Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Inspirational And Educational Reading

"Inspirations for all of the fantasy work I have done stems directly from the love my father showed when I was a tad, for he spent many hours telling me stories he made up as he went along, tales of cloaked old men who could grant wishes, of magic rings and enchanted swords, or wicked sorcerers and dauntless swordsmen. Then too, countless hundreds of comic books went down, and the long-gone EC ones certainly had their effect. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies were a big influence. In fact, all of us tend to get ample helpings of fantasy when we are very young, from fairy tales such as those written by the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Long. This often leads to reading books of mythology, paging through bestiaries, and consultation of compilations of the myths of various lands and peoples. Upon such a base I built my interest in fantasy, being an avid reader of all science fiction and fantasy literature since 1950. The following authors were of particular inspiration to me. In some cases I cite specific works, in others I simply recommend all their fantasy writing to you. From such sources, as well as just about any other imaginative writing or screenplay you will be able to pluck kernels from which grow the fruits of exciting campaigns. Good reading!"
[Inspirational Reading list follows, then:]
"The most immediate influences upon AD&D were probably de Camp & Pratt, REH, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, HPL, and A. Merritt; but all of the above authors, as well as many not listed certainly helped to shape the form of the game. For this reason, and for the hours of reading enjoyment, I heartily recommend the works of these fine authors to you."
Gary Gygax's much lauded "Appendix N" shows up on page 224 of the first edition DMG...a list of fantasy books and authors that EGG held up as particularly inspirational and influential to his writing of the Dungeons & Dragons game. 

Yet, despite being enjoyable reading, none of these books will provide much of a map or outline of how to run the game of D&D or even describe (much) of what a D&D game should look like. Oh, there similar themes, scenes, and events that might be found in any particular game session. But while "Appendix N" may give one a good feel for the fantasy that shaped the imaginations of Gygax, Arneson, etc. they are not instructional when it comes to teaching the game of Dungeons & Dragons. Trying to run your game so that it looks like a Howard or Leiber story will, at best, result in some kind of pastiche or homage to those authors. 

And while creating such pastiche can be good fun, it stagnates readily enough, much as any type of "railroad gaming" becomes (sooner or later) stale and unsatisfactory. In this case, the railroad is one of genre, rather than story...though, of course, hewing too closely to any fictional inspiration can result in the DM using force to that end as well. "Don't let the rules (or dice rolls) get in the way of telling a good story" is an aphorism sadly parroted throughout RPG circles...even those styling themselves as "Old School" gamers.

Despite the long list of monsters and magic and concepts (like "alignment") that were taken from these authors...in much the same way that mythology and books of historic medieval armaments were purloined for the game...Dungeons & Dragons, as a game, neither models nor even attempts to model these stories. And attempting to run one's game so that it looks like a Howard or Leiber or (God forbid!) Lovecraft story is a fool's errand and a disservice to the game itself. 

Dungeon Masters are not authors; at least, not when we are operating in our role as Dungeon Master. 

The job of an author is to tell a story. Short stories provide a problem or scenario for the protagonist to struggle against; long stories (novels) show how a protagonist develops and changes over time given the events of the book. Both of these apply to the Dungeons & Dragons game (our player characters struggle in the immediate term against the challenges set by the DM and over time they grow and change), but in D&D this is done without a directed course. There s no premise being addressed, no theme being explored, no climax that needs to be met. A game of D&D is NOT a story, not in the way the books in Appendix N are. 

It is, rather, the "story of our lives," which is to say the process of living and existing...even though the lives being lived are completely and wholly of our imagination. This may sound ridiculous, but D&D is an experiential (fantasy) adventure game and, in the end "living" an imaginary life is what the game play...for players...boils down to. 

In this regard, I believe that Tolkien's book The Hobbit may be the closest of the Appendix N books to describing a D&D campaign. Yes, it has all the trappings: monsters, treasure, spells, "dungeons" (the goblin caves, the elf king's halls, the Lonely Mountain), swords and wizards and "demi-humans." But the novel is far more than just its recognizable "fantasy" tropes: Here is a world setting, carefully crafted by its maker. Here are events and challenges faced by a group of protagonists, cooperating for mutual success. Here are choices being offered that may lead to peril and/or the possibility of reward, and always with additional, character-driven consequences...consequences which, in turn, shape the on-going campaign and the narrative ("story") of that campaign.

And here, also, are the logistical issues of adventure...those aspects that change the game from a simple fairy tale adventure story, to an immersive experience with verisimilitude. Issues of food and shelter, baggage trains, overland travel, and inclement weather. Relationships with powerful individuals that need to be groomed and/or carefully managed (not just Beorn, but the goblin king, the elf king, the Master of Lake Town, etc.). These aspects of "life" cannot be ignored if one seeks to play D&D over the long-term...the manner of play in which it reaches its highest level.

Conan's episodic adventures, enjoyable as they are, are adolescent at best, in comparison.

In this regard, The Hobbit is highly reminiscent of H. Rider Haggard's classic adventure novel, King Solomon's Mines. Despite its 19th century timeline and lack of "classic fantasy" tropes, Haggard's book has plenty of D&D-style adventure in its pages: exploration and privation, treasure seeking and combat, ancient, subterranean labyrinths (complete with traps), and interpersonal relationships with NPCs both helpful and hostile. Despite its anachronistic setting and the shortness of its scope (the book details only one "adventure" per se...though an admittedly massive one), there is a lot for the DM to learn about crafting a scenario worthy of the long-term D&D campaign.

Haggard's book also demonstrates how much raw power and adventure can be generated just using the history, cultures, mythology and geography of our own world. Rather than invent from whole cloth, or create pastiche of favorite fantasy books and films, most Dungeon Masters will find it more productive to seek out the same sources of inspiration and educational reading that informed the settings and scenarios of their favorite fantasy authors (like those in Appendix N): namely, the non-fiction books concerning our real world. Most, if not all, of the strange and weird cultures and situations described from Bracket and Moorecock, Howard and Leiber, are simple re-skinnings and/or re-imaginings of our own world's past (and, in some cases, its present). Many are the neophyte DM who disregards or downplays the "banality" of our mundane "real world" in favor of "true fantasy," failing to understand that the fantasy authors they best love and admire were drawing directly from real world sources. Before the last century or two, our world  had thousands of years of untamed wilderness, mighty cultures (rising and falling), supernatural beliefs, perilous journeys, and adventurous folk of all languages and skin tones looking to find "fortune and glory." That many of us equate "adventure stories" with European/Western colonialism is a sad commentary on the lack of depth in our literary inventory: we read of crusader knights and gold-hungry Spaniards and completely neglect the fact that there are humans in every corner of the globe and history who have sought to rise above their station through adventurous means. 

"Fortune-hunting adventurer" has NEVER been the exclusive purview of white dudes.

However, let us not digress too far from the subject at hand: creating an easy-to-follow blueprint for running Dungeons & Dragons. The DMG is, of course, a great sourcebook and place to start...kind of like the Bible is a nice book to read if you want to be a Christian. But, just as Christianity (any form) needs a bit more to find a lasting and satisfying spiritual life, you're going to need more than just your copy of Gygax's opus.

As of today, the BEST books I've read that describe a typical "Gygaxian campaign" of the AD&D variety are those written by Gygax himself, specifically Saga of Old City and Artifact of Evil. These are...admittedly...terrible books, but they are EXCELLENT descriptions of what a 1E campaign would look like, especially the latter book (Artifact). They aptly demonstrate the weird, kitchen-sink fantasy of Gygax, show how alignment works, displays the emphasis of mass combat (while still maintaining small-scale, personal action), and pays no nevermind to the various anachronisms of speech and culture that crop up during a game session. D&D play is not about method acting or historical reenactment; it is a game designed to be experienced by the players. Reading these books, while perhaps painful to the more erudite amongst us, does show what your average, competent 1E campaign looks like if you play with all the bells & whistles of the original seven volumes (DMG, PHB, MM, MM2, FF, DDG, UA). 

That doesn't make it a great campaign...but it does make it a great example. And probably the best example in print (apologies to Dave Arneson and his First Fantasy Campaign book).

Now, in my next post, I'll discuss the foundational text for creating your own campaign; not the DMG or anything in its "Appendix N," but a pertinent book written with a similar, parallel objective in mind: Tony Bath's Ancient Wargaming.


  1. The Hobbit remains my favourite book of any type. 37y on from receiving my copy at Christmas I still have that volume though it's now battered and the pages will soon fall out.

    While it is fantastical I've always found Bilbo as very relatable, and I think that that is the source of immersion that I feel. I can't say that for any of the characters in Lord of the Rings.

    1. Yeah, my original copy is probably about as old (and battered).

      LotR is a fine (if long) story. Per Gygax's son (Ernie), EGG read it once or twice...but he preferred The Hobbit and read it multiple times, especially to each of his children as they were growing up.

  2. I never understood the affection that some have for "Appendix N." Not speaking of the books, of course; they're worthy of much affection, and I and all my peers back in highschool read those books avidly. But the appendix itself ... it's reason for being there ... lacked any real forethought about how it should be applied. As your quote above reveals, Gygax presented the content romantically, as if grasping the books really tight and willing their content to change magically into solid mechanical D&D content was merely a question of will.

    My early peers and I scoffed mightily at that section of the DM's Guide in the time the book was published. It was blatantly clear to us, mere grade tenners, that any argument that Appendix N could help a DM run a game was drivel.

    1. In all honesty, I do NOT think Gygax was trying to make that point (that the books in Appendix N could "help" a DM run the game); at least, that's never been my interpretation of the text. In other parts of the DMG (like the "Campaign" section) I feel he is more explicit in advocating would-be DMs to explore historical books and records.

      However, there are MANY folks on Ye Old Internets who promote this particular appendix as some sort of gaming talisman, according it more importance than (I believe) the author did, himself.

      Note that Moldvay's Basic book contains a far more extensive list of "Inspirational Source Material" including both fiction and non-fiction books and dividing categories into both adult and young adult sections...it is also explicitly listed as useful for IDEAS, rather than as a blueprint of how the game should look.

  3. Interesting. I am looking forward to this for a couple of (related) reasons. First I have been making an effort read many of the Appendix N books I have never read in my foundational and early gaming years. Even if you don't touch on them much beyond this post I am interested in your line of thought while searching for the books you want here.
    Secondly, I am interested because my early gaming experiences were not shaped by the Appendix N style books. Yes I had read the Hobbit at the same time I was introduced to D&D; it was the late 70s and that is very true for a lot of gamers. My influences though, as I have mentioned here in the past, were more Hammer Horror, Universal Monsters, Dark Shadows and horror anthology TV, movies, and books. Horror has always been my gateway drug to RPGs.
    I think this gives my games, and my perspective on them, a slightly different feel.
    It will be interesting to see what you do here.

    1. Perhaps. I think there is a difference between inspirational source material as "idea generators" vs. models (or generators) of game play / paradigms.

      I read a LOT of horror of the King/Straub/Barker variety in my youth, but I came to it AFTER I'd already discovered D&D, and never did much incorporate it into my game. And while much of *my* reading of Appendix N material didn't come till high school (mostly AFTER I'd stopped playing AD&D), I read quite a bit of the "young adult fantasy" fiction listed in Moldvay's Basic book...Alexander, Baum, Carroll, Cooper, and Lewis were certainly inspirational for me in my youth (not to mention mythology and Grimm's).

  4. Unfortunately, while 'fortune-hunting adventurer' has never been the purview of white dudes, the fortune-hunting adventure novel certainly was for a long time (indeed, the novel was for a long time). So that's the perspective one gets.

    I concur with your view that The Hobbit is a very good touchstone for roleplaying campaigns in a way many other Appendix N sources are not. Frankly, the inability of D&D to produce a lot of what is laudable about the books in Appendix N has always frustrated me.

    I found Tony Bath's Ancient Wargaming not as insightful as many claimed. I look forward to your analysis.

    1. The authorship of Western fiction has (generally) been dominated by white (Western) men. The glut of incongruence accounts for the surplus of a narrowed (bandwidth) perspective in MOST categories of fiction, including adventure stuff. I agree that it IS unfortunate...there are certainly examples from other cultures, historical and otherwise, that are less readily discovered.

      [boy, that was a convoluted word salad. Apologies!]

      RE: Tony Bath

      Hmm. I'll try not to disappoint.