Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Appendix N, Nostalgia, and Contemporary Fantasy

Nearly every single gaming-related blog has a little bit to say about Gary Gygax's "Appendix N," a list of inspirational reading for players and Dungeon Masters found in the Dungeon Master's Guide for first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. So, I'll probably be making reference to "Appendix N" as time goes on, much like many of those other blogs do. This isn't necessarily to copy them--it's actually kind of a necessity. "Appendix N" is the bibliography for Dungeons & Dragons as listed by Gygax himself. (What I'd give for an "Appendix N" written by Dave Arneson!)

Minus the introductory text, the reading list is as follows:

Brackett, Leigh.
Brown, Fredric.
Burroughs, Edgar Rice. "Pellucidar" Series; Mars Series; Venus Series
Carter, Lin. "World's End'' Series
de Camp & Pratt. "Harold Shea" Series; CARNELIAN CUBE
Derleth, August.
Dunsany, Lord.
Farmer, P. J. "The World of the Tiers" Series; etal.
Fox, Gardner. "Kothar" Series; "Kyrik" Series; et of.
Howard, R. E. "Conan" Series
Lanier, Sterling. HIEROS JOURNEY
Leiber, Fritz. "Fafhrd &Gray Mouser" Series; et of.
Lovecraft, H. P.
Moorcock, Michael. STORMBRINGER; STEALER OF SOULS; "Hawkmoon"
Norton, Andre.
Offutt, Andrew J., editor SWORDS AGAINST DARKNESS Ill.
Pratt, Fletcher, BLUE STAR; etaf.
Saberhagen, Fred. CHANGELING EARTH; etal.
Tolkien, J. R. R. THE HOBBIT; "Ring Trilogy"
Weinbaum, Stanley.
Wellman, Manly Wade.
Williamson, Jack.
Zelazny, Roger. JACK OF SHADOWS; "Amber" Series; et of.
MIRAGE; et of.
Series (esp. the first three books)

The most immediate influences upon AD&D were probably de Camp & Pratt, REH, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, HPL, and A. Merritt; but all of the above authors, as well as many not listed, certainly helped to shape the form of the game. For this reason, and for the hours of reading enjoyment, I heartily recommend the works of these fine authors to you.

I've read a few of these, particularly some Zelazny, Moorcock, Howard, de Camp, Anderson, Vance, and Tolkien, to name just a few. When asked if he'd change anything, or add new media, Gygax generally responded with a "no," barring the addition of one or two new publications that have emerged since the late 1970s/early 1980s.

This is significant because it indicates that Gygax's vision of Dungeons & Dragons, and perhaps role-playing in general, evolved very little after his initial co-creation of the role-playing hobby with Dave Arneson. However, I found his comment a bit disturbing.

Essentially, Gygax all but completely ignores the emergence of "high fantasy." While this, in-and-of itself isn't surprising, because he often under-reported the influence of Tolkien on D&D, it shows a bit of closed-mindedness toward different developments in the genre of fantasy fiction. One of the major themes one cannot help but notice throughout Gygax's "Appendix N" is that not a single book in the list breaks the 250-300 page mark (with the exception of Tolkien's works). In other words, the books tend to be short, exhibit a tight economy of prose, develop quickly through rapid pacing, and are of limited scope. Indeed, some of the authors penned only short stories and novellas, never full-length novels. Gygax seemed to eschew the sort of world-shattering conflicts that were the hallmark of post-Tolkien high fantasy that emerged during the very late 1970s and became quite vogue in the 1980s.

That post-Tolkien fantasy is rife with problems, I'll admit--the greatest of which being their tendency toward overt imitation. Nevertheless, there are quite a few writers that Gygax has completely overlooked which could easily provide inspiration for a great many gamers and Dungeon Masters. A number of authors have produced some fantastic work in the past 15-20 years that deserves to be noted, but seems to have been completely ignored by many in the gaming community (particularly the "old school" community) in favor of many "Appendix N" books.

These include (but are not limited to) Steven Erikson, Ian Cameron Esselmont, R. Scott Bakker, Dan Simmons, and Tad Williams. During the 1980s, Raymond E. Feist emerged with incredible books, like his two-volume Magician and the ultra-imaginative A Darkness at Sethanon, but it appears he had almost no impact on Gygaxian roleplaying. Why is this the case?

Well, first, it is apparent that Erikson's/Esselmont's and Feist's worlds may not have an impact on roleplaying because they, themselves, originated as roleplayed settings. Nevertheless, they still deserve notice because of the magnitude of imagination that went into the creations of their worlds and the atmosphere of adventure, magic, and wonder that surrounds everything that takes place within those settings. Erikson, Esselmont, and Feist inspire me to roleplay far more than Zelazny or Moorcock. I think these authors took a lot of what inspired Gygax, and indeed took roleplaying itself, and developed it further. Like it or not, roleplaying has actually impacted fantasy literature, and I am not talking about Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I'm talking about how fantasy literature and roleplaying are part of a continuum--changes in one can, should, and do impact developments within the other. It's a living and breathing system.

Fantasy writing is not, and should not be, stagnant, but should develop and change with the times. Nostalgia is great. I remember playing old school Rules Cyclopedia D&D with friends in middle school. The books we read had a massive impact on our gaming. The creation of self-contained worlds that made perfect sense wasn't as cool as having random characters and creatures from all of the different and disparate fantasy novels you've read make guest appearances. We weren't old enough to demand logic and continuity from our gaming worlds yet. As we got older, though, we started to expect settings to behave more rationally, and a bit of the magic slipped out of our play.

I still look back at those days as an awkward pre-teen playing in whimsical, Wonderland-esque games where our characters could have an ale or two at the same table as Conan, Raistlin, Elric, and Gandalf. But I wouldn't want to really play in that sort of game anymore. Nostalgia isn't now. It is a longing for things past and gone.

I think that a lot of the old school renaissance is fueled by nostalgia. In itself, I don't think it is destructive at all. I have serious problems myself with where roleplaying has gone. And I may sound a bit hypocritical when I criticize the impact of video games on table-top roleplaying when I applaud the relationship between roleplaying and fantasy literature. But I think that, in it's desire to return to the original roots, old school gamers have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in terms of fantasy fiction. There's too much of a focus on "Appendix N" and not enough of a focus on more recent sources of inspiration that can enhance and enrich one's role-playing experience.


Dennis Laffey said...

Good points. Personally, as someone who missed almost the entirety of Appendix N when I was young, I've been eating it up these days.

I do appreciate a lot of the newer fantasy out there, at least when it's still fresh. The big problem I have is with the never ending multi-volume "epics" that publishers love because they know they'll be milking the consumer for a decade or more.

I'm kinda hoping fantasy will take a step back, look at some of this older work, and then spring off in a new direction. Not to rehash what the authors Gygax loved did, but use what they wrote to inspire a new track to get away from the Shanarra/Wheel of Time/Sword of
Truth bloat.

(this is Dennis by the way)

Dave Cesarano said...

I've got a lot to say about the Shannara series, as well as The Wheel of Time and Sword of Truth. While many writers continue publishing in their worlds, they also tend to release them in story-arcs. Feist has been publishing a lot of stuff this past decade, and in two or three separate series. While the quality has gradually declined, it's not bad stuff.

A lot of people are afraid that George R.R. Martin is going to end up like Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind, that is to say, he's going to keep publishing A Song of Ice and Fire books ad infinitum to make publishers happy. I hope not. The first two books were pretty stupendous, and I'll be transferring my reviews of them here soon.