoor

Dave Arneson's Blackmoor

 

A Brief History of Blackmoor


Dave Arneson's Blackmoor was the first fantasy role-playing setting. At least, it was the first one that really mattered, there may have been others, but it was the one that started the avalanche that was the role-playing hobby, being the original setting for what would evolve into Dungeons & Dragons.

But, it's had a rather spotty history when it comes to actually being published. It's never really been done properly before now. The first published sign of it was "Blackmoor", in 1975, a supplement for Dungeons & Dragons (which Dave Arneson co-created). This was really just a bunch of new rules for D&D, but it did contain some small amount of campaign material, mostly a short adventure, called "The Temple of the Frog".

Anyway, the creators of D&D had a split, and Blackmoor was never published as an official setting for D&D from TSR. But Judges Guild put it out as "The First Fantasy Campaign", around 1977 or so. This had a lot of setting material, but was not presented in any real coherent manner. It was pretty much just a jumble of stuff: characters, after action reports of wargames, new rules, locations, all ordered sort of willy-nilly . I think there was just one Blackmoor product from Judges Guide.

Anyway, about 10 years after that, Gary Gygax had a split from TSR. This apparently opened up the door for TSR to have something of a concilliation with Dave Arneson and start publishing Blackmoor. But instead of putting it out as a setting for their Dungeons & Dragons game (as opposed to the Advanced Dungeons and Dragon game), they incorporated it into the existing setting for D&D, Mystara. Specifically, the distant past of Mystara. There were 4 TSR Blackmoor modules, DA1-4. These could actually be played by characters in the current day of Mystara, thanks to the magic of time travel. And one boxed set (Wrath of the Immortals) dealt largely with the long lost gizmos of Blackmoor being re-discovered in "modern" Mystara times. Unfortunately, Mystara was killed off as a setting only a few years later.

So, Blackmoor pretty much laid in limbo, at least when it came to commercial products (apparently Dave Arneson has kept on running Blackmoor games since the beginning). Until the coming of d20, which would let people publish D&D material, albeit without the D&D name, just d20 (other than the bit about requiring the D&D Player's Handbook). And so it finally surfaced. But this time, as a fully fledged setting. Not just a jumble of notes, not just a backstory, not just as a few modules. But an actual campaign setting, complete with ongoing support (at least for 1 year, so far, knock on wood, with more in the pipeline), done by Zeitgeist Games, published through Goodman Games.



My Brief History with Blackmoor


I had had an interest in the "new" Blackmoor, even belonging to the email list for it. It had gained my interest largely because I am a Mystara fan, which had incorporated Blackmoor into it and from what I had seen from the Mystara version, it was pretty cool. But generally being broke, I had put it on my low priority buy list. But then a few months ago, someone sent me a review copy of the Blackmoor adventure, The Redwood Scar. I'm not sure who sent it, since there was a sticker over the return address and nothing in the envelope besides the adventure itself.

While whoever it was apparently wasn't impressed enough with the resulting review to send me anything else* (though I should be glad they didn't send hate mail, like some companies have), I was impressed enough with Blackmoor as a setting that I put it on my high priority buy list. And after some misadventures (while ordering online can seem so easy, sometimes it isn't), I finally got it.

Did it live up to my expectations? Well, yes and no. It's a good setting, but there is less detail and much less of a "nostalgia" factor than I had personally hoped for in a setting book, while a lot more "crunch" than I thought (and like for for a setting book). Basically, a lot more of the book was rules than I thought (say 70%). Not that I mind new rules, but I bought the book mostly for the setting.


The Book Itself...

Characters

After a very brief preface by Dave Arneson, the book jumps into the races of Blackmoor. Not surprisingly, it's pretty much the standard D&D mix - Humans, Gnomes, Dwarves, Elves, Halfings, Half-orcs. There are slight differences.

The humans come in a few different flavors. Thonian, basically the normal human; High Thonian, who are smart and well groomed, but somewhat clumsy; and Peshwar, a race of semi-nomadic horse riding people.

Similarly, there are two sorts of elves. The Westryn, which pretty much coresponds to the "Wood Elf", that is, woodsy, insular, and fairly strong and the Cumasti, which is more or less the "High Elf".

The only real oddity is an offshot of Halfings, the "Docrae", who are feisty warriors, instead of the normal halfings of the setting which are the traditional "hobbit" sort.


Next up, somewhat mirroring the Player's Handbook, are new classes and how the existing classes fit into Blackmoor. Blackmoor introduces 3 new core classes, the Arcane Warrior, the Noble, and the Wokan.

The Arcane Warrior is pretty much like the Paladin class, mechanically, only they cast arcane spells, not divine and have powers vs. rogue arcane spellcasters, not evildoers. Many D&D settings add a Noble class, basically an upgraded version of the NPC Aristocrat class. Also introduced with it is a system of Nobility points designed to track how er, noble a character is. Lastly is the Wokan. This seems borrowed from Basic Dungeons & Dragons. It's sort of a witch-doctor/shaman class, almost an arcane version of the druid, but mechanically closer to the bard.

All of them seem pretty well balanced and follow typical d20 conventions. The Arcane Warrior does seem awfully restrictive, though, they essentially have to follow the commands and whims of the Wizards Cabal, which many players might not like. And while not terrible, the Wokan does seem a bit underpowered. Sort of a wussier druid.

While most of the existing D&D classes fit into Blackmoor as it, Sorcerers face a rather daunting challenge. It seemed they are banned in Blackmoor, and hunted down and killed (or worse), pretty much exactly like the witch hunts of the real world. This isn't touched upon much in the main setting book, but is expanded upon much further in the "Wizards Cabal" sourcebook (review of that forthcoming).


There are only a handful of prestige classes, but many of them are very complex, so this takes around 30 pages of the book. I'm not sure many of them would be suitable or appealing for a player character. The most appealing is the "Elven Elementalist", a arcane spellcasting class the specializes in casting one of the elements.

Least appealing, at least from a roleplaying aspect, are the Inquisitor, who goes around torturing sorcerers; and the Dragon Knight. The latter has an interesting name, but their trouble, at least from my point of view, is that they magically bond with their armor. That is, the armor becomes joined to their skin. Presumably this forces them to be a celibate order and just how they go to the bathroom is not explained.

Also is the Docrae Outlook, sort of a horse riding scout and the Fey Lord. The latter is only a 5 level class, and is really sort of for people who really really like the Fey. Oh yeah, and the Spirit Warrior, a class for the Westyn elves to help battle the undead minions of the Black Queen.

The magic chapter is fairly large, around 30 pages. While magic in Blackmoor is more or less the standard D&D fire & forget system, it does get tweaked a bit, at least for wizards. Basically, in lieu of having to carry a spellbook around, they use a "spell focus". Basically a magic rock that they carry. This pet rock also serves as the material component for spells cast with it, which is pretty handy. (I personally always ignored material components for spells, unless they were extremely expensive, so it's not too different for me, but might be for some).


Blackmoor the setting

Finally, we get to an overview of Blackmoor as a place. It's actually a fairly small place, the region has a population of around 160,000 and the entire map is only about 300 miles by 150 miles (with the kingdom of Blackmoor proper only being about 150 x 50 and with a population of around 70,000). As perhaps fitting of its roots in a wargame , Blackmoor and the region around it is largely shaped by war. You have Blackmoor, which used to be a northern province of the Thonian Empire. Next door is the Duchy of Ten, which has recently been conquered by a group of very strange humans called the Afridi. Beyond that, there is the infamous Egg of Coot (apparently not named for the famous E.G.G., but someone else), which is on a land to the north, and also some Viking like people called the Skandaharians who like to raid for the sake of raiding.

Blackmoor has some friends, or at least non-enemies - besides themselves, there are two groups of elves in various woods, the Cumasti and the Westyn; assorted Dwarves in their mountains, and to the west, in a plains area, a group of American Indian style humans called the "Hak"

Each town of the region gets at least 3-4 paragraphs devoted to it, with larger towns getting larger writeups. No maps of any city or town, including Blackmoor, though you do get a reprint of the map of Blackmoor from the cover pages.

I actually hadn't heard of any of the cities other than Blackmoor, but the biggest city in the region is a city called "Maus" which is in the vein of Lankhmar or Greyhawk (or Yggsburgh), or at least big and somewhat crime ridden.


Blackmoor has its own pantheon, and this gets detailed in about 15 pages. Some of it seems derived from Norse mythology - there's an "Odir" but seems quite like "Odin", a "Baldin" who seems close to "Baldur" and so on. Not complete or exact, but some seem to be the same.

Some gods also seem to be the same from the old Mystara setting, which Blackmoor was assoicated with for a while. I'm not sure if this was accidental due to a common name (like Terra) or due to that mixing (like Ordana), or if the latter, which was original to which setting.

Anyway, it's got pantheons for all the various groups that live in Blackmoor, complete with symbols and domains. Nothing particularly remarkable one way or the other.



Blackmoor was home to the first role-playing characters, some of whom survived to have quite a lengthy adventuring history and left their mark upon the history of Blackmoor. 15 pages goes to writing some of them up. Most of the writeups are fairly brief, and generally don't go into their famous adventures much, just mentioning them in passing.

The Great Svenny is the one many have heard of and he even has a website (albeit not frequently updated). But also Mello the giant halfling (5' 180") and Marfeldt the Barbarian, among others. Many of the characters have somewhat odd names. But in fact, many of those characters were apparently named after the players own names. For instance, "Funk" is an odd name for a character. But that was the last name of the guy who played him as well. Same with Oberstar. (The beginning of the book has a list of the original players and the type of character they played, but not the name, so unless the connection is obvious, it's hard to tell who played who).


New monsters get about 20 pages. Many are new humanoids, or variations on normal D&D ones. Afridhi and Skandaharian, which are just tough humans; Beastmen (similar to the ones from Mystara, part man, part animal.); Ash Goblin and Baleborne Orcs, basically improved versions of those; Gatormen and Froglin, one is a combination Gator and person, the other a frog and goblin.

Also some new elemental creatures - in Blackmoor, metal and wood are also elements, so there is an elemental and mephit for both.

To my eye, nothing seems amiss with the stats for any of the critters. Though if you want to play one of the human races as a player character, they have pretty hefty ECLs.


There's an included adventure. I quite liked this adventure, though it's quite different than what you think when you think "Blackmoor". The original "Blackmoor" supplement had the "Temple of the Frog" in it as an adventure/dungeon. An update of that would have been neat. But instead it's part journey, part investigation, part (at the finale) dungeon crawl, though the dungeon is quite tiny.

It is a well done adventure, though. The PCs have to talk to a lot of different people, and most the NPCs have definite personalities, if not descriptions.

Tangibles and Appearance

The physical quality of the book is pretty high. It's 240 pages, but feels bigger, having thick paper. The layout is okay, but nothing remarkable, either. The typeface is fairly big, but the margins are normal sized.

The art is generally very good. The cover piece is a generic Larry Elmore piece that doesn't really say "Blackmoor". In fact, to me it says "Dragonlance" more than "Blackmoor", since it depicts a blue dragon being attacked by some heavily dressed people with a mountain in the background (including one guy with a lance). But for some reason, the piece is so small on the cover, it's actually hard to tell what it is without looking closely. It's like you are viewing the scene through a porthole on a very tiny ship. And although it's clearly Elmore, it's much drabber than his usual stuff, very much brown, dull white, and blue.

The interior artwork is much more eye-catching. There's several different artists with various styles and ability, but there is quite a bit of it and it's generally prominently placed in the middle of the page. The artist whose work stands out the most is one who signs his pieces a squared, presumably Allan Alegado (since he's the only artist with the initials A.A in the credit listing). His stuff is very interesting - at times, he has something of a Jim Holloway style (which is sort of realistic, but with a slightly comic touch), then some are more stylized. Another artist (one who doesn't sign his art) is quite good, but his art came out somewhat dark, they almost look like charcoal sketches. (Unless they actually were, then oops.). His portrait of the antagonist of the adventure is particularly striking.

The map of the Blackmoor region itself is in the inside cover of the book (endpapers?) and is by Clayton Bunce, who I hope one day will be able to return to work in the industry, as his maps are really good.

 

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, I was somewhat disappointed with this book. What makes Blackmoor appealing as a setting is its long and highly developed history, both fictional and actual, not new rules material. By focusing on the latter, the reader misses out on what makes Blackmoor special. It also doesn't help the DM actually use Blackmoor as a setting. Books of additional rules for d20 are quite common, while if a DM needs more background on Blackmoor, they'll have to purchase the old TSR modules, as well as the old JG product, or do it themselves (which is fine, but sort of defeats the purpose of using a preexisting setting or buying this book). (Though apparently in terms of the timeline, the TSR Blackmoor modules for Mystara are about 20 years in the future of this Blackmoor.)

For instance, 2 of the most famous things about Blackmoor are the aforementioend Temple of the Frog, and the City of the Gods. But these 2 things never get mentioned, except in the preface saying they were legendary adventures. But we do learn that elves don't use a longsword, but a "longblade". With pretty much the same stats at the longsword. Just a different name. One of the other famous things, the villainous "Egg of Coot" does get a mention, but only a long paragraph.

While you really shouldn't live in the past, it shouldn't be forgotten, either. To a certain extent, a lot of the heritage of our hobby started with Blackmoor, so it would have been nice for it to have been written down, to preserve it for the future. While I don't think this book should have solely been that, I think it missed a great opportunity to go behind the scenes, explaining what the origin of the various places and characters were. And anecdotes about them. More interesting to me than knowing that Elves use "longblades" or prestige classes that PCs would never take. Things like that could have been put in a sidebar or something.


I also have to wonder just how it was adapted to the third edition D&D rules. For instance, the whole Wizards Cabal vs. Sorcerers thing. Since Sorcerers didn't exist before 3e, how was this introduced into Blackmoor, exactly? Was it sort of grafted into the history, or did Blackmoor have something equivalent to the Sorcerer class that was persecuted? And what were some of the inspirations? For instance, there's a faerie "Black Queen" in this, could this have been inspired in part by the Queen album Queen II (which also inspired the Ogre Battle series of video games, particularly "March of the Black Queen")?


But anyway, it's still a good product, I would give it a B.

As far as a setting goes, while it can be used on its own, it's basically a fairly small area in the north, so it can be plopped into most other settings without too much of a problem. And it seems almost tailor made to fit into the Wilderlands setting from Judges Guild with some similar geographical and cultural features. (And in fact, apparently when Blackmoor was published by Judges Guild as "The First Fantasy Campaign", this was a suggestion).

Also worth noting, is if you are a big con goer, there is a "Living" Blackmoor campaign. Or as they call it (to avoid trademark troubles), a "Blackmoor, the Massively Multiplayer Roleplaying Game" (I wish they would make the adventures available for us non-con goers)





* Actually, a few months after I wrote the sentence Goodman Games did send me some more stuff, so I guess they sent The Redwood Scar. Ironically though, that delayed this review while I reviewed those books.

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