Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Brian Renninger on Why Appendix N Started a Literary Movement

With this book we are coming out a dark age. Jerry Pournelle has said “The definition of a Dark Age is that we no longer remember what we once could do.” It’s not just that we have lost capability but, not knowing that we ever had capability that makes it dark. Of course, the term “Dark Ages” has fallen out of current fashion. It seems judgmental and unscientific to call that time after the fall of Rome and through the end of the Viking Age “dark” as if it were lesser in some way. But, I’m not an academic and history is not science. And, Rome was sacked. The aqueducts did stop running. Latin was forgotten, by all but a few specialists, to be replaced by the babble of dozens of local tongues. It’s dark because the records of that time are sparse – fewer people wrote and the people who did write, wrote on fewer topics.

Appendix N is just a reading list. But, a reading list tailored to a topic. The topic being inspirational works for playing the original role-playing game – Dungeons & Dragons. The list was intended to inspire players on adding variety to their game. And, to give players examples that explain why the game was made the way it was made.

Jeffro Johnson set himself the task to read all of Appendix N in the context of its stated purpose. He found what he was looking for: clear evidence for many of the foundational rules of Dungeons and Dragons hidden in plain sight in the text of old fantastic adventure writing. But, he also found more – the nucleus of an earlier canon of fantastic literature. In that canon he discovered greater variety, subtlety, strangeness and a broader sophistication of theme than found in the general run of fantasy writing today. And, he found some damned fun stories.

So, for us, what has been forgotten? To a large degree, we have forgotten the scope that fantasy fiction can obtain when allowed unfettered freedom of imagination. We have forgotten that fantasy fiction can be just as edgy and daring when addressing the best of human nature rather than the worst. In fact, we have forgotten that literature can and should encompass all things. Or, even more, that literature should also encompass impossible things – especially fantastic literature.

Why hadn’t he found these stories before? Stories by many of the past’s grand masters who are oddly obscure today? Why aren’t stories like these books being written today? Jeffro discusses the why in this book. So read it. My answer, we had forgotten that stories like those in Appendix N could be written. We had, in fact, forgotten the techniques that made them work. The popular prose of today will not do.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace addresses the grand debate of history – can an individual change history or is an individual just a leaf in the wind of the grand forces of history? Tolstoy sides with the forces beyond man’s control and, in that, I guess, he agrees with one prominent Appendix N author – H.P. Lovecraft with his inhuman cosmic aliens dwarfing all of humanity. But, other Appendix N authors fall on the other side of the debate – Robert E. Howard’s Conan who rises from a callow barbarian thief to king. And, then, threading the needle, there is Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter who is involuntarily transported to an alien planet to earn a crown through individual heroism but, also to find love.

So, there, in the pages of the books of Appendix N, you find my opinion. These books are obscure today due to impersonal economic and historic forces but, also because powerful people in publishing made decisions to make them so. And, it was a dark age because fewer people wrote and the people who did write, wrote on fewer topics. The dark ages never truly ended until the renaissance – a time when people made the conscious choice to seek out what had been forgotten. Jeffro sought what was forgotten.

Go read what he found. Then go find the books of Appendix N and read them. Support those writers of today who are rediscovering thetechniques showcased in the books of Appendix N. Or, better still, sharpen your quill and try your hand.

It will be like coming from the darkness into a light.


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