Well it took a while to get an idea about this, but I think we are finally starting to get a clearer answer on this one: “Does Appendix N really change the way you play D&D all that much?”
Speaking for myself, reading all those pulp stories kindled a thirst for real life adventures. Maybe not quite on the same scale as the sort that guys like Burroughs and Merritt and Hodgson would take for granted, but nevertheless still a significant leap forward in the adrenaline chasing department. For sure, people that have been brainwashed into being ashamed of their pioneering heritage are definitely missing out.
Dipping back into role-playing games at a somewhat more infrequent tempo, I did feel far more comfortable running off of, say, the core Gamma World first edition rules with no little else than a rough map and a few random encounters. Certainly, knowing what the rule set is made of grants a unique sort of confidence when it comes to the matter of elaborating on it.
Introducing a real life gaming group to Moldvay Basic D&D and Keep on the Borderlands, I found myself being far more willing to range off the starting map that comes with the module. Swaths of Lovecraft and Solomon Kane stories were dropped side by side into the play area and the weird world of my campaign setting took what could have been its foundation. But this potentially rich vein of gameplay– the whole original Appendix N infused homebrew campaign would have to wait. It remained an experiment, very much overshadowed by the usual D&D activities of players getting outwitted by goblins, kobolds, and gnolls.
The current AD&D game is another matter entirely. This one was presaged by an investigation into just how exactly James Ward prepared for his Metamorphosis Alpha games. With nothing more than an unkeyed sketch similar to what James Ward would have done, I was off in a quixotic effort to imitate the Dungeon Mastering style of Sky Hernstrom.
Sitting on this side of fourteen AD&D sessions, everything is pretty clear now. If you’d asked me a few weeks ago I would have said that Appendix N is only going to account for maybe 20% of our play. The reason for that is that it is very hard to approprate from these books any more than one vivid scene, one big tent pole idea here or there, or maybe just characters or situations ripped completely out of context and dropped into play as needed. But there really is more to it than that.
For one thing, it’s not just me that is fluent in Appendix N in this game. It is the whole game group. Not only does this allow us to trust the often strange and weirdly hyper-specific AD&D rules and just see where they lead, but we are also all of us extracting a lot more of excitement out of them. Knowing where all the bits and pieces come from and their original contexts, we are equipped to play everything to the hilt. This by itself is orders of magnitude more fun than what used to be the default po-faced naturalistic approach to framing the game back in the eighties.
Just as important is the fact that the campaign setting we developed together is a heterogeneous mess that works far, far better in practice than I think anyone would would want to believe. We have a Melnibonéan ruling over Lankmar… with a Clark Ashton Smith story next door and bits of a Margaret St. Clair novel in the dungeons below. To the north we have the lost city of Opar courtesy of Edgar Rice Burroughs and another dungeon concept taken wholesale from H. Rider Haggard and A. Merritt.
There are scads of rpg supplements out there that steal the same sort of things, but this is different. All these things taken from incompatible sources and placed side by side…? Well, when you have that you end up with a campaign setting that reflects the exact same overall Frankenstein’s Monster approach to fantasy that the rules themselves exemplify. And there is a unique kind of synergy that emerges when you are creating in tandem with the rules and in the same way that the rules are conceived.
The thing that the people that are striving for “realism” and elaborate rules and overproduced campaign settings are missing out on is that when you have a game that is as stupid and eclectic as mine, it results in a gaming premise that is very easy for players to engage with. None of them are limited by realism or ponderous “ecology of…” articles. None of them have to worry about getting things right. If it’s exciting, if it’s intriguing, if it’s consistent with any one of hundreds of old pulp stories where awesome things happen in every chapter, then it’s totally on the table as something that can be added in to the mix.
That’s probably the most important discovery of all, for once you end up in a place like that you’ll never again need to rack your brain coming up with an idea for what to do for the next session. It’s more than just a game at that point, really. And you’re not just running an “adventure” anymore, either. You’re bringing a living, breathing campaign world to life and all of your players are engaged with making it great.
The results truly are a product of your imagination. THIS IS HOW THE GAME WAS MEANT TO BE PLAYED!
Unlock the wonder of the earliest role-playing games. My books will show you the way!