Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Ten More Appendix N Retrospectives

Okay, this whole thing is a topic that gets kicked around quite a bit in the game blogging scene. Maybe it’s old news for some. Maybe it’s just plain worn out even. Maybe these old books are getting filtered through a lens of nostalgia by a semi-literate redneck here. Only… this can’t be nostalgia because I never grew up reading these books. In fact, I never would have heard of them were it not for a handful of bloggers that took to the internet over the past few years to devote large swaths of their free time to writing about their favorite games.

I’ll tell you what I see here, though. I see H. P. Lovecraft’s oeuvre being tackled by a top notch (but largely forgotten) writer that produced a sizzling take on an Edgar Rice Burroughs style action story. I see the book that inspired Harry Turtledove’s career. I see someone laying down some axioms for witchcraft and then carefully following their ramifications into all levels of a society made up of several competing cultures. I see a literary source for the sort of demonic themes that inspired a wave of hysteria. I see a successful (but largely forgotten) writer’s take on just about every science fiction space battle trope ever made but who was working before those concepts had been blown up into major television and movie franchises. I see a book that sheds light on the aspects of Tolkien’s work that more recent creators have largely passed over. I see that the two books that inspired the Gamma World Setting were seen by their authors as an opportunity to delve into issues of racial harmony and overpopulation. I see that the sword and sorcery genre once commanded the attention of one of the most talented writers in the field of science fiction and fantasy– but who for some inexplicable reason was quietly retired from peoples’ reading lists. And I see that at the foundations of that field, the dividing line between science fiction, fantasy, and horror were surprisingly blurred– that really, a distinct fantasy genre is a relatively recent phenomenon.

I think this is news. I think this is a big deal. But I don’t see people talking about this stuff. Not like this. No, I am not the first person to make these sorts of observations. But I am the only person attempting this sort of scope while paying attention to the gaming angle. And I believe it’s fair to say that you get something qualitatively different from the usual piecemeal commentary as the more systematic survey uncovers a clearer picture of the past. This is something that’s worth doing– and the only thing that surprises me more than the fact that I’m the one doing this is that nobody did it before me.

Seriously, If your mind isn’t blown by this stuff it’s only because you never bothered to read these classic works of science fiction and fantasy. Sure, I’ve seen people quibble over Gygax’s selections. I’ve seen them brainstorm about which ones they would choose to remove from the list. I’ve seen them scoff. And sneer. I wouldn’t trade any of them, though. I might want to induct a few people that got overlooked, but I wouldn’t want to lose any of these authors. They’re freakin’ awesome. They’re the architects of our imaginations. And reading them, you can’t help but think that exploring fantastic worlds at the tabletop would be an inevitable development from their work. And it’s crazy that they’re as obscure as they are now.

Anyway, here are ten more posts for 2015. If you’re new to this, I really envy you. Because you’re going to end up reading several times as many books as I have from the authors that appeal to you most. But that’s okay– I’ll catch up with you once the survey is completed! See you on the flip side…!

  1. Dwellers in the Mirage by A. Merritt
  2. Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp
  3. The Blue Star by Fletcher Pratt
  4. Kyrik: Warlock Warrior by Gardener F. Fox
  5. Berserker by Fred Saberhagen
  6. The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany
  7. Hiero’s Journey by Sterling Lanier
  8. Star Man’s Son by Andre Norton
  9. Ill Met in Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber
  10. The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales by H. P. Lovecraft

Ill Met in Lankhmar Link Roundup

You know, I kind of like covering some of the more obscure and under-appreciated Appendix N books because I have more of a chance to sort of “break” a story. (That’s what it feels like when there are practically no other posts on a given book.)

With this week’s retrospective, my efforts basically just serve as an independent confirmation of what just about any game blogger could tell you. It’s almost scary how much everyone agrees on this work. Hopefully my piece will reach a wider audience than some of the stuff that is written more or less “for gamers only.” And hopefully I take some of the points a bit deeper. (I don’t think anyone cares, but I do have session reports to back up my points. Just sayin’.) But really… I wasn’t near as far out on a limb as I was thinking when I was writing this one.

And I should’t be surprised, but the basic tempo of my game sessions really is identical to those of other gamers that simply picked up nearly any edition of D&D and ran with it. I’m not even sure yet what the implications of that are, but I think there is a signal here that really deserves to be boosted. So… maybe not much new this time, but my mind is certainly blown.

Anyway, here’s my post:

RETROSPECTIVE: Ill Met in Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber

And here’s this week’s roundup:

Grognardia — “Reading this tale, it’s hard not to see in it the literary protoplasm out of which D&D arose. So many D&D staples, most notably the very idea of a Thieves’ Guild, are presented here in glorious form, making it an enjoyable way to see where Dave and (especially) Gary got the ideas out of which they created this game we all so love. Read it, if you’ve never before had the chance; read it again, if you have. It’s a great story by a great fantasy author.”

Semper Initiative Unam — “What I’ve found through play is that pre-written background doesn’t mean anything. This is because of a principle that writers are expected to bear in mind: the story you are telling should be the most exciting and important thing that has ever happened to the character. A background made up for a PC before the start of play is, of necessity, not that interesting; after all, they never got any experience points for it.”

Rogues & Reavers — “In the final story of Swords and Deviltry, we begin to see why Leiber had such a strong influence on D&D. Indeed, the second act, where our heroes drunkenly hatch a shockingly stupid plan and get neck-deep in trouble as a result, should sound familiar to any RPG player. We are all too delighted to see them narrowly escape, or at least it seems until the story reveals its tragic ending.”

Delta’s D&D Hotspot — “The interesting thing here for me is that it represents an excellent science experiment in things pulp: Were the early creations really better? When we ask the question in terms of D&D or Star Wars, the argument usually gets tangled up in the issue of, ‘you’re just being nostalgic; you don’t remember correctly’. But obviously in terms of Asimov or Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser I wasn’t reading them in the 1940’s; I’ve read the entire F&GM oeuvre in the span of the last year. And once again let me say clearly: The early stuff is fantastic and leaps off the page. The later stuff is dreadful and exhausting. This is not nostalgia speaking on the part of this reader.”

Grognardia — “One of the things that’s very clear, if you know anything about the history of roleplaying, is that Gygax and Arneson lived in a time before what we now think of as ‘fantasy’ literature existed. That’s partly because D&D’s success helped create and popularize that genre. Back in the early 1970s, ‘fantasy’ was subsumed within ‘science fiction.’ Consider, for example, that in 1970, the winner of the Nebula Award for best novel was Ringworld by Larry Niven, while the winner for best novella was “Ill Met in Lankhmar” by Fritz Leiber. Tolkien’s The Lords of the Rings, though published in 1954-1955, didn’t achieve widespread influence or fame until the 1960s and 1970s, at once driving the growing popularity of fantasy and benefiting from it.”

Black Gate — “The swords & sorcery that works best for me, the tales that get my heart pounding, come in short story form. It was Robert E. Howard’s ‘Beyond the Black River’, Fritz Leiber’s ‘Ill Met in Lankhmar’, and Karl Edward Wagner’s ‘Reflections for the Winter of My Soul’ that made me love this genre. In those stories, the authors distilled everything down to forty or fifty pages of concentrated action, mayhem, and bloodshed. There are no wasted words, no longuers. While all three authors wrote decent enough S&S novels, it’s their short stories that roar down the tracks like a train, pulling me along. S&S is a fiction of action and plot. I want speed; economy of story-telling.”

Tor.com — “Where to start on Fafhrd and Gray Mouser? Well, you might as well start at the beginning, with Swords and Deviltry, the first collection, since it has their meeting and each of their prologues. Let me illustrate it thus: Fafhrd straps fireworks to his skis at one point in order to rocket across a jump. That sort of insanity is just so…well, so Dungeons and Dragons; I don’t know how Leiber does it. I mean, I just had an AD&D campaign end when our bard, after crowdsurfing a horde of damned and demons, delivered the killing blow to Zuggtomoy with a roll of a natural 100 on a rod of wonder, which on the alternate table we were using was “death ray, no save.” It was epic, in the truest sense of the term, and was only possible thanks to the critical mass of multiple players, a convoluted prior history of adventuring, random number generators, and sheer dumb luck. That makes sense, but Leiber’s imagination is so fruitful that…well, it is like he has a chaos theory generator in his head. Billions of flapping butterflies.”

Connor Coyne — “Howard’s ‘Conan’ stories tend to take themselves more seriously, indicting contradictory moralities and, by extension, ‘civilization.’ The Lankhmar stories promote the same message, albeit they are just as critical of barbarity as of settled life. But they also set a more playful tone. Even when stories turn deadly serious – and many are (‘The Unholy Grail,’ ‘Ill-Met in Lankhmar,’ ‘The Howling Tower,’ and others) – there is always something slightly tongue-in-cheek about the storytelling. Details are exaggerated. Life and death are approached as almost laughingly casual matters. Happenstance plays a significant role, and it is often difficult to find the point at which the protagonists’ skills end and their good luck begins. And even this good fortune typically leaves them alive and penniless…that is, exactly as they began except for their new scars and hard-won experience.”

Omphalos’ SF Book Reviews — “Leiber is a master of the written word, and this piece is an excellent example of what a talented wordsmith can accomplish with genre work. Leiber’s characters were excellently drawn; his settings were masterfully placed, and kept in the background where they belong; the plot was amazing; Leiber moved the story along effortlessly to its conclusion, and his use of the more subtle tools of foreshadowing, tension building, and even the use of silence was excellent.”

OH ANALOG NO

So the 1,000th issue of Analog pulls a cutesy trick by revisiting the cover of the first issue, except this time with the sexes reversed.

You know, this might be another one of those “get off my lawn” moments for me, but I’m just not that impressed. And there are any number of things to complain about here: the lack of a beard on the cave man, his waxed chest, his unreasonable muscles. Then there’s the awkwardness of the punch, the dumpy clothing on the space princess, the complete lack of any skin showing on her and (worse) the fact that you can’t even discern the slightest hint of her curves.

This is space fantasy that would evidently satisfy the exacting standard of both the PMRC and the shareef. Seriously, how is that a good idea?

All snarkyness aside, things generally go downhill fast once they pass the point of self-parody. Think how bad the Batman movie franchise got after Michael Keaton left it. Think about how Arnold Schwarzenegger went from being the ultimate heavy to being a running joke.

The attitude here is like a small town kid that comes back from a couple years at college all ready to let everyone back home how they are such hicks. You know… you can go on to bigger and better things if you want. That’s great. But I don’t think it’s necessary to show such contempt for your roots, though. And I know that the editor probably thinks that this might even be a celebration of those roots. I see it as more of a mockery.

As to the Magazine itself? No thanks. Not when there’s several A. Merritt novels left for me to dig into. If there are any others that are on par with Dwellers in the Mirage or Creep, Shadow!, then there’s not much that this magazine can do to compete with that.

And while I would be ecstatic to be proven wrong, I think it’s safe to say that Analog Magazine will never come close to being as awesome as this:

That’s how it’s done.

Update: The editor has this to say: “You may notice that there’s one big difference between this cover and the original–there’s no cowering cave-woman being protected by a two-fisted adventurer; this time, she’s more than capable of handling the bug on her own. Taking the things that work without being beholden to the things that don’t is about as Futurist a concept as there is.”

Obviously, I’m going to have to disagree here. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and E. C. Tubb’s stories all work just fine today.

The Magic Jar

“And as you enter the clearing, you notice off in the distance the white stag.” Doug had a bit of a smirk as he said it. “It’s fleeing through the scrub and underbrush and making quite a racket. You can still see it through the trees, though; what do you do?!”

Carlye facepalmed. “Ah no! Not that lame stag again…!”

Dwayne was nonplussed. “Eh, so we’re near the GM’s next plot point. What’s the big deal?”

Mike stopped messing with his dice for a moment. “Well I think I’ve had it with this thing.”

Rob returned from the kitchen just then with a couple of beers. “What are we arguing about now?”

Mike answered, “I was just about to take care of this asinine white stag once and for all.”

“Sounds good to me,” Rob answered.

Dwayne got a little testy at this point. “You should leave it alone. It’s not going to hurt us. So what if the GM wants to clue us in that we’re on the right track. Let’s just play the game!”

“This is playing the game!” Mike shot back. He turned to the game master. “What’s the range to that thing?”

Doug pretended to roll some dice behind the screen. “Oh, about forty feet right now.”

“Good,” Mike said. “I cast Magic Missile on it.”

Dwayne was shouting now. “No! You don’t have to kill it. That’s stupid!”

Carlye turned to the cell phone that was propped up just so that the camera could take in the lion’s share of the battle map. “What do you say, Arlene…?”

An impassive voice with a vaguely Swedish accent came from the device. “No arguments… go!”

Doug addressed Mike directly, speaking over the continuing onslaught of banter and heckling. “Now look, Mike. Your character knows that this an offense to the gods. Bad stuff can happen if you kill it. Are you sure you want to do this…?”

“I cast the spell,” he said as he rolled the die. The result was a six.

“Okay… well… it looks like it’s dead,” Doug declared.

“Great,” said Mike. “I go up to it and slit its throat just to be sure.”

Dwayne folded his arms and looked over his glasses. “Don’t you think that’s a bit much…?”

“Well hey you never know,” Mike answered. “Anybody want some venison?”

Star Man’s Son Link Roundup

My latest Appendix N post is up:

RETROSPECTIVE: Star Man’s Son by Andre Norton

Last year I made the point that Edgar Rice Burroughs was a major influence on the creation of Superman, D&D, and Star Wars. He’s just huge. And it’s weird that people don’t seem familiar with him. I don’t see a lot of people pointing that stuff out.

Well… in a similar vein, it looks to me as if the progenitor of the whole nuclear holocaust post-apocalyptic mutant adventure genre– ie, the thing that became Gamma World– was pretty much invented by a woman. All y’all that are beating the drum to promote women authors and women’s contributions to science fiction and fantasy? Please spread the word on this one, because it’s awesome.

(And if anyone knows of an earlier work that fits the bill, please clue me in on that. I think this is the one, though!)

Here are some additional tidbits on this from around the web.

Pulp Fantasy Library (Grognardia) — “The story — an outcast on a quest to prove his worth, both to others and to himself — is an old one, but it’s one with which most people, espcially young men, can empathize. Add to that the terror and mystery of a world destroyed by man’s own folly and you have the recipe for a classic adventure tale. If you haven’t read it, I heartily recommend you do so, if only to see the wellspring of what would eventually become science fantasy clichés. But Andre Norton wrote these things first and, in my opinion, best and deserves to be given her due.”

Gamma World, Cover to Cover (Grognardia) — “Gamma World is a flight of fancy; it’s not a scientific speculation into what the world after the Bomb might be like. Rather, it’s using the collapse of human civilization as an occasion to imagine a purely fantastical world of adventure. The funny thing is that, back in the day, this wasn’t a point that needed to be explained to anyone, because, frankly, most of us didn’t care about ‘realism’ — we just wanted to blast mutants as we explored the ruins of DC. I’m not sure exactly when things changed and gamers began to need detailed explanations of what a RPG was about and how the game mechanically supported its “themes,” but, at some point, it happened and games like Gamma World were among the hobby’s casualties.”

150 Years is a LONG Time (Grognardia) — “Of course, the real reason so many post-apocalyptic settings, including those in RPGs, don’t pay much heed to the effects of time and tide on the works of Man is that a big part of the appeal of these games are their references to contemporary people, places, and events. Moreso than most science fiction, post-apocalyptic tales are ready-made to comment on the present, particularly its foibles and vices. To present a post-apocalyptic world where one’s character is not only ignorant of the past — our world — but likely to see very little evidence of its existence takes some of the fun out of the genre for a lot of people.”

James Nicoll Reviews — “I would not be surprised to learn that Norton, along with so many others, was influenced by Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1937 classic short story, ‘By the Waters of Babylon.’ To Benét’s hauntingly prescient depiction of post-apocalyptic collapse, Norton adds a healthy dollop of post-atomic anxiety, as well as many of the themes and tropes one learns to expect in later Norton novels. Fors’ world isn’t just smashed flat and depopulated; it has been bathed in mutagenic radiation. As Fors points out, it is not at all clear that the Old Ones responsible for the Great Blow-up and modern humans are the same people any more. Perhaps all people are mutants.”

Not The Baseball Pitcher — “Some believe it was the first fiction to deal with a post-nuclear holocaust world, but there is no reliable evidence to prove that.”

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