Dave Arneson's Blackmoor
A Brief History of Blackmoor
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
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
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
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
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...
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.