Dungeons & Dragons casts a long shadow. Certainly it’s shadow looms over me – I often joke that everything I needed to know in life I learned from the first edition Dungeon Masters Guide. It’s only half a joke, really; with its wide-ranging coverage of topics, from lists of disease and illness, to magical properties of gemstones, to mercenary types available in medieval Europe, to known systems of government, to monster ecology, there has been no tome written like it since then. There probably never will be.
In fact, I will say there cannot be. Dungeons & Dragons changed the landscape of the imagination: The pristine wilds of fantasy have forever been altered by the gardening of Gygax.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of speculative fiction. All fantasy written today is necessarily either playing with the tropes established by Dungeons & Dragons, or reacting against those tropes. It is possible to escape the influence of Tolkien – the entire genre of swords and sorcery, which predates the great Oxfordian, has done so. But there is no escape from D&D, whose influence spread into every tabletop game, and from there into every video game, and from there into everything.
It is for this reason that Appendix N is a vital reference for the fantasy gamer, fantasy author, and fantasy critic. Appendix N allows us to identify where Dungeons & Dragons’ tropes come from – and what they looked like in their original form. It is the Aristotle below the Aquinas; the Cicero below the Constitution. A young author whose magic system is inspired by the spellcraft of Weis & Hickman’s Dragonlance is painting a copy of a copy; only by reading Vance can the Platonic form, the Real, be seen. Paksenarrion, by Elizabeth Moon, is the beautifully-written tale of a paladin; but Paks is based on the D&D paladin, and the D&D paladin is based on the character of Holger from Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions.
Why does this matter? Why does fantasy matter? Some would say it doesn’t, that fantasy has become a tired genre, a genre that must be reinvented with gritty nihilism or contemporary critique or social commentary. These critics would tell us that a return to the past is a waste of time, an effort that can bring no reward when our culture has moved on.
Nuts, I say.
Fantasy fiction can and does re-tell the same story endlessly because the story that fantasy re-tells is the best story – the mythic story, the story of the human experience with the sublime. But to do so, to re-tell the best story, the fantasy author must first know it, in its purest and most undiluted form. A chef who hopes to serve a fine meal must have eaten a feast of the freshest morsels, or he will not know what a fine meal is. One who has only tasted reheated and repackaged TV dinners cannot know the taste of better.
Learning the great story is a lifetime of effort and most of us come to it unprepared. We cannot recognize it when we see it. It is too rich for our blood. Howard, Leiber, Vance, Zelazny, Tolkien, all of them were closer to the great story than we are. When we read their works, we find ourselves closer to the fountainhead of the imagination, closer to the mother lode. There is an earnestness, a vitality, a vigor that has been sapped from their epigones. The success of Dungeons & Dragons has spread the beauty of fantasy everywhere, but in so doing it has spread it thin. Appendix N is the original sauce.
Every gamer should read Appendix N to get a better understanding of Dungeons & Dragons; it is a worthwhile and fulfilling endeavor that will make the game more enjoyable. But someone who will never pick up a D20 should read Appendix N, too, to get a deeper understanding of fantasy storytelling itself, in a time before it had been codified, packaged, and deconstructed.
It is my hope that the present work will help Appendix N establish itself as the canon of fantasy literature. But of course, we publish in a time when the very concept of a canon is itself frowned upon in some circles. Appendix N will be mocked and belittled in the same way and for the same reason an education based on the classical canon is mocked and belittled: Because if the writers of the past can offer us valuable insights that are useful today, then that means some things are eternally true. And that is a claim that our postmodern culture cannot accept.
But isn’t that what fantasy says?
To read the great works of the past is to have the question answered.