Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Gin and Pygmalion, In and Out of Blackmoor

This short piece "In Search of Pygmalion" from October 1974 has no byline, but it was written by Dave Arneson. It tells of an evil magician named "the GIN of Sailik" who spirits away the immortal Pygmalion. The zine it appears in, the Bel-Ran Rumormonger, was the in-character journal of Scott Rich's "Midgard Limited" game, where players would contribute background on their sections of the campaign world. As the story of the lascivious Gin and the ensorcelled Pygmalion may be familiar to fans of the Blackmoor setting, this piece provides a striking illustration of how Arneson recycled elements across the games that he played, and moreover of how hard it can be to impose firm boundaries around which game events were and were not components of a campaign like Blackmoor.

The story of Pygmalion is familiar to readers of the First Fantasy Campaign from the "Infamous Characters" subsection about Gin of Salik, which ends with the following cryptic paragraph:

The parenthetical reference to the "DB" above alerts readers to consult the legendary Domesday Book of the Castle & Crusade Society for more, and indeed the back story of Gin can be found there--but only because the DB had at the time become the venue where reports from Tom Webster's Atlantis campaign were posted. That game imagined a Carthaginian invasion of the isle of Atlantis and at the end of the fifth century BCE. Its activities stretched back at least to the beginning of 1970; Arneson, Gygax, and other members of the C&CS had a hand in it, just as Webster in turn participated in Arneson's Napoleonic Simulation Campaign (playing as the Native Americans). In an Atlantis campaign report, from November 1970, from we can find a reference to Dave Arneson's Trecht faction on a mist-shrouded island off Atlantis, and in particular his "High Hefner" who leads "the followers of the pygmalion."

Within the framework of the IFW, Webster had formed an Ancients Society, an older sibling of the more famous Castle & Crusade Society. Domesday Book #9 posed to the membership the question of whether the C&CS should merge with the Ancients Society. As of the next issue, the Domesday Book began to carry some of Ancients Society content, including a "final issue" of the Ancient Society Report dated April 30, 1971 and the following rather curious letter. It details the relationship between the godlike Pygmalion and a magician, the Gin of Kralc (in its first appearance misspelled as "Karlc"), who wanted her all to himself. Although it appears under Tom Webster's name, the letter is written by "the servant of the Pygmallion," and we should understand this as an in-game background piece by Arneson which Webster forwarded (no doubt after some editing) to the Domesday Book.

Publication of the Domesday Book had become sluggish by 1971, and issue #10 didn't reach the membership until the summer. But the material it collects, and the earlier Ancients Society dispatches, show that prior to the "medieval Braunstein" that kickstarted Blackmoor, Arneson was playing in something we should probably deem a fantastic ancient wargame campaign. The material he generated for that campaign detached from it, and could readily adapt to other campaigns, like Midgard Limited or Blackmoor itself.

By the time Arneson began putting the "Infamous Characters" piece into the form we find it in the First Fantasy Campaign, the story of the Gin and Pygmalion had passed through a succession of iterations in different campaigns. This above all cautions us that we should be careful when viewing texts like the FFC as repositories of information that was exclusive, or even original, to the activities we would usually identify as the Blackmoor campaign; the Gin existed before we start reading about the Black Moors, and the whole cult of Pygmalion is only loosely tied to that setting. Their story is not a story that played out in some Blackmoor session. Nor was this the sole piece Arneson wrote for the Midgard Limited campaign that might subvert our thinking about the nature of Blackmoor; this other 1974 piece provides something of an alternative origin story for Blackmoor, and even an aside about Bleakwood, a favorite setting of Arneson's that year.

[P.S. The identity of the Gin of Salik has been a matter of some speculation over the years. The name "Kralc" has its own associations in the period, with a certain Jim Clark; we even see a "Colonel von Kralc" in the first Braunstein. In its original form as "Gin of Kralc," the connection to Jim Clark would be as clear as Greg Scott's to the "Egg of Coot," which similarly had, by 1974, drifted into the less recognizable "Ogg of Ott."]


  1. Replies
    1. I was sure I could leave it to the reader to decode the "Playdium" and the remainder of the references along those lines, definitely.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this! Not sure if you remember, but I was asking you about the Pygmalion some time ago. It is a fascinating topic. Do you know how long DA participated in Webster's game? Did other players contribute as much as DA to the lore?

    1. I do remember you asking about it. Back then, I still didn't have a couple of pieces of connective tissue here - most importantly the 1970 Ancients Society report that identifies Arneson as the Pygmalion faction.

      As I say in my book, the Ancients Society was founded in September 1969 by Webster and Gygax. Gygax pushed for a Society as a place to play his Arbela; Webster had his own ancients rules he was socializing. The Atlantis campaign already existed at the time the C&CS was founded, but I don't think Arneson was involved until after he had linked up to the C&CS. Most Ancients Society members were also C&CS members.

      Yes, there are other detailed write-ups surviving from the Atlantis campaign. Stephan A. Thomas (again, also a C&CS member) has a two page article in the March 1971 IW, for example, about his Eremosian faction, who worshipped Ra-n.

  3. I come to your blog time and time again following my curiosity and finding gems like this. PLEASE publish your blog at some point as a supplement to PatW! Or release a revised edition with this extra material. You are a treasure to the RPG community, sir! Thanks for the hard work!