Does the Earthsea Trilogy Belong in Appendix N?
December 17, 2015
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The 5th Edition of D&D has made its own answer to the original Appendix N list by doing a slightly more fleshed out Appendix E. Some of the additions are hard to argue with: Clark Ashton Smith, for example. Others are questionable… like throwing in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy.
When I made the point last Monday that I could really see why Gygax would have had reason to leave it out, I received a surprisingly vitriolic response. Not everyone failed to catch my drift, though. Mike Monaco has a great comment on that over at Cirsova’s that sums things up:
If you read LeGuin expecting Howard style fantasy, or “D&D lit”, you’ll definitely be underwhelmed. I found the Earthsea trilogy pretty incredible, but not because of dazzling action or suspense or plotting. There is not really much action at all. It seemed much more like a coming-of-age story that happened to be set in a fantasy world. You could glean some gameable stuff from it but it’s not really something you could use for D&D. I guess I could understand some backlash if he was saying the books are no good, but I looked at his article and he seems to just be saying it is not the pulp style that characterizes most of appendix N, and the characters are not like PCs, and the adventure is not like something you’d want to do in D&D. How can you disagree with that?
People kind of fetishize appendix N though and want to put every fantasy book they love in it, so maybe they are hearing “that’s not a good book” when really the proposition is “that’s not a D&D book”?
Gygax loved heroic fantasy. If your protagonist wasn’t of the Conan “stamp”, he probably wouldn’t like it. Even Tolkien would be sort of a second class Appendix N entry to him, not at all on the same level as the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, A. Merritt, Robert E. Howard, and Leigh Brackett. And if Tolkien was not particularly good at fitting in with that strain of adventure fiction, Le Guin seems to be actively attempting to go in the opposite direction of it with Earthsea. Simply put… she doesn’t fit in!
And Gary Gygax was not alone in liking the older type of story. Marc Miller embraced the same literary tradition by making E. C. Tubb’s Dumarest series a primary basis of the Traveller role-playing game. It’s one of the oddities of science fiction and fantasy history that the most successful of the tabletop gaming properties of the seventies embraced a style that was on the verge of being swept away by changes in publishing. That this can be an inconvenient truth that ruffles feathers is kind of surprising, but there it is.