Monday, April 20, 2020
Dave Arneson's Origins 1977 Tournament
The Dungeons & Dragons tournaments run at the 1970s Origins conventions are the stuff of legends: there was the Tomb of Horrors (1975), the Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (1976), and then the famous Against the Giants trilogy (1978). So... what happened in 1977? TSR boycotted Origins that year, and the D&D tournament was thus administered by a recently-departed employee: Dave Arneson. Today, we will look at that tournament through contemporary reports of players and a few surviving play artifacts -- like this list of the twelve pre-generated characters who made up the tournament party.
Origins 77 was run by SPI in Staten Island, NYC, on July 22-24, with a total attendance of around 2,200 gamers. Arneson was responsible for entertaining about ten percent of them with sixteen D&D sessions spread across the days of the convention, each run for a twelve-person group.
Although Arneson at the time was already doing work with the Judges Guild and Heritage, he could not rely on corporate support to provide referees for the tournament. So, he reached out to his friends, including veteran players like Richard Snider and Dave Megarry -- though perhaps not all of the DMs had their level of experience. Bill Herdle tells us in A&E #26 that "The Dungeons & Dragons tournament there was run by Arneson et al, completely independent of TSR, and prizes were supposed to be furnished by Heritage Models. I won’t comment on the merits of the contest, as my group spent most of its time trying to cope with an incompetent DM. (I offer as evidence for this contention the fact that he later entered the “Novice D&D” event at GenCon).”
Others who commented on the adventure itself questioned its suitability for tournament play -- a common complaint at the time, though, and one that had already been levied against the Tomb and Expedition in the years before. Howard Mahler acted as the caller for one of the Friday night groups (as character #4, by far the most powerful), and he had trouble even figuring out the goal of the dungeon, let alone how to achieve it:
Alex Murocmew played in that same group Friday night group, taking the role of one of the low level twins (#11), and similarly remarked on the difficulty of achieving the objective, as "there were too many players and not enough motivation or excitement." One of the more informative player reports comes from Glenn Blacow, who jumped into a last-minute opening for a Sunday run as pre-gen character #8, only to be very disappointed by his party:
Blacow helpfully tells us the objective of the adventure: to locate a tome and destroy it. This is corroborated by another surviving play artifact from the tournament: Richard Snider's notes on one of his runs, where John M. Corradin played as #4 and led the party. Snider notes the last-minute frenzy of the group to discover the location of the tome, and critiques Corradin in particular for not simply using magic to find the answer.
While the other Origins tournaments of the 1970s -- including a little shindig put together in 1979 by Harold Johnson and Jeff Leason called Lost Tamoachan -- went on to mass-market publication as glossy TSR modules, the Origins 1977 tournament fell into total obscurity. But the fossil record does yield up enough data to give a sense of what it might have been like to be there. Looking at early documents like these always pays dividends in trivia -- like that even in 1977, Arneson still wrote armor class values with Roman numerals, a holdover from his early days. But they also shed light on a forgotten story of D&D, one of the last major tournaments of the original D&D era.