Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Appendix N Bombshells

Author J. D. Cowan reiterates one of the most suprising results to emerge from the survey of the literature that inspired the Dungeons & Dragons game:

Appendix N proved that there was a very obvious canon of fantastical tales that influenced a whole generation to the point that they were building games in order to play in those worlds. Sure, one could argue that Appendix N was only what Gary Gygax preferred, but it’s not worth arguing and is clearly not true when speaking to those that lived in that era. Looking at any account of fiction fans of the time one would be hard-pressed to not see mention of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Abraham Merritt, Henry Kuttner, H.P. Lovecraft, Leigh Brackett, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Manly Wade Wellman, Edmond Hamilton, Clark Ashton Smith, C.L. Moore, and Robert E. Howard. These names were conveniently erased over time by those who wanted to use genre fiction for something other than escapist entertainment and for something considerably less inspired and far more idiotic. Those that did survive were tarred and feathered, and essentially read out as the wrong sort to read.

There is a great deal to be said on this.

For one thing, when I was working through the books myself, I heard that “it’s just a list of stuff Gygax liked” thing over and over. The evidence that this is not the case is so voluminous, no one bothers to argue that anymore. To do so is merely to announce that you are unfamiliar with anything that was published before 1980. (For an typical example of the standard ignoramus view on this, see here.)

For those that are still skeptical, consider:

  • The overlap between who was included in Fantastic Novels, The Avon Fantasy Reader, and the Ballantine Best Of series is noticeable.
  • There is another overlap with who it was that was doing blurbs for paperback novels.
  • There is yet another overlap with the authors that were most commonly emulated or subverted. (Burroughs and Howard were the most common models to work from for a long time… and it was Conan that Moorcock aimed to subvert, not Frodo.)
  • Finally, look at Tunnels & Trolls and you will see the exact same authors singled out which inspired D&D: L. Sprague de Camp, Jack Vance, Andre Norton, H. P. Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard.
  • Heck, consider just how much the guys at TSR loved to game in the Barsoom setting– and how they ran afoul of the Burroughs estate well before they got in trouble for cribbing from Tolkien.

People want to disqualify this list because it was unearthed in fantasy role-playing first. But the thing is… these fantasy games were an amalgam of the sort of books that people most associated with the genre at the time. And the designers were not trying to be “out there” at all with their inspirations: they wanted people to take all of the fantasy ideas they took for granted to be engineered directly into the rules no differently than the historical gamers that strove to get their World War II orders of battle correct.

And role-playing was itself brand new. It could not afford to redefine fantasy or be overly specific. Until well into the eighties, most role-playing games were generic. Traveller and Gamma World each had a half dozen inspirations that varied greatly from one another. And from Champions to Heroes Unlimited, you had to make do with a generic super hero game rather than somebody’s sprawling and painstakingly developed monster setting like what has become the norm today. Before 1985, most people most of the time went into gaming with the expectation that they would be developing their own homebrew campaign setting. And they would steal from any paperback that had given them a thrill in order to get it off the ground. And the rules were engineered with the assumption that this was naturally the case. (And it was the case: games mostly had very little in the way of supplements in the early days.)

Now the second part of J.D.’s paragraph there mentions off hand the erasure of this canon. To that, let’s just start with the fact that it did indeed happen. There is a tremendous gap between people that grew up in the seventies and people that grew up in the eighties. Whatever it was that happened, it happened quickly.

Most people have at this point have been persuaded that this is so. The part where significant disagreement remains is with the idea that this was either intentional or orchestrated. Even with that, the counter-argument amounts to people basically saying “that sounds like a conspiracy theory therefore it must be untrue.” People that have not looked to closely at the question tend to reach for any of half a dozen variations of “things like this change over time to due to pure chance.” Such explanations look awfully weak to a generation that has seen anyone that threatens the reigning narrative arbitrarily expelled from social media. The real shock is not that such things happened. It’s how long this has been going on. And that it’s so thorough that most people can’t imagine what things were like before.

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2 responses to “Appendix N Bombshells

  1. Robert Eaglestone March 1, 2018 at 10:42 am

    I found Conan (REH) and Barsoom (ERB) to be more compelling than Frodo and Middle Earth. LOTR is not easily accessible: it’s far too literate(?) to grok in one sitting.

  2. Pingback: The Inspirations for My Appendix N | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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