Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Tolkien and Modernity

Tolkien was ahead of his time. And that’s precisely what I object to about him. And you know it’s real. People experience a culture shock when they go look up his forgotten contemporaries that they don’t with his work.

You can see it, too, in where people struggle with him. I tend to like the parts that people complain about the most. And detest things that blow past other people.

Aragorn patrolling dangerous countryside with a broken sword for one thing. How utterly, embarrassingly British. Something as portentous and mythical as that, reduced to a cheap subversion along the lines of Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver. The anti-Conan did not originate with Michael Moorcock’s Elric– no, it’s right here! And it’s preposterous.

Tom Bombadil, in contrast, has always been my favorite part. It’s Tolkien tipping his hat to the old fantasy he was about to pave over. It’s weird and wondrous. Marvelous and whimsical. Untainted by the coming pain and regret. It’s not fully explained, either. Even better, (and wacky fan theories aside) it plays havoc with the book’s painstakingly crafted mythos.

It’s the first thing to go when anyone tasked with retelling Frodo’s tale for today’s audiences begins the editing process. Because while people today love Tolkien, they hate fantasy. And it’s both his genius and his curse that he could produce a brand of it that is not so offensive to our modern, post-Christian culture.


Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge: Go Read Lord Dunsany, Dang It!

Tolkien is derivative.

He was very much a man of his time. His work today is recognized as being inherently conservative and deeply Catholic. And yes, it is truly a masterpiece, one of the great works of the English language. But he also was a man of his times. He was thoroughly immersed in modernism. He was surrounded by snide progressive hecklers that chided him mercilessly. He went from being shell shocked in The Great War to watching the countryside be utterly consumed by “progress”.

I hate to say it, but this is not at all the proper context for someone to write the definitive fantasy story of all time. If you haven’t read the signature fantasy works that predate his influence, you won’t be able to imagine this being the case, but the man really did pull his punches. He tiptoed around themes and questions that deserved to be met head on. He truncated his creative palette for the same reason authors do today: he wanted to be taken seriously and he knew there would be consequences for not walking the line.

What’s the alternative, you ask? Well… if you want to see what a full-throated expression of what an unadulterated fantasy genre could be like without the taint of Modernity and despair, then look no further than Lord Dunsany.

My favorite story of his is “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean.” I will say nothing to spoil this one for you. Seriously, go read it. No commentary can do it justice. I can’t name a single story that can compete with this one in terms of its capacity to produce undiluted wonder. It is the very definition of fantastic. In comparison, every author after Dunsany might as well have hid their light under a bushel basket.

For people wanting a more explicit handling of the central problem that “real” Fantasy must necessarily address, see “The Kith of the Elf Folk”. If “half elfs” are just another fantasy race in your imaginary worlds, I have to say… you are brain damaged. This is a sort of dementia that is on par with vampires being divorced from Christian lore and concepts of damnation. The correct answer for what is going on with this are unimaginable to most people because Tolkien either toned down his answer or else was so careful in filing the serial numbers off of what he produced that people could enjoy his work without thinking deeply about the consequences of elves and men intermingling when the former are necessarily barred from heaven.

For a third Dunsany story that brings something different to the table than either of these, I recommend “The Journey of the King.” Now, many people have chided me saying that reading “Appendix N” is not sufficient for people to get a solid grounding in the roots of fantasy. Don’t read a pile of yellowed paperbacks and pulp magazines, they say, but go read the stuff that the Appendix N authors themselves used for inspiration. It sounds good. It sounds smart. And heck, I actually agree with it. But without a doubt the one book that casts by far the longest shadow over the fantasy genre is going to be The King James Bible. This story shows why. If you want to tackle life’s toughest questions, if you want to create something that sounds authentic, like it may have really happened in the ancient world… if you want to be fluent in the patterns of language that create a palpable sense of portentousness and wisdom, if you want to tap in to that part of the human psyche that still had this very real concern that we’ve done something to offend a primal and jealous force… then read that book!

Or at the very least, go read Lord Dunsany and see how his immersion in that particular volume gave him a power and a command of the language that no creator since his time has enjoyed.

Kasimir Urbanski and Appendix N on Geek Gab!

Okay, it finally happened. Kasimir Urbanski and I have finally had a big sit down on the topic of Appendix N. Note that we did not have a formal debate; rather, this was more just a friendly conversation on the subject. Anyone that has followed Urbanski’s blog posts and Google+ threads on this topic will, I think, be very surprised by the results here. Yeah, the usual straw man arguments do make a cameo appearance, but it is relatively brief. And for the record, below are my notes for the key points I wanted to have covered during the exchange.

Listen to the whole show and decide for yourself how well they got argued!

What is Appendix N?

** It is more or less a significant subset of the fantasy and science fiction canon– and consistent with what the typical fantasy fan of the seventies understood about the genre.

Does it shed light on why classic editions of Dungeons & Dragons are the way that they are?

** Yes…. See also Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls, Marc Miller’s Traveller and James Ward’s Metamorphosis Alpha. All of them leveraged a synthesis of weird books in order to get off the ground. All of them took no thought of slinging elements from contradictory stories and series together into one great game of “play anything from any book you like– as a player or a dungeon master!”

Does it have any utility for game masters that are running fantasy campaigns of their own?

** If you struggle with imagining worlds where alignment, spell memorization, and mega-dungeons are “real”, then you are going to get a real kick out of seeing these things in their original contexts. Contrarwise, if you assume that The Lord of the Rings is the starting point for how fantasy even works, you are going to inevitably be frustrated by how classic D&D is implemented and how it plays. Further, a person that thinks only in terms of derivative eighties style fantasy will be tempted to sacrifice player autonomy in order to produce the sort of “epic” story arcs that you take for granted as being the entire point of the fantasy genre.

Are some types of fantasy a better fit for classic D&D than others?

** You’re going to have far less friction adapting situations from Burroughs, Leiber, Howard, and Vance to D&D than you are trying to make it fit with Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. Just as one major example: the need for backgrounds and motivations is simply absent from pulp stories in general. This is the first thing that is added to movie adaptations of Conan and Solomon Cane, but it’s pretty well absent from the source material. It’s not an accident there’s no space for “background” on you Moldvay Basic character sheet!

Today’s Forecast: A “Definitive End” to Appendix N Discussion!

Pop the popcorn, y’all! This is going to be good!

Cognitive dissonance, thy name is Urbanski. You probably don’t have the balls to appear someplace where your presence is inappropriate anyway. (h/t Neal Durando!)

It is absolutely baffling to me why the topic of Appendix N is just so triggering to certain people.  It’s been asked before: “why does the idea that Gygax got specific ideas for D&D from specific sources, and that these can be identified, seem to offend some people? Are they invested in the idea that it was all original for some reason?”

Good questions! Maybe we’ll get some answers today on Geek Gab.

And just for the record… before we go onto the show, here are my questions for the RPG Pundit:

  • What is Appendix N?
  • Does it shed light on why classic editions of Dungeons & Dragons are the way that they are?
  • Does it have any utility for game masters that are running fantasy campaigns of their own?
  • Are some types of fantasy a better fit for classic D&D than others?

Seems like pretty tame stuff to me. It doesn’t have to be so difficult to have a conversation about this. But for some reason, it just is.

Don’t miss it! We should be live in a couple of hours here…!

Jack Vance is the Soul of AD&D

From Gary Gygax’s introduction to The Dying Earth rpg:

Aside from ideas and specific things, the very manner in which Jack Vance portrays a fantasy environment, the interaction of characters with that environment, and with each other, is so captivating that wherever I could manage it, I attempted to include the “feel” he brings to his fantasy tales in the AD&D game. My feeble ability likely managed to convey but little of this, but in all I do believe that a not a little of what fans consider to be the “soul” of the game stems from that attempt. Of course there were, as noted, a number of other authors who had considerable influence on what I wrote, so let it suffice to conclude that in all a considerable debt of gratitude is owned to Mr. Vance, one that I am always delighted to repay whenever the opportunity arises. It should go without saying that whenever I see a new title of his, I buy it and read it with avid pleasure.

And ah, note there the reference to other Appendix N authors as having “considerable influence” on the game as well. Also, Gygax appeared as a character in one of Vance’s books. Interesting!

And check this out:

Of the other portions of the A/D&D game stemming from the writing of Jack Vance, the next most important one is the thief-class character. Using a blend of “Cugel the Clever” and Roger Zelazny’s “Shadowjack” for a benchmark, this archetype character class became what it was in original AD&D.

If you have been frustrated by the thief class and how it plays in early editions of D&D, you may want to take a look at these two characters yourself!

Finally… Neal Durando notes here that Vance’s Dying Earth setting is antithetical to the sort of setting splat books that became synonymous with rpgs in the eighties:

There is a truly great advantage offered to the Game Master when devising a campaign set on the Dying Earth. It is not highly detailed. There is no strict timeline laid down. All that has happened before is not “recorded”, nor is there an accurate gazetteer of for the world. What magic operates? Nobody can say or guess, because in the long eons of the Dying Earth’s history, likely every form possible was discovered, used, and then forgotten…almost. That means that all that’s necessary is to have the game in hand, the books that Jack Vance wrote about the world, to create a really compelling campaign environment. Using the creative base of the author, the GM’s own imagination cannot fail but to rise to the occasion.

You know, that’s strange.

It’s almost as if a familiarity with the books of Appendix N can have a drastic impact on how you even conceive of the game– and how you go about setting up your campaign or how you design supplements for it as well.

Somebody ought to look into this!