Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Category Archives: Appendix N

Talking AD&D, Tolkien, and Edgar Rice Burroughs on Twitter

Okay, this might be danged hard to follow but it’s also a lot of fun.

A lot of good points are made in here, so click on through for the rest of the discussion!

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Amazon Women, Pulp Fantasy, and Old School Game Mastering Advice in The Fantasy Trip

The year was 1980 and Steve Jackson’s first complete role-playing game design hit the market. A pivotal time in gaming to be sure!

Sign of the times: there are no amateurish drawings of naked women in the pages of this module. But take heart! This game nevertheless has its foot firmly planted in the staggeringly awesome days of gaming’s primordial past. A scantily clad Amazon chick not only appears on the cover but also as an explicit option for unironic play:

AMAZON: The beautiful, dangerous female warrior. She probably has high DX and wears little armor. Talents
include Sex Appeal, Unarmed Combat, Bow, and Thrown Weapons — plus several other weapon talents.

Nice!

If you shelled out big bucks for the recent monster-sized Kickstarter edition of this game, don’t bother to look for this. This was evidently expurgated for being way too spicy for the high strung pearl-clutching gamers of today. (Fortunately for us pulp fantasy fans, Tarzan remains in the archetype list for the Woodsman “class”– though the name was character type was updated to “Ranger”.)

One surprising bit that was left 100% intact, however, is this choice bit from the game’s background setting of Cidri:

This enormous polyglot world was chosen as a background for two very good and totally opposite reasons. The first is variety. Cidri is big enough to hold thousands of Earths; it has room for the world of every Game Master who’ll ever put pencil to hex-paper. There’s room here for every sort of fantasy adventure to coexist — in a logical manner. And it provides a workable rationale for the weird melange of legend, historical fact, prehistory, science fiction, and sheer wild imagination that characterizes the work of the best fantasy gamers.

What an astonishing line there!

Granted, anyone that is familiar with role-playing games of the 1970’s could see why Steve Jackson would say such a thing. And Cidri is truly a bizarre game setting. It’s like Philip José Farmer’s World of Tiers series mashed up with Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. It’s like a weird inversion of the default setting of the much later Steve Jackon  release of GURPS Fourth Edition– instead of “Infinite Worlds” it’s Infinite World!

Rough sketch for the cover of the Melee MicroGame? A stray illustration from the 1980 edition of In the Labyrinth? No on both counts! It’s a picture of Dejah Thoris by Frank Frazetta!

But look at that sentence again. It is very much like how I have (on many occasions) attempted to describe the best work of A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Leigh Brackett to a generation that is almost entirely unfamiliar with the pulp era. And here Steve Jackson in 1980 casually declares the work of the best fantasy gamers to be JUST LIKE THAT. He had no idea that there was about to be a sea change in how people even conceived fantasy to even work!

Incredible. The intrinsically weird/pulpy foundations of fantasy gaming confirmed!

But wait, there’s more treasures to unearth in this old game!

In Steve Perrin’s review of it from the April/May 1980 issue of Different Worlds, he says this: “Perhaps the best part of the book is a column by publisher Howard Thompson, describing the story-telling requirements of being a GM. Truer words were never spoken.” Story-telling? Sounds potentially heretical to me! Too bad purchasers of the new edition will not have the benefit of this awesomely TRUE gaming wisdom from the dawn of the hobby. Steve Jackson deleted it for some reason!

But don’t worry. I have the text right here:

NOTES ON SUCCESSFUL GAME-MASTERING

Most of you will eventually want to design your own labyrinths and take a turn at being Game Master. A fantasy role playing game is certainly more enjoyable when you can provide fun and adventure for your friends. In our experience, there is one philosophy of game-mastering that consistently leads to success. That is this: A GM is a solo entertainer of an unusual new variety. He is a writer, performer, and group facilitator rolled into one. Players participate in an adventure campaign for entertainment — not to let the GM be a petty god and manipulate their characters at will. It takes practice, attention, and sensitivity to lead a group through an adventure and leave them feeling good (win or lose) when it’s over. Thinking of yourself as a semi-professional entertainer like a bard or other
small-group yarn-spinner will help.

Don’t try to control the action or predetermine specific outcomes for everything. Your labyrinth and its supporting environment must be flexible enough to evolve as a result of the players’ actions, be they successes or failures. There must be room for players to build, destroy, live and die as they choose. This doesn’t mean that things should be easy. Player characters will get killed — fairly regularly, for the careless or headstrong. As a GM, you must be firm – but not so attached to your creation that it doesn’t also become something of the players’.

You needn’t bully your players or allow them to intimidate you. There will be points of disagreement during play, of course – but the best way to handle them is to postpone any
real discussion until a “critique” period after the game session. Players should feel free to ask questions or make comments about the GM’s actions, but it shouldn’t go farther than a few brief comments while play is going on. If you goof, and a player catches it immediately, you ought to fix it then and there IF you can do it without breaking the “feel” of the adventure. The ability to do this is a mark of the experienced GM. Real disagreements should always be discussed AFTER an adventure, in preparation for the next. You can stand by your actions and refuse to discuss them — but to the detriment of your campaign.

Remember – you are an entertainer. The adventure unfolding is your “act.” Nurture the story, let it build, involve players in the action. Within the framework you’ve constructed, let events happen as they will. What you and your players will create is a spontaneous experience that can be a rewarding entertainment “high.”

— Howard Thompson

This is solid, straight ahead advice. If all you had were a bunch of fantasy game materials from the seventies you’d probably hit on this eventually. The Hickman Revolution was a not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye at this point, of course. And Steve Jackson’s own particular brand of role-playing philosophy (which would fully flower in the mid-eighties with GURPS) was not yet in evidence in any of The Fantasy Trip’s material.

Of course the approach to role-playing that would become dominant in this century in the aftermath of TSR’s demise was even further off. Which is intriguing. One thing that sets The Fantasy Trip apart from original D&D that it has in common with D&D 3.5 is the hyper-regulated combat and movement system.

Here is Steve Jackson’s own rationale for why he developed it from his designer’s notes in The Space Gamer 29, July 1980:

It started in early 1977. I had just found out, much to my surprise, that I could design games… people were buying Ogre, But the game that I was playing a lot of myself was Dungeons & Dragons. And like everyone else who tried an early version of D&D, I wanted to make some changes. The polyhedral dice were irritating– but the biggest problem was combat. The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement– you just rolled dice and died. T&T was the same way. Monsters! Monsters! was more detailed in some ways, but still allowed no tactics. So I did something about it.

Amazons from the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons and 4th Edition Tunnels & Trolls. If your game doesn’t have them, it sucks!

Indeed he did. Steve Jackson would end up making two of the greatest microgames in history, which is pretty cool given that he’d already created the definitive microgame with his debut game design.

Steve Jackson is far from being the only person that could look at the first two role-playing games and declare the combat system to be completely broken. Of course at the time he wrote that, we were decades away from anyone being able to provide a cogent argument for why the nature of those early systems were a feature, not a bug. But given everything we’ve seen in five decades of role-playing at the tabletop, we have to ask. Is a hyper-regulated combat system intrinsically bad for rpgs? Is that the root cause that made D&D 3.5’s completely linear “everybody wins nobody dies” adventures the gaming travesty that it is…?

It’s a reasonable question, really. After all, the Melee/Wizard adventure “The Lost Lair” published in The Dungeoneer 11 in 1979 did not embody the design principles outlined in Jaquaying the Dungeon even though it was created by the person whose name would become synonymous with the idea.

The seeds of destruction really are there, perhaps. But given Howard Thompson’s spot on game mastering advice included in the original edition of In the Labyrinth, I have to say…. It doesn’t have to be that way!

Appendix N Review Roundup

My book on the literary roots of the Dungeons & Dragons game has been out for some time, but a steady trickle of people continue to stumble upon it and get their minds blown. Here are a few reviews from around the web that capture the thrill of discovery that awaits intrepid readers!

Over at Goodreads, Trevor writes:

I found this absolutely fascinating, but it’s only going to appeal to a VERY select group of people, namely those who played D&D in the 70’s and grew up reading voracious amounts of fantasy and SF from the 40’s-60’s. The author methodically covers each writer and novel recommended in Appendix N of the original Dungeonmaster’s Guide, and talks a great deal about how they relate to the founding elements of D&D and also about the huge tonal shift that occurred in fantasy fiction as it moved from the 70’s to the 80’s and beyond. I remember finding most 80’s fantasy novels to be bland photocopies of LOTR, to the point that I eventually just lost interest in the genre, and this book details why that was, and candidly discusses how LOTR came to dominate the fantasy landscape style where only 10-20 years before, there was a much wider range of “fantasy” out there. Martian princesses and six-armed green giants and Amazon women on Venus and Pellucidar and Stormbringer all slowly mellowed into an infinite series of books about the apprentice/villager guy who is the only one who can defeat the Dark Lord and they meet some wise elves along the way.

Maybe one person out of 25,000 will enjoy this book, but that one person will probably be as fascinated as I was.

Over at reddit:

I never knew how pulpy & weird the origins of RPGs were—until I read Appendix N
I just finished Appendix N: The Literary Antecedents of Dungeons & Dragons, by Jeffro Johnson, and I highly recommend it.*

His argument is that the literary antecedents of D&D (and therefore RPGs in general) is SO MUCH weirder and pulpier than “Lord of the Rings, but a GAME.” He suggests that fantasy was often “science fantasy” at the time when D&D and its early competitors were created, a blended mishmash of what we now consider separate genres. This proto-genre turns out to have been WAY WAY out there, full of just plain batshit ideas, and that we lost something as a geek culture when Tolkien became dominant, especially in the world of roleplaying games.

The book is a great introductory smattering of the “greatest hits” of 70’s pulp sci/fantasy, and since each chapter is a self-contained essay on a particular book in the form of book review/analysis of effects on D&D, it’s really easy to pick up and put down.

4/5 stars, especially if you’re looking to understand the origins of RPGs and maybe infuse some weirdness into your game.

Finally, the Shrew Review has this to say:

Knowing the literary antecedents to some of the obscure rules decisions Gygax made has helped me realize the potential for creating drama within my game and for detailing my world in a way that will give my players plenty of awe inspiring moments. Too often I resort to using bad ass monsters and game play mechanic hacks to try to instill fear and wonder in my players. Let me give you a great example: my 3.5 edition troll war band leader that dual wielded a whip and a scourge. 25ft. reach with improved trip and disarm. Wow, a very dangerous foe. But what’s the point of me pouring over stats, feats, and class abilities to munchkin a villain to scare my players with, especially if there is no building tension behind the monster. I can instead give him a literary inspired description and backstory that will actually do more to inspire the players. Rumors in town persist of Yaldow, the scourge, the only gladiator banned from the empire on the grounds of being too brutal. It’s all too common in the land to find a flayed man or woman nailed to a post beside the road, a length of barbed wire wrapped around its mouth. Setting up this villain sessions before the players actually take him on does more to make him a true villain than any amount of mechanics hacking I could do.

Appendix N explains the D&D Vancian magic system in all of it’s exciting drama. It makes looting scrolls and ancient books from lost tombs become more exciting then finding a +1 sword. I’ve fallen too hard recently on making every campaign a weak copy of Game of Thrones. Political intrigue and grey morality is great. It should be in your campaign. But so should high adventure, foul villains, noble heroes, beautiful princes and princesses, and terrifying beasts.

Now… I do take a bit of flack occasionally for getting carried away talking up just how great the older, weirder pulp novels are compared to today’s fantasy fare. But the thing is… when you rediscover the literature of the superlative, you’re naturally going to start speaking in superlatives!

And yeah… inject this stuff into your game and it’ll happen to your players, too!

Thanks for the comments, y’all. Keep on gaming!

“Spears of Clontarf” by Robert E. Howard

This is a great story, a fascinating piece.

In the first place, it shows us up close the sort of peoples, Christian and pagan, that produced the bedrock of the myth and legends that would define our base concepts of fantasy and heroism. But it also presents the notion that we are descended from people that were every bit as heroic as Conan and Solomon Kane. And being written by Robert E. Howard, you can’t help but end up being persuaded!

So many good lines here:

My lords, it may be God’s will I fall in the first onset– but the scars of slavery burn deep in my back this night, and may the dogs eat my bones if I am backward when the spears are splintering.

Also:

The issue was greater than to decide whether Dane or Gael should rule Ireland; it was Christian against heathen; Jehovah against Odin; it was the last combined onslaught of the Norse races against the world they had looted for three hundred years. It was more; it was the titanic death-throes of a passing epoch– the twilight of a fading age.

It’s awe inspiring. With not one iota of snark, contempt, or subversion.

This is what fiction is like when it’s written by someone that doesn’t hate his audience. Check it out!

A Key Line of Influence in the Development of Roleplaying Games

One of the ways that it becomes clear that Appendix N is more than just a list of books is that there are clear lines of influence running through it, chains of authors that inspire each other in succession. Everyone has been reminded by now that Leigh Brackett’s entire career was predicated on her reading and emulating an Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter novel. Fewer have marked the fact that there would have been no Conan were it not for Tarzan, but it’s true all the same. Jack Vance, Philip Jose Farmer, and Michael Moorcock each wrote books that even if they were not outright pastiche nevertheless hewed closely to Burroughs’s template.

But there’s more to it than just Burroughs being the real author of the century. Science fiction legend Jack Williamson set his sights on imitating the Lord of Fantasy A. Merritt. August Derleth and Margaret St. Clair each continued on in the same vein Lovecraft mined. And Lovecraft’s career in fiction was in turn directly inspired by the work of Lord Dunsany.

There’s a story there, a sprawling conversation that spanned decades. There are lights there that shined so brightly, voices so powerful that they defined how even the idea of fantasy could even work.

Another such conversation played out in the mid-seventies as the foundations of the roleplaying game hobby were laid down.

Some of the lines of influence are pretty obvious, of course. Traveller in its original incarnation was released as a set of three “little black books”– a very careful adaption of original D&D’s “little brown books” to a science fiction theme.

The core rules to GURPS have been called a “Basic Set” from its initial release because it was originally patterned after the phenomenally influential Basic D&D sets created by Holmes, Moldvay & Cook, and then Mentzer.

Looking at the precursor to GURPS, Steve Jackson’s The Fantasy Trip… it’s hard to imagine such a tightly engineered masterpiece of design could have been produced when TSR was in the process of developing the nigh incoherent early D&D rules to the ponderous and outright unplayable AD&D system.

The man that set the stage for this incredible little game was none other than Ken St. Andre, the creator the second role-playing game system Tunnels & Trolls. That game system did much more than blaze the trail for solitaire gaming modules which would inspire Steve Jackson from his earliest Fantasy Trip and Car Wars supplements. It would remain a cornerstone component of his vision even in his magnum opus of GURPS.

But look back into the offbeat T&T variant Monsters! Monsters!– which was published by MetaGaming and edited by a very snarky Steve Jackson– and you’ll find key innovations that were very quickly embraced and refined by Steve:

  • One of the six core attributes– constitution– is used for hit points instead of having a separate hit point stat. In The Fantasy Trip, Steve Jackson would trim things even further, folding the idea of both constitution and hit points into the strength attribute!
  • Instead of having a weird set of off the wall saving throw stats that are a function of class and level, Ken St. Andre used a more generalized “saving roll” against the luck stat. Again, Steve Jackson generalize things even further by making nearly every roll in his system be against one of his very few core attributes.
  • D&D has an elaborate tradition for statting up monsters and foes that is entirely distinct from the one used to generate player characters. With Monsters! Monsters!, Ken St. Andre showed how to make monsters a first class element of the game system, giving them all the same attributes and means of advancing. Steve Jackson would maintain this approach within The Fantasy Trip.
  • Weapon choice (and thus damage output) in Tunnels & Trolls is a function of the strength attribute. This concept is carried forward into The Fantasy Trip.
  • Magic staffs are used to reduce the cost of spells cast in Tunnels & Trolls. In The Fantasy Trip, staffs are used as mana repositories.
  • The primary benefit of being able to level up in Monsters! Monsters! is that you may increase your attributes, which define the lion-share of the character’s capabilities. In The Fantasy Trip this is taken even further and the concept of class and level is (finally) removed altogether.

There’s more. And its well worth your time to pick up copies of both Tunnels & Trolls and The Fantasy Trip to go delve into every nugget of all this.

Another thing you’ll see in Monsters! Monsters!, though, is a great number of references to what would later become known as the books of Appendix N. Balrogs from Lord of the Rings, of course… but also Living Skeletons from Fritz Leiber’s works, Lovecraft’s, Shoggoths, the demon from De Camp’s The Fallible Fiend, and a full page illustration of Roger Zelazny’s Shadow Jack. (Hilariously, in a footnote, Steve Jackson corrects Ken St. Andre on the proper way to stat up The Grey Mouser in the Tunnels & Trolls system!!)

Gary Gygax and Ken St. Andre might have had their disagreements when it came to roleplaying game design, but one thing’s sure: they had an almost identical conception of  what the best works of fantasy were.